On Addressing the Problems of Systemic Racism and Brutal, Misguided Police Methods

Under Pressure

We are currently seeing the country racked by demonstrations against racism. So far, the response of the Trump administration has been predictably medieval—and totally ineffective. While some people waste time and breath on arguing about who is causing the relatively scattered outbreaks of violence and looting, they overlook a very simple fact: instead of calling out the US military to intimidate the people of the US, the current administration could have:

  1. Simply acknowledged that systemic racism is a real and obvious problem.
  2. Tried to simply solve the problem rather than trying to evade a solution by the use of “unlimited military force” or “total domination.”

These retrograde pseudo-solutions, based on absurd and backward “reasoning,” are largely what created the problems in the first place. As the Covid-19 pandemic should have reminded us, time and breath are both very precious—we all have a finite supply of them…Curfews and police lines, however strongly enforced, simply will not solve the underlying problem. The fact that the Trump administration has resorted to military force, rather than simply trying to solve the real problem, speaks volumes about Trump’s basic immorality and incompetence.

That said, a few simple things might start us off towards a real solution to the problem. A real beginning to a lasting solution can be boiled down to a simple and achievable agenda.

  1. Elect a president who really cares about the people under his care and the basic problems associated with racism.
  2. Appoint an Attorney General who cares about, and understands the reality and the implications of systemic racism—and is committed to doing something positive to correct them.
  3. Reform and re-direct the energies of the DOJ. Most reports and data demonstrate that domestic, white supremacist terrorism is a far greater danger than foreign terrorists or left-wing groups. Focus on the former first.
  4. The President, House and Senate should unite as one to pass legislation to address the many aspects of this problem immediately. Underlying attitudes may take a long time to change. But action can not be deferred. In fact, legislation and a “zero tolerance” attitude towards police brutality will probably help change long-term attitudes.
  5. Voters should take the refusal of politicians to endorse these simple measures as definite proof that they are part of the problem, not the solution.  

Finally, we need to rethink how we approach the general behavior of the police and re-assess their tactics. It is sad, in the context of this on-going confrontation, to have to remind people of the ‘Counter-Insurgency Manual’ created by General Petraeus in the wake of the disastrous 2003 Iraq War and the subsequent US occupation. The comparison suggests just how little we have learned. Petraeus made the following crucial points about re-orienting the military’s approach to the problem of popular insurgency.(not that these recent protests are anything even close to that.)

  1. The primary objective should not be killing or arresting “bad actors”—it should be the vigilant protection of the local population.
  2. A heavy handed, highly militarized approach to local people is highly counter-productive: it only creates more distrust and opposition.
  3. The police involved should spend time with locals, get to know them and get to know their neighborhoods. (Bringing in outside forces is a bad idea).

After watching the endless video of demonstrations across the country and in light of the advice of General Petraeus, I have the following observations. First, the police need to get rid of heavy artillery, dress down and generally de-militarize their appearance and behavior. After that, they should probably just mingle and walk with the peaceful protestors. That will make them participants in these generally peaceful, well-intentioned, civic-minded demonstrations. It would also allow them to build bridges and communicate with the people they are there to protect. This would also give them a much better vantage point from which to identify and apprehend the relatively few “bad actors” who have created such havoc.

By and large, the demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful. Most demonstrators appeared to be masked and to be trying as best they could to keep some distance from other demonstrators. This is a far cry from the behavior of the “anti-lockdown” protesters in, for example, Michigan, who brandished guns, didn’t mask, and yelled loudly into the faces of the police and others from a very close distance. In the not so distant past, during the HIV crisis, people who knew they had the virus, and knowingly had unprotected sex with partners whom they failed to inform, were sometimes charged with assault.  

That said, there are doubtless bad actors of some kind about. My guess is that some of them are using the cover of the demonstrations to commit opportunistic acts like looting for economic reasons. A lot of people are unemployed and desperate. But others appear to be set on simply making race relations worse. This should not be tolerated.

In dealing with this last threat, the police tactic of “establishing perimeters,” “drawing and holding lines” and even the curfews themselves, all seem counter productive. The first two are simply obsolete vestiges of military style thinking: all they do is create flashpoints of confrontation, increase public frustration, concentrate the police in pointless situations where the “bad actors” can easily outflank and avoid them, and keep the police tied down so they can’t really identify and deal with their real adversaries. As to curfews, if the bad actors are active at night, you can find them when they make their move—if you are fluid and creative.

Much of what I have just written above concerns strategic and tactical issues regarding sensible community policing. There is, however, a much more important basic principle that should be clearly stated at the start: AMERICA IS A DEMOCRACY AND USING MILITARY FORCE TO CONFRONT, SUPPRESS, DENY AND EVADE THE AIRING OF SERIOUS AND LEGITIMATE PUBLIC GRIEVANCES SHOULD NEVER BE ACCEPTABLE! (My wife says using “all -caps” is like yelling. Yes, I AM yelling!)

2 thoughts on “On Addressing the Problems of Systemic Racism and Brutal, Misguided Police Methods

Add yours

  1. Thanks Gilbert. I’ve been memorizing and reciting Yeat’s “Second Coming” as-it is so damn timely. It’s fascinating that it is a post WW1 Poem.


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