MYTH #1: We don’t need revolution, we need reform.
Like a lot of people, the election of a certain He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named spurred me to get more involved in the political process. But with so much attention centered on national politics, I wondered if there was something more tangible I could get involved with locally, here in Los Angeles. I connected with Ground Game LA, and that’s where I first came across ideas like police abolition.
Even in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic murder, it’s understandable for a political novice like me to be put off by hashtags like #DefundPolice or #AbolishPolice. More initiated politicos and activists can be quick to forget how ingrained the idea of policing is in our conception of a modern society.
And even to some left-leaning civilians, the idea of police abolition can seem at best wacky and at worst political suicide. The words conjure for some an image of murderers, rapists, and other sociopaths galavanting about the city, free to manifest their darkest desires.
Oh wait, we already live in a society dominated by murderous, rapist sociopaths — we elected some of them.
Anywho, point is NEW SCARIER ONES WILL BE COMING TO YOUR CRAFTSMAN HOUSE NOW, right?
Nope. Turns out that the people who advocate for the defunding and abolishment of police actually put a reasonable amount of effort into researching how policing doesn’t work and what could actually work instead. We highly recommend checking out this police abolition FAQ from MPD 150 in Minneapolis, especially if you’re just getting started in this space.
Look, when it comes to reform, if we’re talking about something like drug addiction, a good case can be made for harm reduction — if we can keep people from dying using Narcan, clean needle exchanges, and even supervised injection sites, then why not?
But when we’re talking about the state-sanctioned killing of black people (and other folks too), “harm reduction” still means people are dying.
In order for this to really make sense, we have to look at the history of policing. The first organized police force in America started in 1838 in Boston. And in LA we hate Boston!
So the concept of policing in America isn’t even 200 years old; it’s even shorter in LA. The first Los Angeles specific police force was formed in 1853. Before policing was around, armed mobs dispensed justice usually through lynching, a practice associated with policing’s racist-ass predecessor: slave patrols.
In fact, the very idea of white identity can be tied to the invention of the slave patrol, when rich white Americans saw themselves outnumbered by black folks, but also by poor European immigrants. In the South, they decided to convert those immigrants into a kind of Wypipo JV Team by putting them in charge of enforcing disciplinary measures on black slaves.
In the North, the so-called “Irish problem” (which was basically just that Yankee good ol’ boys said anyone not born in America was a criminal) led lawmakers to believe that if they had the unruly foreigners police themselves they might listen.
Ever wonder where the Irish cop stereotype came from? Or Italian? Or Polish? A similar argument could be made about the majority Latino LAPD today — Latinos, like me, don’t get a pass when it comes to issues of color and race in and out of our communities.
The first LAPD-related scandal occurred in 1938 when then Mayor of Los Angeles, Frank Shaw, was recalled from office on the basis of rampant police corruption. Naturally, reforms were in order.
Beginning in the 1940’s, LAPD’s new Chief, William “Bill” Parker, launched a reform campaign based on the “police professionalism model,” which stressed police autonomy, particularly around internal discipline. To quote Arizona State Chicano Studies professor, Edward J. Escobar, “Parker and his allies in city government stifled external investigations into department matters, vilified LAPD critics, and even ignored perjury by officers. They thus helped create an organizational culture that valued LAPD independence above the rule of law and led to the LAPD’s estrangement from Mexican American and other minority communities.”
Mmm… reforms. We like those.
So how did they work out? Well, in 1943 during the so-called “Zoot Suit Riots,” a group of off-duty LAPD who literally called themselves “the Vengeance Squad” set out on a targeted mission to attack Mexican-Americans in cool suits and other random minorities, some as young as 12 years old, basically for defending themselves against racist sailors (it was a weird time).
Soon after, more reforms were promised, and this time Mexican-American advocacy groups such as the Coordinating Council for Latin American Youth were consulted — sound familiar yet?
Then in 1951, on what is known as “Bloody Christmas,” five Hispanic men and two white men were beaten so badly by police they were left with broken bones and ruptured organs. The case was only properly investigated after lobbying from the Mexican-American community. And the result? Again, to quote Escobar:
Individuals and groups of various political persuasions condemned the beatings and called for reform of the department. The tenor of the different groups’ statements ranged from those that simply denounced the LAPD to those that made specific policy recommendations. The city council, for example, observed “that the people are rightfully disturbed over evidence . . . [of ] Police brutality.” More pointedly, a group of 300 residents of East Los Angeles signed a petition protesting the LAPD’s belief that just because people “are Negro or Mexican[,] they are criminals.” ”The petition also “demand[ed] a halt to the random arrest and the beating of members of our community.” For its part, the primarily Mexican American Boyle Heights Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, noting that the LAPD had taken “no clear cut disciplinary action” regarding the many complaints of police brutality, called for an immediate investigation and demanded that the brutality “cease at once.”
Though almost 70 years ago, this could be an excerpt from this month’s LA Times. Actually, this is an excerpt from this month’s LA Times:
The political and social ramifications of the Floyd protests are already becoming clear. Many cities are considering restrictions on the use of police force, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has proposed cuts to the LAPD. It’s far from the sweeping defunding of the LAPD demanded by Black Lives Matter but still represents a political sea change.
In 1992, four LAPD officers brutalized Rodney King after a routine traffic stop. When prosecuted, they justified their use of police batons to nearly bludgeon the man to death by arguing that a reform which had previously outlawed the use of chokeholds had forced them to resort to other “less humane” measures.
On the heels of a measure in California to ban chokeholds (once again), it’s important to recall that these cops were found not-guilty. Again, in the face of this outrage, a violent rebellion ensued.
Almost 30 years earlier, the Watts Rebellion began when a routine sobriety check escalated into police beating Watts’ resident Rena Price and her two sons, Marquette and Ronald, along with kicking a pregnant woman on the scene. Price and her sons were held responsible for the riots that followed.
A commission reviewing the Rebellion later recommended that “emergency” literacy and preschool programs, improved police-community ties, increased low-income housing, more job-training projects, upgraded health-care services, more efficient public transportation, among other things, would be needed to prevent another riot.
In other words, put real money into black neighborhoods. Those investments, which required funding outside of the LAPD, were never implemented.
For a century, reform efforts in Los Angeles failed to prevent the killing and abuse of black bodies. When significant reallocations of city budgets outside of police spending were proposed, nothing was implemented. Instead, in a year where other departments were seeing cuts as large as 14.5%, the LAPD was due to see a 7.1% budget increase, even though nearly 2,400 of the department’s civilian employees were going to see pay cuts.
While other civilian city employees were being asked to absorb a 10% pay cut, the LAPD was (is?) going to award education bonuses of as much as $290 every two weeks to officers with college degrees and keep any pay raises untouched. Why should police be the only city employees to avoid financial sacrifices?
So, yes, we need to defund police, not so there’s more crime, but so there’s less. When our reaction to the murder of George Floyd and the more than 600 people killed by LAPD since District Attorney Jackie Lacey took office in 2012 is to advocate for the same things we did after Bloody Christmas, the Zoot Suit Riots, and Rodney King, and then to not reasonably consider the recommendations of the McCone Commission after the Watts Rebellion — or what People’s Budget LA is asking for now — that is insane.
In part two of this series, we’ll look at the myth of “the thin blue line.”