Riots, Police, and ending the Crisis Cycle

My take on the current global movement originates from a place of substantial bias. I’ve been practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for forty-seven percent of my life, fifty-eight percent if you count five years of wrestling prior. I have met and trained with many law enforcement officers who I consider good friends throughout the journey. They are people of tremendous integrity and character. I admire many of them, and they have always shown me kindness and patience. They are very angry at me right now.

Criticizing police has nothing to do with personal relationships; it is a discussion about self-organization. We can immediately dismiss character arguments of wishing harm upon any human, quite the opposite—this is a struggle against aggression. I support the protest and riots because the systemic violence against black people must end. It’s not an argument pretending to grasp the genuine struggle of black people fully, it’s an effort to share alternatives with my network—nothing more.

There is a distinct difference between the manifested rage of an oppressed people and those seeking to enrich themselves in a crisis. My support is for the former, and there is murky truth surrounding the latter. Supporting a riot does not condone or encourage violence against people (and there is no such thing as violence against a building). Still, it bears the burden of understanding that damage will occur. Some of the pain will fall to the least deserving. These people should be made whole.

Now is a pivotal moment in U.S. history, and we’re all making choices about where we stand. There are three choices, but only two sides. On one side is the black revolution. On the other are the aristocracy and the police. Alternatively, you could choose to do nothing. History will remember these moments as an era of profound change, and all of us can support this transition.

We should be clear from the start; this analysis does not claim authenticity or ownership of the movement. The protests are a movement by black people for black people, which is why calls for non-violent protest in the face of extreme police violence fall on deaf ears. Collectively, they have decided now is the time for a change. For those of us born into alternative circumstances, now is our moment for self-reflection. Will we support their efforts through the methods within our means, or will we resist? Do you choose freedom and equality of opportunity or the maintenance of inherently biased power structures?

Black people and communities in the United States face systemic oppression. Overwhelming evidence supports this statement [1]-[3]. Everything about our laws and social organization creates disadvantages against them—racist policies existing since the founding of our nation. Collectively the decision is made. The death of George Floyd will give life to dramatic reforms.

What better time than now? American hypocrisy lays bare for all to see. The same people criticizing years of peaceful protests now demand it in the face of destruction. Unfortunately, it’s too late. Humanity adapts, you cannot ignore and repress a people indefinitely—we are all responsible for the violence. Our indifference to earlier action brings us here. Weeks ago, we were struggling to provide during a pandemic. Now we have seemingly inexhaustible resources to harm and suppress our people.

Real-time streams demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of violence is occurring against peaceful protestors by militarized police forces. We also have proof that on at least one occasion, police are misreporting their proactive violence [4]. It’s a stunning display of ignorance from police and leadership, combating peaceful protests against police brutality with more force. Arming entire generations with first-hand understandings that in times of need, the police will not protect the people. While George Floyd’s death was the spark inciting the blaze, police had already killed over 400 other people this year [5]—strongly suggesting that American policing and violence intertwine.

That’s not to say that criminals aren’t taking advantage of the situation; they are, and it hurts the movement. No human death or injury is cause for celebration, police, or protestor. That is no excuse for law enforcement to project the crimes of a comparably few onto the peaceful many. Inciting chaos and aggression onto the general population only worsens the situation, rapidly diminishing hopes of peaceful resolution.

There is also the valid criticism that it will be the most disenfranchised communities that suffer. If we allow or support rioting, we are condoning the worst of it to fall to those who need the most help. Political actors and self-promoting activists will steal the momentary glory while nothing changes. While that certainly is a possibility, this is a movement focused on apparent structural reformation. By demanding the elimination of the military-police state, investing in universal healthcare, and reforming education funding, black leaders across the country are developing platforms to eliminate the systemic causes of crime. With growing momentum, their movement progresses each day.

There is a fundamental disconnect about the police’s role in society between those working in law enforcement and those supporting transformation. The primary purpose police serve in society is to reinforce the status quo. Here we can observe the present conflict in its most natural state when the laws and organization of a society discriminate and oppress there can be no pathway towards peaceful resolution. The protests we are witnessing now are the inevitable result of rules and systems remaining static, conflicting with a rapidly evolving collective consciousness.

The protests and riots are much more than a battle between police and protestors. Black oppression is a wicked combination of classism and racism. Those at the top of the pyramid arranging labor markets in ways promoting otherness, outsiders are looking to steal your job. Before it was fashionable to accuse Mexicans of stealing jobs, it was black people who were alienated. These were ways of thinking and acting, supporting the repression of wages and class conflicts, a sleight of hand designed to keep the focus off of the very few absorbing all the profits of collective labor. Everything surrounding us today is just a minor evolution of what was once an openly racist organization.

We should also explore what exactly the police are protecting today. What is worth the violent and aggressive resistance of change?

We’re suffering from a global plague and have over 27.5 million people without health insurance. Our economy is in ruins, and only a small portion of people have the skills to navigate it. During all of the turmoil, American billionaires have gotten half a trillion dollars richer, further concentrating wealth in an already stratified society. On top of it all, we are in the midst of a climate crisis that threatens our species. The police exist to enforce the status quo, but the status quo is killing us.

According to an article by Taylor Nicole Rogers in Business Insider, American billionaires have gotten half a trillion richer during the pandemic, but the country’s racial wealth gap has grown too.

That’s because, beyond the initial destruction and continued mobilization, this moment is about the demand for fundamental change. It is demanding that the continued physical, mental, and economic violence against black people and communities end. The only way to do that is through a restructuring of law enforcement that prioritizes communities and people over property and capital.

 

Riots and the Crisis Cycle

While the riots and protests have come upon us quickly, some are unsurprised. This moment of civil unrest was predicted by theoretical biologist and social scientist Peter Turchin back in 2012. His data models [6] show that while George Floyd’s death was the trigger, significant additional pressures contributed to this moment of civil unrest. Turchin summarizes the sources as the growing misery of life for average Americans [7], intra-elite competition[8], and the loss of confidence in state institutions [9].

Image Credit:  Peter Turchin

 

Immiseration is always a reflection of society as a whole, growing unhappiness and loss of hope. The majority of Americans are in a place of genuine struggle without the means to afford necessities. It’s no surprise, America has experienced 40 years of record productivity coupled with stagnant wages—almost all of that money flowing to the already wealthy top.  Additionally, there has been a fundamental shift in what we can regard as the most productive (and rewarding) forms of work, shifting from labor-intensive industry to creative and technical work. Political leadership then accelerates the problem by creating ideological divides to distract those impacted by the underlying consequences of global capitalism.  The result is anger and distrust of fellow citizens and the system as a whole.

Intra-elite competition is what happens when those at the very top of the wealth and power pyramid act by prioritizing their own best interest.  In the United States, our positions of power are almost always occupied by the wealthy few, but the supply of power positions in the United States is inelastic. For example, there are only 435 U.S. Representatives, 100 Senators, and one President.  Donald Trump is the perfect example of what happens when an elite who cannot enter power through traditional means decides to go rogue—radicalizing a base that increasingly identifies with white supremacist ideologies and refuses to consider alternative visions beyond their narrow scope.   It highlights a more significant problem with wealth concentration in the United States. It allows ill actors to cause substantial harm to the general population with little or no personal consequence.

The loss of confidence in state institutions directly correlates to increasing wealth concentration.  As money is cut from social programs and given to the existing elites, they continue to purchase politicians and push for more radical agendas.  The result that we observe in real-time is a total lack of cooperation at the federal level, stagnating government, and preventing change.  As government programs are unable to provide, public perception of them turns negative—resulting in arguments about their inefficiencies.  Predictably, these efforts are fueled by those at the very top of the wealth pyramid, hoping to privatize services and further segregate the population along economic class lines.

Mass civil unrest is always the result of an evolving consciousness clashing with rigid institutional structures that do not support change.   The human spirit is dynamic and ever-changing; it can never fully submit to constraint.  Taking a broader view of the moment shows us that American history is full of riots accomplishing what peaceful discussion never could.

The Boston Tea Party was America’s original riot. It’s a well-known cultural phenomenon that centered around resistance to the Tea Act, a law that would have undercut smugglers and colonial merchants alike in favor of the British.  To put it into perspective, the financial loss associated with the tea destruction adjusted for the present would be $1.7 million.  Property destruction to force social change is an American tradition [10].

Women’s suffrage came about through protest, including moments of violence where law enforcement failed to protect them. Another pivotal moment in the history of the United States is showcasing how the best movements are also the most inconvenient and uncomfortable for onlookers and leadership. It’s another example of how arguing protests on terms that are peaceful and comfortable denies the demanding requirements of progress [11].

The LGBTQ community’s struggle contains the famous 1969 Stonewall Riots, where patrons of the Stonewall Inn violently resisted unprovoked police brutality.  Violent protests continued the week after the event as the gay community decided it would no longer be victims for merely existing.  There are direct parallels between the current rally and Stonewall riots, an unjustly persecuted people demanding equal rights under the law [12].

While each moment in history is unique, they all share the same framework.  When laws unjustly punish and oppress a people and leadership lacks the courage and will to change them proactively, there can be no alternative.  Over time, tensions build to a point where a single event acts as a catalyst towards systemic reform earned through aggression.  Attempting to deny the black community their justice is a choice to be on what will inevitably be considered the wrong side of history.  Society has offered no alternative, which is why we are here today.

Professor Turchin’s predictions show patterns of upheaval every 50 years.  As those bearing the old wounds die and new generations experience injustice and unrest.  History shows us that crisis is a cycle, and often the only way to enact real change.  Therefore the question we should all be asking ourselves is simple: how to separate progress from crisis?

 

Original Image Credit:  New York Times

 

Breaking the Wheel

Breaking the crisis cycle begins with an objective understanding of why it exists. While the United States has a rich history of violent revolution, many societies have fallen prey to the limits of their organizational imagination. If we want to prevent further violent outbursts demanding change, we need to structure ourselves to allow for peaceful evolution.

The George Floyd protests demonstrate that police in the United States respond to calls for change with force and terror. The videos shared daily prove that the most immediate demands of police demilitarization and funding reform are needed. Local law enforcement needs a complete realignment prioritizing community service of population dominance. That means significant funding cuts and the weakening of unions that persistently deny, hide, and ignore members’ violence.

Change doesn’t just stop with funding and union-busting; it continues with local policies that prevent abuses. Many states have already taken measures such as limiting civil asset forfeiture, banning chokeholds and other neck restraints, mandatory intoxications screenings within one hour of shooting someone, making it illegal to hire officers who were previously fired, and so many more [13]. Black communities are demanding genuine reform, and if you are an active part of the movement or a supportive ally, one of the best things you can do is pressure your locally elected officials to implement better policies.

Where I may differ from other progressives is in my assessment of what happens to the people within the police force when we achieve the necessary cuts. As of now, I have yet to discover a comprehensive program to transition law enforcement officers into new pathways. The freed capital gained by defending police resources should be invested in our most disenfranchised communities. There is the possibility of doing so without eliminating the necessary income for hundreds of thousands of families.

One popular suggestion is the investment in social programs and social workers, the frontline people helping to minimize and mitigate the daily crisis of living while poor and black. Offering qualifying officers (those without violent blemishes on their records) the ability to return to school for a social work degree at no cost is one opportunity to create a win-win situation. If not social work, then alternative training programs, such as green energy technicians. Officers refusing both of these options can be given a limited stipend to help them transition.

There are thousands of variables we could swap to make the same point. If the goal to radically transform society requires the economic poverty of hundreds of thousands of people, it will only breed more violent conflict. Progressives must develop exit strategies for officers impacted by the rightful reduction in policing. This is not a denial of the economic oppression faced by black people and communities, rather an effort to transcend the burden instead of shifting it.

Ending the crisis cycle goes well beyond policing, because while police are historically the enforcers—they do not make the laws. Political leadership must begin to develop legislation that allows for perpetual challenge and change. As professor Turchin discussed, intra-elite conflict typically results in government stagnation. Slow-moving government is an intentional design of our laws that serves to entrench those in power, stemming from our slave-owning founders.

The underlying theme in breaking our reliance on crisis for change is democratizing our institutions. By creating a more participatory human experience in work, education, social, and personal lives, we lay the foundation for radical peaceful transitions. This means developing ways to break the congressional impasse, such as public votes when the Senate and House cannot agree. It is a simple but radical change that would break the power of partisan politics in favor of the American people.

Think about it this way. Today our legal and political organization reinforces the oppression of certain groups within society. If we do not create a government with the power to intervene and uplift them, we will always be subject to violent revolutions. We accomplish this through proactive pathways of empowerment like federal public voting and the denial of any policy, group, or contract that generates or perpetuates disadvantages.

Take a look at any progressive policy, and you will see this theme embedded within them. This moment is about creating access and agency for a people historically denied. It is one step of many policies that will empower many in the United States, including those that currently oppose them.

We’re watching history in real-time, it is beautiful and horrible. Solidarity among hundreds of thousands of Americans, taking the streets to demand change—now. Rage forming into riot, shouts of the voiceless heard round the world. I support the protest and riots, not because I condone violence or desire anarchy—but because history shows us that now is a breakthrough moment in time. Now is the time to support a people and community in need, recognizing their full humanity and the expansive greatness it will bring to everyone.

 

Sources:

[0] Video archive of police brutality incidents surrounding the May/June 2020 protests resulting from the death of George Floyd  https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1zniqs5KlQJffey_FOHDlb-Ghy0Hikl_w

[1] There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal-justice system is racist. Here’s the proof. By Radley Balko Washington Post 9/18/18

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2018/09/18/theres-overwhelming-evidence-that-the-criminal-justice-system-is-racist-heres-the-proof/ *

[2] You really can get pulled over for driving while black, federal statistics show By Christopher Ingraham 9/9/14 Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/09/09/you-really-can-get-pulled-over-for-driving-while-black-federal-statistics-show/ *

[3] What the Data Really Says About Police and Racial Bias By Kia Makarechi Vanity Fair July 14, 2016 https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/07/data-police-racial-bias *

*Note that while these sources are independent paper, each contains a significant number of direct research links and data.

[4] Buffalo police officers arrested after shoving 75-year-old protester By Aaron Katersky, Matt Foster, and Christina Carrega ABC News 6/6/20 https://abcnews.go.com/US/buffalo-police-officers-arrested-shoving-75-year-protester/story?id=71106787

[5] Their Lives Mattered Too: Before George Floyd, Cops Killed 400 Others in First 5 Months of 2020 by Matt Agorist Free Thought Project May 28, 2020  https://thefreethoughtproject.com/george-floyd-life-mattered-400/

[6] Cliodyanimca by Peter Turchin PeterTurchin.com June 1st 2020

http://peterturchin.com/cliodynamica/the_2020/

[7] Population Immiseration in America by Peter Turchin PeterTurchin.com 8/21/18 http://peterturchin.com/cliodynamica/population-immiseration-in-america/

[8] Intra-Elite Competition: A Key Concept for Understanding the Dynamics of Complex Societies by Peter Turchin PeterTurchin.com 12/30/16

http://peterturchin.com/cliodynamica/intra-elite-competition-a-key-concept-for-understanding-the-dynamics-of-complex-societies/

[9] The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America by Peter Turchin PeterTurchin.com 6/21/13  http://peterturchin.com/cliodynamica/strange-disappearance/

[10] Boston Tea Party Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Tea_Party

[11] Women’s suffrage in the United States Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_suffrage_in_the_United_States

[12] Stonewall Riots Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonewall_riots

[13] Twitter thread by @samswey listing police accountability ordinances with sources:  https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1266855519425384450.html

 

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