Civil rights, Human Rights, Justice, Politics, Racism, Violence

The Intolerable Tensions Between American Cities and their Police Forces

Jun 1 2020

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells* – The New Yorker

I lived in Baltimore during the Freddie Gray protests in April, 2015. My apartment was in a brownstone next to a small park in a pretty neighborhood called Bolton Hill, which sits on the border between downtown and the West Baltimore neighborhoods where the upheaval was centered. A central image of those riots was a burning CVS at Pennsylvania and North Avenues; that store was about ten blocks from my house. My wife and I lived on the third floor of the brownstone, with our toddler daughter and infant son, and on the evening of April 27th, as things escalated, I sat on the stoop for a little while with an architect who lived downstairs, watching our normally quiet block. Car after car drove by, most of them full of young people. Another neighbor said that a grocery store and a pharmacy three blocks from us were being looted, but on our block no one was out of control. People were on their phones texting, they were looking out their windows. Something important was happening, and they were gathering information.

Eventually, I decided to write about the uprising, and met a senior figure in the Baltimore Police Department named Melvin Russell. He is as vivid in my memory as anyone I’ve written about, perhaps because it is rare to see a powerful person be so hugely sad. A Baltimore native and career city cop, Russell led the B.P.D.’s citywide community-policing division, and for him community policing was both a professional program and a creed. He had deployed it in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore, especially in the Eastern District. He was sure that the officers under his command had managed to narrow the gap between themselves and their community, and that this was at least part of the reason for a decline in violent crime in those neighborhoods, and for an increase in the number of crimes being solved. During that last week of April, as the chaos deepened, Russell noticed that, in many of the most unsettled parts of West Baltimore, cops were nowhere to be found. Russell, who is black, had worked in the Baltimore Police Department for more than thirty years, and he was not naïve about the racism within its ranks: he had six sons and two daughters, and he said that he and his wife had moved to the far suburbs in part because they wanted to keep their children safe from the Baltimore cops. But it still seemed to surprise him, in a deep and unpleasant way, to see the police simply retreat when they were most needed.

The general tragedy of the Freddie Gray riots unfolded from there. From 2008 to 2014, there were between a hundred and ninety-seven and two hundred and forty homicides each year in Baltimore; since Freddie Gray’s killing, there have never been fewer than three hundred. The city’s mayor at the time—a quiet, serious-minded black woman named Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who had been seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party—eventually chose not to seek reëlection. As I understood it through Melvin Russell, there was a more specific tragedy, concerning the Baltimore Police Department, contained within the larger one: the liberal ethos of community policing had not actually taken hold in the department, at least not as deeply as he had hoped. In an emergency, too many police officers had abandoned it.

The political gap between the liberal mayors who run most big cities and the officers who help police them seems especially pronounced right now, as a cycle of police violence and counter-violence unfolds, in Minneapolis and perhaps beyond, after the killing of George Floyd. As the Black Lives Matter movement matured, from a sequence of protests into a more permanent political orientation, most liberal mayors usually tried hard to keep up, though this pattern seemed to make some police unions more reactionary and outspoken. Meanwhile, visual evidence of police killings, from body cameras or mobile phones, has made the circumstances of those deaths more difficult for anyone to complicate or excuse. A set of written witness statements and investigative reports, reviewed in City Hall, can leave some ambiguity about who is right and who is wrong; a video of a police officer in Minneapolis kneeling for nine minutes on the neck of a man who is not resisting and saying that he can’t breathe, as life drains from him, leaves no room at all. There’s only one honest reaction. The mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, expressed it out loud this week: “Why is the man who killed George Floyd not in jail?”

A whole generation of Democratic mayors have seen their reputations defined by their inability to manage the aftermath of police killings: Rawlings-Blake in Baltimore, Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, Bill de Blasio in New York, Pete Buttigieg in South Bend. (Political pundits often wonder why the “bench” of Democratic Presidential candidates is so thin; looking at that list, it doesn’t seem like such a mystery to me.) One reaction, in some of the most progressive cities, has been to elect new leaders who champion activist causes, especially reform-minded prosecutors: Larry Krasner in Philadelphia; Kim Foxx in Cook County, Illinois; Rachael Rollins in Suffolk County, Massachusetts; Chesa Boudin in San Francisco. This, in turn, has kicked up so much resistance from law enforcement that, in many cases, reforms have been smothered, in a more pitted battle between progressive elected officials and the rank-and-file cops whose behavior they seek to change.

Like so much else in the Trump era, these tensions have been made worse by the President, whose political instincts are to divide and who talks so easily of violence. On Thursday night, after Minneapolis protesters set fire to a precinct station, Trump warned, on Twitter, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” This put everyone in an even more dangerous position: the protesters, who now had more reason to expect violence from law enforcement, and the police officers, who had been described, by the President, as likely to fire into a crowd.

The political authorities in Minnesota have acted decisively: the four officers who were at the scene of Floyd’s death were quickly fired, and, on Friday, the officer who killed him, Derek Chauvin, was charged with third-degree murder. Nonetheless, this Friday evening, things are on a knife’s edge in Minneapolis. Among the many questions is whether the gap between the nation’s liberal politicians and the police will continue to widen, or whether it can be reversed. In Minneapolis, there have been some promising signs: the city’s first black police chief, Medaria Arradondo, apologized to George Floyd’s family. Some police chiefs and police unions around the country have joined him in condemning Floyd’s killing. Even so, Mayor Frey has a difficult path ahead of him, because he has both a public audience, loud and enraged, and a private one composed of the police officers, whose voices are rarely heard by the general public and whose loyalty he needs to maintain order. As protesters surrounded the Minneapolis Third Precinct’s police station last night, Frey instructed the officers inside to evacuate. Soon it would burn. He said, “The symbolism of a building cannot outweigh the importance of a life.”


*Benjamin Wallace-Wells began contributing to The New Yorker in 2006 and joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2015. He writes mainly about American politics and society


See also as background:

How Black Lives Matter Changed the Way Americans Fight for Freedom

By Frank Leon Roberts*

UPDATE: Please see a message from the author at the bottom of this article. 

Freedom fighters around the globe commemorate July 13 as the day that three Black women helped give birth to a movement. In the five short years since #Black LivesMatter arrived on the scene — thanks to the creative genius of Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometti — the push for Black liberation from state-inflicted violence has evolved into one of the most influential social movements of the post-civil rights era. 

Black Lives Matter has always been more of a human rights movement rather than a civil rights movement. BLM’s focus has been less about changing specific laws and more about fighting for a fundamental reordering of society wherein Black lives are free from systematic dehumanization. Still, the movement’s measurable impact on the political and legal landscape is undeniable. 

What gets referred to as “the Black Lives Matter movement” is, in actuality, the collective labor of a wide range of Black liberation organizations, each which their own distinct histories. These organizations include groups like the Black Youth Project 100, the Dream Defenders, Assata’s Daughters, the St. Louis Action council, Millennial Activists United, and the Organization for Black Struggle, to name just a few.

Collectively, since 2013, these organizers have effected significant change locally and nationally, including the ousting of high-profile corrupt prosecutors. In Chicago, the labor of groups such as BYP100 and Assata’s Daughters, among others, led Anita Alvarez — who had inexplicably failed to charge police officers who shot at least 68 people to death — to lose her re-election bid for Cook County prosecutor. And in Florida, groups like The Dream Defenders and others helped end Angela Corey’s reign as a state attorney. Corey remains infamous for failing to convict Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman while prosecuting Marissa Alexander, a Black woman who didn’t hurt anyone when firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-husband. 

Podcast: Hear Patrisse Cullors on the Evolution of Black Lives Matter

The BLM movement’s work certainly doesn’t stop there. Students on the ground in Missouri, as part of the #ConcernedStudent1950 movement, helped lead to the resignation of the University of Missouri president over his failure to deal with racism on campus. BLM compelled Democrats to restructure their national platform to include issues such as criminal justice reform, and the movement contributed to the election of Black leftist organizers to public office, such as activist Chokwe Lumumba to mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. 

The BLM movement’s unrelenting work on the issue of police corruption, helped incite the release of four unprecedented U.S. Department of Justice reports that confirm the widespread presence of police corruption in Baltimore, Chicago, Ferguson, and Cleveland. Moreover, the Movement for Black Lives’ publication of a watershed multi-agenda policy platform — authored by over 50 black-centered organizations — laid bare the expansive policy goals of the movement. The fact that these accomplishments have happened so quickly is an extraordinary achievement in and of itself.

Moreover, the broader cultural impact of BLM as a movement has been immeasurably expansive. BLM will forever be remembered as the movement responsible for popularizing what has now become an indispensable tool in 21st-century organizing efforts: the phenomenon that scholars refer to as “mediated mobilization.” By using the tools of social media, BLM was the first U.S. social movement in history to successfully use the internet as a mass mobilization device. The recent successes of movements, such as #MeToo, #NeverAgain, and #TimesUp, would be inconceivable had it not been for the groundwork that #BlackLivesMatter laid. 

Many have suggested, erroneously, that the BLM movement has “quieted” down in the age of Trump. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything the opposite is true: BLM is stronger, larger, and more global now than ever before. The success of initiatives such as Alicia Garza’s Black Census Project — the largest national survey focusing on U.S. black lives in over 150 years — and Patrisse Cullor’s launch of the grassroots effort Dignity and Power Now in support of incarcerated people, both exemplify the BLM movement’s continued impact, particularly in local communities. 

The idea that BLM is in a “decline” stage is false. Instead, what is true is that American mainstream media has been much less willing to actually cover the concerns of the BLM in part because it has been consumed by the daily catastrophes of the Trump presidency. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to assume that BLM is “dwindling” away simply because the cameras are no longer present. The revolution is still happening — it is just not being televised. All throughout the country, BLM organizers are at work in their local communities feverishly fighting for change and relentlessly speaking truth to power. For instance, The Dream Defenders in Florida just released their visionary project “The Freedom Papers,” and BYP100 just celebrated its five-year anniversary.

Ironically, many of the debates that have come to define the age of Trump, such as the immigration debate, are arguably indirectly influenced by BLM. A notable example: Recently, some congressional Democrats have called for the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has been violating the rights of undocumented immigrants. What has been missing in much of the mainstream coverage of the ICE debate is an acknowledgment of how the democratic left’s radicalization would not have been possible without the efforts of Black radical grassroots social movements, such as BLM.

Indeed, long before congressional Democrats dared to call for the abolition of ICE, #blacklivesmatter activists pioneered the call for an end of modern policing in America. The language of “abolition” comes directly from the work of grassroots activists, such as those in the Black Lives Matter Global Network. Their work helped to revive a long black radical tradition of engaging the rhetoric of abolitionism.

We literally would not even be using the word “abolition” — let alone embracing it as a framework — had it not been for the labor of BLM activists. The fact that Democrats are gradually calling for the abolition of ICE is a testimony to the continued impact of BLM as a social movement.

As we reflect on five years of BLM, we would do well to consider the myriad ways that #blacklivesmatter has influenced our contemporary moment and given us a framework for imagining what democracy in action really looks like. Whether it be transforming how we talk about police violence or transforming how we talk about “abolitionism,” the BLM movement has succeeded in transforming how Americans talk about, think about, and organize for freedom.


A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: An earlier version of this essay inadvertently conflated two important distinctions: Black Lives Matter, the organization, vs. Black Lives Matter, the movement. Black Lives Matter, the organization, is a global decentralized network with over 30 chapters across the world. Black Lives Matter, the movement, is a broad conceptual umbrella that refers to the important work of a wide range of Black liberation organizations. Sometimes referred to as “the Movement for Black Lives,” the achievements of the Black Lives Matter movement would not be possible had it not been for the collective efforts of groups such as Black Youth Project 100, the Dream Defenders, Assata’s Daughters, the St. Louis Action council, Millennial Activists United, and the Organization for Black Struggle, to name just a few. This essay is an attempt to celebrate the movement without attributing the movement’s “achievements” solely to Black Lives Matter, the organization.


*Aactivist, writer, and creator of The Black Lives Matter Syllabus. Frank Leon Roberts is the founder of the Black Lives Matter Syllabus and teaches at New York University. 

site admin