But there is simply no way to square the actions of elected officials or public-opinion data with the belief that the country does not care about police abuses or that positive change cannot be effected through the legislative process.
Could America do better? Of course. According to the UC San Diego professor Zoltan L. Hajnal, the author of America’s Uneven Democracy: Race, Turnout, and Representation in City Politics, “only 27 percent of eligible voters vote in the typical municipal election.” If Americans who desire police reform turn out to vote in large numbers, just as they turned up on the streets this summer, they could elect better local prosecutors and county sheriffs. Voter-registration drives; door-to-door canvassing; urging local officials to adopt discrete, incremental reforms; and holding them accountable at the ballot box are less romantic and cathartic than taking to the streets. And such work is tedious. But the democratic process is the surest way to effect positive change––and unlike looting and rioting, it is not immoral.
Alec MacGillis: How to stop a police pullback
Martin Luther King Jr. understood that “riots are socially destructive and self-defeating,” and that the use of violence “is immoral,” because violence “seeks to humiliate,” it “thrives on hatred,” it “destroys community,” and it “creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”
While denouncing riots, he also made sure to note that “in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.” In 2020, however, reformers are absolutely not unheard. Following a decade of police reforms, and reduced police killings in cities, police abuses are covered as prominently as any injustice in America. This summer, major sports leagues, Fortune 500 corporations, and institutions of higher education have all explicitly affirmed that “Black lives matter”––not because they are especially courageous institutions, but because agreement is so widespread. In early July, before the most recent protests, Gallup asked Americans whether U.S. policing needs to change. A staggering 94 percent of respondents said yes, just 6 percent said no, and 58 percent of Americans declared that “major changes” are necessary.
I am among those who believe that “major changes” are necessary––that drug prohibition should end, that no-knock raids should end, that independent investigators should probe all police shootings, that many communities should unbundle parts of their policing portfolios, and much more. So I’ve paid close attention in recent days as the police shooting of Jacob Blake reopened the perennial divide between radicals who want to destroy the system, and liberals who want to work within it. Parts of Kenosha, Wisconsin, were devastated by riots. In Madison, the state capital, marchers chanted “This is not a riot; this is a revolution!” Protesters in Oakland, California, chanted “Burn it down!” while lighting fires.