Incremental Change Is a Moral Failure

Mere reform won’t fix policing.

photo of 'Strike' (2018) by Hank Willis Thomas: a sculpture of one arm holding another arm with a baton
Artwork by Hank Willis Thomas. Strike, 2018. (© Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.)

I know that where I live is the hood, and not only because I am in a part of Brooklyn where a substantial number of Black people still live. Nor is it because, year after year, for a solid month before the Fourth of July, my neighbors and I all play the game “gunshots or fireworks?” It is not because of the constant police presence, though that certainly helps with identifying it. I witnessed half a dozen police officers respond to one shoplifting call, and that was after the accused had already been handcuffed. But still this is not the telltale sign of the hood.

It is the trash. There is trash everywhere, always. Nearly 8.5 million people live in New York City, not including the tourists and bridge-and-tunnel folks who, in more normal times, flow in and out on a daily basis. Of course there is an abundance of trash. But when I get off the train to walk to my therapist’s office on the Upper East Side, a neighborhood devoid of any of the character that makes New York City appealing, I notice that there is no trash on the street. More people live in this neighborhood than where I live; presumably they are creating more garbage, but their clean streets suggest otherwise.

A casual observer might suggest that the people who live in my neighborhood—mostly poor, mostly Black, mostly immigrant—take less pride in where they live. They throw their candy wrappers and used napkins, their half-empty soda bottles and unfinished pizza, their Styrofoam to-go containers and paper receipts on the ground because they don’t care about keeping their sidewalks presentable and livable.

And this, the observer may argue, is because of a cultural deficiency. They do not value this place, their home, because such value has not been inculcated by their surroundings. Some of these observations have been turned into academic studies that became the foundation for what we now call “broken-windows policing,” a theory that can be traced to a 1982 article in this magazine, which claims that if such minor infractions are allowed to fester, they serve as the prelude to much larger, more serious crimes.

Little, if any, consideration is given to the fact that my neighborhood has fewer public trash cans than neighborhoods such as the Upper East Side. On the walk from the train station to my therapist’s office, I see a trash can on every corner. They are fewer and farther between on the 10 blocks from my local subway stop to the next one, on the always crowded, always bustling Flatbush Avenue.

The city could put more trash cans here, if keeping this neighborhood where mostly poor, mostly Black, mostly immigrant people live clean—as clean as the neighborhoods where mostly affluent, mostly white New Yorkers live and work and go to therapy—were important. But then the city would also have to pay someone to collect the garbage from those cans. The city’s elected officials would have to deem these residents worthy of that expense.

book cover: 'Stakes Is High' by Mychal Denzel Smith
Bold Type Books

What these officials have deemed the hood worthy of is policing, and not because it is so much cheaper. Policing is a costly public service, but the one most readily available here. There are undercover officers busting drug dealers. There are uniformed officers in patrol cars sitting on corners all day, all night. Sometimes they are standing next to huge, overpowering floodlights, warning the criminals off the street. Sometimes there are raids, 10 to 15 squad cars deep, in which one or two people are arrested. The police are always on duty. The people here do not lack for police, the way they do trash cans.

A casual observer may tell you that this is because there is so much crime in this hood. That the people here are lawless, violent. And it’s true, there is violence here, just as there is violence anyplace where the people are stripped of the means to build a good life. Casual observers, who aren’t always so casual—they begin to include academics, media professionals, policy makers, presidents—excuse the presence of the police here, and in other hoods like this one, because their position is that in order to stop the violence of the hood you must impose the violence of the state. The police are meant, in this view, to protect the people from themselves, to enforce the discipline their culture lacks.

In reality, the police patrol and harass. They reluctantly answer questions better suited for town visitor centers. They enforce traffic laws at their discretion, or to shore up municipal budgets through the imposition of exorbitant fines. They arrest people who have disobeyed them and then make up the charges later. They dismiss the stories of rape victims; they side with domestic abusers. They break into homes via no-knock warrants. They introduce the potential for violence by responding to calls about loud music—or counterfeit $20 bills. They shoot and kill with impunity. Regardless of the other responsibilities police have assumed, they have consistently inflicted violence on the most marginalized people in society.

A lesson you learn fairly quickly while living in New York City and using public transportation is that if there is an empty subway car on an otherwise crowded train, you do not want to get in that car thinking you’ve somehow hacked the system. After one or two times believing that you’ve outsmarted all the other passengers, you realize that the smell of the empty car is so repulsive, no person can reasonably bear it for any amount of time. Except there likely is a person in that car, and that person has likely been unhoused for some time. That subway car is their safest refuge. They have likely been riding for hours, having hustled their way onto the train at last, winning a swipe from one of the hundreds of people who have passed them by. They finally have a place to rest, but it has been who knows how long since they have been able to avail themselves of a bathroom, because in New York City all the restrooms are for customers only. So they smell like the piss and shit that they’ve been unable to wipe from themselves, now caked on and causing other passengers to run away—leaving them further alienated from any sense of humanity and community.

Only they won’t be left alone for too long, because someone else who is even more uncaring will not simply choose another subway car. They will see it as their right to ride unencumbered by the sight and smell of this other person. They will call the police, who will arrest this person, and for a night or two this person will have a place to sleep, in a jail cell.

The police cannot solve poverty, joblessness, mental illness, addiction, and the housing crisis—the actual culprits in the lives of the unhoused. But if we’ve deemed homeless people, not poverty, the problem, then what the police can do is make them disappear.

The major tools the police carry are handcuffs and guns; they can arrest or kill. The police can go forth and round up people without a home, then place them in cages. And to grant them this authority, local governments can criminalize sleeping outside, or criminalize panhandling, which begins to look a lot like the criminalization of vagrancy as part of the Black Codes in the era that ended Reconstruction. Governments can fund a separate police force for the subway system to punish turnstile jumpers, arrest women selling churros, and clear out more homeless people, while neighborhood associations ensure that no new homeless shelters get built near or in affluent neighborhoods. The streets remain the only place for the dispossessed to call home. Lawmakers, and those who aspire to become them, will continue to send the police to arrest the poor, because they respond to two groups, funders and voters, and the poor are neither.

The motto “To protect and to serve”—adopted by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1955 and later used by other departments around the country—has been a highly effective public-relations tool. With the propaganda machine churning on, the police, and the governments that direct them, are able to get buy-in from the very people they are meant to police. People in the community hear the gunshots; see the addicts wandering hopelessly and the dope boys pondering their next move; grow fearful that a shouting match will turn ugly quickly; and have been taught by teachers, counselors, television, movies, and the police themselves that the cops can solve this problem. So they call.

They have no alternative. No one will even pay for them to have trash cans. How can a community deprived of the basics expect to receive the resources it needs so that it no longer has to depend on police? Its people have, purposefully, been given nothing else. When they ask, they are told to wait; when they shout, they are told that they are undeserving. They are shamed for the ways they have survived. They are blamed when they don’t survive.

When asked “What would you have us do with the police?,” I make a point of saying, unequivocally, “Abolish them,” because that is what I mean. I seek a world without police. When I explain that achieving such a world would require us to enact a number of redistributive policies and educational programs aimed at providing for everyone’s basic needs and reducing violence, both interpersonal and state-sanctioned, I’m asked why I don’t lead with that rather than the potentially alienating “Abolish the police.” And my answer is that I believe in stating, in clear language, what you want, because otherwise you are beholden to the current state of consciousness and accepted wisdom. I want a world in which the police do not exist, and there is no clearer way to say that.

In the past, I have been accused of hating the police. And I do. Such an admission may be taken to mean that I hate each police officer as an individual whom I have judged unfairly on the basis of his or her occupation. But I hate the police the same as I hate any institution that exists as an obstruction to justice. It’s important here to define justice, as the U.S. legal system has perverted our sense of it. It cannot be punishment or retribution for harm caused. Justice is not revenge. Rather, justice is a proactive commitment to providing each person with the material and social conditions in which they can both survive and thrive as a healthy and self-actualized human being. This is not an easy thing to establish, as it requires all of us to buy into the idea that we must take responsibility for one another. But it is the only form of a just world.

The police have never been capable—historically, presently, either in statement of purpose or in action—and, I believe, will never be capable of fostering such conditions. And so I hate them, because I have grown past impatient with injustice. I am incensed by the delusion, so prevalent among the country’s supposedly serious thinkers, that tinkering around the edges of an inherently oppressive institution will lead to freedom.

Donald Trump swore that he alone could rescue America, return it to glory—a dismissal of community in favor of a narcissistic desire to be adored for an impossible heroism. It’s uncomfortable to realize that, in different ways and to varying degrees, we have all bought into similar delusions. As a country, we obsess over the election of one person who is a part of one branch of our federal government. We become content to hand over the reins of decision making to one person, whom we exceptionalize out of necessity, because we must believe that this person is the most deserving caretaker of our national present, and can personally bring about a better national future. (Liberals placed this misguided faith in Barack Obama and now seem poised to do the same with Joe Biden, positioning him as the savior of democracy.) Then we are left to panic when the country chooses wrong.

For liberals shocked and outraged by the election results of 2016, it became popular, when speaking of Trump, to dismissively refer to him as “not my president.” This is an empty rhetorical move, but one that allows the speaker a perceived moral high ground: She is not responsible for the current state of affairs, because this president does not belong to her.

I suppose I shouldn’t begrudge people their small acts of sanity preservation. But this one in particular reveals a deeper problem with Americans and our relationship to the presidency: the sense that in choosing the “correct” person for president, we have fulfilled our democratic duties. The sense that we don’t need to invest in constructing bonds of collective power and community outside the office of the presidency, because electing the “right” person is enough to ensure that the country will see real change. Flattering ourselves like this is part of how we ended up here. It’s why all of our so-called progress has been hollow. It’s why the so-called progress is so easily undone.

On the third night of protesting in Minneapolis, the third precinct was set on fire. Up until then the protests, which had erupted in response to the circulation of a video showing the officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, killing him, looked familiar. The scene was reminiscent of Ferguson in 2014, and Baltimore in 2015, albeit with face masks meant to protect against the spread of COVID‑19. The people gathered and they shouted for justice. The police stood guard outside.

Once the vacated police station began to burn, this protest became something altogether different. The fire was a militant action that put the protesters in direct conflict with the state, while also representing the decidedly new demand arising from the nationwide demonstrations: Defund the police.

“Defund the police” is an abolitionist call, part of a set of ideas to reduce the power of police in the short term, and to eliminate police and policing in the long term. Abolition demands an overall restructuring of our economic and political order. It holds that decriminalizing those things that have been treated as criminal matters but are not violent (the possession, use, and sale of drugs, and sex work, for example) would result in tremendous reduction of harm.

This restructuring would also require a massive public investment in the general welfare—safe housing, healthy food, free education, free health care, a basic income. For those harms that would still occur in such a world, abolition asks that we find ways of addressing them that do not include the further violence of punishment, but prioritize the needs of the victimized to be made whole, and require the perpetrator to make proper restitution and to be rehabilitated so he doesn’t commit harm again.

The protests started out with the predictable demands of arresting, prosecuting, and convicting the police officers responsible for killing Floyd—and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky—but shifted within a week’s time to be about an overhaul of the entire system of American policing. For those like myself who have believed in and advocated for police abolition for some time, it was a moment of rich opportunity.

And yet, as of this writing, it already seems to be fading, at least in actionable ways. As “Defund the police” gained traction as a slogan, cable-news pundits implied that “Defund the police” did not mean “defund the police.” Instead of spending time understanding abolitionist ideas, they intervened to say that “Defund the police” was in fact a request to “reimagine the police.” The set of demands issued by the police-reform advocacy project Campaign Zero, branded “#8cantwait,” threatened to suck up the energy that was forming around defunding the police and divert it toward minor reforms that would have little impact on levels of police violence.

While Minneapolis’s city council formed a veto-proof majority to dismantle its police department, weak plans cropped up around the rest of the country, either to take away small slices of the police budget, as in Los Angeles, or to do things like ban choke holds and increase funds for training, as in Philadelphia. This revolutionary moment seems to be turning into yet another flash of progress.

Perhaps I am being too harsh. Progress is progress. And progress is hard. Progress is wrestling concessions from the behemoth of systematized oppression.

The problem is when progress becomes its own ideology—that is, when advocacy for incrementalism is seen as the astute and preferred mode of political transformation. When we have done what is hard, and convinced ourselves that hard is a synonym for revolutionary. Incremental change keeps the grinding forces of oppression—of death—in place. Actively advocating for this position is a moral failure.

There have always been voices willing to take on the fragile American ego—to remind us that the racist principles on which this country was founded continue to guide each of its institutions. At their most critical and potent, these voices disabuse us of the notion that America’s foibles can be overlooked in favor of our inherent goodness.

Yet American mythmaking has a remarkable, insidious ability to swallow up the lives of those who stand in open rebellion to the American project and turn them into obedient symbols of American exceptionalism. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, fought for the rights of Black people to be full participants in a democracy that had yet to be built. The power brokers who would have opposed him now use him to ensure that the democracy he envisioned never comes to fruition. They adopted King as a historic cudgel, because you can make a dead man believe whatever you want.

This makes sense when you consider what James Baldwin wrote in his 1961 profile of King:

The problem of Negro leadership in this country has always been extremely delicate, dangerous, and complex. The term itself becomes remarkably difficult to define, the moment one realizes that the real role of the Negro leader, in the eyes of the American Republic, was not to make the Negro a first-class citizen but to keep him content as a second-class one.

Last summer, someone tagged a nearby subway station after it had gotten a fresh coat of white paint. The tag read make flatbush black again. It was covered up within a few days.

This year, in the middle of a global pandemic, multiracial crowds have made their way up and down Flatbush Avenue, shouting in unison, calling for the creation of a world in which Black lives matter. The police have not discriminated—they have kettled, arrested, shoved, and beaten the protesters, young and old, Black and white, gentrifier and native alike.

Maybe this is how progress looks now.

This essay was adapted from Mychal Denzel Smith’s forthcoming book, Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream. It appears in the September 2020 print edition with the headline “Police Reform Is Not Enough.”