Suddenly, it has become all the rage to express solidarity with black lives. Yesterday, I turned on the TV to watch a movie on Amazon, and saw the banner across the top of the screen: Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world, supports black lives. My TV said so. We even have a plaza in D.C., right outside the White House, that attests to the fact that Black Lives Matter. I am all in favor of these expressions, and would like to paint Black Lives Matter on every street encircling the White House and every courthouse in the country. But let’s talk about empty gestures—the moonwalk that creates the exhilarating illusion of progress without actually moving.
There is a reason why activists and community organizers united to block Amazon from opening its second headquarters in Queens. Anyone who can’t figure out the reason should go to Seattle and trace the history of gentrification and displacement of the black community. Amazon, the largest private employer in Seattle, did not singlehandedly create the problem, but it just as surely made it a lot worse. When the company elected to go to Northern Virginia instead of Queens, the area immediately experienced a boom in real estate prices, and activists could hear the ominous ticking of the displacement clock.
Empty rituals are especially common in criminal justice. For years, I have insisted, in these pages and elsewhere, that the entire phenomenon of so-called criminal justice reform is much ado about very little. Yet it is endlessly celebrated as a bipartisan triumph. Even that man in the White House has insisted he is a criminal justice reformer because he signed the First Step Act. If Mr. Send-in-the-Military can claim the mantle of criminal justice reformer, you know it’s a meaningless title.
In Minneapolis, the epicenter of the current uprisings, the political class is celebrating new rules that will ban the use of police chokeholds and neck restraints, and obligate officers to intervene when they witness the unauthorized use of force. In other words, Minneapolis has now prohibited the precise configuration observed during the murder of George Floyd. Talk about fighting the last war. The press has trumpeted the move as though it ushered in an entirely new era in policing; politicians called it “transformational.”
But of course, it is nothing of the sort. Unless you change the nature of policing and the relationship between the police and the community, prohibiting the use of one immobilization technique will only lead to greater use of another, like batons or firearms. As importantly, it does nothing to alter the conditions in the American economy that lead reasonable people to wonder whether black lives really do matter. As for the obligation to intervene, it’s already the law. Police officers are sworn to uphold the Constitution and cannot lawfully sit idly by while another officer uses excessive force.
It reminds me of the step Minneapolis took after a police officer from a Minneapolis suburb shot and killed Philando Castile during a routine traffic stop. When it was discovered that the officer had attended a training on the warrior style of policing—a training called, “the Bulletproof Warrior,” also known as “killology”—Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey dutifully banned Minneapolis officers from attending such trainings in the future. At his State of the City Address in 2019, Frey had this to say about his order:
[F]ear-based, warrior-style trainings like killology are in direct conflict with everything that our chief and I stand for in our police department. Fear-based trainings violate the values at the very heart of community policing. When you’re conditioned to believe that every person encountered poses a threat to your existence, you simply cannot be expected to build out meaningful relationships with those same people.
You see how much good that did for George Floyd.
Part of the problem is that many people cannot tell the difference between real and superficial reform. They demand body cameras, for instance, and celebrate when a police department commits to use them. But as I have described before, by and large body cameras simply capture law enforcement doing what they were trained to do, and if a department trains its officers to act like an occupying army, and to treat neighborhood residents like hostile aliens, that’s what the cameras will show. It’s much more important to change what an officer does than to film him doing it.
I don’t mean to suggest that body cameras are a bad idea. In general, they can increase a department’s transparency, and in some cases can help resolve factual disputes. It is certainly true, for instance, that the Louisville officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor during a nighttime, “no knock” raid on her home should’ve had cameras. But cameras alone do not alter how officers conceive their job, do not change the fundamental relationship between law enforcement and communities of color in this country, and do not redistribute power or wealth to make up for centuries of discriminatory law and policy. Derek Chauvin obviously didn’t care that he was being filmed as he killed George Floyd, nor did the three officers who assisted him.
Some activists have called for the police to be defunded. That, at least potentially, is indeed a radical reform. The police are routinely asked to do things for which they are spectacularly ill-equipped, and for years, I have called for police reforms that will shrink the blue footprint and support resident-led initiatives. It is much better that neighborhood residents solve their own problems than to summon an outsider to do it for them. That is the difference between informal social control that promotes social cohesion within a healthy neighborhood, and formal social control imposed by outsiders on a community under siege.
But simply reducing the police budget without a clear vision for how that money should be reallocated is a recipe for disaster. What that reallocation looks like in practice will vary from place to place, but let me end this essay with just one example of how a concrete desire to make black lives matter could achieve real change, but only if people are prepared to go beyond empty rituals.
In Ithaca, New York, where I live, we are in the midst of a housing crisis. Rents are exceedingly high, and low-income renters are increasingly forced to leave the city or crowd into unsafe or inadequate housing. Many of them are people of color. Like many cities, Ithaca could solve this problem by building dramatically more affordable housing, but it cannot do that without, among other things, changing the zoning laws to allow considerably more multi-unit dwellings and micro-homes to be built in residential neighborhoods.
But Ithaca residents—liberal Ithaca residents who proudly display a Black Lives Matter sign in their yards—will not allow it. Why? Because the additions will diminish the value of their homes. And so people of color in Ithaca are increasingly crowded into sections of town that demonstrate to them, every day, that in fact black lives do not matter.
If you want to shrink police budgets, use the money in a way that will genuinely change conditions for people of color. Don’t just post a sign in your lawn. That’s not much better than Jeff Bezos posting a banner on my television.