Transcribed from the 15 June 2020 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
I’m less concerned with the abolition of police as such than with the abolition of the very conditions that police are there to manage.
Chuck Mertz: Support for those protesting police violence is around twice the level of support for president Trump. There has been an impact on rhetoric, on culture, on the level of awareness of racialized police violence. But how can this lead to sustained change, so protesters are not back out in the streets next year or the year after that or the year after that, still demanding the end of what our guest calls carceral power?
Returning to This is Hell! to help us understand what the larger project of the movement could and should be, African-American studies and political science scholar Cedric Johnson wrote the Nonsite article “The Triumph of Black Lives Matter and Neoliberal Redemption.” Cedric was on our show back in May of last year, when we talked with him about his article “What Black Life Actually Looks Like.”
Welcome back to This is Hell!, Cedric.
Cedric Johnson: Hey, great to be here.
CM: I was reminded of the subtitle of that 2019 article when I was reading your new one: “For too long the left has organized based on caricatures of Black political life.” Do you still see the white left or the left in general currently organizing based on caricatures of Black political life, when it comes to the protests against the murder of George Floyd?
CJ: In many ways we’re right back to where we were before. This moment is already creating a renewal of some of those old ideas about Blacks constituting a community, which is a falsehood. We’re nearing 46 million in population; that’s incompatible with any notion of a “community.” There are Black communities around the country that matter. But we end up moving from really old notions of Black life that are derived from Jim Crow segregation, when Black people were largely excluded from public life and therefore had to rely upon various brokers in order to advance whatever interests they had, into a space now where students in those categories will still talk about Black people as a “community,” and still assume that Blacks are a constituency with widely shared interests.
Ultimately that leads away from the kinds of conversations we need to have about what specific constituencies within the Black population want, and what they are trying to work for in this particular moment. I think we’re going back to revisiting some of the same ideas that I and others have criticized before.
CM: What do you think leads the white left to believe Black political thought is monolithic when we all know that is not the case? There have been Black conservatives since the first African-Americans in this country, I’m sure. So what explains to you why the white left would believe that Black political thought is monolithic?
CJ: The situation we’re dealing with, witnessing police killings, is: seeing is believing. We’ve seen multiple videos of mostly Black men, in many cases unarmed, being killed by police. That has a powerful sway on how people perceive the world. You don’t necessarily have to read about it, you don’t have to look at actual statistics and a cross-sectional tabulation of the real numbers—the conclusion is easy. We’ve seen Black death enacted on television. For a long time within American life, Blacks have symbolized the poor. The right wing was really good at presenting us with the image of Black welfare queens and welfare cheats. Many people still have this idea that Black people are the poor, the incarcerated, the dispossessed—that still shapes the way we talk about this.
There are also a number of organizations coming out of the civil rights movement, and others that have been created since, that occupy that niche within political life. The classic civil rights organizations shifted from fighting against Jim Crow to essentially becoming interest group organizations within the broader American political arena, largely fighting against the rollback of various gains that were made during the 1960s as well as the remnants of the New Deal. We ended up with a situation where organizations that are primarily charged with trying to defend civil rights still tend to frame inequality within the context of race, because that’s what they’ve always done.
The other thing is that with social media, we now have another dimension added to the mix. Before, at least with some of those civil rights groups, there was a level of organization, a level of hierarchy in terms of who gets to represent what sort of messaging. Now it’s pretty much a free-for-all, and any person can step up and begin to present themselves as a representative of the Black body politic. It’s difficult for many whites to challenge that, because of the kind of discourse we have. If you challenge it, you run the risk of being labeled racist and canceled in the online social media culture. There’s a new set of rules. There’s a new decorum. There’s a new set of norms and expectations about how we engage—which is both derived from the earlier politics of Jim Crow and racial exclusion and also unfolds on this new terrain of technology which doesn’t have a whole lot of accountability mechanisms built in. Any person can say what they want, and any person can be brought down quickly by a social media mob.
It’s dangerous terrain, and many people—even though they see the difference, and they know these issues are much more complicated—are still worried about the possibility of being “dragged” by somebody on social media. That’s one of the things that prohibits folks on the left, and even Blacks, from speaking out against the grain.
CM: We were told by optimistic people we might be at some type of tipping point when things actually change in the United States, when institutionalized racism and the violent enforcement of property rights by the police are reconsidered unfair, even deadly. Then Rayshard Brooks is shot in the back and killed by Atlanta police. What does this weekend’s shooting reveal to you about the efficacy or impact protests have had, when these kinds of shootings continue?
CJ: Obviously it hasn’t changed some of these police officers’ behavior. That video of Rayshard Brooks’s killing was devastating. The worst part of the video is seeing him negotiate with police beforehand—it reminded me of Samuel DuBose’s killing in Cincinnati back in 2015. Similar situation: he’s stopped by a University of Cincinnati police officer even though he’s not technically on the campus, and DuBose has the same sort of negotiation with the cop, then tries to flee and is shot as a result. You just have to wonder what these officers are thinking, given everything that’s happened.
It’s not enough to talk about defunding police. It’s not enough even to talk about “right-sizing” police departments and changing the character or the scope of things that police respond to on a day-to-day basis. We also have to get back to the matter of inequality.
Part of what’s revealed to me is that protests in themselves are not enough. We have to think in terms of how we build real legislative majorities to change things. It’s not enough to simply protest until you get an arrest of an officer, or a firing, or some sort of grand jury indictment. It’s not enough to ask for police chiefs to resign, only to have some other person who is picked from the same pool, with the same trainings and the same background, move into a new slot. We have to think about majorities.
I also think there’s a discord in how activists are perceiving this moment. In the heat of the early protest and some of the riots that happened in different cities, I heard numerous friends who seemed to think we were on the verge of some major transformation. I think that was wrongheaded. There are millions of people out there protesting—if we’re going to talk about Black people not being a monolith, let’s also think about the entire American citizenry and the kinds of people who are out there protesting. They’re out there for different reasons. Some people were conservatives who have now woken up to the fact that Black people are disproportionately killed by the police. Some were liberals who felt it was their duty to step out and take a position on this because they have Blacks they’re connected to and they no longer wanted to remain silent. There are all sorts of different motivations.
Maybe the most important thing is that many Americans don’t share the same commitment to abolition or the dismantling of police departments, or even defunding police departments. Most Americans—poll after poll—have a problem with excessive use of force by police. Most Americans now, as a result of these protests and all the Black Lives Matter organizing that’s happened these last few years, have come to the position that Black people are unfairly and disproportionately targeted by police and more likely to experience excessive force. That’s one of the accomplishments of Black Lives Matter as a phenomenon. But at the same time, most American’s don’t want to see downsizing of police. They actually want more effective police. That’s the difference between what the activists are saying and what the broader public is saying.
That’s true even of Black populations. In Black communities, the same symptom is there. They don’t want to see police killing African-Americans, but they also want to see more effective policing. As we move forward, that’s something that activists and other people who want to weigh in on these issues have to be mindful of.
CM: You write, “While a slim majority of Americans now believe police are more likely to use excessive force against Blacks than other groups, many more do not share the most militant calls to defund or dismantle police departments voiced by some activists.”
I have a subscription to a small town newspaper in northern Michigan. It’s a ninety-percent white community that votes two-thirds for Trump, and their letters to the editor are just amazing. The newspaper did not run any articles about the murder of George Floyd—the only thing that showed up was in the letters to the editor, and the points made were interesting. One person said racialized police violence and what happened to George Floyd is really horrible, but we’ve got to remember this is just a few bad apples in the police department. Another person said we shouldn’t be protesting in every city in the United States—this only happened in Minneapolis.
I saw a poll that showed 64% of people support Black Lives Matter—and another 64% were against defunding the police. What, to you, explains this intense defense of police? What is this fear of an end to policing when people understand that the police have an institutional racist problem?
CJ: The place of police within the American popular imagination is a complicated thing. There’s no way we can get through a day without seeing at least one program on television where the police are the subject. Recently C.O.P.S. and a few other programs have been pulled. But think about popular movies: buddy cop comedies, various sitcoms with a police officer as the central character, detective and crime dramas, films and series we’ve all grown up to watch and enjoy.
Police occupy a contradictory place in American society. On the one hand they are seen by many people as guardians. If we go back to the origins of the old Thin Blue Line notion, it reveals why we’re both connected to police and also the immediate problems of this. When William H. Parker coined that phrase in the postwar years (William H. Parker was the chief of police of Los Angeles during the 1950s all the way up until the Watts riots), he was talking about the role that police should play within society: they should be the thin blue line protecting middle class virtue, middle class society, and middle class interests from all sorts of potential threats. In his mind, those threats were organized crime, “godless communism,” and the working class and poor Blacks who were then filling up the south-central area of Los Angeles, migrating from Texas and Louisiana and Mississippi.
Parker was clear: he had a very clear sense of who the good people were who deserved protection, and who the bad people were who needed to be controlled. Those ideas became increasingly clear during the 1960s. One of his biggest opponents—people forget this—was actually Tom Bradley, a beat cop. Tom Bradley would later go on to become the first Black mayor of Los Angeles, and would have a long reign—all the way up through the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion. There are a lot of interesting connections here, but even as a beat cop Tom Bradley was opposed to the kind of policing strategies undertaken by the Parker administration.
We have to return to that. Within that postwar period, during the making of America as we understand it (the making of the middle class), policing evolved as a way to protect middle class interests: to protect newly created suburbs and the middle class enclaves that still remained within cities from working class and poor people. Especially as we rolled back the welfare state, it became a primary way of controlling dispossessed populations while at the same time shoring up the interests of the middle class (majority white, but also other groups as well, so we should be mindful of that).
For me, it’s not enough to talk about defunding police. It’s not enough even to talk about “right-sizing” police departments and changing the character or the scope of things that police respond to on a day-to-day basis. We also have to get back to the matter of inequality. There are millions of Americans who are locked out of the affluent society. They weren’t allowed to participate in the American Dream or attain it in the ways that other people were: Black and Brown folks, but also a lot of whites in Rust Belt towns. A lot of these people voted for Trump, people in the heartland of America who don’t necessarily see a path towards economic security. That’s part of why they’re so resentful of other people who they see as having advantages that they don’t.
We were already moving into a situation where many Americans felt like the old middle class dream was no longer attainable. That’s what some of this was about as well. George Floyd may have been the wick in the Molotov cocktail. But there are other things that are happening here that we also should pay attention to. There’s an opportunity to have deeper conversations about redistribution
We have to go back to the question of inequality. I’m less concerned with the abolition of police as such than with the abolition of the very conditions that police are there to manage: the deep inequality that we have. We definitely want to scale back some of these overblown police departments. But if we don’t also deal with the inequality, we’re going to be right back in the same place that we are now. That’s one of the dangers of the defund rhetoric: it doesn’t go deep enough. It’s not just about rerouting funds that are used for police to social programs. It’s also about dealing with the kind of inequality that exists in most cities, where every year deep amounts of public funds are invested to incentivize all manner of commercial downtown and real estate development. They do that at the expense of citizens, and at the expense of people who don’t even have a place to live.
Until we can shift into that kind of conversation, we’ll stay pretty much stagnant. We may see some reforms—body cameras in some places, maybe some “right-sizing” of police departments in a few places—but we still have to get back to this fundamental question of inequality as the reason why police exist. It always has been. It’s the reason for this interesting contradiction in the US where we love police (because many of us, those of us who have homes and live in nice parts of the country, benefit from them), even though they are a mechanism of control for those persons who have been locked out.
CM: You write, “This moment has been a triumph for Black Lives Matter activists, but once the plumes of teargas dissipate and compassion fatigue sets in, the real beneficiaries will likely be the neoliberal Democrats and the capitalist blocs they serve.”
Why be concerned over neoliberal Democrats being the beneficiaries of the police violence protest movement? Do you think that could be an obstacle to the possibilities and potentials of the Black Lives Matter movement or the anti-police-violence movement? Or do you think it opens up the possibilities of this moment?
CJ: Both. It’s tough to call right now. The difficulty of commenting on some of these things is that everything is changing so rapidly. I don’t think people fully appreciate the fundamentally liberal nature of Black Lives Matter. There are certain elements of Black Lives Matter, even organizationally, that came out of the foundation world. People are losing sight of this. So it’s not just a matter of co-optation. I’ve got friends who believe now that Amazon and various foundations are stepping up to support Black Lives Matter, civil rights organizations, or anti-incarceration organizations that this is co-optation. It’s actually not. It’s convergence. Some of these organizations were already moving along the same path. It’s not incompatible with the plans of some of these corporations, and it’s not incompatible with their interests.
We have a long history of corporate multiculturalism. This moment seems like a revitalization of those ideas, not necessarily something new. In the Black Power period, various foundations and corporations stepped in to give an operational definition to what people understood as Black Power. The same thing is happening now all over again. But we have to be clear: as much as we can expose how easily certain elements of Black Lives Matter become cajoled and supported by mainstream institutions, the more we can begin to carve out a more progressive—and ultimately more effective—way of addressing these issues, which is to shift away from a politics of recognition towards a politics of redistribution. Again, in a real, deep way. We’re already in a terrible spot.
On the one hand it’s remarkable that we saw so many different protests across the country: upwards of five hundred different towns and cities had protests. That was great. We also saw multicultural, multiracial, and inter-generational populations of people turn out for these different events and actions. But we also have to spend more time thinking about the meaning of the riots. I’ve put it this way: there were the George Floyd protests, and there were also the Donald Trump riots. These were not the ghettoized rebellions of the late 1960s, or even Ferguson and Baltimore, which were fairly contained and small scale. This was massive rioting and looting. Here in Chicago, people were stretching out into the suburbs to loot stores. We also saw people looting central commercial districts. This speaks to the economic insecurity and the high levels of unemployment that exist—partially as a result of the pandemic, but we were already moving in that directions.
We were already moving into a situation where many Americans felt like the old middle class dream was no longer attainable. That’s what some of this was about as well. George Floyd may have been the wick in the Molotov cocktail. But there are other things that are happening here that we also should pay attention to. There’s an opportunity to have deeper conversations about redistribution, but we have to push past the lazy ways of thinking about inequality in the United States only in terms of race. That is inaccurate. I get a bit of a private chuckle out of hearing millionaires and celebrity athletes talk about the experience of George Floyd like it could have happened to them. It’s highly unlikely that these people will be subjected to the kind of routine policing that somebody like George Floyd was subjected to, or someone like Eric Garner, or Alton Sterling. These were people who were in many cases unemployed, people engaged in survival-type crimes: selling loose cigarettes, selling pirated CDs, or allegedly using a counterfeit twenty dollar bill.
There are different populations of Black people; these are Black people who are the most dispossessed. We can find the same kinds of people in other ethnic groups and other parts of the country if we widen our lens. The opportunity is here, but we have to be leery of how easily this can be picked up by foundations, by centrist Democrats, and by corporations who simply want to use this as a way of expanding their market share. What they really do is deflect attention away from their labor practices and the challenges they were facing before these protests broke out.
CM: You talk about the “gestural antiracism” that was already evident at Amazon, and you mention how Jeff Bezos has donated money to Black Lives Matter. The Amazon CEO wrote, “I have a twenty-year-old son and I simply don’t worry that he might be choked to death while being detained one day. It’s not something I worry about. Black parents can’t say the same.” So Bezos pledged $10 million in support of social justice organizations: the ACLU foundation, the Brennan center for justice, the equal justice initiative, the lawyer’s committee for civil rights under the law, and so on. And Black Lives Matter.
What does it say to you about these organizations that they accept this money when you see Jeff Bezos and his company having very poor worker relations? No correct protective equipment at the beginning of the pandemic; overworking, underpaying, and firing people who try to organize labor unions. What does it say about these organizations when they accept this money?
It’s great that many whites are concerned about these issues and want to show up; they’re concerned now in ways that they weren’t before. But this doesn’t necessarily translate into a commitment to real politics, which is not just to say that I am opposed to police killings and I stand with Black Lives Matter.
CJ: Some of those organizations do not have a strong commitment to labor. There have been tensions about this before. It could be that they don’t have a commitment; it could also be that they figure this money will allow them to do good, and therefore they should take it. But the longer-run issue is it helps distract us and those organizations from dealing with the real heart of the matter: we have overblown, oversized police departments that are charged with doing the work that a welfare state used to do and that generous public policy, public goods, public works, and jobs programs could do to improve the lives of millions of Americans. That’s the problem with it: it distracts, it deflects, it reroutes the attention that could go towards something different, something more substantive, and instead keeps us stuck in this idea that it is primarily an undying racial problem in the United States when I think it’s actually something different.
CM: You mention Adolph Reed Jr.’s article from 2016 that was also at Nonsite, “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Racial Violence,” and of it you write: “It should be read again and often during this moment of resurgent Black Lives Matter sentiment. Perhaps the most important point in Reed’s 2016 essay is his insistence that Black Lives Matter and cognate notions like the New Jim Crow are empirically and analytically wrong, and advance an equally wrongheaded set of solutions. He does not deny the fact of racial disparity in criminal justice, which is incredibly important, but points us towards a deeper causation and the need for more fulsome political interventions.”
For people who may not have read The New Jim Crow, a simple summary of Michelle Alexander’s argument is there was racially-driven slavery, then freedom was won; then Jim Crow was blowback against that freedom; the civil rights era overcame Jim Crow; then came the New Jim Crow, mass incarceration, as the new racially-driven oppression of Black people and other people of color.
You are not the only one critical of this work. Past guest on this show James Forman, Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Locking Up Our Own, sees Alexander as not considering the role of Black politics supporting tough-on-crime laws, an oversight leading readers to believe racism and racism alone drives the mass incarceration state and fuels carceral power.
If my summary is fair, what is missed when we believe racism and racism alone drives the carceral state and fuels carceral power?
CJ: In some places, a Black Lives Matter slogan totally makes sense, and captures exactly the problem that exists. Here in Chicago, around 72% of those persons who are killed by police are African-American. We only make up one third of Chicago’s population. Nationally those numbers change: 24% of those persons killed by police are Black; the other 76% are not Black. But how do we explain that phenomenon? This is what Reed was really pushing us to reconsider. Why don’t we think about those other deaths and try to explain them? What do that other 76% of people have in common such that the conditions of their lives actually matter—and not just in their deaths?
If we go back to the July 4th weekend of 2016 when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were both killed, we saw a wave of protests that erupted. It was probably the last major wave of Black Lives Matter protests before the most recent ones. We organized around those two deaths because we saw them. They were videotaped and circulated via social media. They fit the narrative that this is something that happens to Black people. We’ll hear all sorts of activists grab the mic and say this never happens to whites, or this never happens to anyone else; it’s only Black men who get treated in this way. And yet, that same week that Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed, ten other people were killed by police. There were three African-American men, six Latinos (mostly in California and the southwest), and there was one white youth killed in Fresno, California. Ten people altogether were killed, but only two became the flashpoints for political organizing.
When we look at the numbers more broadly and across the years, police killings of civilians has actually been on the decline in the United States for some time. We’ve become more politicized by it because we have become witnesses to these crimes. But ultimately the numbers have been on the decline, and the numbers reflect not a racial problem as such but a broader problem in the country: those persons who occupy the poorest segments of the working class live in places where particular modes of policing, designed to control these poor segments, are dominant. If you live in that area, you could still be subjected to the same kind of policing, no matter what your class status.
When we take a strictly racial vantage point, the solution becomes “sensitivity training.” Like, let’s defund police and fund programs specific to Black youth, but not think through the role that police play within society: to shore up and protect middle class lifestyles and interests in terms of property and housing and everything else, while at the same time controlling and subordinating working class and poor people. Another example we could use is the fight of sex workers in this country: whether they are Black or white, straight, cisgender or trans, they are subjected to continuous policing. Throughout the society, no matter which city or small town we’re talking about, they’re constantly harassed and harangued by police, and routinely brought in, arrested, charged, and in some cases incarcerated. How do we factor in those aspects? These are in many cases people who are either reliant upon criminalized forms of work or engaged in some sort of survival crime, and that becomes a precipitating event for potentially fatal encounters with police.
If we automatically take what happened today and connect it back to sixteenth, nineteenth, or early twentieth century Black criminalization in American cities, without thinking about it within our own context, this is ultimately where we have to go. It’s great that many whites are concerned about these issues and want to show up; they’re concerned now in ways that they weren’t before. My worry is that this doesn’t necessarily transfer or transition into a commitment to real politics, which is not just to say that I am opposed to police killings and I stand with Black Lives Matter, but to say I don’t want to live in a society where we permit this kind of inequality. I don’t want to live in a society where it’s okay that who you become and what kind of education you receive is dependent on how much money your parents have and where they can afford to live.
That should be where we’re headed: not simply making symbolic gestures and expressions of goodwill, checking in with Black friends, but engaging in a different reevaluation of this society. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. For a while many people are going to enjoy this moment of protest and reconsideration in the abstract, but not necessarily go towards a politics that demand sacrifice and real solidarity.
That’s the difference. Just showing up, or changing your social media profile to show that you’re in solidarity—that’s not solidarity. Solidarity is being involved with other people and being willing to take risks in order to create something different, in order to advance the interests that you all have in common. I haven’t seen that yet.
Again, we have to have a different kind of conversation that goes beyond outrage, beyond a momentary feeling of connection or concern with minority populations, but towards a deeper reconsideration as a society which—that’s one of the fronts we haven’t succeeded on. We’ve been pretty good, in various moments, at anti-discrimination, and we could do better, but the deeper question of sharing is a bigger problem for many Americans. It’s all good until we say you can’t have certain things because other people should be able to have those things as well: everyone should be able to have a house and not have to worry about meeting their basic needs. That’s a different kind of conversation. I hope to live long enough to hear that conversation, not just the one about Black Lives Matter and how people should feel about their contribution to reproducing racism.
CM: Cedric, thank you so much for being back on our show.
CJ: Thank you, really appreciate it.
Featured image: structure fire during the 1967 Plymouth Avenue riots in Minneapolis. Source: Minnesota Historical Society