You’re Angry and Protesting? Good! What’s Next?

Over the past several months the news has been full of stories about police violence and protests against it.  Ferguson, and Michael Brown.  Cleveland and Tamir Rice.  New York and Eric Garner.  There have been protests around the country, and a lot of discussion about not just police racism, but racism in society as a whole.    We can point to the amount of use of deadly force by police around the country, often as a first resort, not a last.    The protests and discussions have finally made it clear  that “Things aren’t right,” even though they haven’t been all along.    People are fed up, and they have every right to be.    The protests are a first step.  They’ve called attention to the problem, made it clear that it’s not just a “fringe issue,” and that action is required.

Action, though, is going to take a while.  It’s going to be slow, spotty, and at times frustrating.   It’s not enough to march in the streets and demand that things change, it means the hard work of getting that change into place.     Here’s the problem:  There are over 17,000 police forces in this country.   They aren’t controlled by the federal government, they aren’t even controlled by a state government.  They’re local police.  County sheriffs, town, village, and city police forces.  They’re controlled by local governments.

That is who is negotiating contracts, setting policies, and doing the hiring.  They’re the ones who appoint chiefs, set budgets for training,  and whatever accountability those police agencies have.   You want to change how police behave, and hold them accountable?  You have to change the people who set the policies – the local governments.  Sometimes just protesting will get them to act, but other times you’re going to have to change who is sitting on those city/town/county councils and the mayors/executives.  That means that now we should be looking around for people like that, if they’re not in office.

You see, next year is also an election year in many parts of the country.  Not the “big elections” that grab everyone’s attention, but the local elections.   Local officials like mayors, district attorneys, county sheriffs, judges, and council members.  If the current ones are not willing to address the issues, then get someone who will.   It won’t be easy, or quick.  Let’s be honest, many areas don’t want to change, and many police agencies won’t.  Changing a departmental culture takes time, and often requires new contracts.  It’ll take time, and continuing pressure.

Does that mean that it’s not worth doing? Of course not!  It also doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be pressing the national government and their state governments.   Both not only pass laws, but they also set standards and a portion of the local police agencies budgets.  Even the most recalcitrant place will find it within their hearts to implement changes when failing to do so means … less money.

Protests are a good first step.  Thousands of people marching in the streets is a definite wake-up call.  But, now begins the long, slow work to get changes made, and its going to take years.  Elections matter, but they’re not all the time.  Cultural shifts take time as well.   It takes determination and patience to make it happen.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “You’re Angry and Protesting? Good! What’s Next?

  1. Well said. This is the narrative that needs to take hold. Protests and demonstrations can grab headlines, but change will only come through consistent and informed participation in the democratic process.

    • Thank you. The protests are necessary, in that they not only call attention to the issue, but huge numbers of people out in the streets in those protests shows that it’s not just “the usual malcontents.” That gets politicians (and the media’s) attention. But after that, getting real and lasting action on that issue takes time, and frequently, showing up at the polls to vote for candidates who will implement it.

  2. Um… this is a great start, but you seem to assume the party machinery is actually interested in working with outsiders. In some places that works – especially when the outsiders look and sound like the insiders – but it’s not anywhere near reliably the case.

    I look forward to a followup post on how institutional politics needs to adjust to welcome and support activists.

    • I’ve done that in the past, but quite simply, it’s a matter of “show up and volunteer” in most places in this country. There seems to be this picture of “the party” as this monolithic, top-down organization, when it’s actually quite the opposite.

      • I’m a retired Town of Dryden Democratic Committee chair. Our town’s successful defense of a drilling ban had a major impact this week on the state’s decision to ban fracking. We managed to combine institutional organization with activist energy to get there – but even in that best case scenario it wasn’t as easy as getting people in the door to do the long slow work. It takes a lot of back and forth, much of it public and not all of it friendly, to get results.

        This piece is missing the kinds of conversations people have had on their way to protesting, the kinds of conversations they want to have, and the situations they’re working with. Right now we seem to have a Democratic party that’s focused on keeping up with the institutional opposition – the Republicans – and can’t see much benefit in talking with folks on the streets. There are occasional exceptions, and there are certainly places where people can volunteer, but really making these things come together requires a change in political party culture, not just activists walking through the door to become volunteers and voters.

        • Party culture can change when those activists keep walking through the door. It takes time. There’s a reason conservatives control the Republican Party. It’s not a fast process, the far Right took decades to do it. You’re still falling into the trap of “the party needs to…” instead of what makes the party listen.

          • We have to give activists a reason to stay once they enter. Actually, first we have to actively invite them, which you’ve started. Then we need to make clear that we’re actually worth their time. Otherwise they depart rapidly, and word spreads of the parties’ continued uselessness.

            Of course, they could just take over party committees through the petition process, and short-circuit these problems…

          • Sometimes, they have to say “yes.” One of my rather cynical views of most activists is that they seem to be willing to tell someone what they want done, but disappear the minute they’re asked to pitch in and help. My county party committee regularly sends out letters asking people to either join the committee or help out on something, only to get crickets in response.

          • I’ll write more about this elsewhere, but congratulations: that attitude, that it’s activists’ fault, helps ensure the boundary stays in place.

          • Yes, it is their fault, for most self-described “activists.” The idea that “If only the party would go out at talk to them and ask them for their help!” has, on many occasions been a miserable failure. They haven’t bothered to show up, they don’t vote, and their general function has been to make a lot of noise demanding that someone else do something. .

  3. And your recommendations for speeding up the “long slow work” and making it easier would be?

    • Oh, I’m sure there are some number of quick things that could be done. Some, like pushing a state to pass a “independent prosecutor” law to investigate police shootings would be a good start. However, to make real changes? Nope, it’s going to take a time. Elections are once a year, maybe every other year. You need to change elected officials in places, that’s what you’re waiting on. It takes time to train new police officers, it takes time to retrain existing ones, it takes time for union contracts to come up for renegotiation, and it takes time to instill a cultural change. 5 years is “quick.” Neither is it going to be easy. It’s work.