The World Undone

What we owe the victims of a system that normalizes unwarranted state violence

Take a minute (the video is literally 77 seconds long) to listen to author Malcolm Gladwell articulate his three principles of legitimacy. That is, the three elements any authority must demonstrate if they expect to be obeyed.

Now apply that framework to the current moment.

Can any observer claim, with a straight face, that Black communities have a legitimate voice in policing and law enforcement in their own neighborhoods?

Can we say with any conviction that the law, from drug policy to sentencing to felony disenfranchisement, is applied predictably?

Is everyone treated equally? Surely you know the answer.

It should not have taken George Floyd’s horrific murder for these truths to be self-evident to millions of white Americans.

Amadou Diallo was killed on the steps of his apartment, shot 19 times by plain-clothed NYPD officers. Diallo was unarmed. The officers were acquitted of all charges.

Sean Bell was killed the morning before his wedding in a barrage of gunfire from undercover NYPD officers. Bell was unarmed. The officers were found not guilty.

Oscar Grant was in a prone position when he was shot and killed by a BART police officer. Grant was unarmed. The officer served 11 months in prison.

Rekia Boyd was in a park with friends when she was shot and killed by an off-duty Chicago police officer. Boyd was unarmed. The officer was cleared of all charges.

Eric Garner died of suffocation after an NYPD officer placed Garner in a chokehold. Garner was unarmed, having been accused of selling unlicensed cigarettes. A grand jury declined to indict the officer.

Philando Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop in suburban Minnesota. After being asked to produce his license and proof of insurance, Castile informed the officer that he had a gun in the car. Castile was licensed to carry. The officer was acquitted.

Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by plain-clothed Louisville police officers serving a no-knock warrant in a drug case. There were no drugs at her apartment. Taylor’s killers still walk free.

Their names are a reminder that police rarely face consequences for killing Black people. Their names are a call to action for all the work we have left to do. They are the victims of a system that has normalized, has codified, has sanctioned unwarranted state violence.

There is no legitimacy when police are left to police themselves. There is no legitimacy when officers benefit from a cozy relationship with prosecutors. There is no legitimacy when police unions bully their way to accountability-free contracts. There is no legitimacy when local police departments receive new toys from the Pentagon befitting an invading army. There is no legitimacy when politicians evoke “law and order” to prey on the fears of the public. There is no legitimacy if we fail to enact meaningful, lasting reforms.

Legitimacy is earned. - MS


Reform happens at the ground level

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and acclaimed author of Just Mercy, made a critical point during an interview in the wake of George Floyd’s death:

You don’t need a White House to engage in culture change at your police department. That can be done in cities and communities and states. These reforms need to happen locally. The federal government can and should be playing a bigger role in incentivizing these changes. But anyone looking to the White House and the Presidency exclusively is not going to get it.

The entire New Yorker Q&A is worth your time.

Why are so few police officers prosecuted?

Qualified immunity plays a significant role here. Courts have granted police officers broad protections from legal liability, essentially dismissing any charges of wrongdoing if the alleged action hasn’t previously been found to violate established law.

FiveThirtyEight has an excellent analysis of the data on prosecutions and convictions of police officers, as well as insights into the legal hurdles built into the system.

Police union contracts hinder accountability

If you have a little time, I recommend the work of the Police Union Contract Project. The group reviewed and brought to light key provisions embedded in union contracts in 80 of America’s largest cities.

Here’s just a sample of the problematic language they uncovered:

  • 50 cities “restrict interrogations by limiting how long an officer can be interrogated, who can interrogate them, the types of questions that can be asked, and when an interrogation can take place.”

  • 41 cities “give officers under investigation access to information that civilian suspects don't get, including 16 cities that allow officers to review all evidence against them prior to being interrogated.”

  • 64 cities “limit disciplinary consequences for officers, for example by preventing an officer's history of past misconduct from being considered in future cases, and/or limit the capacity of civilian oversight structures or the media to hold police accountable.”