Source: LSA Magazine
After months of protests and pandemic, we find ourselves in a period in which everything feels open to question. From the fields of history, anthropology, and political science, four LSA professors explore post-carceral life, the role of protest in democracy, how race influences our perceptions of police violence, and how these tumultuous and terrible months could help us create a better world.
The convergence of COVID-19 and protests against police violence have created a singular cultural moment. Social historian Earl Lewis—the Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy, and the director of the Center for Social Solutions—assesses the long series of events that have brought us here and how our history can help us move forward.
Lewis is the founder and the director of the Center for Social Solutions, which nurtures research and partnerships that address urgent social problems. Their work is founded around four pillars—water insecurity, the dignity of labor in an automated world, diversity and democracy, and slavery and its aftermath.
The way we frame these last few months, from COVID-19 and its aftermath to the protests against police violence, will have a big effect on the way we think about them. As a social historian, how do you view them?
Earl Lewis: COVID-19 has done something that we’ve never seen before: It has slowed the world. In a digital moment where everything moves with the click of a mouse and you can send information across the world in a matter of seconds, it forced us to slow down. We got to see the ways in which people we had once thought were marginal were essential. It was not just the doctors and the nurses who were essential, but also the postal carriers and mail sorters, the food clerks, and folks working at a series of other jobs. People who were able to work from home could see that they were able to because somebody was at that meat packing plant and the Amazon warehouses.
As the level of interdependence became much clearer, the inequities and inequalities did too—not just in the risk of exposure, but in the overrepresentation of Black and brown people dying from COVID-19, particularly in major cities. There were co-morbidity factors like hypertension and diabetes, but there was also the legacy of slavery: inadequate access to health care and the added burdens, psychological and physical, of being one paycheck away from being dispossessed of something as basic as a home.
And then you add on this searing image of George Floyd having his life taken away from him. And for what? Michael Milken, the financier who was convicted of insider trading and spent time in jail, is now back and making repentance for all he did. We’re talking about millions of dollars and not an allegedly forged $20 bill. Bernie Madoff robbed millions of their life savings, and he too got his day in court. No one put a knee on his neck and exterminated him in plain view. One can pull a thread from Emmett Till in 1955 to George Floyd in 2020, through 65 years of America supposedly getting better, and see that certain humans are viewed as less valuable than others. They pay an ultimate penalty for what looks like a minor transgression in the broader context.
And it’s the power of seeing all of this, the weight of a moment. Black Lives Matter is more than a catch phrase. It’s a way of organizing communities and framing some fundamental questions about police and policing.
Now the question is, what kind of movement can we sustain? The sad truth of the matter is, of course, that George Floyd won’t be the last to be killed for what seems like a minor transgression. Can we reform policing in America without reconstructing America? That’s the question I keep asking.
This does feel like a familiar cycle: a high profile case of police brutality followed by protests that get a lot of media attention and don’t progress any farther. What does it take to enact change?
EL: At some point we need to actually feel the pain, the hurt, and the anger. If you can’t or don’t feel, you are not inclined to actually do something in the long run because it remains an intellectual exercise.
This may be our moment for a truth-and-reconciliation project for the United States. We have never been able to do that, and I think, in fact, that some people don’t want the truth. The notion of reconciliation will require us to deal not only with the sin of slavery, but with the sin of confiscating native lands and all that entails. Perhaps we can make sure that this moment is not lost so we won’t be having this conversation again in 5 or 10 years about another incident because we didn’t have the strength and willpower to do what’s necessary now.
Continue reading the interview here.
Police violence is not new, but the national protests staged in opposition to it have certainly raised its media profile. Streeter studies the circumstances that lead communities to protest and the way race and gender can affect how individuals perceive violence.
Are there particular circumstances that are more likely to inspire a community to protest against police violence?
Shea Streeter: Yes, but, surprisingly, only two: whether the person was unarmed and whether a video of the incident is released to the public. The cases we see at the national level tend to follow this very clear profile. But, of course, there are many other cases that we never hear about because they don’t get publicized.
Do white people and Black people tend to view episodes of police violence differently?
SS: Generally, yes, but the racial views do occasionally overlap. There is some early work that shows that white folks and Black folks pay attention to very different aspects of these situations. They remember things differently, and they have completely different sorts of filters that affect what they see or even what they read. Even with video, people have different interpretations of what actually happened.
White people tend to place more weight on what the officer said, or they argue something happened that the video doesn’t show. I think this is partly why the response to George Floyd’s killing was so strong. The video showed the whole sequence of events, from beginning to end. Nothing was off camera.
Why did so many people protest over the summer rather than, say, in 2014, when Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed?
SS: In 2014, Black Lives Matter was in its infancy and most people were not aware that police violence was a problem. Michael Brown’s death and the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, were the sparks that shed light on the multitude of cases of Black people getting killed by the police. What we saw this summer, six years later, is the accumulation of a great deal of organizing work on the part of activists and victims’ families.
Another reason why protests have grown is a rising awareness of the continued problem of racism in this country. After President Obama was elected, there were symbolic gains in terms of race. There was this assumption that the symbolic gains—“We’ve had our first Black president so we’ve dealt with these race issues”—had translated into material gain. “African Americans weren’t disadvantaged anymore. Now they can be president.” Or that was still the thinking in 2014.
Continue reading the interview here.
In your research, you have explored the ways in which the carceral system reinforces social and economic inequalities—particularly for people who have a criminal record. What have you found?
Melissa Burch: The barriers created by a criminal record are nearly too numerous to list, but they include securing housing, private or public; being eligible for student loans and other financial assistance; and adopting or fostering children. In fact, in many cases, people with criminal records lose custody of their own children. Many states also restrict people’s right to vote or serve on a jury.
In the realm of employment, which is my focus, the law basically allows private employers to discriminate on the basis of a criminal record. There are also tens of thousands of legal statutes that bar people with criminal convictions from working in particular professions or obtaining licenses to work in licensed professions—even when their convictions are completely unrelated to these fields. And there’s really no evidence to support the idea that someone with a criminal conviction is necessarily more of a risk than someone without one.
In my view, criminal records are an easy way for governments to appear to protect some people from others and to manage risk throughout society. They promote this idea that we can quickly and easily identify who is potentially dangerous and who is not—like, ‘Don’t worry, we did a background check.’
But criminal records don’t sort the world into good people and bad people. They capture who has been surveilled, policed, criminalized, and punished. They can’t accurately capture who has done what.
Can post-carceral programs be reformed to make them more effective?
MB: Absolutely. But until, as a society, we let go of our deep attachment to the idea that a criminal record is a permanently meaningful piece of information that we must consider over and over for the rest of someone’s life, I don’t think we’ll be able to make much progress.
The post-carceral problem is always framed as, ‘We want people to succeed when they’re coming out of prison, but we also have to protect the public’s safety.’ As long as we’re attached to this idea that we keep communities safe by monitoring and surveilling and tracking and stigmatizing—with GPS monitoring or systems of parole and probation—we won’t be able to fully invest in the kinds of resources that actually build safety.
Continue reading the interview here.
Many people have made comparisons between the protests of 2020 and those of 1968. Are those comparisons accurate?
Christian Davenport: Anti-Black police violence is not at all new. You can find similar reports from the early 1900s, so that’s one way they’re similar, and they’re similar in that African Americans are truly connected to the reasons for the current protests.
At the same time, they’re different in that the organizations and movements of the 1960s really emerged from the ’20s and ’30s, which had their own gestation period in anti-slavery activities and the European political thought that came over via immigration. In the ’60s, industrialization and unionization were key to organizing, as were Black churches. The protests we saw in the summer had none of those underlying institutions.
In 2020, young people led protests, which is similar to the ’60s in many respects, but John Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were being shepherded by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). There are few older people shepherding the new young group—a decision that seems to have quite consciously been made. The persecution of the ’60s and ’70s destroyed that historical legacy. King was assassinated, Malcolm X was assassinated, the SCLC was co-opted. By design, the 2020 protests were leaderless and their objectives were more explicitly social and cultural than political and economic.
Are some kinds of protests more effective than others?
CD: Yes. It varies depending on what you’re trying to change. If you’re trying to get a streetlight, a petition might be more effective than a march. The Occupy Movement was very effective at raising certain types of issues, but the breadth of their issues were not really amenable to their tactics. It would take a long time to inform the American populace about everything involved in capitalism, and would have been incredibly hard to do given the way that Occupy was trying to communicate their message.
For protests to work, you need to make a calibration between the tactic and the temporal domain where a change can take place. You have to say, okay, these are the things we’d like to change and this is the tactical repertoire available to us, so what can we use to bring about change?
Timing is also important. There is a sociological concept, biographical availability, which basically means you’re available to engage in protest. Do you go to work or do you protest? When going to work is not an option, then you can go protest. In the summer, people were not able to do much and so everyone was kind of available. And then the very concrete and graphic nature of the story about Breonna Taylor as well as the video of George Floyd’s death fed into that biographical availability in a way that otherwise wouldn’t have been the case.