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Twilight of the Cop Consensus

Critics say defunding the police is controversial. But continuing to pay for the status quo is crazy.

Ariana Drehsler/Getty Images

“I’m sorry,” the Vox writer Zack Beauchamp tweeted last week, “but ‘abolish the police’ seems like a poorly-thought out idea that’s gotten popular with shocking speed.” A short thread of similar tweets followed, all poised tonally somewhere between Vox’s customary arch expertisery—Beauchamp noted “a weird motte-bailey maneuver” from abolitionists on the question of actually abolishing police forces—and a classically wonkish contempt for the unrealistic. Fellow Voxman German Lopez followed up by questioning both the practicality of the idea and its “framing.” A sufficiently strident and contemptuous take from a Vox staffer exerts a pronounced gravitational pull on Twitter users—and it assuredly didn’t help that, in this case, all this ah-hmm’ing gained additional rhetorical traction against a backdrop of catastrophic political failure and nationwide public protest.

A rhythm emerged over the days that followed, in which overwhelmingly peaceful public actions aimed at stopping rampant, racialized police violence and impunity were followed by overbearingly violent police reprisals; all the while, a debate burbled among liberals about the least offensive way to describe and respond to it all. Would it not be better, Democratic strategist Greg Pinelo wondered, to talk about “police reform” rather than abolition, given that the former polls at 80 percent approval and the latter at just 10? (“It’s called branding,” he smugly counseled, as though a call for justice were nothing more than a product launch.) What if a series of technocratic tweaks and training could make the police 72 percent less savage? What if defunding the police somehow didn’t … mean that? On Monday, presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden rejected both the phrasing and broader concept of police defunding; that morning, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and the rest of Democratic leadership donned kente cloth, knelt silently in the Capitol before the whirring lenses of the assembled news media, and introduced a bill pushing for a spate of wan and familiar reforms: more police training, a nationwide database of “problem officers,” vague limitations to the police’s limitless firepower and impunity. Even during a moment of unprecedented social tumult and obvious systemic collapse, some things don’t change.

More important, though, is what has already changed, and what is changing from one day to the next. The toxic abstraction and deep denial that define contemporary American politics have not fully fallen away, but they look and feel antique and insufficient to the work that is now so clearly at hand. The sneering, barely coded euphemisms and facile legalisms draped over the GOP’s raw and racialized authoritarianism have never seemed more like a cruel taunt; the cringing calculation and vacuous equivocating of Democratic politics have never looked better by contrast or felt worse on their merits. Likewise, the arch Vox-ian terms in which elites engaged Interesting Ideas like broadly rethinking American policing now seemed criminally arcane, while the eagerness with which opinion editors at The New York Times entertained Senator Tom Cotton’s pitch for an open-ended military-led response to those protests as Provocative and Worthy of Debate was instantly seen to be precisely as ghoulish as it always was. For a country that’s uniquely and perversely fascinated with the police and powerfully besotted with violence as a means of maintaining a cruel and not necessarily lawful form of order, rethinking policing in any way was inevitably going to be a challenge. But the national crisis in policing and the response to it isn’t a matter of arid elite debate or familiar political circumlocution and compromise anymore. In city after city, one egregious police abuse at a time, it has become much more urgent.

It turns out this wasn’t really very complicated, after all. Trump’s endless fudgy thundering about law and order and hidden enemies and total cultural and political war had always been little more than agitprop paraphrasings of reactionary cable news programming; it turns out that both Trump’s GOP stalwarts and his loyal acolytes in the nation’s police departments really mean it. Neither the blithe brutality of George Floyd’s murder by four officers with the (soon to be dissolved) Minneapolis Police Department nor the giddy fury with which police nationwide responded to the protests that followed were really new or unprecedented, either. The most significant shift here is that such actions now stand revealed as components of a broader whole. The confluence of all these ugly truths and the rhyming, equally flagrant set of (similarly racialized) derelictions and failures of public duty in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, the long-repressed and denied shame of that undeniable abandonment, was suddenly overwhelming. It swept through the nation like a flood, or a fire, or the nonabstract engine of obliteration and cleansing of your choice. It is now a lot easier to see where we are.

Every day and night, all across the country, protesters fill the streets of American cities demanding things from their leaders—an end to police racism and violence and impunity, a much smaller share of public funds going to the bloated institutions built to punish people, and a much larger one directed toward the starving ones aimed at helping them. And then, generally more by order than by provocation, the police—armored, truncheons out, military materiel akimbo—rush forward to indiscriminately gas and beat the people making those requests. The future that these years of atrophy and anomie and enmity teased at arrived all at once. Everyone who cares to look can now see, up close and in real time, just what that future had always augured—a civic order that’s violent, vicious, and powerless before both ancient bigotries and novel new manias. It’s also a vision of political life that’s far less interested in things like democracy or freedom of the press or the free exchange of ideas in practice than it was in theory. 

The relentlessly punitive, wholly indemnified, and luridly discriminatory police forces that currently prevail in the United States are, give or take the uniforms, fighting the same war that Cotton proposed in his opinion piece—the grinding, attritive, blunderingly vicious counterinsurgency campaign that the country has spent the first decades of this century losing abroad. It’s a war that the country doesn’t know how to win or quit—all tactics and no strategy—but it is one that Americans have almost reflexively learned to accept. As the state willfully forgot how to do anything but inflict and retroactively justify suffering, it became inevitable that our stupid, shameful, long-lost wars would eventually find their way home. 

But, as these last weeks have shown, that is not the end of the story. At every level, the state long ago accepted the reactionary position holding that it was fundamentally illegitimate; a bleak bipartisan consensus emerged that correspondingly accepted the notion that it also fell to the state to oversee the efficient management of its own cruelties. Every line item on every budget shrank accordingly, with the exception of the armed forces that would duly monitor the progress of this secular decline. 

In this context, it’s important to recognize that the emerging movement to defund police forces is about more than that particular laudable goal. More fundamentally, it’s about reversing the dereliction that left states and cities spending more than half their budgets on harm-infliction and the meager rest on literally everything else. Seen from this vantage, the rationale for the exorbitant funding of the police stems from their de facto mandate to manage the fallout from the many other challenges that the state has effectively chosen not to address. 

This is the most brutal and expensive way to maintain a stalemate, but as with counterinsurgency abroad, it’s one that’s reassuring to its administrators. Indeed, this approach’s sole virtue is that it is not difficult to imagine. There’s an acid satire in the realization that the leaders of both major parties only know one way to govern, and that it does not work, and that everyone knows it does not really work—but it nevertheless prevails again and again because institutions at least know how to do it. The flabby, violent, ineffective police state that advances nightly through plumes of tear gas is the dreary and inevitable outcome of the unspoken and unexamined political consensus that the job of the state is to make sure both that the right people are protected and the right people get hurt. Conservatives actively work to enhance it; liberals have accepted that their job is to try and mitigate it. Actually remaking it was, until very recently, not part of the conversation. It was just not realistic, and so not really interesting in the ways that interest the right elites—right up until the moment it abruptly became the only alternative to an untenable status quo.

“We have been stuck in this war for so long that we don’t know what Baltimore would look like if the war units weren’t out there,” Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg wrote in The New York Times last week; the two co-wrote a book about how Baltimore’s metastatic police department came to victimize the city it was supposed to protect. “We can’t imagine a city where we spent our money on hiring more teachers or creating more after school programs or increasing wages—things that address the root causes of violence instead of waging war on our own citizens.” The work of unwinding dysfunctional policing and imagining a different and more peaceful future will be tremendous; police unions are powerful and unyielding, and the last few generations of reactionary political drift inculcated a tragic fatalism and passivity among the elected officials who notionally control the police. At the same time, the failures of the current approach and the need for something very different become clearer by the day. Everything connects more clearly to everything else; changes once seen as too radical to consider start to look like the only practical response.  

The politicians in charge, at every level, mostly seem overwhelmed, out of touch and behind the curve, and their words and deeds have reflected that. The police operate as if they work only for themselves—“Your first responsibility is the safety of your own family and your fellow officers,” the head of New York City’s police union wrote in a letter on the PBA’s Facebook page, “your second responsibility is to New Yorkers in distress”—and they’ve made good on that pledge in words and actions alike. The conflict of this moment comes down to the willingness to confront a broad and brutal failure as what it is—to accept not only that the state could and should do something more than punish its people, where policing is concerned, but that there is another way to be. Even after well-meaning governmental interventions, police lie incorrigibly and egregiously and continue to claim unaccountable violence as a right

Technocratic fixes in terms of training and rule-making have had no real effect on any of this: Last week, an officer of the manifestly overmatched San Jose Police Department fired a rubber bullet into the groin of the 27-year-old community activist who had been running the department’s implicit bias training at a protest. It’s embarrassing to behold—the last fully funded institution in the country still can’t manage either its excesses or its simple day-to-day duties. It lumbers into frame armed to the teeth, clueless and in a blind panic, luridly overfunded and manifestly overmatched—and then proceeds to shit the bed with extreme prejudice. 

There is no convincing argument for any of this continuing as it is. This has been true for a long time, but the crisis born of all that brutal and unexamined impunity has turned what were once woolly ideas—the kind that elites dismiss as either insufficiently specific or overly broad—into the only remotely viable ones. It’s already clear what the real answer is to the failures these weeks have laid bare; the political fight from here is about making it realistic.