Saturday, June 27, 2020

“Thievery from the Top Down”

I delivered this talk, with a focus on connecting police brutality with economic injustice, at Community Christian Church on June 27, 2020, as part of an ongoing series of reflections on police brutality, racial injustice, and our responsibility to dismantle White supremacy. It is lightly edited. 

     Indiana Jones is perhaps an unexpected starting place for a reflection like this, so bear with me. I confess to loving the movies as a child – the music remains incredible, and who can resist a little bit of Harrison Ford’s charisma, not to mention the memes about punching Nazis? I wish that was the whole of it, but we also get a glimpse of a worldview that has shaped and ruled the world for hundreds of years. And while I would love to ruminate on one of Indiana’s more adorable catch-phrases (“Why’d it have to be snakes?”), the one that really applies here is: “It belongs in a museum.”

     In Indiana Jones’ case, it is easy to root for the least terrible White guy. I mean, Indiana really just wants to protect priceless artifacts from the Nazis, private collectors, and evil cultists. All of the movies’ bad guys have motives that are obviously repugnant; they set a pretty low bar. And then we have Indiana Jones, who doesn’t even want to profit off of the looting of cultural and historic relics; he just wants to preserve them. What could be wrong with that? But when I watch these kinds of films now, what stands out to me is 1) how invisible non-European cultures and people are, and 2) how ubiquitous the assumption that White people have a legitimate claim to own and preserve what belongs to others, and to accumulate profit and power at the expense of others, really is. It’s so ingrained that it hides in plain sight.

     It’s startling to recognize that the descendants of the folks who produced those priceless artifacts exist now only as backdrops. They make up the crowds that become Indiana’s audience for some wise crack or audacious feat. They are the laborers who toil under some hot sun, carrying luggage or excavating sites. They are helpless victims and the grateful recipients of Indiana’s help. Generally speaking, they aren’t viewed as the experts of their own culture and history. Generally speaking, there is not any consideration given as to why their communities have been reduced to being, usually at best, the servants of foreigners. If we’re asked to notice them at all, it’s usually to watch them suffer a violent death. And their deaths aren’t meaningful, because their lives are not really part of the story. Their deaths mainly serve to provide a sense of gravity to the stakes at hand and to draw attention to the risks the (White) heroes are taking on their noble quest. 

Absolving the White Conscience

     Perhaps you’ve already guessed where this is going, and why Indiana Jones is relevant to the nightly news. History has a lot to tell us, and movies can remind us, about why racism is so intractable in our society and culture. Historical traumas span across centuries and generations, but the history of colonial expansion is often taught and told like an Indiana Jones movie, with the Europeans in the spotlight. White heroics absolve the White conscience, because these versions of the events inevitably demonstrate that the colonizers really just had the best interests of the colonized in mind. In these stories, colonization is not ruthless exploitation; it is economic development. It is not military occupation and state-sanctioned violence; it is benevolent order. And it is not looting; it is historical preservation. After all, “it belongs in a museum” – a museum most likely financed and run by wealthy, powerful, and White people, to be consumed by mainly White people.

     What became the United States began as a colony, and we typically get the Indiana Jones treatment of that history. But there are at least two versions of the story. The popular story focuses on the aspirations and ideals of freedom and democracy, and of heroic sacrifice to cast off the yoke of tyranny. For the colonizers, the so-called New World was an experience that represented religious and political freedom, the hard work and wonder of exploration, and the risks and rewards of opening up economic markets. But notice who is left out of that assessment. Who is it that is made invisible by this narrative, like the masses of commoners who crowd the market while everyone is really watching Indiana Jones? Because there is another story here. For the colonized, the arrival of European explorers brought with it the experience of brutal genocides, cruel enslavement and forced labor, displacement, disease, endless war, and death. And that story has not yet come to an end.

     In my experience of life in the United States, the focus on lofty aspirations and ideals often obscures and diminishes the brutality suffered by those who paid the price of colonization. And because people, especially people with relative privilege and power, such as a White person like me, are socialized to identify with those heroic aspirations, even talking about the brutality can be perceived as a threat to that ideal. But our defensiveness is terribly tragic and ironic: we perceive the people who denounce injustice as enemies, instead of understanding that injustice itself is the obstacle to our aspirations. 

Race, Property, and Police

     We can look at policing in the United States through this lens. And perhaps I should pause to note that we can and should look at all of our institutions through this lens. Policing is not unique in this regard; all of our institutions have been influenced by these competing stories. In the case of policing, the popular narrative is that policing is about protecting innocent people. It is about sacrifices that law enforcement officers make in order to create safe communities. They are public servants who are willing to risk their lives so that our lives are not at risk. This ideal version of policing inspires a lot of people to become police officers in an effort to help their communities, and it inspires a lot of communities to glorify law enforcement officers. This is the story that (White) culture tells and re-tells, and these law enforcement officers are the so-called good apples that shouldn’t be tossed out when we discover a Derek Chauvin in their midst.

     But who and what is made invisible by this version of the story? In the United States, the history of policing is a complicated tale that often boils down to protecting property and controlling labor. In the North, labor movements threatened the power and profit of the rich, and policing developed out of attempts to break strikes, destroy unions, and control labor. Dr. Gary Potter has described the relationship of police with labor in “two distinct forms” - “forced dispersal of demonstrating workers, usually through the use of extreme violence” and “public order” arrests, where labor movements were deprived of their power through the arrests of supporters “for trivial public order offenses”. Often, “police made use of ambiguous vagrancy laws … to arrest both union organized and unemployed workers.” ( )

     Further, race and property have been intimately connected throughout U.S. history. For example, White people were authorized to capture Black people who were suspected to be escaped slaves, and, over time, slave patrols and Night Watches would become the predecessors of police in the South. These dynamics can be traced through time in their connection to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration, and can also be seen in the establishment of police forces to control Indigenous populations.

     This was the case just up the interstate in St. Louis, Missouri. Dr. Terrell Carter described this process in Police on a Pedestal: Responsible Policing in a Culture of Worship. When white settlers moved to the territory, “they lived in fear of attack from Native Americans who did not want their land or resources unjustly taken from them.” So they formed a group that would eventually become the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, but which was, in part, explicitly created “to protect white settlers from the retaliatory actions of Native Americans who previously occupied the land.” ( )

     Dr. Carter went on to say that:
“After slavery ended, whites, especially those in the South, were not happy that African Americans had been granted their freedom. They could not imagine a world where African Americans were considered equal to them and living under their own direction … . So, after the Civil War and into Reconstruction, whites started militia groups whose primary purposes were to hunt down freedmen and runaway slaves and return them back to their former slaveowners or sell them to corporations where they would be forced into back-breaking physical labor. Many of these militia groups served as the predecessors to our modern police departments.” (ibid)
     Knowing the history of policing can help us understand how it has evolved, adapting over time, and we can trace that history through convict leasing to mass incarceration. Indeed, today’s Prison Industrial Complex is a massive tangle of institutions and stakeholders, including private corporations that rake in the billions of dollars that come from building new prisons, staffing those prisons, and filling up beds. As the Prison Policy Initiative points out, this requires: public and private employees, health care, construction, interest payments, food, and utilities. It also requires: judicial and legal costs, civil asset forfeiture, bail fees, and a host of commissary and communications costs. The Initiative has documented that mass incarceration by itself is, at a minimum, a $182 billion a year industry. And it especially preys upon the very poor, especially women and people of color. ( )

The System the Laws are Designed to Protect

     But there is more at stake than that $182 billion. Our socioeconomic and political systems have also evolved to facilitate and protect the process of accumulating power and wealth. Throughout our history, and including today, exploitation of human lives in order to amass wealth has been legally protected, and the wealthy have called upon the police to enforce those laws. These laws are not in the interest of our personal or social well-being. We know that inequality is dangerous and harmful; we have the historical record, the psychosocial data, and the personal experience to back that up. ( ) But inequality and injustice are legal, and it is afforded the protection of the law.

     It is crucial that we remember this economic context, the profit motive, when we talk about racial justice and ending police brutality. Now that public interest and support of #BlackLivesMatter and racial justice issues are growing again, many corporations are beginning to tentatively do the same. A recent example was, which posted a banner on social media and on their main website that expressed “Black lives matter: Amazon stands in solidarity with the Black community.” Jeff Bezos even went out of his way to defend this support when the company received the predictable onslaught of racist tirades and criticisms. ( ) So let me say, first of all, thank you for that. I don’t want to dismiss the importance of these kinds of gestures in normalizing support of racial justice.

     But, second of all, we can’t ignore the fact that cannot sincerely support #BlackLivesMatter while exploiting Black workers. Amazon’s warehouse conditions, for example, are notoriously terrible ( ), and an “AP analysis found that more than 60% of warehouse and delivery workers in most cities are people of color,” while only “about 8% of its managers in the U.S. are black, compared to nearly the 60% of managers who are white.” ( ) A global pandemic and a resurgent movement to demand racial justice could have been an opportunity to address those disparities and redistribute wealth. Instead, Jeff Bezos has continued to accumulate wealth and power beyond belief. In an analysis of 2020’s first quarter,
“The company’s earnings increased by $33 million every hour of the first quarter, even as its warehouses suffered coronavirus outbreaks and workers walked out over unsafe conditions. Bezos, the world’s richest man, has accumulated an additional $25 billion since the beginning of this year, putting him on track to become the first-ever trillionaire.” ( )
     I hope the point is clear. Putting up a banner on a website is free. And, in light of the pandemic profiteering of Jeff Bezos, it is hard not to see it as anything but a publicity stunt. But isn’t the only corporation profiting in this way. A recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies revealed that:
  •  “Between January 1, 2020 and April 10, 2020, 34 of the nation’s wealthiest 170 billionaires saw their wealth increase by tens of millions of dollars. Eight have seen their net worth surge by over $1 billion
  • “… Between March 18 and April 10, 2020, over 22 million people lost their jobs as the unemployment rate surged toward 15 percent. Over the same three weeks, U.S. billionaire wealth increased by $282 billion, an almost 10 percent gain.”
     And this isn’t a new trend: 
  •  “Billionaire wealth rebounded quickly after the 2008 financial crisis. Between 2010 and 2020, U.S. billionaire wealth increased 80.6 percent, more than five times the median wealth increase for U.S. households. 
  • Between 1990 and 2020, U.S. billionaire wealth soared 1,130 percent — an increase more than 200 times greater than the 5.37 percent growth of U.S. median wealth. 
  • Measured as a percentage of their wealth, the tax obligations of America’s billionaires decreased 79 percent between 1980 and 2018.” ( )

     This is the system that the laws are designed, and that the police have vowed, to protect. It is 100% legal to make billions of dollars during a pandemic, during which the moral bankruptcy and fundamental racism of this economic system has been on full display. Billionaires, in the midst of a pandemic, have been literally making a killing, sucking up wealth while real live human beings suffer and die. It is considered good business to siphon off billions of dollars that could be invested into creating and maintaining the medical and social infrastructure that saves lives during, for example, a pandemic. It is legal, but it is also cruel and immoral. And it is also racist.

Corporate Connections

     Generally speaking, the very wealthy and their corporations support the system of policing that has produced the very police brutality that is being protested. It’s well established that police departments receive a disproportionate amount of local funding, usually in the range of 20-45% of municipal budgets. ( ) But our ever increasingly militarized and high-tech police departments demand even more. This is where police foundations come in to play.

     Those municipal budgets are public documents that can be reviewed and criticized by elected officials and engaged community members. Police foundations usually operate without this kind of oversight. Since public money is not being spent, donations, such as specialized equipment, are made directly to police departments. Armstrong and Seidman have given some poignant examples -
“The Houston Police Foundation has an entire page on its website showcasing the equipment it purchased for the police department, including SWAT equipment, LRAD sound equipment, and dogs for the K-9 unit. The Philadelphia Police Foundation purchased long guns, drones, and ballistic helmets. The Atlanta Police Foundation helped fund a major surveillance network of over 12,000 cameras. / In Los Angeles, the police used foundation funding to purchase controversial surveillance software from Palantir. If the LAPD purchased this technology through its public budget, it would have been required to hold public meetings and gain approval from the city council. By having the foundation purchase it for them, the LAPD was able to bypass that oversight.” ( )
     They go on to say that:
“these foundations provide a public-private structure wherein the corporate elite can overtly support police departments through direct donations, sponsorships, special programs, and by serving as directors on foundations’ boards. The ongoing protests have emphasized that police exist to enforce a racist social order that protects corporations, capital, and buildings rather than black and brown lives. Police foundations are a key space for orchestrating, normalizing, and celebrating the collaboration between corporate power and the police.” (ibid)
     This needs to be emphasized. These wealthy, powerful corporations are willing to spend millions and millions of dollars each year to increase very dangerous trends, such as the militarization of police forces and the ever-expanding invasion of privacy through surveillance and big data. What these wealthy, powerful corporations are NOT willing to do is pay fair wages, offer just benefits, and redistribute wealth in an equitable and sustainable way. The wealthy benefit from a set of systems that requires that most human beings experience some level of exploitation, and that has, historically and presently, ruthlessly and systematically exploited Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. The wealthy and their corporations have an economic and political interest in defending these systems, and they go out of their way to pour money into police foundations that avoid public accountability and the promotion of the common good.

Beyond Excuses 

     In the end, this is an essential reason why police brutality is tolerated so willingly, defended so passionately, and even protected as a right. Policing connects with our nation’s deep and problematic history of oppression, especially as it is related to race and wealth. Its roots are in the attempt of those in power to defend land that had been stolen from native peoples and labor stolen through exploitation, including slavery in the South and sweat shops in the North. Economic systems have played a crucial role in producing a version of policing that protects the power and wealth that was and is accumulated through exploitation and injustice. As Dr. Cooper put it,
“From the beginning American policing has been intimately tied not to the problem of crime, but to exigencies and demands of the American political economy. From the anti-immigrant bashing of early police forces, to the strike breaking of the later 1800s, to the massive corruption of the early 20th century, through professionalism, Taylorization and now attempts at amelioration through community policing, the role of the police in the United States has been defined by economics and politics, not crime or crime control. As we look to the 21st century, it now appears likely that a new emphasis on science and technology, particularly related to citizen surveillance; a new wave of militarization reflected in the spread of SWAT teams and other paramilitary squads; and a new emphasis on community pacification through community policing, are all destined to replay the failures of history as the policies of the future.” ( )

     So: as long as White wealth matters more than Black lives, there will be financial motivation to tolerate, protect, and even promote police brutality, and the world we’ve imagined will stay in our dreams.

     There is much more to be said, but we’ll pause the conversation on this point. Our wisdom lesson was a joyful, beautiful vision of what life could be like. None of those aspirations are unattainable, and most would not be very difficult to bring into reality. Yet we struggle. Our unjust systems and cultures are the obstacles to that vision. White supremacy stands in the way, in all its forms, including within our White-centered capitalist economic system. The title for this talk comes from an article by William C. Anderson called “Forget ‘Looting.’ Capitalism Is the Real Robbery.” He wrote that -
“In a nation that has never gotten past the civil war it fought over a wealthy class not giving up slavery profits, defending the wealthy is a tradition. The same people who created and currently benefit from the current crisis are intentionally mismanaging plenty of other parts of our existence. … The robbery we should concern ourselves with is the theft perpetrated by a system that creates desperation where people in need have to go and take for themselves what should be a guaranteed right. Capitalism encourages thievery from the top down.” ( )
     We don’t have any excuses. We have a vision of how life could be, and we understand how harmful the present systems actually are. In the case of economics, thievery from the top down doesn’t work, and will never work, if what we are working for is a just, compassionate, wise society. Let’s demand better. That means we have to be willing to divest from and dismantle economic injustice ( ). We have to ask ourselves if #BlackLivesMatter more than the financial perks and profits that we access, especially if we are White. 

     Because, if we are to reach a sustainable and life-giving future, we have to make sure these oppressive systems come to an end. They don’t belong in the future; we must dismantle them. But they should not be forgotten; we want to remember and continue to learn how to grow into justice and love. Let’s lay these oppressive systems to rest, because they belong in the past.