What We’re Talking About When We Say ‘Defund the Police’

Much hay has been made, and much squid ink spritzed, about the overnight sensation overtaking the nation. That’s right. I’m talking about Defunding the Police!

[Cue scary music. ‘Who will protect us?’ a voice asks. ‘Who’ll keep the murderers and gang members away?’ The lights begin flickering. The music crescendoes. The killer’s right behind you! Aiiiggghhh!]

Okay, having got that out of the way… Defunding the police is not, as some mongers of fear might try and convince you, the same as disbanding the police. What it is, is a recognition that the vast majority of problems we have gotten in the habit, as a society, of  sending police to solve are actually best handled by someone other than armed agents of the government, authorized and — all too often — primed to solve problems with deadly violence.

Take a moment, if you will, and think about how rarely police need their weapons. How little of the work they do involves a firearm or even a taser. Even when a crime has been committed, most of the time the officer is just there to fill out paperwork. That doesn’t need a gun. Neither does handing out speeding tickets, or de-escalating a domestic violence complaint, or doing a wellness check on a mentally ill person, or responding to Karen, who saw a black person birding or barbecuing or having a birthday party.

In the last few decades, we’ve cut social services to the bone. Between recessions and the perennial popularity of tax cuts, we’ve let more and more people slip through the cracks. Crime doesn’t arise from some weird innate criminality — most people don’t just want to watch the world burn. But people who aren’t getting what they need from the richest society in human history are going to act out. They’re going to take drugs and fuck shit up and hurt themselves and others, because of course they are.

Meanwhile, for all the services cut, the police just get more and more and more money. Some places, the police department is half the city budget. Never mind civil asset forfeiture, where they can literally take your stuff and your money whether they charge you or not, and you have to sue them to get it back. Or the Pentagon program that funnels surplus military equipment — designed and built for urban warfare and population suppression thanks to our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq — to local police departments on the cheap. Between the equipment and the steady stream of service members joining up after their tour’s up, the culture has transformed to that of an occupying force, one made sinister by the systematic infiltration of racists and white supremacists in addition to the sort of person attracted to the kind of job where you get to kill people sometimes. And it’s safe and easy for them to do so. Thanks to a couple of Supreme Court decisions in the ’80s, all an officer must do is speak the magic words ‘I feared for my life’ and accountability more or less disappears. Add to that ‘qualified immunity’, and you can’t even sue them for killing your son or husband or father or brother or sister or mother or child.

For decades now, politicians have uttered their own magic words. Law and order. Say them enough, you can justify cutting all the social programs you want in order to funnel more money to police. Police who we then send to solve every problem those social programs could address so much better than armed intervention once things have gotten bad enough to come to a head. Even the best-intentioned cops aren’t trained for it, and don’t have the skills and tools to resolve the situation other than one of two or three ways. If the only tool you’ve got is a gun, every problem starts to look like a target. For some that’s a feature, not a bug.

So, back to those scary words. Defund the police. What do they mean? Well, the short, simple answer is they mean we take a good hard look at the problems we need armed intervention by trained agents to solve, and we only task police with solving those. Since there are so very few instances when manifesting the potential for violence is useful or wanted, the purview — and budget — of the police department shrinks. The money is then reallocated to social and community programs that help meet the needs of citizens and community members before they reach a crisis point. Things like mental health care and housing and food support. In some places, it might make sense to invent new agencies with new missions to take the place of police no longer performing them.

In the end, defunding the police makes communities safer. First by removing the violence committed by police themselves. Second by allocating those resources to helping citizens and community members who need it before they reach crisis. I know it sounds scary — change often is, especially if you’re comfortable with the status quo — but the way we’ve allowed things to evolve isn’t serving any of us well.

Think about it this way, if it helps. How much crime will there be if everyone has what they need, and we all commit to taking care of each other? How many people with security and prospects will join gangs? How many people will reach the tipping point where they can’t help but act out and fuck shit up for everyone around them?

The answer to these questions won’t be zero. Humans gonna human, after all. But the numbers will be lower than what we have now, and we’ll have the additional satisfaction of seeing to it that all of us get what we need so we can live a happy, balanced, productive, and meaningful life. What’s not to love?

What Do We Do When the Cosplay Paramilitaries Come?

Picture this. It’s November 3rd, Anytown USA. Or, if we’re not lucky, Everytown. The high school gym is full of voting machines, touchscreen for the most part. The masked and gloved volunteers have coffee and donuts, donated by moms whose kids now rehearse pandemic protocols along with their active shooter drills. The donuts have red, white, and blue sprinkles. There’s a special room where you can eat them, but everyone just lifts their mask up, changes gloves after. Almost everyone.

At 8am, polls will open. On the sidewalk outside, chalk marks stretch down the block, six feet apart. The air is crisp with autumn chill. There are still Halloween decorations on some of the houses, and the jack-o-lanterns are starting to sag. Candy wrappers turned inside out can be seen among the red and gold and brown of leaves just begun to rot in the gutters. So far the sky is clear, but the weatherman says storm’s a-coming.

By 7:30 early voters have begun to line up. Some of them like voting in person. Others just don’t trust the post office since the layoffs and budget cuts last month. They take their marks, chatting with neighbors or playing with their phones. Since the second spike, everyone wears a mask.

At 7:58 a cargo van pulls up and parks. Six men get out, who are also wearing masks, along with Kevlar vests, sunglasses, and AR-15s. Four have sidearms in holsters clipped to their belts. All six are white. They have armbands with American flags rendered in black and white and the words Election Security printed below. They line up across from the front of the line to get into the polling station, where they have a clear line of sight.

“Attention citizens!” says the leader, a bearded man of late middle age. He wears a ballcap from the Navy ship his father served on. “We are here to observe this polling station and make sure no voter fraud takes place! This is a peaceful action, and no lawful citizen exercising his rights is in danger!”

Phones are by ears now, as voters call 911 en masse. Harried operators and units available to respond are overwhelmed. This isn’t the only polling station where this is happening. This is a widespread, if uncoordinated effort, one telegraphed for weeks in the press and on the internet, but that has yet caught law enforcement and the media flat-footed come the day, because America is not the kind of place where things like this happen.

But it is now, and maybe it always was. 

***

Let’s get something straight before we go any further. The moment Donald Trump is no longer President, he will be indicted, arrested, and taken to jail. However far down the memory hole it’s fallen, the Mueller report by itself lays out a case in painstaking detail — the only reason it did not take the step of recommending prosecution is because of the Justice Department policy of not prosecuting a sitting President. Even if a Biden Justice Department were to reprise Obama’s mistake in not investigating and prosecuting his predecessor (Remember W’s war crimes? Good times), the state of New York is ready to go with racketeering and fraud and corrupt organization charges. Trump knows it, too. It drives every decision he makes.He’ll die in office or he’ll die in prison. And since he doesn’t care about anyone else in the world besides himself, he’ll do whatever it takes, up to and including inciting civic violence and unrest, to stay in office. No hesitation, no compunction. Hell, no forethought, even. His party has already started accepting and training volunteer poll watchers. If/when they decide to arm themselves, the party will throw up its hands and claim plausible deniability, and by the time the dust settles the election will be over and called.

And let’s face it. There’s a small but hardcore segment of the population that’s just dying to get out there and intimidate their fellow Americans with their long guns and body armor. Some of them got a taste for it in Iraq or Afghanistan, some in law enforcement. Some of them are just concerned about the oppression white men and Christians face in these disturbingly diverse, increasingly dis-United States. At least a few just really want to shoot somebody. 

What they all want is to bring America back to its roots, its foundation. Its fundamental state, if you will. In which only white men can vote, and everyone else remembers their place and stays in it. They might even, through the private prison industry, reprise something like slavery. How else are we supposed to compete with cheap labor from China?

First, though, they have to cement their lock on power. They have to suppress enough votes to carry one more election. If they can do that, they can lock down the courts and gerrymander districts for another decade after the Census, and secure the White Christian Man at the top of the food chain for the rest of history. Which won’t be long, because these jokers are going to handle climate change about as well as they’ve handled Coronavirus, in that they’ll actively make it worse and a lot of people and species will die unnecessarily as a result.

But they don’t believe in climate change, or they don’t care, or they just can’t see how it matters if it’s not them and theirs on top of shit mountain, watching their turds tumble down on those who God loves a little less.

***

Do I really think people will show up with guns to intimidate voters? Who the fuck knows in this crazy crap-shoot world? But I know the GOP has been willing to engage in wholesale voter roll purges, and make it super-hard for the wrong voters to register, and draw gerrymandered districts that should be prosecuted as crimes against geometry and that strain even partisan credulousness in their purpose-built geographic contortions. I know the Presdent’s son-in-law, de facto chief of staff, and fellow overprivileged incompetent failure Jared Kushner has already floated the idea of delaying the November election.

I also know that somewhere around 40% of Americans are on board for all of it, the demographic rump of white Christian Americans who like the way things used to be and love Trump for the fact of his unapologetic entitlement and privilege, which permits them to really let their freak flag fly in public. Between their aggrievement and gun collections and the Trump mafia’s legal jeopardy the second they’re voted out of power (when, mark my words, the Republicans who endorsed and enabled them will forget they ever knew such vulgar buffoons and get on to squawking about the deficit again), I think it makes it likelier than not that at least some places we see armed vigilantes like the ones I’ve described up above.

For the record, I’d love to be wrong about this.

***

So what happens when the armbands show up, the vigilantes and cosplay paramilitaries and irregulars in an undeclared war, men with guns and body armor and the unshakeable conviction of their own rightness? What are we going to do?

If all we’re relying on is the courage of individual voters then we’re doing a disservice to democracy, our country, and our chance of hauling this timeline back on the rails, of bending the arc of history back a little more toward justice and maybe saving some of the ecosphere for our descendents, who are going to judge the living shit out of us and have every right to do so.

Back to our hypothetical polling station, where the chill in the air has more to do with the presence of self-appointed poll-watchers kitted out for urban warfare than the time of year and tilt of Earth on its axis. What kind of response are we hoping for? Should we try and field counter-paramilitaries? Try the good guy with a gun thing? Doesn’t that make us like them? Would it even work?

Maybe we should just call the cops and hope for the best. Of course, the same elements ready to drag us back in time at gunpoint have spent the last couple decades infiltrating law enforcement. Either way, it’s not like the cops have been doing much when the vigilantes and cosplay paramilitaries show up to protest at state capitols. I don’t think we can count on them, and I sure as fuck wouldn’t recommend it to voters of color.

So what, then?

***

It’s 8:04 when six bikes pull up. The riders are masked for pandemic protection, but instead of guns they’ve got cameras. They take pictures of the armed vigilantes — in homes across the country, activists and internet sleuths work to identify them and publish their names when they get a match. Other riders have cameras that upload video straight to the cloud. The armbands still have the guns, but now they know the world is watching. There’ll be a record of anything they do or say tagged to their identity.

Will these Recording Angels stop the men with guns? Hard to say. But people are a lot less likely to commit crimes and atrocities when they know other people are watching. And when individuals are identified, and the consequences of their actions can be correctly assigned, they become a whole lot less likely to go all Kristallnacht on a polling place. Accountability is a hell of a thing.

In the story I’m telling, the vigilantes lose their nerve pretty quick. Because their power only derives from their guns, and despite that tingle in your balls you get when you pick up a loaded firearm, the power it gives you is entirely situational and not as great or wide-ranging as you might think. The six load up in their cargo van, and democracy carries on. 

The election is decided by voters and not men with guns and a bunch of privilege and inequality to protect at the expense of everyone else and the planet we live on. It’s as happy an ending as we’re likely to get these fucking days.

***

One last thing: if we don’t want the above scenario to play out — if we don’t want paramilitary vigilantes showing up at polling places for the purpose of voter intimidation in the guise of election security — then we’d better have our response prepared in advance. Volunteers, money, some degree of coordination, the technical infrastructure built in advance. Just like we know they plan to come loaded for bear, we need them to know we plan to come loaded for democracy.

I’m willing to bet if they know we’re serious, they won’t even show up. They are, many of them, cowards after all. That’s why they have to carry their guns in public in the first place.

The Customer Is Always Right

Give me liberty or give me death. That’s what the sign says. She stands in front of the Baskin Robbins, not a manager in sight, her roots growing out, her mouth open mid-rant when the shutter clicks. She has her weight canted forward, on the balls of her feet, and a small American flag in one hand.

A vintage troop transport pulls up to a corner downtown, filled with cosplay paramilitaries in masks and sunglasses and ball caps and body armor. Each carries his customized Armalite one handed, to keep the other free for high-fiving. This is even better than the titty bar.

A quad-cab faces off with a nurse in mask and scrubs, tired of this shit. Not pictured: the hospital, maxed out and running out of PPE. A woman hangs out the passenger side window, hollering. Her hair is bleached. Her shirt says USA. The truck gleams, freshly-washed, in the sun.

***

For most of my adult life, I worked in bars and restaurants. And while food and drink were what we charged the money for, that wasn’t all we were selling. Core to the transaction, if unspoken, was customer service: treating people like they’re important and like what they want matters. In due measure, it can be rewarding both ways. But one of our exceptionally American cultural pathologies is that we take it waaaaaaay too far. Here the customer is king, and always right, and we’ll be happy to comp the meal you didn’t like and bag up the leftovers so you can take it home with you for later. Have a nice day and like us on Yelp!

You see that same sense of entitlement on display at these astroturf ‘protests’ that keep popping up like cold sores on state capitol steps. Like cold sores, they look like a lot more than they are, especially with the camera zoomed in so the people fill the frame, and all the empty space around them disappears from the context. They carry signs that say things like ‘I need a haircut’ and ‘Give me liberty or give me Covid-19.’ Maybe one in ten has a sign that says ‘I need to work.’ The one in ten has a valid point, but what the other nine want is only going to make things worse. More people will get sick. More people will die. The economy will, in the long run, take a bigger hit.

Doesn’t much matter when you’re broke and hungry and the rent is due now.

Do you know what else has that kind of urgency? When an addict needs a fix. Because let me tell you something: for every alcoholic, functional or not, that I served a drink to, I served three people addicted to being served.

The nine in ten? Didn’t know they were customer service addicts. Didn’t realize how much they depended on that presumed (purchased) deference. They thought that was just how the world worked, how it ought to work. How God wanted it to work, with his hierarchied omnibenevolence and preference for white Christian Americans. Take that away — take away any addict’s fix — and all they have left is the hole they’re trying to fill, the damage they never healed, the emptiness, uncertainty, and dread. For half a month or a month, they’ve been drying out in quarantine, no one to treat them like they’re important, like what they want matters.

And they are freaking the fuck out right now. Their roots are showing in more ways than one.

But it makes for good TV. And the operation was successful. The record shows: people protested. Those governors looking for a reason to kick poor people off unemployment rolls and deny small businesses support have their cover story. Someone else will come along and open new gyms and nail salons and restaurants after all this is over. The economy will go on.

(Someone else’s) death is a fair price to pay for liberty. Anything else would be tyranny in the land of the free.

And the addicts? They get their fix. Everybody wins.

Except the people who die.

***

I tried to quit smoking the first time when I was nineteen. Don’t think I made it a day. It wasn’t til I was in my thirties that I managed to quit for more than a couple weeks here and there. Every time I tried it was like every negative emotion, every hurt and disappointment and anxiety and guilt I’d ever felt and repressed welled up in me all at once all the time no matter what was happening around me. It was like that because that’s what was happening. My addiction tamped all that shit down, so I could get through my day without screaming or hurting myself or, as too often happened anyway, someone else. Because what is anger but weaponized pain, and what does a weapon want but to be wielded?

It took a lot of years and a lot of tries before before this last time I quit. It took also a lot of hard looks in mirrors and calling spades spades and a lot of coming to terms with things and a lot of humility and work. I also lucked out in having a first date with my partner the day after I last quit. That probably has more to do with my success in staying quit for this long than anything else.

***

It’s hard to feel sympathy for the entitlement of the customer service addict, especially as someone who made a career of abetting them for three decades. Negotiating with someone who’s just waiting for a reason to ask for your manager — or being the manager who has to step in and grease the squeaky wheel — will erode your faith in humanity and leave a dirty taste in your mouth. Doing it for not enough money to live on sucks even worse.

Early in my career, I found a way to console myself when I encountered such a person. True, they might make my life hell for five minutes or an hour. But it was always like that inside their head. You’d be surprised how much that realization helped.

Anger is weaponized pain, and now, without service industry people to point their anger at, these pampered beasts are finding their pain again. How can they know they’re always right if they aren’t anyone’s customer? Who will treat them like they’re important, like what they want matters?

***

Once upon a time, some scientists addicted some rats to cocaine. They put it in the water, put regular water next to it, and watched the rats choose the cocaine water again and again. Who wouldn’t, living in a scientist’s cage?

Someone had the idea to put the rats in different circumstance. They put the rats in rat paradise: room to run, things to do, other rats to be friends with. They offered them cocaine again. They wanted it less.

***

The guns the boys are playing with are real. So is the virus that shut down the service industry. The one they’re protesting from their self-defaced cars so they don’t catch it. So are the people they’re willing — implicitly or ex- — to sacrifice the lives of so they can have their fix again. So they can feel like the always-right kings they’ve always known themselves to be.

No addict quits without wanting to. Because when you quit you have to deal with all the things the addiction tamped down for you. It hurts, and it takes a long time. To be honest, it’s more ongoing process than final result, journey and not destination. But like anything, you get out of it what you put into it.

But what the one-in-ten need (the ones whose signs say ‘I need to work’) is more like what the people the customer service addicts want to go back to work need. It is, funny enough, the same thing our economy in its present form needs: free money to keep the charade going until we can build our own robust paradise, free health care in case we get sick, a rent and mortgage and debt payment freeze, and a reason to believe we might come out of this in a better place.

This doesn’t serve the customer service addict, nor the governor who has interests and oligarchs to placate.

But I can’t help but wonder: if we build the paradise that the rest of us want, where everyone gets what they need and no one has to worry about problems we have the means to solve, maybe the rats in their self-imposed cages will stop wanting the cocaine water so much.

Probably not. But I think we should do it anyway.

Make America What Again?

What with the shit-show we’ve got going on right now as a nation — concentration camps on the border, a wag-the-dog escalation to a war of choice with Iran, a serious bump in hate crimes and people identifying as Nazis and white supremacists, a climate crisis that will destroy life as we know it starting to kick in for real, a nationwide election coming up that will undoubtedly be fucked with by hostile foreign actors while the beneficiaries insist nothing’s wrong, and a legislature unable, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to do anything but confirm hardcore conservative federal judges to lifetime sinecures, just to skim the surface — it’s easy to understand the widespread longing to go back to the way things were under the Obama Administration. To get things back to normal so we can all go back to living our lives without having to worry that the demented narcissist with the nuclear football will bring about Armageddon in a fit of pique or even just to avoid jail time.

I get it. I really do. I also would like not to live my life in a fog of existential dread, in which every action is pointless because, Rapture or not, the end is probably nigh for the American experiment and possibly human civilization and what can possibly matter anymore?

But even were it possible to return to whatever passed for normal before — and it isn’t — such a return is not even desirable, both on its own merits and especially in light of the challenges we face as Americans and human beings who live on the rapidly-warming, ecologically-imbalanced, and soon-to-be-downwardly-spiraling Earth.

I’ll explain.

Continue reading “Make America What Again?”

There’s No Normal to Go Back To: A Quick Note on Evaluating the Democratic Presidential Candidates

So, I have my preferences, loosely held at the moment, because it’s too early to get all worked up and the infighting/circular firing squad thing we went through last time (and how many other times before that?) just isn’t gonna work for us this time, so I’m saving my shots for the other side, who far more richly deserve them. That said, I do have a thing I want to say about how I’m going to be making my choices, donations, and decisions about whom to support in the 2020 election cycle. And though I shan’t tell you, a presumably grown-ass adult human capable of making your own choices, what to think or how to come to your own conclusions, I do hope you’ll give this a read and a good long think, afterwards.

We are at war, and have been for a long time. Decades, at very least.

No, I’m not talking about Afghanistan, or any of the other various and sundry American military deployments abroad, however hot or cold their current theater of operations is. Not that that’s not worth talking about, especially Afghanistan where we’re almost two decades in and I still don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish. No, the war I’m talking about is the war here at home, between left and right, and it’s a war only one side has been fighting for most of the time it’s been going on.

That has to change. Like, yesterday.

Look, I get that you may not think of it that way, and you probably don’t want to think of it that way. It’s comforting to think of the Trump era as an aberration, a Black Swan event that, while it’s doing some damage to our republic, our cultural and institutional immune system is even now spinning up antibodies (Congressional investigations, various state AGs, the Mueller report, etc) to combat it. Once the fever breaks, we can go back to normal, with good-faith bipartisanship and West Wing-style governance by whoever makes the best argument.

We can’t. Continue reading “There’s No Normal to Go Back To: A Quick Note on Evaluating the Democratic Presidential Candidates”