Policing, Protests, and Peace

Peaceful Protesters kneel on Chicago’s Skyline Drive, June 1. Photo by Ashley Rezin García / Chicago Sun Times

Below is a message I sent to my students in the summer term course Social Problems. It represents an attempt to help make sense out of what is happening right now using the lenses of my discipline, sociology:

Dear Students,

I am sure you have all been watching or listening to the news this week. There are no easy or simple explanations to make sense of what is happening. There are peaceful demonstrations — many of them — and there are also violent protests. Some of the violent protests begin peacefully and turn violent and it’s not always clear who is behind the violence or what their goals are. What is clear is that violence attracts media and so some of the protesters are happy for this media exposure while others are saddened by it (as I am), especially since it can often have the impact of turning public sentiment against the protesters and in so doing, diminish the likelihood of long-term positive change. 

I believe that the protests are a public form of venting both grief and anger. They are not caused simply by the death of George Floyd, although his unnecessary death is certainly worthy of protest. They are the bursting forth of years of pent up anger at a criminal justice system that systematically disadvantages people of color, and especially young African-American men. This is done both by policing, but also through a justice system that has decimated a generation with lengthy prison sentences and “three strikes” laws that create a vicious cycle of poverty and disrupted families and communities. These policies are set within a larger economic system that disadvantages African-Americans through the twin pillars of unequal schooling and residential segregation. As both a concerned citizen and a person of faith, I reject violence in all its forms, but I cannot help but acknowledge the reality of the pain beneath the messy protests and their sometimes violent spillover. 

My discipline of sociology can provide some tools and perspectives that can be helpful for thinking about what’s happening and assessing the long term outcomes of the protests. Will the protests and (occasional) rioting make a difference? Here is my take as a sociologist and as someone who cares about justice and has put some time into thinking about crime, policing, and police brutality:

1. Protests are a valid and extremely important means of building public awareness about a social problem like police brutality. Of course, we all know that not all police are brutal. There are many — thousands in fact — police officers, black, white, Asian, and Hispanic, who carry out their job as public servants with great attention to the needs of everyone in their community. We need them and need to be able to trust them. But even though the violators are a minority, there are troubling patterns to the violations. Repeat offenders like Derek Chauvin remain, often protected by their union, despite efforts by community members to bring their actions to light. Here is a good article at the New York Times about the difficulty of dealing with these officers.

2. Sustained protests can and do contribute to social movements, and social movements can and do lead to social change. But the key is organization. For a social movement to be effective, it must be organized and strategic. Short bursts of activity are helpful but never enough. If some protesters, even a small minority, remain engaged and involved, there will be change, even though it will take some time and involve incremental policy changes. 

3. We know this because there have been other successful social movements. To take a very recent example, consider the issue of racialized mass incarceration in the US. Some of you graphed incarceration rates over time and by race in your PSE #2 and noticed that the rate of incarceration of African-American males is trending downward (since 2008) much faster than that of whites (although both are going down). This trend is undeniably related to a nationwide movement to reform sentencing and although there were many, many contributors, it was jumpstarted when Michelle Alexander, an African-American lawyer, wrote her book The New Jim Crow. Together with well-organized religious groups like Faith in Action, Alexander helped galvanized a movement that brought about significant legal changes at both the state and the federal level that are making a difference in a big way. And, interestingly, those promoting reform are not just from one political party. They are both Democrat and Republican. I say this to refute the idea that social change happens only when we vote in the correct candidates. Mass incarceration was created with the help of both political parties and it is being dismantled (slowly but surely) with support from members of both parties as well. No one is “off the hook” to help bring change.

4. Holding violators accountable is necessary and urgent, but in the long run, we must create fairer social systems. This means both a justice system that is responsive and fair, but also an economic system that provides real opportunities for all members of society. Good research by sociologists has demonstrated that African-American men face an invisible “penalty” when applying for entry-level jobs, and that this penalty is equal to the penalty faced by a man who has been convicted of a felony at some point in the past. Putting these two facts together means that a young African-American man who does not have a college degree (a scarce commodity in certain inner city communities with weak and/or dangerous schools) faces enormous odds and a public that expects only “trouble” from him. This situation poisons police-community relations and sets up police interactions with black men for failure. In other words, to reduce police brutality, we must examine and change the context in which these interactions take place. 

We can and must change this situation but it will take time, sustained effort, organization, and understanding. The sociological perspective can help guide our responses even though it will take empathy and commitment to keep up the work. I hope that your participation in this class can help you to think about, understand, and act on this situation in a new light.


Prof B