Peace and non-violence versus law and order
by Rob Tiller
Life in Raleigh is looking more normal, with more traffic and more shops open. As for Covid-19, there’s no reason to think the virus has left us. I understand why businesses want to get going again and people want to get back to work, but I’m not clear why it makes more sense to ignore the virus now than it did a month ago. Anyhow, I’m using a mask when I run errands, and avoiding unnecessary physical proximity.
But it seems like we may be making progress on facing and addressing our racism. Protests against police violence and racial discrimination are continuing across the country. In many places peaceful protesters were met with tear gas and beatings from the police, which, though dangerous to the protesters, helped make the protestors’ point. The police have been taught to think of everyone as a potential threat, and to assume that criticism is an attack. We’ve come to think of police violence as normal. All that needs to change.
Abolition or defunding of police sounds crazy when you first hear it, and that language will stop some people from listening. But if we can get past slogans, there’s a potentially rich and rewarding discussion to be had. A lot of our usual police practices are simply bad habits developed over a long period. Some grew out of the exigencies of racial oppression in our caste system. Unpacking that history and mindset will take some time.
But it only takes a moments’ thought to realize that a lot of what the police are asked to do has nothing to do with stopping violent crime or theft. Addressing domestic disputes, drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness, and other social problems does not usually require a gun, billie club, and handcuffs. Most of our ordinary problems can’t be solved by violence, and a show of intimidating force by police can make them worse. It would be better to address, say, a mentally ill person who is behaving erratically using a health care professional.
So it makes a lot of sense to reallocate part of our police budgets to things like addressing the needs of the mentally ill. This idea of not trying to solve every problem with massive violence could go a long way. As we start to straighten out the police violence problem, we can start to think about our military violence problem. We’ve got a military budget that is, by itself, larger than the next ten largest military budgets combined, several of which are our allies’ budgets, and none of which are currently wartime foes. With our massive advantage in weaponry, we tend to default to violence to solve our problems.
Our military expenditures are staggering, and also embarrassing, especially when you consider how little actual military success they have bought us. Of course, that money could be spent in a lot of more productive ways either domestically (such as better schools, improved transportation, safer housing) or to advance peace internationally. Dropping violence as our default solution to everything could save a lot of lives of our young soldiers and many others. Gearing back on the massive transfer of wealth from ordinary people to the arms industry could help our inequality problem, while lowering the risk of a nuclear war that ends everything.
But first things first. I fully expected that conservatives would try to spin the George Floyd protests as the work of radical anti-Americans, and they did. “Law and order” has been a rallying cry for decades, signaling the need for violence to maintain the existing hierarchy. It was no great surprise when President Trump rolled out that slogan and called for violence against the protesters.
I was surprised, though, that he used violent tactics, including tear gas, just outside the White House in order to clear away protesters for a photo op in front of a church. And I was really surprised that he brandished a Bible over his head for the photographers. I’m not a Bible man myself, but I assume that a lot of believers would find it offensive to see their holy book used so shamelessly as a political prop.
Several times in the Trump presidency I’ve thought it can’t get any worse than this, or any more obvious than this. I’ve gotten inured to his constant lying, but he periodically finds a new low gear for greater cruelty that I think must be shocking even to his supporters. And I’ve generally been wrong, as almost nothing shakes his core supporters. But I haven’t given up hope. From recent poll numbers, it sounds like the old reliable “law and order” ruse may not work this time. People may be realizing it’s a scam. The reflexive resort of violence will not bring real peace.
Anyhow, it seems like much of the nation has realized that our policing can’t go on the way it is, and that we’ve got a lot of other problems that derive from our racial caste system. There’s so much to do that it might be a good idea to start a to-do list. Here’s an example.
- Stop policing as it now exists, and retool it as peacekeeping, while redistributing responsibilities for addressing addiction, mental health, domestic violence, and other problems to well-funded professionals in the appropriate areas.
- Shut down prisons as they now exist, and retool the criminal justice system as restorative justice to address both the needs of victims and needs of offenders, with prison used only as a last resort for those demonstrably too dangerous to live among us.
- End segregation in our schools and provide the necessary resources for high quality education for all.
- Guarantee good health care for all.
- Guarantee safe housing for all.
- Provide for safe, efficient public transportation for all.
- Provide fair reparations for the victims of slavery.
- End subsidies for pollution and provide resources for clean air and water for all.
- End subsidies for fossil fuels and invest in stopping and reversing global warming.
The pictures here are ones I took in eastern North Carolina week before last of barred owls and bears. These owls can be hard to spot, and I would have missed these without my talented guide and mentor, Mark Buckler. I share them as a reminder that the beauty of the natural world is still here, actually very close to us, and it can help us in these difficult times.