On Protests and Policing: A Conversation with Cathy Lisa Schneider

23 June 2020

Questions about protests and policing are front and centre of current academic and policy debates. Since the killing of George Floyd – an unarmed black man – by a police officer in Minneapolis, protests and riots across American cities, and heated debates on police reform, abolition, defunding, racism, and brutality have left academics, policymakers, and practitioners divided. Floyd’s cry, ‘I can’t breathe’, has echoed across borders, leading to violent confrontations between protestors and police globally. Since the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013, academic attention to systemic racism within American policing has increased across disciplines – from sociology to political science and economics.

In a special interview, UVRN spoke to Professor Cathy Lisa Schneider, who is based at the School of International Service, American University, in Washington D.C. Professor Schneider’s interest in protests and political violence began in Chile in the 1970s, under Pinochet’s regime. Her doctoral dissertation led to her first book, Shantytown Protest in Pinochet’s Chile (1995). After Pinochet fell, she worked on community organizing around drugs and AIDS in New York City. Her experiences with the police, and working with families affected by police brutality, led her to study policing, protests, and racial profiling in New York and Paris. In 2014, she published her second book Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York.

Your second book was published shortly before the Ferguson riots and shortly after the Black Lives Matter movement began. What do you think has changed in the last six years and what are your thoughts on BLM?

My book came out three months before [the unrest in] Ferguson. When BLM first appeared, I had been working with families and organizations dedicated to fighting police brutality for over 20 years [in New York City]. The Young Lords (the Puerto Rican partner to the Black Panthers) had created the Justice Committee 20 years before that – an organization helping families of unarmed people killed by the police and with whom I had worked during the 1990s in NYC. I viewed BLM as more of an internet phenomenon. Even when I interviewed Ferguson-based activists, they complained to me that no one in the media talked to them. They only talked to BLM, or asked them if they belonged to BLM. The activists also complained that when BLM activists were interviewed, they never gave credit to those on the ground in Ferguson. That said, I did like the name of the movement. In fact, in my 2008 article on riots in Paris I said the riots erupted because young people felt like their lives did not matter in France. I understand why the name of the movement has so much resonance.

I do not really know who began the call for police abolition, it was not initially on BLM’s agenda. The Justice Committee has adopted the term ‘defunding.’ By that they mean reversing the bloating of the NYPD during the past four decades. They are asking that one billion of the NYPD’s 5.9 billion-dollar budget be shifted to schools, after school programs, day care programs, mental health services and other community-based groups and that the police be removed from schools and mental health provisions. That is a position I whole-heartedly agree with. I’m not sure if ‘defund the police’ captures it appropriately. I am concerned that too many people hear ‘defund the police’ to mean abolish the police. We do want to dissolve police departments that are ridden with violence, corruption and racism, but then rebuild them from the bottom up, with a different relationship with the community.

In the last few years, there has been some discussion on bridging the gaps between policing and public health. What do you make of this?

I love the idea. Police reformers have tried to do that. But in politics, anything can get rolled back if you’re not active and vigilant. John Lindsey [former mayor of NYC] did amazing reforms in the 60s, with one of the most corrupt police departments in the world. But he did it by bringing in more new officers. He created tactical units of highly disciplined, highly-trained (in de-escalation techniques) officers. He increased the number of police officers in the street and insisted that police supervisors be out with the rank and file. Lindsay also restricted the use of lethal force to those cases where another citizen’s life was in imminent danger. He felt that if a police officer feels that their life is in danger they should stand back and call for reinforcements. Having more police on the ground reduces officer anxiety and makes officers less likely to overreact; as does having more supervisors. Lindsay wanted more police but more restrictions on what the police do.

Lindsay also empowered communities. He designated youth from these communities as peacekeepers, and hired them. He created communication task forces in the neighbourhoods as liaisons with the Mayor’s office, to keep him abreast of problems before they exploded. He also funded an array of community-based organisations and summer programmes for youth. And then, one summer, he tried to cut the programmes for budgetary reasons. The kids organized a rebellion. They took over a highway and set barriers on fire. Lindsay surrendered and the programmes stayed. The kids who partook in those programmes had become really skilled at community organising. From there they created the NYC branch of the Young Lords, and the NYC Young Lords created the Justice Committee. So, a lot of the activists I worked with had been peacekeepers under Lindsay.

Protestors in Miami, June 7, 2020. Credit: Mike Shaheen

Some advocates for ‘defund the police’ are suggesting, however, that there is no role for the police in public health. But what you are saying counters that argument.

Yes, because the two have been combined successfully in the past; the police have helped facilitate a public health approach to public safety. Nick Pastore (former police chief of New Haven Police Department, 1990-1997), for example, took that kind of approach. He said that in any poor neighbourhood every family has someone, a son or a cousin, who they are tearing their hair out over – maybe drugs, maybe gangs, maybe just truancy. If the families think that, by calling the police, their child will be sentenced for 25 years and the family will lose their public housing, they will see the police as their enemy. Pastore sought to turn that relationship on its head. He stopped giving merit raises and promotion for arrests and started giving them for working with the community to solve problems and to help families access public health services. There have also been cities – such as Vancouver – where police were involved in harm reduction reducing the spread of HIV and other diseases, overdose deaths, crime, street violence, jobs loss and personal unravelling that may be the unintended consequence of punitive approaches to drug addiction. Pastore’s reforms were not permanent, but during his time as police chief, New Haven had larger drops in crime than New York did under [former mayor] Rudy Giuliani and [former NYPD police commission] William Bratton who were running around the world saying zero tolerance policing works.

When it comes to the ongoing debate on police reforms vs. abolition, it seems that you’re perhaps open to the idea of reforms. Would that be correct to say?

What I would say is that the police have to be radically reformed, and the relationship between the police, public services and the communities needs to radically change. I think that there is a lot that’s happening on the state and local levels. There’s only so much the federal government can do. [California Senator] Kamala Harris (through the proposed legislation the Justice in Policing Act 2020) is advocating for a much larger role for the federal government, which I agree with. It’s been very hard to do that, because you get so much resistance from localities that don’t want the federal government involved. But we’re at a moment where this has changed. It’s the first time in American history where the majority of white people think that police have to be held accountable and that police do violate the rights of and use violence against Blacks and other people of color. We are at a remarkable moment. So, in terms of reforms, I don’t want to lose that momentum.

Minnesota National Guard Soldiers stand in front of the state capitol building in St. Paul, Minnesota, May 31, 2020. Credit: Sgt. Sebastian Nemec

Given how important this time is for policing in the US, and around the world, do you think reforms could lead towards de-militarized policing?

It should head in that direction. Trump’s recent executive order (that calls for creating a federal database of complaints made against police officers for excessive force or other abuses of power) doesn’t say anything about the militarisation of policing. Rather, Trump promised that there would be no funding cuts. He said that examples of police abuse are very rare (he has often encouraged them to be more violent) and that police should not use chokeholds unless the officers feel their life was in danger. Well, that is what they always say! There is no justification for giving police weapons of war, and encouraging them to act like an occupying army. They are supposed to be protecting and serving these communities. Some states have already passed or submitted strong reform bills, others have done nothing. Policing is local in the US, and that makes it very hard to have a coherent, nation-wide policy.

I imagine de-militarization efforts would require that the structure of the police be changed significantly. Do you think that these proposed reforms might lead to such structural, institutional changes?

I don’t think it is hard to demilitarize. Police have been militarized since the 1990s, the combined result of the war on drugs and the growth in violent crime (which itself was partly the result of the gutting of gun control), on the one hand, and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, on the other, which left the federal government with disposable military equipment.  Even so, it was not uniform. I never saw tanks in NYC, although I saw them in Ferguson. The bigger problem is figuring out how to change the culture of police forces that have inculcated and reinforced racist attitudes and contempt for the citizenry. Minneapolis is an example. It elected a progressive mayor, who hired a reformist police chief, and the rank and file ignored both. They only respected and followed the policies advocated by the head of the police union, Bob Kroll, a white nationalist and a Trump supporter. What do you do when the police commissioner does not have control over his officers, or the mayor doesn’t have control over the police? In these cases, it probably is necessary to dissolve the departments and rebuild from the bottom up, with a new mission statement and a new kind of recruit. Minneapolis was right to dissolve its police department. But in other cities the problem is the political leadership, the mayor, the police chief, the voters and the governor.

There are police who want a very different relationship with the communities they patrol. It’s not easy for police to work in communities where everybody hates them. It causes even those not predisposed against the community to feel more solidarity with the other officers. When that happens, they’re more likely to refuse to break the blue wall of silence and inform on other police who abuse the rights of citizens. Their internal solidarity is based on the idea that ‘we’re the only ones who support each other, everyone else hates us.’

Protesters surround the Minneapolis Police precinct, May 27, 2020.

Are police unions responsible for creating roadblocks to police and criminal justice reforms?

Yes, they are a major obstacle. The Los Angeles police commissioner placed four police officers on desk duty after a string of excess force complaints against them. The police union sued the city. Those officers ended up back on the streets, with a $2 million dollar settlement that the city had to pay. If the police commissioner can’t take violent police off the streets because the union will sue, it is a very big problem. I understand that unions are needed to help negotiate for better wages and to protect officers from unjust layoffs, as unions do in other areas of work, but unions should not be defending police officers who kill unarmed and innocent members of the community. The police should not operate like a mafia.

How do you foresee the ongoing events and debates impacting the election campaigns in the US this year, with Trump calling himself the ‘law and order’ president?

To some extent, Trump is echoing Nixon. But Nixon was not the incumbent. Nation-wide riots erupted under his rival, so Nixon could say that the Democratic candidate, and the Democratic Party, were at fault. Nixon could say that he represented the “silent majority” that wants law and order. That is why it worked for Nixon. But unrest is happening during Trump’s presidency, so it’s not credible for him to talk about ‘law and order.’  It is Trump that is inciting unrest and demanding that the military attack Americans with rubber bullets, pepper spray, teargas to clear space for his photo-op. Add that to the worst pandemic and economic crisis in 90 years. His poll numbers have been tanking. I don’t think he’ll be able to rescue his campaign. His administration doesn’t think they can win the election democratically. That is why they are becoming more and more authoritarian. Our democracy is at risk.

Trump walks from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church, June 1, 2020. Credit: Shealah Craighead

What do you think is the key issue behind the tense relationship between the police and communities?

A policeman’s job is to protect and serve. We need to ask who are they protecting and who are they serving? The police tend to draw a boundary, and say that ‘this is the community I am protecting and serving, this is also the community that has power and influence. If I violate the rights of someone in this community, they are going to put pressure on the mayor, and he will put pressure on the police commissioner and I will get a call from my chief. I have to be respectful of this community’. And then there’s the community that is poor, or that the country has stigmatised, or both. These communities are defenceless, and the police know that. They also know that the public views members of these communities as dangerous, and the mayor and police commissioner will praise the officer’s ability to make mass arrests here. In other words, these are the communities that society itself has dehumanised and made disposable. That is the problem. And that’s why Ron Hampton – founder and former director of National Black Police Association – says that all black communities are asking is that the police behave in their communities in the way they behave in wealthy, white communities. “They know their job is to protect the civil rights of citizens in those communities. Why don’t they know that in black communities?”

Professor Cathy Lisa Schneider (right) is based at the American University in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @schneidercathy1.

Zoha Waseem is a UVRN co-coordinator and postdoctoral research fellow at University College London. Follow her on Twitter @ZohaWaseem.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Word on the Street blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Urban Violence Research Network.

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