What would help 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests fix root problems? Lasting change will mean building non-police social institutions in anti-racist ways, with everyday democratic affect as a key ingredient.
It’s now two months since Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd in front of witnesses on May 25th 2020. The protests continue, and have been the most extensive demonstrations in the history of the United States, appearing in white, small-town America as well as in major cities from coast to coast. Outrage has been directed at the Minneapolis police for the killing of Floyd and also at the police as an institution for a long history of killings, including ones that have occurred since the Floyd murder. Protests have taken place in countries around the world, linking police murder to underlying historical injustices, particularly colonialism and the slave trade out of Africa. One example was the toppling of a statue of 17th-century British slave trader Edward Colston into the waters of Bristol harbor.
A striking feature of the 2020 protests has been their unearthing of the underlying causes of police violence, which have come to encompass a wide range of historical and structural failures. The presiding influence of U.S. protests has been the Black Lives Matter movement that arose in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin, and it has been pointedly intersectional. The BLM framework helped put debates about systemic racism underlying anti-Black police violence back on the editorial pages of daily newspapers. Outrage has been directed at policing as an institution, at the poverty of the public services that police budgets help to starve, at racial “caste” in U.S. history, at systemic underinvestment in Black (and Latinx) neighborhoods, at entrenched disparities in housing, schools, transportation, and health care, at racial capitalism as such, including structural inequalities of wealth and income—in short, at root causes of all kinds. It’s in a context of renewed and impassioned interest in structural change that we must reflect on the titular question of this piece: what would it take for people to stop calling the police?
I’m going to give two answers and suggest that we need to link them. One involves social policy and the other a deeper cultural change, a change in the majority population’s “structure of feeling” about Black citizens and, in close connection, about democracy itself.
On the first count, we can stop calling the police when we recognize that we do not all have the same relationship to the police, and make sure we have people other than the police to call. In the U.S., the only “first responders” are police, fire, and medical ambulance services, and most needs fall through the cracks. The police are often called not because they have the desired skills, but because no one else will come when someone calls.
There are different varieties of police abolitionism, and one, reflected in calls to defund the police, wants to shrink police forces dramatically, weaken their political power, and also build a wide range of missing social services. Defunding is a mechanism by which city budgets would pay for these other social agencies. For example, long-time activist Mariame Kaba has proposed redistributing half of current police department budgets to health, trauma, domestic crisis, educational, and other services. These greatly expanded operations would employ professionals at least as well-paid as the police and highly trained in specific areas of intervention. Re-imagine L.A. has this kind of plan.
The sociologist Patrick Sharkey has analysed the Washington D.C. police budget and shown that they spend, per precinct, $10 million a year to serve around 12,000 people with a full-time staff of over 70 employees. He writes,
If we ask community organizations and leaders to take over primary responsibility for creating a safe community, they should be given equivalent resources. And we have every reason to believe that a coalition of organizations and leaders with the capacity to hire and train more than 70 professionals—conflict mediators, violence interrupters, youth outreach teams, case workers, mental health counsellors, crisis response teams, maintenance and beautification crews, data analysts, liaisons to public agencies—can begin to transform a neighborhood. These would be well-paid, full-time jobs.
Few of these professional first responders would be armed, as suits the fact that even in a country with nearly 400 million civilian-owned firearms, almost half the world’s total, only 5 percent of emergency calls concern persons with weapons.
My preferred first step in this process is to disarm the U.S. police. This would reserve firearms for small teams of specialists focused on active shooters and other violent crimes. Disarming would not have saved George Floyd, but it would have prevented most police misuse of weapons that cost many lives each year. It would force improvements in training in conflict resolution, including some difficult physical skills, and likely change the kind of person now doing policing. It would reduce the intimidating power of lethal force that puts police over and above the polity they serve, distorting or breaking the relationship.
There are many questions about training, funding, and operations that I can’t address. The good news is that these questions have often been answered: diagnoses of the flaws of armed policing have long been in place and specialists have long had a range of remedies in hand. Diagnoses and remedies are now being taken seriously by the media and policymakers for the first time in years.
The bad news is that we have been here before. Why might the fire this time have a different result than the fires of the past? What would allow social reconstruction actually to happen this time?
Sceptics will note that most of these problems were identified, linked to each other, and made objects of public policy fifty or sixty years ago in the wake of widespread police mistreatment of civil rights protesters and of uprisings in Los Angeles, Newark, and Detroit, among other cities. (A Chicago commission published a report confirming racial bias in policing nearly a hundred years ago.) These problems were diagnosed again in the years after 1992, when Los Angeles politicians and civil leaders renewed their vows to “Rebuild LA” after the revolt over the acquittal of the LAPD officers who had beaten motorist Rodney King to a pulp during a traffic stop. A Rebuilt LA did not appear. Social services were not reinvented. The problems of the 1960s, the 1980s, the 1990s, remain unsolved, and some, like school segregation, have gotten worse. Something deeper has to change this time for reconstruction to take place.
This gets me to my second answer to the question. “We”––here meaning the majority population that feels comfortable calling––can stop calling the police by having an intuition about everyday racialized democracy that allows us to refuse police power.
This may seem like a roundabout response, but I think it gets at a root cultural cause of the country’s failure to make policing a matter of the just social care of every member of society. As an example, let me consider how the absence of a democratic intuition literally starts the sequence leading to Floyd’s murder.
The visual record of George Floyd’s death under police arrest consists of cell phone and small shop security footage. The episode began with Floyd and a friend making a purchase in a Cup Foods convenience store in Minneapolis, allegedly using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. At 7:55 pm, three young Cup Foods employees approach a small SUV parked at the curb. One of the three talks to the driver. He is a man wearing a white shirt and black shorts and is identified as the store owner’s nephew. George Floyd is not doing a runner: his car stays parked at the curb. At 8:01, apparently before the conversation is over, the city’s 911 emergency call system (which some vulnerable communities are trying to work around) records a complaint of bill forgery coming from the Cup Foods shop. It’s the call that sets Floyd’s murder in motion, which this first conversation had not.
Two police cruisers arrive, one at 8:08, with the rookie cops, and the second, at 8:17, with the veteran officers Derek Chauvin and his partner, Tou Thao, both with documented histories of violence. By 8:25, multiple bystanders are confronting the officers with Floyd’s condition: “No, look at him, bro. He’s not responsive right now, bro,” one young man says to the officers at least twice.
At 8:27, the Cup Foods nephew suddenly reappears in the frame. He is gesturing at the police and tries to approach them. Another onlooker tells him to get back in the store, and the nephew replies, “I’m here to help you all out.” The onlooker replies, “you don’t need to help me out, bro. I know your parents. I know everybody that owns that store. You don’t need to help me the fuck out, bro.” The nephew then makes a rush toward Floyd, but is shoved hard backwards, twice, by Officer Thao. The nephew gives up and drifts to the back of the crowd. Three minutes later, Floyd is in the ambulance, where medics try in vain to revive him.
A key issue appears in the hostility of the onlooker toward the Cup Food nephew: calling the police over a bad twenty was an unforgivable stupidity. The staff knew they were calling the police on two Black male customers. They must have known something about police treatment of the Black community in the area. (As one example, they could hardly have missed the killing of Philandro Castile in 2016 during a traffic stop in a nearby suburb, which had achieved international infamy.) The Cup Foods staff didn’t think about Floyd democratically, as a peer, as one of them.
The democratic intuition would have been, “We can work something out with these guys on our own.” Since Floyd was parked at the curb and in no hurry to leave, they could have started by finding out if he even knew the bill was counterfeit: the first victim of forgery might have been Floyd himself. They could have negotiated a later payment, or taken his license plate, found out where he lived and sent him a letter asking him to pay up. They could have asked him for a real twenty if he came in again or if they saw him on the street. Most obviously, they could have just let it go.
The Cup Foods staff exercised police power when they didn’t need to. But why call this a failed democratic intuition, rather than an instance of perennial anti-Black racism? My answer is that the two are functionally inseparable. Democracy, as a felt relation to lived reality, means active engagement with others always treated as equals. It doesn’t make race consciousness or racial anxiety or contempt or mistrust go away. But democracy as a habitual affect can block the translation of negative racial assumptions into calling for coercive force from outside. Democratic affect makes it unnecessary to route one’s relationships through a superior authority, precisely when those relationships are conflictual.
Whatever people say about the U.S. democratic creed, there’s a scarcity of democratic intuition in America. The Cup Foods response is a classic example.
If the presence of democratic affects could prevent racial difference or anxiety from coercive resolution, the contrapositive is also true: the country’s long history of coercions, rooted in colonial settlement and expansion, suppresses democratic affect. The historian Khalil Muhammad explains that in the aftermath of slavery, “all expressions of black freedom, political rights, economic rights, and social rights [became] subject to criminal sanction.” The general criminalization of Black equality—and attempts to achieve it—has been well-documented. In such a society, normal social relations involve the majority treating other residents as objects of subjugation and control. This negates democratic affect when it is most needed—across lines of social difference, particularly between white and Black Americans.
The great difficulty of mustering democratic affects in turn weakens public institutions. Grassroots community programs are once again being invoked to replace top-down policing, but they depend on reciprocal relations that enable local people to negotiate equitably with people in powerful foundations, corporations, and governments. The historian Elizabeth Hilton has chronicled the decline of 1960s and 1970s community programs as the ethics of “maximum feasible participation,” sustained in the immediate aftermath of protests, was replaced with top-down bureaucracies. The U.S. is full of brilliant organizers and tireless, effective activist groups: current demands for police abolition flow largely from the work, to stick with Minneapolis, of Reclaim the Block, MPD150, and Black Visions Collective, among others. But activists, along with citizens, scholars, businesspeople and public officials can replace dysfunctional top-down systems only if they can maintain the group-psychological preconditions of non-coercive responses to social needs. Transformed social policy requires that democratic intuitions about private and public life be a steady presence on the ground. When democratic intuitions are absent, communities cannot sustain sanctuary spaces and other forms of non-state settlement that distribute needed resources.
How do we identify and cultivate a structure of feeling about democracy in a deeply racialized culture—in the U.S. and elsewhere? The feeling is invisible and subjective. It is individual and collective. It interacts with government, law, policy, local institutions, education, and culture, and yet isn’t any of these. It is a weak signal, not a strong one like white supremacist ideology.
Years ago, when I started doctoral study, one of my main questions was whether U.S. culture was as readily authoritarian as it was democratic. It seemed to be, and I wanted to understand why. Why hadn’t the U.S. been able to abolish slavery without a Civil War? Why did post-Civil War naturalizations of racial inequality spread so easily for another hundred years, throughout the North as well as the South? Why does de facto segregation still structure U.S. society?
My initial answer arose from a reading of one of the U.S.’s canonical authors, Ralph Waldo Emerson, that linked him to the racial and the economic thinking of his time. I was drawn to him initially because he was preoccupied with something like my issue—the political-psychological-theological problem of submission to authority in what was supposed to be a democracy. But rather than freeing his people from this reflex through his famed theory of self-reliance—his people being the educated, liberal Christian, white middle-classes—he developed a compound psychology that I called “submissive individualism.” The result was neither personal liberty nor collective agency but a deference to authority that presented itself as both higher and natural. Long story short, Emerson elaborated and sanctified a submissive individualism that adapted the white middle-classes to a corporate economy and to permanent racial hierarchy.
This majority-culture consciousness seemed like a big piece of the puzzle. Rather than “consciousness” or “ideology,” Raymond Williams uses the term “structures of feeling” to refer to “social experiences in solution,” where they are not quite stated, acknowledged, or seen. He contrasts this with concepts that are knowable and expressible because they are already “precipitated” into public discourse in a form like political attitudes. Submissive individualism is the half-known structure of feeling Emerson contributed to the country’s public discourse of self-reliance. Submissive individualism keeps members of U.S. majority culture from expecting equality to follow from democracy. Black Americans were depicted in this formation, naturally and organically, as second-class citizens.
We often tie white racism to aggressive individualism, picturing men toting assault rifles in military formation inside the Michigan state capitol. It is actually an example of submissive individualism. The belief behind those guns is that a strongman president had authorized their revolt against public health rules. In rebelling against the female governor and health professionals, they were submitting to the president’s higher authority.
Or, a white pastor wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt was accosted by a militia while trying to visit his ancestor’s grave at Gettysburg cemetery. It’s a similar situation. They were following the cue of their president’s lawyer, who had called BLM “terrorists,” and of the president’s son, who called them “animals.” The militia went to Gettysburg out of a sense of duty to suppress the potentially unpatriotic individualism of others. The loyalty of evangelical Christian leaders to Trump lies in large part in their shared adherence to norms of great-man supremacy. Trump believes that authoritarian responses to social challenges is the great American tradition, typified by his call on governors to “dominate the streets,” or by his ally Senator Tom Cotton’s demand that Trump send the U.S. Army to the cities in an “overwhelming show of force.” Educated professional middle-class people often dislike strongman politics, but have a hard time confronting them. The democratic intuitions that might ground their opposition are underdeveloped.
The George Floyd protests reflect a popular belief that US society and politics must change at the root. The provisioning of protection, housing, health, transportation, water, power, broadband, food, and education must be reconstructed together. Many citizens of other countries seem to feel similarly about theirs, particularly around the need to make access to quality services equal across racial lines. Over the long haul that the U.S. and other societies now face, social reconstructions will succeed only if the majority culture undoes a paired practice and feeling—undoes the practice of systemic racial inequality, and the feeling that public life requires coercive authority.
 See Christopher Newfield, The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996).
 Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 133–134.
ISRF, Director of Research
Christopher Newfield is the Director of Research at the ISRF. His fields are U.S. literature before the Civil War and after World War II, Critical University Studies, critical theory, quantification studies, and the intellectual and social effects of the humanities. He has written a trilogy of books on the university as an intellectual and social institution: Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880-1980 (2003); Unmaking the Public University: The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class (2008); and The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2016), which has just appeared in paperback. He blogs on higher education policy at Remaking the University, and has written for the Huffington Post, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, WonkHE, The Guardian, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.