We had our first Covid-era racial justice book group last Tuesday night (watch the video below for Prof. Vitale's remarks and full reports from our small group discussions. They're summarized in writing here).
It wasn't quite the same as our in-person gatherings at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, where we eat great food catered by Black-owned businesses such as Jennifer's Edibles, Inc, Noir d'Ebene Chocolat et Patisserie, and Sugar Baker, have hard conversations eye-to-eye and in the flesh, and get to know each other, but, thanks to fantastic facilitators, great tech help from Kemone Hendricks, and everyone who showed up on our computer screens, I think we shared a valuable, timely, and necessary conversation about race, policing, and about how to change long-accepted paradigms.
Policing has been a front-and-center topic in Evanston, as it has been in many cities around the country since May, following the murder of George Floyd under the knee of one Minneapolis police officer and before the eyes of three other officers who did nothing to stop it.
In Evanston, the push to have community conversations--followed by the Mayor's weekly Policing in Evanston Q and A and Evanston's Human Services Committee conversations about the role of the police in Evanston has been driven by a young group of activists at Evanston Fight for Black Lives. They've been courageous and determined, and to date five city council members support defunding, or reallocating funding, from the EPD.
The big question now is how we can reimagine the EPD in order to reallocate some of its budget to social service agencies and other non-police organizations.
We invited the Mayor, City Council members, and Chief Cook and members of the EPD to participate in our discussion. Unfortunately, none of them joined, so we didn't benefit from hearing their perspectives.
Shelley Sutherland, who suggested that we read the book, introduced Professor Vitale.
"When I first heard the phrase 'defund the police,' it sounded like a response to a problem that many of us had been aware of for a long time, but still it raised so many questions in terms of what it meant how it could be implemented, and what would take its place," Shelley said.
"I also watched as a fair amount of other knee-jerk fearful negative responses from many other white people to the phrase. So I've learned enough to know that when something calls me up short like that, it's time for me to stop to listen openly and well, and to dig deeper."
Vitale, speaking to the group, said he is always happy to see local municipalities trying to honestly engage ideas to build the kinds of collaborative arrangements that hopefully will be capable of reshaping local politics.
"I started doing this work 30 years ago. I was working at the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness on housing policy and spending on health care and social services programs that would benefit folks who are unhoused," he said.
"But what happened was around this period in the early 90s, we began to see a really stepped up police harassment of homeless folks, the criminalization of homelessness. And my boss asked me to look into this and I became immersed in it. And what I figured out was that the country had basically given up on the idea that they were going to house people. And instead, had turned the problem over to the police to manage. Not to solve, but to kind of put a lid on it, to drive people out of high-class commercial areas, to criminalize disorderly behavior."
And that, he said, has stuck with him and played a big role in shaping his book.
"Whenever we see a problem turned over to the police to manage, we should be looking for the political failure that precedes that," he said.
"We've created this austerity politics that has underfunded schools that has defunded community centers that has defunded family support programs. And then the problems that emerge out of that have been turned over to the police to manage. So part of what's happening here is that over the last 40 years, political leaders in both parties at all levels of government have basically capitulated to a kind of neoliberal austerity politics."
He said that stimulating already successful parts of the economy has pushed wealth up the economic ladder, which has led to a rise of mass homelessness, a rise in failed schools, the rise of mass untreated mental health and substance abuse problems, and "the expansion of black markets of drugs and sex work and stolen property as people try to eke out a living outside the formal economy which they no longer have access to.
And these, he said, "are exactly the problems that have been turned over to the police to manage."
Vitale said police work is seldom chasing bank robbers and finding serial killers.
"They're breaking up homeless encampments they're telling kids with nothing else to do to get off the street corner, they're responding to mental health crisis calls, they're dealing with overdoses, they're engaged in the policing of black markets through buy-and-bust operations and things like that," he said.
"And then, when those problems are turned over to police that means there's going to be violence. And there's going to be racially disparate outcomes. Because the reality is that the United States is deeply racially divided. And as a result of this profound inequality, there are more problems in Black communities than there are in white communities in the aggregate. And people will say that the police aren't racist, that they just go where the crime is."
But this is a twisting of the whole dynamic, Vitale said, because, in part, that system of policing has helped to create these impoverished underserved communities and decided to treat these communities as problems to be solved by policing.
"Wealthier communities get to manage their problems in different ways, said Vitale. "They have access to high quality health insurance, their schools are well-funded because of the local property taxes that they pay in their nice suburbs."
Reforms that are aimed at fixing policing problems, Vitale said, miss the mark.
"They imagine that the problems are rooted in the bad behavior of individual officers making routine discretionary decisions, whether it's the decision to shoot an unarmed Black person, or the decision to stop a Black person driving a car without really having a reason to."
Vitale said reforms like implicit bias training or body cameras won't deter those officers from bad conduct. In addition, he said, accountability mechanisms are driven by an attempt to look at worst-case outcomes and then reverse engineer a solution that might have prevented that bad outcome, that one horrible killing.
"What this misses," he said, "is the way every-day lawful, procedurally proper policing still reproduces profound racial and class inequalities in American society."
For example, he said, a lawful, procedurally properly executed low-level drug arrest is still going to ruin some young person's life for no good reason.
"We've had this war on drugs for years. No lives have been saved, anybody can still get any kind of drugs they want," he said. "We've got to get rid of the war on drugs, which has always been at its root a racist project that has never been implemented equitably because it was never designed to be so. It was created to get white voters to vote for politicians through a very thinly veiled racist rhetoric about drug dealers and drug cartels and gang bangers and super predators."
Vitale said that where places have taken police out of the drug business, the results have been very positive. For example, he said, Portugal has decriminalized all drugs, completely removing police from the scenario and turning it instead over to public health authorities. The results have been very positive, with overdose rates, transmission of communicable diseases, and usage rates declining.