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.
"And civilization did not collapse," he said.
"And if we think, well, we need the police to signal that drugs are wrong, we're making a huge mistake, especially in communities of color, because when have the police ever been, through their actions, the true protectors of the African American community? And the answer is never," he said.
Vitale said that drug use is not a problem for the police to manage.
"It's a public health issue," he said. "And when we turn that problem over to the police there's going to be violence, and there's going to be racism. And if we don't want those things, we should quit pretending that we can fix it by throwing a couple of cops in jail or giving them anti-bias training, because the research shows none of these things make any difference. Even when fully implemented."
Now, Vitale said, we're in a moment to ask for what we really want, what we think will actually make our communities healthier, safer, and more resilient, more sustainable, more just.
"And that's not some little tweaks to how the police do their business," he said.
"It's actually getting community-based mental health services. It's actually fixing the problems in our schools, bringing back counselors, bringing back high-quality after school programs. It's about creating community-based strategies for reducing violence in the home and community for young people. It's about mobilizing public-health resources to help build communities up and repair harms, instead of constantly tearing people down through harassment, criminalization, and violence."
Following Professor Vitale's presentation, we broke into small discussion groups, after which a representative from each group reported back to all of us.
Here are just some of the ideas and thoughts that were discussed included:
-- "Many of us reacted to the book like, 'Oh my gosh, it's been right there in front of us and, and maybe we're suddenly available to listen to it.'"
-- "The book is a great primer on the origins of policing and the problems of policing and the problems with reform, and upon reading it, you think, why are we doing the thing we're doing? And it feels so simple to shift resources, to take things off the plate of the police."
-- "It's going to take a lot of public policy change and cultural shifting. Defunding the police means refunding organizations so communities and community leaders can handle some of the things that the police are handling now."
-- "It will take political courage to change the status quo on policing. As Vitale said in his intro., there are incredibly entrenched connections between policing and the economy."
-- "Changes need to come from top down. Municipalities need to decide what they want their police to do."
-- "What can happen in our neighborhoods if neighbors come together into small pods and discuss and decide how to take care of their own neighborhood so that there are other options to calling 911."
-- "The organization My Block, My Hood, My City in Chicago is giving out grants to help any person or block or organization find creative solutions to curbing violence within their communities. There's no reason that Evanston can't be doing something similar."
-- Kevin Brown, who works at the Safer Foundation, talked about how the newly formed Evanston group, the Black Male Alliance, recently held a night walk to bring the presence of community to violence hotspots, and how that is a proven violence-prevention strategy. "More things like that are helpful to facilitating community," he said.
--Kristen White, COO of the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, which does domestic violence trainings with police officers said the YWCA connected 18 months ago with the Northeast Multi-Regional Training organization which is part of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.
She said she was shocked to learn that it was only in 2016 that the state standard boards passed training standards for all police officers in a number of areas, including domestic violence, sexual assault, implicit bias, use of force. She talked about how undeveloped those standards are, and that the people training police officers are police officers--there are virtually no community partners who are in that space working with the state standards boards or with the regional training organizations.
She said the YWCA was the first community organization with whom the Northeast Multi-Regional Training Organization had worked.
Even though training is not the antidote to policing, said White, "we haven't even maxed out what is possible with training police officers to even determine what difference that could make."
-- Lesley Williams said, "There is a lot of needless over-policing of the Black community, but I think there are also a lot of people that feel that the Black community is in a sense under-policed, in that violence is not really dealt with, and people who are violent are not really dealt with, and that a lot of what Vitale is talking about are long-term solutions.
But we do have to deal with violence in communities in the present and figure out really specific ways to do that, that are equitable. So we talked about the question of crime and safety, and what we mean by safety, and what we mean by crime. If we say that there's more crime in Evanston than say Winnetka, do we really think there's less drug use in Winnetka than in Evanston? Probably not. But why is Winnetka different from Evanston? Employment capital, jobs.
The fact that, because of property values, the schools have so many more resources. So we're really looking at a whole system of structural and economic racism that goes back very far. And the question is not just, do we abolish policing? The question is really how do we abolish structural racism?"
--Gilo Logan talked about his experience consulting with the Evanston Police Department, and how the police themselves were surprised by how policed Evanston is.
Here are more thoughts:
-- "We talked about criticizing the police as an institution as opposed to criticizing or demonizing individual police officers and recognizing that there are a lot of police officers in our community that do really care that are extremely well-intentioned."
-- "I admire The Officer and Gentlemen Academy. The mentors are police officers, who saw that the young Black men in Evanston were afraid of them. The group seems very valuable - I think there is room for many models of mentorship. "
-- "There's the issue of crime solving and prevention, but then after crimes have been committed, how can neighborhoods and communities do more in the way of restorative justice, and reducing the militarism of policing."
-- "Friends of color and neighbors of color have said that they want someone to call. And that maybe there's a place for police but not in its current incarnation."
-- "The white perspective on the police is very different. We look at it as, you know, the Mr. Rogers community helper. We have limited experience with the police, basically traffic stops was our group's sense of when we see the police."
-- "We don’t see the police operating in our white neighborhoods, because we have the resources that we need to keep our neighborhoods healthy. Drug rehab, good schools, charges get dropped, bail can be paid. "
-- "Certain behaviors became criminalized and criminalization becomes a form of social control of different behaviors. "
-- "We asked ourselves, what do the police do and how do we get to a place where the police are not dealing with addiction, mental health."
-- "When it comes to homelessness, during the pandemic there is suddenly money available to house people."
-- "Why does Northwestern University even have a police department? The students should ask that question. "
-- "Why is it that someone with a gun has to stop you if you're speeding? Why can't you just give the ticket in the mail?"
-- "The issue of guns also impacts people’s willingness and ability to respond as individuals to issues in their communities."
-- "Vitale doesn't mention gun control, the entire issue of the number of guns in the community. So, for example, when he says that traffic stops would be safer if police were not armed because they're safer in England. England has a lot fewer guns on the street than the United States does, so that's another part of this that has to be that has to be talked about. Still, there are too many encounters with police that do not need to happen, there are too many things that police are being called on to do that would be better done by other organizations."
-- "The 'broken windows theory' is about how we don't rely on social cohesion to resolve issues (unaddressed broken windows are really signs of hurting blocks or neighborhoods) and looking too much at 'outside saviors' like police as the answer. But people circling around one another is the lasting solution. "
-- " I wish we could have talked more about the people and forces that want to maintain the present order. We don't address this enough, and often lack strategies to defend against the efforts to undermine reform. "
-- Betsy Wilson said, "As someone who's spent a lot of time intersecting with the criminal law system, this is the time in my career where it seems most likely for there to be real substantial reform. Often, we feel kind of helpless to heal the brokenness of our world, especially our country right now. But this is a context in which we each can have a real significant impact, where it I think there's an opportunity. I'm hopeful that there's an opportunity here in Evanston to change the way we do police and to change the way we create safety and community."
Thank you to Lesley Williams for facilitating and developing the discussion guide, to Shelley Barnow Sutherland for facilitating and suggesting the book, and to facilitators Kevin L. Brown, Rina Campbell, Gilo Kwesi Cornell Logan, Gail Schechter, Toni Sims, and Betsy Wilson for so ably leading the small group discussions.
About Professor Vitale:
Alex Vitale is a professor of sociology and coordinator of the policing and social justice project at Brooklyn College, and also a visiting professor at London South Bank University. He has spent the last 30 years writing about policing and consults with police departments and human rights organizations around the world. He is the author of three books and numerous articles and essays.