In anti-racism fight, the Lyndon B. Johnson option

A swift wind is blowing following George Floyd’s death, and in reform, the executive must look to the 36th U.S. President

June 23, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

Police killing blacks at the slightest pretext, sometimes without pretext, is one of the social constants of the United States. When police officer Derek Chauvin choked George Floyd to death on May 25, in Minnesota, the usual analysts pointed to the usual suspect, namely, racism. So, what is new?

Yes, we all knew that blacks are more likely to be shot than white people by the police. Numbers vary; ProPublica’s 2014 finding says shooting blacks is 21 times higher, while a 2020 report in The New York Times points out that it is seven times greater in Minnesota. These numbers are nagging and repetitive. Just as we know where babies come from, racism in the U.S. police is not a revelation either.

Much to be done

George Floyd’s brother, Philonese Floyd, thinks what is new is that “people see it, White people too”. Yet, barely had George Floyd been cremated when another black person, Rayshard Brooks, was killed by the Atlanta police, on June 12. Perhaps Philonese was impressed that in Minneapolis, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Washington DC, California and New York, elected Mayors, citizens and even police officers want chokeholds banned or have got them banned.

That still leaves out a very large area of concern. Banning chokeholds, yes, but what about gunshots? What about random, invasive probes? Thus far, these aspects are loosely worded by police reformists in terms of “de-escalation” of violent confrontations and greater caution to be exercised in “no-knock warrants”. What about correcting racial bias? Not even a spoonful yet. So, what has changed?

In the meantime, well-meaning white anti-racists are self-flagellating, almost narcissistically. An influential video posting shows a white activist saying, in a confessional mode, that all whites are racists, pure and simple. The only way out for them is to admit, repent and self-demote. This is a variant of the Martin Luther King Jr. model: reason, prayer and goodwill hunting.

LBJ, a man of action

The other variant of anti-racism is the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) option, not LBJ of the Vietnam War, but the person who passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 ( picture ). While King was a general goodwill hunter, LBJ stalked down his opponents, one by one, on Washington’s Capitol Hill, till he got the Civil Rights Act passed. While in the thick of it, LBJ was asked by well-wishers why he was risking so much, and his reply was: “Well, what the hell’s the Presidency for.”

In the end, the Civil Rights Bill was passed because Johnson would just not give up. He changed gears, pulled levers, heaved loading jacks, did whatever was needed to get the Bill through. U.S. President Barack Obama radiated the hope that he would place further legal impediments, LBJ style, on police brutality, but in the end, he chose the much-travelled road of Martin Luther King Jr.

When Rev. Clementa Pinckney was shot dead by a White supremacist in 2015, Mr. Obama performed, what might be called, the acme of goodwill hunting. He sang, “Amazing Grace.” That’s it. He did not make laws and change procedures that would give racist, bigoted police officers a black eye. Today, following George Floyd’s killing, the time is ripe and ready for an LBJ-like intervention.

Every aspect of police training, recruitment procedures, funding, and accountability needs to be transformed.

If we were to take just the well-known inquiries into police brutality since 1990, we find that out of 18 such incidents, in only one has the punishment been commensurate to the crime. In as many as 12 instances, there was no punishment at all; the erring officers just walked home as if from a grocery store. In line with this, the National Registry of Exonerations shows that between 2008-2018, there was a doubling of cases against police action being overturned.

How it is in Europe

It is not as if people in Europe are not racists; the recent Syrian refugee crisis brought that out. Even so, police procedure is impressively more measured and controlled in that continent. This shows up in a number of ways. In 2015 alone, German police, fighting Islamophobes and fascists, fired in all four fatal shots, while the American police killed 400.

Or, across the Channel, take the British example, where its police force used firearms only 51 times between 2003 and 2013. Or, across the pond, Canada has recorded only 12 fatal police shootings between 1999 and 2009. In Japan, the last time a person was shot by the police was in 2012.

This difference between the American and European police in the use of guns is primarily because of better training. In the U.S., police training is, on an average, for 19 weeks, which is unthinkable by European standards. In Germany, for example, it is at least 130 weeks. In North Carolina, U.S., it takes 1,528 hours for one to be a licensed barber but only 278 hours to be a police officer.

A case for extensive change

A 2015 Report of the U.S. Justice Department concluded that the alarming number of violent incidents in which the police have been involved is because “officers do not receive regular, consistent training on the department’s deadly force policy”.

In 2000, the United States Commission on Civil Rights in its study entitled, “Revisiting Who is Guarding the Guardians?”, advocated intensive diversity training. None of these recommendations has left behind tyre tracks on the ground in terms of actual action. This explains not just racist violence among U.S. police personnel, but also the disregard for previous offences.

Derek Chauvin had 18 past complaints against him; his fellow officer, Tou Thao, had six. Myles Cosgrove, charged with Breonna Taylor’s murder in March 2020, shot seven times at a traffic violator in 2006. In 2005, George Zimmerman, the killer of teenage African-American Trayvon Martin, had also faced multiple assault complaints. This is just a sample.

Interestingly, Cosgrove also won 10 commendations earlier for various achievements. Derek Chauvin is also a much-awarded officer. These are not freak exceptions.

In the famous Rodney King case of 1991, officer Stacey Koon, the ultimate baton bruiser, was earlier awarded “Medal of Honor” and more than 100 other decorations. Garrett Rolfe, who has recently come under scrutiny for the June 12, 2020 killing of Rayshard Brooks, was awarded a silver pin though he had 11 serious allegations against him. There is, therefore, enough to spur anti-racist legislations against racist police violence.

U.S. President Donald Trump may have, inadvertently, come to the aid of anti-race activists and made room for an LBJ mode of internal executive pressure. His widely publicised tweet, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”, was read as an endorsement of police violence against those demonstrating George Floyd’s killing. It is a rare thing when antipathy to a sitting President partners anti-racist activism.

This fortunate conjuncture of events may not happen again. In 1957, the earlier toothless Civil Rights Act was passed without much discussion for President Dwight D. Eisenhower was still regarded as a credible leader. The situation is very different today for Mr. Trump is facing an angry fall in popularity.

This is much like the 2012-13 anti-rape movement in India which did not represent anti-rape sentiments as much as it did frustrations with the then United Progressive Alliance regime. When that moment was lost, rape returned to India. Activists in the U.S., whether on the streets or in elected office, should seize this opportunity and insist that only major police reforms by executive action would be satisfactory. They are in a happy place, between righteous anger and a failing President.

It is very unlikely that colour will return to Mr. Trump’s election prospects in the near future. In this frame, goodwill hunting, or self-flagellating trending videos can be a distraction. Hearts will change once the law does and this is the time for law makers to change the law and not be satisfied with a Botox job. Over and above, the two presidential contenders should be pressured to put police reform right on top of their to-do list.”

LBJ needs to ride shotgun again.

Dipankar Gupta, an eminent sociologist, was a professor at the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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