It would be nice if all of the chaos and cruelty unleashed by police forces across the nation over the past week could be blamed on President Donald Trump.
It would be nice because it would be simple. One man’s cartoonish brutality would be responsible for a society falling apart. The solution would be straightforward: Remove him from office and let the world naturally return to stability and harmony.
Trump has indeed encouraged violence against protesters, and he cannot escape culpability for the vivid tragedy now unfolding in the United States. But we cannot pin all of this on the president, however grotesque his failures. On Saturday night, when Minneapolis police fired rubber bullets at journalists and New York law enforcement attempted to run down protesters in an SUV, they were acting under the authority of Democratic mayors and governors. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s full-throated defense of the violent excesses of his police force differed from Trump’s fevered strongmanism only in tone, not content.
“I do believe the NYPD has acted appropriately,” de Blasio said Saturday night. “I saw a lot of restraint under very, very difficult circumstances.”
And so it has been throughout much of the country. The major policy choices that have led to this epidemic of police brutality ― from macroeconomic management to police procurement ― have been bipartisan. It is only at the margins that Democratic voters and Republican voters disagree. In Los Angeles, Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti and a Democratic City Council approved $41 million in new bonuses for police officers amid a local budget crisis that has forced pay cuts for thousands of other city employees. New York City spends $6 billion a year on the NYPD, even as 100,000 children remain homeless.
For Black communities, the American policing crisis has always been obvious. It has been a part of everyday life for decades. Los Angeles police beat Rodney King within an inch of his life in 1991. New York police fired 41 shots at an unarmed Amadou Diallo in front of his own apartment in 1999. The militarized police occupation of Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 should have presented both parties with an opportunity to rethink the armed control of low-income neighborhoods by agents of the state. Democratic leaders across the country have had nearly six years to grapple with the reality that U.S. police are largely at war with their communities, and they have generally responded by increasing law enforcement budgets and ignoring police violence. It took five years for the NYPD to fire the officer who killed Eric Garner. In the interim, both de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo were reelected.
Police brutality is the flashpoint of our current social unrest, but it is only one dimension of the crime against democracy that our national project has become. Our current uprising is taking place in the middle of an economic catastrophe in which roughly one-fourth of Americans are out of work. The distribution of this devastation has not been shared equally. Job losses have been concentrated among Black workers, and deaths related to the coronavirus have been concentrated among Black families. The legislative response from Washington to this crisis was not only bipartisan, but comprehensive: a 96-0 vote in the Senate for a bill that funnelled trillions of dollars to the richest people in the world and treated working people as an afterthought.
Similar outrages have been standard fare for decades. The racial wealth gap tripled between 1984 and 2009, and expanded still further during the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, as then-President Barack Obama refused to rescue Black and brown homeowners and Republicans refused to fund relief programs for working people. The globalization project that began in the 1990s destroyed the foundations of the Black middle class in the United States by offshoring good-paying jobs and leaving minimum wage work in its wake. The foreclosure crisis of the Great Recession eliminated what was left. These were bipartisan pursuits.
Nationally, the Republican Party has become the party of white grievance, while the Democratic Party’s leadership remains more committed to beating back reforms from the party’s progressive bloc than it does to addressing economic justice or restoring civil rights. In an ABC News appearance Sunday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) cited “a commission studying the social status of Black men and boys” and “a motion condemning police brutality” as examples of the work her caucus supports to correct racial and economic inequality. The House is currently in recess, and Pelosi has no plans to convene lawmakers to address the current crisis. Pelosi practices a different brand of leadership than the president does, but it is a failure nonetheless.
When failure is this broad and this deep, it is tempting to blame the nation itself. America was founded on slavery and genocide. Is it any wonder that it is descending into racist ruin in the 21st century?
But the fact is that the United States has beaten back its demons before. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, economic inequality plummeted along with the Black poverty rate, stalling out only when Democrats began to retreat from their commitments to civil rights and economic justice. We know what policies we can adopt to make this a nation of equals. Ours is the wealthiest nation in the history of wealthy nations. We can easily afford to provide all of our citizens with the fruits of a full life. And yet, we simply choose not to. We elect people in both parties who take pride in pursuing opposite agendas.
That work begins with defunding police forces across the country and reimagining community maintenance as an act of support, not an act of violence. But it cannot end there. Democracy assumes conditions of relative social equality. Until we reject an economic system that creates oligarchic winners and brutalized losers, our political system will continue to crumble.
Zach Carter is the author of “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes,” available now from Random House.