It has been a year since the murder of George Floyd sparked one of the largest racial justice movements in U.S. history.
Millions of people from all backgrounds took to the streets in small towns and big cities to demand change.
In the heyday of the protest movement, bold pledges were made: in Minneapolis, for example, the city council committed to defund and dismantle the police department; in Seattle, city council members pledged to defund the police by 50%.
These efforts have not yet come to fruition, and it’s uncertain if they will in the future. But nonetheless, that reality has not stopped opponents of defunding police from using rising crime rates to undermine even the mere thought of investing money in other public safety initiatives.
As The New Republic reported last week, the National Fraternal Order of Police, for example, tweeted a graphic with the headline “SKYROCKETING MURDER RATES” along with a list of cities they imply have defunded the police. But as The New Republic pointed out, far from turning the “keys over to the ‘Defund the Police’ mob” that the federation described, many of the cities did not substantively defund at all, with some just shifting funds from one city budget to another.
Last June, The Washington Post looked at the connection between police spending and crime and said, “If we look at how spending has changed relative to crime in each year since 1960, comparing spending in 2018 dollars per person to crime rates, we see that there is no correlation between the two. More spending in a year hasn’t significantly correlated to less crime or to more crime.”
And on a broader level, attitudes are hardening against the Black Lives Matter movement and against transforming our system of policing.
As Jennifer Chudy and Hakeem Jefferson wrote in a New York Times essay last month, support for the Black Lives Matter movement among white people plunged, after seeing a rise following Floyd’s murder. Today, support for the movement by white people is even lower than it was before the protests.
This is not surprising. As Chudy and Jefferson wrote, there are parallels to the 1960s, when we saw fleeting support for civil rights following the beatings of protesters on Bloody Sunday in Selma. But when “Black Americans took to the streets of American cities to demand a redress of grievances, white support for the civil rights movement declined.”
Michael Harriott put a sharper point on the same sentiment last week in The Root, writing “ … there has never been a single moment in the history of this country where the majority of white Americans have supported any cause for justice and freedom of anyone else. They did not support the anti-lynching movement. The majority of white America opposed the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. It has never happened.”
We know we are a country with a short attention span. But it has taken us hundreds of years to get to our current status quo of racially biased policing and economic inequality, so it is absurd to think we are going to suddenly transform an entrenched system in just a year, though there have been significant steps forward.
This past week, for example, three officers were charged with felonies in the killing of Tacoma’s Manuel Ellis, matching in one day the number of Washington state officers prosecuted for deadly force over the past 40 years.
TraeAnna Holiday of Africatown and King County Equity Now said in The Seattle Times last week, while progress has been made locally, more needs to be done to invest in the Black community. Affordable homeownership, educational access and economic development are all foundational to this investment.
These efforts will take time — not just to implement but to bear fruit.
In thinking about this, I was reminded of what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the dangers of the white moderate in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
He wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
Will the larger public remain open to change even when there are setbacks, they don’t agree with all the tactics employed and they don’t think it’s the most “convenient season?” The data does not seem promising.
But maybe Seattle can buck this trend. Maybe in Seattle we can think about what is best for the greatest good and the “presence of justice,” not just short term benefit for ourselves.