After a third night of looting on Monday, June 1, New York governor Andrew Cuomo accurately observed: “The NYPD and the mayor did not do their job last night. It was rampant looting across the city last night that they did not stop.” Cuomo’s comment spurred indignant replies from the New York City police commissioner and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who claimed that there was “no such thing as being able to loot with impunity.”
For once, Cuomo was right. Numerous videos on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere show people breaking into stores and then walking out with goods as police looked on passively. Police cars raced past shops being looted. Store owners recounted calling 911 to report that their stores were being broken into at that moment, and hearing that police were not available to come help.
Why are the police simultaneously willing to attack peaceful marchers but so tolerant of looters? The answer certainly is not lack of officers, nor is it police incompetence. NYC has three times as many officers per capita as the US average. 8,000 cops were on the streets in NYC on the night of June 1 as the looting occurred. Whatever one can say about the New York City police, they are highly experienced in crowd control and at deploying forces to places they have identified as crime hotspots.
Even if we grant that the police were surprised by the multiple and shifting points of protest on Saturday, May 30, the first night with looting, that can’t explain why the police adopted the same tactics on the following nights. From my window on lower Broadway in Manhattan, I witnessed night after night of police attacks on peaceful demonstrators. The police massed to stop the marches and used their clubs to push back the protesters. At the same time, the police made no effort at all to stop the small minority of demonstrators who turned down side streets and onto the neighboring avenues to break windows, or the unrelated criminals who took the opportunity to loot stores.
Perhaps the first night’s unimpeded destruction could be attributed to miscalculation on the part of the police, but when they used the same tactics each night, leaving all streets except those with marches unpatrolled, it seems obvious that vandalism and looting were the desired outcome. For the police, each broken window and looted store serves the double purpose of delegitimizing the demonstrators and building fear among the city’s residents that will lead to calls for “unleashing” the police and increasing their budget — or so the cops hope and expect.
In essence, the New York City police went on strike. They continued to do the work they enjoyed or at least were committed to doing, such as hitting and arresting demonstrators or confiscating their personal property, while refusing to protect the rest of the city.
Police officers are showing their attitudes toward the protesters as they arrest people who in other instances would be left alone or just issued summons for walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk, unlawful assembly, or being out after curfew. The police took days rather than the usual few hours to complete the paperwork needed to bring those arrested before judges so they could be released, leaving demonstrators to languish in crowded cells where they were at high risk of being exposed to COVID-19.
While brutalizing many demonstrators and entering some into a de facto COVID-19 death-penalty lottery, the police stopped doing the work that the public imagines it is buying with the almost $6 billion spent on the NYPD each year. The broken windows and looted stores we woke up to each morning last week were a direct message from the police to public officials and to voters at large. The police in essence said: “If you challenge us, if you insult us, we will no longer protect you.”
The police are not literally on strike. They show up for work and get paid. But they are refusing to meet the expectations of their job. Of course, the police aren’t the only workers to engage in slowdowns or sabotage. Strikes are costly for workers, and few workers or unions have the resources to sustain long strikes. Slowdowns and sabotage can be just as disruptive as fully fledged strikes and are harder for employers to counter. Often such actions win quick concessions.
This is not the first police slowdown. From December 2014 through January 2015, the NYPD almost entirely stopped making arrests and issuing summonses. Their goal then was to intimidate the newly inaugurated mayor Bill de Blasio, who had campaigned on a platform of ending stop and frisk and instituting civilian review of police misconduct.
The pressure worked. De Blasio abandoned his plans to create external monitors of the police, and we see the results in the mayor’s current praise for the police, despite their violence and lack of effort to prevent actual crimes.
Conversely, the police reward oppressive and racist policies with hard work. When Rudolph Giuliani was mayor, the police worked harder at making arrests than ever before. That effort was their tribute to a man who had campaigned on a law-and-order platform, cheered on police when they directed racist insults at the previous mayor, David Dinkins, and instituted the policy of stop and frisk.
What are the lessons to be drawn from this and previous police strikes? First, strikes work. And they are even more effective when backed by strong unions that are able to mobilize their members, articulate grievances, and pressure employers or government officials (who in the case of the police are one and the same). Police officers’ willingness and ability to use leverage should be an example for all workers.
However, we need to be careful not to imagine that police officers are our allies. The police almost never refuse orders to arrest picketers from other unions, and they are often happy to accept bigger budgets and higher salaries even when their fellow municipal workers are being laid off.
If the police are so powerful, what can we do to rein them in and eliminate their capacity to act as racists and inflict violence at will? Unfortunately, voting for Democrats indiscriminately will not solve the problem. Many of the most violent and racist police forces are in cities that have been governed by Democrats for decades, such as Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and St Louis.
Joe Biden’s suggestion that police be trained to shoot people in the leg instead of the heart is typical of the Democrats: it highlights their deference to the police, and their love for technocratic solutions and “conversations” that create the illusion rather than the substance of change.
We need to begin with the realization that police forces as currently constituted are not amenable to reform. We see that in Minneapolis, where it turns out that Derek Chauvin — the officer who placed his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes, forty-six seconds, killing him — was the “training officer” for two of the other officers on the scene.
It is bad enough that the Minneapolis Police Department kept on Chauvin after eighteen prior complaints. But to select such an officer as mentor to rookies reveals a rot in that city’s police that can only be overcome with wholesale restructuring, or perhaps by dismissing the entire force and beginning again.
We can take comfort from the fact that police play little role in determining the crime rate. When the NYPD went on their slowdown in 2014–15, crime actually went down, not up. We need to push to defund the police. This has to be at the center of what we demand of candidates for local office. In Democratic-run cities, we can run candidates in Democratic primaries who are committed to defunding, and if that fails, support third-party candidates. However, as the example of de Blasio makes clear, finding good candidates and getting them elected is not enough.
We will need to engage in repeated direct action and be clear on our demands. The police have to be demilitarized. Police forces need to stop accepting surplus military weaponry and get rid of what they already have. For the most part, police should be replaced with volunteers who reflect and will respond to the needs of their neighborhoods. We need to elect district attorneys who will not defer to police, and who see reducing the incarceration rate as their central goal. The rapid accomplishments of recently elected progressive DAs in Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Houston, and elsewhere are examples of the importance of targeting that office.
We must remember that for the most part, local governments control the police, and this is the level that is most vulnerable to popular mobilization and least easily dominated by the rich and their campaign spending. If we sustain the current high level of awareness and continue to protest, we can achieve major changes. Such victories will show that political action can produce victories that matter for people’s everyday lives, and thereby encourage further mobilization on other issues by people who both are the main victims of the police and often the most disengaged from politics.