Hey Folks. I think we all have different ways of dealing with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. The first thing for me was to start looking back – to Rodney King in LA, 1991, Oscar Grant in Fruitvale station in Oakland, 2009, Eric Garner in New York, 2014, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, less than a month later. The number of black people who have lost their lives at the hands of police seems to have only accelerated over the last 6 years. The second layer of all of this was dealing with the daily updates on use of force during protests, egged on by the US president and his prop bible. Then, third, I started to do some reading on the subject because, as a scientist, that’s how I usually deal with stuff. And, since this is the Green Stars Project, I want to draw your attention at the end to the importance of ethical consumerism for racial equality.
An article in The Conversation, The racist roots of American policing, provides a succinct overview of law enforcement in the US, from the slave patrols that ended with the Civil War to the “Jim Crow” segregation laws that ended in the late 1960’s. The unrest in our streets is calling for another step forward – an end to racism, excessive use of force and injustices in law enforcement and support for programs that help our communities.
When a Stanford University research team analyzed data collected between 2011 and 2017 from nearly 100 million traffic stops to look for evidence of systemic racial profiling, they found that black drivers were more likely to be pulled over and to have their cars searched than white drivers. They also found that the percentage of black drivers being stopped by police dropped after dark when a driver’s complexion is harder to see from outside the vehicle. – The racist roots of American policing.
The nuance that the percentage of black drivers pulled over drops after dark established that the bias here is real. And it’s prevalent in most areas of life – a scientist colleague shared a study published last week in Science showing that racial bias creates disparities in funding awarded by the US National Institutes of Health.
The US is one of the only countries using a cash bail system
You’ve seen American movies and TV shows where a suspect is released from jail after paying bail. Think about how unfair that system is – you will be released from jail as long as you can pay a “deposit” ensuring that you’ll turn up for your court date. If you can’t make bail then, guilty or not, you’ll sit in jail until you have to appear in court. There are only a couple of places in the world that rely on a cash bail, dominated by commercial bail bondsmen, and the US is one of them (the Philippines is the other).
As part of his election campaign in 2018, California governor Gavin Newsom proposed a bill that would replace cash bail with a system of “risk assessments” that sets out non-monetary conditions for release. In April this year, thanks to pressure to reduce crowding in jails because of Covid-19, this law went into effect – California’s Judicial Council set bail to zero for non-violent crimes. However, the majority of the US states still rely heavily on a bail bond system – this has to change because it links justice directly to income.
The number of people imprisoned in the US has risen dramatically
Around 0.7% of the US population is living in jail or prison. That’s an incredible statistic – the US has by far the highest rates of incarceration on the planet. It’s around 4 to 10 times higher than the vast majority of other countries, including neighbors in Canada and Mexico. When researching the stock market, I’ve been shocked to see how often prison stocks are recommended as good buys – it’s a successful business here, I guess. Rates of imprisonment increased significantly in recent decades, from around 400,000 people in the 1970’s to around 2.2 million people currently imprisoned, out of a population of 328 million.
Increasing incarceration while ignoring more effective approaches will impose a heavy burden upon courts, corrections and communities, while providing a marginal impact on crime. Policymakers should assess these dynamics and adopt balanced crime control policies that provide appropriate resources and support for programming, treatment, and community support. – The Sentencing Project.
Police departments occupy significant percentage of city budgets.
In 2017, New York police tried something new – they reduced their “proactive policing” activities (i.e., stopping people for suspected low-level offenses). By the end of the year, they found that major crimes were the lowest in decades – the murder rate was down around 14% compared to 2016.
The Freedom to Thrive report from the Center for Popular Democracy took a look at the percentage of city budgets spent on police departments – typically around 30% of the entire budget – and found that communities would prefer if some of that money was spent on other community safety priorities such as mental health services, youth programming, and infrastructure such as transit access and housing.
All of these scenarios stack the odds against black people, especially those with low income: Bias in law enforcement, a cash bail system, a thriving commercial prison industry, and a lack of funding for community support programs.
George Floyd wasn’t merely killed for being black – he was also killed for being poor. He died over a counterfeit banknote. – The Guardian.
Here’s a good list of organizations to support and actions to take, including an update on which organizations have already been flooded with donations and suggest donating elsewhere. Consider the Mayor pledge on Obama.org, lobby your local representatives to remove cash bail in your state and to push for reallocation of city budgets.
Racial equality and ethical consumerism
Going back to the slave patrols that were the first form of law enforcement in the US – their function was to maintain a way of life that was built on the suffering of others. The empires that colonized America, such as Britain, were also built upon the exploitation of minorities – whole industries such as tea and chocolate depended on it and, even today, many of the largest multinationals are not changing fast enough. To take one example, Nestlé was boycotted in the ’70s and ’80s for pushing infant formula as a replacement for breastfeeding in Africa, but has reportedly crossed that line again and again since then.
The largest, most controversial multinationals have put a lot of money into cleaning up their images but for some of them this is 90% PR and 10% actual progress. Socially-responsible, mission-driven companies are more deserving of your support. Although it may not be the first thing that people think of, ethical consumerism has a huge role to play in addressing social injustices.
I’ll refer you to a few posts for more on the subject.