“I hear people saying it’s different because there’s a great many more white people involved than in other demonstrations, and it’s not only black people protesting. As many white people protesting as there were black people. This would be a first for me. I’ve seen a million protests all my life. If this can happen in my lifetime, it’ll be great. It’s very encouraging.”
— Sonny Rollins, interviewed from his Woodstock home by Daniel King for The New Yorker
The momentum of American politics has changed in the past three weeks to a degree that very few people would have thought possible, let alone predicted. What started as street demonstrations to support demands for police reform after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has been transformed into a continuous debate in literally thousands of communities about social goals and aspirations on both the national and local levels. There’s no sign of the unrest dying down. There’s never been anything quite like it.
According to one tracking report, African Americans, who are 13 percent of the United States population, account for nearly 24 percent of Covid 19 deaths where the race is known. Racial disparities among a whole range of indicators continue to increase.
Where did all that interest and involvement in social change come from? Certainly not from the law-and-order president of the United States and his supporters. The economic effects of the pandemic that locked down the economy, causing particularly devastating job losses to those least prepared for it, sowed the seeds of the backlash. Increased economic inequality negatively affected not just racial minorities but more privileged young white people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. It was startling to see young people who had rejected class solidarity in favor of individual mobility in the Industrial Age embrace community-wide law-enforcement reform in post-industrial times.
One big surprise was how local the whole uprising was. Literally thousands of communities across the entire country saw rallies and demonstrations, practically all locally organized and led. Many of the organizers were young people, often teenagers. Most seemed genuinely surprised by the size of the crowds their events attracted. Whatever “agitators” were there were local.
Success breeds success. Optimism is contagious. Other events followed, engendering a growing sense of common purpose. The movement took on a life of its own. Rallies in Catskill, Hudson, Rhinebeck, Kingston, New Paltz, and Poughkeepsie attracted crowds. Civil-rights advocates didn’t have to go to Birmingham, Selma and New York City to express themselves when their supporters were holding events in Ellenville, Saugerties and Woodstock.
“What started as a renewed demand for police reform has become a country’s awakening,” marveled The New York Times weekend edition. “And all in less than three weeks.”
That didn’t mean that police reform, the original goal of the movement, was relegated to the back burner. It was still the main focus of the local groups, but seen within a wider context than law and order. Shouldn’t law enforcement mean a greater emphasis on helping with individual problems rather than loading up with surplus federal military-style equipment? Was that wider concept of law enforcement not what critics were asking for when they called for defunding or even disbanding the police?
Woodstock’s town board this past week referred to the need for fundamental changes of thinking. According to reporter Nick Henderson’s account, councilman Richard Heppner told his colleagues that it was time to rethink some of the responsibilities of police officers and to give them better resources to do their job. “We’ve heaped on the cops much like teachers things that aren’t their duties,” Heppner said. Issues of mental health and addiction are becoming more prominent in policing, he added.
“They are half social worker, and in this town they have to be three-quarters social worker,” councilman Lorin Rose quipped.
Policing goals required
New York governor Andrew Cuomo this month issued an executive order – the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative – requiring reform plans from all police agencies that addressed policies, procedures, practices, and deployment, including but not limited to use of force. To continue to get state money, the police agencies must engage stakeholders in an open public process on policing strategies and goals.
At the same time, Cuomo signed a package of bills passed by the state legislature addressing, in the words of a release from assemblymember Kevin Cahill of Kingston, “the deteriorating relationship between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to protect.” Most important of these was the repeal of an exemption from the disclosure of records identifying disciplinary actions against officers. Other measures banned chokeholds, false reports and racial profiling, and increased access to public records.
Trump approval rating plunges
The national political repercussions of what’s happening have been substantial. Six weeks ago, Donald Trump’s approval rating on Nate Silver’s polling site, 538, showed his popularity underwater by 7.3 points. Three weeks ago he was 10.5 percentage points behind. By this Tuesday, the gap between his approval and disapproval ratings showed him down by 13.5 points. Expressions of concern were coming even from his supporters. Trump’s stance on Black Lives Matter – that the protesters had turned into looters and that the anti-police demonstrations should now halt or he would send in the military — had negatively impacted his popularity far more than his impeachment had. Do you remember how he was going to deal with protest? He was going “to dominate the battle space.”
The president’s default strategy has always been to praise his administration’s management of the economy and the resultingly low unemployment rate. With the job losses caused by the pandemic, that argument lost a lot of its credibility. Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell’s assessment that millions of jobs wouldn’t come back after the shutdown ended and that “it could be some years before we get back to those people finding jobs” didn’t help. Trump replied that “The Federal Reserve had been wrong so often,” and predicted a quick recovery.
In the week May 28-June 3 week, Trump’s favorability ratings had dropped eleven percent among whites, nine points among blacks, 14 points among Asians and Pacific Islanders, and six points among Latinx people. Noting the magnitude of the one-week shift, research director Robert Griffin of the Democracy Fund wrote, “These changes were striking. While public attitudes are typically quite stable, the country is experiencing an almost unprecedented level of civil protest – hundreds of gatherings and events taking place even in small cities. At a time when so much in American politics feels deadlocked, this is the kind of major event that can reshape how America thinks.”
The jobs that have been lost are not coming back by magic. On a more practical local level, Ulster County executive Pat Ryan’s Ulster 2040 task force has been crafting a county realignment plan to create new jobs. Ryan predicts the group’s report will soon recommend continued workforce development, attention to agribusiness, green technology, energy innovation, creative design and advanced manufacturing. He sees TechCity as a significant potential site for clusters of such activities.
Kingston moves ahead
Within Ulster County, Kingston has seen the largest protests and the most ambitious efforts in behalf of police reform. And it looks as though that reform is moving ahead. The appointment last week of Minya DeJohnette, a woman of color and healthcare provider, to a vacancy on the city’s police commission is a significant signal.
A three-alderman special policing subcommittee of the Common Council’s laws and rules committee has been laboring for about a year on a complex proposal to revise the practices of the police commission. Serving on the special subcommittee with chair Rita Worthington have been members Jeffrey Morell (chair of laws and rules) and Reynolds Scott-Childress (Common Council majority leader).
According to all three of its members, the policing subcommittee had encountered stiff resistance from the city government’s own lawyers, who contended that change proposals needed to await the settlement of protracted contract negotiations between the city government and the union representing the approximately 75-person police force. The Common Council may now try to include in next year’s city budget an item providing it its own legal advice.
“I am optimistic – finally,” said Worthington, one of the speakers at the recent Academy Green rally. “We gotta keep it going. We want to be on the side of righteousness.” She expressed satisfaction that mayor Steve Noble finally appeared to be on board when it came to police misconduct toward people of color. That “our white brothers stood with us” at the Kingston march and elsewhere was “a huge statement,” she said.
Morell said he was in no way anti-police, citing his support for additional police training. He too was hopeful of further reform. “I think that we now have the majority,” he said.
Majority leader Scott-Childress, whose job includes sounding out his colleagues, said he had not yet counted noses. But he expressed confidence that the votes for the policing subcommittee’s initiatives would be there.