America's Autoimmune Problem
Updated: Sep 18, 2020
The protests and civil unrest since the death of George Floyd have inspired reflection on the state of American society – an examination of our institutions, a reimagination of law and order, and a reckoning with the legacy of racial division and slavery in our history. While in many ways the most recent protests have represented new territory for Americans, recent developments are a culmination of previous grievances and social action beginning at least as early as the 1960’s, and more recently during the early 2010’s.
Black Lives Matter, whether the phrase, the organized movement, or the people on the streets, was thus quite familiar to most of us before 2020 began. And while a significant share of Americans have always been quite sympathetic to the messaging of #BLM, the phrase now receives unprecedented public support. Another phrase, however, has (not so) recently emerged which is much more divisive, appearing as a radical interpretation of our social ills that is simply unpalatable to many: Defund the police.
Calls to defund or abolish the police are often met with what are considered commonsense questions. “Who will protect us? Don’t you care about victims? What about violent crime? We are a society of laws.” A yet more orthodox response, often from police unions and the politically conservative, is that “law enforcement is how we distinguish civilization from barbarity.”
Such responses come, explicitly or otherwise, from the tradition of social theory developed and popularized by Emile Durkheim: structural functionalism. Structural functionalists view society as an organism, as a human body, and each of our institutions represents an organ necessary for our society to function. Our schools and universities educate and train us, our media inform us, our political institutions lead us. Each structure, or institution, must function in concert to produce a harmonious and flourishing society. What function then, do the organs of criminal justice and policing perform in contemporary America?
To Durkheim and skeptics of the defund movement, our institutions of justice are something like an immune system. When individuals or groups step outside the bounds of acceptable life, - sometimes understood as deviance - the justice system apprehends and punishes them. This is a signal to the rest of us that such behavior is unacceptable and will not be allowed in the future. It is through the police and courts that we establish the boundaries of our social coexistence and enforce the limitations on social relations. They keep us safe and healthy, or so we ought to believe.
A major flaw in structural functionalist reasoning, however, is that its adherents are too quick to assume the effective and efficient functions of our institutions. Many of us take for granted that the police do, in fact, appropriately reign in our worst impulses and protect us from violence and lawlessness. What if this simply is not the case?
In fact, a startlingly low percentage of police calls for service are in response to violent crime. American police clear only 61% of murders. Many departments have backlogs of thousands of untested rape kits. Why should an institution that is unwilling or unable to perform its most basic duties be immune from even the suggestion of lowered funding?
Meanwhile, law enforcement zealously enforces victimless crimes. Paramilitary police routinely serve no-knock warrants to search for drugs, while the majority of Americans support legalizing cannabis. Many of these raids end tragically and inflict needless violence, including on children. School resource officers intimidate children in schools, often escalating minor infractions to the justice system in a process known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Other departments extract wealth from communities through excessive fines and fees.
And tragically, each of these processes disproportionately affects communities of color. More tragically still, this comes as no surprise to even the most casual observers of our criminal justice system.
Just this summer, many major city police departments have escalated violence during protests, trampling our most sacred institution of free speech and chilling further dissent. Does this look like a structure performing its function in our society?
When an immune system attacks its own body, medical doctors perform treatment. They do not stand by and pontificate on the importance of an immune system. They do not speak of ideal immune responses. They administer medication to quiet the excited response and seek to stabilize the patient.
Our society, it would seem, is sick. As we reckon with our failing institutions, let us not forget to ask if they are working. To the defund skeptics, I ask: who is deviant here? Was it Breonna Taylor, sleeping innocently in her bed? What about Eric Garner, choked to death for selling unlicensed cigarettes? Or George Floyd, suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill?
Or is it our police?