A recent opinion piece in the New York Times by law professor Amna Akbar celebrates the fact that activists who initially took to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd have now moved far beyond that issue. They are now “pushing demands—from ‘defund the police’ to ‘cancel rent’ to ‘pass the Green New Deal.’”
The agenda is no longer reform; it’s radicalism. “Each demand demonstrates a new attitude among leftist social movements,” Akbar writes. “They don’t want to reduce police violence, or sidestep our environmentally unsustainable global supply chain, or create grace periods for late rent. These are the responses of reformers and policy elites. Instead, the people making these demands want a new society.”
At least Akbar is being honest about the left’s ambitions, although she seems not to have studied the history of programs as bold as abolishing landlords (she might want to read about the fate of landowners during Mao’s revolution in China for reference).
Likewise, a recent Black Lives Matter announcement noted, “We are talking about everything — nothing is off the table . . . issues once considered radical left, are penetrating the lexicon and influencing the mainstream.” The BLM platform also includes a laundry list of demands about dismantling “cis-gender privilege” and vows to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.”
But are these radical proposals really “influencing the mainstream,” as their proponents claim? And even if they are, how do these activists plan to see them through the legislative process, which, given the nature of our political system, rewards compromise and negotiation rather than change by radical fiat?
Akbar claims that “polls, participation in protests and growing membership in social movement organizations show these demands are drawing larger and larger parts of the public toward a fundamental critique of the status quo and a radical vision for the future.” Her prime example? Defunding the police. “The demand for defunding suggests, as the police and prison abolitionist Rachel Herzing often says, that the only way to reduce police violence is to reduce police officers’ opportunities for contact with the public,” she writes.
But her radical vision will have to confront some inconvenient facts: There is no mainstream support for defunding the police. On the contrary, a July 9 Pew Research Center national survey of public opinion found “little support for reducing spending on policing. Just 25 [percent] of Americans say spending on policing in their area should be decreased.” This is true even among black Americans: “A 73 [percent] majority say that spending on their local police should stay about the same as it is now (42 [percent]) or be increased from its current level (31 [percent]). While Black adults are more likely than whites to favor cuts in police budgets, fewer than half of Black adults (42 [percent]) say spending on policing in their areas should be reduced.”
There is broad public support for certain reforms to policing, including eliminating techniques such as chokeholds, better data gathering on officers accused of misconduct, and the elimination of qualified immunity. But overall, the survey found that a majority of Americans “say that police around the country are doing an excellent or good job of protecting people from crimes.”
In other words, although radical activists might enjoy asserting that the American public supports their dreams of a “new society,” there is little evidence (outside of long-radicalized city councils in places like Seattle and Portland) that it will have a significant impact on the people who actually pass laws. Perhaps this is why Akbar quotes approvingly French socialist philosopher Andre Gorz, who once began a piece in the New Left Review with the line, “Votes, as Marx and Engels used to say, give the right to govern, they do not give the power to do so.”
Because ultimately this remains a debate about power rather than reform, a debate in which ideological assertions replace facts, and where threats of violence often supplant democratic deliberation. When presented with clear evidence of a spike in violent crime, for example, including the tragic slayings of many children in the past few months, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez simply ignored the facts and instead made the preposterous claim that people were stealing bread or selling weed to feed their hungry families.
And this is why even Jackie Lacey, Los Angeles’ first black, female district attorney (and a Democrat), faces constant protests from BLM activists who are determined to have her fired for daring to enforce the law. When Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of the L.A. chapter of BLM organized a group of activists and showed up at Lacey’s home in the middle of the night to “protest” her, refusing to leave her front porch when told to, Lacey’s husband had to confront them with a gun to get them to leave. As CNN reported, Rep. Adam Schiff has also pulled his endorsement of Lacey. “I don’t know why he pulled his support,” Lacey told CNN, “but I have heard from electeds that they’re being threatened via emails . . . People are showing up at electeds’ houses late at night, protesting them.”
Because Lacey’s views on law enforcement hew more closely to those of most Americans, BLM doesn’t believe she’s radical enough, which means she also is evidently not “black” enough either. “When you have somebody who is Black, it doesn’t always mean they carry the interests of all Black people,” Abdullah told CNN.
Lacey, who grew up in South L.A. and whose childhood home was burgled, approaches policing from the perspective of real-world experience rather than ideology. She observed, “People don’t realize in the seventies and eighties how dangerous it was in Los Angeles . . . I remember when [my parents] used to complain that police don’t care about our neighborhood.” By contrast, BLM created a kind of wanted poster for Lacey, outlining her “seven deadly sins.”
In Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinksy advised, “If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside. Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.” Note to BLM: When the “negative” you push is factually inaccurate and the violence comes not from “the other side” but from within your own movement, the public won’t see you as the underdog. And the sympathy and common feeling the majority of Americans might have had for your movement will soon fade.