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The Problem of Decentralization as Scarcity
Every few weeks, when I study The New York Times, I read about another police shooting of some innocent citizen–killed for no reason. It gives me a feeling of nausea. That is the emotional side of the problem. There is also a cognitive side and that is my suspicion that large parts of the so-called “Left” don’t have a clue about what to do regarding these things. I don’t mean Black Lives Matter (BLM) which has in theory a pretty comprehensive program of activities or set of organizing ideas. Rather, I mean a more comprehensive problem which I will get to shortly.
Adolph Reed, however, has offered some criticisms of BLM which are certainly worth considering. First, there is an “immensely fortified and self-reproducing institutional and industrial structure” behind the repressive state. Challenging that state “will require a deep political strategy, one that must eventually rise to a challenge of the foundational premises of the regime of market-driven public policy and increasing direction of the state’s functions at every level toward supporting accelerating regressive transfer and managing its social consequences through policing.” Second, “the focus on racial disparity accepts the premise of neoliberal social justice that the problem of inequality is not its magnitude or intensity in general but whether or not it is distributed in a racially equitable way. To the extent that that is the animating principle of a left politics, it is a politics that lies entirely within neoliberalism’s logic.”
One element of Neoliberal structures are rooted in a certain form of decentralization. Decentralization might mean “community” control of police, but it could also mean decentralization to a level of fiscal responsibility defined by shortages of capital and resources. The latter problem associated with fiscal decentralization has been noted by Bo Rothstein, author of Just Institutions Matter.
Texas and Florida: Two Cases of Neoliberal Scarcity Regimes
Jordan Edwards, an unarmed African American fifteen year old, was shot in the head by a white police officer on April 29 as he “sat in the front passenger seat of a car leaving a house party last Saturday after police officers arrived to break up the party,” as The New York Times recently reported. The shooting took place in Balch Springs, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. One source stated that the city had a majority Latino population (55.5%), with the next biggest group being African Americans (23.1%) followed by Whites (19.2%). The Times explains that even though “the city is majority black and Hispanic, only a handful of the department’s nearly 40 police officers are either black or Hispanic.” Cedric W. Davis Sr., the city’s first African American mayor (2008-2009) argued that this discrepancy was “unacceptable.” As Davis explained, “You can’t represent a community as diverse as this one if you don’t have anybody that can relate. They do some good work. But a lot of the people are afraid of them.”
The Dallas News reported in 2015, that “Eight out of 10 Balch Springs police officers are white — though three out of four residents are not. And state records as of early February  indicated that only one of the city’s 42 police officers is a woman.” Moreover, “Balch Springs is part of a larger pattern. A Reporting Texas analysis found that suburban police departments in Dallas County have some of the largest demographic gaps in the state. In all but a few, the majority of police officers are white and the majority of residents are minorities.”
Why is Balch Springs unable to rectify this racial discrepancy? Pedgro Gonzalez, a spokesman for the city’s police department, explained that his department found difficulty to recruit African American and Latino police officers because they lacked sufficient resources and because nearby departments offered better pay. Gonzalez said, “we’re a 35-, 37-man department, and we don’t have money to recruit.” Gonzalez said, “we recruit through Facebook. Our top-out pay is like $68,000. Mesquite, which is right next door, makes $78,000. It’s very difficult to recruit.”
We might learn something by comparing Texas with similar states as well as with other states which differ on key parameters. Texas is one of the U.S. states that does not levy an income tax. In theory such taxes could be used to pay for diversifying police forces and training in preventative means of crime prevention, i.e. that don’t lead police officers to shoot unarmed youth in the head. In Texas, the poorest 20% pay 12.6% of their income on taxes, the middle 60% pay only 8.8% of their income and the top 1% pay a pitiful 3.2% of their income (in 2015). The Texas police killed 98 persons in 2015 and 82 persons in 2016. Florida, like Texas, lacks an income tax. the poorest 20% paid 13.2% of their income on taxes, the middle 60% paid 8.3% of their income, and the top 1% only 2.1% of their income on taxes. Florida police killed 60 persons in 2015 and another 60 persons in 2016. In theory, the fiscal constraints on police departments on the state level might have something to do with self-imposed fiscal poverty. Economic poverty, a problem which is aggravated by impoverished governments, also plays a role. Reed notes research by Zaid Jilani who found “that ninety-five percent of police killings occurred in neighborhoods with median family income of less than $100,00 and that the median family income in neighborhoods where police killed was $52,907.”
Sweden and New York as Alternative Regimes
There administrative differences between various police departments could easily be leveled by merging police departments at greater levels of administrative aggregation. This is what has occurred in Sweden, for example. The fiscal difficulties would then be based on problems at the local state or national state level, depending on which level of aggregation were chosen.
We can also see how fiscal and political alternatives play themselves out on the state level within the United States. New York State is one of the states that has guidelines against racial profiling. In contrast to New York, Florida and Texas were two of the more than twenty U.S. states in 2014 with racial profiling laws that were not clear and specific in prohibiting racial profiling. New York also has a more robust welfare state than Texas or Florida, even if that welfare state is under duress. New York State also has income taxes and a population about 72% the size of Texas and about 98% of Florida’s. New York State police killed only 19 persons in 2015 and only 17 in 2016.
Constraining the Risk Society: Reconstruction, Not “Resistance”
Simpy resisting police violence won’t be enough. That strategy won’t stop Trump or police violence. The tragedy of the Jordan Edwards shooting is partially a byproduct of what Ulrich Beck, the famous German sociologist, calls a “risk society,” in which we should come to expect risks to our livelihood. These risks are partially created by a climate of racism and what Beck calls a lack of self-reflection, i.e. in this case governing the proper training and financing of police forces and the organization of government functions. There are institutions of power and ideology, backing dysfunctional decentralization, an impoverished welfare state, and a lack of power for those persons who are victims to this irrational system. The alternatives can be found in reconstructive principles that support political, media and economic democracy, i.e. social and economic reconstruction.
One central problem is that people of color in cities like Balch Springs suffer from disempowerment in political and economic power. On the political front, citizens of Balch Springs are represented in the U.S. Congress by white, conservative Republican Jeb Hensarling and African-American, Democratic Eddie Bernice Johnson. In March of this year, a district court ruled that gerrymandering in the state of Texas violated the Voting Rights Act. The case was filed originally in 2011, charging that the redistricting to disempower minority voters took place after 2010 census in Texas as a result of intentional designs. One the economic front, the median worker income is $26,476 in Balch Springs which is lower than the national average of $29,701. The city’s poverty rate of 19.3% is higher than the national average.
The original platform of the Black Panther Party contained elements or a reconstructionist regime to address such power disparities. Huey P. Newton, co-founder and Black Panther leader, explained the organization’s ten point program. The first point he said was that “we want freedom, we want power to determine the destiny of our black communities.” The second point was “full employment for our people.” The third point was “housing fit for shelter of human beings.” The seventh was “an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.” On a smaller scale it is interesting to note the trajectory of Sam Allen, a police officer and administrator of forty years, who retired in 2008 and joined Balch Spring’s policies department as the city’s community service director. There he was charged “with creating and expanding programs and events that bring people together” including crime-watch units and a citizen-police academy. He was also responsible for getting “more minorities and women to join the Balch Springs Police Department.”
One key idea behind reconstruction is the promotion of alternative ways to design the deploying of the political, media, and economic forms of capital which promotes social change. What that might mean is the following. Occasionally the Left organizes demonstrations and conferences involving anywhere from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of persons. The meet in one centralized location, usually a place like New York, Washington, or Chicago. BLM often organizes local demonstrations, however.
While national gatherings have their place, the limitations to like-minded individuals assembling in one spot are the following. First, often this amounts to a “self-congratulation” society, where those who think similarly congratulate each other for thinking similarly (this practice extends to Facebook which has perfected that kind of cultural deformity).
Second, it ignores that regional differentiation is jeopardizing the enlightenment project and elements of democracy in the United States. Such regional disparities helped elect Donald Trump. In contrast to Obama’s famous proclamation at the 2004 Democratic Convention, that “pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats” and how misguided that was, we do see regional patterns that differ, partially based on the legacy of slave states, rural and urban disparities and the like. If some areas of the country are more enlightened and have greater resources than others lacking enlightenment and resources, persons in these enlightened and resource rich regions have a responsibility to intervene in the knowledge and resource poor areas. This pattern partially occurred in the Civil Rights movement which involved a solidarity system between North and South and not simply postcolonial manipulation.
Third, in contrast to the notion that there are simply these angry people out there who expressed their rage as Trump voters and such persons should be demonized and subject to a kind of distancing and psychological analysis, one could argue that such voters exist in a kind of bubble. By objectifying the Trump voter, the Leftist does not have to take any responsibility. It is a cop out. In contrast, one can try to influence such voters and their cultural sphere. For example, the U.S. once had a great debate on slavery and the Abolitionists intervened as part of this debate. Today, we must realize that there are parts of the United States in which we must similarly intervene like high police violence regions. Recently, the U.S. far right has intervened in the French election to try to promote a politician whose party has a fascist legacy. It is only fitting that the Left try to adopt certain places where they try to intervene by advancing progressive candidates for office, e.g. a kind of investment bank for candidates who support income taxes, community control boards for police, and an expanded welfare state. Or, they could intervene by creating local internet broadcasting or radio and community television platforms promoting such an agenda. One way to intervene would be to rescue one city at a time. Each city rescued could contribute to what amounted to a kind of “revolving loan fund,” with such capital financing courses in how to democratize a city, develop cooperatives, regulate police violence and provide subsidies to recruit more culturally enlightened police officers.
A final thought exercise. Assemble about 1,000 persons for whatever reason in a kind of left meeting. Each person donates 30 dollars to a fund to hire a political organizer in Balch Springs, Texas. The money is matched by a foundation grant. The organizer promotes worthy left publications, organizes book tours by authors, and champions a program of economic, media and political reconstruction. Just a thought.
The author teaches at Stockholm University is part of www.sciser.org and can be reached at @gl