Even people doing their best to improve the world make mistakes. This was evident in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, last month during a public clash on the town’s Peace and Justice Plaza between defenders of Confederate statuary and anti-racist activists.
Before the police arrived to insulate the two groups, mutual yelling had begun to escalate into pushing and shoving. After the police erected a plastic barrier, the outnumbered neoConfederates stepped back and took an ear-beating as their opponents chanted, “Go home, racists!” and “Nat Turner, John Brown, anti-racists run this town.”
The chanters had it right. Most Chapel Hillians, a more-liberal-than-average bunch, would have gladly echoed their message: Racists go home, and take your benighted statues with you. It’s a hopeful message being sent by progressives in communities across the South. But there were other chants, ones that cost the anti-racist activists the moral high ground. These were chants aimed at the cops on the scene.
The antipathy that local activists feel for the police is understandable. Police here, as elsewhere, are seen as too ready to use violence to assert their authority, especially against people of color. They’re seen as acting without sufficient public accountability. They’re seen as protecting society’s unjust hierarchies of wealth, status, and power. This is hardly a fringe analysis; anyone who has been paying attention in recent decades will recognize the truth in these perceptions.
Local anti-racist activists also have had legitimate complaints about police use of excessive force, infiltration and spying, and apparent chumminess with white supremacist groups. Such problems are of course not limited to Chapel Hill; we’ve seen the same problems in places all over the country. And again, people who care about justice and civil rights ought to be allies in pressing to see that such complaints are taken seriously, whenever and wherever they arise.
Anti-racist activists and the official responses they elicit thus remind us of an important principle: When the behavior of civil servants, including the police, imperils core community values, that behavior needs to be changed. There is nothing extreme about this. It’s called democracy, and it shouldn’t be thwarted because some groups of civil servants, especially the police, would rather operate without stringent public accountability.
But where the anti-racist activists go wrong—ignoring their own theories about the police as agents of the powerful—is in verbally abusing workaday cops. In video clips from the Chapel Hill event, anti-racist activists can be heard chanting, “No cops, no KKK, no fascist USA,” “Cops and Klan go hand in hand,” and, worse, “More dead cops.” Such chants, including the wincingly inarticulate “Fuck the police,” seem to have become standard fare at anti-racist protests. What good can come from this behavior?
Yelling at cops might give some activists a macho afterglow, but as a social change strategy it’s self-defeating. It doesn’t build support for anti-racist policies, and may even diminish that support. It also works against calls for greater police accountability to civilian bodies by making police seem justified in treating protesters aggressively.
A better strategy is a more radical one. I mean radical in the sense of going after the root of the problem: the inequalities in political and economic power that create, on the one hand, the frustration and shame that fuel white working-class racism, and that also create, on the other hand, a lot of angry, desperate, and sometimes damaged people—with whom the police must deal.
To drop the anti-cop chants is by no means to forgo criticizing police behavior when it’s out of line. Nor is it to forgo aggressive political action to change that behavior—and we have ample evidence that change is needed. We need to demilitarize the police, require better training in de-escalation tactics, and create stronger mechanisms of public accountability.
It’s no doubt easier to yell at cops during a protest event. Easier than organizing to challenge the political and economic inequalities that are woven into U.S. society. But the latter is the kind of work necessary, in the long run, to create a society in which factions of the powerless are not scrapping with each other in the streets.
Sometimes we need to tell racists to go home. But if the goal is to combat racism more generally, then it’s also important to deliver the message in a way that does not appear crass and indiscriminate. Building broad support for change depends on it.
Venting spleen at the representatives of an unjust system might feel empowering in the moment, but it is more likely to produce backlash than progress. It is also to mistake the fever for the disease. Instead of yelling at cops, what’s needed is more organizing to uproot the inequalities that generate hatred and violence in the first place, and that require violence to maintain.
Michael Schwalbe is Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University. His most recent book is Making a Difference: Using Sociology to Create a Better World (Oxford, 2019).