The worst social unrest we have had since the Civil War was caused by the George Floyd race protests. It has cost the nation between one and two billion dollars. No progress on the issues that set them off has been made in over a year (an election year, at that). Meanwhile, the “racist America” and “defund the police” memes continue to be featured in political campaigns around the country, and especially here in the New York City mayor’s race.

I’m hard-pressed to name any issue more prominent than race. Racism has been the issue for at least four election cycles: during the Obama Presidency (one and two): Trump is bad because he’s a racist (three); Joe Biden is good because he is not a racist (four). The issue has eclipsed even our interminable Middle Eastern warfare. Meanwhile, over-incarceration is the only clear example of structural, institutional racism there is. Now, NYC is on track to elect another doubled-down incarcerator (after the 2020 Democratic ticket).

The contradiction is because police (and carceral) reform is a Wicked Problem: fix one aspect of it, another is affected. This is hard to cope with in a meme-happy culture engaged in tweet-battles, fast becoming the main means of political communication (candidate debates have been gamed to the point where they are just as distorted).

Part of the wickedness is because the police have disproportionate power to shape the public information that goes into the memes that make their reform. The phenomenon has been addressed in these pages many times, and has been dubbed the Washington Monument Syndrome by political scientists. Here is an example straight from a cop’s mouth: “Word has come down from the PBA that we are not to try to chase a suspect down on foot for more than a few steps.” There was a case in Brooklyn, where a woman with a restraining order against her ex called the police, but when he ran, they “couldn’t” catch him. He came back, forced her into a car, and held her and her family at knifepoint for a few hours before he lost interest.” This did not happen as part of an official work slowdown/job action. This is simply what routine police work will look like, going forward. This is police caution (not unreasonable at that) as a response to widespread negative public scrutiny, before we even get started on real reform. When people hear these kinds of stories, they link it with the “defund the police” meme and balk at voting for police change.

The story teaches several lessons:

1 – A single incident can derail sensible proposals to adapt the police. Just as the single George Floyd incident was an outlier of police misconduct, but was distorted by memes and media into “Defund the Police” (which virtually nobody wants).

2 – The police get a say in how the narratives of their policing plays out in the media.

3 – Dysfunction and bad policy beget more funding (and usually more bad policy) rather than adaptation.

More wickedness comes from the media/police symbiosis: the police leak them all the stories that make the front page (lookin’ at you, New York Post). The wrong headline at the wrong time in an election season is a powerful tool, the infamous “October Surprise.” The media-police symbiosis is powerful enough that Eric Adams gained a decisive advantage in the election by putting up a bounty of his own money to nab a front-page-famous “assassin”.

The stalling of reform is in the interests of the police.They would rather not be defunded, but they will also rather not be reformed. Their endorsement has been a prize in every election. Mental health professionals and drug rehabbers, not so much.

Yet and still, it should be apparent that this state of affairs cannot go on. Relations between communities (mainly of color) and their policing are estranged to the point where any phone video of ugly (even if necessary) policing can set off hair-trigger riots. But adapting the cycle is, at the same time, a political loser: just about every candidate in the Democratic line-up addressed it, and the voters wanted another top-cop (ditto Republican primary winner Curtis Sliwa).

Hopes for criminal justice reform were pinned on the local level (by me, at least). National-level policy seems too removed from the problem to be of any use. That is, when it is a problem for us (cities burning), but not a problem for them. It is in the Democrats’ interest to keep the incarcerating system the way it is: lookin’ at you Chairman of the Judiciary Committee that made over incarceration, Joe Biden (bonus insult: COVID relief money could go into more over-policing). And Kamala Harris, who made her bones as an incarcerator, who was brought in from left-field, from her fizzled campaign, to shore up Democrats’ “Law and Order” bonafides when the electorate didn’t like the look of the George Floyd riots (which were caused by the over-incarcerating they helped create). And now, add into the pattern likely Mayor of New York City Eric Adams.

So, after all the damage of the riots, New York City, the most liberal city in the nation (as distinct from “batshit crazy-liberal” cities like San Francisco and Portland), will almost certainly not reform this most liberal issue. Despite the fact we had unprecedented solution space to do so, during a ranked choice election with the greatest array of political choices yet offered in an election of this size. NYC still refused to change the last bastion of structural racism there is. The issue that millions of Americans braved COVID to peacefully march against (but thousands also rioted over).

The community of color will continue to not like being treated as an ATM for police funding, and there will be more George Floyds, causing the next George Floyd sympathy-burnings. And the trouble will continue to feature in national politics (obviously uselessly), exacerbating our divisions over racism, whatever that means. But whatever that may be, if the concept can’t successfully draw political power to end structural racism in the most liberal city in the nation, can the “racism” meme have any use except as a wedge?

Adapting the police, going forward from this failure, will be a heavy lift in defiance of the entrenched political interests of the last generation-plus, which is the problem’s most wicked aspect. That fact stands alone as a wholesale indictment of the adaptability of our entire system, considering how many Americans want criminal justice reform. But, when contrasted with decades of exquisite sensitivity towards race issues (how many lost careers, de-platforming, etc.), the election of Eric Adams makes our granite status quo, on our clearest racial issue, completely incoherent.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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