Professors discuss historical precedent in demands for police reform, social media effects on Black Lives Matter movement
After the events surrounding George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests that erupted in nearly all states across the nation, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken the world by storm. People have gathered to protest and express solidarity not only in the U.S., but in the U.K, Hong Kong and South Korea as well. During this time, the words of famous figures of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are echoed in chants, on signs and on social media posts. So what does the movement look like today, over six decades later?
Several protests — calling for racial equality and defunding the police — have occurred locally in the past two weeks, including in Frisco, downtown Plano and downtown Dallas. The protests themselves were met with resistance, with police being deployed at the protests and using tear gas, rubber bullets and mass-arresting protestors.
Senior sociology major Anjana Parashar attended a protest in Dallas two weeks ago, where she said she and other demonstrators were hit with tear gas by police during the protest.
“I was there for about two hours and we were all just walking together and the police were being very aggressive and I would just say rude, unnecessarily, so it was a very scary situation to be in. I got tear gassed and it’s not a fun thing to be tear gassed at all, it’s extremely painful,” she said. “At the same time, it felt good to get tear gassed because at that point I understood what the front liners of these protests were going through and what they were feeling, and it felt good to know I was fighting alongside them.”
According to an article by the Texas Tribune, the Dallas Police Department publicly stated that they released tear gas, and local reporters cite the use of rubber bullets at protests. Recently, however, an injunction was signed off on to ban the use of “less lethal” weapons such as chemical agents to deter protestors, effective until Sept. 9.
But resistance against police brutality is nothing new, and neither is the demand for defunding the police — a demand which has existed for generations as a proposed solution from people concerned with police violence, said assistant Arts and Humanities professor Anne Fischer. In 1968, The Kerner Commission was established by the POTUS at the time to address the police and National Guard response to protests against institutionalized racism and poverty in cities such as Newark and Detroit, which also saw rioting and looting at the protests. She said this was in recognition of the impoverishment of black communities at the time, and that the demands for defunding the police taps into this historical recognition.
Fischer said defunding the police is a demand to redistribute the disproportionate funding of law enforcement in comparison to institutions of community and vulnerable populations.
“What is radical about the history of law enforcement is how lavishly funded they have become. So defunding the police is really just a demand to reduce the amount of military grade equipment from police departments,” she said. “And when we see how grossly disproportionate the funding for police is and how meager funding is to support lives and black care and communities, defunding then becomes a way to a demand to redistribute and shift our collective priorities.”
Fischer researches the effects of police enforcement of moral, or “public order” laws against women — particularly black women and black trans women — in the 20th century and how it relates to police power overall. Public order laws are laws which enforce against acts which are considered “harmful to society.” She said police are allowed to arrest thousands per year for public order laws, and this practice tends to target women and trans women of color who are considered sexually deviant or disorderly. She said her research investigates how this translates to criminalizing homelessness and poverty as a way to make white people feel more comfortable on the streets.
“From about the 1920s to the 1990s, police had a really breathtaking amount of discretion in deciding how to enforce these really vague public order misdemeanors. A police officer could basically surveil a woman and arrest her for a prostitution-related misdemeanor just because she’s standing on the street, or walking on the street when there’s a sidewalk … really innocuous everyday movements on public space that you and I do any time we take a walk.”
Fischer said in her research she argues that police power has expanded dramatically in the last 40 years, and that the battle over women’s bodies and how much power police have to target women for their presumed sexual practices was important for justifying and legalizing the expansion of discretionary police power.
“And using the enormous funding that backs this sort of public order policing, instead of funding this violent and harmful cycle of arresting and jailing the poor, that funding would go to unarmed social workers who would connect impoverished people with resources and care that they need, like housing, healthcare, mental health assistance and all of these resources that we can pay for because we know that hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars are already going to police.’’ Fischer said.
The 2017-2018 total adopted budget for Dallas Police Department was $465,522,805, and total planned budget for 2018-2019 was $482,419,093, which is about a $17 million increase. In comparison, the total planned budget for Human and Social Needs, which includes the Office for Community Care and the Office for Homeless Solutions, for 2018-2019 was $18,213,410. According to an article by NBC DFW, Dallas City Council members recently denied a request to redirect funds to the DPD budget by $6.5 million, which would have paid for an increase in police hiring this year, in response to pressure from demonstrators.
Mental health calls are one example of something handled by police departments, which has been addressed in different ways. The Crisis Intervention Team program was created in 1988 by the Memphis Tennessee Police Department in response to Memphis police officers shooting a suicidal person who approached them. This was implemented in 2009 by the Plano police department. In addition, the Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team Care program was implemented in 2018 as a three-year pilot program by the DPD in south central Dallas to divert responses to mental health calls to intervention services rather than to the emergency room or jails. In response to a mental health call, a police officer, paramedic and behavioral specialist from Parkland Hospital are dispatched. This program is funded by a grant of $2.2 million by the W.W. Caruth, Jr. Foundation at Communities Foundation of Texas, according to an article by NBC DFW.
For Fischer, defunding could involve removing police from situations where they have to respond to homelessness or mental health crises, and instead redirecting this to unarmed and highly trained specialists who are committed to serving marginalized and vulnerable populations.
“So it’s imagining different ways — different frontline workers — disarming them, and putting in place, instead of police, trained healthcare, mental healthcare professionals and social workers,” Fischer said. “These are people who have dedicated their lives to service and to helping people in need. If police even do get training to deal with mental health crises, those trainings can often just be a day, right? One day a year. And that will not help police deescalate a situation, particularly when they are the ones who are heavily armed and the people that they are engaging with are not.”
While the demand for reforming the police remained since the 1960s, assistant Arts and Humanities professor Ben Wright said the big difference between today’s movement and in years prior, such as during the Ferguson riots, was the vivid video depicting George Floyd’s death.
“I think that that certainly plays a role and that’s the kind of key distinguisher. The Ferguson situation, for those of us that really understand the problems of policing and racism, was clear. But for folks that are inclined to see police as a benevolent institution, there were questions in their mind,” Wright said. “I think what’s striking is how many folks, including folks that normally wouldn’t be inclined to take action for racial justice, after seeing that video are fairly unequivocal about the injustice that took place.”
Coverage of the protests has varied on news and social media, and the focus on them has been either on the peaceful or violent aspects. He said that there is an interest for white people and people in power to focus on the looting as a way of delegitimizing the cause of the protest and as a resistance to acknowledging white privilege, which stems from a societal value of property.
“I think that there’s a real resistance to surrendering those privileges and even there’s a real resistance into acquiring the awareness that would give the kind of moral imperative of surrendering that privilege. So because it’s that kind of ideological interests, there are a lot of people that are constantly looking for ways to minimize the injustice that exists and to what in fact are overwhelmingly democratic expressions of discontent can be reinterpreted as you know, the violence, immoral actions of either outside agitators — we’ve heard that phrase kind of a lot which has a history in the sixties — or the violent destruction of property,” Wright said. “There’s certainly an excessive interest that’s being spent on the looting. But, there’s are kind of curious ways that folks are telling on themselves by the way that they talk about the looting, revealing our society’s veneration of property over lives.”
On social media, the movement circulated through hashtags such as #blacklivesmatter and #BLM, George Floyd’s video and other videos of the protests. A constantly updated link to a set of petitions, government official contact information, donation sites and other pieces of information in connection to the Black Lives Matter movement was shared across nearly all social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and even TikTok. In a survey conducted by The Mercury with 118 respondents, 83% of respondents said they were using social media to keep up with the Black Lives Matter movement, and 43% said Twitter was their primary source of news about the protests.
Fischer said the use of social media accelerates the scale and speed of the networks of communication and mobilization of the movement and the protests. She said she is seeing a meaningful shift online in the ways people are being activated by the violence, with people posting and circulating reading lists and other forms of information.
“I mean, people on my social media feeds who were never political are all of a sudden posting, like to remember Breonna Taylor on her birthday, or more importantly, people are posting and circulating reading lists to educate themselves. That’s what I find most powerful and most exciting,” Fischer said. “I’ve had people in my family who were never political, or I never really talked about what I did with them, emailing me and asking for reading recommendations, ‘What do you assign in your class? I’d like to learn more.’ And that is powerful and, in my lifetime, unprecedented.”
In The Mercury survey, 58% of respondents said they have used their social media platform to post anything related to the Black Lives Matter movement, which consisted of commentary posts, petition links, donation/bail fund links and art/media.
Black Student Alliance Vice President and software engineering senior Gerry Bogonko said he noticed the strength of the movement now has helped open people’s hearts and perspectives to black people’s struggles. He showed his friends the video of George Floyd’s death and saw how they couldn’t finish watching. Now, he and his non-black friends are reading “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander.
“Never in a million years I thought I would be reading this with my white friends. So, to me (it is) a big plus,” Bogonko said. “I think people are more willing to listen right now. I just do.”
He said one thing that has circulated among black student organizations on campus is the question of what to do about activist fatigue, which is a feeling of burnout in social justice and human rights activists. He said they are trying to combat this by defining concrete plans for what happens next, whether at UTD in the form of demands for more black representation on campus or professors being hired, or in national policies such as police reform.
“It’s really important to start asking these questions about the policies. These kinds of things take sometimes months to put it in motion. It’s very important that we just strike while the iron is hot and that that’s what we’re trying to do,” Bogonko said. “There are multicultural and diverse student organizations all around the country that are following suit…creating these demands. I think that we as students, that’s what we need to do and that’s what we are doing.”