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UK and US academics speak on the historical significance and goals of the ongoing protests, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. Ava DeSantis writes about what you should know about their consensus.

The London School of Economics (LSE) hosted a roundtable discussion entitled “Race and Policing in America.” Professor Nicola Lacey, Professor Tracey L. Meares, Professor Tim Newburn, and Dr. Coretta Phillips spoke at the event, chaired by Professor Peter Trubowitz: Nicola Lacey is a Professor of Law, Gender and Social Policy, in LSE’s Department of Law; Tim Newburn is a Professor of Criminology and Social Policy at LSE; Tracey L. Meares is a Walton Hale Hamilton Professor and a Founding Director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School; Dr. Corretta Phillips is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Policy at LSE, and Peter Trubowitz is a Professor of International Relations and Director of the US Centre at LSE.

The professors envision the role of academics in this movement as largely introspective. As Dr. Phillips explained, “the academy itself is going through its own somewhat introspective analysis of its own failings.” Professor Meares expanded on the progress needed within the academy: “the academy really needs to think seriously about what we research, and how we go about that research, the ways in which our research, especially in social science work, are we doing community-based research practices?” They offered, to activists and other interested viewers, an analysis of strategies for advocacy and protest in America, an explanation of the current movement’s historical context, and a deeper look at calls to defund the police.

On the federal system and judicial advocacy

The Professors reminded international viewers of the structure of the American government.“The United States is a federal system,” explained Professor Meares. This means “the national government actually is structurally very weak [to] address many of the issues around policing. The idea that we would have a national use of force standard or a national accreditation body or national statistics or national oversight of local policing agencies, is a very complicated question.”

Professor Meares argued why advocates should care about this structure. “The federal government does…cannot even go into a particular agency in this country, and try to change things through the consent decree process, unless there is a finding of a sustained practice of violation of constitutional rights. There’s no basic auditing function of whether they are adhering to their basic policies, which means taking control and accountability of agencies very difficult, if the states themselves are not going to do it.” For activists, this means it is important to build a coalition of statewide advocacy groups, paying attention to the specific entities responsible for holding police accountable in each state.

The professors answered questions considering the effectiveness of litigation as a tool for advocacy, as opposed to electoral politics and lobbying. Professor Lacey of LSE’s Law School doubted its efficiency because it makes activists “dependent on the cases that come up.” This nature makes litigation “useful” but not a “substitute for longer-term policymaking.”

On COVID-19 and Protest

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed inequities between public investment in communities of color versus white communities. The professors agreed that these inequities intensified the impact of police violence on Black people, but may also increase the historical significance of this iteration of the larger movement for racial justice.

“We have a population, of which I am a descendant, of formerly enslaved people, who have never actually been able to receive the benefit of reconstruction, which was halted in our country after a short 11 years by racial terror… And what that means is that the relationship that many African Americans have with police is one in which a set of armed first responders has been used to socially discipline those folks, to impact their access to voting rights, political rights, civil rights, segregation,” Professor Meares began. “The police response is very tied up in the fact that we have places, geographical spaces, in the United States that we’re bringing it to COVID uniquely vulnerable to the COVID pandemic.”

Meares continued, “the response that those communities were getting even as they were trying to deal with the pandemic was often armed first response as if that was an adequate state response to the issues that they were struggling within the pandemic.”

Dr. Phillips connected this to the length of media focus on the movement. “I actually think this moment is gonna last for a few more weeks, several weeks, maybe even a few months, but one thing we do know is that COVID will be with us for a year or more,” she said. 

“The same people who are affected by the armed first responders, who are out in the streets protesting, are the same people who are impacted by the poor response…in the pandemic…” She predicted “[this is] going to give us some traction for talking about how the state should respond with this set of critical public goods.”

On defunding the police

Calls to defund the police become more mainstream, with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) now supporting the demand. The ACLU California’s Criminal Justice Director, Lizzie Buchen, explained “the police presence in our country is far too large and it is absolutely unnecessary if your goal is safety, and it is contrary to that of justice. If we want safety we need to dramatically reduce the size of the policing system, and we need to shift that to investing in things that make communities safer, we need to make sure people have housing, healthcare, food, quality education, and access to childcare.” Confusion over what the demand means, however, remains.

Professor Meares clarified that ‘defund the police,’ is not a call to defund the state; “I’m not talking about defunding the state. In fact, quite the opposite. I am all about the state.”

“People are now calling for something like shrinking the footprint,” Meares began, “do we actually need armed first responders to come to different communities to do all the things that people are that police are being asked to do… barking dogs or address the fact that there is a man on a corner in front of a bodega selling loose cigarette?” 

Meares questioned, “why [such a person needs] to be exposed to forcible arrest?” She continued “defunding means to me, restriction of only giving that armed first response and investing it in other things.”

She stipulated that this need to reinvest in schools and healthcare for Black communities also requires a revaluation of how these forces interact with communities. “But…you can’t just invest it in the education system and the health system, as if those portions of our government provision are shaped and structured in the way that they should be,” Meares argued, “because they’re not.”

On the uniqueness of American racial politics

The other speakers echoed Professor Meares’ emphasis on the difference between the American, British, and other international political systems, but Dr. Phillips explained that while there are a uniquely American political system and history, there is a universal experience of racism for Black and Brown people.

“There is a kind of universality and durability to what the skin represents and those of who have black or brown skin.” Dr. Phillips spoke from personal experience: “It frames our lives in a really deep and existential way, but also materially and symbolically. So it might be variable in how it affects us in our everyday lives but it’s always there, and it’s always with us from cradle to grave. And, so I think, for this reason, many of us don’t experience acts like the murder of George Floyd as by the state but as a hate crime, because we know it could have been us, it could have been someone loved in our family, it could be one of our friends, there’s always a potential for it to be us.”

Ava DeSantis

Ava DeSantis is Gen Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today. She has a background in political science and history at George Washington University.