Ta-Nehisi Coates
Credit: Montes Bradley/Wikimedia Commons

One of the most common critiques leveled against Ta-Nehisi Coates is that he is too pessimistic about race relations in the United States. That is why, at this moment of crisis, a lot of people are going to be surprised by the way he began this extraordinarily thought-provoking discussion with Ezra Klein. When asked what he sees going on in the country right now, Coates responded by saying, “I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but I see hope. I see progress right now, at this moment.”

Coates goes on to relay a conversation he had with his father comparing the current situation with what happened in 1968.

The idea that black folks in their struggle against the way the law is enforced in their neighborhoods would resonate with white folks in Des Moines, Iowa, in Salt Lake City, in Berlin, in London — that was unfathomable to him in ’68, when it was mostly black folks in their own communities registering their great anger and great pain.

I don’t want to overstate this, but there are significant swaths of people and communities that are not black, that to some extent have some perception of what that pain and that suffering is. I think that’s different.

On the issue of police brutality, which has been the primary concern for African Americans for decades now, Coates is hopeful because non-black people have finally joined the struggle. That makes this an inflection point in this country’s history. It is possible to change course, which is why it is critically important to articulate a vision of where we want to go.

Before anyone hardens their opinion on the latest push by some protesters to defund the police, the conversation between Coates and Klein lays bare some assumptions about law enforcement that need to be challenged to develop that vision. Initially, they note the fallacy of those who espouse “law and order” at a time like this.

Klein: Police certainly betrayed the law in killing George Floyd. That unleashes protests which break the order. And that, then, is used by a lot of conservative politicians — guys like Tom Cotton — to create a justification for police to break the law again in order to impose his version of order…

Over and over again, this idea of order is used to justify lawlessness on behalf of the state. The people advocating for that approach hide behind the fact that, for many people, it doesn’t look like lawlessness as long as the state is doing it. It doesn’t appear the same way as an anarchist in a black face mask throwing a brick. But when you look at those videos of cops just casually turning rubber bullets on people who are filming them, who are posing no threat to them — that’s just a crime.

Coates: There’s a kind of logic to it where law is stated not as any sort of a reflection of the world we want to live in, but as a reflection of the allocation of power.

They then turn to the whole notion of nonviolence and note that it is an approach that is only demanded of protesters—not law enforcement—because the state has reserved for itself a monopoly on the use of violence. To understand how such an approach could be embraced by the state, you have to articulate some of the assumptions that nonviolence makes about human relations. Here is how Klein introduces a check on some of our underlying beliefs.

Klein: The core of nonviolence is that you will transform those you are in relationship with through your own willingness to suffer and forgive … You will always hold out the hope of growth and transformation, and you will accept enormous risk and pain to create space for it …

I just did a conversation with Rutger Bregman who wrote this book called Humankind, which is all about how you would build a society on this very different view of human nature. We’re used to the idea that if you do something to me, I should do it back. The state works like that: If you do something awful and violent, we will do something awful and violent back to you. And the question his book raises is: Does that actually work?

That question was answered in the quote attributed to Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

It is important to note that the law and order folks have a very different view of human nature that is often religiously infused. They believe that humans are inherently evil and in need of the control that comes via authoritarianism. For example, Texas Lt. Governor recently said this:

You cannot love your fellow man if you don’t love God…You cannot change the culture of a country until you change the character of mankind. And you can’t change that unless you change the heart, and for billions of us on the planet, we believe you can’t do that unless you accept Jesus Christ or unless you accept God.

What Patrick is saying is that, unless you submit to his religious beliefs, you are incapable of loving your fellow man. That is basically the view of human nature espoused by Attorney General Barr during his speech at Notre Dame.

The challenge we face is precisely what the Founding Fathers foresaw would be our supreme test as a free society.

They never thought the main danger to the republic came from external foes. The central question was whether, over the long haul, we could handle freedom. The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.

By and large, the Founding generation’s view of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition…

Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites, and, if unrestrained, are capable of ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.

No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity.

That is precisely why Christian nationalists have engaged in a so-called “culture war” to take the reins of the state as the institution that has a monopoly on violence which, other than religion, is the only tool that can be used to restrain individual rapacity.

As we re-think the role of law enforcement in this country, those are the two views of human nature that will clash and need to be unearthed to understand why public safety is viewed so differently. Klein and Coates are not suggesting that a completely nonviolent approach to public safety is warranted. But it is important to expose the underlying assumptions that resulted in a state that has monopolized the use of violence.

My concern is that the “defund police” mantra is already becoming a political football before anyone has (1) envisioned an alternative, or (2) done the hard work of outlining steps that would bring about that change. Already some protesters are shaming politicians who refuse to embrace a slogan, while Republicans are practically salivating about campaigning against Democrats who want to abolish the police.

To envision the possibilities, Coates points to a twitter thread from Josie Duffy Rice “where she was arguing that many people who think police abolition is crazy actually live in a world where the police have effectively been abolished already. ”

Many people in america already exist in a world where police and prisons do not exist. go to any middle to upper class suburb in america. cops arent wandering the streets. people aren’t being arrested. neighbors aren’t being sent to prison. and generally everyone is….fine.

many people say they cannot imagine this world. what most of them cannot imagine is someone not policing black brown and poor people. THAT is what is unimaginable to them. not the absence of law enforcement. if you are lucky, you already functionally live with that absence.

To re-think the role of police in black, brown, and poor communities, we must ask why they have been practically eliminated in upper class (mostly white) communities. To support the abolition of police without doing some hard thinking, planning, and funding in answer to that question would be unconscionable.

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