Americans seeking remedies to police violence are getting a lot of advice these days. At the top of many lists is voting.
It’s tempting to think we can practice our civic duty on one day every couple years and then be done with it. If we just elect more progressive leaders, some suppose, they will fix these problems for us.
But that has never been true, and it won’t be now. Worse than being ineffective, our fixation on electoral politics risks lulling us into complacency.
If voting liberal candidates into office worked, George Floyd — who was killed in the street by a Minneapolis police officer last month, igniting mass protests — might still be alive. The Minneapolis City Council has 12 Democrats and one Green Party member. The mayor ran on a platform of police reform and racial justice.
Minneapolis has police body cameras and a civilian oversight body, which are both good things but not enough to stop police brutality.
In Iowa City — the progressive jewel of Iowa, governed almost exclusively by Democrats for many years — I saw dozens of officers with riot gear respond to protests and property damage on Tuesday at local government buildings. It led to at least one arrest and several people being exposed to pepper spray. The Democratic sheriff and City Council-appointed interim police chief were short on answers when I asked for details about their officers’ use of force.
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The scene in Iowa City was even worse Wednesday night, when a standoff between law enforcement and demonstrators on Dubuque Street ended with police shooting explosive devices — apparently flashbangs or stun grenades — at people standing still and chanting “hands up, don’t shoot,” reportedly at the direction of the Iowa State Patrol. There also were reports of chemical irritants used against Iowa City protesters.
For another protest on Thursday night, Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague told those gathered that the Iowa City Police Department would not participate in enforcement against demonstrators. County officials sent paramedics out in support of the protests. I give local elected officials great credit for that, but it’s important to note it only happened after a particularly ugly night and pressure from hundreds of constituents.
In Des Moines, police have used aggressive tactics to disperse crowds, including spraying chemicals and detaining dozens of people. The city’s Democratic mayor, who has defended the police’s response, last year was reelected to an unprecedented fifth term in a contentious race. Just this week, the Democratic sheriff won his primary election with 99 percent of Polk County Democrats’ votes.
Iowa City and Des Moines, and all sizable cities in Iowa, have racially disproportionate outcomes in at least some of their policing activity.
Nationally, Democrats’ hopes for reclaiming the White House lie with Joe Biden, one of the chief architects of our badly broken federal justice system. Two leading prospects to be his running mate are U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, career law enforcers.
To be clear, I’m not asking you to blindly vote for Republicans instead. My party tends to be much worse on these issues.
Real citizen oversight must extend far past Election Day, in the form of constant pressure on our elected officials and government employees. Mass demonstrations are one way to do it. It puts public servants on notice — to let them know the people are watching, and they will be called out if they do the wrong thing.
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One of the greatest deceits in the American democratic experiment is the idea that voting is the most important form of political participation. It’s not even close.
Policy is important, but laws not drafted at the ballot box. Neither are police enforcement strategies or codes of conduct.
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