By Umberto Belluzzo
Since last week, we’ve been witnessing an ulterior expansion of American anti-racist protests with a set of manifestations that occurred around Europe. Many people went onto streets with signs expressing solidarity to the movement Black Lives Matter. The homicide of George Floyd sadly exposed, once again, the existence of violence towards black people by the American police. As widely documented, it has been proven that many police encounters in the US, even the most innocent ones, tend to be risky or violent if the person engaging with the officers is African American. It is a complex problem indeed.
That is why I would like to talk about how we currently face these complex problems. These days, due to the great success of the protests, we are witnessing the birth of another movement: “Defund the police”.
Trust me. It is more than what it seems.
First, let’s face the obvious arguments.
The guy you can see in the video is the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, that, despite looking like a 12 year old boy with the mask in the middle of hundreds of protesters, is 38. The leader of the protesters, threatening the loss of a possibility of the mayor’s reelection, asks him a simple and specific YES or NO question: “Do you commit in defunding Minneapolis’ police department?”
Frey, to be sure of what they were discussing, replies asking if the leader is requesting the complete abolition of the police. The woman replies with a “Yes, we don’t want no more police”.
Obviously, the mayor refutes this proposal and walks away with whistles and “boos” following him. I found him really brave in facing the protesters in that way and I admired the protesters for their pacific reaction to an easily perceptible attack to the cause.
The abolition of the police makes no sense and obviously it is an irrational request. The leader is most probably just haranguing the crowd. However, to tell the truth, the request to “Defund the police” is more complex than what you have just seen.
To simplify, it seems that the protesters are embracing the idea of putting pressure on politicians in order to decrease money given to the police, which in some cases is an absurd amount (e.g. Los Angeles spends half of its budget on Law enforcement), but also about the police’s competence where officially, in many cases, it has to face different issues with the same tool: violence.
Is there a homeless issue? Let’s use violence.
Is there an overuse of illegal drugs? Let’s use violence.
Is there any type of problem? Here I am with my gun and my taser.
This tells us a lot on how issues can be faced. Let’s talk more about this.
Despite the collapse of the crime level in the last 40 years in the United States as in most of the western states, the US has increased by three times the money spent on police, going from 42 billions in 1977 to 114 billions in 2017 with just 11 billions destined to the CDC (Centre for preventions of diseases), 9 billions to the EPA for protection of the environment, 3 billions for FEMA and 500 millions to OSHA (jobs’ agency). This brought to a stronger militarization of the police’s force that, when compared to the European ones, seems like an army.
The concept behind this numbers is easy to understand and exists also in Europe.
Citizens fear specific people and what do I do? I give more money to the police as if by increasing to infinity and beyond the number of policemen you could ideally bring down to zero the problems of micro-criminality that too often are found within the categories of more fragile citizens.
In my opinion, the discussion “Defund the police” is about this: take some of the billions given to the police to purchase grenades, tanks and other tools and direct them to associations for prevention characterized by degraded realities. For example, those billions could go to solve issues such as the low attention given to mental illnesses, social exclusions, abuse of drugs, schools etc.
It is the same attitude as when, to avoid the generation of gangs in underprivileged districts, the government should act on the education of children so that they will not become criminals when growing up instead of increasing police departments to contain that phenomenon once it becomes a reality.
Nonetheless, there is still a problem. Assume that tomorrow I go on national television and ask for the citizens’ votes in order to spend money from their taxes to make immigrants in Italy study, give them psychological support, teach them a language and a job or even set up an enormous campaign of recovery of drug addicts all over Italy.
How many votes do you think I would receive?
And if instead I declared I would prefer giving more money to the police, how many votes would I get?
Counterintuitive solutions have a really low appeal and this is one of the reasons why until now US’ politics that culturally thanks the army and policemen every 5 minutes for their service, possibly with a tear, never considered these options. Until now.
Beyond the renovated interest for American politics that suddenly with 4 riots finds out that they can spend money on things that are not police related, there is another thing I would like to discuss regarding the protests. It is a fascinating and cultural aspect.
Throughout the history of humanity, symbology has always existed. Many symbols were deleted, described as false from other cultures and destroyed because substantially this is what human beings do: They create symbols and destroy symbols.
These days, there was a lot of discussions about two specific and obviously similar events.
The first one is the destruction by UK protesters in Bristol of the statue of Edward Colston, a merchant of slaves in the 17th century. The protestors, in the same way we have witnessed the destruction of other statues such as the one of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, pulled the Colston statue down with ropes and celebrated by bringing it around the city center and throwing it underwater in a canal. This act was justified by the fact that Colston managed a prolific activity of human beings commerce with the Royal African Company. Therefore, the statue represents the oppression of white people towards the Afro descendants populations.
Generally, Colston is perceived as the symbol of the British colonialism against which some Britons have something to say. The reason why a statue was dedicated to Colston was because he was also a philanthropist. People were divided in discussing whether it was just destroying a symbol of social disparity that for some reason is still celebrated with a statue and some of them reminded that it is not by destroying historical reperts and deleting the symbols that we provide justice in nowadays battles.
Wait a second. I remember this type of thinking was agreed by basically everyone when those who destroyed historic symbols were Isis militants that, for example, destroyed the ancient city of Palmyra.
Obviously, it is a bit different because we are talking about a monument built 100 years before Christ, so it has a value that the statue of Colston did not have in artistic terms.
However, this is just to say that the destruction of symbols often to substitute them with other symbols is a cyclical discussion in human history.
I believe the removal of the symbol can have some sense but the destruction of it is not the right way to do it.
It is obvious that it doesn’t make sense to ask a bunch of protesters to make sure to depose the statue of Saddam in a bowl of cellophane as we usually do with what is left from lunch. Nevertheless, I found that the discussion had another aspect when another statue of another man was vandalized.
I am talking about the statue of Winston Churchill, under which it was written “was a racist”.
Now the debate becomes more complex and it starts to be a bit more difficult to discuss without being criticized by anyone. I promise I will be even more careful.
I have little knowledge of Edward Colston, surely a lot less than what I know about Churchill as anyone else I presume. However, there could be the possibility that, this man who had a slave commerce and allowed the marking of these people with the symbol of the Royal African Company, could have some positive sides too. You might consider those sides once you find out Colston, without any type of obligation, donated money to poor people, built schools and took care of orphans, maybe he loved his sons and his wife and smiled to anyone he met. However, this positive side of Colston represents the man and not the symbol. The important part is that Edward Colston was a man inserted in a context that, as anyone, had the capacity of focusing on his good actions, recounting himself as a good man, as any of us do, to justify his evil or unjust actions which is again something we all do at different levels.
Nonetheless, Colston went down in history as a merchant of slaves and became the symbol of it. Fundamentally, we remember him as that and hence omitting the good actions that he did in his life. He is remembered and will be remembered as a slaver.
Now I am asking you: can the same logic be applied also to Winston Churchill?
If your answer is yes, Churchill, who’s been in charge of many things and evidences show that he did not particularly care about non-white or even non-british people, is still the symbol of the fight against Nazi-Fascism and that is why people remember him. People do not remember him as soldier Churchill, the imperialist Churchill, the drunk Churchill. We remember him because he is the symbol of the battle against Nazi-fascism.
The issue with symbols is that they are symbols and when they derive from human beings, as in this case, it is always convenient to give a little magic to it. This is because, without doing that, we would find any men have flaws; even those who fought the battles in which we believe.
For example, last year there was a student protest in Manchester following the introduction of Gandhi’s statue. Despite being universally considered the symbol of non-violence, someone underlined the fact that Gandhi, during his life, had a strong prejudice towards black people and, despite having a soft attitude towards them and considered progressive at that time, today, without any doubt, he would be categorized as a racist.
Same thing for Martin Luther King, one of the most charismatic figures, a fantastic man and an example for many people as a leader (included me). He is a symbol. However, everything was said about his past: from his unloyalty towards his wife to what it seemed, particularly last year after the investigation provided by the FBI, he was having an attitude towards women not progressive as people would imagine him to be. King was even accused in assisting in person to a rape made of a woman by one of his friends. The case was highly discussed by the US’ media between those who thought it was fake and those who tried to contextualize it. This is exactly because the FBI investigation brought a shade of negativity on the idol’s figure which is difficult to ignore not only on the man Martin Luther King but also on the symbol he represents.
I will end it here because the more we go on the more there is the risk that at a certain point we will arrive with someone that says: “Hitler was a good man because he liked puppies”.
When we evaluate the removal of statues, flags burning, of deleted symbols and forgotten heroes, let’s also remember that this is not a problem of these days because idols and symbols have existed since centuries.
My point is that we are talking about symbols and idols and not anymore people. We are talking about recipients of values, like a flag if you think about it.
Thank you for reading.