Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is an assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University and the author of a new book: "From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation"—a political analysis of the Black Lives Matter movement, the history of policing and race in the United States, and divisions between the black political establishment and today's Black Lives Matter activists. Taylor is speaking at University Bookstore at 7 p.m. on April 28.
What's your argument in "From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation"?
The book starts with several questions that I'm trying to answer. One of which is, "Why did this movement erupt now, when we're living through the biggest concentration of black political power in American history?" When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, there was all this discussion of whether we'd entered into a postracial period. Part of why I'm trying to do with the book is pursue that question and answer how this movement came to be.
I'm also looking at whether the Black Lives Matter movement opens up a broader opportunity to explore what black liberation looks like in the United States. Can this movement that's narrowly fixated on police brutality become a much broader interrogation of American society? Can it become a basis upon organizing a broader movement that looks toward the future of a society that does not rely on brutal policing as a way to manage inequality?
What do you make of the Black Lives Matter movement's trajectory so far?
The movement has made an enormous contribution to educating the American public about the pervasiveness of police violence in the United States. I think most people now recognize that bad policing is not just about a few rogue cops or bad apples.
In terms of body cameras, sensitivity training, and hiring better cops, there's a way that the political establishment would like to limit the reforms to those three options. Those changes would be broadly supported, but I do think that there's an opening for a larger discussion about the nature of police violence. The movement has helped open up the space for that.
A year in a half later after the emergence of BLM, I also think we're witnessing the resilience of the establishment to defend corrupt, killer police officers, and to really protect the status quo.
That's why there's been a lot of talk about reforming the police, but there's been very little action. Look at the Obama task force, which came out with recommendations in 2015. Not a single one of them has been acted upon. There was no mechanism put forth to actually compel local jurisdictions to act on any of those recommendations, and there certainly wasn't any funding put forward.
That's part of a larger pattern: When the movements reach a certain pitch, the representatives of the establishment are able to put a commission together—to make it appear that something is actually happening. But when you actually look at whether substantive reforms have been implemented, there's little done in that regard.
Part of it is because violent policing is actually woven into our society. There's never been a golden age of policing that wasn't racist or violent. There's not a single period of time that anyone can point where the police were not violent or abusive in the United States. Part of that is because America is such a violent and unequal society. Policing is a way of managing and containing that kind of inequality. In cities after city, where there have been police violence scandals, these are cities that have gutted unemployment assistance, with high poverty rates, and no plan or agenda to address that. Policing is relied upon to keep the "peace."
How do you believe policing came to be this way?
There are many different historical genealogies of police in the United States. Some have traced policing back to slavery, to those who were chasing runaway slaves. I look at the role of police in the post-emancipation period. After the Civil War, policing was tightly wound up with the attempt to reestablish the political economy of the South, where most black people were, in the aftermath of slavery.
This involved police colluding with the Southern aristocracy to control, monitor, and re-deliver black labor to the elite in the South. You had all sorts of ordinances that criminalized poverty, that criminalized unemployment, that were used to coerce black people back into working under unjust conditions. Black people would be picked up by law enforcement and business owners would sometimes bail them out on the condition that they work for them. This demonstrated the way that policing operates. It's not a neutral group that exist for a greater good of society. The police act on behalf of those who are involved in the state—those with money and resources, historically.
Categories of criminality were conflated with blackness. Even though many of the arrests were on trumped up charges and for things that were barely illegal, such as being unemployed, it didn't matter. Black people begin to become associated with crime and criminal records. By the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, all of these arrest records across the South become these kinds of permanent categories with which to understand what African Americans are doing. The linkages between blacks and crime begin to get made and become stable. Those labels of criminality traveled with blacks through their migration to the North.
When African-Americans move out of the South into Northern cities, they're confronted with residential segregation, which is a kind of invisible Jim Crow. There are no signs telling people where they can't live, but it's the practices of the real estate or banking industries, which is then reinforced by the acts of white citizens through mob violence to protect the color lines. This leads to massive overcrowding in black communities wherever they exist, from Los Angeles to Chicago to Detroit.
Those conditions with overcrowding—unemployment, poverty, under-employent—created the pretext for police surveillance of black communities. They view these places as potential areas for criminal activity. And police are allowing criminal activity to exist in black communities. This was especially true in the era of prohibition. Police knowingly colluded with those involved in criminal enterprises to allow those to flourish in black areas. We see from the outset, from the moment that blacks became an urban population, that it happens under the racialized scrutiny of policing. And it has been that way ever since.
You have a chapter in your book called "Black Faces in High Places." And you write, "The Black political establishment, led by President Barack Obama, had shown over and over again that it was not capable of the most basic task: keeping Black children alive. The young people would have to do it themselves."
Probably the most profound development in black life in the past forty years has been the intense class division that has developed. There are more than 13,000 black elected officials in the United States. There are 46 black members of congress, which is more than any other point the united states. There's a black president and attorney general.
I try to look at the role of the black political class in shrouding the effects of racism. And at how this class is vociferous in condemning the black poor for creating the conditions of their own poverty, of narrating about them in ways that white politicians could never get away with.
Baltimore after the killing of Freddie Gray was a big example of this. The black mayor, Stephanie Rawlkings-Blake, was responsible for bringing in the National Guard to suppress a rebellion led by young black people, which I think in some ways is unprecedented, in the scale of confrontation between ordinary blacks and the black elite.
There's no longer this unified black movement, as there was in the Sixties. It raises questions about allies and solidarity, and what the nature of this new movement can actually look like.
The Obama administration has held up Seattle—which is under a federal consent decree to address a pattern of excessive force and concerns about racial bias—as a model of police reform across the country. What does real police reform look like?
There Seattle, there's Los Angeles, and a year and a half ago it was Camden, New Jersey. I think these examples that are held up of police reform really show the poverty of the phrase. Because in any of those places, the idea the the police are not engaged in the same kinds of oppressive practices that gave rise to BLM in the first place is simply untrue. Police violence and brutality in racism are a permanent feature of policing in the United states.
There should be decriminalization of the growing list of offenses for which someone can be charged. For a country that purposes to support small government, there's a never ending list of crimes that people can be charged for. Especially in this era of austerity and economic inequality, the kinds of markers of poverty that have been criminalized are breathtaking. I think part of the activism of BLM should be directed at decriminalization. Not just for marijuana, but for the litany of "nuisance" crimes.
There should be an attempt to expand civilian oversight of police. Review boards should not be appointed by police or by municipalities that have an interest in violent policing. Perhaps they should be popularly elected, as local school boards are. I think there has to bee a concerted effort to expose and undo police union contracts with cities, which attempt to turn the "blue line" into policy. Those should be an object of activism, to have them dissolved completely.
Police need to be punished severely. Police are protected agents of the state who are able to operate above the law. I think they need to be convicted and jailed, to reverse the message that they can act with impunity. Some combination of those things could have an impact on policing in black and brown communities.
Again, policing is a product of the vast amount of inequality in the United States. There's no way to legislate that out of the way police function. That's why you can have so called "reformed" police departments that operate in the same oppressive, exploitative ways they always did. Better training usually teaches police how to better hide the oppression that they're involved with, not actually deal with it.
So there's a two-pronged struggle—decriminalization and weakening police power—as well as dramatically reducing its funding. In a city like Chicago, where the city routinely tries to close schools, the police get 40 percent of the budget, which in my view is criminal. But then there has to be a much broader struggle that attacks the excuses for policing in the first place.
You talked about dissolving police union contracts. Democrats and liberals will say that's not in keeping with progressive principles.
Police don't have anything to do with the left wing tradition of unions. They aren't a part of that class of people who need union protections against the rich and powerful. The police operate as agents of the rich and powerful. They should be humiliated and driven out of the labor movement.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.