Opinion: The fire this time: Why 2020 police reform failed


Tyre Nichols. Manuel Esteban “Tortuguita” Paez Terán. Kennan Anderson. We must chant their names like the many others who fell victim to sadistic acts of police brutality. With a new year, we are again experiencing a new wave of resistance to policing. Since the 2020 George Floyd protest movement, police violence has only worsened, with 2022 becoming a record year for deaths at the hands of police. The same institution’s police departments, urban political machines and financial backers forced to concede to protestors’ demands in 2020 remain unaffected and against systemic change. This leads to a larger question: How can a future movement win permanent changes in light of the mass mobilizations in 2020?

Not only did so-called “reasonable” demands for reform like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (notably introduced by then U.S. Representative and now Mayor Karen Bass) die in Senate committee, but the Democratic Party has systemically attempted to undermine efforts such as bail reform and defunding police budgets. The same white liberals that Dr. King so accurately described as the most significant barrier to civil rights, regarding the civil rights efforts as “unwise and untimely,” remain entirely opposed to structural measures. Ultimately, in contemporary U.S. politics, the Democratic Party is more willing to cannibalize its left flank at the local, state and national levels than address police violence.

A notable difference from King’s day is a new political force: a Black political class. Cities like Atlanta have a powerful Black political type supported by the efforts and backing of white businesspeople, a system of technocratic management euphemistically called “the Atlanta Way.” Publications such as the Atlanta Business Chronicle have described Atlanta as a city that “touts itself as a place where racial lines and gender barriers are irrelevant — a city that simply is “too busy to hate,” ignoring the systemic racism that led to the substantial mobilization in 2020.

Cop City, officially known by the dystopian name of the “Institute of Social Justice,” is one of many projects created by the efforts of the city council, corporate backers, developers and the local business community. Despite its unpopularity, the 85-acre $90 million police university has moved forward because of the strength of the protests in Atlanta in 2020. With the September 2021 announcement from the City Council and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the community only had 17 hours of public comment; this is not to mention that Cop City was actually to be built in unincorporated DeKalb County. According to a September 2021 survey of members of the South Atlanta community, 98 percent do not support the construction of police facilities in the area, with 90 percent of recorded respondents being against more advanced police being built in Atlanta. Following the announcement of the city council’s approval of the project, Forest Defenders have occupied the forest, using various non-violent direct-action tactics to stop construction. Tortugita, known around his peers to be incredibly committed to nonviolence, was one of the hundreds of these defenders; for this, he lost his life.

Out of the $90 million required for the project, $60 million is being provided by the Atlanta Police Foundation, funded by corporate backers such as Amazon, Chick-fil-A, Delta Airlines, Georgia State, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and UPS. The rest of the $30 million will be paid by the same taxpayers who remain opposed to the project. It should be no surprise that corporations such as Wells Fargo, JP Morgan and Amazon, who claimed to care about racist injustice in 2020, continue racist practices and benefit from a racialized global economy. It is through only the vast network of ties between the Atlanta Police and the intersecting interests of the city and national capital that projects like Cop City are possible.

Here in LA, the myth of racial democracy was shattered by the leaks of recordings of racist council members openly conscripting against Black voters through gerrymandering and attacking LA District Attorney George Gascon, who, described by disgraced council president Nury Martinez, is “with the Blacks.” These council members could not have the confidence they so blatantly displayed without the support of developers and Southern California boosterism, the same forces building Cop City. Recently, Mayor Bass hopes to appoint disgraced Chief Michel Moore, and the LAPD‘s pushes for greater policing through robot dogs have shown a renewed push for the politics of law and order.

Violent institutions, such as police departments and the military, not only stand by and are rewarded by donors for participating in ecological destruction, they contribute to the continued charge in the war against urban green spaces through criminalization and over-policing.

Scholars, activists and revolutionaries of the Black Radical Tradition, such as Angela Y. Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, George Jackson, Mumia Abu-Jamal, William F. Anderson, Zoé Samudzi, Cedric Robinson, Robin D.G Kelly and Mariame Kaba, all share one thesis: police, prisons and ultimately, violence cannot and will not solve fundamental social problems. What is needed is reconsidering what community means, especially in this epoch of growing alienation and despair. We need answers to problems as vital as food security, education for all, transportation, drinkable water, social housing and community institutions. Yes, reforms are needed, but how can we reform a fundamentally broken system? We must demand the impossible for change to happen: we want it all!

Contact Matthew Vickers at mvickers@oxy.edu.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here