Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Systems and Structures: Seeking police criminal justice reforms in Chicago

I see a contradiction in responses to the murder of Laquan McDonald by Police:  On the one hand we speak of this as an example of racist structure and system in place on the other we say it is the problem of certain individuals: officer West as a bad apple, States Attorney Alverez misconduct in the execution of her office, the Chief of Police and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.  When we want to explain how this effects people of color and is an example of how law enforcement treats Blacks and people of color we speak systemic racism, and the racist structures and policing as part of that system.  Yet, when we speak of reform at least in the case of Laquan McDonald we focus on the individuals in the system, and removing from office those who we believe should have responded differently.
However, if the system in which these individuals work is racist, if the structure of policing is bound up in the history of racism (racism being structural and not bound to the attitudes of an individual human beings, which is what it means to speak of the system of racism and racist structures) then in singling out these public officials we are at just removing those who acted most overtly within the system doing what the system encourages and even demands.  We are also, then rewarding those who adept in perpetuating the ends of the system in underhanded and covert ways and able to perpetuate the system while adapting it to certain demands for reform.
I understand the contradiction: We want to put a name to things we find shocking and which peak our conscience, and in putting a name to it we also want the named problem solved. The removal and resignation of public officials feels like something has been done to solve the systemic problem.  But, none of those officials could have done what they did if the system didn’t support their actions.  The cover up was an act of the system not merely the individuals.
After all this is what it means to talk about systems and structures: there are mechanisms and policies in place that sanction and empower a certain set of affairs without the needing the overt or active assent of individual actors.
What we have in the case of Laquan McDonald is certain officials acting out overtly and obviously what the system wishes to keep low key and sublimated.  But those officials we wish to remove from office were simply enacting the systemic and structural realities they just that in the case of Laquan McDonald’s murder and the handling of the investigation we simply have the extreme manifestation of the system.
But we don’t change the system simply by removing those actors.
This shouldn’t mean that we don’t call for them to resign and work towards removing them, but in doing so we shouldn’t think that another individual will make the difference, and we have thus solved the problem. We then need to go and look at the root of the problem in policing itself and in the state and city structures themselves.

It’s much tidier to believe this is an issue of a group of bad apples, but if it is systemic and structural then those aren’t bad apples they are simply the fruit of the system that we see exposed today in how policing in this country treats blacks and people of color.