In 2014, Ursula K. Le Guin called on science fiction and fantasy writers to envision alternatives to capitalism. To depict through fiction possible ways future societies might build better worlds, rather than endlessly retreading the same old cyberpunk corporate dystopias. To use works of speculative fiction to propose a way forward.
In 2004’s The Libertine, John Malkovich’s Charles II tells Johnny Depp’s Rochester, “It’s fun to be against things, but there comes a time when you have to start being for things as well.”
The United States of America has a police problem. You may have noticed this week.
You may have seen lines of law enforcement officers kitted out like they’re about to take Baghdad, facing down American citizens who had the galling audacity to believe the Constitution enshrines their right to peaceably assemble and petition their government. (It does, by the way.)
The militarization of our country’s police departments has been going on for a while now. It’s been pointed out before. The current crisis turns on other factors, as well, and if you don’t understand about systemic racism and its continual expression through acts of police brutality and murder … I can’t help you.
That these issues must be discussed is unquestionable. More than protests will be necessary, though these protests are an essential step in the process. Getting the attention of legislators and other policy makers isn’t easy.
But what next? What’s the way forward? What alternatives can we envision? While we are against the excesses of a racist police state, what shall we be for?
(I’m a white guy. I’m about to share some ideas and suggestions that are not mine. I strongly recommend reading and considering them, but I far more strongly recommend giving our attention to the voices of Americans of color, those who are the continual victims of our nation’s shortfalls.)
Doing away with qualified immunity protections for cops who abuse their authority would be a step toward accountability. Removing that civil protection would allow victim’s families to sue unjustifiably violent officers. The counter-argument that no one would want to be a cop if they could get sued for civil rights violations is as absurd as it is telling. If you subscribe to it, I suspect you may also have uttered the following platitude which I recommend to you now: you’ve nothing to fear if you’ve nothing to hide. And if you fear innocent officers will suffer at the hands of the courts … do you fucking hear yourself?
The abolition of police unions, such as the Fraternal Order of Police, would remove another protection for overzealous cops. When Minneapolis police union president Lt. Bob Kroll laments the lack of even more cops with even more military equipment for his city’s troubles, while promising to lobby for the officers fired in connection to their participation in George Floyd’s murder to be reinstated, you see what police unions are about: protect the cops, no matter what.
In order to curb the relentless militarization of our police forces – which, in itself, contributes to the culture of violent policing while enabling that violence to attain shocking levels – it may prove necessary to reduce police funding to prevent their stockpiling of military weaponry and equipment and to slow down the growth of these little would-be municipal armies.
I would not argue to abolish policing altogether, but there are indications doing so might actually reduce crime rather than increase it.
Edit: the majority of emergency calls do not indicate armed response. Police have shown up for medical emergency calls and ended up shooting epileptics, for example. While I would not abolish policing, I would absolutely favor reducing uniformed policing and the universal 911 response of sending a cop. More social workers, more properly trained EMTs, keep some of the detectives, eradicate “patrolmen.”
Having defunded the police, these tax dollars might be more wisely used in our communities to address the actual problems those communities face when they aren’t being terrorized by thugs with badges.
The ideas I’ve mentioned are all on the table. They are things we can do, right now, this year. They are steps on a path forward that may lead to an America where law enforcement isn’t responsible for hundreds of unnecessary and unjustifiable killings every single year. We can and should let our representatives know that we support measures which curtail both the ability of police to abuse their power and the protections against consequences which, once having done so, they shield behind.
These are steps, but not the only ones available to us as a society. In order to build a more just society – that most American of idealisms – it behooves us to come up with solutions. Not palliatives, not distractions, and not the negligent, out-of-sight-out-of-mind ambivalence that will surely be the easiest and most widespread attitude when the rioting stops and the embers cool.
We must imagine an alternative, and having imagined a more just society we must work to bring that vision to fruition.
Much as Le Guin urged SF/F writers to envision alternatives to capitalism, those of us who entertain speculative thoughts should continue to offer new ideas and solutions. HBO’s recent Watchmen series opens by showing us a police officer physically incapable of drawing their weapon without independent authorization.
Similarly, Alastair Reynolds’ Prefect Dreyfus novels depict a future police force disallowed from the use of force or weapons without a civilian vote to authorize such … and, as is fitting when we seek to constrain bad actors, an examination of some of the ways officers might skirt those restrictions or even sneak around them.
I urge you, when the riots die down and there are no more violent clashes in the streets of our cities, to face these questions and join the effort to fix the underlying problems that led us here. Do not forget. There are too many of us who can’t.