This should not be controversial, but some people read too much into this sentence. If people read it as “only black lives matter”, then they are reading it wrong. Read it literally. No one should dispute that all lives matter. The problem is that police, and some civilians, treat black lives as if they don’t matter.
If Chinese Communist party officials are abusing, brainwashing and sometimes killing Uighurs in Eastern China, it’s appropriate to say “Uighur lives matter!”. Just in case you weren’t aware, they are.
Black lives matter. Those words need to be said, because in reality, police kill black people at a rate 2.8 times higher than white people. It’s also not just about fatalities, those are just the limiting case of a police-civilian interaction. Those interactions that don’t lead to death can still be unreasonable, unjust, and add up to a lot of unnecessary fear and stress that free people should not have to endure.
Every American with a high school education knows about slavery. They know that from 1776-1865, we were a slave state. They probably also learned that between 1865-1965, we were an apartheid state (Jim Crow). But they might have missed something new that changed between 1965-2020. The American criminal justice system changed from being too lenient to being too cruel. The discretion shifted from trial judges and local juries to police and prosecutors.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights act of 1965, all the racist people were still there, but they didn’t have cover of legitimate law endorsing their racism. So, people found a way, police departments began to absorb a lot of hateful people, the rules were changed to give police more discretion and protection, and prisons began to expand to absorb 5 times more Black people than White people.
Police unions shelter bad cops, white supremacists, and domestic abusers. Police steal from civilians through civil asset forfeiture, and they are given weapons used by the military, but they don’t have the discipline of our military.
With the power to put people in jail and kill, police should have to bear the great costs they impose on a civilian population. The police do serve a necessary function, we have laws, we want those laws enforced. But what if there are too many laws? If there are so many laws that we are all criminals, police can punish anyone and technically have a case.
Consider the case of the New York City law that taxes cigarette sales. That was the reason Staten Island Police arrested Eric Garner. They choked him to death in broad daylight. The police officers who tried so aggressively to arrest him over this dumb little law were probably biased against Black people to begin with, and were being more aggressive than necessary. Cigarette taxes, if we are going to have them at all, should be a bill in the mail, not a hands-on arrest situation. Next, consider George Floyd, who was arrested in Minneapolis after a shop owner accused him of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. The police strangled him to death too! In this case, it’s clear that we probably want laws against counterfeit money, but the punishment should be at most some quantity of money. If you actually use a counterfeit bill, you pay $X, where X is calculated to be large enough to be a deterrent. What the Minneapolis Police Department did was an unjust, excessive, extrajudicial murder, and they should be brought to justice. We need to do police reform before this happens again.
This article Why the rule of law suffers when we have too many laws documents how modern American legal bloat is beginning to resemble some of the horrible qualities of the Soviet Union. This quote sums it up:
Because of the vast scope of current law, in modern America the authorities can pin a crime on the overwhelming majority of people, if they really want to. Whether you get hauled into court or not depends more on the discretionary decisions of law enforcement officials than on any legal rule.
I am not a legal theorist or a lawyer, I am a software engineer. The only thing I can offer here is an analogy with writing software. When there is too much code, hackers have more ways of exploiting your program. The analogy to modern American criminal justice is this: when you have too many laws and regulations, bad people can use them in ways their authors didn’t intend.
This is a deep systemic problem, there is an old tradition of anti-black racism in this country that is still being kept alive. There is also a ballooning system of laws that can be used as tools to put people in jail. There is also a confederation of police unions that protect their own and allow this injustice to rage on.
Reducing the total number and complexity of laws should be a guiding goal for any society that cares about rule of law. We should want a small number of justly enforced laws. Think of the Roman Twelve Tables, or the U.S. Constitution. The criminal code needs some pruning, and I don’t have a short answer for what we can do here. My only advice on this is: if you see laws being abused more than used, push your representative to have those laws repealed. If you see city ordinances being used by police officers to target people, push your city council member to have those ordinances repealed. Remove the legal weapon.
What we can do
- Bust police unions, make it easier for police to be fired and tried for misconduct
- Demilitarize the police, those weapons have no place on our streets
- Support Black-owned businesses, help build black wealth
- Upzone rich neighborhoods, let developers build apartments in high-demand areas. Zoning was and is a tool of racist exclusion, and it also limits housing supply, causing house prices to rise.
- Re-decentralize criminal justice. Communities should mostly police themselves, it will solve a lot of the extreme oscillation between leniency and cruelty. When those who bear the cost of both crime and punishment police themselves, there is more justice. More juries, less prosecutorial discretion.
- Remove excuses for police interactions. Traffic law should all be done automatically by the car, phone or a camera at an intersection. Mail people a fine, don’t have them stopped on the side of the road. End unnecessary patrolling.
- Decriminalize drugs like cannabis, remove reasons for non-violent people to be locked up.
- Continue educating yourself, and your friends and family, your co-workers. This is a multi-generational project, but keep engaging with people you care about but disagree with. Don’t cut people off over their racism, try to point it out with empathy and constructive engagement. It’s hard, and uncomfortable, but necessary.
- Defeat Donald Trump in 2020. Some of the recent police brutality we see in 2020 was enabled by Donald Trump.