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Before the Law

The Harper’s Forum on American policing [“Crime and Punishment,” April] opened with the searing image of George Floyd’s murder, inviting readers to consider how we got to that fatal encounter at 38th and Chicago, and what, if anything, has changed since May 2020. Minneapolis has rightfully become a flash point in such discussions, and it is important that we learn from the city’s experiences. But Minneapolis’s chief of police, Brian O’Hara, risks getting these lessons wrong.

O’Hara claims that the people of North Minneapolis, who face the highest rates of lethal violence in the city—both within their community and at the hands of law enforcement—“just want good police officers,” in contrast to the “wealthier residents on the other side of town who are still screaming to get rid of us.” But the results of a November 2021 vote to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department suggest something like the reverse. Driven by demands that the city move away from policing, the ballot initiative would have replaced the MPD with a new Department of Public Safety centered on a holistic public-health approach. Of the voters in the two wards that make up North Minneapolis, 38 percent said yes to abolishing the MPD, compared with only 28 percent in the city’s wealthy southwestern ward. Many of the precincts that voted most strongly in favor of the initiative were in neighborhoods near George Floyd Square, whose residents know intimately the costs of police violence.

Furthermore, while residents of North Minneapolis have indeed called for protection from violence, the protection they ask for is not synonymous with policing. As the research in my new book, The Minneapolis Reckoning: Race, Violence, and the Politics of Policing in America, documents, Northsiders have long maintained that they are underprotected and overpoliced. Caught between police brutality and community violence, they have an ambivalent reliance on the police, not just a demand for more law enforcement. As one interviewee described the dilemma of calling the cops: “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” What North Minneapolis residents want is not simply more police officers, but a real redressing of the racism endemic to our country, past and present. As the discussants acknowledge, this includes reducing bias in policing, but also confronting the broader inequities that lead to violence in communities, such as those in housing, education, health care, and more.

Michelle S. Phelps
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Like most centrist discourse on policing, “Crime and Punishment” largely features people whose expertise is predicated on proximity to the institution they purport to critique—whether as police advisers, research partners of police departments, or police monitors for the Department of Justice. Ever since the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, these voices have asserted that policing is essential to public safety and that we must work hard to improve it. But after a decade of reform efforts, we have little to celebrate: as Rosa Brooks notes, U.S. police officers killed more people last year than they have in any year in the past decade. Police abuse and racial disparities in arrests remain widespread.

The Forum’s participants critiqued the left’s campaign to dismantle our reliance on policing. It is disappointing, then, that Harper’s Magazine saw no need to include in the conversation any representative who might defend a left viewpoint, such as the organizers Mariame Kaba and Derecka Purnell, legal scholars Andrea Ritchie and Amna Akbar, civil-rights champions Alec Karakatsanis and Olayemi Olurin, and social scientists Beth Richie and myself. Aided by our work, cities throughout the country have begun to develop viable alternatives to policing in schools, traffic enforcement, mental-health calls, and even in dealing with community violence—from Albuquerque’s civilian first responders, who now handle thousands of 9-1-1 calls per month, to Newark’s Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery, funded in part by the diversion of police resources toward it. Perhaps the next Harper’s Forum can focus on these optimistic developments instead of reprising the same tired points about reform.

Alex S. Vitale
Professor of Sociology, Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Code of Combat

War is a descent into hell, but not into nihilism. Military combat is governed by a unique moral code that authorizes lethal force against enemy fighters and seeks to minimize civilian harm. Andrew Cockburn’s otherwise brilliant exposition of Big Tech’s consistently empty promises to revolutionize warfare [“The Pentagon’s Silicon Valley Problem,” Letter from Washington, March] is marred by his comparison of current counterterrorism operations to World War II area bombing. Yes, death and destruction are death and destruction. But the campaigns against German and Japanese cities were explicitly purposed to demoralize civilian populations, prompting even Winston Churchill to ask, in 1943, “Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?”

There is a big difference—not just technologically, but ethically and legally—between attacking population centers to sap their inhabitants’ will and targeting combatants who deliberately commingle military and civilian assets. Those of us in uniform often find ourselves asking, like the soldiers in the Korean War film Pork Chop Hill, “Where’s all this push-button warfare we’ve been hearing about?” As Gregory Peck, playing Lieutenant Joe Clemons, replies, “We’re the push buttons.”

Lieutenant Colonel Charles G. Kels
Senior Attorney, Department of Homeland Security
JAG, U.S. Air Force Reserve
San Antonio

A Shaman of the People

Frederick Kaufman’s profile of Jacob Angeli-Chansley [“Jacob’s Dream,” Letter from Phoenix, April] does more than recount the QAnon Shaman’s spectacle—it delves into the pseudophilosophical core of his worldview and, in doing so, lays bare the quotidian nature of his conspiratorial thinking. Beneath his outlandish attire lies a familiar story: a quest for meaning in an increasingly complex world, a gnawing desire for belonging that continually evades him. It is a journey punctuated by glancing engagements with esoteric concepts and conspiracy theories, from shamanism to DMT, UFOs to Carl Jung, electromagnetic frequencies to Alex Jones and stolen-election claims. Every town in America has its own Angeli-Chansley; these figures are no longer anomalies but the inevitable products of a decades-long democratic decline, and they have coalesced into a robust domestic extremist movement.

Jonathan Lewis
Research Fellow, Program on Extremism, George Washington University

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June 2024

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