YouTube video

In an interview with Sharmini Peries, Naomi Murakawa, the author of “The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America,” examines if the new guidelines will address systemic problems in local police departments

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

We’re talking about the newly issued guidelines by the federal government to limit racial profiling. However, it might actually be facilitating it.

Now joining us to discuss all of this is Naomi Murakawa. Naomi is associate professor of African American studies at Princeton University. She recently released her first book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America.

Thank you so much for joining us, Naomi.


PERIES: So, Naomi, earlier in the first segment we were talking about what is actually wrong with these nationally or federally issued guidelines. It is for the federal agencies. And Eric Holder and President Obama are hoping that the local police departments actually take these guidelines and translate them locally–or it what might even hope that the states take this up. But this is just a hope. And is there any sense out there–you’ve been studying this topic for a while–that there’s any desire on the part of police departments locally to adopt things that would restrict them even more?

MURAKAWA: So that’s really interesting, because police departments are willing to do a number of things, and we should look closely at the things that they want to do, because a lot of the things we’re assuming they’d be resistant to are things that they are quite willing to welcome.

PERIES: Such as?

MURAKAWA: So the big commission that Eric holder is convening, right, this national commission that is a task force to study 21st century policing–and Holder is sort of going about advertising this as the first big national review of policing since the Johnson administration, in nearly 50 years. Okay?

One thing to consider is that the largest police union, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, have been advocating for a national commission for some time. They’re interested in having this review. Why would they be interested in having a review that might curtail their powers? Well, it’s not going to curtail their powers. But also they know their history. They know what actually happened with the last federal commission.

What came out of the Johnson administration was something Johnson convened in the summer of 1965. The order was to have a review of national policing structures. It was in a context of concern about crime, but, I think more pressingly, concern about the ways in which high-profile instances of police brutality were fueling black insurrection. Right? So this was the context. Johnson convened the commission in 1965.

In 1967, the commission, headed by Nicholas deB Katzenbach, released their recommendations. What were the recommendations? Modernize every aspect of criminal justice. It’s all backwards. It’s all underproceduralized. It’s all underfunded. There aren’t enough personnel. We need to hire more police officers of color. We need to give them better salaries. We need to recruit better people. We need to train them better. We need to give them more tools. We need to just pile on more. And that’s what modernization is going to be.

So when the largest police union wants the review, it’s because they know it’s going to bring more goods for them.

PERIES: Right, including cameras, including more weaponry, including more resources, in order to collect the data they need. So really we should be having a different kind of conversation, which is a national commission to have a look at how the community might be able to play a greater role in controlling, curtailing, and demanding the kind of policing that they want.

MURAKAWA: Yes, that’s right.

PERIES: And let’s talk about those possibilities. You know, now we have in Ferguson, in Florida with the Trayvon Martin case, in New York with the Eric Garner case, we have a highly motivated community not only of activists, but experts who have emerged with possible solutions to the kinds of problems we are facing.

Let’s look at–and historically, you brought up 1965. We come to these climaxes in terms of police-community relations. We try to then address then. And a few decades later we are back revisiting the same issue. So to make sure that this time some of these policies that the communities and the experts that are advocating on behalf of the communities might be asking for actually stick, what kind of policies do you think they should be thinking about?

MURAKAWA: Okay. So I want to talk about the kind of policies. But first I do actually want to talk about the framework through which we’re understanding reform.

So you said we keep coming to these moments where we talk about police-community relations. And there will be something that comes to a crisis, and then some set of resolutions. And yet we keep fighting ourselves in this problem.

I actually think the reason we keep finding ourselves in this problem is that we keep defining the problem as police-community relations. So if you listen, the language that Obama and Holder go back repeatedly to is there’s mistrust, there’s not proper dialog, we need reconciliation between police officers and communities, as if what we’re discussing is, like, a soured relationship between equal partners.

That’s not what we’re discussing. We’re discussing a force that has arms and the right to kill patrolling other communities. It’s not a matter of restoring trust, right? And this is not just a rhetorical turn, because I think what happens when we talk about trust–especially liberals like to talk about trust and good relationships–it’s not just a random word choice. They’re leaning on the word trust because underneath the word trust is the hope of quelling black insurrection. The hope is black people will come to like police officers, and therefore it will be easier to penetrate their communities, it will be easier to find those who are truly disgruntled. It’s a way–it’s about finding a way in, right? It’s not about reducing state violence. It’s about making state violence legitimate. And those are different things.

PERIES: So let’s flip this on its head and then talk about the kinds of ways people need to start thinking about police and communities, controlled policing.

MURAKAWA: Okay. So here’s where I think we should go. I think we need to let go of a language of police brutality and let go of a language of police racial profiling, because there really is no such thing as racial profiling. There is only policing as we know it. To talk about racial profiling is to imagine that there is such a thing as colorblind policing. And we’ve never had anything like that. Right?

Once we start grappling with police powers, we’ll recognize that these little reforms are just trying to add administrative tricks, procedural touches, right? The history of liberal policing reform is the hope of just giving the right protocol, giving more training, right, of having a certain set of rules and rights-laden ways of thinking about policing that will make it all seem individually fair. Right?

But the fact is, police don’t suffer from a deficit of procedure; they suffer from an excess of power. And the power comes from the criminal code, and the criminal code is something that we the polity allow to be created. Right? So when police officers are out doing their patrol, they can decide to be more or less rude, they can decide to unholster their gun or not. But what they are doing is enforcing a criminal code that has been accrued through democratic processes. Right? There are usually between ten to twelve million arrests every year. About 5 to 6 percent of those are for violent crimes. Add a little bit more for property crimes. About 20 percent of all the arrests are for violent crimes or property crimes. What are the 80 percent? It’s nonviolent, petty little offenses, usually misdemeanors. Misdemeanors are clogging the courts.

Now, when we talk about police power and what it is that they operate within this sort of engorged criminal code, you have to sort of recognize that there were and there are police departments having the debates through the ’60s, through the ’70s, even through the early ’80s. What do we prioritize? When almost everything is criminalized, what do we prioritize?

And then broken windows policing came along and gave an answer. And the answer was prioritize everything, because everything could lead to a culture that produces homicide. So, suddenly vagrancy matters, vandalism matters. It all matters, right? And that’s the sort of police that you see in Baltimore, in New York City.

PERIES: Naomi, one of the problems with the conversation around racism, racial profiling, police brutality is that it ignores the surrounding issues of systemic issues that are far beyond racism, that’s eating away at the community. Tell me about your findings related to this.

MURAKAWA: So I think that there’s some really dangerous blame displacement happening in the way that we’re focusing on police right now. Right? It’s almost as if we imagine we live in a world of basic racial harmony and justice, and then we have these moments where police do bad things.

But there is a we-ness, and the we needs to ask: what is it we’re empowering police officers to do? Right? And when you look at this engorged criminal code, we have to ask ourselves what it is we want police officers to do when we criminalize everything–disorderly conduct, vandalism, loitering, civil gang injunctions, curfew violations. I believe that we put those laws on the books with a kind of racist wink and nod that says, just the bad ones, just the black and brown ones, just the homeless people who you can sweep up because they’re in the downtown districts and hurting business, because you know what? If you read these codes on disorderly conduct, anyone can be arrested at any given moment. Right? There is a blame displacement happening when we–in our refusal to take these laws off the books.

And I think if we’re really going to talk about police reform in a context of social reform, we need to ask the question the way Angela Davis has asked it, which is: what do we have to imagine if we abolish the social function of police and prisons? What is it we have to imagine if police are no longer there to sweep up the homeless and the drug addicts and the mentally ill and those who are chronically unemployed? If you couldn’t call the police, you’d have to come up with some other solutions right away. And those would be solutions that would, at base, address aggro capitalism, unregulated markets, right, residential segregation, bad schooling, all of the things that make racial death the way it is now. Right? And all of those things are more than policing.

PERIES: Right. And here you’re talking about systemic racism in the larger society that actually facilitates and allows the kind of profiling and brutality to take place that we’re experiencing today.


PERIES: And then the critical issue is policing for whom, protecting whom. And this is where I think the dynamic needs to be undone and how we look at the issue of policing needs to change.

So in our next segment, let’s talk about how we can flip that dynamic, how we can change policing, and in whose interests we are actually policing, right?

MURAKAWA: Great. Thanks.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Naomi Murakawa is a professor at Princeton University, where she specializes in American politics with an emphasis on racial and gender politics, public policy, and American political development. The author of numerous journal articles, Murakawa's forthcoming book is entitled, The First Civil Right: Racial Liberalism and the Rise of Prison America (Oxford University Press). The First Civil Right investigates the development of America's racially distinctive punishment expansion. Her teaching interests include American racial formation, feminist politics, and the politics of crime and punishment.

Murakawa received her Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale University in 2005. Her dissertation entitled "Electing to Punish: Congress, Race, and the American Criminal Justice State" was awarded: departmental distinction from Yale University (2005); best dissertation prize from the Law and Society Association (2006); and best dissertation award from the Race, Ethnicity and Politics Section of the American Political Science Association (2006).