Self-Determination -v- We Know Best


Been having some interesting thoughts and conversations hither and thither about racial justice and policing. Keep coming back to a similar point. When do we leave it to people? And when does some higher authority decide for us that our decision-making sucks?

The issue specifically arose when I was discussing citizen design of policing with a couple of gents yesterday, and one said, and I paraphrase, I’ll get more detailed in a moment, what if folks in a particular community don’t get or don’t want to engage in citizen design, and bad policing continues? Do the rest of us merely stand aside and accept the bad policing? Or do we do something about it?

Huh. Good questions. And my immediate, non-detailed answer is, if folks don’t want citizen design in their community, and they aren’t in breach of state or federal laws, then it’s none of our business.

Ok. Now the long, detailed trek. I first ran (one of my very few elective successes) for my local municipal council in the UK when I was 22. I had all sorts of ‘efficient’ notions. The best was my idea for street co-ordinators, who were to be tasked with ensuring that everyone kept their part of the street clean and trimmed, so that the town looked pretty.

Harmless enough, until I realized years later that I had absolutely no business telling other people how their street should look. That was their business, not mine. I could advocate for tidy streets. I could offer guidance. I could even lobby for funds, if a low income street could not afford it. But I had no right to impose my values on someone else.

I have spent nine years advocating in the worker-consumer grocery co-op where I am an employee for more worker democracy. More inclusion of workers in decision-making. And for it to be easier for employees to become worker-owners, so that they can vote in elections for the Worker-Owner Board Directors.

I have been marginally successful. And in the year after the Board of Directors finally agreed to make it easier for employees to become worker-owners, the number of worker-owners in our co-op (of some 250 employees) increased from 99 to some 220.

Last year, a candidate demonstrably advocating for even more worker democracy in our co-op was defeated 55 votes to 19 by someone who, somewhat unkindly, but accurately, I will describe as a management stooge.

Am I disappointed that employees don’t take advantage of the new situation that I spent nine years helping to create, namely one designed to elect Directors who might actually want to help them? Yes. But that is their right.

I was deeply troubled after the shooting of Michael Brown a year ago. I originate from Great Britain. We have very different policing over there. I simply could not understand how any community would put up with policing of this nature.

I’m not stupid. I have heard all about the legacy of white supremacy. Implicit racial bias. I truly wanted to sympathize. I wanted to help find a way forward. Which did not involve burning cars and throwing rocks. And I wanted for that solution to come from the community. But, again, I knew about the legacy of racism. And so on. And so on. Round and round in circles.

And then, I discovered two stats. 67% of the people in Ferguson, Missouri are people of color. And in the municipal elections immediately preceding the death of Michael Brown, only some 12% of the electorate had voted.

I staked out a position, which angered some people. I declared that the remedy lay in the hands of the people themselves. All they had to do was exercise their right to vote. Get in black municipal councilors. Appoint a new police chief. And weed out the racists.

My viewpoint was attacked as simplistic. All sorts of arguments were run about the difficulty some black people encountered in voting. I took the view then, and still take it now, that patronizing blacks, or any other group of people in our society, is no less segregation than asking them to use different toilets.

The net result was that, at the municipal elections in Ferguson this past April, three out of three black candidates were elected.

This served only further to inform my approach with citizen design of policing. Where I say that the solution to bad policing, if it exists, already lies in the hands of the communities being badly policed. We just don’t make use if it.

Every law enforcement agency in this country has an institution which funds it, an institution run by elected officials. All that has to happen is for voters to choose candidates who believe that it is the elected officials (along with concerned citizens and the law enforcers) who should draft and monitor the rules of engagement for those law enforcers, not the law enforcers on their own.

It is at this point of discussion that the top-down politico’s enter the picture.

But what if a community doesn’t want citizen design? Their choice. Leave ’em alone. What if they decide their policy is, shoot first, ask second? Again, if it isn’t against a state or federal law, that is their right. If you don’t like it, move to a nicer community.

What if at risk folks don’t vote? Don’t be so bloody patronizing. Try using some of that time we progressives spend making ourselves feel good actually getting into those at-risk communities and helping folks to register.

What about the legacy of white supremacy, social disadvantage, economic inequality? What on earth does that have to do with voting for someone who will give you the opportunity to help design the policing approach in your community?

What if enough people don’t vote for candidates who support citizen design? Well, that’s democracy.

What if they can’t find enough decent suitable candidates who want to be the sort of police officer they want? Oh c’mon. Keep looking. Offer more money.

What if the community does not have enough money? Ok. That’s a good question. There is a wider dimension to citizen design, I grant you. Goes something like this.

I think that, at first, we need to test the concept fully in a quiet township, like my hometown of Carrboro, NC. Iron out the wrinkles.

Then, we can try it in a couple of townships with more demonstrable problems. Perhaps translate to county and state law enforcement agencies, to see how the relationship between citizens, elected officials and law enforcement officers works in a less obviously defined ‘community.’

Next, we probably need to have discussions at state and federal level, to consider universal guidelines (not too onerous; no, you can’t introduce capital punishment for parking in the Mayor’s slot), and to consider public subsidy for communities which can not afford the reasonable costs of their own citizen design.

Around about this point, the discussions have generally dissolved into questions along the lines of, well, if this has always been possible, why hasn’t it been done?

Frankly, I have no bloody clue. But I think that part of the answer lies in all of the ‘obstacles’ folks keep referencing when they tell me the notion of citizen design can’t possibly work, or won’t solve the problems of bad or racist policing.

And I’ll be honest, the ‘obstacles’ that annoy me the most are those that, in my humble opinion, seem utterly to patronize people at risk, and presume, although God forbid the words would ever be uttered by progressives, that those at risk are not capable of designing anything themselves, and that they need higher authorities to tell them what is best for them.

I have changed over the course of my life. I no longer think I have the best answer for anything. I am prepared every single day to expect better ideas from those experiencing the problems themselves. It is why I devote my advocacy now simply to creating the space where others may have the chance to design their own destiny – however imperfect the rest of us may think that destiny to be.


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