‘Over-Policed and Under-Protected’: Michael Fortner on How to Safeguard Black Communities

Michael Fortner

Professor Michael Fortner (Political Science) is the author of Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, a close examination of the controversial laws adopted in New York almost 50 years ago that contributed to many of the problems with the criminal justice system today. He recently spoke to The Graduate Center about the role and influence of Black Lives Matter, the changes he would like to see enacted in police departments, and his family’s own experience with the criminal justice system and as victims of crime. 

The Graduate Center: You were interviewed by Politico on the differences between the protests in 1968 and last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Could you expand on that and explain how your views were informed by the research for your book?

Fortner: By the end of the ’60s, the crime rate in a lot of cities, including New York, nearly doubled. People were not just experiencing more burglaries but also street crimes. Homicide was up, and there was a sense that the world was no longer safe, that the world was in chaos and something needed to be done. What I wanted to do in my work was to take seriously the idea that Blacks have agency in this history, and that they may have had their own unique point of view on issues of crime and so-called disorder. I wanted to return to this period and look at sources produced by African Americans, at the testimonies of community activists from Harlem in hearings on crime and drug addiction.

What I found then was that, like many whites of the period, Blacks were concerned about the rising crime rates in their community. They were deeply concerned about drug addiction, drug use, and related crimes. Older women were afraid to go to church in the evening because they thought they would be robbed. There’s this one interview with an older woman from Harlem who was broken up that someone stole her radio. Her radio was a prized possession, and it was gone. Many people in Harlem and in Black communities throughout the country were experiencing this dramatic shift in public safety, and the argument in my book is that this compelled many of them to reach for punitive solutions which, over time, had a very negative consequence on African Americans.

This moment is dramatically different because overall crime rates are still at historical lows. When you don’t have to worry about someone robbing you or breaking into your home or stealing your car, that creates more room for reform, discourse, activism around police brutality.

We’ve seen the shift. People who in the past might have been pro-police and policing are now asking hard questions about how we police communities and whether or not they can be policed in ways that are safer. In some areas, people are asking to abolish the police entirely. That discourse about reform and even radical change is a product of this new environment in which crime is a secondary concern for a lot of Americans.

GC: What would you change if you had control over police departments? What do you see as the first steps toward reducing police violence?

Fortner: If I had a magic wand and could do whatever I wanted in terms of police reform, I would change collective bargaining agreements between police agencies and police unions to make it easier to fire bad actors. One of the things that continues to surprise me as we learn of these incidents of police brutality is that many of these people who are killing or brutalizing Black folks have been written up multiple times. We know a lot about these individuals before these tragic moments, and we know they shouldn’t be police officers, but many departments don’t have the power to remove them. Empowering agencies to do a much better job of policing themselves would help a lot in a lot of these situations.

We also need to experiment with other types of interventions. If someone is going through a mental health crisis, having someone show up with a gun to respond is not the best solution. A free and decent society can find other ways to handle mental health crises than using the police. We should have much more funding for experimental programs that try different strategies to deal with mental health crises. 

GC: How do you think the Black Lives Matter movement can be most effective in advocating for changes that protect and respect Black communities?

Fortner: I think Black Lives Matter has been so successful because it has retained a radical edge. That is to say that it consistently speaks truth to power, regardless of what power looks like. It’s not deferential to power, including to the traditional Black political establishment. That’s been critical to its success in making the phrase Black lives matter part of our common lexicon. 

I’m not sure I would put the responsibility of solving this problem on the movement. The movement is doing what it’s supposed to do to highlight problems, to shift perspectives, to offer alternative visions of our society. The question is how do our politicians, and how does our civil society as a whole, respond to that new vision? How do we build on that to implement reforms? That’s the critical question going forward, especially for the new administration: How are they going to take this righteous indignation and this fresh vision of justice seriously and use it to guide policy development?

GC: What do you think of the calls by some leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement to abolish the police? 

Fortner: The leaders are clear that they’re abolitionists. Abolition or even the call to “defund the police” is not supported by majority of African Americans, but the movement is clear that their vision, their radical vision of what we should do, is to not have a world in which police are used to increase public safety, particularly in urban Black communities ⎯ that we actually rebuild the social safety net and have a robust social democracy, so that policing will not necessarily be part of what we will need as an intervention. 

Many Black folks disagree with that. But, again, I think that’s a critical perspective to have at this moment. One that, even if you don’t embrace all of the specifics of the agenda, is pushing us in the right direction. Although there is a great debate within the African American community about abolition and these sort of radical policy recommendations, having this perspective is extremely useful.

GC: In The New Yorker in 2015, you discussed growing up in Brownsville. How has your family’s experience with crime and with law enforcement affected you and your views?

Fortner: My experience is typical one in the Black community. It explains a lot of the variation in Black attitudes toward policing, or at least the complexity of Black attitudes towards policing. I grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn in the 1980s during the height of what they called the crack epidemic. It was a very dangerous place and I grew up hearing gunshots periodically. I remember police helicopters flying through the neighborhood and those big lights moving across my window as a kid. 

When I was very young, I had a brother who was murdered on the streets of Brownsville. Although I don’t remember him, that crime, that death, really stayed with my family. To this day, it’s reconfigured relationships and attitudes and it’s created a sense of hurt that never goes away.

I also had a brother who spent much of my childhood in prison. He had the other parts of the Black experience of policing and incarceration in a lot of urban communities. My experience helps me think about these issues and realize that African Americans are both over-policed and under-protected. We have this weird paradox in these communities, where we face robust policing regimes that in many ways fail to keep us safe. My hope is that I can use my voice to confront the paradox, to create communities that are safe from state violence and safe from violence committed by fellow citizens.

GC: What are you working on now?

Fortner: I’m in the middle of finishing a book on coalitions in New York City. In that project I’m trying to explain the rise and fall of the New Deal coalition. You had a city that was described as a great social democracy after the Second World War and the New Deal, this great working-class metropolis that did great things for its citizens. Then you have a tale of decline, but also the rise of a very conservative, neoliberal, political regime, with Koch and then Giuliani, only with the brief exception of perhaps Dinkins. So the question is: How do we go from that liberal dream to a neoliberal nightmare? In order to explain that, I’m trying to figure out why can’t people of color and white ethnics who are liberal come together, like they did during the New Deal era. 

Submitted on: FEB 3, 2021

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