The fabric of America is coming apart

It seems the United States was just waiting to unravel

An American flag.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Mass unrest engulfed cities across the United States over the weekend, as thousands of people protested the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and police typically responded with violence. In some relatively isolated cases, riots and looting broke out — including in Washington, D.C., where President Trump turned off the lights at the White House and hid in a bunker.

It seems the United States was a powder keg just waiting for a spark. Police incompetence and brutality — carried out at enormous expense to the American taxpayer — have only added to the intolerable daily burden of poverty and misery experienced by the American working class, particularly its black and brown members. The fabric of America is coming apart.

Early Monday morning I went to help clean up some streets in my neighborhood of West Philadelphia, where many windows had been broken and a couple businesses sacked. Many people expressed anger at the torching of businesses that serve a majority-black community and are often locally-owned, but there was also recognition of the wretched behavior of police around the country. One local restaurant owner told the Philadelphia Inquirer that "People are tired of the way things are, of black folks getting killed … That's what happens when people get frustrated. They start doing crazy things."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Indeed, many held the police partly responsible for the situation, because they did no small part to inflame the violence on Sunday and failed to control the actual crime. The Inquirer reports: "Police initially fired tear gas as the Foot Locker was looted. But by early evening they were shooting tear gas canisters down 52nd Street at people simply standing on the street." Two local doctors treated residents, including young children, for exposure to tear gas — incidentally, a chemical weapon banned in wartime by the Geneva Conventions. One family had to evacuate their home when a tear gas canister landed on their porch.

But that is relatively mild compared to the conduct of other law enforcement departments last weekend. In Brooklyn, NYPD officers deliberately rammed their SUV into a group of unarmed protesters. Boston cops did the same thing. In Minneapolis, city police and national guard fired paint pellets at people standing on their porches. In Salt Lake, riot cops shoved an elderly man with a cane to the ground. In Louisville, city and state police fatally shot the owner of a popular local barbecue restaurant.

Journalists seem to be a particular target for many cops. Among many, many others, Andrea Sahouri of the Des Moines Register reported that Des Moines police pepper-sprayed and arrested her after she identified herself as a media member. Molly Hennessy-Fisk of the Los Angeles Times said that Minnesota State Patrol fired tear gas at a group of reporters "at point-blank range" after they identified themselves as journalists. Michael Anthony Adams of Vice News reported that Minneapolis police held him down and blasted pepper spray into his face. Police shot photographer Linda Tirado in the head with a "non-lethal" round in Minneapolis, and permanently blinded her left eye. (Random criminals also assaulted several other journalists.)

Who is responsible for this pathetic state of affairs?

President Trump has no doubt dramatically fueled the anger and unrest with his compulsive, unhinged tweeting, dismantling of President Obama's hesitant efforts to address police brutality nationwide, and mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic (which has hit black Americans much harder than any other racial group). And he is just the most blatant example of how Republicans have torn at the national fabric with deregulation, austerity, and the war on crime.

But Democrats are also deeply implicated in our current crisis. Historically they were only somewhat less enthusiastic advocates of mass incarceration and neoliberalism. Today virtually all big American cities are run by the Democratic Party — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, D.C., Philadelphia, and most others. Indeed, Minneapolis has not a single Republican on the city council, and the mayor is a Democrat (as well as the Minnesota governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general).

Big city Democrats have plainly failed to rein in their police departments or to improve their abysmal job performance. The homicide clearance rate (that is, the fraction of murders that end in an arrest) in the U.S. has fallen steadily from over 90 percent in the 1960s, to 69 percent in the late 90s, to about 62 percent today — even while the murder rate has fallen by almost half over the last 30 years. In Baltimore, the clearance rate in 2019 was a mere 32 percent — roughly the fraction of murders that are typically solved by immediate confession or finding the perpetrator at the scene. Unbelievably, Chicago police can't even match that figure — in 2019, they boosted their clearance rate to 56 percent by closing many old cases in which the supposed perpetrator had died or prosecutors refused to press a case. But of murders committed in that year through December 23, Chicago cops had cleared only 21 percent.

(In Finland, by the way, the murder clearance rate is 98 percent.)

Yet Democratic city governments continue to spend gigantic sums on law enforcement. In 2017, Baltimore spent 26 percent of its general revenue fund on cops; in Minneapolis, 36 percent; in Chicago, 39 percent; and in Oakland, 41 percent. Even before the crisis America had a poverty rate about triple that of Denmark or Finland — and in turn, the African-American poverty rate, like their unemployment rate, is reliably twice or more than that of whites. Now most cities are slashing their social services in response to the coronavirus economic collapse, but in New York the police have been largely spared from cuts. In Los Angeles, law enforcement spending has actually gone up.

That's America in 2020: a giant chunk of public dollars going to cops who are shockingly poor at doing their most important jobs, constantly hassle and occasionally kill people, and react to any resulting protest with violence. When citizens accurately perceive that the state is basically hostile to them, one should expect a breakdown of law and order sooner or later. Perhaps instead of paying people handsomely to not solve crimes and shoot tear gas at random people, American cities might try directing some of that money towards badly-needed public benefits.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us