In Israel the killing of an unarmed Ethiopian teenager, Solomon Teka, and earlier brutality against Ethiopian-Israelis, has sparked ongoing protests. In the United States, anger at police has led to nationwide protests and calls to “defund the police.” Why the police? Why now? Police racism and over-policing of minorities is only part of the answer. Dissatisfaction with police, I believe, is part of a crisis of democracy that, along with the environmental crisis, is the most important challenge humanity faces today.
When faith in democracy prevails, the police are perceived as expressing the people’s will. When this faith diminishes, police become the tense, brittle edge where the people and government authority meet. In this sense, Ethiopian Israelis and African Americans — without equating their situation or history — are harbingers of transformation. They are canaries in the coalmine because what is happening to them may well happen to other citizens, and they are also frontline fighters for necessary change.
Democracy is in retreat all over the world: in, China, Russia, India, Rwanda, Uganda, Turkey, Tajikistan, and Hungary, to give just a few examples. In Israel and the United States, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump have both railed against the basic institutions of democracy, such as the courts and the media, accusing them of plotting a coup to unseat them. Trump has even hinted at his approval of QAnon, a conspiracy theory that claims that an elite group of “illuminati” are poised to take over the world unless Trump stops them with a wave of arrests.
The rise of authoritarian leaders is a symptom, not the cause, of the crisis in democracy. Over the past few decades, the world has changed rapidly, but democracy has failed to update itself. As globalization has proceeded, millions of manufacturing jobs have moved to places like China, where workers have few rights. A handful of corporations have grown increasingly powerful, controlling much of the global food, agriculture, energy and information systems. The public square and main street have given way to giant, privately owned malls, emblematic of our transformation from citizens to consumers. Newspapers have died, and the social media maelstrom has weakened what remains of the belief in facts. All of this and more contributes to individuals’ feelings that the biggest decisions have slipped beyond their control
Meanwhile, technology and science are revolutionizing human life without any input from us. The prime example for me is the mapping of the human genome, and CRISPR gene editing techniques. Will classes of genetically privileged or underprivileged human beings arise? Do we, as global citizens, have any say in this? In anything?
The mainstreaming of conspiracy theories is itself a sign that people feel powerless. Perhaps the most widespread Corona conspiracy theory is that Bill Gates created the Coronavirus in order to be able to inject the entire world population with a microchip-laced vaccine through which he will be able to control the world’s population by transmitting orders via the new 5G technology. This conspiracy theory brilliantly expresses the fear that corporate money, plus new technological advances, implemented without public discussion, equal the end of freedom.
Democracy, which is meant to give us a sense that we have control over our lives, is no longer enough to do the job. The era of COVID-19, with its top-down, freedom-limiting orders, has amplified feelings of lack of control. This is where the police come in. When democracy is ailing, police come to be perceived as the iron fist behind dictatorial government. Communities that already feel disenfranchised, such as Ethiopian Israelis, are the first to experience this authoritarian force in the form of over-policing, real and perceived racism, and unjustified killings.
The wellsprings of democracy must be recharged. More than ever, we need community based, participatory democracy in which local communities have greater control over their own fate, and in which citizens can become involved in decision making on a local, national, and global level. If this does not happen, our slide to authoritarianism will be inevitable.
African Americans and Ethiopian Israelis are protesting racism, but they are also, I believe, pushing all of us towards a reimagining of policing before it’s too late. Whether called the police or something else, authority with boots on the ground must be an intimate part of the community, trained to listen,, to understand leadership, to bridge the gap between government and people, and to employ violence only as an absolutely last resort. Models already exist; we need to learn them and go beyond them, integrating crime prevention and investigation with training in group theory, social work, psychology and participatory politics. We need to create a new profession that will attract high quality recruits from psychology, law, and social work.
Along with economic, educational, health and political reforms, reimagining policing is crucial if we are to retain our freedoms. Our own involvement in this reimagining as members of a community, citizens of a nation, humans of the new globalized world, is critical. Democracy is too precious to let it go slip-sliding away.