Micha Odenheimer

Dreams for the 4th of July

As all of us know, demonstrations against police brutality, specifically against African Americans, have swept across all of the major cities of the United States. Here in Israel as well, since the killing of Solomon Teka, an unarmed 18 year old Ethiopian Israeli by an off-duty policeman a year ago, there have been weekly protests against the police by Ethiopian Israeli activists and their allies. 

Why the police? Why now? There are many good ways to answer those questions, and to connect them with deeper issues of racism or prejudice. When young men feel unsafe because of the color of their skin, when their mothers are anxious anytime they leave the house, when the police fail to convincingly investigate and punish their own, while apparently obstructing justice by “losing” videotapes and other evidence, as in the case of Solomon Teka, rage will build and eventually explode. 

 I would like to look at this question, though, from a different angle. Without diminishing the significance of racism in American society, my premise is that the protests against the police in the United States have been widely embraced because they are of great relevance to all of us. In this sense, African Amercans and Ethiopian Israelis–without in any way equating their history or situation–are harbingers of transformation. They are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine–what is already happening to them may well soon happen to us–but also the front lines of a movement for an absolutely necessary change in the way we create peace and keep the peace in our community. . 

Let me explain. The world is facing a deep crisis in democracy, equal in importance to the ecological crisis. China, which had made baby steps towards more democratic institutions and freedom of speech, now has a President for Life, is attempting to crush democracy in Hong Kong, and has interned a million Uighur Muslims in reeducation camps. Russia, which ostensibly graduated to democracy in the early 1990’s, is now controlled by a proto-Czar in the person of Vladamir Putin. Modi in India has embraced an increasingly authoritarian style. Uganda, Rwanda, and other African countries have cancelled elections and are ruled by Presidents for Life. In Hungary, Orbin’s government has classically authoritarian features.  Erdogan in Turkey has made sweeping arrests of opposition leaders and activists. In Israel, the Prime Minister, indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, has attacked the justice system and the police, while accusing the attorney general he himself appointed of being the spearhead of a left wing conspiracy against him–not a good sign for democracy.  And in a deeply polarized United States, the President, who fawns over dictators, reserving special admiration for Putin, has called the democratic system rigged, refused to confirm that he would accept the results of the 2016 election, threatened to “lock up” political opponents, tweeted his approval of armed local militias, attacked the integrity of the media, and hinted that he approves of Q-anon,a web based conspiracy theory community that claims that an elite group of “illuminati” are poised to take over the world unless Trump stops them with a wave of arrests. 

Democracy looks shaky in many parts  of the world–including the United States and even Israel. But why? Over the past few decades, the world has changed rapidly, but democracy has failed to update itself. Millions and millions of manufacturing jobs have moved to China. A handful of corporations have grown more and more powerful, stripping away regulations and restrictions and controlling much of the global food, agriculture, entertainment, energy and information systems. Main streets, with their function as a public square where opinions can be articulated, pamphlets distributed, ideas expressed, have been denuded as giant, privately owned malls, dominated by chain stores with thousands of franchises, have taken main street’s place–emblematic of our transformation from citizens to consumers. Local newspapers have died, one after the other, in the age of the internet. Their replacement, social media, instead of becoming a marketplace of ideas, feeds people more and more radical reinforcements of what they already tend to believe, amplifying polarization and undermining what remains of the belief in facts or objective truth.

Meanwhile, technology and science continue to potentially revolutionize human life–without any input from us. The prime example, for me, is the mapping of the human genome, and  CRISPR gene editing techniques. Are scientists getting ready to change the blueprint of human beings? Will classes of genetically privileged or underprivileged human beings arise? Do we, as citizens of an increasingly global world,  have any say in this? In anything? 

The mainstreaming of conspiracy theories is itself a sign that people feel powerless and lack trust in democracy Perhaps the most widespread COVID 19 conspiracy theory–and there are many–was that Bill Gates created the Coronavirus in order to be able to inject the entire world population with a vaccine which would contain a microchip. Gates will then be able to control the world’s population by transmitting orders via the microchip, transmitted by the new 5G technology. This conspiracy theory brilliantly expresses in concrete form the fear that the super-rich, bathed in corporate money–represented by Gates–plus new technological advances, which are being implemented without public discussion or even explanation such as 5G, equal the end of human freedom.  The point of all this is that democracy, which is meant to give us an individual and collective sense that we have control over our lives, is no longer enough in its current form to do that job and preserve that sense. The era of Covid 19, of course, with its new, top-down, freedom limiting orders, has amplified feelings of lack of control.  

This is where the police come in. The police are charged with enforcing the government’s will, as expressed in laws and directives, in the real world. In a healthy democracy, the police are experienced, in the final analysis,  an arm of the people. When democracy is ailing, police come to be perceived as wielding random, authoritarian power, the iron fist behind dictatorial government.  Communities that are already disenfranchised, including African Americans and 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 and replenished. The changes the world has undergone and will continue to experience need to be matched by a new kind of democracy. Voting every few years is not enough. 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. 

Re-imagining the police is a crucial and urgent part of recreating democracy. African Americans, and Ethiopian Israelis are protesting racism, but they are also, I believe, pushing all of us towards this reimagining before it’s too late. Even more than a jury of our peers, we need a police force of our peers–blood of our blood and flesh of our flesh, trained to listen, to resolve disputes, to understand the structure of communities and their leadership, to bridge the gap between government and people, and to employ violence–including the violence of handcuffs and detentions–only as an absolutely last resort. Models for community policing already exist; we need to learn them and go beyond them, integrating police work with training in group theory and leadership, social work, psychology and participatory politics. We need to create a new profession that will attract high quality men and women from psychology, law, and social work–and who see this new kind of policing as a potential springboard to politics. 

 Along with economic, educational, health and political reforms, reimagining the police is crucial if we are to retain our freedoms. Our own involvement in this reimagining and recreating, as members of communities, citizens of a nation, humans of the new globalized world, is critical. Democracy is too precious to let it go slip-sliding away. 

About the Author
Micha Odenheimer is a journalist, rabbi, and social entrepreneur. Micha founded the Israel Association or Ethiopian Jews, the first advocacy organization dedicated to changing absorption policies, and Tevel b'Tzedek, an Israeli organization working with impoverished subsistence farmers in the Global South. Micha has written for numerous publications, including Haaretz, the Washington Post, and the Jerusalem Report from Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, Burma, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other countries.