The Uvalde SWAT team lined up with guns.
Image Source: Uvalde Police / Facebook

The Uvalde Tragedy Exposes the Futility of Policing

Almost two dozen elementary school students and teachers in Uvalde, Texas, were killed in the deadliest mass shooting in a decade. Though multiple students called 911, it took police over an hour to breach the classroom. The police narrative has changed multiple times since. Uvalde’s police chief was sworn in as a city council member the following week (CNN). Two years after George Floyd’s murder exposed millions to the idea of police reform and abolition, Uvalde police highlighted the structural problems of policing in the worst way. 

In the summer of 2020, a majority of Americans supported structural changes to U.S. policing, and 15% wanted to abolish the police entirely (Newsweek, Gallup). A year later, support for Black Lives Matter had plummeted, particularly among white allies, while confidence in the police had swelled (US News). By May 2022, President Biden would be crowing that “the answer is not to defund the police, the answer is to fund the police” (Huffington Post). 

TAKE ACTION

• Push back against pro-police sentiments in your community by sharing the #8toAbolition resources.

• Intervene to make sure demilitarizing police is a core component of conversations about reducing gun violence and expanding gun control.

Support efforts to address intra-community harm outside of the criminal injustice system like the Audre Lorde Project, In Our Names Network, Critical Resistance, Abolitionist Law Center, or a local collective or grassroots organization.

A key component of the pro-cop narrative was the idea of an emergent national crime wave. It’s a lie. Crime rates have been dropping for two decades, and decreased police funding does not correlate with increased crime (Mother Jones). But the crime wave fiction suggested that efforts to reduce police power were foolhardy at best and dangerous at worst. “Police may do undesirable things, particularly to Black and Brown people,” the thinking seems to go. “But if we abolish or reform policing, there will be nobody to protect us from really bad people. No matter how bad things are now, that would be worse.” 

It’s hard to imagine a really bad person worse than a gunman murdering elementary schoolers; an armed shooter situation less risky for cops. There’s no chance of being caught in the crossfire with unarmed schoolchildren, and the teenage gunman was anything but a battle-hardened killer. If they wanted a custom-built situation to shoot down arguments for abolition, Uvalde police were handed the perfect one.

But instead of confronting the shooter, the police — who consume a whopping 40% of the municipal budget — tasered, pepper-sprayed, tackled, and handcuffed parents trying to save their kids themselves (Bloomberg, Huffington Post). 

Some wonder who but the police would protect us from crazed shooters. 

A better question: who, aside from the police, would be allowed to physically stop us from protecting our children from harm? 

U.S. courts have ruled — repeatedly — that police have no obligation to protect us. A judge ruled that Parkland police had no constitutional duty to protect students in immediate danger (Sun Sentinel). Police don’t even have to intervene if they’re watching you getting stabbed on the subway (American Prospect). The U.S. witnessing another school shooting was tragically predictable. Police deciding not to risk their lives to stop it was predictable, too. 

Even when their lives aren’t at risk, police are terrible at solving crimes. “On a good year,” University of Utah law professor Shima Baradaran Baughman wrote, “police solve less than a quarter of reported cases.” The more funding police departments get, the worse they get at solving crimes. And contrary to popular belief, not a single U.S. city defunded its police department after 2020 (American Prospect).

But given the massive resources the U.S. government pours into policing, they must be good for something. The purpose of policing is not to address harm but to protect a structurally violent political and economic system. Police started as fugitive slave patrols (Harvard University). SWAT teams were created to murder members of the Black Panther Party (All That’s Interesting). The FBI was started to suppress immigrant labor organizers (FBI).  Despite the mythologizing of “heroic” cops, what police excel at is social control. From attacking union members and harassing sex workers to feeding the contemporary prison-industrial complex and repressing civil dissent, the police exist to protect political and economic elites (In These Times). This is why many organizers from oppressed communities demand police abolition. Uvalde police have provided the nation with a tragic example of why these ideas are worth considering. 

Given the paltry reforms offered after 2020, we have every reason to expect to see another revolt against police brutality. When it comes, if we settle for corporate press releases, moderate reforms, or a changing of the political guard that leaves a violent institution intact at its roots, we become responsible for the kind of society we leave for our children and grandchildren: one still poisoned by discrimination, impoverishment, imperialism, brutality, and death. We, our communities, and our descendants deserve much more. 

Dignity, thriving, and liberation are our collective rights. An unequal system that uses bullets and batons to protect and serve only itself is the common adversary of all who hold these aspirations.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Uvalde police attacked parents while leaving the gunman inside an elementary school for over an hour.

• Police have no legal obligation to protect citizens and solve a small minority of crimes.

• Despite this, police departments receive a huge amount of funding because of their use in maintaining social control.

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