How Do You Reform This?

Protests raged in Minneapolis last night in the wake of 20-year-old Daunte Wright’s killing by Brooklyn Center police on Sunday. Social media and societal reaction was quick, too. Professional sports leagues delayed events, television networks noted the killing, activists funneled donations to Wright’s girlfriend and planned community actions. The outrage is still fresh in the same city where George Floyd was murdered by police and his killer now stands trial.

If the protests do blow up as last summer’s did, authorities and media types will call them too radical or destructive. Never mind the familiar motions of the game. Police decry property destruction, journalists use passive, blameless phrasing, and politicians offer up thoughts and prayers but demand peaceful protests, law and order. Eventually corporate America and the liberal establishment will co-opt the protests and call for sensible reform.

But the question begs again, as it did last summer. How do you reform a system designed to function this way?

Some on social media suggest that police shouldn’t have anything to do with monitoring traffic. That sounds fair enough. First reports were that Brooklyn Center police stopped Wright for an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. Updates explained that police actually pulled him over for an expired license plate and later discovered a “gross misdemeanor warrant” for Wright’s arrest. A dangling air freshener is a patently absurd reason for a police stop. Any reasonable person would agree with that. And expired plates aren’t far behind, given DMV delays and backlogs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the reality is probably much more sinister than a simple traffic stop. Law enforcement regularly uses arbitrary infractions as pretext for profiling nonwhite minorities. Police stopped Wright either to get him in the system or because they believed he already was. Air fresheners were just a bullshit cover for obvious profiling.

Asking how to reform this feels like an exercise in futility. Even the most simple interactions have sinister intentions or undertones. Any time a Black person gets into their car could be the last time for reasons as stupid and arbitrary and racist as you can imagine. That’s the system working exactly as it should. It’s serving the interests it was built for and punishing those it’s designed to oppress. The officer accidentally mistaking her handgun for a taser is just throwing salt in an already open, festering wound. The excuse is as illegitimate as telling a 20-year-old Black man you’re pulling him over because of a pine tree dangling above his dashboard only to shoot him to death minutes later.

The bootlicking brigade is already out on this one. They say if Wright hadn’t resisted he would’ve been fine. But looking at it that way simply proves the point that we’re beyond reform here. Wright reacted reasonably flustered after receiving a bullshit excuse and it got him killed. The system holds him accountable, not the officer who shot him. Taking police out of traffic enforcement is smart, but it’s clearly a tip-of-the-iceberg type deal. Profiling will still occur outside those specific instances. The reasons will still be totally capricious, subject to an officer’s mood or disposition or even orders. That’s what happens in a deeply racist system of law enforcement and interpretation. It targets nonwhites and protects the officers who do, either through coded language or nonsense excuses that absolve them of wrongdoing. Simple reform won’t fix bigotry that’s been baked into the margins.