On Sunday afternoon in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Jacob Blake was shot eight times after being followed to his vehicle by two police officers.
According to a statement from his family, Blake was “helping to deescalate a domestic incident when police drew their weapons and tasered him. As he was walking away to check on his children, police fired their weapons several times into his back at point-blank range. Blake’s three sons were only a few feet away and witnessed police shoot their father.”
Immediately following the shooting, protestors gathered in the city’s streets. By nightfall, the court house was on fire. On Monday, the National Guard arrived, though that didn’t stop protestors from burning down the Department of Corrections. The scene in the hundred-thousand-person town is quickly coming to resemble the mass protests and riots that erupted in Minneapolis and spread across the country earlier this summer following the police killing of another black man, George Floyd.
Forty miles north of Kenosha is Milwaukee, where the Democratic Party (virtually) held its national convention last week. There, party leaders made a point of voicing their support for protests against police brutality. Speaker after speaker spoke the words “black lives matter,” and the persistence and severity of racism in the United States was widely acknowledged.
But support for the movement is often merely rhetorical.
The Democrats — including this year’s presidential nominee — helped build the mass-incarceration state. Joe Biden helped write the 1994 crime bill, and he has been outspoken in his opposition to the movement’s call for defunding the police. He has suggested that one way to reduce police murders is to train officers to shoot people in the leg instead of the torso — an inspiring message sure to turn out voters in November. (If you believe Biden is going to “dismantle systemic racism” — his words! — I’ve got a bridge to sell you.)
Biden’s partner on the ticket, Kamala Harris, was a tough-on-crime prosecutor, backing, among other things, an anti-truancy bill that threatened parents of truant children with hefty fines and jail time. Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, a speaker at the DNC, is currently at war with the movement in her city, going so far as to order the raising of bridges that provide access to downtown Chicago in an attempt to keep people away from the heart of commerce after recent protests.
Jacob Blake’s brutalization — he is reportedly in stable condition, but paralyzed from the waist down — may be a test of whether the Democratic Party’s support for reforming the police goes beyond words. Kenosha is a Democratic-run city in a Democratic-run state, after all, and both went for Trump in 2016, making them key battlegrounds in the coming presidential election.
“We believe in justice and therefore justice means for everyone. We will hold the police and the public accountable.” John Antaramian, Kenosha’s mayor, said in a press conference Monday. In response to the spreading protests, he added that “What occurred last night in the city of Kenosha is unacceptable. Rioting and looting is something that is not acceptable to the community.”
Wisconsin governor Tony Evers released a statement Sunday, noting that “While we do not have all the details yet, what we know for certain is he is not the first Black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement in our state or in our country.” He continued: “We stand with all those who have and continue to demand justice, equality and accountability for Black lives in our country — lives like those of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor, Tony Robinson, Denise Hamilton, Earnest Lacy, and Sylville Smith.”
On Monday, Evers signed an executive order calling the state legislature into a special session to take up legislation on police accountability and transparency. The package of legislation, announced in June, includes bills that prohibit no-knock warrants and the use of chokeholds, as well as establishing statewide use-of-force standards. It’s worth noting that NYPD officers have been banned from using chokeholds since 1993, which didn’t prevent Eric Garner’s death.
It will take radical change to stop officers from brutalizing members of the public, requiring pressure from the movement that emerged this summer and is now reappearing in the streets of Kenosha. Kind words from Democrats may be more palatable than the Republican Party’s racist fearmongering, but they are nowhere near enough. Defunding the police is a start. (If the current RNC proceedings are anything to judge by, it’s also what Republicans will accuse Democrats of doing regardless). It may yet prove that Democratic elected officials’ own self-interest — their fear of being criticized for failing the people of Kenosha and Wisconsin — will force them to accept as much.
Or maybe it won’t. Maybe the Democratic Party leadership will continue the bipartisan project of engineering upward transfers of wealth while lamenting the violence and insecurity that follows. Maybe Democratic mayors will continue to keep triangulating between the needs of downtown business interests and those of increasingly intransigent police forces, supporting the movement rhetorically, or spiritually, or something, while doing little more than tinkering around the edges of reform. Maybe progressive commentators will continue to be surprised when Democrats achieve nothing (credulity, or at least the pretense of it, is part of the job). Maybe police will continue to kill hundreds of people every year, and maim thousands more.
Either way, the movement against police brutality will continue to simmer, only to explode when local police forces — not just predictably, but inevitably — attack again. That movement’s strength is the only variable that could change the equation and break the cycle.