Quarantines are trying, but they’re also clarifying.
The semi-quarantine existence imposed upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic for the past six months has offered plenty of time to evaluate what really matters. It also has stripped away most of the daily diversions that ordinarily allow us to evade unpleasant realities.
I believe that’s why we’ve recently seen an unprecedented level of sustained national intensity over the issue of police brutality — and the way African Americans in this society are subjected to what Marvin Gaye described, in his 1971 lament “Inner City Blues,” as “trigger-happy policing.”
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Yes, it’s true that the video of the May 25 killing of a Black man named George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer was uniquely shocking, because it forced the viewer to squirm and cringe for eight excruciating minutes while the policeman put his knee down on Floyd’s neck.
But the public response also was heightened by our fragile collective psyche; the way COVID-19 has forced us into solitary confinement with our own consciences and magnified the educational, environmental, housing, criminal justice and public health inequities that were always there.
Sports can provide a welcome diversion from our problems, but its entertainment value also can distract us from necessary discomfort, the kind of discomfort that happens when you have no choice but to look injustice in the eye.
That’s why the Milwaukee Bucks decided Wednesday, three days after a Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer fired seven shots into the back of a 29-year-old Black man named Jacob Blake, not to play Game 5 of their playoff series with the Orlando Magic. The rest of the NBA players in the COVID bubble followed the Bucks’ example.
Former NBA player Chris Webber expressed the mood of the moment with righteous eloquence.
“Sports has been a wonderful distraction for stress, for long work days, for unfortunate circumstances,” Webber said. “But it should not be a distraction for the marginalization of human beings.”
In the clarifying light of this tense moment, NBA players could not bring themselves to give us false comfort or entertain us into complacency.
Of course, that left players open to attacks from Black Lives Matter deniers who wondered what a bunch of pampered millionaires thought they were accomplishing by refusing to play basketball.
It reminded me of another pampered millionaire who took grief in 1969 when his attempts to raise the banner for peace during the Vietnam era made him the subject of ridicule.
What, after all, did John Lennon hope to accomplish with stunts such as holding hotel bed-ins or planting acorns for peace?
“If I’m going to get on the front page,” Lennon said, “I might as well get on the front page with the word ‘Peace.’”
In San Antonio, Mayor Ron Nirenberg had his own COVID-19 clarifying moment this year, when the hard reality of staggeringly long lines at the San Antonio Food Bank and 160,000 lost local jobs convinced him that we couldn’t come out of this pandemic operating by the old playbook.
That’s why Nirenberg put together a four-year $154 million workforce-development plan that will go before voters in November.
Local activists, however, want more. In the spirit of the “defund police” mantra which emerged after Floyd’s killing, they want the city to make swift, substantial cuts in its police budget.
When City Manager Erik Walsh presented a proposed city budget on August 6 that included an $8 million hike in police funding, some progressive activists were outraged.
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“This bloated police budget is unacceptable,” Leah Wilson told the council. Wilson called for the redistribution of police funds to social programs, adding, “We know that poverty is the most obvious driver of violence.”
Wilson is correct about what drives violence. That’s the whole idea behind Nirenberg’s workforce-development proposition.
But those societal changes have to occur before you can seriously consider major cuts in policing. Otherwise, you end up with neighborhood associations, who tend to value public safety above all else, anxious about the city’s inability to adequately protect its residents.
At least for now, what we should be looking for is not the draining of all resources that go to police, but rather the reform of how police departments operate. That means demilitarization, enhanced training, punishment and removal of bad cops and clear use-of-force policies designed to de-escalate tense situations.
It’s worth noting that 82 percent of the current police budget is locked in place by the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the San Antonio Police Officers Association. The contract also is responsible for misconduct policies which have allowed too many rogue cops to remain on the force.
The next round of collective-bargaining talks is set to begin early next year. At this clarifying moment, we need to make sure that SAPOA is never again allowed to put the protection of abusive cops ahead of the welfare of this community.
Gilbert Garcia is a columnist covering the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Gilbert, become a subscriber. firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @gilgamesh470
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