A Message from the Director of Eagleton
June 4, 2020 – As the Director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, which works to teach and uphold the values that underlie our democracy, and as Director of the Miller Center within that Institute, which has worked in cities nationwide and in Europe to build trust between police and vulnerable populations, it is hard to overstate my shock and outrage at the senseless, brutal, and unjust killing of George Floyd and the inability – and seeming unwillingness – of our nation’s media and leaders to unify the American people in response. I write to express that outrage, but also to renew my commitment to fight for the equal justice under law that is our Constitution’s elusive ideal.
I have spent much of the past two decades working at the raw intersection of policing and vulnerable populations. Based on those experiences, I have come to believe that unbiased, professional policing is the most essential mission to our republic’s well-being, and also, at times, the hardest.
The police must maintain civic order while upholding our constitutional freedoms; they necessarily patrol the fault lines that define our culture. The balance their actions strike define the boundaries of our liberty. But ultimately we are accountable for defining that balance and those boundaries. For Americans are not subjects; our rights are not conferred by royal or statist elites. Our freedoms are our birthright, policed only with our consent.
Abuse of the policing power calls into question, therefore, the very legitimacy of our democracy. We can understand the dangers and difficulties inherent in policing, but we have a right to demand that police uphold accountable standards of unbiased professional and constitutional conduct.
Let’s not be naïve. There is, and always will be, an irreducible element of racism and other less overt forms of bigotry in America; that is the burden of our past. While it can be eased, it will never be erased. But it simply cannot be tolerated in the conduct of police without undermining the stability of our entire democratic edifice.
It is not asking too much of police, therefore, to conform to unbiased standards of professional conduct; that is essential, and the vast majority do. On the other hand, however, it is asking too much to expect that unbiased policing alone will fix the underlying problem of racism and other forms of discrimination in our society. As long as our society leaves vulnerable populations isolated and neglected, with minimal opportunities, in conditions unmitigated by other forms of community-building assistance, the police as well as the affected communities will continue to be the victims of that neglect. The burden of our past and persisting neglect will be manifest in every fraught encounter.
The precise remedies may not be clear, and will differ from place to place, but we know now what won’t work. A concentration of police resources in areas of social neglect, unaccompanied by infusions of educational, health, employment and business incentives and resources, and burdened with our history, is a prescription for escalating confrontation and ultimate tragedy. Compassionate, even confessional, rhetoric, unaccompanied by the hard work of bringing people together, will be unavailing.
We the governed also know what is essential to our consent:
Care about all communities.
Insist that injustice anywhere is not just a threat to justice but undermines it everywhere.
Insist that our rights be respected.
Insist that our voices be heard.
Real progress awaits the day when we turn away from our dark history of violence, oppression, and chaos, and bend together toward equal justice under law.