Dear Commissioners Augerot, Malone, and Jaramillo:
This June, you issued a statement in response to the historic protests across the globe reacting to the killing of George Floyd. You recognized that communities were gathering together to “give voice to the centuries of inequality, exploitation and abuse suffered by Black and African American people in our country” and added, “The demands for change cannot go unanswered.” As part of your commitment, you dedicated yourselves to listening to the concerns of disadvantaged communities and to examining the ways in which the County might participate in historic racism. You promise that “All systems that reinforce oppression and racism must be thoroughly examined, changed where needed and rebuilt in coordination with the people that have been historically disenfranchised.”
I suggest that one of the tasks the Board needs to consider is renaming the County.
Benton County is named in honor of US Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who served in federal government for some thirty years from 1820 to 1850. He was instrumental in the promotion of settlement of the Oregon Territory. Though he never set foot in Oregon, he is considered someone whose political career was dedicated to the cause of opening the West for Americans.
However, Senator Benton was a notorious white supremacist. His championing of the Oregon Trail was so that white Americans could displace Native American tribes who he considered “savage” and “uncivilized.” He thought that Western expansion was a good idea in order for European and Christian ideals to spread to Asia and transform those cultures. Though he did work to end slavery in the United States, it was not because he considered African Americans equal to white people, but because the issue threatened the stability of the Union.
In 2017, Oregon State University, responding to student concerns and protests, initiated a review of building names on campus, including Benton Hall. I was the co-chair of the committee involved in organizing the review process. A team of professional historians investigated the background of Senator Benton and the naming of the building. While OSU chose to remove Senator Benton’s name from the building for reasons other than his historical legacy, historians found the legacy of Senator Benton to be “controversial and discomforting” because of his support of Native American removal and a white supremacist promotion of Manifest Destiny. This report can be found at:
One way to remedy the harm to Native Americans caused by Senator Benton would be to rename the County after the Kalapuya people who were displaced by the United States from this area in 1855. There is precedent for this in Oregon, since ten of thirty-six counties are named after Native American tribes or use Native American names. The Board should consider consulting tribal historians and officials from Grand Ronde. Nearby Lane County is also involved in a process of reviewing its name for similar reasons.
If the Benton Country Board of Commissioners is truly interested in “dismantling” and “deconstructing” Oregon’s history of systemic oppression, then it should cease to honor one of the politicians who dedicated most of his life’s work to laying the foundations for it.
We want to offer another view. “Dystopia” is a powerful but overused term. It is not a synonym for a terrible time.
The question for us as politicalscientists is not whether things are bad (they are), but how governments act. A government’s poor handling of a crisis, while maddening and sometimes disastrous, does not constitute dystopia.
Dystopia is not a real place; it is a warning, usually about something bad the government is doing or something good it is failing to do. Actual dystopias are fictional, but real-life governments can be “dystopian” – as in, looking a lot like the fiction.
Defining a dystopia starts with establishing the characteristics of good governance. A good government protects its citizens in a noncoercive way. It is the body best positioned to prepare for and guard against natural and human-made horrors.
Good governments use what’s called “legitimate coercion,” legal force to which citizens agree to keep order and provide services like roads, schools and national security. Think of legitimate coercion as your willingness to stop at a red light, knowing it’s better for you and others in the long run.
No government is perfect, but there are ways of judging the imperfection. Good governments (those least imperfect) include a strong core of democratic elements to check the powerful and create accountability. They also include constitutional and judicial measures to check the power of the majority. This setup acknowledges the need for government but evidences healthy skepticism of giving too much power to any one person or body.
Federalism, the division of power between national and subnational governments, is a further check. It has proved useful lately, with state governors and mayors emerging as strong political players during COVID-19.
Three kinds of dystopias
Bad governments lack checks and balances, and rule in the interest of the rulers rather than the people. Citizens can’t participate in their own governance. But dystopian governments are a special kind of bad; they use illegitimate coercion like force, threats and the “disappearing” of dissidents to stay in power.
Our book catalogs three major dystopia types, based on the presence – or absence – of a functioning state and how much power it has.
The great danger of these is, as our country’s Founding Fathers knew quite well, too much power on the part of any one person or group limits the options and autonomy of the masses.
Then there are dystopic states that seem nonauthoritarian but still take away basic human rights through market forces; we call these “capitocracies.” Individual workers and consumers are often exploited by the political-industrial complex, and the environment and other public goods suffer. A great fictional example is Wall-E by Pixar (2008), in which the U.S. president is also CEO of “Buy ‘N Large,” a multinational corporation controlling the economy.
There are not perfect real-life examples of this, but elements are visible in the chaebol – family business – power in South Korea, and in various manifestations of corporate political power in the U.S, including deregulation, corporate personhood status and big-company bailouts.
Lastly there are state-of-nature dystopias, usually resulting from the collapse of a failed government. The resulting territory reverts to a primitive feudalism, ungoverned except for small tribal-held fiefdoms where individual dictators rule with impunity. The Citadel versus Gastown in the stunning 2015 movie “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a good fictional depiction. A real-life example was seen in the once barely governed Somalia, where, for almost 20 years until 2012, as a U.N. official described it, “armed warlords (were) fighting each other on a clan basis.”
Fiction and real life
Indeed, political dystopia is often easier to see using the lens of fiction, which exaggerates behaviors, trends and patterns to make them more visible.
But behind the fiction there is always a real-world correlate. Orwell had Stalin, Franco and Hitler very much in mind when writing “1984.”
Atwood, whom literary critics call the “prophet of dystopia,” recently defined dystopia as when “[W]arlords and demagogues take over, some people forget that all people are people, enemies are created, vilified and dehumanized, minorities are persecuted, and human rights as such are shoved to the wall.”
Some of this may be, as Atwood added, the “cusp of where we are living now.”
But the U.S. is not a dystopia. It still has functioning democratic institutions. Many in the U.S. fight against dehumanization and persecution of minorities. Courts are adjudicating cases. Legislatures are passing bills. Congress has not adjourned, nor has the fundamental right of habeas corpus – the protection against illegal detention by the state – (yet) been suspended.
Crisis as opportunity
And still. One frequent warning is that a major crisis can cover for the rolling back of democracy and curtailing of freedoms. In Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a medical crisis is the pretext for suspending the Constitution.
In real life, too, crises facilitate authoritarian backsliding. In Hungary the pandemic has sped democracy’s unraveling. The legislature gave strongman Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by sole decree indefinitely, the lower courts are suspended and free speech is restricted.
Similar dangers exist in any number of countries where democratic institutions are frayed or fragile; leaders with authoritarian tendencies may be tempted to leverage the crisis to consolidate power.
In politics, Wisconsin primary voters risked their lives to exercise their right to vote during the height of the pandemic. Citizens and civil society are pushing federal and state governments to ensure election safety and integrity in the remaining primaries and the November election.
Despite the eerie silence in public spaces, despite the preventable deaths that should weigh heavily on the consciences of public officials, even despite the authoritarian tendencies of too many leaders, the U.S. is not a dystopia – yet.
Overuse clouds the word’s meaning. Fictional dystopias warn of preventable futures; those warnings can help avert the actual demise of democracy.
I heard someone say, “We need the police, what if you get home invaded.” Chances of that happening are almost nonexistent for boring people who worry about being home invaded on Facebook. That’s a crime you have to plan out, it’s not a dash-and-grab kind of situation, and it typically involves people who you know.
I, unfortunately, DID get home invaded: by the police. I hid behind the piano while the police dressed in street clothes ransacked my house and destroyed my computer owing to some stories I wrote in my newspaper.
I remember my first interaction with the police. I was 14 years old, my friend had called the police on the drug dealers next door (look up Rampart for details on that). Turned out the drug dealers next door were also the police. They put guns to our heads and threatened to drop our bodies in the LA River.
My second interaction with the police, I was 15. I was a camp counselor, and for some reason, the police helped to run the camp. Anyways, a police officer offered to take me home. In the car, he put his hand on my leg. Right before he got to my house, he stopped the car and sexually assaulted me in the car. I had begged my parents to let me have a job. They said they were worried something would happen to me, so I did not tell anyone what happened, and I hung out at the library for the rest of the summer.
I have only called the police one time in my entire life.
In 2003, I called the police when my friend’s (who was on vacation) taco stand in Los Feliz looked like it had been robbed. When the police arrived, it became apparent that they were viewing me as the perpetrator of the crime, so I somehow managed to get them to let me go to the bathroom of the eatery next door, and once I got in the bathroom, I exited the window and went home.
I have been questioned half a dozen times by the police for not having a car and waiting for the bus to work as a special education kindergarten teacher. Fun fact: If the police think you’re a sex worker and question you about it, they also sexually harass and/or try to become a client when they stop you.
I have ZERO positive stories of the police. I have had 100% negative interactions. They have never solved a problem; they have never made anything better; they have almost always made things worse.
Literally, everything you call the police for, the police themselves have done to me. Is that called irony?
But really, I don’t think if you’re white, you’ll have to worry. I really can’t see the United States allowing you to be treated the way I have been treated, cops or no cops. That would be barbaric.
Right now, your Black sisters and brothers are depending on you to make this country a safer place for them to live, work and raise their children. That can only happen if white people hold other white people accountable for behavior which makes Black people feel isolated, stressed out, and in danger.
There is no simple way to do this.
In the long run, we are going to have to change the way key institutions function, the way history is taught, and how resources are allocated, but individual white people do have influence over how their white friends, co-workers, and family members conduct themselves in public
The most important thing you can do is come to the defense of Black people in your neighborhood, on the job, on your team, in your college residence hall or in a store or on the street when they are being racially profiled, intimidated or attacked, whether it is by a boss, a coach, by law enforcement, their teammates or fellow students, or by random people they encounter. In this society, it is the job of white people of conscience to risk their own safety to come to the defense of Black people under attack.
But secondly, you have to police the language of white people around you. Everyone has the right to hold views about important subjects you might disagree with so long as they don’t use threatening or abusive language, but the minute someone in your family, on the job, in the locker room, or at the local bar uses the “N” word or an equivalent reference to Latinos, Muslims, Jews or Gay people, you need to say “Hold It. You can’t say that word around me. If you say it again, I am not only leaving this gathering, I am filming you saying it and putting it on social media”
The normalization of racial epithets in private leads directly to racial intimidation in public.
It’s time white people of conscience risk being hated to make Black people in America feel safe.
Think that’s rough? What’s rougher is what this country will be like if we DON’T do that.
What’s striking about Democratic proposals for police reform, aside from the awful optics provided by Pelosi and Schumer (best forgotten), is that proposals that would have seemed to most people pretty bold and forward looking a few weeks are already being met by charges that they don’t go far enough (they don’t). But the “obviousness” of this awareness shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Instead we should recognize a real win for all the folks involved in the protests – a shift in mass consciousness so that now the real conversation isn’t about whether chokeholds should be legal (duh, no), but what “defining the police means,” what that would like in action, what new resources and types of “first responders would take the place of police,” etc.
There’s a new spirit of possibility in the air, new worlds being not just imagined, but discussed, and to this we owe the protestors – the kids on the ground – a world of gratitude.
If we want to have a society where life expectancy and infant mortality are not at the bottom of advanced nations, and where 50% of the wealth doesn’t accrue to the top 1 percent, we have to gradually shift public funds from prisons and policing to education, health care, and affordable housing.
As we have learned from this Pandemic: NO ONE is safe when poor people and people of color are packed together in crowded residences, deprived of preventive health care, and concentrated in the most dangerous and lowest paying occupations.
As protests continue in every city, town and hamlet, we need to commit ourselves to “demilitarizing” our law enforcement apparatus and investing in a broad array of measures that improve public health and expand economic opportunity.
It is gratifying to see a broad range of leaders in business and government proclaim “Black Life Matters” and commit themselves to an honest effort to confront their own complicity in the promotion and preservation of racism and white supremacy, but without major changes in how law enforcement functions, and how public funds are distributed, these efforts at moral reformation may have little lasting impact on how we actually live
in our communities.
As we work to Defund Police and rethink public safety, it’s important for labor be a part of this struggle. We need to avoid the jobs vs justice argument we’ve dealt with in climate and #Medicare4All campaigns (people who work in insurance and billing).
There are bad individual cops but a bigger problem is the role they play for the ruling class and public officials who serve them, instead of the public and the working class. We should argue for good jobs for all. Cops also face problems with PTSD because of their jobs and what those jobs are expected to do.
We need to transform this system and fight for racial justice and an egalitarian society where we all do plenty of socially and environmentally useful work. #JustTransition!
During WW2, over 127,000 Japanese Americans were put into internment camps.
The Japanese American community lost $400 million, which would be $5 billion in today’s money. I don’t give a damn if Japanese Americans got a pathetic amount of reparations (if they were still alive), you never recover from someone uprooting your family and throwing you in jail. You can never make a thing such as that right.
The good old days were not good for everyone.
Racism creates two parallel worlds one for white people
and another for nonwhite people, a world where you have to be
exceptional, and nearly perfect, to have the life of an ordinary white person.
For Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Black people, the fear that white people have now due to Trump, we have known that fear, and sadly many of us are numb to it.
The only difference with this particular leader is he is messing with white lives now. He is going to destroy the white middle class. He’s going to destroy your colleges. He’s going to destroy your tenure. He’s going to dismantle your K-12 schools. He’s going to dismantle labor laws. He’s going to make you choose between getting your teeth fixed and paying your light bills. He’s going to make you choose between paying your rent and staying home to raise your child, which seems unreasonable, for a person, not working class, not Black or Latinx. Those problems are coming for you under Trump.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure this US is much worse for you if you’ve never been enslaved in the US, lynched in the US, excluded from jobs and/or housing in the US, because of your race, murdered for reading, murdered for owning a business, had your whole life taken from you and your family locked away, because white people are afraid. I’m sure if you’ve never experienced this on US soil, this America is terrifying for you.
I’m sure my great-great-great-great-great grandfather was terrified too when they brought him over here in chains on a boat, so I understand.
I know you may think I am exaggerating, that’s because you live in an entirely different America than I do.
Many of us not protected by white supremacy have had the displeasure to come upon your grandparents.
You don’t need to warn us about things that happened outside the US. We have lived nightmares in this country under your leaders. Leaders like Washington, Lee, Roosevelt, Lincoln, McKinley, and Polk have murdered us, kidnapped us, stole our land, lynched us, and interned us. You don’t need to point to anywhere else, you can just point to the horrible things that happened to nonwhite people here.
You can say, “Please, don’t vote for Trump, because I don’t want to be treated the way the US has had no problem treating nonwhite people for the 243 years existence of this stolen country.”
The past week has seen an explosion of urban uprising that has not been experienced in the US in decades. Almost 5000 people have been arrested nationwide in protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hand of police in Minneapolis. What is unique about this moment is that a majority of Americans support the protests, in part, because they have seen the violent response of police forces all across the country. Even mainstream media outlets are calling the police response disproportionate and many more people are starting to consider the alternative of police abolition as a serious option.
The history of Mexican American people in the US is one that emphasizes the point that police violence is not recent problem created by the militarization of police forces or of white supremacist infiltration. In the mid 1800s, police forces were created specifically for controlling Mexicans and Mexican American citizens. The Texas Rangers were created during the Republic of Texas era specifically to do border patrol duty with Mexico and then later became a regular unit when Texas was absorbed into the United States. The story of the Rangers is a bloody one of lynchings, massacres, and disappearances. From 1915-1919, in a period named La Hora de Sangre, Rangers abducted and murdered hundreds of Mexican Americans with impunity.
In the 20th century, several cases are notable, not only for their brutality but also because of what they teach us about responding to police violence today.
Sleepy Lagoon and the Zoot Suit Riots
The first is the 1942 case of the Sleepy Lagoon murder in Los Angeles that was popularized in the play and film by Luis Valdez, Zoot Suit. Dozens of Mexican American youth were arrested for killing another Mexican American under very uncertain circumstances. By this point, the LAPD was notorious for police brutality and especially for being effective at creating a blue wall of silence to protect their own (one famous case that demonstrates this is). But what was significant about this episode was the treatment of the pachuco youth by the whole criminal justice system—police, prosecutors, social workers, and judges. During the trial, the Mexican American men were denied being able to speak to lawyers, they were not allowed to wear clean clothes to hearings, and were subjected to testimony by state “experts” who told the jury about the savagery of the Mexican people and their propensity to use knifes to cut and maim that went back to Aztec times. The girlfriends of the young men refused to testify against them in trial and were then taken away from their families without due process and put into state custody at reform school.
What this points out is that thinking about police state violence will require more than reforming police forces with better training or body cams and so forth. Sleepy Lagoon revealed that there are many sites of power within the criminal justice system that can coerce and harm individuals. Moreover, this case also reveals how institutional reform may not matter much without confronting the way white supremacy structures culture and everyday life. The state dehumanized those young men and women and played off the stereotypes of violent Mexican gangs to secure their imprisonment and family separation. Those stereotypes would just simply explode a year later when police and military forces persecuted Mexican American youth in the Zoot Suit riots of 1943. In other words, police state violence would not have been possible if many white citizens weren’t willing to tolerate it in order to keep Black and Mexican American youth in their place.
The Bloody Christmas Episode
LAPD police brutality against Mexican American youth continued and crested in 1951 with the Bloody Christmas episode (which became popularized in the 1997 film LA Confidential). A group of young Mexican American men were confronted in a bar by police and fought back against the officers that were harassing them. They were arrested and brought back to the city jail. During a drunken Christmas Eve party, dozens of LAPD officers formed a secret gauntlet in the basement of the jail and forced the defendants to run through it while they beat them with clubs. The torture went on for an hour and half and several defendants had broken bones and ruptured internal organs. They were then forced to pose in photos with the officers they had resisted.
The LAPD expected this case to be covered up just like countless of other cases had been. However, the families of the defendants joined together and became part of a grassroots group called the Community Services Organization. The CSO had been organizing with Mexican American communities in Southern California for several years. When the families brought the CSO network to bear on their case, the city and FBI insisted on a review of the Bloody Christmas incident. In the end, a handful of LAPD officers were convicted of crimes and many were reassigned. It was one of the first times that the blue wall of silence was broken.
It should be noted on how CSO accomplished this victory. For some years, CSO had been conducting meetings in the homes of Mexican American families to inform them about issues and the power of collective community action. These meetings inspired thousands to see themselves as agents of change and not just passive subjects of state control. It had created a very successful voter registration drive that empowered thousands of Mexican American voters. CSO also encouraged multicultural alliances with other groups, namely Jewish cultural organizations and Black and Asian labor groups. This kind of solidarity enabled them to help to elect Ed Roybal to the LA City Council in 1949–one of the first Mexican American political officials in the city since the Mexican American War of 1848. Roybal was instrumental in getting pressure on the LAPD during the Bloody Christmas incident.
The organizer that helped to create this Mexican American political bloc was a man by the name of Fred Ross, Sr. He had gained a reputation about Mexican American communities because of helping them to mount a legal case in Southern California to desegregate public schools that went on to be a template for Brown v. Board of Education. After the victory of the Bloody Christmas, Ross went to San Jose to help form CSO chapters. It was there he met a young man by the name of Cesar Chavez, who later went on to become the national organizer for CSO for almost a decade before he helped to form the United Farm Workers with Dolores Huerta (who was also another CSO organizer).
(Cesar Chavez, Fred Ross, Luis Valdez, and Dolores Huerta)
Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War
The last episode has eerie resonance with today’s uprisings. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War. The Chicano Moratorium was a nationwide group that came together in repose to the disprortionate numbers of Chicanx youth that were dying as casualties in the South Asian conflict. For months, the Chicano Moratorium group planned a huge march and rally in Los Angeles for August of 1970. When the day came, almost thirty thousand people showed up for the demonstration, making it one of the largest anti-Vietnam war protests in history. The march ended in a park, where there were speeches and performances. In a nearby neighborhood, there was a break-in of a local business and police were called. County and city officers responded by the dozens and they came with riot gear. Without warning or provocation, they rushed into the protest crowd, shooting tear gas, and indiscriminately beating people with clubs. There were several casualties, including the Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar, who was shot in the head with a tear gas projectile that was launched into an enclosed bar.
The casual nature of the police violence in this case, and the easy manner in which police were able to deploy weapons in a deadly way, demonstrated to many Chicanxs that mainstream America would not tolerate even nonviolent dissent from people of color.
Paths Forward Now
When we see the responses from police in today’s headlines we have to wonder whether anything has really changed in the last 50 years. The magnitude of the uprisings is certainly different, even if the state responses are not. The big question is how will the work on the street translate into the kind of institutional and cultural changes necessary to confront and end police violence?
Chicano leader Corky Gonzales presented an outline of reforms in his “El Plan del Barrio” in 1968, as part of his contribution to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. He suggested a program of economic reforms that included housing, jobs, and wealth redistribution that surely merits revisiting today.
A further lesson from the Chicanx experience is the importance of organized communities, like those with CSO, that can support families who find themselves victims of police violence. Sleepy Lagoon, however, demonstrates the need for more sustained work, because police violence is just the tip of the iceberg of state coercion toward communities of color. The Sleepy Lagoon trial reveals the need to think about reforms in the training of lawyers in law schools, and election of prosecutors and local district attorneys and judges. We need also think about the education of social workers, and others charged with public health and child protective services, to make sure they understand the various forms of aggression, macro and micro, directed at young children and their families from society and the state. This would also involve looking at how juvenile justice programs are operating. Much of this is on the agenda of prison abolition projects around the country already, but that then also raises the topic of the corporate intervention in the prison industrial complex that profits off the dehumanization of youth of color and the politicians that benefit from those business entities. Finally, it also means that ordinary white folks need to seriously contend with lingering white supremacy in their families and communities, and everyone, include Chicanx/Latinx people, need to acknowledge and grapple with anti-Black racism that is a cornerstone of the white supremacy that harms us all. Educators will have to craft explicitly anti racist curriculums, and discussions will need to happen in homes, workplaces, and especially, communities of faith.
The experience of Chicanx communities shows us that police violence is not isolated or even recent; it is also not something that can be solved easily by focusing on entirely on the prosecution of a few “bad apples”, or on police force reform. I hope that this history does not make it seem like dealing with this problem is an overwhelming and impossible task. Rather, I hope that we can see that there are many places to get involved, many different sites of struggle, for our energies. But it will indeed be hard.
A number of thoughtful friends have reached out to ask me how I’m doing in the wake of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Christian Cooper and the riots that followed.
Short answer: I’m optimistic.
Longer answer: 20 years ago Amadou Diallo was murdered by the police and the conversations I had with many of my friends were very discouraging. Lots of blaming the victim. The discussions turned toward the circumstances. Oscar Grant was shot with the barrel of a gun pressed against his head 10 years ago. Many of my white friends just didn’t want to talk about it.
Six years ago was Michael Brown’s murder. He was no angel according to many people who didn’t know him.
When recounting the story of a family member’s brush with police, a close white friend wanted to know why he wasn’t faster in obeying the cop. This Becky blamed my family member for his brutal treatment, false arrest, and subsequent criminal record. Today, her posts are all fire. She gets it. In the past many of my white friends, possibly you too, dear reader, would go junior CSI on me and try to prove that every dead black person had it coming.
The majority of white people I know are waking up to the reality of being black and brown in America. They are no longer questioning the narratives of police brutality. Rather they are questioning the police.
I can finally talk to you all and not be on the defensive. I’m no longer having to bury my emotions so that we can have a rational conversations about the facts and circumstances. I’m no longer having to play defense attorney trying to prove the overwhelming and unbelievable story that a white cop might kill a black person without cause.