The Powerful Movement To Micromanage and Defund Public Schools Has Been Awfully Quiet About Police

Shaun Richman July 9, 2020

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who advocates moving government funds from public schools to private charters, has said nothing about moving money from police departments to alternative responders. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Police are vio­lent­ly sup­press­ing street protests across the coun­try in mutiny against com­mu­ni­ty demands for demo­c­ra­t­ic account­abil­i­ty and respect for human rights. Their bru­tal rejec­tion of basic demands for greater over­sight and penal­ties has fueled larg­er demands for defund­ing police depart­ments, if not out­right abo­li­tion and replace­ment with oth­er bod­ies. In this con­text, some activists are call­ing for a crack­down on police unions, which they say pro­tect police from demo­c­ra­t­ic accountability.

That these calls are not being joined by a seem­ing­ly obvi­ous ally is telling.

There is already a polit­i­cal move­ment that blames unions for the harm done to Black com­mu­ni­ties by pub­licly fund­ed insti­tu­tions. Its adher­ents argue that these pub­lic bod­ies mis­spend the mon­ey they have and deserve no addi­tion­al resources. It is well-fund­ed by the phil­an­thropy world, hyped by celebri­ties, cloaked in the rhetoric of civ­il rights and show­ered with uncrit­i­cal media cov­er­age, and has been suc­cess­ful in bend­ing city, state and fed­er­al bud­gets to its will. It calls itself the edu­ca­tion reform move­ment.” For years it has ruth­less­ly pur­sued an agen­da of remov­ing prac­ti­tion­ers and their allies from the deci­sion-mak­ing process, impos­ing strict and arbi­trary account­abil­i­ty on teach­ers and stu­dents and exper­i­ment­ing with mar­ket-based solu­tions like char­ters. Its no excus­es” approach to test­ing and dis­ci­pline has, among oth­er trav­es­ties, exac­er­bat­ed Chicago’s school-to-pris­ons pipeline and dec­i­mat­ed New Orleans’ Black mid­dle class.

Its silence on the sub­ject of police reform at this moment when mil­lions of peo­ple are call­ing the ques­tion on whether Black lives real­ly mat­ter is deaf­en­ing.

Where is char­ter-school-evan­ge­list Stand for Children’s pro­pos­al for char­ter police depart­ments, with entire­ly new forces of unarmed patrol mem­bers trained in de-esca­la­tion and restora­tive jus­tice to serve neigh­bor­hoods who wish to opt out of failed sys­tems of urban law enforce­ment? When will the Bill & Melin­da Gates Foun­da­tion, which has poured mon­ey into com­plex and con­tro­ver­sial teacher met­rics, drop a bunch of grants to encour­age cities to col­lect and pub­lish indi­vid­ual cops’ arrest records and exces­sive force com­plaints, and to cal­cu­late the val­ue added” to the life of every civil­ian who was served” by an offi­cer for the decade that fol­lowed the inter­ac­tion? Why is Michael Bloomberg not breath­less­ly call­ing for an end to last-in, first-out” police lay­offs by senior­i­ty, as he has for teach­ers, at this moment when so many police depart­ments are final­ly fac­ing the prospect of bud­get cuts?

The obvi­ous truth is that the rich phil­an­thropists who bankroll ed reform­ers have no prob­lem with mod­ern polic­ing. It prob­a­bly makes them feel very safe. Indeed, the group that cyn­i­cal­ly calls itself Democ­rats for Edu­ca­tion Reform (because it is none of those things) put out a mail­er in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in the mid­dle of a nation­wide police riot, to blast demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist city coun­cil can­di­date Janeese Lewis George over a call to divest from [police] and put that mon­ey into vio­lence inter­rup­tion pro­grams.” Their focus on edu­ca­tion was always guid­ed more by the goal of break­ing the pow­er of the teach­ers unions than actu­al­ly address­ing racism and inequality.

I think I’m legal­ly oblig­at­ed to men­tion here that In These Times’ inde­fati­ga­ble fact-check­ers found an obscure blog post by Stand for Chil­dren’ Jon­ah Edel­man gen­tly inquir­ing whether his…I dun­no who even reads this? Staff? Fun­ders? Alex Russo?…were will­ing to join us in sup­port­ing advo­ca­cy efforts for mean­ing­ful police reforms as well as com­mon sense crim­i­nal jus­tice reforms that will make our com­mu­ni­ties safer and more just?” Sor­ry, I could­n’t hear that one over the ring­ing in my ears from Stand for Chil­dren’s abysmal fail­ure to say or do any­thing of sub­stance on the ques­tion of over-polic­ing black communities. 

The rank hypocrisy of the edu­ca­tion reform move­ment isn’t the only les­son here. The fact that cri­tiques of police unions align so well with the edu­ca­tion reform agen­da should give left crit­ics of police unions pause. Why the focus on police unions, instead of police bud­gets and may­ors? What are you try­ing to accom­plish? Why the attacks on the belea­guered AFL-CIO? It’s not like the largest police unions, the Fra­ter­nal Order of Police or Patrolmen’s Benev­o­lence Asso­ci­a­tion, are or ever have been affil­i­at­ed with it. And one of the biggest police unions with­in the house of labor, the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees, belongs to the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union, which quit the AFL-CIO a decade and a half ago.

AFL-CIO aside, why focus on police col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights at all? What democ­ra­cy-tramp­ing lan­guage do police union con­tracts grant that city boss­es weren’t already hap­pi­ly giv­ing to beat cops before the rise of pub­lic sec­tor unionism?

The union con­tract that cov­ers Chica­go cops has five times as many pages as the one that cov­ers New York City cops. Many of those pages deal with dis­ci­pline and expung­ing of records. The New York con­tract is short­er because police dis­ci­pline is carved out of New York’s pub­lic sec­tor labor law; it can­not be bar­gained over. And yet cops in New York are as shield­ed from dis­ci­pli­nary scruti­ny as those in Chica­go. An offi­cer who kills in the line of duty is allowed sev­er­al days to get his sto­ry straight before fac­ing any ques­tion­ing. That’s not in the con­tract. It’s the dis­cre­tion of police brass and the mayor’s office.

Police unions are not near­ly as much of a prob­lem as their boss­es — city lead­ers — who hide behind col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments because the ugli­er truth is that keep­ing Black res­i­dents in fear remains good pol­i­tics with com­fort­able white vot­ers. My own may­or, Bill de Bla­sio, is as guilty of this as your own may­or, wher­ev­er you live.

What we on the Left should avoid is argu­ing that police should be stripped of the right to have a union because every argu­ment we make will be turned around on teach­ers, san­i­ta­tion work­ers and oth­er pub­lic employ­ees. Go ahead and argue that police depart­ments should be defund­ed and abol­ished. I’m right there with you. And bud­get cuts are a pret­ty con­ve­nient way for demo­c­ra­t­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tives of We The Peo­ple to engage in some hard bar­gain­ing against fair­ly tone-deaf and enti­tled cop union lead­ers. As any mem­ber of an edu­ca­tion union can tell you, bud­get cuts are a real­ly easy way for a city to demand con­ces­sions from unions. But what’s the point of tak­ing away someone’s abil­i­ty to bar­gain over sick days or the abil­i­ty to get reim­bursed for the cost of dry clean­ing a work uniform?

Final­ly, the vast major­i­ty of police unions are estranged from the labor move­ment. But the hand­ful that have cho­sen to affil­i­ate with the AFL-CIO offer a point of engage­ment with police lead­ers who are indi­cat­ing that they can lis­ten and want to be heard. If police depart­ments can be reformed (and we should be skep­ti­cal), com­mu­ni­ty-cen­tered col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing could be a rea­son­able exper­i­ment. Although the tox­ic response by the Pres­i­dent of the AFL-CIO’s largest police affil­i­ate, the Inter­na­tion­al Union of Police Asso­ci­a­tions, to AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Richard Trumka’s diplo­mat­ic state­ment on the inter­sec­tion of Black civ­il rights and police union rights sug­gests that I’m prob­a­bly engag­ing in wish­ful thinking.

Shaun Rich­man is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer and the Pro­gram Direc­tor of the Har­ry Van Ars­dale Jr. School of Labor Stud­ies at SUNY Empire State Col­lege. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Ess_Dog.
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