Days before a jury convicted Derek Chauvin of the murder of George Floyd, a group of boys on bicycles were stopped by police officers in the city of Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
The footage uploaded by one of the boys shows the predominantly black and Latin American group driving near cars and pounding wheelies, but nothing appears to be illegal. Several police cars appear. The kids who say they are far from home and are afraid of losing their bikes try to escape before they get run over.
An officer tries to defuse the situation and promises the children that if they stay on the right side of the road, he will not take their bikes. The children even applaud him as he walks away. But then a second officer, a sergeant, picks up one of the child’s bicycles. She yells at a black boy for challenging her, arrests him and confiscates all of the children’s bikes. The first officer, who initially seemed nice, supports his colleague.
The legal justification for confiscating bicycles is an obscure city ordinance issued in 1939 that requires cyclists to be given a license to operate a bicycle and to put a label on their vehicle. The absurdity of the pretext illustrates the grim reality of this interaction: For millions of Americans, this is what government looks like. In many communities, especially poor black ones, police harassment, arrest, and detention are a routine part of life – it determines how they understand the nature of the American state itself.
This has dangerous – and not widely recognized – effects on our democracy.
A number of political science studies show that exposure to the criminal justice system through a serious encounter that ends in custody or on a low level, such as bicycle confiscation, can increase people’s distrust of the government in general. This, in turn, reduces the likelihood that they will vote and participate in civic life. They believe that the state cannot be made to serve people like them.
Derek Chauvin’s belief shows that the police can sometimes be held accountable for their worst excesses. These rare victories, however, believe in the structural damage our current police system has wrought, a constant pressure on black communities to act as a quiet disenfranchisement machine.
Police versus democracy
The number of Americans who have been exposed to the criminal justice system firsthand is staggering.
Between 70 and 100 million Americans have a criminal record – that is, they have been convicted, incarcerated, or have a criminal case pending. This number, however high it is, greatly underestimates the exposure of the American police force: many arrests do not result in convictions; The vast majority of traffic and road stops do not result in arrests. Obviously, these interactions are unevenly distributed: a wealthy white person is far less likely to be locked or stopped on the street than a poor black person.
In their 2014 book Arresting Citizenship, political scientists Amy Lerman and Vesla Weaver examine the consequences of this “unprecedented” cancer state for American democracy. They argue that hostile interactions with police officers and prosecutors serve as a sort of negative civic order – to alienate millions of Americans from the institutions that are theoretically intended to serve them.
“Instead of developing the tools and ethos of committed citizens, they learn to remain silent, not make demands, and be suspicious and suspicious of political authorities,” write Lerman and Weaver.
To investigate this effect more closely, Lerman and Weaver analyzed several large data sets and conducted around 100 face-to-face interviews in six cities. What they found was amazing: America has its own sociopolitical reality, which they refer to as the “lifeworld of custody,” for individuals and communities that are highly exposed to the criminal justice system. For these citizens, coercion is the only government they really know, and it shapes their view of the political system far more than elections or taxation policy ever could.
“Democracy doesn’t give you a second chance,” Renard, one of the interviewees, told Lerman and Weaver. “Once you screwed up, you turned your life over to the government because they caught you.”
The skepticism of the state shown in Renard’s comments – a “deep and sometimes totalizing sense of political alienation,” as Lerman and Weaver put it – shapes the way people who are touched by the system act. The police have taught them through often brutal lessons that “they do not participate voluntarily in democratic politics, but are involuntarily interfered with by the state”.
A police car in West Baltimore. Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post / Getty Images
The result, write Lerman and Weaver, is a retreat from political life as a whole: “People with contact with the criminal justice system are less likely to take part in civic groups or express their political voice in elections.” These effects vary depending on the level of exposure to the criminal justice system. While citizens who have been arrested but not convicted vote 7 percent lower, the likelihood that those who have spent more than a year in prison are almost a third lower (if they are eligible) is almost one percent lower Third less.
As with all social science research, Lerman and Weaver’s book is not perfect. However, later research has found real support for their results.
A study of New York’s Stop and Frisk Program found that black and Latin American voters in neighborhoods with many stops are less likely to be if they are eligible. A second study found that blacks convicted of offenses were significantly less likely to drop out after conviction. A third found that women with incarcerated partners were less likely to vote, suggesting that an over-police force socialized both punished individuals and their wider communities for political alienation.
In a 2020 science paper with sociologist Gwen Prowse, Weaver takes the argument even further, arguing that modern America is defined by a kind of “racial authoritarianism” largely enforced by the criminal justice system.
“Based on the largest database of reports on police work in US cities following the Baltimore uprising in 2015, we see US citizens have a sophisticated understanding of how democracy really works and are witnesses of their relationship to authoritarian practices,” so Prowse and Weaver argue. “They have been stopped by the police, are subject to invasion of privacy and violence, the routine seizure of resources, and are unable to freely assemble due to the police occupation of their neighborhoods. They described that they were effectively outside the provisions of the main text of US democracy – the Constitution. ”
The democratic damage of the over-police
It is important to place this research in the context of America’s other democratic failings.
First, there is the outdated design of the system itself. The electoral college prefers voters in a handful of disproportionately white swing states. The structure of the Senate, in which each state receives two votes regardless of population, dramatically outweighs white rural voters compared to urban minorities. Even in the more egalitarian house, rural voters are overweighted because they are more geographically dispersed.
Then there is the concerted Republican campaign to manipulate the system in their favor. Since the GOP can remain competitive due to the system deficiencies without addressing the majority of Americans, the party has decided to double the injustice of the system. Policies like extreme wandering, repression of voters like Georgia’s SB 202, and disenfranchisement of criminals help build the power of the rural white coalition at the expense of non-whites and city dwellers.
The demobilizing effects of the criminal justice system differ from these two features of our political system. They are not the result of an old constitution or a current partisan conflict, but the unintended consequences of the bipartisan approach to crime that dominated American politics in the late 20th century.
A protester yells at a police officer during a protest march in Elizabeth City, North Carolina on April 22, 2021. Sean Rayford / Getty Images
But because city districts with a strong police force are usually disproportionately black and urban, the criminal justice system plays with the same basic problem: the US political system is not representative in both large and small ways.
Certain types of people influence political outcomes that are disproportionate to their numbers, in ways that happen to correlate with the racial hierarchy that defined this country from the start. And this group’s fears of losing their power seem to spark a widespread anti-democratic backlash that threatens the stability of the system itself.
But even if the American system is not in such a major crisis, we should deal with the damage the criminal justice system is doing to our belief in government.
In a democracy, it is important to us that the citizens feel that they are governing themselves: that is probably the point of the whole system. When our government disempowers large numbers of Americans and makes them subjects rather than citizens, we are doing something deeply wrong – they are violating the core promise of a republic to the people.
During the New Jersey bike stop, one of the officers asked the children why they didn’t stop the first time police tried to overtake them. “Because you take bicycles,” replies the boy who is filming.
There is a bone-deep distrust of the system embedded in this simple sentence. This kid, a citizen of the world’s richest democracy, says he doesn’t trust the agents of his government to treat him fairly. And worst of all, he was right: the cops really took their bike and even arrested one of his friends for boating.
The children eventually got their bikes back. The one who was arrested was not charged.
But what lesson should these children learn from this? Certainly not that they can trust the police or that the government will look after their welfare. What they learned is that their initial instinct – that the cops figured it out for them – was correct.