Last week’s tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, showed that police are cowards. But the answer is not for them to be brave.
The country still reels from the enormity of the murder of 21 elementary school–age children and teachers. In the aftermath, so much is exposed and left bare about the brokenness of our society: the misery, alienation, and trauma of late capitalism that allow human beings to carry out acts of the most depraved violence. It shows the abject barbarism of the Republican Party who’s absolutist “quasi-sacred defense” of the right to own assault rifles exists alongside their denial of the ability of pregnant people to choose what to do with their own bodies, and who work to ban books about historical racism rather than automatic weapons in classrooms. It shows the vapid uselessness of a Democratic Party that ostensibly is for doing “something” (around guns, racism, abortion, health care, climate, you name it) but rather continues to act in the interest of the millionaires and big business. It shows the failure of so-called democracy where even though 80 to 90 percent of all Americans want stronger gun laws like background checks (which I think actually has problems as a demand but reflects a barometer of public opinion) there is no move in Washington to do more than the ritual re-opening of the “gun debate” that ebbs and flows based on the tidal forces of the blood spilled by the astonishingly regular recurrence of mass shootings in this country. It shows the complete worthlessness of the police as an answer to societal ills. It shows the desperate, desperate need for a different kind of society.
In this collage of social ills and political maladies the behavior of the Uvalde police department has deservedly received much criticism. While more details continue to be released, we know that the police proved not just unable to help, but culpably negligent and perhaps even criminally responsible for the extent of the tragic loss of life that occurred.
First, the school’s cop did nothing to stop the shooter from entering the building. Then police waited: some established a perimeter outside the school, and some waited outside the classroom where the shooter holed up. Even though the Uvalde police department had boasted of receiving a grant for rifle-resistant body armor, police cowered outside. They waited while the shooter murdered children inside the room, children who threw their bodies over each other to protect their peers, smeared themselves with their classmates’ blood to appear dead, and called 9-1-1 over and over. Outside, parents and community members implored the police to do something. When the police didn’t act, parents did. Police stopped parents with tasers and pepper spray and even handcuffed parents like Angeli Gomez, who had driven forty miles to rescue her two children. While they prevented regular parents from acting to save their children, the police allowed their off-duty colleagues to enter, but only in order for them to save their own children. Eventually a Border Patrol tactical team entered the room—though they required the school janitor to open the door for them—and killed the shooter. Seventy-eight long minutes—almost an hour and a half—had gone by, and twenty-one lay dead.
The mass shooting in Uvalde has punctured the horrible lie that the police exist to keep us safe. Often, when confronted with calls to abolish the police, apologists’ immediate response is to conjure the “what if” situation involving a sociopath and a gun, an example that police supporters consider a supposed trump card in the debate. The mythology of the police is as the good guys with guns, or as Bill Clinton said in 1993, the ”sentinels of liberty . . . the thin blue line . . . that is nothing less than the buffer against chaos.”1
That police fail to keep us safe is nothing new, even in situations of mass shootings. During the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the school cop Scot Peterson cowered right outside the building while seventeen people were killed. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association from just last year found that “armed guards were not associated with significant reduction in rates of injuries” and that “the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard present.” I am not aware of a case where the police have actually stopped a school shooting from happening in the act.
But the police malfeasance in Uvalde has forced even liberal media like the New York Times to strongly criticize the cops. The Justice Department has said they were going to investigate, and the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety was forced to admit that the police “made the wrong decision.” It is a cold day in hell when the police admit they erred.
As discussion ensues about the cops’ uselessness in this situation, it is important to point toward the larger conclusion that the police are useless, don’t make us safe, and actually cause harm in general. Indeed, cops making difficult situations worse is not an aberration but their standard operating procedure, and we can hope that many are drawing similar conclusions to one of the surviving Uvalde kids who informed a CNN reporter that “I used to want to be a police officer, but now I want to be a surgeon so I can help people.”
The lens of abolitionist politics is essential to provide a counter-weight to liberal “solutions” to the admitted complete bungling of the situation contributing to the death toll. The way the errors of the police are framed in the pages of the New York Times and similar publications is that the main issue of the police is that they did not move quick enough to act against the shooter.
Calls for police and SWAT units to have “more” training or better equipment to act “more quickly” and rush in next time ring out from liberal media outlets. But it actually boggles the mind to think what more training and equipment is even possible. As Akela Lacy pointed out in The Intercept, 40 percent of the Uvalde city budget goes to policing. On top of that the school cops are funded via the federal Community Oriented Policing Services program and the department received a half-million dollar grant this past January for more equipment under the pretense of the War on Drugs. Just two months ago the school cops did an active shooting training, and the Uvalde SWAT team has publicly bragged about touring local schools.
It should also be pointed out that police who “rush in quicker” in general frequently escalate situations and kill more people.The flip side to showing that the police operated contrary to standard police practice established after Columbine to engage shooters quickly is to also cast light on the problems with that practice. It was the taking of “swift action” that resulted in the murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville cops, the assassination of Korryn Gaines by Baltimore County SWAT, the killing of Tarika Wilson—who was holding her son—by a SWAT team in Lima, Ohio, the killing of seven-year old Aiyana Jones in Detroit, and many others. Per the ACLU roughly 124 SWAT paramilitary raids occur per day in the US and disproportionately affect Black Americans who have their doors kicked down in the night by heavily-armored individuals carrying assault rifles in 40 percent of raids.
“Better” trained and even more equipped paramilitary units will not only fail to prevent mass killings such as this but will mean more attacks on Black homes, with Black women especially victimized.
Moreover, the narrative of “what went wrong” often portrays the Border Patrol Tactical Team (BORTAC) as the heroes, as they were the ones who eventually killed the shooter. The Uvalde police are criticized for delaying the Border Patrol’s version of SWAT from entering. Enhancing the Border Patrol as a result of this incident is something that needs to be rejected. The US Border Patrol, due to the nativist and racist militarization of the US-Mexico border, are now the second largest police force in the country. BP agents are probably the most reactionary section of the US police apparatus for obvious reasons (which is saying a lot.) The border gestapo are the primary actors behind the filling of the concentration camps and the separation of families that began under Democrat Obama, sparked mass outrage under Republican Trump, and rendered a footnote under Democrat Biden. Those of us concerned with protecting the lives of children should see countering the lionization of La Migra as an important political task. The police assault of Uvalde parents for attempting to aid their children bears strong resemblance to the Border Patrol practice of dumping out water left for migrants braving the journey north and arresting individuals leaving water for the thirsty.
Indeed the militarization of the Uvalde cops overlaps with the bordering regime at the US-Mexico border. Perusing the department’s Facebook page, there are countless trophy shots demonstrating their capture of immigrants and close interconnection with the web of federal and state agencies that have laid down a vast and violent system of repression at the border. The police do not exist to keep the people of Uvalde safe as the events at Robb elementary demonstrate but to wage war on regular working people fleeing the desperate conditions of the countries perpetuated by the interests of US imperialism.
So what do we do? The politics of abolition are key. The answer is not more funding or training for the police. Nor is it, as Amanda Marcotte argues in Salon, to “treat them like the public servants they are,” to change police culture and inspire actual teacher-level bravery. Taking on the scourge of mass shootings in a real way demands deeper structural changes in American society. It means coming face to face with the root causes of the violence. This includes taking on gun control beyond that of individuals but on the level of the weapons manufacturers, the US as global arms dealer, and the militarized police. It means giving public schools adequate funds and resources rather than cutting budgets and demonizing teachers. It means taking on the inequality and lack of resources that creates the situations of desperation that breed trauma and isolation that makes—to quote Kendrick Lamar—hurt people hurt people. These deeper questions require confronting not just the right-wing barbarism of the Republicans but also the complicity of the Democratic Party in these same root issues. Getting there means taking the question of the police response off the table. Completely. Let’s be done with it. Police don’t work: they don’t keep us safe; that’s not their job; and even if it were, they are cowards. Let’s be done with them. Since Columbine, the police “fix” for mass shootings—especially in schools—has honestly been the only solution carried out. When we talk about police abolition we are not talking about getting rid of something but—as Mariama Kaba oft reminds us—creating something new in its place that can better deal with social problems. Cutting through the thin blue line allows us to really begin to take action on what the fuck needs to be done to have this country stop devouring its young.
1. Quoted in Tyler Wall, “Inventing Humanity, or Thin Blue Line as Patronizing Shit” in Violent Order: Essays on the Nature of the Police, ed. David Correa and Tyler Wall, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021) 15.