There Needs to Be Consequences

The George Floyd protests are, at their core, about being done with living in a society where people get away with crimes and cheat the rest of us.
June 8, 2020, 1:15pm
Brooklyn George Floyd protest
Image: Aaron Gordon

On May 30, a North Carolina lawyer named T. Greg Doucette started a Twitter thread documenting police misconduct caught on video at George Floyd protests around the country. As of the afternoon of June 6, the thread was up to 347 videos.

Taken alone, each video is a horrific abuse of power documented for all the world to see. Taken together, the thread is an exhibit of something altogether more significant. Every one of those officers surely knew that their every move would be recorded. Yet they did all of these appalling things regardless; the random beatings and teargassings and rubber bullet shootings of peaceful protesters and media alike. They did these things because they had no reason to believe, even with video, they would face any consequences.

This was not a mistaken belief on their part. Not just because they are police officers in America, but because they are citizens in a country that has completely given up on punishing some people—especially the white, male, wealthy, and powerful—for doing things they shouldn’t have, while simultaneously punishing others—especially poor people of color—for small or invented infractions; George Floyd, after all, was publicly executed because he may or may not have used a fake $20 bill. We live in a society where the structural forces designed to punish powerful people who do bad things have broken down. Bad behavior is seemingly rewarded as often as it is punished.

When people cheat on their taxes, violate labor laws to get a competitive edge, use information gleaned from classified government briefings to trade stocks, ignore safety warnings from engineers to rush out a product, forcibly kiss a female subordinate, or brutalize people in the name of public safety, everything keeps humming along without interruption because they are acting within the system we have made, not despite it.

Police have earned their spot as the focal point of this movement because they are the most stark example of it. The police have shot and killed more than 5,000 people since 2015, according to the Washington Post, at a consistent rate of about 1,000 per year (by comparison, about 50 police officers are shot and killed per year). Black people are shot and killed by police at a disproportionately high rate.

And those are just the fatal shootings. A 2017 VICE News investigation found that from 2010 through 2016, there were 2,730 non-fatal shootings in the country’s 50 largest police departments, roughly double the number of fatal shootings. About 20 percent of the shooting victims were unarmed. “Officers are hardly ever charged with a crime or even found liable in these incidents,” VICE News found, “Instead, many of the wounded end up facing charges — some even spend time in jail while still recovering from their injuries.”

Police shoot far more people than anyone realized, a VICE News investigation reveals

In fact, the justice system is explicitly designed to act as a legal riot shield, protecting police officers from the consequences of their actions. Most prominently, qualified immunity, as The Appeal explained last year, “shields law enforcement, in particular, from innumerable constitutional violations each year.” The Appeal went on to highlight several cases in which police acted brutally and inhumanely, yet suffered no consequences because of qualified immunity, such as “drag a nonthreatening, seven months pregnant woman into the street and tase her three times for refusing to sign a piece of paper.”

Some states go even further by preventing the public from learning about police misconduct to begin with, the express purpose being to make it easier for officers to go unpunished. In 2018, BuzzFeed News published a trove of secret NYPD disciplinary documents that found police are routinely given slaps on the wrist or not punished at all for brutalizing members of the public. These cruelties remain secret because of a state law known as 50-A that prevents the release of these records (it also applies to firefighters and correction officers). BuzzFeed News’s investigation found “at least 319 NYPD employees who had committed offenses serious enough to merit firing but who were allowed to keep their jobs.”

While these issues more than merit public anger, it is still just one side of the coin when it comes to law enforcement’s role in our consequence-less society. Police, after all, are supposed to find and arrest other people who violate the law. Unfortunately, they often don’t do that.

For the $114.5 billion spent on policing per year in this country, there’s a 40 percent chance any given murderer won't be caught. When a black person is murdered, there’s less than a 50/50 chance police would make an arrest for the crime. And when a black person is killed in a neighborhood with a high murder rate, there is less than a 10 percent chance police will arrest someone.

Police are even worse at arresting people for other crimes like rape (34.5 percent arrest rate) and robbery (29.7 percent) according to an FBI database. Less than 15 percent of burglaries and motor vehicle thefts result in arrests. Not only does this mean criminals go free, but the low clearance rates seem to never result in any consequences for police forces that aren’t doing their jobs, except to give them more money.

Should police actually make an arrest and are called to testify during trial, they sometimes lie on the stand or embellish evidence in order to make their case better—a crime in and of itself—without consequences even when they have been caught in a lie. The practice dates back at least to 1994 when a commission appointed New York City Mayor David Dinkins to investigate police corruption found “Perjury is perhaps the most widespread form of police wrongdoing facing today's criminal justice system.” It was so common, in fact, that the NYPD had their own term for it: “testilying.” You’ll never believe this, but in the years since, nothing has changed.

While local law enforcement is one of the strongest signifiers of our consequence-less society, they are hardly alone. On the federal level, investigators have become totally uninterested in white collar crime. We live in a “golden age of white collar crime,” As Michael Hobbes detailed in HuffPost earlier this year. “The criminal justice system has given up all pretense that the crimes of the wealthy are worth taking seriously,” Hobbes wrote. “In January 2019, white-collar prosecutions fell to their lowest level since researchers started tracking them in 1998...In 2018, a year when nearly 19,000 people were sentenced in federal court for drug crimes alone, prosecutors convicted just 37 corporate criminals who worked at firms with more than 50 employees.”

So, too, are the odds pretty good that your employer is stealing from you. “Wage theft isn't one of the crimes most prosecutors and politicians refer to when they talk about getting ‘tough on crime,’ but it represents a massive chunk of all theft committed in the U.S.,” GQ reported last year. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that regularly reports on wage theft, in 2017, 2.4 million people lost a combined $8 billion in income thanks to wage theft from their employers. And that was just in 10 states. As GQ pointed out, if that pattern held for every other state, it would mean U.S. wage theft amounts to as much stolen money as all other kinds of property theft combined.

Even the basic societal contract of paying your taxes seems not to apply to rich people or big companies. The top half-a-percent of U.S. earners systematically under-report their income and routinely fend off IRS efforts to get them to pay their legally required share, a 2019 ProPublica investigation found, costing the U.S. treasury tens of billions of dollars every year. You and I pay more federal income taxes each year than Amazon, which paid zero dollars in 2018. Amazon is hardly alone among giant corporations ripping off the public.

Not only do crimes or obvious corporate malfeasance go unpunished, but the people responsible often get rewarded at the end of the day. To name just a few examples: Dennis Mullenburg, the Boeing CEO who oversaw development of a plane that crashed twice and killed 346 people due to a catastrophic software failure, walked away with an $80 million golden parachute. The guy who ran Wells Fargo during a time where it conducted massive, systemic fraud got $130 million when he moved on. Adam Neumann, the WeWork founder who leveraged a modest office space subdivision business into a $47 billion house of cards that came tumbling down got a cool $1.7 billion exit package. For scores of other examples, just go to the News tab of a Google search for “golden parachute.”

And then there are the companies that will say or do anything as long as it serves their bottom line no matter how dangerous to society it is. The perpetrators of the 2008 financial crisis walked away unscathed. Oil companies that knew about the role of greenhouse gases in climate change for decades funded misinformation campaigns to lie to the public about it. Social networks that aid and abet in the spread of false and dangerous conspiracy theories avoid all responsibility by claiming to be a platform with no jurisdiction over how people use their product. Banks are right back to doing the subprime loan thing, but with cars instead of houses.

No person embodies a consequence-less existence more than the man who is currently in the White House. Donald Trump’s entire life has been based on the premise that no one will ever hold him accountable for anything he does. And all 73 of his years on this planet have reinforced that premise.

No matter how many of Trump’s ventures go bankrupt, how many times he says something morally abhorrent, or is catastrophically wrong about an issue that makes other people’s lives worse, he always falls upwards into more wealth, fame, and power. His 2016 campaign was a tour de force of actions without consequences. Back then, the sentiment was that surely, this would be the unacceptable act he must reckon with, up to and including dozens of credible sexual assault accusations and Trump being caught on tape saying he likes to grab women “by the pussy.” He ridiculed war heroes and routinely praised authoritarian strongmen. But he soared through each and every scandal, because the one insight into modern American society Trump understood better than anyone else is that we live in a post-consequence world. He walked that path all the way to the Oval Office. And once in the Oval Office, he has continued doing what he’s always done, even when it plainly violates his oath of office, because no one will make him face consequences.

In response to his election, the revolt against a country without consequences began shortly after Trump’s election with the Me Too movement. One of the most prevalent consequence-less actions in our society is sexual harassment, and the revelation of Trump’s past actions only to see him take over the White House was simply too much. Countless women told their own stories of sexual harassment and misconduct in virtually every industry, resulting in a reckoning of the patriarchal power structure that we are still grappling with today. It was—and remains—a call for men to be held responsible for their disgusting treatment of women. This movement culminated in Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood and therefore the country, being convicted of rape and sentenced to 23 years in prison.

So, too, has there been previously unimaginable progress during the short weeks of the George Floyd protest movement. On Sunday, the city council of Minneapolis, where Floyd lived and died, announced it has a veto-proof majority to disband the Minneapolis Police Department, a surreal victory for police reform efforts unfathomable just a few weeks ago.

Still, the road to progress is a bumpy and winding one. While Weinstein awaited trial, Brett Cavanaugh, a man who was credibly accused of sexual harassment, was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. On the criminal justice front, Minneapolis is just one city in an entire country that needs systemic re-thinking of how we approach the concept of consequences, both so the rich and powerful face some and the poor are not fined and criminalized into destitution.

In the meantime, the viral videos of police brutality are still coming in. Since I wrote the introduction to this article roughly 48 hours ago, Doucette has cataloged 57 more videos. As of this writing, he’s up to 404 now. But for the first time in years, it feels like the videos just might result in something more than outrage into the void. After all, it’s no longer the void if everyone is here.

For the first time in years, there’s reason to believe things are finally changing, where the people who do wrong may actually be held to account. The people who have watched the videos for years have had enough. And that is, if nothing else, a start.