Summary: Peter Pihos is a lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University. He teaches Writing 101 and does research in race issues, history, and sociology. Other than inspiring his students in the classroom, Peter spends his time reading Homeric epics with his young children, fighting for social change, and maintaining a hilarious twitter and interesting blog, both of which can be found on his website: https://peterpihos.org/.
Juris: How would you use [the findings from your dissertation Policing, Race, and Politics in Chicago] to advise policymakers in Chicago or other cities to grapple with institutional racism such as that which often appears in urban police forces?
Peter Pihos: I’m not much for advice, but it seems like one thing is that it’s hard to understand stories of crime and policing apart from the broader story of political economy and really understanding where the jobs have gone and where the municipal budgets have gone. That’s just an incredibly important dimension of these stories. Also, don’t repeat what people have done in the past. Even though cities are facing austere budgets and serious crime problems, we have to demand solutions that are better than just throwing police and throwing heavier sentences at people. Another thing would be that liberals have to be attentive to what African Americans are saying about crime in their neighborhoods. There are spikes in crime in Chicago, Baltimore, and other large cities, and liberals have tried to say these are just spikes and the long-term trends are good—this is true but conservatives have jumped all over them and said these are the fault of Black Lives Matter and other policy narratives that don’t really make sense to me and don’t really comport with the empirical literature in any way. But the important point is that liberals need to be focused on what is really happening on the ground, how it’s affecting people, and what kinds of policy solutions we can propose other than just repressive ones led by more arrests and longer jail times. We know that more arrests and longer jail times only exacerbate and concentrate the problem in the long-run.
It’s hard—what we do as historians is we study what has happened in the past and that kind of lends itself more to advice of what not to do than what to do. I guess the “positive advice” I would say is I think that what was really powerful in the late 1960s and early 1970s was that black police officers really linking up with social movement actors to make a series of demands. And they really saw solidarity with the people in the neighborhoods that they were policing as a powerful tool and really the tool that they had at their disposal. I think we’ve seen a minority of black police officers step out today and say “Hey some of this stuff that’s going on is really wrong,” but it is harder today because police unions are better organized and really well linked up with politicians. So I think building those links between social movement actors and progressive police officers, as well as command-level personnel continues to be really important. I don’t quite have the answers about policing on the street because in some sense, I study more the social movement side of it than the tactics of it.
I guess part of it is that as much as I respect the more radical abolitionist claims, and I like the demands they make on us to think more transformatively, I also think there are things that we need to do now and that police do play an important in constituting the social order, obviously in ways that we know are very bad, but also in some ways that are good. And I guess I should learn more from people who are involved in policy and I hope to learn more from people who are involved in policy about what the best incremental steps that point towards transformative change are.
But the problem with talking about policy is that sometimes incremental changes block transformation and kind of just mollify us. When do these policies actually lead us to transformative outcomes? When we look at what’s happened with crime in the U.S. over the last four decades, obviously there have been tremendous drops in crime and that’s a really important story. But on the urban level, what we have seen is hyper-concentration of crime into certain neighborhoods. The important thing about these neighborhoods isn’t really race, it’s really the hyper-segregation and concentrated poverty that exists in certain places. So long-term, I think there’s no doubt that what we need to do is eradicate hyper-segregation and concentrated poverty because those are the places where even though crime has gone down in much of the rest of society, it hasn’t gone down nearly as much for those areas, and where the concentrated effects of the carceral state are really operating to make people poorer and worse off, rather than helping to make people safer. We’re looking at the effects of arrests and imprisonment on parents and their children, the long-term effects that those have on people’s mobility, job prospects, and marriageability, all of these different factors. It’s important to remember that those background norms shape everything that happens.
J: It seems like one of the many elephants in the room when it comes to policing and race is that police are supposed to assure us of our safety, but for large segments of the population, police do the opposite, signifying brutality and fear. How do you think we can change that narrative so that everyone can feel that the police make them safer?
P: We can just imprison less people without making the world more dangerous. Locally, an example of that is bail: We assign monetary bail to people who aren’t dangerous but who can’t afford it. The longer they end up staying in prison before they’ve been convicted of crimes, the worse it is for them in their long-term outcomes. For a large percentage of those people, there’s no reason they should be in jail because there is no reason to think they are going to flee or they are dangerous. It’s merely that they don’t have the money to afford the bail. And there’s just no reason that we should make them pay that bail. The other thing is that people sometimes do make the bail, but because it requires them and their networks to draw down so much on their net worth, it can really harm them in the long-term by putting them in even more precarious economic circumstances. So there are very direct solutions that we can implement now.
Just to give an example, New Orleans over the last 10 years has really made some transformative strides. It used to have about 6000 people in its local jails, now it only has about 1500 and really without any ill effects… There has not been a spike in crime over the period in which these policies have been implemented.
J: It seems that the central question here is whether bail is an effective deterrent or it makes things worse.
P: So I’m not saying bail is inappropriate in all cases. But if somebody is arrested on suspicion of stealing a car, the characteristics that you weigh for bail are whether they are dangerous and likely to flee, and neither one of those is necessarily true.
With policing it seems the innovation that’s really being touted right now centers around stopping doing things that don’t help. We know for example that stop-and-frisk doesn’t help. And it’s an irritant. So we can stop using stop-and-frisk as a tool. The empirical evidence is overwhelmingly on the side that as it was employed in New York and Chicago, which is to say outrageously high numbers of stops for relatively unsuspicious behavior, overwhelmingly targeting Blacks and Latinos, doesn’t recover guns at a more efficient rate in any sense, and is just ineffective.
J: A line of defense, might be that “overall New York is a lot safer today.” How do you reconcile that idea with the ineffectiveness of stop-and-frisk?
P: New York stopped using stop-and-frisk and homicide continued to fall. Unlike Chicago and Baltimore, New York has just continued to see its rates of homicide plummet and this is after the most egregious form of stop-and-frisk was ended.
The causation is not from the stop-and-frisk. That seemed pretty clear before stop-and-frisk was ending and subsequent years. Obviously, this is just correlation but subsequent years do seem to at least suggest that that continues to be true.
On the other hand, trust-building seems to be really important in policing. People on the left sometimes hate trust-building because they say we’re just trying to shore up the legitimacy of an illegitimate institution, and I have sympathy to that view, but if people don’t trust in their institutions, they don’t turn to them and I think that really does correlate with serious violent crime. Distrust and serious violent crime have some relationship. Do I think that building trust will transform the institution? No, but I think it can create the political environment in which broader changes are possible.
Stop stop-and-frisk, build trust, focus on actually solving problems.
J: Regarding Black Lives Matter, some have argued that violence by a few members stains BLM’s reputation as chaotic and lawless, while others justify the movement as civil disobedience for a pressing cause. How effectively do you think the organization frames its activism and is there anything you would communicate with the movement’s leaders if given the chance?
P: I reject the premise of that question! What I would communicate with the leaders is that I think they’ve done a great job of putting the cause of criminal justice reform on the agenda and really bringing attention to the way in which people are not policed equally and that this is a cause of danger, not a consequence of it. And I do really think that if you look at polling it bears out the fact that Black Lives Matter has made its argument quite effectively. Have they gotten through to Republican leaning voters or voters who consider themselves conservatives? Not very much, but find me a black movement making radical claims that has, and I will find you a flying rainbow elephant. But I think if you look at the response of liberals, moderates, and Democratic leaning voters, you’ll see that their opinions have really changed over the last two years. And I don’t think that you can attribute that to anything except some really courageous activism on the part of Black Lives Matter.
The second thing is, I think for the most part, Black Lives Matter has been really driven from the ground up by people who are impacted by these policies. And I think that they know a lot more than I do about the things that are affecting their lives and what the right demands to make are. So I feel like I listen to them and learn from them. I have a lot of things I would like to and have when I’ve had the opportunities here in Durham to communicate about history and what has gotten us to this point, but in terms of the specific demands and circumstances and tactics, I feel like people on the ground just know so much better than people in the gothic confines of Duke University of how to go about that activism.
The last thing I’ll say is, I don’t mean to minimize the fact that people have taken things into their own hands on occasion and the deaths of police officers have resulted and that’s not a tactic that I think works very well in the long-run, and I don’t think it’s a good choice. But I think in general, if you watch what went down in Ferguson, the level of violence coming from the police was orders of magnitude greater than the level of violence coming from protesters engaging in civil disobedience. The kind of machinery, armor, smoke grenades being used routinely, the pointing of military grade weapons at unarmed people… Just the scale of police deployment of the technology of war on civilians, I think is shocking and is totally out of scale with the weapons protesters had which were largely their voices and their bodies. Some stores did get torched, and I don’t have too much to say about that. If you look at the development of the entire movement in Ferguson, what you’ll see is that the violence is overwhelmingly exercised by the police and not by Black Lives Matter activists. It’s hard because we like nonviolent activism. We see it as morally just and tactically astute. But the fact is, in 1963 in Birmingham, black people rioted. There was a nonviolent movement but people also rioted. The history is a lot more complex. Some factions of the southern movement were nonviolent as a core belief but there were also some that carried guns and fired back when white people fired into their houses. I personally am not somebody who embraces violence as a strategic tactic and I think, in general, it doesn’t work so well. But it doesn’t define the movement. You watch videos and it’s just overwhelming, the scale of military deployment, shields, pepper spray, smoke grenades, smoke, these massive military vehicles rolling through town corralling people. This might not be “violence” but it’s terrifying.
Interview conducted by Amir Perk