In the wake of the questionable shootings of Keith Lamont Scott in North Carolina and Terence Crutcher in Oklahoma, activists are renewing calls for police reform. Some writers (including a contributor to the Nation) are calling for the complete abolition of police forces in the United States.
Calls for abolition may seem extreme to the outside listener. This makes sense, given the word’s use to denote the complete and total elimination of the institution in question, and the worry of having a lack of protection. But the call for this radical form of justice makes sense as a way to dismantle an inherently unjust system and replace it with a new set of institutions designed to serve communities fairly and in a way that allows liberty to thrive: decentralized, community-controlled police departments. This is an area where Black Lives Matter activists and libertarians can work together toward a common goal.
Recent scholarship and popular research-based books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow have explored the ways that arbitrary and unchecked use of police force, criminal legal structures, and the prison system work to disproportionately affect the freedom and prosperity of black communities. With the influx of scathing reports on institutionalized racism such as the 2015 Ferguson report by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and other research confirming the institutional nature of these problems, there is no doubt that a threat to freedom exists.
Moreover, crime levels and poverty are correlated in clear patterns, revealing the dark end of the often-cited causal link between freedom and prosperity within libertarian circles. If a primary goal of a free society is to leave people uninhibited to make choices which will lead to their prosperity, a system with high rates of recidivism produces citizens who cannot prosper and therefore are more likely to reoffend. They are neither free in the literal sense nor free in the market sense, a sham of justice for those who believe in a meaningfully free society.
Political and philosophical libertarians have long been wary of the rise of the “police state,” a system whereby the policing arm of the state has unchecked and arbitrary power over its citizens. This includes criminalizing “lifestyles,” but more severely is marked by unchecked and most often unpunished control over life and death without due process. But often, libertarians have been hesitant to throw support behind Black Lives Matter and some rise quickly, and perhaps thoughtlessly, to the defense of police misconduct, with popular figures like Austin Petersen equivocating on the movement and liberty-minded Republican Rand Paul condemning it based on its premises.
This reluctance, though, is wrongheaded. Libertarians should be concerned with institutions that do not foster freedom from unchecked coercion by the police, even if this often does not affect the predominantly white and middle class political party the way it affects poor, black citizens.
Libertarians often talk about systems of oppression devoid of racial or socioeconomic context. After libertarian think tank the Cato Institute began posting more articles about police shootings of black citizens, their Facebook comment sections ballooned with negative comments in defense of officers or decrying black-positive movements such as Black Lives Matter. The implication of these comments can only be this: freedom from coercion by the state is a priority for us, sure, but only within the contexts of issues that directly affect us.
There is also the question of the comparative lack of diversity within the Libertarian Party. Even accepting the premise that there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about racial or sexual diversity per se, it remains so that one can learn from the degree of attention a party pays to issues that predominantly affect marginalized groups. This ensures that the party’s mission and ideology are consistent (i.e. that it transcends the particular concerns of the dominant member demographic) and that it is fully informed of the complex sociological underpinnings of the issues it aims to address.
Ultimately, there will be ideological chasms that remain between these movements. And while some libertarians will passionately declare that black lives matter and some BLM activists will support libertarian policies, there will remain philosophical divides between the underlying Rawlsian and Nozickian theories of justice that permeate nuanced understandings of these issues.
But on the question of the murder of unarmed black men without due process, the massively coercive nature of the American criminal justice system on minorities, and the rapid militarization of our (often biased) police forces, the two movements can agree: The state is acting in a coercive manner as if its victims lives didn’t matter. The police state must be the primary concern, but particularly racist actions of the police state can unite this much broader coalition.