A protest in Grand Blanc, Michigan, over the killing of George Floyd
A protest in Grand Blanc, Michigan, over the killing of George Floyd © Jake May/AP

Flint, Michigan, has long been a symbol of the failure of American capitalism: a city so poor that even the water was poisoned. Now it has a new claim to fame: former US president Barack Obama singled out this economically depressed city in the American rust belt as a beacon of hope for US race relations after one of the area’s top police officers took off his riot gear and joined protesters during an antiracism march on May 30.

“I want to make this a parade, not a protest,” the white sheriff of Genesee County, which contains Flint, told protesters. He became one of the first US police officers to defuse the threat of violence by taking the side of demonstrators in America’s biggest antiracism protests in 50 years. Video of Chris Swanson high-fiving black protesters, and assuring them that “these cops love you”, went viral as protests spread to cities large and small across the US — including Flint, named the poorest city of its size in the US in 2017.

Eventually police in many places did what Sheriff Swanson did — take off his riot helmet and stand with, not against, the protesters. But he was among the first. A self-described “four-time Ironman [triathlon] finisher”, “motivational” speaker and author of Tinman to Ironman: 26.2 Proven Ways to Crush Your Failures and Transform Your Life Today!, he is an elected official who did not deny aspirations to higher office when asked by a Michigan newspaper.

Local activists are now questioning whether politics helped motivate his actions. DeWaun Robinson, head of the Flint chapter of Black Lives Matter, told the Financial Times, “When we talk about real change we’re not just talking about jumping in front a parade and singing ‘Kumbaya’, we have to hold their feet to the fire. This is not a parade, we have to change the system and a big part of that is creating a police oversight board that oversees hiring and firing.”

Mr Robinson applauds the city council of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by a white police officer, for announcing plans to dismantle its police force, after concluding that reforming it had failed. “I’d love to see that here, I think the community should police ourselves,” he says.

Supporters of “defunding” or “abolishing” police have rushed to defend these concepts as not what they sound like: more an effort to redirect funds to reducing the causes of crime, and hiring addiction and mental health experts to deal with it, rather than paying police to handle situations they are ill-equipped for. But top Democrats have distanced themselves: the governor of my home state of Illinois called it “a poor use of words to describe what many people really want”.

The Minneapolis city council president has spoken of her aspiration for a “police-free” future. President Donald Trump recognises phrases like that for the political gift that they are and is using them to mobilise his supporters, especially in swing Midwest states like Minnesota and Michigan. Trump supporters there generally do not aspire to live in a state with no police, and the mere notion could scare plenty of whites straight to the ballot box for the incumbent in November.

It may not assuage their fears to be reminded that challenging the legitimacy of the police was a central tenet of America’s Black Panther Party, one of the most influential black power groups of the 1960s and 1970s. “Defund” activists in the town where I live outside Chicago directed me to the writings of Angela Davis, one of the most prominent black activists of the 1960s, to understand their platform.

Judy Greene, a longtime advocate of police reform, says Mr Trump might be wise to remind his supporters that police brutality is not just a racial issue. “Police kill three people a day and the majority are white,” she says, adding: “The number of blacks (killed) are disproportionate so it’s not exactly an equal opportunity killing machine but white people are dying too: start there, and then go after the enormous and corrupt power of the police unions.”

America has been preaching police reform since racial unrest destroyed cities like my birthplace of Detroit in the 1960s. But Mr Robinson of Flint Black Lives Matter says we can’t wait any longer to tackle it, warning: “If we don’t get this together now there will be a civil war.”

patti.waldmeir@ft.com

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