Chimney sweeps, composers, tobacco growers and the police


Mall police officers, hearing the growing demand to “defund the police”, fear for their future. Already feeling besieged every time they make a drug arrest, respond to a domestic violence call, or stop a driver with a broken taillight, they now also face the worry of soon finding themselves unemployed. We’ve all heard the saying, “A cornered animal is the most dangerous.” In addition to internalized biases, some of the agents of violence somehow commit an instinctive fight-or-flight response. That’s part of why so many officers are brazenly committing acts of unprovoked violence on camera for millions to see, even in response to a movement accusing them of unprovoked violence. Society has reached a tipping point where we have no choice but to reduce the number of officers in our communities, reduce their military equipment, and reduce the number of tasks they are responsible for. Whether we are “pro” or “anti” police, we all need to understand that over the last two centuries some jobs have inevitably been lost to technological and societal advances, and they face the same natural outcome.

Slave traders quickly adapted to trade in other “commodities” after the abolition of slavery.

Over the years, rat catchers, ice cutters, switchboard operators, human wakers, and pin setters have had a harder time finding other work, but no matter how hard it was, they did it because that their old jobs have simply ceased to exist.

Before there were creosote sweeping logs, young children were hired to climb the chimneys to clean them before the accumulated soot caught fire and destroyed the building. It was dangerous work that often left children maimed or dead. For hundreds of years, newspaper and book publishers have hired typesetters who can lay out movable type – upside down – so that readers can enjoy their publications.

We need to realize that many jobs in our police departments, our justice system and our prison system are also obsolete, regardless of our feelings about it.

Elevator operators are a thing of the past. Gas station attendants only work in isolated areas where laws have been directly established to preserve their jobs despite the national and global advance.

We need to realize that many jobs in our police departments, our justice system and our prison system are also obsolete, regardless of our feelings about it. To make even a difficult transition possible, we need to find alternative incomes for these workers.

When automation replaced tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs, workers were left to rot, turning the once-beautiful towns of the Rust Belt into hells. If this is the perspective of police officers or others affected by a Defund the Police movement, we can be sure that they will fight to the death to protect their ability to provide for their families. Can we really blame them?

When I hear tobacco farmers complaining that anti-tobacco campaigns are threatening their livelihood, I wonder why they don’t plant different crops. It’s not like we’re taking their farms away from them. But an infrastructure is in place to make it easier for them to continue producing a deadly product.

Coal miners fight to keep their industry alive, even if victory means working in dangerous, often miserable conditions. It’s just that the alternative is unemployment and poverty. While business owners fight for oil and gas drilling out of a desire to amass vast fortunes, the workers they employ just want to feed their children. If we don’t give these workers an alternative, how can they join the fight to mitigate the worst consequences of global warming?

A tenth of the workers hired to build the Panama Canal were killed during its construction. Even those who survived faced almost untold suffering.

What other choice did they have?

Doctors used to diagnose diabetes by tasting their patients’ urine. This is why the official name of the disease is diabetes mellitus, which means “sweet” or “sweet” in Latin.

Humans have a natural tendency to be wary of change, but when the benefits of a particular technology, policy, or philosophy become apparent, we can’t steer clear of it. I typed my first master’s thesis on a typewriter. When I learned that my margins were quarter-inches and that I couldn’t graduate until my 120-page dissertation was submitted correctly, I quickly adapted to word processing.

Adjusted drivers from paper maps to GPS systems. People quickly moved from beeps to cellphones. Paper card makers and pager makers may have faced downsizing, but other jobs have sprung up to replace them. And it’s the key ingredient to a successful push to reduce our bloated police force and mass incarceration system.

Would it be cost effective to close coal mines and instead provide a universal basic income to displaced coal miners? What is the cost of unemployment, both in terms of unemployment benefits and the devastating effects of poverty on a community? What is the cost of providing little or no alternative employment opportunities for police and prison workers?

Black and brown communities are most affected by the climate crisis, so without racial justice, we cannot create meaningful solutions to this global emergency.

We cannot adequately address the pandemic or other health crises without guaranteeing universal health care.

We cannot make measurable progress in reducing or overcoming police brutality if we do not simultaneously address economic injustice. We must, at the very least, provide tuition-free college and vocational training to give displaced workers in all fields the opportunity to progress into professions that can benefit them personally. Only then will they be ready to make changes that also benefit society as a whole.

I’ve worked in retail, education, banking, and government. These were not all voluntary movements. I did what I had to do when the job opportunities changed. Most of us face career changes at least once in our lifetime. If we want police and correctional officers to be on the right side of history in dismantling systemic and institutional racism, it will be easier if we are allies, even reluctant ones, rather than enemies.

Johnny Townsend

A Universal basic income, tuition-free college and job training, and universal health care (including mental health care) will reduce the poverty and crime so often associated with it, reducing the need for all those police and jails to start. These policies will also help us mitigate the effects of climate change. And they will lead us to greater racial and economic justice. For a Defund the Police campaign to be successful, we need to integrate it into a larger whole aimed at building social justice.

Johnny Townsend



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