On the George Floyd Killing and Police Reform

Obviously I wanted to write something here about the George Floyd killing and its aftermath. I’ve struggled to find something to say, in part because I am far less optimistic than many others that there are going to be major positive changes. A lot of people seem to be saying, “This time things will be different.” But I’ve reached the age where I am much more skeptical about that, having watched so many of these things unfold before (starting with the Jon Burge crew, the Rolando Cruz case, Rodney King, etc, and continuing on to the present day).

I do think that downtown and city leaders around the country are going to coalesce around plans for police reform (which are very needed). But I think the most likely regional responses are going to be in the form of quiet disengagement. That is, rather than the types of rhetoric we used to hear from people like L. Brooks Patterson in the Detroit suburbs, we’ll probably hear suburbanites echo much of what city people say, but then just go about their business. I think suburban elected officials will legitimately try to engage, but the average resident will not.

In part this is because we’re reaching a suburban tipping point in many communities. It used to be that in the suburbs of places like Cincinnati, you’d hear suburbanites brag that they never went downtown. Then a tipping point was reached where they would go downtown and talk about how cool it was.

But over the last decade, the amenity quality of many suburban communities has increased significantly. I remember working in Deerfield, Illinois in the 1990s. Deerfield and surrounds were pretty affluent. But you couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee there, and there were only a limited number of old school restaurants that were worth the visit. Only a relatively few communities outside of Chicago itself had anything going on.

Today, there are now first class coffee shops, restaurants, and entertainment options in the suburbs. Many of them have even built high quality arts centers and the like. As big city downtowns remain shuttered due to coronavirus, they face an extended recovery period anyway until their tourism and office workers return en masse. This and potential racial unrest could create a reverse tipping point in which suburbanites decide that they have plenty at home and there’s not as much need to go into the city as there used to be. And that there’s no longer much upside for them to try to engage in what they see as the city’s challenges.

I don’t think we are returning to the 60s and 70s. Here in Indianapolis I don’t know anyone who lives in the city who is talking about getting out. But I do believe in many of these places people outside the city are going to increasingly decide that the problems of the city are not their concern or are simply unfixable. I would not be at all surprised to see an increasing city-suburb divide, this time not based in active acrimony but increasing suburban indifference and disconnection.

This is one case where I’d very much like to be proven wrong, but I’m just not as optimistic as many others are.