Policing in Columbus is hard to change partly because policing is good for business

Columbus isn’t a city. It’s a business. And before anybody comments that all cities are businesses, let me state that Columbus is a commercial enterprise in a way that makes it exceptional. 

Lacking an organic identity, any genuine interest in historical preservation and having no distinguishable culture, Columbus has a lot of energy to burn on business interests. What the city lacks in cultural variety it makes up for in gross consumerism and rampant development, unshackled as it is by things like homegrown traditions or tourism-worthy communities. It doesn’t have a Harlem or a Treme or a Mission District. Ain’t nobody set-claiming Italian Village. Square cut pizza isn’t a cuisine. 

Columbus is a business in every sense of the word. It doesn’t have an identity; it has a brand. It doesn’t have a culture; it has a marketing department. It doesn’t have a respect for history; it has façade. And 900,000 residents is a lot of taxable consumers.

It isn't enough to say, "Welp, that's capitalism." You can be a capitalist enclave and, for better or worse, still be a city. Cities that prioritize culture, tradition and history still capitalize on those things in the business sector. They make those things cottage industries, or bolster their arts to drive tourism, or incentivize actual arts districts. Some of that is gentrification, of course, but even there Columbus stands out. An arts district is traditionally one of the first signs that an area is being gentrified. Columbus played that game in the Short North in the '70s and '80s, but pretty much every development sector after that has leapt past the arts stage and gone right for retail strips and food industries. We’ve even skipped over the obligatory coffee shop stage at this point.

Which is part of the reason why policing in Columbus is so hard to change: Policing is good for business.

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Changing policing is hard is because of its function in society. The job of police is to protect and serve the business interests of the communities in which they exist. While they do other things, this is at the core of their mission — their creation, in fact. Maintaining the status quo is good business, and cops are in the anti-disruption game. It is why policing is the largest section of the city’s budget by hundreds of millions of dollars.

It’s not a coincidence that when flagship business centers of the city came under direct targeting by rioters, things started to move: Politicians started showing up at rallies, businesses started launching anti-racism initiatives, the mayor started writing things on paper as if he would honor them. You know, action items (if not actual change). When the threat of property damage seemed over after a couple of days, the status quo creeped back onto the table as the preferred menu from which resolutions could be chosen.

Let me be clear: I am not making a case for property destruction. I am merely noting that there is a cause and effect relationship at play, and that relationship exists because of what those who run the city value. Columbus is vulnerable to that type of action because it holds up things over people as a matter of course, as a core value. When heaven and earth can be moved overnight for soccer stadiums but not schools that are physically endangering children, your values are clear. When you place the interests of business and development over the welfare of citizens, you put yourself in the line of fire of ongoing and recurring protests, as well as the occasional riot.

Columbus didn’t have to have protests. It could have been a city that honored the covenant it signed with residents every time we installed someone into a Downtown office. But we have protests, and continue to have them, because this city is always one ill-timed case of police abuse away from being a national headline that week. Columbus has been those headlines before. The city still employs several officers who have made us the focus of those headlines. We will be that headline again so long as we do not make the city accountable to its values and, in turn, justice.

The protests remind me of a visit I made to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, and seeing Jacqueline Smith’s protest tent across the street. Smith has been protesting what became the National Civil Rights Museum for over 32 years, ever since they evicted her and others from the hotel. She has vowed to stay on that corner until the motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, becomes a working resource for the community it has displaced and is gentrifying away. Imagine protesting a civil rights museum to make it accountable to the neighborhood in which it sits and the values it has emblazoned on its walls. Then consider how much is too much to expect from a city that treats its citizens like cogs in a machine, how asking the question, “What would it take to end the protests?” with so little on the table to consider is offensive.

I hope the protests continue until there is concrete change in this city, and not just in the police department. As long as there are protests, the city is being made aware of its broken covenants. Protests and the social media attached to them are great avenues to spread information about who is doing what at City Hall and the Statehouse and the business sector. As long as there is a protest, there is an eye on process, a rough gauge for progress, and a voice that speaks for residents without requiring an appointment.