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Is the Anti-Police Violence Movement a New Chapter in the Black Freedom Struggle?

#BlackLivesMatter

Child at Portland, OR, protest against police brutality. (Photo credit: Michelle Fawcett)

by Arun Gupta Telesur December 30, 2014

It was inevitable there would a push back against the dynamic movement against police violence. It is unfortunate opponents are using the murder of two cops in Brooklyn on December 20 to try to suppress peaceful protests. Nonetheless, the reaction is also a necessary obstacle this new social movement has to navigate.

After Officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August, anti-police violence protests became a regular occurrence there. The militarized police response made Ferguson an international story as well as a magnet for more protests. The movement spread across the United States a few months later following the decision by grand juries not to indict Wilson or NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was filmed choking to death an unarmed Eric Garner on Staten Island in July.

It’s a remarkable movement for the scope of protests, range of participants, and militancy, with activists staging die-ins and blockading streets, bridges, schools, police departments, and shopping malls. The organizing is influenced by the low-wage workers movements that have mobilized many working-class African-Americans and Hispanics, particularly those in the fast-food, retail, and domestic work sectors. There are similarities to Occupy Wall Street movement, with savvy use of social media, such as the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, and relentless in-the-streets activism. Most important, it’s the latest chapter in the centuries-long Black freedom struggle in the United States and beyond.

A Movement Propelled by Frustration with Racism

It is no accident that the movement arose at this moment. It is propelled by frustration with institutional racism that remains pervasive and deadly, but which is evidenced more by cold statistics than burning crosses. It’s also a consequence of hopes raised by Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as the first African-American president.

That was a profound achievement, but Obama has offered little shelter from the economic storm that’s pummeled Black America during his tenure, whether from unemploymenthome foreclosures, or the destruction of Black wealth. The crisis has compounded the decimation of social welfare, the decline of organized labor, and the rise of the prison-industrial complex from Reagan to Clinton, as well as the recent attack on public-sector unions, often at the hands of Democrats.

The Obama years end the latest chapter of the Black freedom struggle that culminated in the dismantling of legal segregation during the sixties. The prominence of figures like Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Joycelyn Elders, and Colin Powell was hard to imagine fifty years ago, but the U.S. political system has proven incapable of creating the conditions where all African-Americans can act as full political and social agents.

This is why the bullets that killed Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner bite so deep. The state-sanctioned killing of unarmed blacks by police and vigilantes underscores the reality that Black lives do matter less in America. Black life expectancy lags nearly four years behind that of whites, a result of a society where housing and schools, remain segregated, access to healthcare and medical care is unequalchildhood poverty is at epidemic levels, Blacks are more than five times as likely to be incarcerated, and white household median income is 68 percent greater than that of Blacks.

What these numbers can’t capture is how the social practices of racism have fused with market relations, making racism rational, effortless, and invisible. It’s the decision to buy a house in a good neighborhood, send the children to the right school, work with people who are deemed trustworthy, patronize a business that’s a known quantity. Market imperatives favor the most conservative course. Anything that is truly different is risky, suspicious, a danger, or a threat to the self or to property.

The notion Blacks are a threat is embedded so deep in the American psyche that a jury found it was not criminal for George Zimmerman to stalk and kill Trayvon Martin, a child, in his own neighborhood. Michael Brown died after Wilson challenged him for walking in a residential street, an utterly banal practice. Eric Garner was a threat to private enterprise and state revenue because sometimes he sold loose cigarettes, a policy allegedly decided at the highest level of the NYPD. Their deaths point to the basic unresolved contradiction in U.S. society: are Blacks citizens or are they a threat?

Garner’s death is one of many that have resulted from the NYPD’s obsession with “quality-of-life” violations, but it’s also a result of de Blasio’s confused politics. He won the mayoralty by harnessing the widespread anger against a stop-and-frisk policy akin to “loitering laws” used to control Blacks, Natives, and Mexicans during the Jim Crow era. In 2011, the NYPD recorded more than 685,000 stops and made more stops of young Black men than the entire population of young Black men in New York City. But de Blasio replaced stop and frisk with “broken-windows” policing by selecting Bill Bratton as police commissioner. In the nineties Bratton introduced broken windows in New York, claiming that policing minor quality-of-life infractions committed by graffiti artists, pot smokers, street vendors, “squeegee men,” and panhandlers would prevent more serious crimes. The evidence that stop and frisk or broken windows reduce crime is nonexistent.

Both policies work to regulate where and how black and brown people can exist in the public sphere. There is no lack of stories of Blacks being accosted by cops for making a purchase in a high-end store or walking in a white neighborhood. These stories can’t capture statistics like the 43,000 Blacks and Hispanics in New York City who were stopped, frisked and arrested in 2010 for low-level marijuana offenses. Untold numbers wound up with prison time and records, which devastate housing, employment and educational opportunities.

New York Mayor Tangles with a Vicious Police Union

De Blasio vowed to end this system when he ran for mayor, but he is in a bind. He’s tangling with a police union that was vicious even before Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were gunned down and he’s trying to placate a rank and file that in staging public disavowals of his authority are signaling they are the real power in the city not someone who won 73 percent of the vote, including 96 percent of African Americans and 87 percent of Hispanics.

The cop revolt has exposed the deep state that exists at the municipal level around the country. Police union head Patrick Lynch overplayed his hand by blasting de Blasio for having “blood on [his] hands.” But the mainstream media and politicians have rallied to the police, with thuggish comments coming not just from Republicans but Democrats like New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo who declared, “75,000 police officers and National Guardsmen statewide have [the police’s] back every step of the way.” But politicians like Cuomo know the pro-cop rhetoric plays well at home. The majority of whites, many Asians and Hispanics and more than a few Blacks fully support the unequal social order cops protect because they benefit from it. The danger for militants is they became angrier and isolate themselves rather than rethink how to build a more inclusive movement.

De Blasio knows his power comes not from the oppressed communities whose hopes he raised, but from the moneyed elite who filled his campaign coffers. They run New York, and they are whom the NYPD serve and protect above all. The police and their defenders want to protect their unaccountability and lack of meaningful oversight. The anti-protester reaction also reinforces the image of police under siege, stoking what philosopher Samir Chopra’s terms cops’ “deadly self-pity.” The push-back began before the killings with de Blasio calling for people protesting police violence to denounce violence. After the killings he showed contempt for popular democracy by attacking demonstrators for continuing to protest. Others, including Bratton, tried to link the cops’ deaths to the protests. The aim is to create a false equivalence, as exemplified by the #BlueLivesMatter hashtag.

Yet, there is no comparing the agents of state violence, who enjoy perks and prestige unavailable for nearly any other working-class vocation, to the subjects of that violence. Black trumps blue in terms of danger to one’s life. Reuters interviewed twenty-five current or former NYPD officers who are African-American males. All but one said that out of uniform they were subject to racial profiling or violence at the hands of their fellow officers.

While this new movement is perhaps the most widespread, diverse and radical in decades, it’s at a crossroads. The counterattack is not aimed at getting militants off the street but getting liberals and progressives who provide broader social support to stay at home. Like Occupy Wall Street, this movement has brought in legions of new activists and politicized areas of life that are usually not explicitly political, like shopping malls, sports games and holiday celebrations. Organizers have to consciously develop strategies that retain militancy while enabling widespread participation.

The NYPD Has Been on a Vendetta

The state hopes to divide “legitimate” and “illegitimate” protesters. The NYPD has been on a vendetta after protesters scuffled with two NYPD detectives on the Brooklyn Bridge, slapping organizers with felony charges. Chicago police are apparently spying on the phone conversations of protesters. In Portland, the police appear to be singling out known activists for arrests. The city of Bloomington, Minnesota, is looking to bankrupt and imprison organizers of a large die-in at the Mall of America, with the city attorney stating, “You want to get at the ringleaders” after detailing numerous charges against protesters as well as demands for “staggering” fines to cover policing costs.

Hopefully, this will mark a new stage in the Black freedom struggle, one that goes beyond Black and white and sloganeering. Native people within the reservation system live under the harshest conditions, but the violence is more a product of federal than local police forces. For Hispanics, the social geography of policing includes the immigration detention system. While there is crossover organizing between Hispanics and Blacks in low-wage worker movements, the unions involved are reluctant to prioritize contentious issues outside the workplace like police violence. Additionally, many Blacks are cool to immigration reform because of perceived competition for jobs, and 62 percent of African-Americans say there is “strong conflict” between immigrants and the native born. Plus, fetishizing a group as inherently revolutionary ignores the reality that Black anger stems more from not having access to the social advantages whites enjoy rather than a desire to overthrow the system. One poll from 2010 found 81 percent of Blacks described themselves as “extremely proud” or “very proud” to be an American, only five points lower than whites.

New York Police Would Remain a Racist Institution

The movement also needs to progress beyond racial reductionism. While it is rooted in history of state violence against Blacks, Native people and Hispanics, racial identity doesn’t confer an advantage in organizing. Succumbing to slogans that “Black or Brown people must lead the struggle” opens the door for opportunists. Organizers need to be immersed in existing struggles, but identity matters less than knowing how to organize and build unity without abandoning key principles or goals. Already a few groups with little connection to the anti-police violence struggle are positioning themselves as mediators between City Hall and the streets. Some other organizations now in the spotlight are more about personal power than collective transformation. Racial reductionism is also used against the left. Defenders of the NYPD point out it is only 51 percent white, but in its present form it would remain a racist institution if it were 100 percent people of color.

The anti-police brutality movement looks to have staying power if for no other reason than inequality and segregation will continue to intensify in the United States and the police will enforce that order. But to be successful it will have to shift from a focus on the police to the social system that demands the violence the police mete out.

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Filed under Anti-Police Brutality, Occupy Movement, Protest, Race

To Fight the Unpredictable Effects of Climate Change, We Need an Unpredictable Movement

Report on the Flood Wall Street Direct Action 

by Arun Gupta Counterpunch September 23, 2014

In April 1990 I helped organize the Earth Day Wall Street Action. More than 1,500 activists from the United States and Canada traveled to New York on the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day with the goal of halting the New York Stock Exchange for a day. We got close, with hundreds of protesters and cops clashing in front of the exchange doors. We wanted to expose corporations wrapping themselves in the façade of environmentalism and identify them as criminals responsible for scorched-earth business practices.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting a return, and on  Monday, September 22, I ventured down to the financial district for the Flood Wall Street Direct Action. The following are impressions of what happened today, not the back story to the organizing. And they are more tactical than strategic observations.

Foremost, the turnout exceeded everyone’s expectation. Many thought a thousand people or less would show up. By the time the march left Battery Park in Southern Manhattan the count was 2,500. There seemed to be a lack of coordination on the part of direct action organizers, while the NYPD took a surprisingly hands-off approach. It still lined the streets with interlocking metal barricades, so the protest only made it as far as Broadway, around the iconic bull sculpture, before settling in for the day. Activists trickled in all day and the consensus was 3,000 people took over the streets at the peak.

However, there was no organized system like a spokescouncil or general assembly to encourage them to stay put and decide the next steps. Nor were there resources like food, blankets, and water to enable a large enough number of people to hunker down, which would make the cops hesitant to arrest them all.

There was a large media presence, including many mainstream media outlets. Flood Wall Street drew in more participants thanks to the Sunday march that drew an estimated three hundred thousand. The march was timed to influence the U.N. Climate Summit on Sept. 23. The international nature of the summit and the media pack helped limit the NYPD’s notorious aggression.

There was a world of creative art, but not much affinity group organizing. Some artists were hired to coordinate the art. Paying them to produce quality art was part of the media and image strategy for the Sunday march. That’s perfectly fine. Movements should pay people for their labor, although there has to be limits to avoid professionalizing. This was the most money-rich protest I have ever seen. There were three Jumbotrons on the Sunday route, and one organizer said they usually cost $10,000 a pop. Art making was also central to Flood Wall Street. I would speculate focus on visual symbols led the art to be overdeveloped and may have compounded the underdevelopment of strategic organizing for the direct action. The Monday protest was fun. There were huge banners, parachutes, giant balls of carbon, bands, costumes, and performers. But the strategy was little more than a mass sit down in the streets.

The NYPD strategy was to outlast the protesters, and it worked. Cops were blasé about activists disassembling metal barriers. They would not rush to fight them, like they always used to. Often they didn’t notice because there were so few cops on the lines. They would come over after ten minutes or so, retrieve the metal sections and reassemble them. All day long there were scattered gaps in the barricade line, enabling a free flow of people in and out of the area. Thus, there was no kettling, which is highly unusual for a mass direct action.

The cops had red lines, but otherwise were willing to cede more physical and tactical ground than normal. They let the crowd have Broadway around the bull for nearly four hours. Around 3:45 p.m., before the Stock Exchange closing bell, everyone marched up to Wall St. They tried to push east to the Stock Exchange and Federal Hall, where the George Washington Statue is located. There were only a few police at the first line of barricades. A little organization and the protesters could have easily pushed through. Getting through the second line and into Wall Street would have been much tougher, but not impossible.

I watched as protesters momentarily breached the barricade, cops grabbed one guy, and pulled him through. Normally that’s the moment when cops pile on and injure the protester. Instead, they just tossed him into the crowd on the sidewalk. No arrest and no beat down.

As the shoving matched intensified, the NYPD white shirts deployed their fists and a few blasts of a chemical irritant, probably pepper spray. It’s easy to tell how much of a threat the NYPD considers a protest by how many commanders, who wear the white shirts, it deploys. At the Wall Street barricade I counted nearly twenty white shirts at one point. They are notorious for pounding on people with their bare fists; they don’t need any surplus military gear to punish and intimidate. For a few seconds, during the height of shoving, two white shirts slammed their fists on the hands of protesters to loosen their grip on the metal barricades. Seconds later chemical spray wafted through the air, instantly forcing the protesters back. It had an unusual floral smell.

The combination of police waiting out activists and the lack of organization and support meant by 6:30 p.m. about 75 percent of people in the streets had drifted away. I did so as well at this time. Less than an hour later at a close-by bar, where many Flood Wall Street organizers had decamped, I got word arrests were happening. There was apparently a decision to engage in orchestrated civil disobedience. I told numerous people at the bar the arrests were happening, but most everyone already seemed to know and they did not seem overly concerned about returning right away. One well-respected organizer was not pleased that many of the main Flood Wall Street organizers left the streets to go to the bar.

During the whole day multiple squadrons of fifty to a hundred burly cops, whose mission is to squelch protesters quickly, were stationed at different points a block or so away from the action. There was not the overwhelming force of past protests with thousands of cops. One activist told me he heard two cops talking in the bathroom at a restaurant. They said 90 percent of cops were at the U.N. I talked to one community affairs cop who claimed they were taking a “calmer” approach. He said it was more effective compared to aggressive policing that is the norm, but it seemed like he was parroting the official line. He acknowledged this strategy was determined from on high.

Why was the NYPD so hands off? I haven’t seen anything like it in 25 years of protest in New York. There are the factors like the U.N. Climate Summit, the heavy media presence, the legacy of Occupy Wall Street, and space created by the large parade on Sunday. (Calling that event a protest is inaccurate.) Post-Ferguson many police departments probably realize over-reaction can backfire. The NYPD learned that with the Union Square pepper spray incident in September 2011 that catalyzed city-wide support for the Zuccotti Park occupation, and then the Brooklyn Bridge arrests a week later that turned the movement into a nationwide phenomenon.

Additionally, there are New York City specific factors like the cops who killed Eric Garner in July on Staten Island and Mayor Bill de Blasio rehiring Bill Bratton as police commissioner. Bratton, of course, instituted the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policing in the nineties in New York that de Blasio opposed in his surprise election victory last year. Bratton favors “Broken Windows” policing. It’s a smaller net than stop and frisk, but it’s still racially biased in practice without being based on any evidence that arresting pan handlers, graffiti artists, and turnstile jumpers reduces violent crime. Taking a light hand against Flood Wall Street enables de Blasio to score points with the public and media, while insulating his administration from criticism that it’s making only cosmetic changes to biased policing policies. To be fair, de Blasio may even be serious about curbing the NYPD’s penchant for violence.

Since the burden is on the NYPD to prove it has reformed its heavy-handed ways, the light police response should be seen as what it is: a one-off event. Additionally, while there was a more enthusiastic spirit at the end of the direct action today among veteran activists, there is a consistently lower level of organization over the last fifteen years of direct actions since Seattle.

One activist, Laurie Arbiter, summed up the feeling of many activists why actions like Flood Wall Street are on the frontlines of the climate justice fight. “It was unpredictable,” she said, unlike the Sunday march that felt scripted to many. “Climate change is unpredictable as well.” In other words, while marches are important and necessary, mass organized political chaos in the streets is more likely to destabilize the status quo, bringing forth a new social equilibrium.

Twenty-five years is a long time to wait. It’s almost the same exact amount of time since James Hanson warned Congress in 1988 that there was near certain proof that carbon dioxide emissions were the prime culprit in global warming. The Monday action was only the first phase of what will have to be an ever-more powerful movement to flood Wall Street once and for all.

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Filed under Climate Change, Politics