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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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The Danger of America’s Police is the Mindset, Not Military Weapons

Police impunity in the U.S. is the norm. A study found that 99.8% of 1,500 officers involved in killing civilians were never convicted. 

by Arun Gupta Telesur August 24, 2014

The Aug. 9 killing of a defenseless 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was depressingly familiar. Nearly a hundred unarmed black people are killed by cops every year in the United States. Few stir the national conscience despite the often shady circumstances of their deaths. Police impunity is the norm, with one study finding 99.8 percent of 1,500 officers involved in killing civilians were never convicted of criminal charges.

Dorian Johnson, the primary witness to the shooting, claims Officer Wilson gunned down a wounded Brown who had his hands raised in surrender. Brown’s corpse was left on the street for four hours. Blacks in Ferguson, Missouri, have long decried systematic violence at the hands of a virtually all-white police force. Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, has shifted from 74 percent white to 63 percent African-American since 1990, and has been pummeled by the housing and economic downturn for nearly a decade.

Brown’s killing catalyzed these long-simmering grievances into protests. But few were prepared for what came next. Ferguson police outfitted with armored vehicles, sonic weapons, sniper rifles, body armor, and grenade launchers swarmed the streets, firing tear gas, flash-bang grenades, pepper spray balls, and rubber and wooden bullets at civilians. “The police response has shocked America,” wrote the New York Times. Police in full battle rattle leveling automatic rifles at protesters with their hands held up were likened to the streets of Baghdad. After reporters were attacked and arrested, the Washington Post equipped its staff with blue bulletproof vests emblazoned with “PRESS,” the same gear used on Middle East battlefields. One British paper dispatched its Afghanistan war correspondent to Ferguson to cover the violence.

One welcome surprise was that outrage among Ferguson residents continued for two weeks. It’s rare to see sustained defiant protest in the United States. They were fed up with a level of police brutality that is so casual it’s shocking. One cop, in full view of video cameras, pointed a rifle at unarmed protesters and yelled, “I will fucking kill you.”

Images like that led to an outcry to demilitarize the police. Washington has created a grab bag of military aid through the “1033 program,” the Law Enforcement Support Office, and Department of Homeland Security grants, enabling local enforcement agencies to snatch up drones, mine-resistant vehicles, battle gear, and chemical weapons. Much of this came into effect after the September 11 attacks, but some of it pre-dates the attacks, and ending it is not so simple.

Junking surplus military equipment won’t alter the social attitudes that give police so much latitude they are effectively the law. The war on drugs and war on crime attitudes have created a disdain for civil liberties in America, especially the rights of the accused and by extension entire communities. Civil liberties deteriorated even further after September 11. In an atmosphere where the public has been stampeded into trading freedom for security, police violence and lack of accountability flourishes with or without military equipment.

After Brown’s death it was apparent police were violating constitutional rights: freedom of the press, the use of unreasonable force, the right to assemble, and equal protection. Cops from Ferguson and surrounding communities told protesters when, where, and how they could demonstrate, arresting many engaged in peaceful activity. At least 11 journalists were arrested. Police threatened and attacked journalists and protesters who were filming interactions. And there is a documented pattern of Ferguson police using profiling, stopping, and arresting African-Americans.

Given the systematic crimes by Ferguson police, Missouri State Gov. Jay Nixon was complicit in their lawlessness by not replacing them immediately. Nixon dragged his heels and employed half measures, such as bringing in a state police commander with limited powers and deploying National Guard troops to protect the police 10 days after the police violence began. But at no point were local police ordered off the streets. President Obama whose oath of office is to uphold the Constitution laid low before finally dispatching Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson.

Elected officials vacillate because they are afraid to challenge the social power of police. It is a truism that for the police to function the public has to allow itself to be policed. But this truth is startling to many, and what is happening in Ferguson is a rebellion against this order. Most Americans support the police in their explicit function to protect property and implicit function to protect a social order based on racial and class hierarchies. This is not an abstraction. A crowd-funding webpage for Darren Wilson raked in nearly a quarter-million dollars in donations in under a week and was rife with incendiary comments. (A new fundraising site for Wilson was set up with the support of the Ferguson Police Department and netted another ninety thousand dollars in two days.)

One individual who donated a hundred dollars wrote, “I thank all Police, you are the ‘Thin Blue Line’ protecting normal Americans from aggressive and entitled primitive savages.” That sentence succinctly if inadvertently sums up the reactionary view of American history. Only state violence keeps civilization safe. “Entitled primitive savages” crams together three racial stereotypes: the welfare queen, backwards Africans, and uncivilized natives. “Normal” Americans are undoubtedly white as other comments made clear. Brown was a “thing,” a “thug,” and “a waste of good ammo.” “Blacks [use] every excuse in the book to loot and riot.” One person exhorted, “Wake up White America.” Another said, “All self-respecting whites have a moral responsibility to support our growing number of martyrs to the failed experiment called diversity.”

The racially charged aggression reveals the hollowness of the age of Obama. In 2008 Obama presented himself as an avatar of a post-racial America. The more he succeeded, the more it proved America had triumphed over its racist legacy. Liberals embraced this fantasy because through Obama they could see themselves as good, just, and free of bias. But the post-racial ideology made Obama impotent to confront the structural racism that still exists in America. White liberals are no less complicit than white conservatives in supporting and benefiting from the economic and social power they gain from segregated housing, educational and employment. If anything, conservatives more readily acknowledge the role of police is to enforce this order. The two times Obama did speak out about state-sanctioned violence against Blacks, the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for breaking into his own home and the stalking and killing of an unarmed Trayvon Martin by a vigilante, Obama was met with derision by the right and silence by most liberals.

Obama learned his lesson. He had nothing to gain from confronting racism because his power was based on denying, and not confronting, how America is fractured by race and class. If he had successfully challenged it in his first presidential run, which is no mean feat, that would have brought together an organized social base to counter the white reactionary response to Ferguson. Instead, Obama vacationed in silence on Martha’s Vineyard, the summer redoubt for America’s elite, and took five days to issue a statement that was “tone deaf and disappointing.

For Obama to state the obvious—that the police are the architects of the violence in Ferguson, that they act like an occupying army towards the Blacks there, and that unreconstructed racism is alive and well—would provoke a huge backlash among many whites, and a fair number of Asians and Latinos as well.

To reduce the issue of police violence in America to the equipment they use can easily backfire. While it will be a real struggle to shelve the armored vehicles, body armor, machine guns, and chemical weapons that’s a small part of the battle. Removing all the military gear is not going to magically transform the police into officer friendly in a fifties patrol car. The racist policing and profiling won’t end, nor will the wide license society, the courts, and the media give them.

I’ve watched the NYPD in action for 25 years. They rarely rely on military weapons, though they probably have every one imaginable. The New York police brass is savvy. Using tanks, which they once did in 1995 as a show of force against squatters, looks bad for tourism. Using tear gas, rubber bullets, or other “less-lethal” weapons is a no-no given how many bankers and executives might get hit. As observers of Occupy Wall Street witnessed the police used good old-fashioned fists and clubs to bash demonstrators. I talked to one reporter who caught sight of cops bloodying handcuffed activists in the back of a police van during an Occupy protest.

But the most devastating weapon the NYPD has is a policy: stop and frisk. Since 2002 the NYPD has been under court order to collect, compile, and make public data regarding stop-and-frisks. By its own data, the NYPD has violated the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino males. They are stopped disproportionately compared to whites by every measure: if there is a warrant against them, they have a weapon or contraband, have committed a crime, or are in a high-crime area. The only way to explain the vast disparity is the policy is racist. Stop and frisk assumed Black and Latino males were criminal suspects based solely on their race. In 2010, former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly allegedly told New York State elected officials outright that the police deliberately targeted young Black and Latino men because “he wanted to instill fear in them, every time they leave their home they could be stopped by the police.”

During the last decade a movement came together in New York to stop the racist policing that has destroyed tens of thousands of lives by sending innocent men to prison or for nothing more than possessing a little marijuana. More court orders were handed down. Many media outlets called for an end to stop and frisk, and Bill de Blasio won the mayoralty in 2013 by making the policy a campaign issue. Once victorious, however, de Blasio angered many supporters by rehiring Bill Bratton as NYPD Commissioner, who instituted the dubious “broken windows” policing in the 1990s. Stop and frisk appears to have dropped by 90 percent from its peak of 685,000 stops in 2011. But Black and Latino males are still being disproportionately targeted. Moreover, Bratton’s focus on infractions like pan handling, pot smoking, graffiti, and subway fare jumpers deliberately targets minorities as well. In three overwhelmingly Black and Latino neighborhoods in Brooklyn, more than 50,000 summons were issued for biking on sidewalks between 2001 and 2013. I never have to worry about that in Manhattan, where I live. Bikers on sidewalks—of which there are many—in the tony white neighborhoods of Tribeca and the Finance District received only 325 tickets during the same period. Making this “crime” central to policing will mean many more young men of color will go directly to jail.

Once snared in the criminal justice system, Black and Latino men have fewer resources to prove their innocence and are less likely to receive leniency. Tickets often snowball into arrest warrants, jail time and permanent criminal records that diminish employment, education, and housing opportunities. Even if stop and frisk has ended, one racist policing practice has been replaced with another. Bratton’s policy of sending police to look for minor nuisance and imposing quotas on them for arrests, as the NYPD reportedly does, guarantees needless and hostile encounters. On Staten Island, police targeted Eric Garner on July 17 because he was involved in breaking up a fight. At every point the cops escalated the confrontation and eventually piled on him, choking the 43-year-old father of six to death.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says, “We need an end to the kind of philosophy of policing that says it’s OK to engage in preventive, detention-like tactics.”

That’s what really at stake in demilitarizing the police. Undoubtedly military weapons enables greater violence against the public, just as a huge standing army enables U.S. wars abroad. But it was the post-9/11 mindset of preventive war that set all the tanks, planes, and missiles in motion.

The mindset needs to change, one that says police should have latitude and no oversight because whenever “excesses” happen like the killing of Michael Brown occur (or Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, and thousands of others), the preventive policing still serves the greater cause of keeping the peace of the existing social order.

Take away the military weapons from Ferguson police and they will still be an occupying army to the Black community there. Many Americans want to keep it that way. They have the mindset Blacks and Latinos are a threat and need to be contained. That’s what enables the police to take to the streets with military weapons and gear. Ending this mentality is what will stop out-of-control police forces, not taking away their toys.

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