Tag Archives: Ferguson

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

Two Arrested On Gun Charges In FBI “Sting”

by Arun Gupta Dissent NewsWire November 24, 2014

As people across the United States anxiously await the announcement of whether a grand jury will indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on criminal charges for the August 9 killing of an unarmed Michael Brown, the FBI appears to be stoking fears of violence. It arrested two men alleged to be members of the St. Louis chapter of the New Black Panther Party on gun charges, amid anonymous insinuations that they were also involved in bomb plots.

Reuters reported Nov. 19 that an “unsealed federal indictment [charged] Brandon Orlando Baldwin and Olajuwon Davis with purchasing two pistols from a firearms dealer under false pretenses. The news service said an unnamed “law enforcement source” claimed the two were “reputed members of a militant group called the New Black Panther Party,” and they “were arrested in the St. Louis area in an FBI sting operation.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch added that the “arrests were part of an ongoing investigation that has spanned several months,” while ABC News reported that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had played a part in the arrest.

The Post-Dispatch also quoted unnamed “police sources” alleging that Baldwin and Davis were members of the New Black Panther Party.

The two were arraigned in a federal court Nov. 21. Baldwin was charged with intentionally misleading a licensed gun dealer at Cabela’s Retail, a sporting-goods store in the St. Louis suburb Hazelwood, about who was the intended recipient of two 45-caliber handguns he purchased. The brief indictment noted Baldwin and Davis had conspired to purchase the handguns earlier in the month and that “Baldwin a/k/a Brandon Muhammed was acquiring said firearms on behalf of another person.”

Other charges are allegedly pending, according to NBC News, based on allegations from two “federal law enforcement officials” that the pair was “trying to acquire pipe bombs with the intent of using them during protests in Ferguson, Missouri.”

Here’s where the picture starts to get murky. NBC reported investigators “heard” the two men were “trying to acquire guns and explosives” and placed them under surveillance. “We wanted to see where this might go,” one official told NBC.

This seemingly does not match up with the reports the arrests were part an FBI sting. If the FBI operation has really spanned “several months,” that would mean it likely began before the 18-year-old Brown was shot and killed by Wilson—or at the latest a week or so afterwards.

If that timeline is accurate, it’s curious the FBI choose to investigate protesters even as the Ferguson police were so heavy-handed that they appeared to be violating numerous constitutional principles such as freedom of assembly and the right not to be the victim of excessive force or unreasonable search and seizure.

Raising further suspicions, on August 13, according to KTVI-TV, the FBI’s St. Louis office issued a warning that “members of the New Black Panther Party are in Ferguson, Missouri and advocating violence against police.”

Additionally, federal prosecution of gun buyers submitting false applications is almost unheard of.  According to politifact.com, gun-buyer applications that the FBI rejects “are typically denied because the applicant failed to acknowledge” a prior criminal conviction, a restraining order, or something else that would have disqualified them. “In almost every case, these people can be prosecuted,” Politifact states. But of 72,659 applications the FBI turned down in 2010, only 44 were actively prosecuted. That’s about one out of every 1,600 people.

It appears the FBI had its eye on political activists the moment Ferguson erupted in protest, and after months came up with evidence, however thin thus far, that some were itching for violence.

Given the FBI’s history of political repression from its origins during the World War I Red Scare to the systematic targeting of Muslim-Americans after the September 11 attacks, its motives in Ferguson should be seen as questionable at best. The many reports linking Baldwin and Davis to the New Black Panther Party dangle a convenient bogeyman in front of the public.

Further, the indictment came two days after Gov. Jay Nixon issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency for 30 days throughout Missouri. Nixon also called up the National Guard and created a unified police command with “operational authority” in Ferguson and “in such other jurisdictions it deems necessary to protect civil rights and ensure public safety.”

In effect, Nixon has lifted any meaningful checks on militarized repression against protests.

Even more troubling, ABC News reported on Nov. 17, the day Nixon signed his order, that the FBI issued a bulletin “warning law enforcement agencies across the country that the [grand jury] decision ‘will likely’ lead some extremist protesters to threaten and even attack police officers or federal agents.” The FBI warning allegedly stated that “critical infrastructure” like electrical facilities or water treatment plants were potential targets.

The threat was supposedly extended “to those civilians engaged in lawful or otherwise constitutionally protected activities.”

The notion that some demonstrators are planning to use a high-profile profile event to launch what amounts to warfare is ludicrous. A premeditated, organized attack on police or public infrastructure during a demonstration is virtually unprecedented in modern U.S. history.

But the FBI warnings and the arrests do fit a different pattern: that of fueling fears of violence in advance of a heated but peaceful national protest. Before the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, FBI informant Brandon Darby, described by some as an “agent provocateur,” reportedly egged on two young Texas activists to plot to commit violence at the convention. The two pleaded guilty to felonies and were imprisoned

The FBI’s bulletin and sting operation also fit a pattern of disrupting peaceful protest activity. Arresting black radicals for planning to bomb protests may cause many demonstrators to think twice about openly opposing state repression. Then, by invoking defense of civil liberties, the FBI tries to present itself as a neutral watchdog of the public interest when it has actively disrupted the work of environmental, antiwar, and animal-rights activists in recent years.

On May 1, 2012, the day Occupy Wall Street organized nationwide protests and strikes that it hoped would reignite the movement, the FBI announced the arrest of five Occupy activists in Cleveland for allegedly plotting to blow up a bridge. As I later reported, the five men, most barely out of their teens, were jobless and from broken homes. The FBI informant in the case played “father figure to the lost men, providing them with jobs, housing, beer, and drugs. Every time the scheme threatened to collapse into gutterpunk chaos, he kept it on track.”

A couple of weeks after that the Chicago Police Department with support from the FBI ensnared three hapless youths in an alleged terrorist plot on the eve of a demonstration that drew tens of thousands protesting against a NATO summit in Chicago.

Over the coming days, more information should filter out about the arrests of Baldwin and Davis, any further charges, and how extensively the government was involved in the alleged plot. While they of course should be presumed innocent, the damage has been done. Not just to two more men who are probably more clueless bumblers than nefarious bomb-throwers, but to the broader movement against police violence in Ferguson and nationwide. That may very well be the FBI’s intention.

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