Part I- Race, Repression and Resistance in America
On 9 August 2014, a white cop murdered an unarmed black teen in a predominantly black neighborhood and black city dominated by white police with a history of violence toward poor, black communities, and in a city dominated by white power structures and with a long history of racism and segregation. More than three months later, that white cop was exonerated of any wrongdoing.
The cop, Darren Wilson, was not simply exonerated for the murder, but he was rewarded. The white cop who murdered 18-year-old Michael Brown was rewarded with a crowd-funded amount of more than $400,000 – as racists around the country sought to throw a few dollars in support of murdering unarmed black teens. On October 24, one month to the day before the verdict was announced, as Michael Brown’s family was still coming to terms with his murder, Darren Wilson got married to Barbara Spradling, also a member of the Ferguson Police Department. Since he murdered the unarmed 18-year-old Brown in August, Wilson had been rewarded with being on “paid administrative leave.” After the verdict was delivered, Wilson remained on paid leave. And as Wilson was rewarded for taking the life of an innocent boy, he announced that he and his wife were expecting a child of their own.
On August 10, a candlelight vigil for Michael Brown erupted into an urban rebellion (commonly called “riots”), as people expressed their anger and frustration of the systemic and institutionalized injustice, and were met with overwhelming police force. As the protests continued and further rebellions erupted, the police sent in the SWAT team, already having shot protesters with rubber bullets and engaged in chemical warfare shooting teargas at them. The police were even arresting reporters, from the Huffington Post and Washington Post, and journalists from Al-Jazeera were shot at with rubber bullets and then tear gassed. Protests continued, and police continued to shoot rubber bullets, use excessive amounts of tear gas, flash grenades and smoke bombs against demonstrators, which then had the effect of triggering the rebellions (or ‘riots’). Wearing military fatigues and riot gear, police deployed armored vehicles similar to those in Afghanistan and Iraq, aiming high-powered rifles at American citizens in a town of 20,000 people.
On August 16, a week after Michael Brown was murdered, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and implemented a curfew in Ferguson. The top cop in charge of Ferguson at the time, State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, stated that, “We won’t enforce [the curfew] with trucks, we won’t enforce it with tear gas.” The police then used trucks, smoke and tear gas against protesters to enforce the curfew, in what became the fiercest night of violence until that point. Another curfew was announced for the following night. Two hours before the curfew went into effect, police fired tear gas and flash grenades into assembled protesters in order “to disperse the crowd.”
The Governor then deployed the National Guard in Ferguson on August 18. Obama appealed for “calm.” More reporters were arrested. Three days later, the National Guard was removed from Ferguson. The following few days were relatively calm, though police continued to arrest people. The calm followed the convening of a grand jury to investigate Darren Wilson’s murder of Michael Brown. The US Attorney General Eric Holder even flew to Ferguson, and later commented than an FBI investigation into civil rights violations in Ferguson “will take some time.” Throughout this period, police in Ferguson and St. Louis continued to threaten protesters, aim weapons at them, and even murdered another man. The protests largely calmed down, and thousands attended the funeral of Michael Brown on August 25.
Smaller protests continued into September, and in late September the Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson decided to march in civilian clothes with a crowd of people demanding his resignation, hours after he released a “video apology” to the Brown family. In less than 30 seconds of Jackson joining the crowd, agitating many of those assembled, riot cops moved in to ‘protect’ him, prompting a confrontation with the protesters and declaring the protest an “unlawful assembly.” Protests continued for the following few days with police continuing to declare protests as unlawful, threatening to arrest people who stayed in one place for too long or who moved off the sidewalk and onto the street.
However, over a dozen protesters who were assembled on the sidewalk were arrested outside the Ferguson Police Department in early October, after which they were fitted in orange jumpsuits, locked behind bars for several hours with higher bail amounts than usual, some as high as $2700. Their charges included “failure to comply with police, noise ordinance violations and resisting arrest,” when assembled peacefully – and legally – on a sidewalk. Among those arrested was a journalist. Ferguson Police Chief Jackson then handed his responsibility for “managing protests” to the St. Louis County police department. In early October, a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performance was interrupted by protesters who sang a civil rights song, ‘Which Side Are You On?’
On 11 October, hundreds of people took to the streets for a weekend of protests what they called ‘Ferguson October’. Roughly 43 people were arrested for assembling outside the Ferguson Police Department, including professor and author Cornel West. A Missouri State Senator was also arrested during a protest several days later.
On 17 November, one week before the grand jury decision was to be announced, Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and authorized the National Guard to again be deployed in Ferguson. At the same time, the St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar declared that police in Ferguson had not used rubber bullets or force against “peaceful protesters,” but against “criminal activity.” Days prior to the verdict, buildings were being barricaded around Ferguson in anticipation of “unrest.”
The Department of Homeland Security showed up in St. Louis prior to the verdict. As Homeland Security vehicles began to mass near Ferguson, a local Navy veteran was fired from his job and called a ‘terrorist’ after posting pictures of the vehicles on Facebook. Federal officials began arriving in Ferguson and St. Louis a few days before Governor Nixon declared his state of emergency. Despite announcements to “review” the transfer of military equipment to domestic police forces following the earlier social unrest in August, the Pentagon had continued to supply police forces in Missouri with “surplus military gear.”
Police forces in America have been increasingly militarized, starting with the ‘War on Drugs’ (aka: War OF Drugs) and rapidly expanded under the ‘War [on/of] Terror’. Across the country, police forces “have purchased military equipment, adopted military training, and sought to inculcate a ‘soldier’s mentality’ among their ranks,” noted The Atlantic in 2011. Since the 1960s, SWAT teams emerged in cities across the United States, marking the rise of the “warrior cop,” initially prompted by the urban rebellions of the 1960s in predominantly poor black communities. Since 2002, the Department of Homeland Security has handed out over $35 billion in grants to purchase military gear. The Pentagon has distributed more than $4.2 billion of equipment to local law enforcement agencies across the US.
These were the highly militarized police forces originally deployed against protesters in Ferguson in August of 2014, with armored vehicles, sound weapons, shotguns, M4 rifles, rubber bullets and tear gas. At the time, former Army officer and international policing operations analyst, Jason Fritz, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “You see the police are standing in line with bulletproof vests and rifles pointed at people’s chests… That’s not controlling the crowd, that’s intimidating them.” The New York Times referred to Ferguson as “a virtual war zone,” warning that if nothing is done to stop the national militarization of police forces by the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon, then “the future of law enforcement everywhere will look a lot like Ferguson.”
The verdict on November 24, giving Wilson the gift of freedom for depriving Michael Brown of his own freedom (and life) prompted quick reactions in the streets. Protests started in Ferguson, and quickly erupted into urban rebellion with cars and buildings torched and destroyed. Governor Nixon then deployed more National Guard troops in Ferguson, with more than 2,200 deployed in the town of 22,000 people. Protests spread the following day to 37 different states in over 130 demonstrations, with significant numbers and acts of social disobedience in New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. More than 170 US cities experienced protests on the night of November 25, drawing thousands of people to the streets, “blocking bridges, tunnels and major highways.”
Obama declared that he did “not have any sympathy” with “those who think that what happened in Ferguson is an excuse for violence.” As protests spread, more than 400 people were arrested around the US. In Los Angeles, over 150 people were arrested. Reflecting on the lessons he drew from the rebellions on the night of November 24, St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar said, “you can never have too many policemen.”
Protests not only spread across the United States, but internationally. Protests spread across cities in Canada, including Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, and Montreal. Protests also spread to London, where thousands assembled outside the US Embassy, drawing parallels to the case of Mark Duggan, a young black man whose murder by police in August of 2011 prompted the largest riots in recent British history.
One week after the grand jury decision on Darren Wilson prompted nation-wide and international protests, another grand jury decision – this time for one based in Staten Island – was reached regarding the choking death of an unarmed black man (Eric Garner) killed by a white cop. The entire murder was caught on film for all to see, and the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, had no charges laid against him. The verdict was in, and the killer cop was exonerated of any wrongdoing. The announcement prompted protests all across New York, with demonstrators repeating Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe.”
The protests continued in New York nightly, with several taking place elsewhere across the country, in a continuation from the spark that lit with Ferguson. The day after the New York verdict, an unarmed black man was shot dead by police in Phoenix, Arizona, sparking protests there. In Times Square, several thousand protesters confronted police chanting, ‘Who do you protect?’ Police responded by arresting 200 of those assembled.
The protests in New York were drawing upwards of 10,000 people, and in the first three days alone, the NYPD arrested over 300 demonstrators, with the Police Commissioner declaring that, “the city should be feeling quite proud of itself at this juncture,” because the police were “showing remarkable restraint.”
As with Ferguson, the results in New York sparked protests across the country, with people taking to the streets in Washington, D.C., Boston, Baltimore, San Francisco, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Atlanta and beyond, blocking bridges and traffic, engaging in ‘sit ins’ or ‘die ins’ in public places, transport hubs, universities and elsewhere. Protests that took place in Berkeley, California, quickly turned violent as police used excessive force, tear gas and batons. The police violence in turn sparked ‘riots’ (urban rebellion) in the streets. Clashes between police and protesters also took place in Seattle, with more peaceful demonstrations continuing in New York, Chicago and Miami.
The protests continued daily, with new groups, new cities and states participating, new sparks, new collective actions, civil disobedience, with every new day. Demonstrators took to the streets, department stores, highways and intersections, to Ivy League universities, basketball games, and train stations. In Chicago, protesters continued well into December, with roughly 200 demonstrators gathering outside of Obama’s family home.
President Obama was holding a series of meetings on the social unrest resulting from Ferguson. He was meeting with Cabinet and Congressional officials, law enforcement and civil rights leaders, and an “unusual” meeting was granted to a group of young black activists from around the country. They held a 45-minute meeting with the president in the Oval Office. They spoke honestly about the problems they see and solutions they advocate, with Obama offering encouragement, though he stressed that, “incremental changes were progress.”
One of the youth organizers present at the meeting, Phillip Agnew, wrote about his experience for an article in the Guardian. Agnew described the assembled group as “representatives from a community in active struggle against state sanctioned killing, violence and repression.” They were not “civil rights leaders,” “activists”, “spokespeople” or “respectable negroes,” they were from Missouri, Ohio, New York and Florida. Agnew wrote of the expectations of those assembled: “We all knew that the White House stood to benefit more from this meeting than we did. We knew that our movement families would fear the almighty co-opt and a political press photo-op. We have been underestimated at every juncture… But this was an invitation that you accept – period.”
The group of youth, as young as 20, with artists, activists, teachers, and organizers, told the president that they were not the “People’s Spokespeople,” and that they “had neither the power, positions, nor desires to stop the eruptions in the streets and that they would continue until a radical change happened in this country,” that they “had no faith in anything, church or state… that the country was on the brink and that nothing short of major capitulations at all levels of the government to the demands of the people could prevent it.” Obama listened, discussed and debated, promoted “gradualism” and “asked for our help.” Agnew commented that, “We did not budge,” walking out of the meeting “unbought and unbowed. We held no punches… no concessions, politicking or posturing. The movement got its meeting. Unrest earned this invite, and we can’t stop. If we don’t get what we came for, we will shut it down. President Obama knows that and we know it. No meeting can stop that.”
History will perhaps view present-day America through the lens of pre-Ferguson and post-Ferguson. The spark which lit the fire was the continuous murder of unarmed black men, women and children by mostly-white police. Police beating, oppressing, and murdering black people in the United States is far from a new phenomenon. It’s a practice which is, in many ways, as old as the country itself (or older, in fact). The fundamental change is this: pre-Ferguson, the murder of unarmed black men, women and children was considered ‘unworthy’ of national attention, it was not news, not an issue, largely continuing unknown and unacknowledged by white America. Post-Ferguson, when black Americans are murdered by police, it starts to make headlines, people start to pay attention, and people increasingly take to the streets in opposition.
Ferguson is not a wake-up call to black America, which has been well aware of the injustices and oppression their communities have faced daily, yearly, and over the course of decades and centuries. Ferguson is a wake-up call for white America, to look and learn from the lived experiences of black America, and to join with their brothers and sisters in active struggle against the system which has made Ferguson the status quo.
Pre-Ferguson, black lives did not matter. At least, they did not matter so far as the national consciousness was concerned. White America could proclaim itself a ‘post-racial society’, feeling good about themselves for voting for a black president, having black friends, and not saying ‘Nigger’. Ferguson has changed the frame through which America views itself, and is viewed by others. White America increasingly looks at the reality of black America and sees great injustice and inequality. The rest of the world looks into America and sees a deeply racist society, repressive and brutal, reflective of the perceptions of America’s actions around the world.
Pre-Ferguson, black America was kept out of sight, black communities were kept under control, and black lives did not matter. Post-Ferguson, black America has taken center stage, black communities are the front-lines of a national struggle for justice and equality, and now, Black Lives Matter.
Part II- Institutional Racism in America
The primary issue of race in America, as elsewhere in the world, is less about the overt acceptance and propagation of racism on the individual level, and more about the realities of institutional racism. A racist society is established and sustained not simply by racist individuals, but by racist institutions and ideologies. If racism were simply an individual experience, education and interaction between racial groups would seemingly be enough to eradicate the scourge of racism in modern society. After all, most white Americans would likely not identify as racists, and in a society where a black man can become president, many may be tempted to proclaim that America is a “post-racial society.”
Viewing racism simply from an individual level is misleading, embracing the notion that because I am not a racist, we no longer live in a racist society; because the president is black, we have moved beyond racism; because there are black people who have succeeded in society and risen to top political and economic positions of power, there are no longer issues of racial segregation and oppression. These views present a mythology of ‘equal opportunity’ and ‘individual initiative.’ In other words, segregation and other overt forms of political and legal racism have been largely dismantled, and therefore, the rates of poverty, crime, imprisonment and death in black communities are no longer the result of a racist society, but rather, a lack of “individual responsibility” and failure to take advantage of the equal opportunities afforded.
Institutional racism, however, takes a view of society, of the relations between power and people, beyond the myopic and misleading focus of ‘the individual’ alone. Society is institutionally structured to support the rich and powerful at the expense of the vast majority of the population, which is evident through the structures, policies, and effects of institutions like the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, Wall Street banks, the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, etc. The ideologies and actions of these institutions effectively protect the powerful, bail them out, promote policies which benefit them, punish the poor, impoverish the rest, and support a top-down power structure of the national (and global) economy.
There may be individual policymakers, executives or economists who advocate more economic equality, who criticize bailouts and austerity, who oppose the parasitic nature of the modern economy. However, when sitting in positions of power and influence, these individuals must succumb to the institutional demands of those positions. An executive at a bank may individually oppose the actions of banks in creating financial crises and then needing bailouts and profiting from them as millions lose homes, go hungry and are pushed into poverty. However, that executive cannot change the operations of the bank or realities of the industry alone, he must be concerned with the institutional realities, which focus on short-term quarterly profits for shareholders, which in turn would require him to follow and mimic the actions and initiatives of all the other big banks. If such an executive did not follow the path as designed by the institutional structure of the bank and financial markets, such an executive would be fired. Institutional inequality and economic exploitation are realities of the economic system, regardless of whether or not there are individuals within the system who oppose many of the policies and effects of that system.
The same logic applies to racism. This has been true for as long as racism has been a reality. In the United States, racism was institutionalized from the beginning, as the US was founded as a Slave State. Racism was a legal reality, and it was reflected in the institutional structure of the economy, labour system, education, health care, politics, geography, demography, the criminal justice system, city planning, foreign policy and empire. Over the course of decades and centuries, there have been many tangible improvements, with reform to various institutions, legal changes and social transformations: the end of formal slavery, Civil Rights Movement, voting registration, etc. Yet, despite these various improvements and changes over the course of centuries, the realities of institutional racism remain in many facets, old and new. Institutional racism is embedded in the original and evolving structure of society as a whole, and to effectively challenge and remove racism from society, most of society’s dominant institutions must also be challenged, changed or made obsolete.
The institutional structure of society largely serves the same purpose, to protect and support the rich and powerful as the expense of the vast majority of the population. This is true, regardless of race. However, those same institutions enforce segregation, exploitation, domination and exclusion not only in terms of class, but also race. This has the effect of dividing the population among themselves, pitting white against black, promoting and maintaining social divides and conflicts between the population to ensure that they do not unite (through experience or action) against the true ruling groups and structures of society. Racism thus allows for more effective control of society by the few who rule it.
Stokely Carmichael helped to popularize the term ‘Black Power’ in the late 1960s, having risen to acclaim as a young leader in the Civil Rights movement. In 1966, Carmichael published an essay in The Massachusetts Review entitled, ‘Toward Black Liberation,’ in which he wrote that, “The history of every institution of this society indicates that a major concern in the ordering and structuring of the society has been the maintaining of the Negro community in its condition of dependence and oppression… that racist assumptions of white superiority have been so deeply ingrained in the structure of the society that it infuses its entire functioning, and is so much a part of the national subconscious that it is taken for granted and is frequently not even recognized.”
Carmichael provides an example to differentiate between individual and institutional racism: “When unidentified white terrorists bomb a Negro Church and kill five children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city, Birmingham, Alabama, not five but 500 Negro babies die each year because of a lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and deprivation in the ghetto, that is a function of institutionalized racism. But the society either pretends it doesn’t know of this situation, or is incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.”
Carmichael described the ‘Negro community in America’ as being subjected to the realities of “white imperialism and colonial exploitation.” With more than 20 million black Americans accounting for roughly 10% of the national population (in 1966), they lived primarily in poor areas of the South, shanty-towns, and the urban slums and ghettos of northern and westerns industrial cities. Regardless of location in the country, if one were to go into any of these black communities, Carmichael wrote, “one will find that the same combination of political, economic, and social forces are at work. The people in the Negro community do not control the resources of that community, its political decisions, its law enforcement, its housing standards; and even the physical ownership of the land, houses, and stores lie outside that community.” Instead, white power “makes the laws, and it is violent white power in the form of armed white cops that enforces those laws with guns and nightsticks. The vast majority of Negroes in this country live in these captive communities and must endure these conditions of oppression because, and only because, they are black and powerless.”
The realities of institutional racism can be seen in the case of Ferguson. An analysis by Keith Boag of CBC News looked at the legal structure of St. Louis County, where two-thirds of the population, approximately 650,000 people, live within “incorporated municipalities.” There are roughly 90 of these municipalities, Ferguson being one such area, with a population of roughly 21,000 people. Fourteen of these areas have populations less than 500 people, and 58 of them have their own police forces. Boag describes the origins of this structure as dating back several decades to before the Civil Rights movement, when white people in the city of St. Louis fled to the suburbs as poor blacks moved to the inner city. As whites moved out of the city, they sought more autonomy and local power, establishing the system of ‘incorporated municipalities’, allowing the local populace to control their own development, writing legal ‘covenants’ which imposed restrictions on “who could buy or lease property within its boundaries.”
In 1970, Ferguson was 99% white, with their covenant enshrining in law that blacks could not sell, rent own property in any way. Over the decades, the covenants were eroded due to their overt racist forms, and they became “unenforceable.” Thus, black people from the city were able to move out to the suburbs, but had to inherit the plethora of jurisdictions left behind by the white population who continued to flee the movement of the black population. In many of these small jurisdictions, there are too few people to provide for a necessary tax base to afford the services and functions of the local administrative structure. The result was that many communities became increasingly dependent upon “aggressive policing” to raise revenue through ticketing and traffic fines.
Boag describes this as a “tax on the poor,” since they are the most susceptible to such practices: “It’s they who have trouble finding the money to pay fines. It’s they who may have to choose between driving illegally to work or not working. It’s they who may be struggling just to feed a family.” The main preoccupation of police becomes issuing traffic fines and tickets, and then arresting people for not paying those fines. As a result, people do not view the police as being there to ‘protect and serve’, but, rather, “to pinch and squeeze every nickel out of you in any way they can.” This system is rampant in the town of Ferguson, as confirmed in an investigation by the Washington Post.
In effect, the poor black population of Ferguson is thus made to pay for their own oppression, stuck in a cycle of poverty which forces them to pay fines (or go to prison) in order to pay the salaries of the police who fine them, arrest them, beat them and kill them.
Thus, racism in Ferguson, itself a product of the segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era, is institutionalized in the very legal structure, tax and revenue structures, city planning and law enforcement institutions. Such circumstances do not require an overt articulation of racism, nor for it to be enforced by individual white racists (though both of these realities also occur and are encouraged by such a system).
The same logic also applies to the official system of slavery that existed in the United States prior to the Civil War. The slave system was an inherently and obviously racist system. However, there were (on occasion) slave owners who would treat their “property” with kindness, even those who criticized and opposed the system of slavery, but would still participate within that system. The realities of the institutional system of slavery meant that despite an individual’s personal views and preferences, they operated within a system which was racially structured, and thus, were made active participants and supporters of a racist system of domination and exploitation.
If one white slave owner were to free his slaves and promote equality and justice, he would lose his entire economic, social and political base of power within the society, be ostracized and made irrelevant and ineffective. Further, the newly-freed slaves would likely be captured and sold to other slave owners, with ‘freedom’ a short-lived and largely symbolic experience. The actions of a moral individual within an immoral institutional structure cannot change anything alone.
What is required is the collective action of many thousands and hundreds of thousands of individuals, working together to make the costs of such a system greater than its perceived benefits, forcing institutional change. Collective and large-scale actions will, in time and struggle, force reform and gradual change from the top-down. Alternatively, collective action and radical struggle will add to this same pressure, but also propose, organize and initiate alternative methods and visions for social organization and objectives, promoting more revolutionary alternatives.
The events and reactions in Ferguson, New York and increasingly across much of the country and even internationally represent the emergence of a powerful new and resurgent force in society, the reactivation of people power. From urban rebellions and ‘riots’ in Ferguson and Berkeley, to mass arrests and protests in New York and Los Angeles, to the civil disobedience in Miami, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and beyond, America is witnessing the first few weeks and months of a powerful new social movement which promises not to go away quietly. Nor should it.
With chants of “shut it down!” the demonstrators recognize that their power comes in the form of being able to disrupt the normal functioning of society. Institutional racism has led to immense injustice, segregation, exploitation and domination over life in America. The realities of present-day America are the modern manifestations of an institutional system of racism which pre-dates the formation of the United States itself. The current unrest is a reflection of the fact that solutions must go to the core of the problem, within the founding and functions of the institutions themselves.
America may have a black president, but he still has to live in the White House. Black Americans may have more political freedoms and opportunities than in previous decades and centuries, but they still have to live in a society shaped and dominated by institutional racism.
The black population has been kept at the bottom of the social order in the United States since the US was founded as a country (and in fact, long before then). This has been unchanged over the course of several centuries. If progress is defined as one black man being able to rise to a position over which he exerts immense power over a society that continues to subject the majority black population to institutional racism, then ‘progress’ needs to be redefined. An individual, alone, cannot alter the institutional structure of society. Obama is not a symbol of a “post-racial” America, he is a symbol of the continued existence of an “institutionally racist” America, where one can have a black president overseeing a white empire, at home and abroad.
Obama is the exception, not the rule. The rule is Ferguson; the rule is Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The rules need to change. The rules need to be broken and replaced. The rule of racist and imperialist institutions and ideologies must be smashed and made obsolete. The rule of the people must become the law of the land. The road to justice runs through Ferguson, driven by the collective action of thousands of individuals, taking the struggle into the streets with the very real threat that if true liberation is not achieved, the system has lost any sense of legitimacy. When the cost of subservience to the status quo is greater than the cost of changing it, the people will “Shut It Down.”
Part III- From Ferguson to Freedom
The protests resulting from events in Ferguson and New York have spurred a nation-wide anti-police brutality and social justice movement. This movement is addressing issues related to the realities of institutional racism in the United States, a colonial legacy born of slavery. Policing itself has a history and institutional function that is relevant to current events. This part in the series, ‘From Ferguson to Freedom’ examines the institution of policing and ‘law enforcement’, designed to protect the powerful from the people, to punish the poor and enforce injustice.
A Primer on Policing
Many social divisions erupt when it comes to discussing the issues of police and policing. Many accept the police and state-propagated view of police as being there ‘to serve and protect’, and that the ‘dangerous’ jobs of ensuring ‘peace’ and ‘safety’ are deserving of respect and admiration. Others view police as oppressors and thugs, violent and abusive, the enforcers of injustice. Here, as with the issue of racism itself, we come to the dichotomy of individual and institutional actions and functions.
As individuals, there are many police who may act admirably, who may ‘serve and protect’, who serve a social function which is beneficial to the community in which they operate. But, as with the issue of racism, individual acts do not erase institutional functions. The reality is that as an institution, policing is fundamentally about control, with cops acting as agents of ‘law and order’. They enforce the law and punish its detractors (primarily among the poor), they ‘serve and protect’ the powerful (and their interests) from the people.
When individuals in poor black neighborhoods are caught with illegal substances, such as drugs, the police are there to arrest them and send them into the criminal justice system for judgment and punishment. When Wall Street banks launder billions in drug money, police are nowhere to be seen, the law is ignored, justice is evaded, and the rich and powerful remain untouched. Crime is subject to class divides. Crimes such as mass murder, crimes against humanity, war crimes, slavery, ethnic cleansing, money laundering, mass corruption, plundering and destruction are typically committed (or decided) by those who hold the power, have the money and own the property. These crimes largely go unpunished, and very often are even rewarded.
Crimes committed by the poor, the oppressed, and especially those which take place in communities of colour are the main focus of the criminal injustice system. It is the poor and exploited who are policed and repressed, punished and sentenced, beaten and executed. The criminal rich and powerful are largely untouchable. The police enforce the law, so far as it applies to the poor, and are primarily there to serve the interests of the powerful. This is not new.
Like with all institutions, to understand their functions, one must turn to their origins and evolution through the years. In the United States, the history of ‘policing’ pre-dates the formation of the country itself, when it was a collection of European colonial possessions. From the late 1600s onward, just as racism was itself becoming institutionalized in the slave system, the social concept of policing increasingly emerged. The European colonial system was dependent upon the exploitation of slave labour, which since the late 1600s had become increasingly defined along racial lines.
In the 1700s, colonial societies began forming “slave patrols” to keep the slaves in line, to capture escapees, and to maintain “law and order” in an inherently unjust and exploitative social system of domination. As black slaves increasingly outnumbered the local white colonists, paranoia increased (especially in the wake of slave rebellions), and so the “slave patrols” and other locally organized ‘vigilante’ groups would be formed to protect the white colonizers against the local indigenous populations and the enslaved black African population.
The slave patrols defined the early formation of the modern “law enforcement” institution in the United States, which extended into the 19th century, up until the Civil War. The slave patrols also had other functions within the communities they operated, but first and foremost, their primary purpose was “to act as the first line of defense against a slave rebellion.”
Following the processes of industrialization and urbanization, cities became crowded, immigrants became plenty, and poverty was rampant as the rich few became ever more powerful. Thus, throughout the 19th century, the slave patrols began evolving into official “police forces,” with their concern for “order” and “control”, largely via the policing of poor communities of colour.
The evolution of policing in America since the 19th century has largely maintained its focus on the policing of the poor, acting as soldiers in the “war against crime” (which J. Edgar Hoover declared in the 1930s), though, of course, this applies almost exclusively to crime committed by the poor, by immigrants and ‘minority’ groups, as the rich and powerful are able to continue plundering and stealing wealth, waging wars and killing great masses of people, engaging in institutional corruption and even participating in war crimes and crimes against humanity, almost always with impunity and beyond the reach of police or justice.
In the past few decades, police forces across America have become increasingly militarized, with the rise of what has been called the “warrior cop.” Police forces get military equipment, tanks, rocket launchers, and even wear military outfits and get military training. Militaries are of course designed to be institutions of force, to kill, to destroy, to occupy and oppress. They are fundamentally, and institutionally, imperial. So as police forces become increasingly militarized, their function becomes increasingly aligned with that of the military. While the military secures the interests of the rich and powerful abroad, the police secure the interests of the rich and powerful at home. The domestic population is treated increasingly like an “enemy population,” with poor communities (especially poor black, Hispanic and indigenous communities) treated like occupied populations.
The origins of the modern police force began as a distinctly colonial structure, to enforce the injustice of slavery, to protect the colonizers as they expanded their territories and committed genocide against the indigenous population. Colonization, ethnic cleansing, slavery and genocide are inherently wrong and unjust. As such, these policies must be protected by force. The legal system has always been far more concerned with the protection of property (belonging to rich white men) than it has been with the protection of the population from the abuses of an inherently unjust social system. In a slave society, human beings become property. The law protects private property, but does so often through the oppression of populations. Property becomes more important than people, even when people are property.
The Global Reality of the Brutes in Blue
Think, for a brief moment, of the images, videos and realities of protests, revolutions, resistance movements and rebellions around the world in the past several years. From the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, to Indigenous movements in Canada and Latin America and Africa, to the peasant and labour unrest across Asia, to the anti-austerity movements across Europe, with social unrest reaching enormous heights in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, from the Indignados to Occupy Wall Street, to the student movements in Quebec, the UK, Chile, Mexico and Hong Kong, to the urban rebellions in Turkey and Brazil, and now to the civil unrest in the US sparked by Ferguson. What do you see, in all of these cases?
In each and every case, there are large or significant segments of populations who are rising up in resistance to oppressive structures, against dictatorships, state violence and repression, against poverty, racism and exploitation. In each case, there are populations struggling for dignity and opportunity, for freedom and democracy, for justice and equality. These populations, those who protest and resist, those who struggle and strive for the realization of democracy and justice, are historically the main reason why society has in any meaningful way ever been able to advance, to civilize itself, for rights and freedoms to be won and realized. Progress for people as a whole has always been accompanied by mass struggle and resistance against the forces of oppression and to upset the ‘stability’ of the status quo.
And, both historically and presently, without exception, the struggle and resistance of populations at home and abroad has always been met with the blunt, brute force of police, there to beat the people back down into subservience and to maintain “law and order.” In the youth-led rebellions from Egypt to Spain to Indonesia, from Brazil to Mexico to Quebec, from Hong Kong to Turkey to Ferguson, Missouri, the police are there with batons, pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, real bullets, beatings and brutality, mass arrests and murder, all in the name of preserving ‘stability’.
This is the true institutional function of the police. It cares not whether there are good or decent individuals within police forces, no more than the institutional reality of militaries cares whether individual soldiers are good or decent. Their job is to protect the powerful, police the poor, and punish those who threaten the stability of this unjust system. This is an institutional function which has been a lived reality for the black community in the United States since the origins of slavery and policing. The protests resulting from Ferguson are a reflection of this reality, regardless of the opinions of white people who have been largely spared the blunt truth of batons and bullets wielded and shot by the Brutes in Blue.
Black and Blue
According to a study published in 2012, every 28 hours in the United States, a black man, woman or child is murdered by a law enforcement official, security guard or “vigilante.” In 2011, murder was listed as the number one cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 34. In the month prior to Michael Brown’s murder, three other unarmed black men were killed by police, with data from police forces across the country revealing that black males are far more likely to be shot and killed by police than any other demographic group.
According to data from the Department of Justice, between 2003 and 2009, roughly 4,813 people were killed in the process of being arrested or while in the custody of police officers. In 2012 alone, 410 people were killed by police in the United States. Between 1968 and 2011, data from the CDC reveals, black Americans were between two and eight times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans. On average, black Americans were 4.2 times more likely to be murdered by police than whites.
Between the murder of Michael Brown in August and the delivery of the verdict in November of 2014, police in the United States killed roughly 14 other teenagers, at least six of them black. Two days before the Darren Wilson verdict was reached, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was murdered by police in Cleveland, Ohio, for holding a BB gun.
In late December, however, a mentally ill man in New York shot and killed two NYPD police officers in Brooklyn, after which he shot and killed himself. New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who has attempted to navigate between placating protesters and police, has made himself hated by many in the NYPD, who view anything but absolute and unquestionable loyalty as unforgivable betrayal. The head of the NYPD’s union commented on the two killed cops, saying that many had “blood on their hands”, which “starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the major.”
Attempting to placate the police, mayor de Blasio called for the protests to end until the funerals for the two cops had passed, saying, “It’s time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time.” Of course, this and other statements made by de Blasio are designed to keep his own police force under his control; however, the hypocrisy of the statement should not go unnoticed. After all, hundreds of unarmed black Americans are murdered by police every year, and now, people have had enough, have reacted, taking to the streets to protest. Yet, when two cops are killed, the mayor calls for the protests to end out of some misplaced form of ‘respect’ for the police. Clearly, murdered black Americans are not given the same type of respect, even if it is guided by political pandering. That should speak volumes.
The backlash against the protesters and the emerging social justice movement has been palpable, and the police have been (as they often are) on the front lines of social regression. There was even a small protest in New York held in support of the NYPD, attended mostly by white men (and cops), some wearing shirts declaring, “I canbreathe,” mocking the final words of Eric Garner as he was choked to death by a NYPD officer, repeating, “I can’t breathe.” At the same time, there was a counter protest on the other side of the street, attended largely by black and Hispanic New Yorkers, chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” with the pro-NYPD crowd responding, “Whose jails? Your jails!” When the crowd chanted “hands up, don’t shoot!” the pro-police crowd chanted, “Hands up, don’t loot!” The pro-NYPD protest was largely made up of retired or off-duty police officers and their supporters, which along with the assembled on-duty police, media and counter-protesters, did not amount to more than 200 people.
Following the shooting deaths of the two NYPD officers, the head of an NYPD union declared that, “we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.” So the NYPD has declared ‘war’, but against who? Well, they place the blame for the two deaths not only on the mayor, but more so on the protesters and the anti-police brutality movement itself. Thus, the largest police force in the United States, made up of 35,000 people, has essentially declared ‘war’ on a significant part of the population. It’s worth remembering that the previous New York mayor, billionaire oligarch Michael Bloomberg, once declared during a press conference, “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.”
In light of the two killed cops, many who had previously been pleading for people to respect the police and remember ‘that they are there to protect us’ and have ‘dangerous jobs’ suddenly feel vindicated. However, as the Washington Post reported back in October of 2014, “policing has been getting safer for 20 years,” with 2013 being the safest year for police since the end of World War II. Indeed, as the Post noted, “You’re more likely to be murdered simply by living in about half of the largest cities in America than you are while working as a police officer.” According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, policing is not even on the list of the top ten most dangerous jobs in America. Some of the jobs which appear on the top ten list include loggers, fishermen, pilots, garbage collectors, truck drivers, farmers and ranchers.
However, it IS dangerous to be an unarmed black man, woman or child in America. And while the NYPD union boss has declared a “war” on the people, the realities of that war have been felt and suffered by black and Hispanic Americans for years and decades.
For over a decade, New York City has implemented a “stop and frisk” policy whereby police are given the illegal ‘authority’ to stop and frisk citizens without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, an obvious violation of constitutional rights. Between 2004 and 2012, New York City cops conducted 4.4 million ‘stops’, with 88% resulting in no further action (arrest or court summons). In roughly 83% of ‘stop and frisk’ cases, those stopped by the police were either black or Hispanic.
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2014 revealed that young men who were subjected to stop and frisk by police, particularly young black men, “show higher rates of feelings of stress, anxiety and trauma.” In over 5 million stop and frisks that took place during the 12-year tenure of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire oligarch, young black men accounted for a total of 25% of those targeted, yet accounted for 1.9% of the city’s population, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. In over 5 million stops, police found a gun in less than 0.02% of the cases.
In late 2014, with a new mayor (de Blasio) and following increased public outrage against the policy as well as legal rulings against it, the ‘stop and frisk’ policy declined in its implementation. However, as the New York Times noted, “police officers today remain ever-present in the projects,” with a “new strategy” for policing the projects slowly forming. Police stand at posts on the perimeters of housing blocks, “officers park their cars on the sidewalk and turn on the flashing roof lights,” and, at night, “the blue beams illuminate the brick of the projects for hours on end, projecting both a sense of emergency and control.”
Black communities remain under ‘military’ occupation by the Brutes in Blue, the modern manifestation of the ‘slave patrols’. The rich and powerful are protected and served, the poor are punished, the descendants of African slaves are slain, their communities under ‘control,’ as the police walk their beat, and beat black lives back down. From Eric Garner and Michael Brown, to the mass protests and civil unrest, the institutional function of the police is, as always, about maintaining stability and order in an inherently unjust social system.
The institutionalization of racism, slavery, and policing predates the formation of the United States itself. And while these things have evolved and changed over the years, decades and centuries, they remain relevant and present. If they are not addressed in a meaningful or substantial way, the America that many imagine or believe in will fade away, leaving only racism, slavery and repression here to stay.