Police violence against African-American communities continues to be a commonplace feature of national life and must be seriously addressed.
The Black Panthers: Early proponents of Black Lives Matter
Matthew Johnson, an unarmed 16-year old African-American with his hands in the air, was shot in the back and killed by a police officer in the Hunter’s Point district of San Francisco on September 27, 1966. In response, Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and several others formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense the following month.
Denzil Dowell, an unarmed 22-year old African-American, was shot and killed by police in North Richmond, California, on April 1, 1967. Police claimed Dowell was attempting to burglarize a liquor store and was killed by “a single shotgun blast” after he refused an order to halt. A coroner’s report found six bullet holes in Dowell’s body and evidence that he had been shot with his hands up and in the process of surrendering. Nonetheless, an all-white jury found this a case of “justifiable homicide.”
A front-page story headlined “Why Was Denzil Dowell Killed” launched the inaugural issue of the Black Panther, the party newspaper, on April 25, 1967. According to the Panthers, the killings of Johnson and Dowell were not isolated incidents, not even just evidence of a pattern of police behavior, but a direct result of public policy. This reinforced their determination to defend African-American communities against police depredations and to pursue a broader social change agenda. Because of their forthright stance, the Panthers themselves became the target of deadly police violence.
Mad as hell and not going to take it any more
Over the course of the next several years a number of Panthers were killed by police, including in 1968 unarmed 17-year old Bobby Hutton in Oakland, and in 1969, Mark Clark and Fred Hampton who were infamously riddled with bullets while asleep in their Chicago apartment. Law enforcement targeting of the Panthers by the FBI Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and local police agencies was unrelenting and contributed to the demise of the organization in the early 1980s.
Urban upheavals became part of the essential definition of the mid-to-late-1960s.
Frequently sparked by anger over police brutality or other violence against African-Americans, urban upheavals became part of the essential definition of the mid-to-late-1960s. Fueled by a perceived backdrop of police discrimination, when a black motorist was roughed up by police in August 1965, the Watts section of Los Angeles exploded.
A black taxi driver beaten by police sparked the Newark riot of July 1967, and excessive force used by police that same month led to a major social disturbance in Detroit. Upheavals erupted around the country, most prominently in Washington, D.C., after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in April 1968.
These occurrences are an ongoing fact of life in the U.S. In 1980, a major disturbance in Miami erupted after Arthur McDuffie, an unarmed African-American motorcyclist, was handcuffed and then beaten to death by over a dozen Miami police officers. After four police officers were acquitted of the infamously savage beating of Rodney King in 1992, the African-American population of Los Angeles again exploded.
Racist violence: Slavery’s legacy
In 2001, a series of civil disorders took place in Cincinnati after police killed unarmed African-American Tommy Thomas. Following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, major disturbances broke out in Baltimore. Almost too numerous to mention are the deaths and other acts of police violence directed at African-Americans that don’t produce urban upheaval.
As the Panthers and numerous others were well aware, a long-standing and well-entrenched official and organized system of violence was used to terrorize and subjugate a subordinate African-American population. Before the mid-18th century, slave codes that decreed fearful punishments to keep slaves in line and slave patrols to keep slaves from fleeing bondage were established and kept in place throughout the South for well over a hundred years.
For a century following the Civil War the Southern legal system sustained neo-slavery convict leasing and rigidly segregationist Jim Crow provisions. Ingrained customs such as lynching and Ku Klux Klan intimidation provided extra-legal enforcement. These phenomena exerted an influence well beyond the South.
Racist terror exported, refined, and re-imported
Simultaneously fleeing racist terror and seeking improved social and economic opportunities, African-Americans moved to the industrializing North in large numbers. In the North, they often discovered they were an unwanted population, except as a surplus labor supply that generated racial animosity when pitted against European-American labor, or in some of the lowest paid, dirty, or dangerous forms of employment. They discovered that Jim Crow was often de facto rather than de jure, and that racist violence remained a feature of life.
As the U.S. rose to global prominence, repressive techniques reminiscent of those in use during slavery and its aftermath were brought against conquered territories and subject populations in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Philippines, Vietnam, and more recently, Afghanistan and Iraq. These techniques were often refined and then re-imported back home.
It is thus not surprising that the actual or threatened use of force against African-Americans persists, and it is within this context that recent police killings of blacks must be understood. A landmark instance involved the Philadelphia Community Action Movement, more widely known as MOVE. Advocating for greater African-American community self-reliance and autonomy, MOVE garnered the wrath of top officials.
Mayor Wilson Goode ordered a helicopter to drop a bomb on the MOVE house.
In 1985 Mayor Wilson Goode ordered a helicopter to drop a bomb on the MOVE house. Eleven members of the organization, including founder John Africa, were killed and 61 homes were destroyed in the ensuing fire. Goode infamously declared “let the fires burn.” A special commission found officials acted with “reckless disregard” and observed “the debacle wouldn’t have happened in a predominantly white neighborhood.” Nevertheless, a police facility was built where the MOVE house once stood.
Ultimately, this operation regarded the subject population as a domestic equivalent of the “Vietcong,” or enemy, to be controlled and suppressed by police functioning as an occupying army. Other examples of modern slave patrol practice include police stops of blacks found in white neighborhoods, stops and arrests for minor infractions committed when “driving while black,” or New York City’s “stop and frisk” random street searches where for no reason other than skin color tens of thousands have been harassed by police. Ultimately, this operation regarded the subject population as a domestic equivalent of the “Vietcong,” or enemy, to be controlled and suppressed by police functioning as an occupying army.
In 1988 social critic Mike Davis described “Operation Hammer,” a supposed crackdown on crime orchestrated by then-Police Chief Daryl Gates of Los Angeles, but in actuality a domestic counterpart to the counterinsurgency program of the U.S. military in Vietnam. Tactics analogous to the slave patrols 100 years earlier were deployed. Utilizing technological advances such as armored vehicles, “search and destroy” missions were conducted, and “strategic hamlets” composed of inner-city residents were patrolled.
Racist militarization and the profit margin
After the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown prompted civil unrest, the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department initially responded with a show of military force. This raised questions as to the origins of the equipment that was displayed. While the Ferguson Police refused to answer this question, it became more widely known that state and local police agencies were receiving surplus military hardware through the U.S. Defense Department 1033 program.
Domestic public policy upholds the imperatives of the military-industrial complex.
Such an arrangement characterizes the manner in which domestic public policy upholds the imperatives of the military-industrial complex, such that surplus inventory will not produce market saturation but will provide ongoing profit opportunities. However, this was not the only way in which state and local police operations were able to acquire such hardware. The Department of Homeland Security Urban Areas Security Initiative has provided hundreds of millions of dollars of grant funding to localities seeking to acquire military-grade weapons and equipment.
Complementing this burgeoning police-industrial complex, the private sector has become involved in directly providing police with the latest weapons and population control technological advances. Using federal dollars, if need be, police agencies can purchase from vendors, such as those who display their wares at the Urban Shield trade show conventions.
In the wake of Brown’s killing, a U.S. Justice Department report found African-American residents were excessively cited for minor charges, after which those residents would be hit with exorbitant fines, and incarceration if they failed to pay. According to a New York Times article dated March 15, 2015, Ferguson is not an isolated instance, this pattern was widespread across Missouri, and likely elsewhere. Such policy hearkens back to the “neo-slavery” days from Reconstruction to World War II, where as Douglas A. Blackmon has written, “under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African-Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests.”
It’s long been understood that a centerpiece of what has come to be known as the “war on drugs” was the control of immigrants, minorities, and others outside the mainstream. Angela Davis has written extensively on the subject of a prison-industrial complex that not only incarcerates “surplus” populations, often for nonviolent drug offenses, but at times benefits for-profit prison firms. Davis has identified the “war on terror” as producing similar effects. Author Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, has pointed out that more black men are under the control of the justice system today than were enslaved in 1850.
History and prevalent socioeconomic conditions amply demonstrate that police violence aimed at African-American communities is a commonplace feature of national life. These conditions are ensconced, along with race, in class and property relations that over the course of time have changed more in form than content. For these reasons European-Americans, although comparatively privileged, should not believe themselves immune from abusive police behavior.
Most fundamentally concerned with upholding an existing unequal and unjust social order, the police rely heavily, in some instances exclusively, on one tool: force. If certain trends continue, especially immigration and the integration of the suburbs, the anvil may grow larger and it may become more difficult for the police to concentrate the hammer blows, but there is no reason to believe inherent policies and practices will be replaced or abandoned.
What might be done in response?
An initial recognition is that the racial politics of the U.S. has served to divide and conquer, and that such divisions primarily serve the most affluent sector of society rather than those they keep apart, regardless of race or ethnicity. Eliminating these divisions will not lessen opportunities for the vast majority, but will produce greater benefits for all. As already indicated, since the problems are deeply rooted in the bedrock of the present society, it will take long-term and thoroughgoing change to restructure existing institutions and social relations.
Several approaches must be applied jointly, or in stages, and tailored to local circumstances. Of greater importance, it must be recognized that these are potentially subject to cooptation, and while they may be institutionalized and afford some relief, attention and effort must be ongoing to prevent them from becoming simply more sophisticated mechanisms for perpetuating the status quo.
As has been seen, one branch of the federal government (Defense) is equipping localities with tools to check or deny those rights. While President Obama has recently limited the distribution of this surplus, it remains to be seen what difference, if any, this may ultimately make. Yet another branch, the Justice Department, as exemplified by their Ferguson report, has played a dual role in attempting to keep a lid on protest while critiquing some of the local abuses that have led to unrest.
Pressure needs to be brought to further check abusive policies and practices.
Those demanding change must continue to insist the federal government cease providing local authorities with war-grade equipment and demand a halt to police militarization. Considerably more pressure needs to be brought against both Congress and the Department of Justice to further check abusive policies and practice at the local level.
When the civil rights of demonstrators are violated, the recourse typically has been to bring civil suit against the local government or agency responsible. When found guilty, the locality may pay a fine, but they may see that only as a business as usual. No change of organizational practice may result, and likely it will not prove a deterrent to future violations.
Title 18 Section 242 of the U.S. Code “makes it a crime for any person acting under color of law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom to willfully deprive or cause to be deprived from any person those rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the U.S.” Public pressure must be brought for the Justice Department to aggressively enforce this regulation.
Language requiring that “specific intent” to deprive people of their rights must be replaced with language and interpretations that take into account the affects of action. If public officials were indicted and convicted, many would think twice before engaging in such behavior.
Retrain and de-militarize the police
Demands for retraining must be at the core of meaningful police reform. As the history of police practice in this country has shown, the police consistently wield the largest and most injurious tool at their disposal: force. When seen in larger perspective, police are called upon to respond to a variety of situations, and must therefore have a readily accessible and wider range of responses, such as basic psychology and social work skills.
Beyond demilitarization, another demand to be pursued would be disarming police in most social situations. While the NRA continually pushes its agenda that arming society to the teeth is the only answer to supposedly more violent and dangerous conditions, such a cure only worsens the disease. A more rational approach would take us in the opposite direction, one of de-escalation, an overall reduction of the reliance on violence as a “solution.”
At the local level, racial and other diversification of police so as to better reflect or match community characteristics has been advocated as a solution. Diversification is a worthy goal and should be pursued for its own sake, but on its own will likely do little to alter policy mandates or ameliorate police practice. Increased diversity might make more difference if all officers serving in a particular community were recruited from that community, but in most cases it is unlikely that would happen. Among other problems, these officers would also need to be fully accountable to that community, and on its own, that’s an unlikely prospect.
Another alternative, advanced primarily as a crime-control measure, is Neighborhood Watch. While this alternative has potential if properly organized, it is also fraught with difficulties, only a few of which will be described here. One is that Watch organizations are subordinate to the local police department in the area they serve, so they are essentially co-opted at the outset.
Available evidence indicates, like with many other civic organizations, a higher degree of development and rates of participation occur in areas of greater affluence. Neighborhood Watch organizations may thus serve as a “defense of privilege” set against low income or minority neighborhoods and individuals. Essentially, this was the case in the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, where Neighborhood Watch captain George Zimmerman operated his own de facto slave patrol.
Neighborhood Watch-style programs might nonetheless assume community protection functions in low income or minority neighborhoods if constructed in conjunction with broader community organizing efforts, with high levels of neighborhood participation and support, and where oversight becomes more a function of the community rather than of the police. This would work best in conjunction with other measures such as community policing and/or Copwatch.
Community policing is an effort to better integrate police and police practice into local communities. One of its elements is to better familiarize “beat cops” with residents, and vice-versa. While this initiative has merit, it has also been deservedly criticized for creating the appearance of community engagement without providing much substance.
It also tends to be a very top-down approach, with power left in the hands of the police and imperatives determined at higher levels rather than at the grass roots. For example, if a locality is engaged in displacement and gentrification, facilitating those priorities will be emphasized, rather than serving and protecting existing residents. Still, this alternative should not be rejected out of hand, as at least modest improvements may be obtained when packaged with other reforms.
Copwatch is an alternative geared toward the creation of law enforcement accountability, particularly in locales where the police are likely to be abusive or “out of control.” This is an important initiative, although as Candice Bernd has pointed out, it comes with its own inherent set of dangers. What is involved are civilian groups or teams that monitor police activity, often with video or cell phone cameras. Police, especially those who are, or may become, abusive don’t appreciate being “watched” and may retaliate against watchers with threats, arrest, and/or force. Because of such intimidation, and also because it is time-consuming, it may be hard to recruit resident participation, or to sustain the activity.
One of the most promising alternatives involves independent civilian review boards.
One of the most promising alternatives involves independent civilian review boards. This is an important measure that should be actively pursued by communities across the spectrum, not just those in minority or low-income neighborhoods. When the police are accused of wrongdoing, they are typically investigated by themselves, by other police agencies, or by prosecutors who have special relations with the police. A major initiative to change such practice is exemplified by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, engaged in a campaign to create a Civilian Police Accountability Council composed of directly-elected civilians.
Since police agencies will seek to subvert or control review boards, direct election of their members is requisite. If they are to be more than window-dressing, they must be given powers and resources to conduct investigations, to subpoena witnesses and police officers, to compel testimony under threat of perjury, and to refer indictments.
Some localities operate under police commissions. Every jurisdiction should have such a commission, which should be directly elected rather than an appointed body, and it should be subordinate to review board investigations and findings. Even with direct elections, considerable possibility of co-optation by local government, police agencies, or other interests remains, which necessitates constant vigilance, transparency, accountability, and recall provisions.
Even in a far better society, although plausibly lessened, there may still be various situations, predators and monsters that only specially trained and equipped professionals may be able to handle. This leaves us with the concern, as Gar Alperovitz has raised, about the organizational structure of the police themselves. Given the nature and role of police in society, it is far too dangerous for them to be an autonomous “worker-owned collective.”
For the most part, what we should look toward would be models that integrate two or more of the types of solutions discussed above, and situate those within a broader framework for change. Mike Davis has argued for “the creation of some kind of ‘Rainbow youth movement’ in the inner cities, drawing from the examples of SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], the Panthers, the ‘Comrades’ of Soweto, and so forth,” and Kristian Williams has referred to the self-policing experience of the ANC in apartheid South Africa and the IRA in Northern Ireland.
Empower communities, not the police
Frank Chapman, Field Secretary of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression asked:
What sort of concrete demands should we form our fight around? The kind that leads to systemic change; fighting for the enactment of laws where the oppressed are empowered, fighting for the forming of a council where people elect members of their communities into a form of direct local government that has the power to hold police accountable, and puts the process of deciding/controlling policing policies into the hands of oppressed communities. Such a path where we fight for community control of the police is also an important step in the direction of turning the political arena into an arena of mass-based democratic struggles for further systemic changes.
What must be changed are the underlying power dynamics. Police can be neither apart from nor above those whom they supposedly serve and protect. As Chapman argued, involvement in broad-based efforts to refashion not just community-police relations, but to reconstruct social relations along the lines of equality and justice is essential.
There are several good places to get involved. Those interested in demilitarizing the police can plug into the War Resisters League “Facing Tear Gas” project. Black Lives Matter not only seeks to restrain police violence but to obtain a rightful place in society for African-Americans. A group of European-Americans dedicated to facilitating this cause is Showing Up for Racial Justice. The Moral Monday movement has provided a model of how these concerns might be interfaced with other vital issues.
[Jay D. Jurie, Ph.D., is an associate professor of public administration and urban and regional planning at the University of Central Florida. He lives in Sanford, Florida. Read more articles by Jay D. Jurie on The Rag Blog.]
References and Resources:
Alexander, M. (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
Alperovitz, G. (January 14, 2015). New York police slowdown and the classic challenges of alternatives to capitalism. Truth-out.org.
Bernd, C. (October 2, 2014). Police Departments Retaliate Against Organized “Cop Watch” Groups Across the US. Truth-out.org.
Black Lives Matter.
http://www.blacklivesmatter.com or #BlackLivesMatter
Blackmon, D.A. (2008). A review of Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. http://www.slaverybyanothername.com/the-book/
Bunch, W. (May 6, 2010). An Inauspicious Beginning [MOVE in Philadelphia]. Philly.com
Chapman, F. (October 23, 2014). Frank Chapman Speaks Out Against Police Terror. Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. Fightbacknews.org
Davis, M. (1988, July). Los Angeles: Civil liberties between the hammer and the rock. New Left Review, no. 170.
“Facing Tear Gas” — The War Resisters League.
“Let the Fires Burn: The MOVE bombings 29 years later.”
Moral Monday Movement.
Noble, S. (February 3, 2015) Angela Davis Speaks on Ending Police Militarization and the Police State.
Robertson, C., Dewan, S., & Apuzzo, M. (March 7, 2015). Ferguson Becomes Symbol but Bias Knows No Border. The New York Times.
Rothstein, R. (2015). The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles. Economic Policy Institute (epi.org).
Showing Up for Racial Justice.
“Slavery’s Police,” a review of Sally Hadden (2001), Slave patrols: Law and violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of California. (October 1966). Hunters Point — Cops Shot Into Community Center Sheltering 200 Children. The Movement, vol. 2, no. 9.
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (November 2000). Revisiting Who is Guarding the Guardians? A Report on Police Practices and Civil Rights in America.
U.S. Justice Department Ferguson Police Department Report (March 4, 2015) — full report.
Wasserman, S. (June 24, 2013). Rage and Ruin: On the Black Panthers. thenation.com
Whitehead, J.W. (January 25, 2014). Drones, Tanks, and Grenade Launchers Coming Soon to a Town Near You. Huffingtonpost.com
Williams, K. (2007). Our Enemies in Blue. Rev. Ed. Boston: South End.