The Case for Withdrawing the Police and Winning Community Control of our Communities
By Manuel Barrera
U.S. “America” has seen the rise of a new civil rights movement. . . One is tempted immediately to conjure the connections between the movement that has emerged in response to the murder by police in Ferguson, Missouri of Michael Brown and the movement led by M.L. King, Malcolm X and associated civil rights and black nationalist organizations of the 1950’s to the end of the 1960’s. It seems fair to say that given the emergence of Black youth and Black communities everywhere beginning to organize against what has come to be known as a police occupation within communities and spaces inhabited by Blacks in particular, but among people of color in general. Indeed, many sectors among young White youth, women, and other social forces have begun to be involved, some with more engagement than even the actual communities being victimized.
Where Have We Been?
It is tempting to make such connections. Certainly, those young activists like the Dream Defenders, Color of Change, and the coalition Hands Up United have come to know and welcome the wide array of solidarity that has come their way as they strive to mount a mass resistance to the tacit if not stated policy when Black and Brown people are concerned of “shoot first, shoot often, when-in-doubt, shoot” by not just the Ferguson, St. Louis, or New York Police Departments but by clearly all local police departments throughout the country as exemplified by such disparate places as Phoenix, AZ, Cleveland, OH, Ann Arbor, MI, Sarasota Springs, UT, Chicago, IL, or Victorville, CA. In fact, this effective national policy to subjugate especially Black and Brown people in their communities has begun to be fully expressed seemingly in response to the rise of Black and Brown resistance (all of the cities referred above were places where deadly police violence occurred only after the murder of Michael Brown and Eric Garner).
It would not be wrong to believe that the police are mounting their own resistance to Black and Brown civil rights even as people of color are beginning to show active organized resistance to the murderous policies that the police have implemented for decades if not since the advent of victory against slavery from the U.S. Civil War. Police union presidents and organizations have issued direct or implied defiance of this emerging civil rights resistance by asserting their belief in their “right” to shoot, strangle, or “tase” Black and Brown people into submission or death under the flimsiest pretensions. Peaceful, legal demonstrations are met not by “keeping the peace” but by helmeted, jackbooted, and fully armed police that include military armored personnel carriers, sound disruptors, and even the deadly use of “riot control” materiel like pepper spray and tear-gas canisters often aimed at the heads of demonstrators; or even on homeless, elderly, or young children. Police departments have been schooled in “anti-terror” tactics from such thug organizations as the State of Israel and armed with weapons of war. All for the sake of “keeping the peace” to “protect and serve”.
Clearly, it is the police—throughout the country—who have decided to lose control. It is no wonder why Black, Brown, and White people engaged in social justice are wont to question whose “peace”, whose “protection”, whom are being “served”? None of these are certainly aimed at people seeking peace or an end to police violence.
The response of what some have come to call the “Black misleadership” such as President Barack Obama and his administration’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, or self-appointed community leaders like the Reverend Al Sharpton has been to urge “calm” and restraint, to seek the “carriage of justice” and to issue “investigations” to “uncover the truth”. The major news media have aided such calls by using speculation and police-stated ‘facts” that seek to make the victims of police violence into criminals who seem to have deserved, if not death, certainly cause for police officers to defend themselves even if these victims were, in fact, unarmed and engaged in nothing requiring their being accosted; except, of course, that they were Black or Brown.
To be sure, there are instances where some people accosted by the police may be armed, as it may seem to have been with the shootings of Antonio Martin, Kajieme Powell, or the knife-wielding Vonderrit Myers (all in the vicinity of Ferguson). These apparent facts become the pretext used to justify the military presence and military response by police when it comes people of color, especially within their own communities. It is the clear intent of both the major news media, the police, and the political administration to place the injustice of murdering Michael Brown in a context of the supposed need for police to maintain order in the face of supposedly violence-prone individuals, which apparently seem to include whole communities of color.
Clearly, the police have taken their role in Black and Brown communities as one based on violence first, pacification second, and the demoralization of whole communities.
In the wake of President Obama’s pre-Thanksgiving address to the nation—aimed squarely at the mass resistance—regarding the failure of a grand jury to indict the officer who murdered Michael Brown, Robin Kelley wrote how “waiting” for justice from the police and legal system has only resulted in continued murder and militarization of law enforcement in Black and Brown communities,
“Some waited hoping for a miracle; most waited because they knew a crisis was brewing. The white folks in St. Louis and surrounding municipalities, as well as the state of Missouri, used the waiting period to prepare for war. Residents bought more guns and ammunition, stockpiled on plywood to cover store windows, installed alarm systems and window bars, stocked up on food and water. Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency, calling up National Guard forces from across the state and beyond, training the state militia for riot control and counterinsurgency. The federal government has dispatched FBI agents, some presumably undercover operating inside protest movements. As I write these words, all forces are being deployed against protesters and the Black community more generally, and the governor has requested more National Guard troops.”
Clearly, waiting for justice from a system designed to enforce law by shooting people of color when possible and defending the “right” of police to use military force has not resulted in better justice.
Black youth continue to be shot seemingly for any reason, theft by Oscar Grant—death with intent to “taser”, Trayvon Martin, walking to the store—death by vigilantism, Michael Brown, walking away with hands up, death by perceived threat to police, Tamir Rice, possession of a toy gun—death by police misperception, Eric Garner, selling cigarettes—death by strangulation with intent to control a large Black man by very small police officers. In the context of infrequent justifications by a fearful police whose focus is seemingly to protect a more fearful White community and businesses, the penalty for being Black or Brown seems to be death when possible, intimidation as necessary, and acceptance of subjugation as the “rule of law”.
Where We Are Now
The movement against police violence has come to a crossroads. In the wake of mass resistance against the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a lone gunman, it seems, retaliated by ambushing and murdering two policemen in New York. The media blitz linking of police murder with the murder of police by lone “retaliators” has created some defensiveness on the part of many in the mass movement. It has also resulted in liberal and rightwing calls for “all lives matter” to try to dampen the movement as a whole and its community-based character.
This lone retaliation has become a cause celèbre for police unions further to justify their military-based occupation and openly defy even their employers, elected officials, who do not simply stand behind them without criticism. The most blatant has been the open mass defiance among the New York Police Department against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Police union president Patrick Lynch has used the ambush murder of two policemen of color to issue thinly veiled threats to communities in New York as a mark of defiance against the New York mayor. “Those that incited violence on the streets under the guise of protest that tried to tear down what NYPD officers did every day. We tried to warn it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated . . . That blood on the hands starts at City Hall in the office of the mayor. Those who allowed this to happen will be held accountable,” (Statement by Lynch, 12/20/2014).
Since then, New York police have used the occasions of police funerals for the murdered police to “turn their backs” on Mayor de Blasio for his statements, questioning the viability of not indicting the police who murdered Eric Garner and for stating his open fear for his own African-American son, Dante, “not just from some of the painful realities of crime and violence in some of our neighborhoods but safe from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors.” The police have made liberal use in connecting the mass movement for justice for Black youth killed by police with the clearly unaffiliated retaliation by a lone individual to defy the very basis of law and order in elected government and issue direct threats to oppressed communities and even to elected officials who may question their lack of restraint when it comes to people of color.
Clearly, the police in New York have decided that when it comes to communities of color, there is only one response: Occupation, intimidation, suppression.
Amid the attempts to amalgamate police violence with lone retaliation is the attempt to wrest the momentum of the movement into calls for “supporting police to do their jobs, but with humanity”. Chief among these attempts include President Obama, his Attorney General, Eric Holder, Vice President Joe Biden, and Mayor de Blasio. Biden, at the police funeral of one of the slain police officers crowed “When an assassin’s bullet targeted two officers, it targeted this city and it touched the soul of an entire nation.” Apparently, the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner not only have no soul, but the mass resistance to this injustice is seen as spawning “assassins” of supposedly better people—the police and those that support them. This media/government-based attempt to redirect the population into making criminals out of victims obscures the essential reason for the movement against police violence; the continued militarization of law enforcement as an occupation of Black and Brown communities.
It is wholly predictable that defenders of a system that militarizes police and treats its Black and Brown citizens as prisoners, threats—enemies—that must be contained by military occupation would use their voice and mass media access to try and turn the tide of mass anger against injustice into calls for supporting the very perpetrators of violence. Rather than “Black Lives Matter”, it is that “Blue Lives Matter” most. Alongside “Blue Lives” mattering can be heard the all-too-typical “All Lives Matter”; an attempt to blur the actual threats to Black (and Brown) lives. Such slogans are raised by those uncomfortable with challenging oppressive authority and the defenders of that oppressive authority, the police.
An unfortunate result is how the emerging movement and its youthful leadership find themselves forced to distance the movement from the “assassination” of police officers. They become defensive by showing their remorse for the actions of an individual unaffiliated with the movement taking pains to show their solidarity with the families of the slain officers. When even these statements have proven unsatisfactory to the police, media, or elected officials, leaders of the movement against police violence are then forced to reassert their right to build a movement and demand justice.
However, while this response to reassert their right to demonstrate and seek justice is justified, a clear weakness in our movement has been displayed. The fundamental reasons for violence in communities–police presence alongside the continued economic and social devastation among the oppressed–are obscured because of the often muted and unclear demands of the movement.
The Need to Withdraw the Police from Black and Brown Communities: The Case for Community Control of Our Communities
The response by the police; to distance themselves from government and call for increased retaliations on Black and Brown people as well as the willingness of elected officials to blame the victims of police occupation for protesting renders obvious that the police are not intent on protecting and serving communities but on repressing them. That some individuals retaliate is really a result of this combination of continued repression and the political/media collusion with it.
Those of us seeking to build this movement can do nothing about the collusion and state justification for this repression. What we can do is seek to build a movement that is louder and more common than the media in proposing answers that we must all be party to raising and to promote.
It is to date unfortunate that there has been such ineffectual lack of clarity by the movement in proposing demands that can raise solutions to galvanize our communities. Actions of outrage—often the sole purview of advanced radicalized people and groups—as necessary as they have been must be coupled with actions that can seek the direct participation of the masses of our communities based on demands that place the reason for all the violence that has occurred squarely on the system of (in)justice that daily creates the conditions for the depredation of our communities.
The reasons for the conditions of our oppression are clear: the presence of a police force, in the main, unrepresentative of our communities, and the lack of direct control over the policies for safety and security of our communities.
That to date, demands for redressing these issues have been few and less promoted remains the most important challenge, the most important task, if this movement is to survive the initial outrage that we all feel. Our movement can and should propose veritable solutions to the police repression of our communities and the political will that justifies it.
The first and clearly most essential demand is to seek unilateral withdrawal of the police. Second, is the demilitarization of safety and security in our communities.
Finally, but essential to happen alongside withdrawal is establishing community control of safety and security in our neighborhoods.
Why the Police Must Withdraw from Black and Brown Communities
Police union president, Patrick Lynch, has used the lone retaliation of an individual unaffiliated with the mass movement to issue a clear threat to Black and Brown communities of New York. People of color will be “held accountable” for a crime that they neither committed nor supported. Police departments throughout the country are following suit as the movement against police violence begins to grow. This reaction of the police is the last, but by no means the only indication that they regard communities of color as an enemy that must be demobilized, intimidated, and repressed.
Despite some attempts to provide a friendlier face and even the individual efforts of some police officers, it is patently clear that the police—as a social force—are not striving to “protect and serve” Black and Brown citizens. In most cases, a large potential reason for police actions is the fact that most police are not based in our communities except to control and enforce us; they have no stake in our communities except to maintain order in a context of economic and social disorder. As a result, the police play no real role in promoting safety and security, crime remains rampant in Black and Brown communities and the only response of the police is military tactics, intimidation, and violence. The police do not engage with citizens in Black and Brown communities except to promote fear of police retaliation.
All of this repression occurs in a context where people of color live in poverty, unemployment, and limited social order—few and limited businesses often owned or controlled by interests outside our communities, limited access to social services that result in huge backlogs and more expensive solutions to health care and education. This limited social order is continually cut back owing to the ever larger corporate and financial interests in accumulating more and larger profits for the rich and powerful who can command greater political and economic influence. As conditions among poor communities have worsened, it is clear that the role of police is to maintain order by assuring no real resistance is mounted to the persistent and increasing economic chaos and devastation among those with the least political or economic influence.
The clear alternative to the conditions of poverty, racism, and repressive occupation of our communities is for all of the oppressed and exploited to mount a struggle for economic and social freedom based on democracy and promotion of human need in a context of safety and security in the places we live, work, and conjoin with others. To do this we must create safety and security that we control. The first step in such a process is to demand immediate withdrawal of the police from our communities.
Withdrawing the police from our communities must be accompanied by a call for the movement openly to discuss the safety and security of our communities. Such a call must include protecting ourselves from police and political violence through engagement in community control of our neighborhoods, schools, work, and public spaces.
Community control means to uphold the right to public assembly and organized development of committees in neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces. These committees would engage with city, county, and state governments to determine how and who will support the safety and security of public spaces, homes, and neighborhoods. It is in this context, and only in this context, that the police can be included in supporting safety and security of communities.
Community control means that we can organize safety and security committees dedicated to supporting and maintaining peaceful, legal, social and political activity in our spaces. Such committees—“community police”—would be elected to serve. Police officers, especially those living within our communities should be allowed to participate only if they are expressly elected by our actively engaged communities.
Community control is not a foreign concept. Indeed, the reason why the second amendment in the Bill of Rights was proposed and adopted, contrary to the belief of right wing forces like the National Rifle Association, was because of the need for communities to establish their rights to create “militias” that promoted safety and security from any occupying force: a lesson learned by citizens of the nascent U.S. republic upon their victory from colonial Britain. However, such a right to keep and bear arms should not mean that communities should accept any and all use of arms—especially of an occupying force bent on holding entire communities “accountable” for crimes of individuals. While we should have the right to keep and bear arms, it is incumbent upon our communities to decide who and how any instruments to defend communities should be used and engaged–as the 2nd Amendment of the Bill of Rights was intended. Indeed, without community voice and control over the means used to keep our homes, neighborhoods, and public spaces safe and secure has meant that an external occupyting police force is imposed on us and aimed at subjugating, not protecting. We need an engaged community that determines what means are needed to maintain peace and order where we live, work, and share publicly.
Moving from Rage to Self-Determination of Our Communities: “Power Concedes Nothing Without A Demand”
To date, there are really few people in this growing movement are proposing any real counterpoint to the state of police occupation of Black and Brown communities. It seems that it is possible to rage and say “F . . . the police” but to speak—in any meaningful way—about how best to end police violence and remove the occupation off the necks of our communities remains elusive.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand.” With these words, Black abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglass, drew the lesson that the rulers in power will do nothing without a truly massive resistance that makes it impossible to divide the masses against each other. Thus, “demand” is not simply a placard or a slogan, but a living breathing mass of organized resistance. For such a resistance to be effective we need the movement to be representative of working people, children, mothers, and grandparents who would otherwise not block roadways as an initial action.
There must be a program of action that can reasonably counter the oppressive apparatus that currently exists with one that shows a veritable alternative; no matter how “fantastical” it might sound at first. The reason why right-wingers and the racist police can shout cynical slogans like “Blue Lives Matter” when the real problem is that, to the police, Black lives do not matter, is the seeming vacuum in demanding what needs to be done in the wake of the real threat to communities from police violence and the much less noticeable but equally violent denial of justice for the murder of Black men, Black women, Brown, Native/Indigenous, and Asian men and women; a violence by a state intent on reinforcing the subjugation of the working, poor, and unemployed classes.
To rage against police impunity, the mass incarceration of oppressed people of color, and the fact of legalized use of police state repression is and has been necessary and justified. But the fact that it is largely only rage that is being demonstrated is an indication of the weakened state and position of oppressed people bound by a political leadership either conspiring to maintain our subjugation or impotent in its ability to challenge an administration simply because no one wants to believe that a President of color is so corrupted and bankrupt that his only real allegiance is to the class of the rich and powerful.
To date, friends and colleagues throughout the country, including here in Minnesota have been engaged in disrupting “business as usual”. The notion seems to be that many “ordinary” people having their lives disrupted while engaged in their daily business will be forced to look within with guilt and, we can hope, they will find it possible to stand in solidarity against the “damn shame” of police repression. Of course, others will grumble about how “none of this is our fault”, so, why are these protesters causing trouble? Protesters are arrested with the requisite indignation along with calls for solidarity for people “only trying to demonstrate peacefully”. However, as is predictable, news stories in the mainstream—corporate, bourgeois—press often recount how a “few protesters” have caused mayhem; all in context of that “damn shame” of police repression. The context is thus changed from a focus on police repression to a focus “what are we to do?” “Don’t we need the police to protect us”?
This process, to create a direct confrontation with the police and the predictable response of police repression has led to calls for solidarity of protesters and how “Black lives matter”: all within the context of the “damn shame” of police repression.
Such a strategy is ultimately aimed at reducing mass resistance into the actions of ever smaller numbers of activists willing to take “direct action” for the masses in the vain hope that we may spark communities to resist.
Like Frederick Douglass suggested so long ago during the first real mass struggle against Black oppression, WE NEED TO DEMAND an alternative to the state of police repression. It is NOT a “damn shame” that our present state of repression exists and it is not necessary for us to have a police force whose allegiance is only to the protection of property, profit, and the exploiters of our society. The “rule of law” is no real law if it is designed only to subjugate the vast majority in the interests of the enrichment and aggrandizement of the privileged few or to create a gradient buffer between layers of the oppressed; from the more privileged white workers among “us” and the more subjugated Black, Brown, Native/Indigenous, Asian, and others among us.
We cannot, must not, act as if we are a powerless people. The fact of a militarized police as a force of occupation in our communities exists because, in the main, people believe that the police are supposed to provide “law and order” and to administer that law and order equitably. Many, including quite a few within the emerging movement, still believe that without a “professional” police force, a democratic society is powerless to prevent “anarchy”. Indeed, NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton stated in the wake of the two murdered police that the police are “the thin blue line between us and anarchy”. However, “law and order” is not devoid of class context. When Commissioner Bratton speaks of “us”, it is clear that “we” are not a part of that “us”. People of color, by the actions of the police, are considered a part of the “anarchy” that the police must buffer against the rest of “society”. It is clear that law enforcement is designed not for the protection of poor and working people and that establishing order is meant to assure that people of color in particular do not create “anarchy” by mounting a defense against the conditions of our oppression.
To the rich and powerful such enforcement constitutes “democracy”. Such a state of “law and order”—for the rich and powerful—is antithetical to the interests of the majority of us; working people, people of color, and every sector of society oppressed by the law and order of police repression. Too many of us believe that all law and order is equal because we have been conditioned to think so.
What We Must Do
Are the actions of resistance from Ferguson to New York, Los Angeles to North Carolina, Phoenix to Chicago wrong or misdirected? Is shouting “Black Lives Matter” somehow wrong?
We needed to begin as we have begun; the mounting of a mass movement against police brutality, exposing the ultimate and main role of the police so that it becomes clearer to all that the police are not an answer to safety and security but the primary driver of threat among oppressed people. I write here not because I believe it is wrong to demonstrate mass disgust for the brutality and selective enforcement of laws for privilege. Rather, it is necessary for our movement to counter this terroristic system of police violence and occupation with demands and a strategy that sustain and build a truly broad-based movement behind which working people–poor and not so poor–can stand and join.
Focusing solely on rage will only attract those willing to stand alone or in smaller numbers. When the rage dissipates, and it will, it will either turn into frustration in ever more desperate ways or into resignation that nothing can be done. Indeed, already the mass media and political administration are speaking of how our movement is at a crossroads. But, for them, crossroads means we should turn away from struggle not move the struggle forward.
The police have issued an ultimatum to their employers to stand behind their police repression of Black and Brown communities. It is to the credit of the activists and leaders of this emerging movement who have replied that they will continue to demonstrate and organize. But, without clear demands around which our communities can be organized, advocate, and place on political agendas, it is likely that the movement will ebb with little more than the feeling we were “heard” but things remain the same.
Already, pretend-leaders like Al Sharpton feed on this kind of unfocused rage to promote compromises and sellouts. Left activists, righteously wanting to galvanize the movement to “revolutionary” action, tend to limit the struggle with their appetite for confrontation that leads to arrests so that they can “show” everyone just how repressive the police can be. Once this movement subsides, they will go on to the “next thing” to rage against and engage in direct confrontation “for the people”. Neither of such forces promote a way forward. Absent real demands from those engaged in the struggle, we cannot move forward and our communities will be left with continued occupation.
I believe it imperative that communities of color—not just groups of the organized left—lead the way on how best to mount an active mass resistance to police occupation and, of course, I am not saying that activists from the organized left should be excluded, everyone must be involved just as much as the elders, children, families of our communities must feel that they, too, can be involved.
What I am saying is that if our communities don’t lead the way to establish a mass presence where our communities decide together how to, when, and where to demonstrate and press demands, this movement will be led either into more compromised demands that inevitably support the police presence or will descend into ever tinier actions that will likely be susceptible to direct physical confrontation with a further militarized police. Such confrontations should not be our aim.
We should be demanding that the police withdraw their militaristic presence and violent behavior. We need to demand that our communities be involved in the kind of safety and security measures most likely to create peaceful and safe neighborhoods in Black and Brown communities.
We need to promote and demand an end to the use of deadly force weapons and gear as a primary or all-too-quick response, especially in response to peaceful, legal assemblies, which we all have as a first amendment right. For example it is not up to “businesses” to determine whether or not we have first amendment rights such as the Mall of America (MOA) in Minnesota has tried to do. MOA does not have a right to prevent lawful peaceful assembly in such a public space. However, our movement should always work to establish the peaceful, legal, nature of our protests so that the media–and most important, the police–do not have an easy pretext to engage in militaristic repressive tactics. I say “easy pretext” because they will still try to paint “us” as violent when it is they who are being violent.
Toward a Mass National and Local Movement
I strongly believe that citywide and national coalitions such as Hands Up United must be organized and are representative of key neighborhoods, community organizations, and political leaders who may at least pretend to be on the side of oppressed communities.
To build such a coalition, communities of color in every neighborhood would need to hold meetings and organize safety and security committees that would work to organize neighborhoods that can determine needs for safety and security and seek the help of city government to implement based on the people’s direct control of how safety and security should be conducted in neighborhoods.
People in our communities should decide how to exert control over our safety and security. Our supposed leaders need to stand in support. We should not be supporting “them”, they should be supporting us and work to implement OUR express agenda in controlling our communities.
I say all this knowing that we are a very long way from building such a mass movement. I know that it will take more than just a few of us to make such a necessary movement happen.
An initial first step might be to bring together the people of our communities in large forums, forums controlled and determined by our communities and not either by politicians or by activists not directly involved in communities where these forums may occur. Of course, EVERYONE should be invited and everyone should have a voice.
What I am proposing is that our communities must lead the way. If we are not willing to create a safe secure environment in Black and Brown communities—an environment that excludes Police violence as the only or primary way for safety and security—we will always live under occupation.
In short, rather than creating confrontations with police to “prove” how violent they are (most police violence has not really occurred with lots of people watching, but often when few are around), we must be organizing to confront the police and their masters politically and organizationally, making clear demands for control of our neighborhoods and police withdrawal from our neighborhoods; until they are under OUR control.
Finally, building a movement for withdrawal of occupation and community control cannot occur out of the context in which people in oppressed communities exist. Already there are movements for social justice in education—United Opt Out to end privatization and testing that perpetuate educational disparities—and the movement against the mass incarceration of Black and Brown youth and the privatization of corrections systems that perpetuate this new type of slavery. Too, the mounting resistance against the “surveillance state” that has resulted in continued denial of our democratic rights and the growing resistance of immigrant workers seeking legalization and democratic participation in our society, these all are important natural allies in connecting the depredation of our social conditions.
We need a movement that generates mass resistance to the oppressive conditions of our society of which the state of police repression within oppressed communities is the primary support. Indeed, such a movement should be led by mothers, children, grandparents, working people, students in debt, the unemployed; all victims of a police-defended system that sees our victimization as “anarchy”.
I look forward to seeing such a movement.
About the author:
Manuel Barrera is Associate Professor of Urban Education at the Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has been involved in the struggle for a better world since age 7 when he stood to defend his two friends, the Jacksons, the lone African American boys in a southern Texas town; when he saw the world as it is and vowed to fight to make it what it should be. His movement history includes the movement against police brutality. In 1977, Manuel ran for Sheriff of Los Angeles County as a socialist and immigrant rights activist. His program: abolish the Sheriff’s Department, For Community Control of East Los Angeles.