After Officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August, anti-police violence protests became a regular occurrence there. The militarized police response made Ferguson an international story as well as a magnet for more protests. The movement spread across the United States a few months later following the decision by grand juries not to indict Wilson or NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was filmed choking to death an unarmed Eric Garner on Staten Island in July.
It’s a remarkable movement for the scope of protests, range of participants, and militancy, with activists staging die-ins and blockading streets, bridges, schools, police departments, and shopping malls. The organizing is influenced by the low-wage workers movements that have mobilized many working-class African-Americans and Hispanics, particularly those in the fast-food, retail, and domestic work sectors. There are similarities to Occupy Wall Street movement, with savvy use of social media, such as the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, and relentless in-the-streets activism. Most important, it’s the latest chapter in the centuries-long Black freedom struggle in the United States and beyond.
A Movement Propelled by Frustration with Racism
It is no accident that the movement arose at this moment. It is propelled by frustration with institutional racism that remains pervasive and deadly, but which is evidenced more by cold statistics than burning crosses. It’s also a consequence of hopes raised by Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as the first African-American president.
That was a profound achievement, but Obama has offered little shelter from the economic storm that’s pummeled Black America during his tenure, whether from unemployment, home foreclosures, or the destruction of Black wealth. The crisis has compounded the decimation of social welfare, the decline of organized labor, and the rise of the prison-industrial complex from Reagan to Clinton, as well as the recent attack on public-sector unions, often at the hands of Democrats.
The Obama years end the latest chapter of the Black freedom struggle that culminated in the dismantling of legal segregation during the sixties. The prominence of figures like Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Joycelyn Elders, and Colin Powell was hard to imagine fifty years ago, but the U.S. political system has proven incapable of creating the conditions where all African-Americans can act as full political and social agents.
This is why the bullets that killed Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner bite so deep. The state-sanctioned killing of unarmed blacks by police and vigilantes underscores the reality that Black lives do matter less in America. Black life expectancy lags nearly four years behind that of whites, a result of a society where housing and schools, remain segregated, access to healthcare and medical care is unequal, childhood poverty is at epidemic levels, Blacks are more than five times as likely to be incarcerated, and white household median income is 68 percent greater than that of Blacks.
What these numbers can’t capture is how the social practices of racism have fused with market relations, making racism rational, effortless, and invisible. It’s the decision to buy a house in a good neighborhood, send the children to the right school, work with people who are deemed trustworthy, patronize a business that’s a known quantity. Market imperatives favor the most conservative course. Anything that is truly different is risky, suspicious, a danger, or a threat to the self or to property.
The notion Blacks are a threat is embedded so deep in the American psyche that a jury found it was not criminal for George Zimmerman to stalk and kill Trayvon Martin, a child, in his own neighborhood. Michael Brown died after Wilson challenged him for walking in a residential street, an utterly banal practice. Eric Garner was a threat to private enterprise and state revenue because sometimes he sold loose cigarettes, a policy allegedly decided at the highest level of the NYPD. Their deaths point to the basic unresolved contradiction in U.S. society: are Blacks citizens or are they a threat?
Garner's death is one of many that have resulted from the NYPD's obsession with “quality-of-life” violations, but it’s also a result of de Blasio’s confused politics. He won the mayoralty by harnessing the widespread anger against a stop-and-friskpolicy akin to “loitering laws” used to control Blacks, Natives, and Mexicans during the Jim Crow era. In 2011, the NYPD recorded more than 685,000 stops and made more stops of young Black men than the entire population of young Black men in New York City. But de Blasio replaced stop and frisk with “broken-windows” policing by selecting Bill Bratton as police commissioner. In the nineties Bratton introduced broken windows in New York, claiming that policing minor quality-of-life infractions committed by graffiti artists, pot smokers, street vendors, “squeegee men,” and panhandlers would prevent more serious crimes. The evidence that stop and frisk or broken windows reduce crime is nonexistent.
Both policies work to regulate where and how black and brown people can exist in the public sphere. There is no lack of stories of Blacks being accosted by cops for making a purchase in a high-end store or walking in a white neighborhood. These stories can’t capture statistics like the 43,000 Blacks and Hispanics in New York City who were stopped, frisked and arrested in 2010 for low-level marijuana offenses. Untold numbers wound up with prison time and records, which devastate housing, employment and educational opportunities.
New York Mayor Tangles with a Vicious Police Union
De Blasio vowed to end this system when he ran for mayor, but he is in a bind. He’s tangling with a police union that was vicious even before Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were gunned down and he’s trying to placate a rank and file that in staging public disavowals of his authority are signaling they are the real power in the city not someone who won 73 percent of the vote, including 96 percent of African Americans and 87 percent of Hispanics.
The cop revolt has exposed the deep state that exists at the municipal level around the country. Police union head Patrick Lynch overplayed his hand by blasting de Blasio for having “blood on [his] hands.” But the mainstream media and politicians have rallied to the police, with thuggish comments coming not just from Republicans but Democrats like New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo who declared, “75,000 police officers and National Guardsmen statewide have [the police’s] back every step of the way.” But politicians like Cuomo know the pro-cop rhetoric plays well at home. The majority of whites, many Asians and Hispanics and more than a few Blacks fully support the unequal social order cops protect because they benefit from it. The danger for militants is they became angrier and isolate themselves rather than rethink how to build a more inclusive movement.
De Blasio knows his power comes not from the oppressed communities whose hopes he raised, but from the moneyed elite who filled his campaign coffers. They run New York, and they are whom the NYPD serve and protect above all. The police and their defenders want to protect their unaccountability and lack of meaningful oversight. The anti-protester reaction also reinforces the image of police under siege, stoking what philosopher Samir Chopra’s terms cops’ “deadly self-pity.” The push-back began before the killings with de Blasio calling for people protesting police violence to denounce violence. After the killings he showed contempt for popular democracy by attacking demonstrators for continuing to protest. Others, including Bratton, tried to link the cops’ deaths to the protests. The aim is to create a false equivalence, as exemplified by the #BlueLivesMatter hashtag.
Yet, there is no comparing the agents of state violence, who enjoy perks and prestige unavailable for nearly any other working-class vocation, to the subjects of that violence. Black trumps blue in terms of danger to one’s life. Reutersinterviewed twenty-five current or former NYPD officers who are African-American males. All but one said that out of uniform they were subject to racial profiling or violence at the hands of their fellow officers.
While this new movement is perhaps the most widespread, diverse and radical in decades, it’s at a crossroads. The counterattack is not aimed at getting militants off the street but getting liberals and progressives who provide broader social support to stay at home. Like Occupy Wall Street, this movement has brought in legions of new activists and politicized areas of life that are usually not explicitly political, like shopping malls, sports games and holiday celebrations. Organizers have to consciously develop strategies that retain militancy while enabling widespread participation.
The NYPD Has Been on a Vendetta
The state hopes to divide “legitimate” and “illegitimate” protesters. The NYPD has been on a vendetta after protesters scuffled with two NYPD detectives on the Brooklyn Bridge, slapping organizers with felony charges. Chicago police are apparently spying on the phone conversations of protesters. In Portland, the police appear to be singling out known activists for arrests. The city of Bloomington, Minnesota, is looking to bankrupt and imprison organizers of a large die-in at the Mall of America, with the city attorney stating, “You want to get at the ringleaders” after detailing numerous charges against protesters as well as demands for “staggering” fines to cover policing costs.
Hopefully, this will mark a new stage in the Black freedom struggle, one that goes beyond Black and white and sloganeering. Native people within the reservation system live under the harshest conditions, but the violence is more a product of federalthan local police forces. For Hispanics, the social geography of policing includes the immigration detention system. While there is crossover organizing between Hispanics and Blacks in low-wage worker movements, the unions involved are reluctant to prioritize contentious issues outside the workplace like police violence. Additionally, many Blacks are cool to immigration reform because of perceived competition for jobs, and 62 percent of African-Americans say there is “strong conflict” between immigrants and the native born. Plus, fetishizing a group as inherently revolutionary ignores the reality that Black anger stems more from not having access to the social advantages whites enjoy rather than a desire to overthrow the system. One poll from 2010 found 81 percent of Blacks described themselves as “extremely proud” or “very proud” to be an American, only five points lower than whites.
New York Police Would Remain a Racist Institution
The movement also needs to progress beyond racial reductionism. While it is rooted in history of state violence against Blacks, Native people and Hispanics, racial identity doesn’t confer an advantage in organizing. Succumbing to slogans that “Black or Brown people must lead the struggle” opens the door for opportunists. Organizers need to be immersed in existing struggles, but identity matters less than knowing how to organize and build unity without abandoning key principles or goals. Already a few groups with little connection to the anti-police violence struggle are positioning themselves as mediators between City Hall and the streets. Some other organizations now in the spotlight are more about personal power than collective transformation. Racial reductionism is also used against the left. Defenders of the NYPD point out it is only 51 percent white, but in its present form it would remain a racist institution if it were 100 percent people of color.
The anti-police brutality movement looks to have staying power if for no other reason than inequality and segregation will continue to intensify in the United States and the police will enforce that order. But to be successful it will have to shift from a focus on the police to the social system that demands the violence the police mete out.