On March 24, after yet another wave of violence against the Occupy movement, Occupy Wall Street and allies staged a march through Lower Manhattan, targeting both New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly specifically and the police in general. We demanded the resignation of Ray Kelly because of his involvement with a sustained campaign of violence against Occupy, surveillance of Muslim communities and widespread corruption. But it is our belief that any coherent analysis of poverty in this country must also critique the institution of the police as a whole. Regardless of your position on police officers as individuals, the existence of an armed paramilitary organization at the disposal of the state — and therefore the corporations and wealthy elites the state is beholden to — should be incompatible with any work related to economic or social justice. The often-stated idea that “the police are the 99 percent too” is an erasure of the open war that the state has waged against the poor and people of color in this country for hundreds of years.
The police as an institution upholds the status quo through brutal violence, including all the racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia that the status quo entails. The police will always side with power. The wave of repression against the Occupy movement, in the context of resistance movements in this country, is neither surprising nor exceptional. The American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, and Earth First! — among many, many others — have been targeted for repression if not outright obliteration by the state with the police as its front-line protector.
We live on occupied, colonized land and the police are the occupying army. This is not just in the historical sense that they represent the state that murdered and displaced the indigenous people on this land, which continues today, but also in the sense that they keep the poor and people of color colonized. Colonial forces use fear, intimidation and forced separation to keep populations in a state of disorder and under control. Which explains the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policy, anti-Muslim surveillance, and raids against undocumented immigrants. More black men are currently incarcerated than were ever enslaved during the North Atlantic slave trade in this country; one in three black men will be incarcerated during his lifetime, making a young person of color more likely to go to prison than college; 30 percent of the trans population of the United States is incarcerated.
These facts all shed light on our real relationship to the police. By randomly searching, intimidating and arresting people of color, by incarcerating them more often and for longer, by patrolling poor communities constantly, by dangling the threat of deportation over people’s heads, whole segments of the population are kept in a constant state of disruption. Because violence from the police is constant, it is unremarkable; it is also one of the central organizing experiences of our lives. Their authority is constantly leveraged against us, even in their absence. The police ride the subways with us, walk up and down our blocks; they can at any moment stop us and sort through our belongings.
For all the many being targeted by police violence, meanwhile, some are being protected. There are few better signs of this than JPMorgan Chase’s gift of $4.6 million to the New York City Police Foundation, which constitutes the single largest contribution in the foundation’s history. Colonialism, after all, is always about resources. The resource in question has changed over time — from bananas, to gold, to beets, to sugar, to cotton, to oil, to real estate, to ill-gotten capital. But the colonizer’s method remains the same: disruption, systemic violence, forced labor, fractured families, scattered communities and militarization. This is true whether the colony is external or internal. Which brings us, inevitably, to the prison-industrial complex (PIC), of which the police are an essential part.
The PIC is a system of privately owned corporations — the Corrections Corporation of America, for example — and other entrenched interests that house incarcerated people for profit. While incarcerated, people are subjected to forced labor, isolation, torture, sexual abuse and overcrowding. Both public and private prisons are often built in rural and poor communities, where they quickly become the only industry in the area. That phenomenon creates an economic and cultural buy-in for communities that might otherwise resist them. Because these institutions depend on mass incarceration, rather than fostering strong communities or healing, the communities that depend on them will tend to oppose liberation movements or even more humane reforms. The role of the police in that system is, of course, to continually supply people to keep those beds full.
All of this takes form in the violence visited upon people of color, the homeless, trans and queer people, and immigrant communities at the hands of the police every day. Ramarley Graham. CeCe McDonald. Oscar Grant. Sean Bell. Tawana Brawley. Duanna Johnson. Those are just some of the names we know, people who’ve had their stories picked up by the media. As victims of police violence, they are exceptional only in that we know their names. Constantly, nationwide, police forces systematically brutalize, murder and rape. The existence of the police is incompatible with an agenda of justice. This is why Ray Kelly must resign, and why his resignation is not nearly enough.
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Dear Sparrow and Suzahn,
Despite your best intentions, this is a deeply misguided approach to the current challenges faced by Occupy. By painting “the police” with such a broad stroke and reifying “the state” as if it doesn’t consist of living breathing human beings, you alienate many potential allies within the police department, government and, most importantly, the 99 percent. Police officers work long hours, for crap pay and are often in fear of their lives. Many African American and Latino officers specifically got into the profession to correct the wrongs you mention. Many women police officers are often the first line of defense intervening in domestic violence. And one doesn’t have to be an LGBT police officer, to care deeply about investigating and prosecuting hate crimes against the community.
Moreover, the systematic brutality that is practiced against poor people, minorities, Muslims and the LGBT community by the NYPD is not only, or even primarily, a consequence of wayward policing or some “state” that sides with “power.” It is sustained and nourished, first and foremost, by the citizens of New York City and the bureaucrats and elected officials who serve them. These are mostly poor and working class white people who have been duped by the %1 into thinking it is in the interests of their safety and their property to come down hard on the aforementioned groups. Without their support, the Wall Street guys don’t have a chance, simply because there are not that many of them. Calling for Ray Kelly’s resignation is certainly justified. But if we want to change fundamental, structural incentives that drive all of the problems you mention, we have a much larger task on our hands, which involves attempting to truly engage the 99 percent. The way you have framed this — as the police vs. Occupy — gives much more power to the state and the police than they actually “have” and is likely to be entirely unconvincing to most of the 99 percent.
Dustin is all boo-hoo about the reification of the state, but subsequently and repeatedly refers to “the 99 percent”.
THE DELICIOUS IRONY
Wow, this is disgusting. But this article does at least vindicate one thing Dustin is saying: that many people join the PD with the hope of changing it. The person who brought the lawsuit forward, for instance, was a police officer.
This raises the question of how to exploit internal dissent within the institution.
I also stand against these kind of police! But as a former police leader, I want you to know there is another strand of thinking that is deeply related to our Constitution and Social Contract. Read more about it in my new book. It will give you some footing regarding what you have a RIGHT to demand your police to become! “Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police.” My blog is at http://improvingpolice.wordpress.com/ where I discuss these and other current police improvement issues. Good luck and may we all experience great policing!