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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