Derek Scarlino

Deadly Police Encounters Beg the Question: What Do We Do?

by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage

July 6th began with the tragic news of the deadly police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It ended with another bloody video of Philando Castile, of Falcon Heights, Minnesota, dying in a car as his girlfriend recorded his final moments after being shot during a traffic stop.

The “deadly police shooting” has become a news trope. As I wrote yesterday, when I woke to a friend’s text about the police, my intuition led me to look up police shootings to see if anything recent happened.

I read some articles, I read some comments. I did some writing throughout the day. Took my girlfriend’s dog for a walk. As a community activist and organizer, the deeper you entrench yourself in those things, the greater the compulsion to act becomes. It’s easy, sometimes, to distance yourself from activism. It is absolutely a burn-out activity, meaning, just like a job, you hit walls. You get tired, discouraged. You look at the initiatives you involve your time in as half empty and wonder why you’re so driven at times to change things. It’s a guarantee that many of your oldest and closest friends aren’t activists, so it feels isolating at times.

You hang out with friends. You find ways to retreat. You say provocative things like, “Smash the state!” to lighten the mood among friends. People respect you for what you do. Others opt for the notorious “Facebook delete” which hilariously translates to the real world far too often. Most ignore you.

But you always come back to the same place, the same question: “What do we do… next?”

That’s what separates activists from others who may very well agree with them. Activists do things. You don’t have to do everything, but in some communities, if you’re not doing it, nobody is. And if you’re honest with your study of the history of this country, you know that action, not wars, have given us many of the rights we enjoy.

A friend of mine once laughed at the thought of thanking union thugs, socialists and anarchists for any of his rights. As a white man, though, he had a point. His rights were solidified in 1776 along with those of other white males.

If you’re a woman, person of color, immigrant or Native American, your rights, your justice, if it came at all, was significantly expanded by the efforts of the labor movement which, yes, did include socialists, communists and anarchists. The espoused views of the labor movement championed, primly, solidarity. The “rising tide” to lift “all boats” thinking that has declined dramatically in the face of a rising corporate rhetoric of oligarchy.

Labor power wasn’t the only vehicle for change, certainly, but the thing that stands out from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to labor laws to civil rights is action — direct action.

Liberals, progressives and elements of the left today often fall under the impression that it’s the government’s job to fix problems. It’s the government’s job to look after people and promote justice. Great numbers of well-meaning people have given up on the idea of movements being necessary for the creation of change. Many more feel that voting is the ultimate act of progress. But as we’ve “progressed” from white presidents to black ones, and swapped eight years of a Republican administration with a Democratic one, we’ve regressed on police shootings. As I noted yesterday, the pace of killings in 2016 is set to exceed that of the previous years. And, yet, officer deaths have gone down.

Voting is a strategy. Not a solution. It may add to solutions, but it doesn’t solve problems. Nobody walked out of a voting booth in 1865 and got an “I Freed The Slaves” sticker. Nobody voted for same-sex marriage. There was a movement behind both of these things which voting proved to be an element of the changes made in time, but democracy was a fundamental element of both.

As Molly Ball chronicled in her feature in The Atlantic about same-sex marriage and the democratic tide which influenced the justices to act:

Much as Americans like to imagine judges as ahistorical applicators of a timeless code, the court is inevitably influenced by the world around it.

Ball continues:

[Lawyer Evan] Wolfson always believed that only the court could legalize gay marriage: Regardless of public opinion, he firmly believed the Constitution required it, and jurists would eventually have to recognize that fact. But seeing what happened in Hawaii, he realized that until the country was ready, the court was unlikely to consider gay marriage. He realized, too, that while there were plenty of clever lawyers working for gay rights, the movement was politically weak. What it needed wasn’t another courtroom litigator; what it needed was someone outside the legal process, raising money, building public support, lobbying politicians, and laying the groundwork for a legal victory he still believed was inevitable. Wolfson became determined to fill that role.”

The story of Evan Wolfson, who long-advocated for same-sex marriage is an important parallel. With little argument, the same sex marriage ruling in 2015 was the most significant civil rights achievement in a generation. But it was a multi-faceted approach that was augmented in part by organizing, advocating, voting (for state ballot measures) and other means which eventually turned public opinion, even with the darkness of defeated ballot measures in the wake of the 2004 presidential election.

“Public support for gay marriage crossed the majority threshold in 2011 and has skyrocketed since. By the time the court took up the final case, gays could marry in 36 states. Democratic politicians are almost unanimous in support and have begun using the issue as a wedge against Republicans, many of whom seem to want to avoid the issue. Skirmishes over religious freedom laws, like the one in Indiana, tended to end with a backlash in the other direction, in favor of gay rights.”

Waiting for legislators to fix everything is not a wise decision. They can push, and advocate and lobby for alternatives which make things like policing safer for potential suspects, and there are questions right now about what Congress is going to do about deadly police shootings, but action from below must be an element of that change.

So, finally, what can be done? It will largely depend on the idiosyncrasies of individual communities, as a one-size-fits all approach will alienate needed numbers of the population. It would be seen as big government, there would expectedly be interminable Gadsden flag-waving in the name of the Second amendment,would repulse people further from looking at police shootings in a needed, race-based context in favor of a gun rights one. In stark contrast to the declining rate of police killed on the job, it would be argued that sweeping government action would put officers in danger; a quick point which in its simplicity cedes the advantage to the one making it.

Some of the strategies which come to mind revolve around the fact that police departments are public institutions. Counties and municipalities throughout the United States vote for their sheriffs — why not vote for police chiefs?

Again, it may not work everywhere. This is currently practiced in Louisiana. A place that the public doesn’t need another painful reminder of at the moment. But the benefits would be greater democratic control over the ability to influence policing and the culture of police departments. While critics might argue that this could give the upper hand to hardline police supporters who favor more punitive measures, as well as criminals who might vote to reduce the impact of the law, the ultimate measure of a democratic model is the proclivity of the community to engage in that model.

Civilian oversight is not a new idea. Police review boards go back to at least 1965, when a failed measure to implement civilian oversight in New York backfired. Measures in cities like St. Louis, Newark, Seattle and New York, twenty years after the initial try have been met with resistance from police unions, and varying measures of success.

That said, methods are in place to hold police accountable to the community on over 200 locations.

Aside from increased measures of direct democracy, community movements and pressure on locally-elected politicians to urge changes to police training which would focus on de-escalation techniques and flexibility tactics designed to mitigate the need for violent, and often deadly, force.

Richmond, California has one of the most historically high crime rates in the Bay Area, but since 2008, there has been one police-involved shooting per year on average. Building off of that, there have been no deadly police shootings since 2007.

In 2006, a change in department heads saw Police Chief Chris Magnus take control and begin to usher in changes to the department’s approach which increased training in tactics. The East Bay Times notes:

“[Chief] Magnus implemented a variety of programs to reduce the use of lethal force, including special training courses, improved staffing deployments to crisis situations, thorough reviews of all uses of force and equipping officers with nonlethal weapons such as Tasers and pepper spray.

‘Our officers are used to dealing with individuals who are dangerous and, often, armed,” Magnus said. “It’s not an aberration — the scary and challenging is routine — and I think that gives them the familiarity to know what level of force to apply.'”

Richmond has a population of 106,000. By comparison, nearby Oakland is four times as large and from 2008 to 2013, 33 people were shot by police. Of those, 20 were fatal.

A smaller neighbor, San Pablo, which is less than a third the size of Richmond, had four shootings in the same span of time with two of them proving fatal.

Going back to Louisiana, the video footage of the shooting of Alton Sterling was the result of a coordinated effort by a group called Stop The Killing Inc. Led by a former gang member, Arthur ‘Silky Slim’ Reed, this group is involved in antiviolence initiatives in the Baton Rouge area and is organized to also respond with recording devices to specific calls that come across police scanners.

This exact approach would be relatively easy to organize in any community and puts a measure of police accountability in the hands of the community. From the looks of Stop The Killing Inc’s model, it might induce further measures to abate crime in marginalized neighborhoods as at it’s most fundamental level, this approach requires communication and cooperation within the neighborhood which can be channeled in several different directions given the needs of the particular location. It can be done without waiting for legislation. Without waiting for others to take notice of often ignored neighborhoods.

Not surprisingly, given the history of the United States, a lot of people retreat from anything which involves a discussion on race. This needs to be tackled outright. For all of the criticism fielded at millennial persons of color and members of the LGBTQIA community who argue for safe spaces, and the derision reserved for political correctness and being offended, the same element regurgitating talking points about the “pussification” of America retreats to its very own safe spaces when racism comes up, where they can be offended by sagging pants and foreign languages on the ATM screen.

Dialogue is needed. It is crucial. We cannot keep avoiding hard topics, labeling them “negative” in the process, while pursuing boring, socially-neutral locution which both breeds and allows misconceptions to thrive and spread, imparting further separation on our experiences.

Like expecting “moderate” Muslims to clear themselves of violent sympathies after attacks thousands of miles away, it’s disgusting to have to react to police shootings of black men, with reference to having a job, being a parent, going to school, etc., by noting how much “like us” they are as if their basic humanity is a legitimate question needing to be proven by comparison to normal proclivities.

And as important as talking is, listening will be far greater. For allies and others.

If you still haven’t figured out that fatal police shootings of black men and boys in the United States is a unique problem because it affects them 700 times more than white males, or if you reject the need for a small percentage of the population to bring such a pressing concern to the attention of the population at-large, that is a problem.

It doesn’t matter if you claim to not be racist, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train”. Silence is the anthem of oppression.


2 replies »

  1. Correction: Some people did vote for gay marriage: Maine, Maryland & Washington in 2012. As well as Ireland in 2015.


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