We will sing, march and clap after we defeat police oppression
We Will Sing, March And Clap After We Defeat Police Oppression
By: Lacino Hamilton
Are American police more abusive and violent all of a sudden, or is the phenomenon of camera phones and cities wired for surveillance now capturing behavior that had been distorted as a necessary response to the poor and their alleged violent gun-and-drug culture? Before you answer consider the following.
The preoccupation with poor people being the reason why police are abusive, repressive, and often times murderous, I will argue here, is an ideological construction that disguises the real reason for the existence of the police. Furthermore, I will explain how this preoccupation with poor people shifts responsibility away from those in power to structure society to meet the mutual needs of everyone, and instead preys on the general population's insecurities and twist them into a fear of poor people, particularly poor people of color.
Thanks mostly to academics, politicians, leaders of big industry, and those who decide what is and isn't news, reality about the police in this country has been turned upside down. Through promoting sensationalized stories of violence, and disregard for the safety and well being of others, these farces have established the image of a criminal underclass threatening civilization and the American way of life. As a consequence, American police are widely perceived as a "thin blue line" which, whatever its flaws, is holding back a flood of lawlessness that threatens to drown all of America. Supposedly leaving American police no option but big stick policing methods.
It has gotten so bad, that if a sensational act of violence cannot be found locally, one is searched for nationally. And if one cannot be found nationally, people that program the news search the world for acts of violence committed by poor people in order to keep the image of poor people as dangerous before the American public.
The recent rebellions in Baltimore, MD is a case in point. The fact that those disturbances were caused by the unexplained severing of 25 year old pedestrian Freddie Gray's spine, and subsequent death was quickly forgotten in the rush to condemn the people of Baltimore refusal to be passive recipients of the police silence as to the exact details of Mr. Gray's death. The fact that the people of Baltimore responded by setting fires, disobeying curfews, and trashing symbols of power was largely interpreted as justification why the police police poor people the way they do, when in fact those actions were in response to the police and city of Baltimore refusing to give an account for how Freddie Gray's spine was severed, and how he died.
George Jackson explained over 40 years ago that people react in different ways to oppression. Soma just give in and join the other side. Some become inveterate drinkers and narcotic users in an attempt to gain some mental solace from the physical depravity they suffer. Some hire on as a janitor, bellboy, redcap, cook, elevator operator, singer, boxer, baseball player, or maybe a freak at some sideshow and pretend that all is as well as is possible. They think since it's always been this way it must always remain this way. These are the fatalists. They serve and entertain and rationalize.
Then there are those like the youth throwing rocks and bottles, setting fires, and attacking the symbols of power. Those who resist and rebel but do not know what, who, why, or how exactly they should go about this. They are aware but confused. If there is any blame, its that they aren't better organized; and blame can be assigned to those that encourage people who live under a blanket of police terror to sing, march, clap, or otherwise use tactics of no consequence to the people who brutalize and murder them.
The problem is not poor people, but the system that makes them poor. Class is so under considered in the way police police that when we fail to factor it into our analyses and discussions, we do so at our own peril.
By no means am I making light of the fact that it is apparent that police police communities of color different than they do white communities. However, it is the system of class discrimination that perpetuates desperate acts of survival, and gives rise to the repressive policing methods necessary to manage the repercussions of those desperate acts.
The preoccupation with the victim and not the victimizer is a ruse to disguise the real roots of America's economic crisis, and to legitimize the process of policing the racial divide that often shadows that crisis.
What academics, politicians, leaders of big industry, and those who decide what is and isn't news have accomplished in the "how much force is too much force" debate, is to distort the relationship between the poor and the police to make it appear the police are just doing their job.
In this false narrative these elites have popularized the problem as the culture of poor people. It is poor people rather than social planners and policy makers who are branded as threats to society. It follows from this conjecture of identifying poor people as the cause of society's problems that the abusive and murderous policing methods adopted in American Inner cities can be presented as a logical response to that threat. The argument goes like this: if it wasn't for the criminal tendencies of poor people, there would be no need for racial profiling, special weapons and tactics, shoot first ask questions later, or the general atmosphere of living under police occupation.
While that is the opinion police and city officials want the people of Baltimore to believe, the real problem begins not with the so-called criminal pathology of the poor, but with the structures of American society and state power that presides over the poor on behalf of the middle and upper classes.
The largely informal but rigid American system of haves and have-nots sentences millions of people to live within the margins of society. The degree of marginalization experienced by entire families, neighborhoods, cities, some argue an entire generation, has far reaching consequences. On the one hand, it is principal in creating and sustaining economic and social conditions which make substandard education, unemployment, hunger, homelessness, and violence inevitable realities. On the other hand the experience of marginalization turns poor people into a policing problem from the perspective of all persuasions of capitalist, including hourly wage earners.
The inability of the American economic system to include the majority of its citizens leaves many as "the other," Unable or unwilling to break the cycle of economic inequality, American police are faced with the need to control poor people, to pack them tightly into the space left for them by institutionalized discrimination. These repressive policing methods are the result of public policy designed to contain and control.
The policing of poor people is thus not a response to a rising tide of crime. It is a preemptive attempt to keep poor people in line, to ensure that poor people are aware of their place in the American social structure - the absolute bottom.
Police and the armies of private security forces that occupy poor neighborhoods operate under the theory that poor people, and in particular poor black people, are a law and order problem. That attitude has been popularized at every level of American society from television and cinema, school and church, icons and community leaders, to political authorities and economic elites.
The theory of poor people presenting a law and order problem provides a coded justification for violent policing. And by giving police an unarticulated but official license to use repressive policing methods has made deadly policing acceptable.
The characterization of American economic and social problems being a law and order problem does more for police than simply offer them an excuse for using repressive policing methods to contain and control poor people. It also acts as a strategy to assemble support for other institutions that exercise police powers. It is the prestige of police that has allowed the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, and Freddy Gray to go unchallenged.
I know, if people weren't engaged in lawless activities there would be no need for police to intervene, right? Well, it isn't quite that simple.
I'm not satisfied, for example, that drug addiction is a police issue. It is a public health issue, and the resources police bring to bear are insufficient to solve drug addiction. Neither am I satisfied that the police should intervene in interpersonal conflicts. The right to do so rest with the principal stakeholders i.e., victim, victimizer, and the family, friends and community members of both, not the state.
The preemptive attempt to keep poor people in line, to ensure they are aware of their place at the absolute bottom is rooted in economic and social insecurities experienced by larger and larger portions of the American population. A college degree guarantees nothing. Tens of thousands of people with college degrees cannot find work commensurate in their particular field of expertise. Jobs that were suppose to be for life are almost a thing of the past, replaced instead with part time work. And more and more people are facing the reality that for the first time in the past half-century or more their children will be structurally barred from economically exceeding them.
This reality has bred anxiety and uncertainty about the future. Many middle and upper class families feel themselves under attack from forces they neither understand nor know how to repel. The resulting insecurities have fostered the idea, under the manipulation of those with power and influence, that poor people are a drain on the economy and therefore the problem.
In the competitively charged economic and social climate of contemporary America, it is not too difficult for those with power and influence to turn insecurities into fear of crime and hostility toward poor people. It is easy to get people to identify their problems with what appears to be an immediate and physical threat when the means of mass communication are in the hands of a small few.
It is therefore easy for those who control the flow of information to shape public opinion to project poor people, particularly poor people of color, as outlaws that want something without working for it. In this way the anger of an insecure middle class and a frustrated upper class can be directed at least partly against the poor, and away from the economy.
It is the refocusing of economic and social insecurities through the prism of a politicized class and often racial divide that explains the many excuses made for police abuse and terror. It also explains why the fear of violence is so disproportionate to actual violence and why seemingly irrational scares can take hold of the American Imagination and poor people can be treated as a threat needing to be policed in a military fashion. Through this approach those who benefit from poor people remaining in their place reinforce class divisions in society. Not openly in elitist terms, but in the language of law and order.
For some readers this article is the first time they've read a critique of the police by a poor person, and may still be convinced that Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray's death were the result of a few bad apples, not a "bad" system. First, how many "bad apples" does it take before we acknowledge the bushel is bad? And second, when do we call the police culture of silence and cover ups what it is: a bad system?
Even city and government officials who have come out and openly criticized the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray have framed their criticisms very narrowly at individual police involved, rather than the police as a whole. Marking those deaths as exceptions to the dangerous and heroic work police do every day.
However, there was only one exceptional thing about the recent deaths of these three men, their encounters with the police were recorded for the whole world to see. In every other respect, the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray could be seen as a pretty typical example of how police police poor people. It is a sign of the success of law and order propaganda and public relations strategies that police are able to brutalize and occupy the neighborhoods of poor people on a systematic basis while explaining the incidents that get caught on camera as anomalies, or the product of a few bad apples.
The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray have sparked mass protests because hundreds of thousands of people share similar experiences of police harassment, abuse and terror. Baltimore residents are not in the streets rebelling because they have nothing better to do. In a society where power and privilege determine access to resources, rebellion is often the only way the oppressed can really be heard.
Unfortunately, without Baltimore residents rebelling the police and mayor's office would have simply continued to try to exhaust the public's frustrations with long drawn out investigations, that normally take days. Five days a week on A&E's "The First 48," police investigate and solve murders in less than 48 hours. But the mayor Rawlings-Blake wants us to believe it will take three or four months to get answers to how Freddie Gray's spine was severed, and why he died.
The truth that no one seems willing to speak publicly is that policing is the frontline of the class divide in modern America. When Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake condemned recent demonstrations in her city, the surprising thing is that that level of public outrage hasn't been expressed more often, given the brutal way Baltimore police polices its poor residents. All of mayor Rawlings-Blake's public address talked around the problem that police pose to poor people before centering on the problems that police face controlling poor people. A classic example of blaming the victim.
Problems of drugs, guns and violence are undeniably real in poor neighborhoods, and they touch the lives of both the poor and the well to do, but these problems do not provide a ready-made excuse for whatever measures the police choose to take. Furthermore, the repressive activities of the police are not designed to deal with the deep-rooted economic and social problems in poor areas that give rise to violence and make extra-legal means of securing resources attractive to people caught somewhere between trying to keep their head above water, and drowning.
This is, unfortunately, the true face of policing in Baltimore, MD, and other places where poor people reside in large numbers. Policing is a system designed to control and contain people whom the system of capitalism is incapable of integrating into the mainstream of society.
Academics, politicians, leaders of big industry, and those who decide what is and isn't news can deny this, create well worded theories to explain why police are justified in beating and shooting unarmed pedestrians, and the indignation and resentment will only grow. Ferguson and Baltimore are the proverbial canary in the mine. If police are let off the hook for such tragedies, left with renewed authority to appeal to the public to support police operating in urban areas as if they were war zones, and allow them to shape the subsequent public debate about class and racial conflict in America, the voice of the oppressed will grow louder and louder. An historical fact.
Lacino Hamilton has been incarcerated since July 1994, for a crime he says, and newly discovered evidence suggests, he is innocent of. He is a writer, social justice agent, organizer, alum of the Univ of Michigan, Dearborn campus Theory group, and a member of several progressive initiatives. He can be reached at: Lacino Hamilton, [ID], Kinross CF, 16770 S. Watertower Dr., Kincheloe, MI 49788 or electronically via www.jpay.com
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