Learning to Struggle Stronger
The realities of police violence are never as front and center as when a cop kills another human being, and the public debate about police and violence rises to the top most dramatically when that human being is unarmed and Black or Brown. The opportunity allows us to point out the hypocrisy of the institution of policing: the notion that the police help to keep society safe in the long term. From Little Bobby Hutton to Gary King to Oscar Grant and Alan Blueford, this debate has consistently sparked militant and angry responses from the people. These situations inform the public debate about policing as they highlight contradictions in our society’s perception of safety as being a hyper-policed community. But when we put all of our resources – time, energy, money, etc. – into fighting for the names of people who’ve been killed, we become distracted from confronting the violence of standard and daily police policies. By rallying only when someone has been murdered by police we miss the opportunity to build strategic, tactical and on-going strategies of resistance against police brutality and the chance to prevent future murders.
In our attempts to curb police violence solely through the legal system, we give power back to the very forces that criminalize, kill, harass, corral and incarcerate people. We willingly return power to the structure responsible for the violence in the first place, replicating the system of domination that we are trying to fight.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Yet even with a deep understanding and analysis, we often continue to rely on the legal system to give us justice but are met with the same results. At some point we must confront the role that we actively play in this madness.
While far from the spotlight, more mundane policing and imprisonment is violence and deserves every bit of our focus. Outside of politically-oriented actions, those targeted by police – through an extension of the de jure (legal) system of slavery our country was founded on – are overwhelmingly Black and Brown. White supremacy is alive and well in our laws, with police playing the role of daily enforcer.
With that said we have been able to recognize killings by police as contradictions and therefore opportunities.. The contradiction arises from our reliance on a system that has consistently shown itself to be supportive of the very forces which oppress us. The opportunity that presents itself with every police killing is a platform to amplify that contradiction and further people’s analysis of modern policing.
That is all to say, as people organizing against the violence of policing, we are opportunists.
September 20th, 2007:
A police officer pulls across six lanes of traffic in North Oakland, into a corner store parking lot, and beckons Gary Wayne King Jr, armed with a soda in one hand and a bag of chips in the other, toward the car. The officer allows Gary to hand off the soda to a friend before knocking the bag of chips onto the pavement and pulling his arm out straight, all without saying a word. When the officer tries to cuff him, Gary resists and a scuffle ensues. The cop tases him as he runs away and then aims his gun, shooting Gary twice in his back as he tries to stand up in the street. The cop handcuffs Gary, then calls an ambulance as blood soaks the pavement. Gary dies right next to the median strip. Every Thursday for the following months, Gary’s family along with supporters march to Oakland city hall, chanting “No Justice! No Peace!”
December 31st, 2007:
After running a red light, 20-year-old Andrew Moppin, who has a one-year-old child, is pulled over not far from Fruitvale BART in East Oakland. At the cop’s request, Andrew and passengers exit the car. After briefly trying to hide, Andrew stands between a parked car and a brick wall just nine feet from officers, with a helicopter searchlight blinding the scene. The commanding officer shouts, telling Andrew to move. Andrew moves. Eight bullets tear through Andrew’s flesh, leaving him bleeding on the ground. He dies later that evening. His family is not able to find records of him being transported to any hospital.
Two years later, US District Judge Claudia Wilkin rules: “The undisputed evidence shows that Officers Jimenez and Borello acted reasonably when they used deadly force against Mr. Moppin.” Wilkin’s ruling also claims the officers believed Andrew Moppin was reaching for his waistband when they opened fire, justifying his murder.
Later, John Burris, a lawyer who has defended dozens of cases of police violence, says, “The young man, really, was responding to conflicting commands. One group of officers had him have his hands up. Another officer had him turn to the other side, and when he turned, the two officers in front interpreted those movements as, quote, ‘going to his waist band’.”
July 25th, 2008:
Police chase a car driven by Mack “Jody” Woodfox III for about a mile, until he stops. After getting out of a 1993 Buick Regal, Jody tries to run, pulling his pants up by reaching toward his waistband. Near the corner of East 17th Street and Fruitvale Avenue at 3:50am, Jody is shot dead – three bullets lodge in his back while trying to run away. The officer who takes Jody’s life is the same one who killed Andrew Moppin just seven months prior. He is fired. Burris, who started investigating police shootings in Oakland in 1979, says he can’t remember a case prior to this one in which the OPD found a police shooting to be in violation of policy.
January 1st, 2009:
Oscar Grant III is on his way home from New Years Eve celebrations, taking BART at the request of his mother. A small scuffle ensues on the train, and scared passengers call police. Once Oscar and friends exit the train at Fruitvale station, a group of cops meet them, throw them against a wall, throw Oscar on his belly, and shoot him in the back – all in front of camera phone-toting passengers. Video of the killing is released publicly. Thousands of people take to the streets to demand “justice for Oscar Grant” in the form of prayers, vigils, marches, demonstrations and riots. After almost a month of ongoing angry mobilizations which include the arrests of more than 100 people, the cop who fired a bullet into Oscar’s back is arrested on a first-degree murder charge. Two cops who were with him (including one who yelled the phrase “bitch ass nigger” twice) lose their jobs.
July 8th, 2010:
Oscar Grant’s killer cop is charged with involuntary manslaughter by a Los Angeles jury, and people again take to the streets in anger – a Footlocker is trashed, windows shattered, dumpsters burnt and more arrests. People in the streets know a legal ruling of “involuntary manslaughter” is far from justice.
November 5th, 2010:
Oscar Grant’s killer cop is given the most lenient sentence possible: Two years minus time served. People again take to the streets, and police violate constitutional laws to which they are bound in a mass arrest that puts 148 people in cages.
From January 2009 through November 2010, well over a million dollars of damage is done in the form of broken windows, dumpster fires and burnt cars. The government is forced to act. For the first time in decades, a California cop is criminally charged with an on-duty murder. Two cops lose their jobs for aiding the trigger-puller. The BART police chief, Alameda County District Attorney and two Oakland Police Chiefs all flee their jobs and the city. Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums is frowned upon across the board for an uninspiring response.
November 8th, 2010:
Three days after the sentencing of Oscar’s killer and the unconstitutional mass arrest, two Oakland police officers who’d been involved in a previous fatal shooting fire five bullets at Derrick “Deedee” Jones, striking him in the back as he runs away from them. Media reports say officers feel their life was threatened because Deedee reached toward his waistband and had a gun. The “gun” turned out to be a small scale. Hundreds mobilize in response, taking over the streets outside Deedee’s barber shop and connecting his death to that of Oscar Grant – chanting “Oscar Grant, Deedee Jones, we won’t let them kill our own”, and marching down East 14th Street to arrive at Grant Station (Fruitvale BART). Before protesters arrive, police shut the station down, saying, “We can’t control the safety of people on the platform.” Guarded by swaths of riot-gear-clad cops, the empty station stayed “safe.” With no follow-up plan, the movement around Deedee dropped off quickly.
December 18th, 2010:
One of the cops fired for aiding in Oscar Grant’s murder, Marysol Dominici, is rehired and given back pay and benefits for the entire time she wasn’t working. Anthony Pirone, the cop who yelled “bitch ass nigger” at Oscar and his friends, appeals his firing (to date there has been no apparent media reports of the results of Pirone’s appeal).
February 19th, 2011:
John Burris, a lawyer who has represented many local families who’ve lost loved ones to police killings, says that the cases of Andrew Moppin and Jody Woodfox “represent the real challenge that we all have in dealing with police misconduct and particularly in shooting cases. There were no witnesses in Andrew’s case other than police officers. And as a consequence of that, the judge – federal district court judge – ruled against us because we could not contradict what the police officer had to say.”
A few weeks later, on March 5th, a police arbitrator decides the killer of Andrew Moppin and Jody Woodfox will be rehired by the Oakland Police Department with full back pay because “sacrificing Officer Jimenez on the altar of public opinion” would not bring Woodfox back. The cop’s lawyer said he wasn’t at all surprised by the ruling because his client was “the victim of political persecution.”
December 11th, 2012:
Patrick Gonzales, the officer who killed Gary Wayne King Jr as well as two others and causing paraplegia in a fourth person as a result of gunshot wounds, all in separate incidents, receives the Silver Star – the Oakland Police Department’s second highest honor – avoiding focus on the $3.6 million in payouts by the city and police department for incidents he was involved in as of August 2011.
Fueled by footage of Oscar Grant III’s murder, people swarmed the streets of Oakland using a wide array of tactics to build power behind demands, which almost universally included charging Johannes Mehserle, Oscar’s killer cop, with murder. Among different groups, demands went as far as a public community forum, disarming BART police, and for the BART police department to be shut down altogether.
The top demand was met. Mehserle was charged with first-degree murder. He was jailed. Energy dissipated. By the time he was let out of his cage eleven months later, Mehserle’s release was met with such a dull response in the streets that it was covered only as a side note in news stories.
From insurrectionary-minded radicals to Oscar Grant’s own family members, that fight for justice has been celebrated.
While we should celebrate uprisings and the large impact on the public debate around police violence that was made by that campaign, we must also be honest with ourselves if we are to learn, grow and mature in our fight against police terror. Justice was not served in the cop’s arrest, court process and short imprisonment; or in the temporary firing and rehiring of the cops who aided in the killing’; or in the replacement of BART and Oakland police chiefs with new ones (both of whom have overseen the “justified” killings of people since their hiring). Oakland’s current mayor has extended the reign of violence, having overseen attacks on the Occupy Oakland camp in the form brutal attacks on crowds of protestors with tear gas, flash grenades and batons. She has also overseen and accepted numerous police killings and the implementation of policies that give police more power to target young people and Black and Brown communities.
We angrily came out into the streets not just because Oscar Grant was murdered, but because many of us know that repression of Black and Brown people (as well as homeless people, sex-workers, youth, queer and transgendered people, etc.) is the daily and mundane role of police. That plays out in the form of everything from foreclosure evictions to heightened civil infractions for graffiti, sit/lie laws and gang injunctions. It would be irresponsible, in the context of dozens of people killed at the hands of Oakland cops since Oscar Grant was murdered, to find peace in a system that locks up a single cop and empowers others to continue to take lives. That is far from justice, and advocating a reproduction of the Oscar Grant model will not get us closer to it. Rather, we need to develop beyond that important example.
To develop new strategic responses, let’s better understand what we are combating.
Applying the lessons
Police violence is officially validated when courts offer no punishment for cops who harass, cage and kill people. In these cases, the values of the community and grassroots values of justice all but disappear. These experiences show us that the systems of courts and policing are built to sustain and reproduce themselves and their agendas. From individual cops to federal enforcers, those doing their jobs correctly erase any sense of accountability of the state to the people. This experience in turn creates opportunity. If we are opportunists, these are times to seize.
Most of us who’ve mobilized against killings by police have not done so because our family members have been killed in the same circumstances (although many of us have family who’ve been criminalized and caged by the same forces). Rather, we mobilize because we see police killings both as an ongoing issue impacting our day-to-day lives and because they are an accessible entry point for people to build analysis against policing. These circumstances present both a contradiction and an opportunity.
In cases of police murders, we often accept the idea that there is nothing more we can do than follow directions of the traumatized family and pursue justice in the ways they ask of us. While solidarity with these families is important, let’s also look to additional, sustainable and long-term ways that we can take the fight for justice to the next level.
The principle of solidarity pushes us to support the material and emotional needs of people who have family members killed in any situation. This support role can move us forward in multiple ways. First, the healing process is a major strain on material and emotional resources. Supporting those needs can help to strengthen family members and therefore build their political focus, enabling them to engage in broader organizing efforts. Second, building a real-world understanding of the personal struggles of those directly affected by violence allows organizers to humanize and realize the affects of unexpected death. Finally, that support also allows for more strategic points of entry for organizers, and gives those who maintain these relationships an intimate way of reflecting on – and therefore offering innovations to – the organizing process.
When our radical community steps up to support families in these situations, we do so because we recognize the contradictions and opportunities; we do so to rip these contradictions out of the holes carved by government bullets and use them to strategically put police under fire. But as organizers who step up for families and watch life after life stolen and a broad focus by the grassroots on individual responsibility (i.e. prosecuting “bad” cops), our role is different than that of a family member or their legal representation. We must stop falling into traps of the past.
Traditional definitions would label a “bad” cop as one who either breaks rules at their job or follows the law in ways that appear egregious to civilians. A “good” cop is one who strictly follows the law or who acts in ways that civilians around them perceive as positive. Both those categories exist. Neither have a place in a radical conversation about justice.
Focusing on individual responsibility – such as the drilled-in demand to jail or prosecute a “bad (killer) cop” – can be deeply important for a family who lost someone, and they alongside those whose job it is to navigate legal confines should be supported to focus on that goal. However, a broader movement built against police killings, police brutality and policing in general, needs to have a deeper understanding of how policing has been and is being experienced: as the armed guard of a legal system that is rooted in the domination of people and land through de jure (legal) and de facto (in reality) slavery and capitalism.
In the model mentioned above, the justice that is sought is not justice at all. Taking a cop’s badge is useful in that it takes them off the street, but there are many more eager to replace them and many departments willing to oblige. Putting one cop in jail does nothing to solve the larger and endemic issues that plague poor Black and Brown communities. Rather, let’s refocus our energy toward preventing the same patterns that allowed the trigger pulling in the first place from happening again and again.
 For examples of these lists of demands, check out these links: http://mxgm.org/statement-against-the-execution-of-oscar-grant-iii/; http://mxgm.org/statement-against-the-execution-of-oscar-grant-iii/; http://nojusticenobart.blogspot.com/2009/01/what-is-no-justice-no-bart.html