Part 4

Education, Policing and our Collective Expectations

As adults in this great miasma called amerika, we make many assumptions. We are taught to assume that we are free because there is a legal document promising that we can say what we want to say, to vote, to have guns and to be protected. We recognize that beyond the document – the Constitution – there are many rules and limitations to understand before we can take advantage of these freedoms. One assumption we make is that we can never break the law. If we break the law and we’re caught, then our ticket to freedom is revoked; we deserve what we get and this is called justice.

Against Hired Guns has covered the deposition given by Bellusa. We’ve indicated that though this represents a unique opportunity to distribute unfiltered information, the really important stories are not the ones told by police in the interest of crafting an image of themselves as the “good cop”/whistle-blower.” These individuals think they can grant themselves immunity from the judgments they are passing on the system that they helped to foster and maintain; the snitch-whistle is essentially a red herring.

*Incidentally, we feel that people have been blowing this particular whistle for decades. Bellusa’s testimony doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.

The Tentacles’ Reach

In 2007, Alameda County and the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) adopted a non-punitive approach to discipline, which is neatly referred to as Restorative Justice. This approach promises the end to racially disproportionate suspensions and expulsions, a dedication to keeping kids in school by adapting to their needs and by proxy, interrupting what’s known as the “school to prison pipeline,” a scheme that sends Black and Brown kids to prison at astounding rates.

By adopting this idealistic and pragmatic policy, the OUSD acknowledges failures of the public school system. It says that racism is alive and well and needs to be confronted by two of the biggest government-based institutions in amerika. By putting this policy into practice, OUSD reiterates statistics that we have heard many times before in myriad ways:

34% of the OUSD student population is African-American, yet they receive…

  • 67% of the referrals for out of school suspension
  • 50% of the referrals for expulsion
  • 40% of OUSD African American students do not graduate from high school
  • Since 2005, 66% of OUSD students who dropped out have had contact with the criminal justice system*[1]

The practice of restorative justice has at its core a vision to use evidence-based restorative practices within schools and the juvenile justice program in order to address the root causes of misbehavior/wrongdoing/rule and law breaking, etc. It is done so in a way that insures that all parties affected have a voice and collaborate together to decide what course of action to take in order to make things right, and to allow for each person to take responsibility and be accountable to their actions. Of equal importance is the idea that restorative justice is not about punishment or vengeance, which interestingly places it directly opposite the law.

Policing in our society has everything to do with punishment. Regardless of laws that claim we are all innocent until proven guilty, the results of wrongdoing and office referral, investigation and trial, always start and end in punishment. Our society takes this punishment as justice, and even though it is the nature of this system to attempt to prevent crime by deferment regardless of circumstance, many of us still cling to the idea that at its core the system means well. Many of us think to ourselves that aberrations of this are merely “bad apples” and we must expunge or punish them, but the reality is that this is not a unilateral system of justice at all. The police enforce a steady system of punishment on our streets, and punishment is specifically and intentionally directed at Black or Brown people.

In a restorative justice model, everyone wants to do good and positive things: to thrive in a collaborative environment with a certain amount of facilitation to repair relationships and harms done to a community. Ironically, the OUSD has adopted a practice that attempts to integrate this social practice, but it is thwarted by the fact that there are two competing publicly-financed systems within the district: one (the practice of restorative justice) attempts to provide the communication system between students and the logic of our society, and the other serves as the heavy hand of the law, producing the OUSD officers who criminalize, harass, arrest, cage and kill people like Raheim Brown, Jr.

Our communities are also prevented in a search for restorative justice – less because of those competing forces and more due to the individuality of this process in its context of a society in which the legal system is responsible for the oppression itself. How can we expect to destroy legacies of slavery and systematic violence while the imperialist practices that created an entire class of “illegal” people whose labor is necessary under capitalism, are valued and enforced by the daily harassment of individuals by paid legal enforcers? This is the same ideology which drives us to celebrate Johannes Mehserle being taken into custody by the same cops who arrested and brutalized protestors seeking justice for Oscar Grant the day before. It’s the same ideology that drives support for serving time in the penal institution which we know is a continual resting point in the school-to-prison pipeline created for many youth of color in Alameda County and beyond.

This is not meant to be an answer; rather we at Against Hired Guns would like to broaden the questions being asked. One of the reasons we chose to quickly examine restorative justice in this piece is because of its emphasis on restoring harm and building relationships. By focusing on relationship building, responsibility and accountability, restorative justice takes away from the idea that only individuals can affect change in our communities. When we view epidemic physical and psychological violence as community problems, we see that policing and restorative justice are completely at odds with one another.

How then can the OUSD think that it can implement restorative practices in its schools while still employing its own police force? How can Alameda County think it is implementing restorative justice when the crimes that land people in the legal justice system are overwhelmingly crimes of poverty and mental health? Rather, it can’t. The two can never co-exist. Until our communities shift our collective notions of justice and freedom away from the police, away from the courts, and back into our own hands, then people like Bellusa become heroes and people like Raheim Brown, Jr. end up dead.

Individualism and the amerikan Curse

It is interesting that with the recent story of ex-LAPD officer Chris Dorner still fresh in the public’s mind, here in Oakland, another police officer has publicly crossed the “thin blue line” (that wall of silence supposed to protect police from outside scrutiny). Police Commander Jonathan Bellusa exposed some history of corruption and racism within the OUSD and OPD. Both Dorner and Bellusa have a desire to control the stories around their cases. Whether it be in the format of a manifesto[2] or a carefully arranged press release[3], the object is to demonstrate that they both completely believed that they were right, and that their infallible truth will appeal to a morality within their departments and broader society, which will protect their freedom, their names and their livelihoods. They believe that the system and the government is theirs.

It is interesting, but not surprising, that both Bellusa and Dorner initially appealed to the same power structure which created the people and circumstances they railed against to begin with. Both Bellusa and Dorner want the system to work, and though they’ve seen countless examples of its irreparable nature, they still cling to the idea that if they do enough right, they will be spared the mercilessness of its fissures. Even for these “good cops,” the institutions they appeal to become their oppressors and silencers. In the case of Dorner, the police became his eventual executioners, which is tragically representative of the way the so-called justice system works for the people trapped within it.

Bellusa operates in a world that seems divided into either the right or wrong side of his fantastical moral majority. We say “fantastical” because we know, as people disenfranchised from any form of restorative justice that we can actively take part in, that this morality does not have the interests of the majority in mind.

Each situation appears to the public eye to have flashpoints for the individual officers, both of which are self-centered and administratively based. While Dorner’s manifesto cites witnessing overt racism at the LAPD (people responsible for the beating of Rodney King and the Ramparts scandals being given promotions, his fellow officer kicking a developmentally disabled man in the head and chest) it is his subsequent firing from the force after he attempts to seek the legal system’s justice over the latter incident, which is the final straw in his experience of oppression.

We are not drawing direct parallels between these two men. The culmination of events leading to Dorner’s rampage is what scholars call racial battle fatigue. RBF, as it is more commonly known, is the result of long-term racially motivated micro-aggressions which accumulate and are demonstrated in a variety of ways. What we are focusing on, however, is the extent to which both men believe that the law should work: especially for themselves.

Bellusa is not repulsed by the murder of Raheim Brown, Jr., which he himself ordered, but rather by the depth of the administrative cover-up to prevent an independent investigation. It is important to note here that this is not the first time Bellusa, has been legally accused of excessive force. He has been sued via the police department by several people, including Miles Deshawn Goolsby[4] and Virgil Waldon,[5] the latter whom Bellusa shot in the torso and leg after pulling him over on suspicion of driving without a license. Ah, justice.

Clearly, Bellusa’s role in the system is to keep it moving forward. To the public eye, each administrative incident seems perhaps corrupt and unfair, but not potentially more than we would expect from a power structure which serves to uphold the interests of corporations, the 1% and white supremacy via imperialism and capitalism.

Doling Out Justice

Two police officers come forward with information regarding incidents within the force that they feel have been improperly investigated by fellow officers and officials. In both instances “excessive force” is applied. Dorner witnessed a mentally ill man being kicked in the chest and head; Bellusa was complicit in the shooting to death of a young Black man who may or may not have been trying to defend himself with a screwdriver (witness and police accounts differ, as is explored in Part Three of this piece). Where these cases diverge is in their outcomes; Dorner is fired for “lying” (and subsequently hunted and murdered), while Bellusa, although threatened and denied audience by judges, coworkers and lawyers, has to date been rewarded with paid administrative leave (which he has described as retribution) for his whistle blowing of ex-chief Pete Sarna’s racist comments. We can be sure with his information about OUSD PD’s cover-up of Raheim Brown, Jr.’s murder, he will be awarded the status of cop-hero. While cop-Bellusa believes he has everything to gain, his Black cop-counterpart clearly had everything to lose.

Looking at the racist histories of the United States’ government and its legalized enforcers, we are presented with this question: why do we continue to seek justice from our oppressors? We must recognize that we are complicit in crafting the strength and legitimacy of police forces across the country each time we equate our ideas of justice with theirs. This is not to ignore the epidemics of domestic abuse, random violence, gang violence and other types of violence which are very real in our neighborhoods. We are not addressing that here.

Many have referred to Dorner as “the monster” created by Dr. Frankenstein, one who turns on his makers (the LAPD), and attempts to kill them and everything they hold dear. This is accurate, understanding that a lifetime of racism crafted a creature who, upon spending its entire life trying to succeed within a system, is ultimately confronted by the reality that it is expendable in the eyes of authority. As such, it becomes motivated by vengeance against the perpetrators of this unfairness. It is a pointed juxtaposition, but it leaves out the context of a Black man who knowingly went to work for the force that beat Rodney King.

Similarly, our collective allegiance to the penal and criminal justice system necessitates the police as enforcers of a racist, sexist, classist and violent society. When we look at Dorner and Bellusa side by side, there are many differences and still many similarities that stem from a steadfast belief in the ability and fantastical magic of the state. Both cops felt that a threat to the safety of themselves as officers legitimized murdering other human beings. For Bellusa, this meant ordering the execution of Raheim Brown, Jr. For Chris Dorner, it meant tracking down the family and loved ones of everyone associated with those who failed to uphold his idea (and society’s) of justice.

We are confident that while Bellusa’s exposure of a cover-up will eclipse his role in the public eye in Brown’s death, the façade of a reopened investigation into Dorner’s firing will fade behind lurid stories of his incineration at the hands of former colleagues. A reliance on the state and its police force creates a culture of narcissism within itself and is dangerous to society. By demanding justice from the system that oppresses us, we give validity and power to our oppressor.