Part 5

Reflecting Forward

Against Hired Guns is a group of people who’ve gotten to know each other since the Oakland rebellions of 2009. Those rebellions happened in response to the public execution of Oscar Grant III. After video of Oscar’s killing was released, broad groups of people converged on the city, angry and ready to fight for justice. The problem was, we had no cohesive ideas about what that meant, and we pitted our individual ideas of that meaning against each other.

This piece is a self-critical reflection of the organizing processes that followed those rebellions, which we use to call for more strategic organizing against the violence of policing. We use “violence of policing” intentionally because we understand the role of police to both be a source of violence themselves and to extend/increase violence in our communities. When we say “violence of policing”, we’re not referring to a specific incident of violence, rather we’re referring to the broader role that police play and the culture they enforce.

This piece is also an attempt to reframe the use of “flashpoint” organizing as a tool for justice. “Flashpoint” in this context refers to an incident or series of incidents that draw broad attention to the violence of policing. Some examples we draw from, most of which are described in Part One of this piece, are the police killings of Gary Wayne King, Jr., Oscar Grant III, Derrick Jones, Raheim Brown, Jr. and Alan Blueford to name just a few. In a broader context of the term, we’re referring to mobilizations that respond to specific repressive policing schemes like gang injunctions or mass mobilizations to City Hall in response to city governments extending police powers.

Against Hired Guns came together as an experiment in response to a specific incident of policing. We imagined it could be contextualized in an analysis of the violence of policing in order to create a stronger entry-point into these politics for organizers focused on flashpoints.

Strengthening Our Strategies

In each police murder mentioned above, family members of those killed have been thrust into organizing process. They’ve found themselves surrounded by people who stepped up in response to their loved one being killed, and they’ve put in important energy towards finding a sense of personal justice.

There were also people like those of us in Against Hired Guns who have been bringing our energy to those organizing processes because we feel they play a strategic role in furthering our political interest of ending the violence of policing. While we supported and continue to support family members of people whose lives have been taken, we do so for personal and political reasons.

In each of the cases listed above, organizing coalitions formed to support “justice” for those who were killed. In each of them, they’ve focused on firing and prosecuting cops who committed a specific act of violence. We want to explore how to support family members and those thrust into organizing processes while being intentional and explicit about our own roles and why we keep entering these spaces.

Part of the reasons we have joined these coalitions is because we’ve seen them as strategic opportunities to achieve a broader goal of getting rid of the violence of policing. We want to get justice for people killed by police, and a big part of that means creating conditions that stop police from killing people. In practice, these coalitions keep referring back to “justice”, but they do not have a cohesive understanding of what that really means.

The roles of police, in the name of “public safety”, are to arrest people, remove them from communities, put them in cages, etc. Each of these actions extend harm beyond the initial incident for which the police got involved. In other words, the roles of police are both violent and they increase violence among people who are not cops. This means that creating conditions that don’t let police kill people also means creating conditions that don’t let police contain, harass, arrest or cage people. It means an end to policing all together.

Removing cops is no all-of-a-sudden cause for safety, but thinking in these terms allows us to experiment with practices of keeping ourselves safe without relying on systems that we know extend and increase violence. Imagine what could be done to support self-determination with all the money and resources that are poured into systems of policing and imprisonment![1]

In this writing, we focus on police killings because those events have and continue to become really clear broad-based rallying points against police. Police killings are strategic opportunities to amplify the broader violence of policing, rather than to focus on specific incidents.

We can’t end police violence by targeting individual cops. Understanding policing as violence, we have to target an entire system.

Sometimes our radical communities are really good at putting that analysis into words: “Fuck The Police!” “Down with the system!” Far less often, we integrate those understandings into how we’re actually organizing.

Experimenting with Our Own Challenge

Against Hired Guns is an attempt at placing the content of a flashpoint into a broader context. We identified this flashpoint as a strategic opportunity to extend our analysis of policing. Because of that, we describe ourselves in Part One as “opportunists”. By this we mean that we are involved for political reasons, and so we try to find strategic opportunities that will amplify those goals.

Months ago, we found out that a cop wanted to expose the everyday functioning of his department. It’s a case study with nothing new except a cop who wants to put his experience on record.

This cop, a commander in the Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) own autonomous police department, implicates at least ten district and police officials in the legal deposition summarized in Part Three. Those people include the OUSD Superintendent, the OUSD police chief, the former OUSD police chief, and more.

It would be a mistake to focus on each of these people without putting them into a broader context and understanding of the violence of policing. While these people have done horrific things, they’ve done so by fulfilling the function of their jobs. It would only make sense to target them if that were done in a way that takes away the OUSD’s ability to commit further violence.

What we often see when people lose their jobs in these contexts is that they’re replaced by people who serve the same function. It is interesting to note that when the OUSD chief from a few years ago was fired for using the phrase “the only good nigger is a dead nigger and we should hang them in the town square”, he was replaced by Barhin Bhatt, the cop who killed Raheim Brown, Jr. Bhatt’s appointment was a public and obvious rallying point among organizers because it was easy to point out the contradiction of getting rid of an openly racist cop and replacing him with a one who had recently killed people.

But when Bhatt lost his position as chief, which happened as a result of community pressure, he was replaced by another cop. James Williams, the current chief, may not have shot or killed anyone but we know that his job is to facilitate the containment, surveillance, arrest and caging of kids in Oakland. He gets paid to facilitate those processes.

We have to be outraged when a cop who kills people is given a promotion, but we also have to be outraged, and have a sense of urgency, about the containment, surveillance, arrest and caging of anyone. Let’s not forget that those policing activities are targeted in hugely disproportionate ways against Black and Brown people.[2]

Jonathan Bellusa, the cop who has spoken out against his department, is not a hero. He wants to support a system of policing that is not “corrupt” in the ways that he has observed, but rather to support a system of policing that, in legally justified ways, creates and extends violence.

Moving Forward

As organizers, we can use flashpoint incidents to amplify a political analysis against the violence of policing. Targeting these individuals can and should be part of our organizing process, because if put into the context of policing as violence, using these individual cases can take power away from police and the violence of policing. Without that context, we’ve fallen into the trap of focusing on individual “good” or “bad” cops, and in doing so we repeat patterns of asking, and therefore empowering, the very system that enables them to kill. As explored in each part of this writing, neither of those categories have a place in a radical conversation about justice.

Against Hired Guns hopes to contribute to organizing processes by supporting “flashpoint” anti-policing organizing that explicitly recognizes our reasons for participating, and to contextualize those incidents in a broader understanding of policing, through concrete recent examples. This experiment in using a strategic opportunity is not a start or spark to a conversation about what “justice” really looks like. Its’ intention is to add fuel to that conversation, that’s been an ongoing experimental process locally and around the world.

To close, we’d like to offer some questions that could be used to extend this contribution:

  • How can we use accurate histories of how policing as justified violence (as explored in Part One) in order to better inform newer anti-policing campaigns?
  • How do we connect flashpoint-based organizing strategies with broader anti-policing struggles?
  • What does it look like for organizing strategies to not be based in the legal system?

As people struggling with and against the violence of policing, we think these questions can be used to strengthen responses to flashpoint organizing. They should help to frame “justice” in the context of flashpoint-based anti-policing work as a constant challenge. Let’s think beyond the moment because we’re in it for the long haul, and we’re in it to win.


[1] Part Six of this document offers some specific examples of dealing with harmful situations without relying on police, through interpersonal, organization and systematic experiments.