By BRIAN CRAWFORD
The beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police on Jan. 7 was caught on video, once again shining a spotlight on the ever increasing militarization of law enforcement, and the violently repressive nature of the institution. As impressive as the Black Lives Matter protests were, spanning the entire summer of 2020, the tasks that they set are incomplete. Instead, legislation is being crafted to restrict protests, with greater discretion given to law enforcement to limit these forms of expression. Cities across the country are increasing the funding of their police departments, and new military style facilities are now becoming a trend in the merging of law enforcement and the military. Nichols’ murder, and that of Manuel Teran (Tortuguita) in Atlanta three weeks later, are just two in a seemingly limitless number of bodycounts that are attributable to law enforcement.
In 2020 the deaths of Ahmed Aubry, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd brought more than the usual expression of anger and grief. The video of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer was viewed around the world. Outrage was put into action, and millions took to the streets of cities from Seattle to New York. The protests were multi-racial, and cities and suburbs demanded justice and that law enforcement officers who kill should be prosecuted. The marchers also acknowledged the multitude who suffered the same fate without the publicity. Many of these protesters had had their own encounters with police or lost relatives to police violence.
The demands of the movement ranged from reforms to advocating the defunding or abolition of police. Promises were made by some state and local governments, but little has changed. The reforms that were implemented have had a small impact, and few cities or states have reallocated funding. In fact, police budgets have increased—despite claims to the contrary. State legislatures are passing bills restricting or banning some forms of protests. Meanwhile, corporate America pledges its support for Black Lives Matter, while at the same time providing millions to police foundations. The collaboration between the state and corporations serves to increase militarization. Major cities run by Democrats unleashed that same force that is responsible for over 1000 deaths every year.
Quite often, movements gain momentum, but the tide ebbs and is followed by a wave of reactionary currents. The summer of mass-action protests in 2020 brought with it demands on a system rather than settling for the conviction of an individual officer. Unfortunately, the mass movement gave way to an electoral strategy. Neither major party supported the movement’s demands. Many allies of the movement remain only insofar as the demands don’t breach the confines of reformism. The erstwhile allies stand down or become hostile to the struggle if it evolves into the militant stage.
Historically, a cycle has been established in the Black liberation struggle that proceeds from the most egregious events transmitted to the public sphere and resulting in mass mobilizations. Events of the 1950s and 1960s of brutal oppression in the Jim Crow South were broadcast live. The images brought shock and outrage and were integral to the multi-racial movement that later branched out into other areas of struggle. Southern violence did not break the resolve of the movement; it was reinforced and increased its momentum as its character became more working class. The federal government made concessions to the Civil Rights Movement as Congress passed the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. But the task was still incomplete. These legislative reforms were only a means, but they never delivered the desired ends.
The advent of a movement
A transformative period commenced in the 1950s as a new leadership arrived, with a new approach to address the conditions of the Black masses. Jack Bloom, in “Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement,” writes that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) “was established out of mass protest, and it envisioned more. It sought to mobilize the Black masses, to encourage them to take their destinies in their own hands, to participate in winning freedom” (Bloom, p. 150).
Walter White’s NAACP had been committed to a legalistic approach, which had obvious limitations that were apparent to all Blacks who attempted to act according to the new laws, if they dared. Rather than petition the courts or ask the white ruling elite, “the new leadership made demands; they did not ask for favors or concessions. And by operating in public, they increased the pressure on themselves to gain a clear unambiguous victory unobscured by compromises made behind closed doors” (p. 150).
The focus later shifted from South to North, and the Civil Rights Movement següed into Black Power militancy. Explosions of the late 1960s caused many allies to abandon the movement. They had gone as far as they were going to go, and revolution or anything that resembled it was a bridge too far. Events of 1968 in particular elicited responses from government and elsewhere that appealed to the masses to abandon the streets. Government poverty programs were created with this intention: “When it became clear that this response was inadequate, that some substantive redistribution of wealth and power would be necessary, the former allies against Southern intransigence—the Northern middle class, the Democratic Party, and the Federal Government—refused to take the path asked of them. More concessions were ruled out” (Bloom, p. 186).
Support for the destruction of an anachronistic system held the alliance together. Racial discrimination, particularly the Southern brand, was “morally unacceptable” and “a political liability to the nation.” Yet the rather modest demands, as Martin Luther King described them, were “unthreatening to modern capitalism” (Bloom, p. 187).
As the the theater of struggle moved North, however, the uprisings in the ghetto “raised the spectre of class upheaval and seemed to demand the redistribution of wealth and power, and this demand was unacceptable to those who had been the allies of the Black movement.” Protection of power through the protection of private property is the primary objective of the ruling class. If the period is considered the “New Reconstruction,” it encountered limitations that were simialr to those of the earlier Reconstruction, limitations as to the lengths to which their “allies” would follow their demands. As Paul LeBlanc writes: “One key economic plan that probably would have destroyed much of the economic basis of racism in the south was blocked by the most powerful northern political and business interests. The proposal would have taken the big plantations away from the rich southerners and provided acre farms to all ex-slaves and loyal whites- breaking the power of the racist elites. … This was seen by most northern leaders as an unacceptable violation of property rights” (“Black Liberation and the American Dream”).
Subsequent to the 1960s, electoral politics has gained primacy over building the mass struggle. Black political figures—or the “Misleadership,” as the late Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report referred to them—are servants of the state, bound to carry on the dictates of the ruling class with as much dedication as the white men before them. Their affiliation with the Democratic Party gives legitimacy to the opportunistic nature of their politics.
Killing and militarization continue
The Democrats promised a reprise of past reforms that will be of no consequence vis a vis the brutal confrontation of Black people and American policing. Police are more heavily armed than ever. Recent publicized killings in the context of increased militarization serve to illustrate that a sustained militant movement is necessary. Reforms will not halt the violent nature of law enforcement.
Such measures did not prevent LAPD officers from killing double amputee Anthony Lowe Jr. Lowe’s lower legs were amputated as a result of a previous altercation with police in Texas. Donovan Lewis was shot in his bed by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, serving a warrant at 2:30 a.m. Cambridge Police fatally shot Sayed Faisal, a student at the University of Massachusetts. Most publicized has been the killing of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers. Nichols’ brutal beating was captured on video. A police report filed by the officers stated that Nichols was the aggressor and reached for an officer’s weapon. The video released clearly contradicts the report.
Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, igniting mass protests from coast to coast. Officers filed a report stating that Floyd’s death was a result of a “medical incident.” Cellphone video proves that it was in fact murder. Atlanta Police murdered Manuel Teran in the forest. No body camera footage of the event exists; the police charge the deceased with firing the first shot. Now there are indications that the officer wounded in the attack may have been hit by friendly fire.
Invariably, police act with impunity; they receive protection from the state as they protect the state. Rare is the case that an officer is held to account for brutality or murder. Convictions like the Minneapolis officer who killed George Floyd is the exception, not the rule. This was a concession to the movement, just as the quick firing and arrest of the Memphis police for killing Tyree Nichols. The tactic serves to calm, and is meant to give credibility to the criminal justice system.
Democrats reassure and cajole, but at the same time, they continue to construct an apparatus for the means of repression. Atlanta is poised to erect what is essentially a military base for their department. Militarization of policing has been discussed for decades but it is now accelerating. Chicago’s version of Cop City opened after Mayor Lightfoot did the honors at a ribbon cutting ceremony. Chicago residents opposed the Cop Academy overwhelmingly; they were overruled by the city. Whereas Atlanta’s Cop City is $90 million, Chicago spent $128 million constructing an Academy on the West Side. A decade ago Rahm Emmanuel closed 54 schools, many on the West Side where the Academy is located. Chicago also has a homeless population with tens of thousands living in the streets but the city builds fake housing for CPD exercises to hone their urban warfare skills.
The class war’s frontlines are the Black community, and the special bodies of armed men defend the state and the state will defend the special bodies of armed men at the expense of the community (https://rampantmag.com/2023/01/from-atlanta-to-chicago-cop-cities-breed-violence/).
A large majority of Atlantans oppose Cop City. Atlanta City Council held public comment and 70% opposed the 30% in favor were connected to Atlanta Police Foundation APD or wealth sections of the city which threatens secession. The Atlanta campaign to stop the construction of Cop City is a moment with potential to create a mass movement that transcends single issue drives.
The myth of defunding
Meanwhile, far-right Republicans are engaging in an offensive against the left that cannot be remedied by Democratic Party compromise. Both are the parties of “order” and consistently reaffirm their support for law enforcement at the expense of the communities that are most policed and subjected to brutality. They are the servants of capital and have nothing substantive to offer the Black working class or the working class in general. The state will not protect against the armed institutions that defend it. Last year (2022), police murdered 1176, an average of nearly 100 a month. Last year’s total is an increase from 1156 in 2020, the year of the nationwide protests against police brutality and murder. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/jan/06/us-police-killings-record-number-2022
Although a bevy of law enforcement, reactionary politicians and television personalities, as well as newspapers, continue to propagate the misleading notion that cities around the country defunded police departments, funding for law enforcement has in fact risen.
The president made clear the ruling class’s opposition to the demands of the movement to defund the police. In last year’s State of the Union Address, President Biden stated unequivocally the position of the political establishment: “The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them all.” This elicited an ovation from both sides of the aisle. https://abcnews.go.com/US/defunding-claims-police-funding-increased-us-cities/story?id=91511971
Accordingly, Biden’s proposed budget for the Department of Justice for 2023 is $37.65 billion, compared to $35 billion in fiscal year 2022 and just over $32 billion in 2020. Law enforcement and prisons comprise 46% and 27% respectively of the DOJ budget.
A study of over 100 local police departments found that most cities had increased funding by at least 2% in 2022, and 49 departments had received increases greater than 10%. In 2022, Los Angeles raised police funding to a level 9% over 2019. Meanwhile, Chicago had a 15% increase for 2022 over 2019 figures. Both cities are run by Democratic Party administrations. In Los Angeles County, the Sheriff’s Department budget increased from $3.5 billion in 2020 to $3.86 billion for fiscal year 2022 and $250 million since 2019.
Notably, Minneapolis—which spent 37% of its general funds on policing in 2020—promised to reimage public safety, but the city council reneged. Austin, Texas, proposed and enacted a 30% reduction in the police budget in 2021, redirecting priorities to other means of addressing social problems, including mental health and the prevention of domestic violence. However, the state legislature usurped municipal control by passing a bill barring any Texas city from reducing funding for law enforcement. Consequently, instead of a decrease of police funding, Austin increased its department’s budget by 50% in 2022. Florida’s legislature likewise prohibited cities from reducing and or redirecting funding from law enforcement.
Police Departments receive military hardware via Program 1033, which ships excess Department of Defense property to local law enforcement free of charge. In 1990, 1991, and 1997, National Defense Authorization Acts allowed for the transfer of excess DOD property, including weapons, to federal, state, and local law enforcement; 1033, as it’s commonly known, refers to the section of the 1997 Act that gives authorization to the Secretary of Defense to grant the transfer of military weapons to local law enforcement for “counter drug and counter terrorism activities” (https://policefundingdatabase.org/explore-the-database/military-equipment/).
Law enforcement can purchase military supplies through the program. In a report from CNBC, police departments were found to pay only for shipping and maintenance, and “over 11,500 law enforcement agencies have taken part in the 1033 program.” “This is really about creating a new market for defense contractors, rather than putting questions of public safety first,” according to Alex Vital, Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College (https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/09/why-police-pay-nothing-for-military-equipment.html).
Police foundations are opaque organizations supported by over a thousand corporations. They are classified as private charities and not subject to public disclosure, as is the case with police budgets. Contributing firms span all industries from technology to real estate, retail, oil and gas, universities, and sports franchises. Hundreds of millions are provided by corporate funding, in addition to the billions spent officially by city governments. Of course, contributions to Police foundations contradict corporate America’s marketing public relations campaigns in support of Black Lives Matter.
UPS, Amazon, Bank of America, Delta Airlines, Coca Cola, Uber, Home Depot, Chick Fil A, Waffle House, and Wells Fargo are only a fraction of the firms giving financial support to law enforcement. Inspire—which houses Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Dunkin Doughnuts, and Baskin-Robbins—has ties to the Atlanta Police Foundation, a force backing construction of the infamous Cop City in the Weelaunee Forest. Inspire’s CEO is on its board of trustees. J.P. Morgan contributed billions to the cause of racial justice while being sued for discrimination. Nevertheless, the financial institution’s head of Regional Investment Banking also serves on the board of the Atlanta Police Foundation (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/18/police-foundations-nonprofits-amazon-target-microsoft).
Foundation money supplements the funding for local law enforcement. Police foundations are a direct product of U.S. capitalism. A business association led by real estate developers called the Association for a Better New York created the first foundation in 1971. Police foundations purchase items such as surveillance and other software, weapons, and fund K-9 and mounted units. “Police foundations function as a back channel to funnel private money and resources toward law enforcement without transparent oversight,” according to a Color For Change report.
In large cities, policing accounts for a third or more of the city budget. The following are percentages of city budgets allocated for policing from 2020: Chicago 37%, Minneapolis 37%, Los Angeles 33%, Atlanta 30%, Houston 36%, and Memphis 38%. Chicago and Los Angeles spent in excess of $1.7 billion on CPD and LAPD respectively, while Minneapolis, the scene of George Floyd’s murder, budgeted nearly $2 billion to its police department. Lastly, there is the $5.5 billion budget of the NYPD. Foundations added to the largesse. Even if a percentage point of two is shaved from a department’s budget, foundation support will cover the difference.
The combination of massive local police budgets, material support from corporations, and weapons supplied by the Department of Defense are contributing factors producing what resembles local army units. These forces are directed against the working class, in particular the working class in motion. Mass movements that are perceived as a threat at a certain stage invariably experience the wrath of the state with the backing of capital.
Where there is Black rebellion, there is an armed force deployed to quell the uprising. Policing’s role in the Black community is always that of an occupying force. Surveillance, infiltration, crushing rebellions, and murder are part of the continuing oppression of Black America. The occupying force by its very nature is not there to serve that community but to maintain “order” until the ruling class forcibly removes the residents and reclaims the area for capital with their condominiums, high-rise office spaces, and multi-billion-dollar sports complexes.
Race and criminology
Historically, science has been deployed to rationalize oppression. But now, there is a revival of research into so-called biological causes of criminality as an alternative to considering the material conditions. The Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, in a report from October 2021, urged an examination of incarcerated persons’ biology to establish their criminal tendency as well as an examination of brain chemistry. Advocates of this approach believe, “excluding known biological and genetic factors that affect behavior … the criminal justice system would be suppressing its ability to fully benefit from its correctional efforts.”
Biosocial criminology has gained prominence in some top criminology programs. Historically, this approach has led to the characterization of some racial groups as predisposed to criminal activity, including acts of violence. Based on assumptions about biology, behavior must be attributed to the individual, not one’s existence in a state of deprivation and racial discrimination.
Anthony Walsh, a former police and probation officer turned criminologist, turned to the biosocial method as it seemed that “everything and everybody was accountable for the crime, except the guy who committed it.” Walsh believed that evolutionary biology and genetics might serve to “explain why some people offend, and others do not.” He would later adopt the speculative theory that whites were more evolved than Blacks, thus resulting in Black people’s disproportionate representation in the prison population.
Such theories face opposition; the organizer of an event funded by the National Institute of Health depicted Black neighborhoods as jungles—which resulted in his funding being lost. Even in criminology, the prevailing view acknowledges the findings of other disciplines that material conditions, including poverty and racial discrimination, are factors to be weighed in the criminal justice system.
Daanika Brooks of Tufts University said in an interview, “Many of today’s Black-white racial patterns reflect those that emerged decades ago through discriminatory practices.” The divide is intentional, creating ghettos through redlining, restrictive covenants, violence, and white flight. Brooks examines the comparative difference between policing in districts that are “downtown, middle class, affluent and predominantly white residential neighborhoods, and one that includes predominantly Black neighborhoods and some of the cities poorest areas.” In the former, police respond promptly and collaborate with residents and business owners. In the latter, police are much more prone to respond with violence (https://now.tufts.edu/2020/06/17/how-racial-segregation-and-policing-intersect-america).
Resources-deprived neighborhoods are heavily policed, as was illustrated during the 2020 protests in Chicago, where some of the most intense police violence occurred while defending downtown businesses along the “Magnificent Mile” of Michigan Avenue.
Stop the masses
From the investigations of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, what many have always known is now officially established: There is a deep connection between law enforcement and white supremacists. In the current period the right has gained power in many states and is wielding it to preempt mobilizations on the scale of the anti-police brutality protests of 2020.
State legislatures are drafting laws restricting or banning forms of protest and political expression. The new laws enhance penalties for blocking traffic, graffiti, and removing monuments. In some cases they prevent protesters from suing, while giving legal protection to those who injure or kill protesters, and allowing greater discretion to law enforcement to disperse crowds.
These laws as proposed are intended to protect private property, maintain order, and discourage public dissent in the form of mass protests. There are 236 bills in 45 states, with 39 enacted and 12 pending. Proposed federal legislation included banning protests on interstate highways; penalties included 15 years in prison and a $10,00 fine. This bill failed. Also defeated was a bill to deny small business loans to anyone convicted of participating in a”riot.”
Federal legislation that proposed banning protests near pipelines was likewise defeated. But several states—including Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, and South Dakota—did pass their own version of this legislation instituting penalties for protesting near oil and gas pipelines. Alabama also passed legislation giving Lauderdale County the ability to control locations of protest and to charge fees. There are laws in multiple states expanding the definition of a “riot.” Legislation to prohibit demonstrations on campuses and residences was proposed in some states but not enacted. Another law that was defeated would have banned teachers protesting in support of teachers’ strikes. Missouri HB. 143 would have prohibited public employees from striking. Tennessee proposed a ban on protests on the state capitol grounds. Although some of the more authoritarian legislation was defeated, they will likely be revived in future legislative sessions (see https://www.icnl.org/usprotestlawtracker/).
Despite the violence of far-right protests and the well known propensities of neo-fascist and militia groups, most of the confrontations have occurred between police and left movements, including Black Lives Matter and the massive mobilization of 2020. Beatings, pepper spray, tasers, teargas, “non-lethal munitions,” and even police vehicles were used against protesters. Meanwhile, laughs and handshakes have been exchanged between right-wing groups and law enforcement as they assault counter-protesters. “To the extent that the claim is about this method, those kinds of provisions make it clear that it’s actually about the message of protest,” says Vera Eidelman of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Unity and collaboration
Fortifying our forces against strains of reformism, ultra-leftism, and reactionary conservatism is necessary to forestall the usual dissipation and demoralization that is frequently experienced. The task is to enlist greater involvement of the Black working class, which is historically the target of police brutality and murder. Involvement of trade-union members is essential in the fight against corporate power, which finances the Police Foundations.
It must be articulated that the role of police is the protection of private property, specifically bourgeois property, and their interests are served by increased militarization. More people are coming to the conclusion that capitalism is the problem; an understanding based on class analysis can help sustain the movement.
At the same time, we have to move beyond the episodic nature of movements of the last few years. For example, Black communities across the country are also the dumping grounds for toxic materials, as in the case of San Francisco’s Bay View-Hunters Point neighborhood, where the former Hunter’s Point Naval Base left radioactive materials that sickened residents. That is likewise true with the Black communities in Michigan whose drinking water is contaminated with lead. Collaboration between the movement against environmental destruction and the struggle against state violence are part of building beyond single-issue campaigns. Black people are regularly subjected to both, but all movements for social change are confronted with the prospect of violent responses from the state.
The state has no solutions to the declining conditions of the working class in general, and as the decades have illustrated, the only resource dedicated to the Black community is armed repression. The protests of 2020 were not just national but international, illustrating that the movement forces are there but need a solid ground on which to stand. Every stage of the Black liberation movement generates a reactionary moment, though such moments vary in duration. The ebb and flow tests the development of the movement and its leadership. Can the leadership guide the masses through the inevitable storm to come?
Photo: Protesters in Louisville, Ky., in September 2020, following the shooting of Breonna Taylor. (John Minchillo / AP)