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Confronting the Pro-Police Backlash

The need for Black Lives Matter has never been greater.

Police officers attend funeral services for a slain NYPD officer in Brooklyn, New York, January 4, 2015. (Photo: a katz /

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In the days after the rebellion in Baltimore erupted last spring, most Americans assumed it was the beginning of a “long, hot summer.” According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 96 percent of Americans expected more “racially charged unrest around the country…similar to the…violence in Baltimore.”

The anticipated rebellious summer never came about, but the kindling for such conflagrations exist across the country. Police in the United States have been on a killing spree since the beginning of the year, according to the Guardian’s feature “The Counted.”

While the news media fretted about the possibility of “racially charged violence” in the form of riots and rebellions, it was the nation’s police who marched on, killing hundreds of people through the summer. From June through August, according to “The Counted,” 300 people were killed by police—a disproportionate number of them Black and Latino.

As of the beginning of September, American police had already killed a shocking 782 people since the beginning of the year. In a matter of days, police in the U.S. kill more people than are killed by police in their “peer” countries like Germany, Japan, England, Spain, Italy and France in a generation.

But to listen to the police and those who defend them, you would get the strange impression that it is the police who are being killed at a frightening pace.

When a Harris County, Texas, sheriff’s deputy was killed at the end of August by Shannon Miles, a 30-year-old African American man, it opened up the floodgates of right-wing invective and thinly veiled threats directed at the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) and the #BlackLivesMatter (#BLM) organization.

Though Miles has given no explanation for why he shot Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth, Harris County and Houston police officials wasted no time in blaming Goforth’s killing on the anti-racist movement.

County Sherriff Ron Hickman made things abundantly clear: “This rhetoric has gotten out of control. We’ve heard ‘Black lives matter,’ ‘All lives matter.’ Well, cops’ lives matter, too. So why don’t we just drop the qualifier, and just say ‘lives matter,’ and take that to the bank?”

The wild accusations weren’t just coming from Houston. The right wing across the country has used Goforth’s death to fulminate against the Black Lives Matter movement, in a blatant attempt to orchestrate a backlash.

Conservative television personality Elisabeth Hasselbeck pondered why #BLM was not listed as a “hate group.” Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly likewise declared #BLM a hate group and threatened to put it “out of business”—whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, looking to breathe life into his moribund campaign, declared, “Cops across this country are feeling the assault. They’re feeling the assault from the president, from the top on down as we see…Whether it’s in Ferguson or Baltimore, the response of senior officials of the president, of the attorney general, is to vilify law enforcement. That is fundamentally wrong, and it is endangering the safety and security of us all.”

Even President Obama saw fit to give credence to the hysteria of the right by making a public statement that promised he would “continue to highlight the uncommon bravery that police officers show in our communities every single day…Targeting police officers is completely unacceptable—an affront to civilized society.”

Based on this outpouring of public grief and handwringing from public officials, one might get the impression that police officers are constantly under threat of death. But according to all reports, policing as a profession is as safe today as it has ever been. It isn’t even listed among the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the U.S.

This, of course, is very different from how the police treat the public. American police kill like no other law enforcement agencies in the so-called First World. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report covering the years 2003-2009 and 2011 found that local and state law enforcement killed 7,427 people—an average of 928 people a year. And we know from studies such as “The Uncounted” that the number of dead is on the rise this year.

It’s clear that the police are the real threat to be feared, not the other way around.

But this orchestrated attack on Black Lives Matter is not about the threat that the movement poses to the physical safety of police. It is a police tantrum in response to the momentum of the BLM movement.

For more than a year now, American police have faced unprecedented scrutiny as the movement has cast an unrelenting light on the corrupt and illegal practices that undergird policing in the United States.

The unprecedented access to and use of social media has made mainstream media outlets superfluous as ordinary people reach for their phones to record police interactions with the public. Cell phone video, distributed by Facebook and Twitter, have revealed to the nation what Black America has known all along—the institution of policing is thoroughly racist and operates with impunity in Black and Brown communities of the poor and working class.

The police and their advocates have been on the defensive for months—every week seems to bring fresh visual or aural reminders of the brutality and lawlessness of American police. From the calculated execution of Walter Scott to the brutal arrest of Sandra Bland and her subsequent death in a jail cell, the police have been under the microscope. The attempt at a backlash is not only to put the brakes on possible reforms, to create a climate of intimidation against Black activists.

Buffoons like O’Reilly, Hasselbeck and other right-wing acolytes are parodies of themselves. But the attacks on the movement and some of its most visible leaders, like Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi of #BLM, should not be taken lightly.

When Black activists are compared to the “Gestapo” or the “Ku Klux Klan”—or, as one Fox News “analyst” ranted, “This group with the Black Lives Matters are a bunch of anarchists, the same faces that popped up in Ferguson. The same garbage cans. And now you’ve got another corpse. What about the young deputy who got shot in the head”—the conditions are being created for physical attacks or worse against them.

All activists should unite to condemn these unprovoked and irresponsible attacks on #BLM, its members and organizers. There have been many debates about the movement and about #BLM, but there should be no debate when it comes to unconditionally defending our movement from the police and the right wing.

This is not the first time that police have used the death of an officer as a cover to attack the movement.

Last December—the same month that thousands of people across the country were clogging the streets in protest against the failure to indict two officers in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island in New York City—two police officers were killed on December 20 in Brooklyn. NYPD Commissioner William Bratton was quick to declare: “Let’s face it, there’s been, not just in New York but throughout the country, a very strong anti-police, anti-criminal-justice-system, anti-societal set of initiatives underway.”

NYPD officers turned their back on the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio when he attended the funerals of the two slain officers, as punishment for de Blasio having said earlier in the year that “Black lives matter.” But in December, the movement was on its ascendency with enough momentum to withstand a concerted effort to rein it in.

This is a critical juncture for the Black Lives Matter movement, as the right mobilizes its supporters in opposition of any police reform and liberals operating largely in conjunction with the Democratic Party look to dramatically limit the scope of the struggle to a handful of procedural reforms that don’t actually defang the police.

The Democratic Party is quite anxious for BLM to redirect its attention to the 2016 presidential election. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats are worried about a depressed Black voter turnout, now that Barack Obama will no longer be on the ticket. If the movement were to embrace the next Democratic candidate, the party hopes, this would be the needed boost to ensure a robust Black turnout.

This explains the overtures to the movement from all the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But these appeals have not been well received. In fact, when the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, explicitly naming the founders of the #BLM group, leaders within #BLM rejected the resolution. In a brilliant response, #BLM wrote in part:

While the Black Lives Matter Network applauds political change toward making the world safer for Black life, our only endorsement goes to the protest movement we’ve built together with black people nationwide—not the self-interested candidates, parties, or political machine seeking our vote.

Attacks from the right and endless efforts by the Democrats to co-opt the movement require, now more than ever, that the different sectors of the movement across the country unite around a set of demands and organizing principles aimed at building the movement further, in neighborhoods, on campuses and in workplaces.

The Black Lives Matter movement is decentralized and looks different across the country. Some have held this up as a strength, claiming that its decentralization makes it impossible for single individuals or organizations to dominate the movement.

But that comes with a price. While it can mean maximum flexibility, it can also make it easy for anyone to attribute any and everything to Black Lives Matter. The greater coordination among the right and its declaration of war against BLM should give greater impetus to the movement to increase its collaboration and coordination. No movement ever operates with a single voice or organization, nor should it, but the BLM movement has also moved into a different stage and must shift its strategy accordingly.

If the first stage of this movement was intended to expose and highlight the sheer brutality of policing in the U.S., it has been unquestionably successful. After the last year, no one can seriously say that police misconduct or brutality is an isolated incident. But what comes next? The movement has yet to coalesce around any concrete demands that can unite the movement and provide a clear direction forward.

Recently, activists involved with We The Protesters—most prominently, Johnetta Elzie, DeRay McKesson and Brittany Packnett—have promoted Campaign Zero as a set of demands to “end police violence in America.” Elzie and McKesson are two of the most visible people in the movement, and Campaign Zero is the culmination of organizing they have been engaged with over the last year.

Campaign Zero is an effort to fill the obvious void created by the lack of real demands posed by the movement. The campaign makes some important suggestions for immediate reform of the police, including an end to “broken windows” policing, the demilitarization of police and an unconditional end to stop-and-frisk practices, among others.

But Campaign Zero is also deeply flawed in calling for police training and greater minority recruitment into police departments as positive reforms. These are similar to demands made on the police after the rebellions of the 1960s. As a result of these demands, the nation’s police forces have never experienced more racial, gender and sexual orientation diversity in American history. But this has done little to stop racist police practices.

Campaign Zero is also narrow in scope by focusing exclusively on the practices of the police. Now is not the time to narrow the focus of the movement—now is the time to draw on the connections between brutal policing and the web of inequality, racism and discrimination that ensnares the vast majority of Black and Brown, poor and working-class communities.

It is impossible to imagine transformative police reform while poverty, unemployment, substandard housing and unequal access to public education continue to pervade Black neighborhoods. This social inequality justifies the presence of the police in our neighborhoods.

One strength of the movement has been the ability of activists to connect racist policing to broader patterns of institutional racism. We have to further develop that generalization, not circumscribe it for narrowly conceived demands aimed at changing police procedures alone.

In the absence of a more radical alternative, the mainstream media have accepted Campaign Zero as the demands of the movement. There is an urgent need for the different strands of BLM from across the country to debate and agree on a set of strategic demands that fulfill both the long- and short-term demands of the movement.

These could include demands that focus on enforcement of existing policies that are intended to curb police violence, including massive fines against departments, and the defunding and closing of police precincts. In big cities across the country, mayors and city councils threaten public schools they believe to be failing with closure. Police are the only public institution allowed to flout rules, accrue massive debts and face no repercussions as a result.

Whatever demands the movement coalesces around, they should be connected to an organizing vehicle that mobilizes people to campaign and struggle for them. The demands don’t have to be exhaustive, but they should be coherent enough that the movement has a renewed sense of what it is fighting for in the current moment.

There is so much experience to draw from the many local campaigns people have been engaged in, before and since the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement. How did activists win the struggle for reparations for victims of police torture in Chicago? How did activists pressure the courts to sanction the NYPD’s practice of stop-and-frisk? How did activists in California win the ban on grand juries in cases involving police shootings of civilians? How have activists organized to dramatically curtail the use of the death penalty in the U.S.?

As the right wing unites with police representatives in a concerted attack on the Black Lives Matter movement, now is not the time to celebrate being “de-centralized,” with everyone is left to do their own thing. We need more organization, communication and coordination to learn from the different parts of our movement that have had some successes and even failures that the rest of us can learn from.

To achieve this means building a real network of activists and ordinary people that can unite the movement at the moment when it is being attacked on all sides. The need for Black Lives Matter has never been greater—we have a world to win.

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