Earlier this month over a hundred activists and nonprofits came together in a “town-hall” of which the stated purpose was to “change the NYPD”. According to speakers at this event, improving the relationship between civilians and the police would only be possible once people were willing to rally around legislation to end stop-and-frisk as well as demand more accountability within the police department.
What was absent, however, at this meeting and in much of the organizing happening around stop-and-frisk over the last year is an unwillingness among organizers to expand demands and push debate beyond the courts. Part of this problem, we feel, is rooted in the lack of historical analysis of the policing institution – which at its inception was created to catch runaway slaves and protect a system of white supremacy from the threat of black resistance.
Of course, if there is anything we should take from current stop-and-frisk statistics and the countless police murders of black youth, is that the police very much “serve and protect” today in the same manner they did over a century ago. Therefore, we ask organizers, both paid nonprofit workers and activists, how do you expect to “change” an institution that at its very core is racist?
Writer Kristian Williams of Our Enemies in Blue attempts to answer this when he states that the police’s function of protecting white supremacy “has remained constant even when the laws have changed. That is even when it has conflicted with their official duties, the police have acted as a repressive force against the interests of people of color.”
Williams point, and what many reform activists are missing, is that while the tactics used by police departments have evolved throughout the years – either in response to the economic period or as a result of pressure from reform activists – the police have continued to play a key role in conserving white supremacy. This is despite the push by reformists for so-called “nicer cops”, which has only led to an increase in black and brown killer cops and the controversial strategy of “community policing”(which is nothing more than a PR campaign meant to cover up the increased militarization of our police departments).
Additionally, though reforms have been made to curtail police brutality in the past, new laws have rarely stopped police from violating citizen’s rights. Therefore, centering large campaigns around “know your rights”, as many New York City police reform organizations have recently begun, only creates a false sense of faith in laws that clearly do not protect the city’s poorest residents. This is especially apparent in the Bronx, where “rights” are nothing more than an empty concept to many youth, who despite knowing their rights, constantly find themselves victim to police officers acting outside the realm of legality.
That is not to say, however, that understanding ones rights and achieving small victories in courts is counterproductive. Although we do feel it is contradictory to center a struggle on achieving more rights when the few rights that exist offer little, if any protection for our communities.
Furthermore, fighting for reforms and court victories can be useful as a tactic, if (and only if) it is not isolated from a larger strategy that attempts to abolish our modern police departments and dismantle this fucked up society. If this dialogue is absent from reformist tactics (as it currently is in many circles in NY) than we will fail to move towards creating a new and better world.
In the Bronx, we have been working towards these goals mainly through two strategies: 1) mobilizing militant protests in response to acts of police violence and 2) building long-term relationships on blocks in preparation for defense committees. These tactics are meant both as a tool of resistance and as a path to construct community control.
However, we believe that this work needs to expand. Therefore, we are hoping to create a coalition that goes beyond politicians and the nonprofit model in order to reinvent the way in which we organize. Such a coalition would not look at police brutality in isolation but rather will connect it to the many forms of violence manifested in our communities. This means moving beyond our dependency on the courts and working towards alternatives that struggle for justice in the place where it matters most: the streets.
Enough with the silent marches, it is bout time we make our voices heard!