Many Fire Next Time members have helped organize responses to police violence. A common pattern we’ve noticed with these cycles of struggle is: 1) the police murder or brutalize someone; 2) people in the neighborhood, local organizations and revolutionaries respond with press conferences, rallies, marches and other actions; radicals try to call out the politicians and NGOs that show up to mediate such struggles, try to push for solutions beyond legal reforms, and try to connect the incident to broader systems of oppression; 3) the momentum eventually dies down, and often the incident is either ignored or absorbed into a lengthy court case; and 4) somewhere down the line, police brutality occurs again, and the pattern repeats.
How do we break out of this cycle, and unleash broader, and more profound, waves of resistance? Here are some points from a recent FNT email exchange, which draw on the experiences of FNT members in New York and try to point us in the right direction.
1. When police murdered an unarmed teen in the North Bronx earlier this year, people attended community meetings in significant numbers for the first few weeks, but quickly dropped off. We continued to hold meetings, but we couldn’t maintain attendance even as we did ongoing street agitation and social events in the area. We argued for forming local “block defense” committees at meetings and in conversations, and people were passively into it, but they didn’t flock to the idea in large numbers. Instead folks from the area proposed a range of courses of action, from holding “know your rights” trainings to demanding staff changes at the precinct, etc. We held “know your rights” trainings and tried to move to block-by-block meetings, but it didn’t work. This showed that we aren’t in a moment in which upsurges will immediately give rise to oppositional mass organization in neighborhoods, though you might be able to form a mass organization for an immediate reformist goal (like, say, removing the precinct commander.)
2. In the mid-Bronx this year, we organized a speakout after police viciously beat a local teen (call him Kid A) for no reason, but we had to cancel the event last-minute when relatives of Kid A were arrested for allegedly shooting and killing a different kid on a nearby block (call it Block B), with whom they had beef. Threats soon came over the Facebook grapevine that the crew from Block B had threatened to show up at the speakout and shoot the place up. We doubted they would do it; but the threat, plus the trauma of having several relatives on Rikers facing serious charges, made Kid A’s family want the speakout cancelled, so we nixed it. This experience (plus other convos in the area) taught us that the internal contradictions within neighborhoods have created a climate of pervasive distrust and violence, such that it’s VERY difficult for people to commit to the idea of kicking out the cops, or to imagine joining together with masses of people from nearby blocks. Until these contradictions are dealt with, it seems unlikely that we’ll find large numbers of leaping to participate in some kind of mass self-defense (or even mass copwatch) grouping.
3. A few months later, the cops shot and killed an unarmed man outside a bodega which lies almost directly between Kid A’s block and Block B. At an initial speakout and vigil after the murder, we had the dumb luck to meet a dude who lived on Block B: he was a little older, interested in Huey Newton and Panther history, and wanted to chill out the violence between sets of young teenagers. We stayed out late talking with him and meeting others on the corner, and came back throughout the following week to build more. Because we had some relationships in the area and a little knowledge of the local political terrain, we were soon able to organize a march against the local precinct.
Our route carried us down Kid A’s block, hit the precinct, marched through some local projects (where a young boy had been killed in a crossfire recently) and looped through Block B on our way back. We stopped, spoke, and passed the bullhorn at each location, and passed out the flyer below, calling for peace on the block and unity against bosses, landlords and police. Some of Kid A’s family even participated in the march, though they were scared of retaliation. Everyone in the march recognized the significance of going onto Block B, due to its rep and the fact so many people from that block have been killed, and folks quickly took up the chant “stop killer cops / unite all blocks.” Of course this action is only an initial step, but shows that we may be able to channel the temporary unity created by police violence to address the ongoing contradictions that prevent unity between incidents of police violence, and thus lay the groundwork for “block defense”-type formations in the future.
4. In the neighborhood of the most recent police murder, we’re currently searching for the best way to shift from protest wave to ongoing organizing in the neighborhood. There are many options: calling community meetings on pressing local issues, holding study groups with the most politically advanced folks we meet, doing agitation on the street or social dinners in the area, or attempting to organize a local, probably reformist, campaign. Right now we’re trying to consolidate the relationships we established during the recent wave, which connect us to a base of relations in the neighborhood, and to deepen whatever new consciousness was established through it. This base of relations might serve as a network to draw upon in future organizing, or could pull us into future events in the area.
These are just some partial notes toward the challenges of responding to police violence. Here are some questions we are left with:
• When and why do people commit to more organizational / organized forms of resistance?
• What kind of hope do people need to stay in the movement? This is cheesy, but what is the relationship of political vision or possibility to people’s commitment?
• Has police brutality been framed by the left in ways that are too simplistic and limited to move things forward? What strategic insights do we gain by grappling with the reaction of working class (broadly speaking) people to police brutality mobilizations?
• What cross roads does this struggle face considering the intense militarization of police, and the limitations of community control?
• How does unemployment effect people’s ability to fight police? How does the NGO-ization of the Black and Latino left effect responses to police violence?
• Under what conditions are “block defense” or other forms of incipient dual power possible? What conditions would have to exist for people to take up this program as their own?
— by BA JIN, SHEMON and ARTURO
Photo credits: Featured image courtesy of DENNIS FLORES. Banner photo courtesy of ISH. Flyer courtesy of TAKE BACK THE BRONX.