Who Wants More Cops?

Oakland Neighborhood Associations Sell Out with ‘Community Policing’

Organized neighborhood groups—representing a small handful of voices—say they speak for all of Oakland as they advocate bringing police, the gun-wielding arms of the state, deeper into the fabric of the city. Couched in euphemistic ‘community policing’ advocacy, pro-cop citizen lobbying groups are pushing for an initiative in the November elections to add 120 more cops to the Oakland PD—after lobbying against a March initiative that would have added only 30 new cops.

Increasing cop presence does nothing to address people’s fears, because cops respond only to their own agenda, which features fear and disempowerment as primary tactics for keeping people ‘in line’. Fortunately, viable models exist for grassroots community patrols that increase neighborhood safety outside of the police-state web. We can look to examples from the Black Panthers to countless neighborhood ‘Pink Shirt’ patrols, to formulate a forward-looking response to the repressed, uncreative pro-cop drivel that serves the state so well.

Who’s calling for more cops? Despite the countless creative ways that people are organized and active in their communities, it’s the picket-fence ‘neighborhood groups’—the North Oakland Voters Association, the North Lake Neighbors Association, etc.—which have a direct line to the Oakland City Council and the Oakland Police Dept. Frequently representing a minute cross-section of a neighborhood’s diversity, neighborhood groups provide the police with cover—in the form of willing complaints from a ‘respectable’ organization of Neighbors—to bust nuisance activities. Not surprisingly, this is one active front on the class war, with nuisances including everything from pesky recycling thieves and noisy nightclubs, to drug dealing, to more destructive acts lumped under the misshapen headline Gang Violence.

Recent enactment of nuisance eviction legislation makes community policing particularly deadly. Landlords are now empowered to evict tenants for being a ‘nuisance’ to the neighborhood—having loud parties, lots of people loitering around a house, unkept yards, etc. For parolees, nuisance evictions are criminalized to count as a second or third strike. Not surprisingly, the police are using this tool to place parolees under even more intense scrutiny.

Quite obviously, the system of cops, courts, and prisons is not stopping the violence that seems part-and-parcel of Oakland neighborhood life. Making rules does not suddenly transform or stop a situation; punishments are not solutions. Of course, the behaviors that cops pretend to want to address are what they are making their money on. The cops’ goal is to have more cops, not to work themselves out of a job. A framework of tickets, fines, and parole guidelines, spiraling upwards into the roar of the ghettobird helicopter, is merely an excuse for not addressing the life/death situation at hand: People are driven, even encouraged, to break the law—whether by committing acts insane or petty—in order to survive.

The basic purpose of police, of course, is not to promote general citizen well-being, but to maintain the basic power dynamics in our society. Their suspicion-driven concept of community safety means harassing into line anybody who does not fit into a very narrow window of appropriate behavior. Fortunately, the police (state) does not have unlimited resources, and this is where ‘community policing’ fits in, a bizarre euphemism for making us do their dirty work, co-opting folks’ legitimate desires for safety. Report drug deals! Call in suspicious characters! Take a stand—call the police! Conversely, community policing implies that we’re bad neighbors, bad citizens, inclined to criminality ourselves if we don’t rat on the bad people down the street.

When something serious happens, the police response is based squarely in the culture of violence that bred the disaster in the first place. People in gangs, people committing ‘crimes’, are just that—people, who amidst the media-glitzed thug life might be looking for a surrogate family and a sense of belonging. ‘Gang members’ are stereotypically inflated into inhuman violence machines to breed fear, resentment, and disempowerment in everybody. It takes a lot to rip out somebody’s heart, but the police state actively encourages a culture of violence, between uncontrollable cop violence, the cop mentality itself, the prison plantation system. If everybody—the people in gangs, the people afraid of them, the people who only see them on TV—were empowered, we would not be in this situation.

We are stuck in this cycle—but we don’t have to be. There are viable models for the real security and safety that comes from knowing you can deal with situations in your neighborhood without calling in another violent gang, the cops. The response to community policing is anti-cop, pro-people community patrols, of which there is a rich, varied history. Some groups, like the Black Panthers and CopWatch, have focused on patrolling the police themselves, establishing community control of the police instead of letting the police control the community. Countless other groups work on the pink shirt/lavender shirt model, frequently used to support queer folx, with people going out in small groups to provide a visible safety alternative to the police. The Mujeres Libres, in Condega, Nicaragua, are a group of women who provide support in domestic violence situations, confronting perpetrators at work to make sure violence does not continue at home. The Nation of Islam has a network of security forces in cities around the US who provide security in situations where real cops or rent-a-cops would normally be used. Girl Army and other self-defense outlets emphasize personal empowerment over reliance on outside forces.

As we work to fit models to meet our own community’s needs, there are a number of questions we can consider. To what degree is violence or nonviolence useful in community patrols? Where is the line between a community patrol and vigilantism? How do we effect personal and community empowerment without becoming goons? Can we do the work to make community patrols ensure everybody’s safety and welcome in a neighborhood, instead of sliding into the exclusion of certain people based on the same tired norms that currently plague us? Can we outsmart the cop mindgame and see drug dealing for what it is, itself a non-violent business transaction? Can we encourage a culture of harm reduction instead of self destruction?

Grassroots community organizing is rarely simple. There is no substitute for knowing and respecting our neighbors, all of them. Chatting with 5-10 people within our comfort zone does not negate the need to build bridges with people who seem very different than us, but live only a few houses away. Fortunately, community patrols have a rich and varied history that makes them a practical focus for grassroots organizing. They’re a good action-oriented response to liberal impotence: “I worked the schools, I volunteered at the rec center, and they’re still dealing across the street!”

Community patrols encourage people to be active on the very streets they’re fearful of, the streets they travel every day. They have the potential to effect both direct improvements in people’s lives, and structural change within the system, by challenging the power and relevance of the police. In neighborhoods as diverse as Oakland’s, radical organizing around community safety has the potential to address the culture of violence that perpetuates homicides, the undertone of racism and classism that sustains complaints about noisy nightclubs and recycling thieves, and control of the police state in our lives. We can call out community policing as bullshit, because the path to a viable alternative is clear.