Notes on the day-to-day activities of the police state

By Arjun Pandava

“The police occupy our community as a foreign troop occupies territory.” –Huey P. Newton, 1968, Interview from jail.

Recent civil unrest in the United States has dragged into mainstream spotlight the violent relationship between state security forces and America’s Black population—specifically, the fact that Black people are routinely killed during security operations. But killings are only the tip of the bloody iceberg of violence and dehumanization that defines the state’s relationship with Black communities, communities of color in general, and the working class—a fact that mainstream narratives about police violence often seems to miss. For your standard American liberal, the response to police killings is to quickly put forward policy proposals around grand jury reform, or talk about citizen oversight committees, or other reforms that are underpinned by an ideology that sees the system as one that just needs a few tweaks to “get right”.

As radicals, our inclination must be to oppose this kind of superficial analysis and, as Angela Davis famously put it, to “grasp things by the root” and understand the fundamental dynamics of what we observe in the world. This requires recognizing and investigating into the ways that the state deploys surveillance and day-to-day acts of coercion against criminalized communities, as well as how this deployment is underpinned with the logic of capital accumulation.

Surveying State Violence

Ferguson, the municipality that first sparked the waves of anti-police rage that swept the nation, is a town which has undergone a demographic transformation in the past decade or so; as the housing and labor markets ebbed and flowed, working-class Blacks moved (and were displaced) into the cheaper apartment complexes in the city. Lock-step with the demographic changes, state security forces saw fit to erect “concrete barriers, fences, and gates” around targeted areas; Michael Brown’s apartment complex was so heavily barricaded that most of the time there was only one way in and out for residents.1 This practice of targeting working-class Black communities was one that was reproduced in municipalities across St. Louis County, and one that occasionally went too far even in the eyes of local state leadership. Take Darren Wilson’s employment history, for example: previous to his position with the Ferguson Police Department, he was an officer with the Jennings Police Department—a department so endemically corrupt, and so over-the-top in its racist brutalization of local population, that in 2011 the city council voted to fire the entire department and create a new one from scratch.2

It is important to place the violence of the state security forces into the context of economic exploitation. Within days of the Michael Brown killing and amidst the unrest that rocked Ferguson, a local law non-profit released a damning report about the racist and predatory nature of municipal courts in St. Louis County. The presented evidence pointed toward the fact that the budgets of local governments were heavily dependent on extracting money from working-class Black communities through punitive fines, facilitated by a Kafka-esque maze of regulations, bureaucratic barriers, and surveillance.3,4 Residents who are fined for minor infractions such as broken tail-lights, speeding, failing to signal a turn, etc., are regularly asked to appear in court, which comes with additional fees—it is routine for courts to order defendants to pay fees that are triple their monthly income. Failure to pay these fees can result in jail time, which itself comes with fees that are stacked on top of the original court fees, creating a brutal positive feedback cycle that can lock people into poverty.

It was found that of all the municipalities in St. Louis County, three were especially prone to systemic, predatory behavior—one of these three was the Ferguson Municipal Court. The Ferguson courts and the local police routinely and disproportionately stop and search Black residents: while Blacks are 67% of the population, they are 86% of all traffic stops, and are twice as likely to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested as are Whites. Persistent harassment is a highly lucrative strategy for the city; in 2013 Ferguson Municipal Courts raked in $2.6 M from fines and court fees, in addition to issuing over 24,500 warrants (on average, about 3 warrants per household). In what appears to be a revenue-maximizing strategy, the court (which is only open three times a month) routinely starts sessions half an hour before the official start time, and locks the doors five minutes after this time, making it incredibly easy for defendants to miss their appointment and have warrants issued for failure to appear.

In addition, the content of court proceedings reinforces the idea that these are revenue generating entities: defendants who are too poor to pay fines are regularly threatened with three to four days of jail time by the judge, and coerced to call anybody and everybody they know who could give the courts money—a practice that is disturbingly similar to how a criminal enterprise might negotiate a hostage deal. Dimensions of Kafka-style bureaucracy are also apparent, with one individual recounting a story of how the courts refused to let her in with her child, and was subsequently charged with child endangerment when she left her child outside; and several stories where people show up in court to pay fines for driving with suspended licenses, only to get pulled over right outside the parking lot because a cop inside the court room overheard this information.

In-depth studies of predatory and extractive policing tend to be hard to come by; but information about routine violence during day-to-day security operations around the country is far too easy to acquire. In Philadelphia, the police who operate in one particularly poor Black community are described by a University of Pennsylvania researcher as being “at full-fledged war with residents—they beat up people under arrest, steal from suspects, smash up homes while serving warrants and use the results of surveillance to turn lovers or family members against one another”.5 In Washington D.C., police routinely use a tactic labeled by locals as “jump-outs”, where multiple officers arbitrarily ambush groups of people by jumping out of unmarked cars, rushing them with weapons drawn, and then searching and interrogating detainees hoping to find contraband or glean information. Targets are usually young Black men, and many report being ambushed several times a week while out with friends and family.6 And in Cleveland—where twelve-year old Tamir Rice was gunned down while holding a toy gun—violence as routine policy was at such an absurd level that it attracted a review by the Justice Department, which blasted the department as “chaotic and dangerous”; the report reviewed incidents such as one where a woman was beaten on her front porch after she had made a joke at a nearby officer, and another where a young man was beaten while handcuffed in the back of a police car, and also noted that Cleveland cops had hung up a sign at one police station that labeled it as a “forward operating base”—making Huey P. Newton’s half-a-century-old comments about the police as an occupying force still ring dangerously true.7 And as in Ferguson, all of this day-to-day violence of the state is tinged with the logic of capital accumulation; just through the widespread practice of civil asset forfeiture, where the police can confiscate money and property at their own discretion, state security forces across the nation have pulled in revenues in excess of $2.5B—much of it seized from individuals who were never convicted of a crime.8

In Oakland, state security forces mimic Ferguson by adhering to a policy of prowling working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods for people to detain and search. Data collected between April 2013 and October 2014 shows that out of 44,1142 stops, Black people made up 59% of stops (while composing 28% of the population); while White people made up 13% of the stops (while composing 26% of the population). The data also showed that after being stopped, Black people were three times more likely to be searched than White people. 9 On further analysis, the data shows that a majority of these stops were for minor traffic violations (67%), a significant number of which were for trivial vehicle code violations—essentially punishing the poor for being unable to afford repairs to keep old cars up to code, and replicating the cycle of fines, court fees, and jail time that is endemic in places like Ferguson. 10

In addition, California police departments and city elites seem to be getting increasingly fond of using gang injunctions—a tactic where cities can label “gangs” as a public nuisance, and order accused gang members to stay away from certain areas and no longer associate, gather, or travel with one another. Gang injunctions are supposedly to protect the communities and neighborhoods onto which injunctions are placed; unsurprisingly, they typically criminalize communities of color (especially youth) and make it easier for the state to place residents under surveillance. Much of this is because once an initial injunction is signed off by a judge, there is very little oversight (sometimes none) over who gets added onto the list by police.

Furthermore, it seems that California police departments have siphoned off some of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit and have been deploying novel methods of surveillance and coercion. One of the most disturbing trends in this entrepreneurship has been the use of “gang injunctions”, where cities place curfews and restraining orders on accused gang members preventing them from being in certain areas and outside at all during certain times, as well as restrictions on who they talk to and associate with. Between 2006 and 2009, four injunctions were placed in four San Francisco neighborhoods with a high level of alleged gang activity—which also happened to be areas targeted for development, raising accusations from locals, and even a District Supervisor, that injunctions were being used as a tool for gentrification and a way to profile, harass, and monitor the target communities’ predominantly Black and Latin@ residents.11 There are certainly serious questions raised by the fact that many of the accused “gang members” are not actually gang members at all, but people that have dropped out of the gang life, or are only associated with gangs by proxy of being friends and family of the accused (a quality of injunctions that is particularly widespread in Los Angeles).12,13 In Oakland, the gentrification angle seems clearer; two injunctions placed in North Oakland and Fruitvale were marketed by the Oakland police as being a good way to target hotspots of violence—despite the fact that neither area has the highest rates of gang activity, although they are adjacent to areas slated by the city for redevelopment.14

On Fighting Back

If there is one thing clear from this survey of the underlying forces of state security operations in the United States, it is that the material conditions that created the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s continues to exist today. Communities of color, particularly Black people, face continuous dehumanization and outright violence at the hands of the police; and today, arguably unlike the 1960s, this violence stems not just from the state’s need to control a potentially rebellious population, but also from decades of neoliberal restructuring of state institutions and the development of profitable methods of extracting capital from populations rendered superfluous in the eyes of global capitalism.

One of the main reasons why the Black Panthers—and more particularly, the strategies they deployed—had such a rapid rise in popularity and support in the few short years after they were founded in 1966 was because they created immediate and tangible benefits for people, that created obvious incentives for joining or at least being supportive. Initially, the Party was founded as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, as simply a self-defense group for Black people against police. The benefits were clear: by carrying out armed patrols of the police, harassment and violence was reduced. Today, such benefits might even be compounded by self-defense squads not only being able to reduce physical violence, but economic violence as well and acting directly against the predatory policing that can throw one out of a job, out of a rented home, and into a cycle of (deeper) debt and poverty.

This kind of direct, immediate rebellion against the state was what was needed in the late ‘60s—much to the dismay of political and economic elites and local so-called “community leaders”, who continuously tried to reign in and pacify participants of the increasingly violent riots that rocked cities across the US during this time period. In this sense, the Panthers did not so much lead the insurgency that was to grip the US in the years to follow, but rather simply read and understood the signs that were becoming increasingly obvious about the need for armed resistance and outright rebellion against the status quo. This situation echoes what we are beginning to see today, where “community leaders” and establishment elites chastise and repress militants in Ferguson and Oakland, while refusing to do anything about the conditions and policies that sparked the rage in the first place.

However, it is critical to understand that the Panthers did not gain popularity just because of their open militancy against the state; just as important—perhaps more so—were the social programs and community-based enterprises that they established, that addressed the day-to-day needs of impoverished Black communities, like food and medical care, that neither government institutions nor private businesses were willing to provide. The Panthers opened up breakfast programs, health clinics, and other critical services that—just like self-defense squads—had immediate, tangible benefits to either joining the Panthers or being supportive. And when the self-defense squads evolved from not just confronting and fighting the police, but also attacking institutions of capitalism (robbing banks, sticking up heroin dealers, expropriating cash from exploitative businesses), both the military power of the Panthers as well as their ability to support community-owned services were bolstered.

This kind of materialist analysis is critical for understanding and arguing not just how to resist the police state, and not just how to resist state and capital in general, but how to turn resistance and rebellion into a revolutionary movement. Radical action can intervene in the direction and dynamic of how capital flows, resist and invert the extraction of wealth from the masses that is capitalism’s equilibrium state, and create the economic platform on which revolutionary struggle becomes a self-fulfilling process.

And let us make no mistake that revolutionary struggle is essential to solving the question of police violence, entangled as the institution of security is to the institution of property. As long as class society exists, so too will the propertied classes use violence to defend and expand their holdings, and keep society divided in terms of race, ethnicity, and nationality. Only in attacking capitalism, redistributing wealth, and allowing people and communities to have autonomy over economic and political decision-making, can we end the racist, extractive violence of the police.