Friday, September 18, 2009

Heretic revolutionaries and righteous police violence: Considering the double standard

Phoenix Insurgent

The Phoenix New Times has run a truly awful piece as the cover story in their most recent issue. In the article, entitled "Time Bomb", author Peter Jamison launches a full on, one-sided attack on former Weather Underground radicals, attempting to link them to a bombing of a police station in San Francisco in February 1970. Although it does a pretty shoddy job of making the case (the attack was claimed by another group and all the Weather people interviewed deny it), I don't want to go into the details. For me, that's not the most important thing about the article. Anyone with even a little knowledge of Weather and their exploits, as well as the shenanigans of the police following them, can find ample beef with the tone and many -- conveniently -- left out details.

But what I think is most instructive is the bias displayed in the article: the way that the police are framed as good guys and the double standard applied to revolutionaries versus those who engage in every day and ongoing violence (i.e., the police and the military). In the media, police are treated as saints. When they're killed, the media flocks to cover the "tragedy". In his piece, Jamison replicates this tendency to embrace the ruling class myth of the "peace officer" (a phrase he uses to contrast against the violent WU) when he doesn't bother to answer simple question about the policeman killed in the bombing: was he a good cop?

Now, anarchists of course know that there really is no such thing as a good cop (perhaps bad and less worse is a better rubric!), but for sake of argument, I think it's worth considering the fact that we have no idea whether this dead cop deserved this bomb or not? How can we judge whether he is a worthy martyr if the journalist writing the piece won't give us a look into his record? Did Officer Brian McDonnell have a sterling record? Did he have any complaints against him? Had he ever killed an unarmed man? Was he involved in corruption?

These things are all common amongst police. Surely, we need to know this information about Officer McDonnell before we can accept this writer's characterization of him as "peace officer", not least of all a martyr. But this mistake is a common one. We are just meant to believe that he is undeserving of his fate even though we have no information with which to make a judgment.

And since Jamison references the never carried through bombing of the non-commisioned officers dance party, it's worth noting that it goes likewise with soldiers. We see this today whenever a local boy or girl is brought home in a body bag. The hero-worship begins immediately. The flags come out and the tears are quick to follow. At no point does anyone point out that perhaps the resistance, such that it may be, was in all likelihood quite justified in killing the soldier. And likewise never is it pointed out that she was engaged in enforcing the will of the American political elite on poor people abroad. No, the death of the soldier necessarily eliminates all dialogue with regard to the motivations or character of the dead, not to mention what they did before they were killed.

This seems quite relevant but it is of course forbidden in the mainstream dialogue. A couple years ago I listened to testimony from the second Winter Soldiers hearings. One soldier there said after he came home from his first tour, he got the Arabic equivalent of "fuck you" tattooed on the wrist of what he called his "strangling arm". That way it would be the last thing that poor Iraqi would see. He redeployed not long after that. I also heard of an officer in a unit offering several days leave to the first troop to kill an Iraqi with a knife. So, if those soldiers were killed in Iraq and, when their bodies came home, we had this information in the obit, do you think they would get the same reception?

Likewise with cops. What if McDonnell was the same kind of cop as Officers Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon and Kenneth Boss, the murderers of Amadou Diallo? Or what if they were like Johannes Mehserle, the cop who killed the handcuffed Oscar Grant on that BART platform? Well, if that bomb had gotten them, would we all be lining the streets for their funerals?

To get an idea of how this bias plays out, let's consider a section from the article, but let's play Mad Lib with it. I'll leave key parts blank and let's put in different word combinations to see what we get.

Meanwhile, veteran investigators still fume over the ease with which __(a)__ have assumed the mantle of middle-class respectability. When people talk to Noel about the ___(b)____'s avowed intent not to harm people, he likes to tell the story of a 1971 search of one of the group's principal "safe houses," an apartment on Pine Street in San Francisco's Nob Hill neighborhood. Inside, FBI agents and SFPD inspectors discovered C-4 explosives, voice-activated bomb switches, and concealable shivs made from sharpened knitting needles epoxied into the caps of ballpoint pens.

"'Voice-activated switch' means the bomb goes off when a person comes in and talks," Noel said. "This whole image that these were nice-type people is what makes me upset. It's bullshit. That's not what they were. They were thugs and they were criminals trying to overthrow the __(c)___." During the 2008 election season, Noel even made a brief televised appearance with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News to counter the arguments of ___(d)___ apologists who were saying the group had been essentially nonviolent.

(a) Ayers and Dohrn
(b) Weather Underground
(c) U.S. government
(d) Weather Underground
The answers listed above are the original ones, but try putting in something like (a) "Private First Class Herbert Carter, rifleman, 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division", (b) "US Army", (c) "Vietnamese government", (d) "American military". If you did that, you'd be describing the My Lai massacre. Or maybe, punch in the names of some local abusive cops that you know. The results reveal the bias inherent in the piece quite nicely, I think. Because the actions of the cops or the military serve the interests of the capitalist class, the violence that they engage in goes unremarked on, even to the point that they can be portrayed as non-violent (i.e., "peace officers").

In the case of "Time Bomb", I think that Jamison must be aware of this contradiction, which is probably why he doesn't give us this information. He likewise downplays COINTELPRO, calling it mere "dubious practices". I suppose that's Newspeak for murder, manipulation and surveillance that's against the law.

At the same time, Jamison puts the blame for provoking all this bad behavior not on the cops that did it, but on the broad movement for civil rights including, of course, Weather. One wonders, would Jamison likewise blame the Freedom Riders for the attacks of the Klan? It's a very troublesome logic. That this is obviously ahistorical is evidenced by the fact that COINTELPRO was set up by FBI Director Hoover, a man who made his name in the Red Scare of 1919. So going after the militant and even wishy-washy left wasn't a new tactic to him.

But we anarchists know that the cops weren't provoked. They were just doing what cops do -- protect the status quo. After all, it's not like this was the first or last time that cops have acted in reactionary ways towards movements and the people that compose them. The question that Jamison asks and then answers for us is something like this: how else could Weather consider people of peace like cops and soldiers as legitimate targets unless they were murderous thugs? This is where the elite dialogue leads us, and it's the path faithfully tread by Jamison in his article.

To conclude, I'd like to continue my ongoing series of repostings from the past. Below you can find an article I wrote in 2005 called "Officer Down: The Media and Cop-Killings". In it, I use the killing of a local cop as a tool to analyze the way the media portrays police and the way it reacts to their deaths.

Driving in Tucson today I noticed a giant billboard with the mugshots of seven or eight cops that have been killed on duty in that town looming over the freeway. At the same time, Tucson streets are lined with (regrettably un-defaced) bus stop posters urging us to "thank a cop". For what, I'm not sure, because the saints that peer down from the billboards bear no history and for the most part no one's asking that question. They are the saints of Tucson's capitalist elite. And, as Diogenes said, "In a rich man's house there is no place to spit but his face."

Anyhow, I hope you enjoy the piece. As for a new article, look for a detailed analysis of the local anti-photo radar camera movement to appear here in the coming days. As always, your feedback is encouraged and welcomed.

The Phoenix Media and Cop-Killings

By Phoenix Insurgent

The recent shooting death of Officer David Uribe, shot in the head and neck while making a traffic stop, offers several opportunities for radical analysis. Typical of its easy-going treatment of local police departments, the media fell lock step behind the idea of the police officer as defender of public order and all things good. In fact, where any dissented from the gushing media monotone, they demanded an even more gratuitous lavishing of praise on Uribe and police in general.

Such was the case with John McDonald's melodramatic column in the Arizona Republic. In his sensationally titled article, "The day a cop died, this city lost its soul," McDonald expressed his exasperation at the TV when "two anchors and a weatherman laughed and giggled about the delightful mild temperatures just minutes after detailing the brutal execution of a local veteran cop." One wonders if McDonald even watches local television news, which in fact was dominated by endless coverage of the murder, manhunt and reaction for several days as local talking heads beatified Uribe with all due haste.


The media uniformly treated the Uribe killing as a loss for whole community. Even the killing of an unarmed man by Phoenix PD the very next day could not damper the media's enthusiasm for the story. Remarking on the shooting, Patty Kirkpatrick, a Channel 3 anchor, expressed relief that the conflict had ended in the death of the suspect, rather than a cop. In her mind it was preferable that an unarmed man die than a cop get hurt trying to carry out murder.

On May 12th, Benson's cartoon in the Republic featured a simple sketch of a police badge bearing Uribe's number. Written across a black band of mourning were the words, "thank you." But for what? "When we lose someone like that, we lose part of ourselves," answers the Phoenix Fire Department's chaplain, Rev. Father Carl G. Carlozzi in the Arizona Republic. In a letter to the editor, Patricia Fay of Phoenix explained it this way, "They are my protectors. Someone killed one of my protectors."


But there is a real tension between the public image of policing, defended so single-mindedly by the media, and the reality. Introducing channel 12's coverage of the Uribe funeral the following Tuesday, Lin Sue Cooney described the event as "a whole community" saying thank you. Effusive in their coverage of a car-wash fundraiser for the Uribe's family, local media outlets actively campaigned for valley residents to participate. Can the same police force that regularly kills unarmed people of color be the protectors of the community? Can the same police force that uses Tasers to kill, just as the Phoenix Police did on May 4th, 2005, killing a 24 year-old man, be protectors? Are the same police forces that disproportionately target, arrest and incarcerate the poor, and especially people of color, really defenders of the "community?"

But, everyone knows that police don't protect everyone equally and that they specifically target some segments of the community over others. For years the Scottsdale PD enforced what they called a "no-n****r zone," pulling over and harassing black people driving through the city. Incarceration rates for poor people versus rich people are so obvious that they hardly require mentioning. But many whites still continue to deny the just as obvious disparities in white and non-white incarceration rates. To believe that these disparities exist apart or in exception to the overall system of policing makes no sense. They exist because this is the way the system was meant to function.


The police system is designed primarily to defend the rich and toward that end to police poor people and poor people of color in particular. Made up of reporters primarily drawn from middle and upper classes, and owned by very rich people, the media serves that goal as propagandist for the police and defender of its own class interest, and they reflect the racism that all white people learn in their upbringing.

Let's look at the numbers. According the Princeton Review, the average television reporter, after five years on the job, earned $65,000 dollars a year. In the top 25 television markets the median salary as reported by the Missouri School of Journalism stood at $78,000 in 2000. According to the US Census, that rate stood at nearly twice the same figure for male workers in general, a rate which, it should be pointed out, itself remains higher than the median for non-whites and women. That disparity appears even sharper when we consider the Bureau of Labor Statistics count, which put the average annual wage in the U.S. as $36,764 for 2002. Even print reporters, generally paid less than their television comrades, fair better than average Americans. Clearly there is a class divide between many of us consuming the news and the people reporting, not to mention the editors and owners, and the media coverage shows it.

For example, the bulk of the media ignored a story that ran in the Arizona Republic the 11th, the very day Uribe was killed. Jahna Berry reported that a federal jury had awarded Gerardo Ramirez-Diaz $1 million dollars after a Phoenix police officer shot him in the gut without just cause. And just four days before the shooting of Uribe, in a rare display of public criticism, the Arizona Republic came out against the reinstatement of Chandler police officer Dan Lovelace. Lovelace was fired for using excessive force after he shot and killed unarmed Dawn Rae Nelson in her car, from behind, with her 14 month-old son sitting in the seat behind her. That murder occurred on October 11th, 2001, making the Republic's opposition to Lovelace's reinstatement a little late in coming, to say the least, though it does show just how extreme a case it takes for the local media to take a critical position towards local police.


Much of the coverage Uribe's killing focused on the supposed danger cops face in the carrying out of their duties. Multiple newscasters and residents interviewed regarded the police as "putting themselves on the line" for other people, risking their lives regularly or standing as soldiers on the front lines of American society. But reflecting a rate that has remained pretty consistent, police officers don't even rank in the top ten most dangerous jobs as most recently listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In fact, just a little over a week before Uribe's killing, a farm worker was killed in Arizona when a bale of hay fell on him. Another worker, a roofer, was killed when he fell and drowned in a pool. The first didn't even merit mentioning his name in the brief Arizona Republic article that ran. Both farm worker and roofer do rank within the top ten most dangerous occupations. Interestingly, Latinos represent a large proportion of workers in these fields. Another recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found a rate of five fatalities per 100,000 Hispanic workers in 2002 that was 25 percent higher than for all workers. This wouldn't happen if white workers would stand up with Latino workers against these kinds of abuses. But apparently local media finds the deaths of workers, especially workers of color, as too commonplace to merit coverage, even though that contradicts their attitude towards the job of police officer, who they misreport as in constant jeopardy.

So, in order to understand why the media, the rich and so many white people have fallen all over themselves to praise Uribe and to condemn his murder – while rarely admitting police excesses - we have to delve a little into the history of American police forces. The alleged danger of the job doesn't stand up as a sufficient explanation. Policing in America has two main origins, both of which serve to accomplish the same mission: to protect the wealth of the rich and powerful.


The first origin lies in the violent class struggles of the 19th century. During those times, workers were forced into the emerging factory system that the capitalist class was creating in the cities of the Northeast. In these factories workers had little power and were subjected to long hours. When armed class struggle broke out, the capitalists, outnumbered and not generally wishing to risk their own necks in the fighting, created police forces to wage war on the working class in defense of their factories and wealth. The first real police force in the US was founded in 1845 in New York City, center of the country's emerging industrial economy. As industrialism and modern capitalism spread, other cities followed New York's example.

Private property lies at the heart of capitalist exploitation. The authority of the boss derives precisely because s/he owns the means of production – the workplace, the computers, the machines and thus the profits. Because workers' interests depend on a redistribution of wealth and equality in the workplace, this brings us in inevitable conflict with the boss and his lackeys, the police. It's the same thing with the landlord. The landlord's ability to evict or demand rent couldn't exist without the system of private property and the police to back it up with violence.

The second main origin of American policing centers on the slave patrol system of the South. Charged with protecting white plantation owners, the slave patrols, or "patty rollers" as they were often called, brutally oppressed blacks, both slave and free. It is from the slave patrollers that American policing gets many of its traditions and powers. Patty rollers worked specific "beats" and could demand identification from any black person they encountered. The slave patrols incarcerated and returned, frequently with violence, any black person who could not prove their free status or provide written permission for their travel. Even in the North the police were charged with capturing and returning escaped slaves.

The influence of this racist tradition reverberates today in a variety of ways. An Arizona Daily Star review of Department of Public Safety records revealed that during traffic stops police searched Latinos more than twice as frequently as whites. And police searched blacks almost three times as frequently as whites – despite the fact that searches of whites turned up contraband much more regularly. Beyond racial profiling, which brings them into police contact more frequently in the first place, non-whites also face racist judges, unequal access to competent defense and sentencing guidelines that send them to prison at rates many times that of whites.

In fact, the history of Arizona police forces combines both origins. Back in the day, as now, Arizona was a mining state and Latinos composed a large percentage of the miners. In response to militant organizing by mine workers, the state created the Arizona Rangers. Ostensibly formed to combat cattle rustling, in actuality the government used the force primarily against miners and people of color. This tradition continues to contemporary times, and many of us remember the UMW strike of 1983 when then-Governor Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, called out police and national guardsmen against workers in defense of the Phelps-Dodge Corporation. Police guarded scabs brought in by the company, effectively breaking the strike.

It is critical for working class white people to understand the true origins and purposes of American policing and to be critical of both the aims and causes of media defense of police and police departments. In the end, supporting police power means supporting the rich people that exploit the entire working class, white or not. The American system has given white workers privileges that non-white workers don't get, and many of them directly involve reduced exposure to police violence and policing in general. American history has shown, though, that when even white workers organize against the bosses and politicians, the police are brought in against us as well. It's time for white workers to stand in support of communities of color when they organize against the police of all kinds, including La Migra. We need to recognize that the police are a racist institution that cannot be justified if what we want is a world of equality and justice, and media defense of policing amounts to defense of racism and the rich.

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