Crime, Criminalization and Gun Control
As the Obama administration ramped up its response to its victory in the 2012 elections, the horrific massacre of young children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown Connecticut provided political cover for an attempt for the moral high ground. This senseless slaughter of innocents by a deranged individual was an easy target for those who purport, in their pursuit of imperialist aims, to place American lives above all others, and thus try to recruit the allegiance of the masses.
Militarized drones rain havoc in West Pakistani provinces, as well as Yemen and other countries, in an offensive, which Obama has accelerated, several fold over, what the Bush administration did. Obama’s attacks target those portrayed as “militants”—an ethnic profiling of young men with beards; and they kill thousands of innocents including women, children and young men with beards. We, here in the homeland, are not supposed to be concerned with that, however. We have our own psychopaths to focus on, those who have somehow gotten their hands on guns that only “our” military is supposed to have, to use on “others.” But those “others,” are really us.
Crime hysteria in Oakland
Oakland may seem like a local anomaly with its big increase in homicides in 2011-12, and the anti-crime hysteria, which now engulfs it. But Oakland is just a prime example of the intertwining of crime and criminalization under capitalism, in which the ruling class divides working people one from another, and targets particular groups for victimization. The difference between “militants” in Pakistan, and Blacks in Oakland, on careful examination, begins to blur.
It’s true that Oakland’s homicide rate has gone up, as headlines, columnists and politicians remind us almost daily. “Slayings Rise In the Bay Area in 2012,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle (January 13, 2013), in an article focused largely on Oakland. One heading by Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson, who routinely rants about crime and defends police, screamed, “Oakland is gun crazy; how do we change it?” (April 13, 2012). This headline was later reprinted in an election mailer for Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), who was endorsed by police organizations, and who has now been appointed to head a special committee focused on gun violence in the East Bay. The committee now plans to hold its hearings in East Bay cities. As these sources point out, there was a 23 percent increase in major crimes in Oakland in 2012, including 126 people killed (leaving out police shootings, and others deemed to be in self-defense).
The underlying truth
Unstated in all this is the underlying reality that this is all about crime in Black communities such as East Oakland, which have been devastated by foreclosures, joblessness, declining educational opportunities, and cut-backs to social services, with young people being the hardest hit. Also unstated is the fact that Oakland police, as in many other cities, are a virtual occupying army in the Black communities. Only nine percent of Oakland cops live in Oakland, most police cadets are recruited outside Oakland, and Oakland police recruits are only 20 percent Black, compared to 28 percent Black in Oakland’s population overall.1 Thus police patrols in the Black community in Oakland are overwhelmingly white and from out of town. They hold Oakland’s population, particularly the Black population, in open contempt; and they’re aggressive. As one observer reported,
“[I] have been absolutely astounded at how riven from any normal reality the police here are. It’s like they inhabit an entirely separate consciousness, or are on some horrible distorting drugs. They prowl the streets and highways, armed and dangerous, far more interested in dominance displays than ‘serve and protect.’ They are unaccountable, and they know it…”2
Police murders of Blacks
The police are unaccountable, and they know it, so they feel free to post racist caricatures of politicians they don’t like, such as Mayor Jean Quan, who is Chinese, and judge Thelton Henderson, who is Black (see below), in their inner sanctum. They also feel free to shoot first and ask questions later, as they did in the case of Alan Blueford, an 18-year-old Black student in Skyline High School, who was shot to death by OPD (Oakland Police Department) Officer Miguel Masso, after a brief chase, in early morning in East Oakland, May 6, 2012. Claims that Blueford had been in a “gun battle” were proven to be lies (he didn’t fire a shot). Blueford had committed no crime or offense prior to being confronted and chased by police.
Blueford’s killing outraged the Black community just as the murder of Oscar Grant by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) cop in January 2009, which resulted in mass demonstrations, frame-up charges against protestors (including against journalist JR Valrey, charges which were later dropped), and a port shutdown by longshore workers to protest the slap-on-the wrist sentence received by Johannes Mesherle, the BART cop shooter. Grant and Blueford were just two in a long line of Black youths shot down by police in Oakland—usually numbering in double digits annually. (A Google search of police “officer involved” shootings in the U.S. shows 583 for 2012 alone.)
Like the Grant shooting, these killings are sometimes caught on camera. A particularly shocking one in Manteca (near Stockton) was caught on the cop’s own dashboard camera. A 34-year-old man, Ernest Duenez Jr, was fatally shot multiple times by a cop who was in no way threatened. Suspected of parole violation and possibly having a knife (which he didn’t), Duenez apparently was killed because his leg was caught in the seatbelt of his vehicle, making it impossible to exit the vehicle fast enough to suit the cop!3
A pattern of criminalization
The imperious, contemptuous and increasingly militarized police patrolling in the community, and unjustified killings of Black youth, is just part of a pattern of criminalization of Black people, which is rooted deep in the history of exploitation of labor—including of slave labor—and in the special oppression of minority populations of many different colors and ethnicities. Black oppression and exploitation extend back the furthest to slavery and the decades before the civil war in which it was virtually illegal just to be Black, even in the north, and persisting today.
Under the Fugitive Slave Act, northern states were obligated to return escaped slaves to their owners in the south. Slave-catcher patrols, called “paddy-rollers”—ancestors of modern cops—operated in the north as well as the south, and often kidnapped free Blacks in the north as well as escaped slaves. In the infamous Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court said that Blacks could never be citizens and therefore couldn’t bring suit (i.e., you’re a slave, so you can’t oppose being a slave in court). Even though the laws in the north where Scott was enslaved dictated that he should be freed, the Court said that “the Black man has no rights which the white man is bound to respect.”
To restore virtual slavery in the South after the civil war, the former slave-owning ruling classes devised a system of statutory criminalization, which went way beyond just denying Blacks the vote. A system of “Black codes”—laws used only against Blacks, for “crimes” such as vagrancy or not having a job—was devised to trap them into “sentences” of work on farms, plantations, mines and factories—often right where they were before abolition. They had no rights, were often kept longer than their “sentences,” and were paid virtually nothing. (Often the “sentences” were technically fines, which the victim couldn’t pay. A private contractor paid the fine to the state, which then turned the prisoner over for the forced labor.4) The former paddy-rollers were now the police enforcers of the “Black codes”—not much of a change really!
Klan terror, lynchings and “race” riots
Besides the paddy-rollers, this system of virtual slavery was enforced by Ku Klux Klan terror and lynchings, which were a way of making sure that Blacks still had “no rights that the white man was bound to respect.” But as Blacks migrated to the north, this time escaping slavery en masse, and also looking for work during World Wars I and II, segregated housing, employment discrimination and so-called “race riots” took over as the main means of keeping Blacks “in their place.” Prosperous Black communities were attacked by white mobs—as police stood by or aided the whites—on the same lying pretexts that prompted lynchings. Often they were burned to the ground or otherwise destroyed, as happened in the Black community of Tulsa Oklahoma, in 1921.
The seven most serious “riots” begin in the south (Wilmington, NC, and Atlanta, GA), and then later occur in Illinois (1908 and 1917) and then Chicago (1919), Tulsa (1921), and Detroit (1943), reflecting the gradual move of Black communities to the north. Blacks fought back, but Black fatalities usually outnumbered those of the whites, largely due to attacks from police, the element of surprise, and greater firepower on the part of the racists. Southern police practices against Blacks combined easily with police practices in the north centered on suppressing workers’ struggles, thus keeping opponents of the ruling class divided against each other:
“The police force, more than any other institution, was invariably involved as a precipitating cause or perpetuating factor in the riots. …the police sided with the [white] attackers, either by actually participating in, or by failing to quell the attack.”5
From the beginnings of slavery, through the underground railroad, slave revolts, and the many Black recruits to the Union Army in the Civil War (despite threats of death if caught by the Confederacy), there has been a history of struggle. Post World War II and through the civil rights struggle, the Deacons for Defense, Robert F Williams’ NAACP branch in Durham, NC, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which started in Oakland in 1966, all made their contributions to a tradition of resistance against the racist repression which traces its roots to the formerly slave-holding South. As political prisoner and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal put it,
“For decades, the Oakland Police Department (OPD) has been the focus of fear. Fear because the agency, which years ago recruited heavily from the South, had people on staff that used their office to further their hatred of Blacks in a long and bitter habit of repression and violence.
“For a brief time, the Black Panther Party put a crimp in their strut, as it became a local, and then national, presence of resistance to their repeated assaults on Black Oaklanders.”6
The new Jim Crow today
Today, the poll tax has been replaced by the manipulation of electronic voting and restrictions on access to polling places in Black communities; and the Black codes and work farms have been replaced by the “war on drugs,” mass incarceration, prison labor, the death penalty and LWOP (life without possibility of parole); and by the school-to-prison pipeline. Legal rights of Blacks are restricted everywhere, from the fact that the victims of the bogus drug war are now felons who cant vote, and to the routine exclusion of Blacks from juries.
“Large majorities of Black men in cities across the United States are once again subject to legalized discrimination effectively barring them from full integration into mainstream, white society. Mass incarceration has nullified many of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, putting millions of Black men back in a position reminiscent of Jim Crow.”7
Violent society engenders random violence
In the light of both the history and current conditions, it should be easy to see why there’s crime in the Black community. People who have been systematically criminalized for centuries may escape, if they’re lucky, or they may see no way out, and resort to an ever-present underworld. Gangs substitute for community centers that aren’t there or have been closed down, and drug dealing or other illegal activities may offer an income to those with a 50 percent unemployment rate. And given the omnipresent occupation army of police, is it so surprising that someone like Lovelle Mixon, a convicted felon pursued by police in 2009, should take out four cops (two as they stopped him for a traffic violation) before he died in a hail of bullets?
Of course, random violent acts have nothing to do with resistance to oppression, which must be a conscious collective endeavor, planned to achieve a social goal of self-defense, anti-racist class struggle and revolution. Random violence can hurt anyone (a noted left Black journalist was shot in the leg last year in Oakland in a random act of violence, which had nothing to do with his advocacy for the Black community). Nevertheless, it’s axiomatic that a top-down, violent, exploitative and racist society is going to engender a turmoil of violence in its most oppressed layers. To see the “crime” problem in any other context is to wear blinders.
Christopher Dorner was an LAPD cop who was fired, allegedly for making a false report on a fellow officer, who he said, was kicking a suspect. The context was his new officer training, a time when he was supposed to be trained to defend his fellow officers, no matter what. So he violated an implicit code of silence. Later he became the victim of another code. He went berserk, killed two cops and a police officer’s daughter and fiancé, but he also issued an interesting manifesto. In it he said that LAPD had not overcome the Ramparts or Rodney King scandals:
“The department has not changed since the Rampart and Rodney King days. It has gotten worse. The consent decree should never have been lifted. The only thing that has evolved from the consent decree is those officers involved in the Rampart scandal and Rodney King incidents have since promoted to supervisor, commanders, and command staff, and executive positions.”8
Police fire bombs
There’s a lesson here for Oakland. But the final code that Christopher Dorner broke was that of killing a fellow officer (two, in his case). This act triggered the ultimate response: cops gone berserk. When they had Dorner trapped in a wooden mountain cabin, the LAPD killers fired seven pyrotechnic tear gas rounds at him, yet they claimed they didn’t intend to burn him to a crisp. Ha! Pyrotechnic tear gas canisters, as the cops know, start fires, especially in buildings. They’re only supposed to be used in open spaces.
Similar pyrotechnics were used in 1985, in an FBI-supplied bomb that was dropped on the home of the MOVE organization in Philadelphia. The firestorm killed 11; Ramona Africa was the lone survivor. Others were shot by police as they tried to escape. And in 1993, the branch Davidian Complex in Waco, Texas was incinerated with a similar projectile. Finally, Dorner, a Black ex-cop gets the same treatment on Bear Mountain. In none of these cases, were firefighters allowed to attempt to put out the blaze. Who are the real criminals in a society based on exploitation, oppression, and this sort of violence?
Back through the looking glass
Even such a brief look at the underlying conditions of oppression and police occupation in the Black community, exposes the delusional nature of the view from the top of the social pyramid. In this through-the-looking-glass worldview, analysis of crime, whether in the media, from local politicians, or among more conservative middle-class community “leaders” (including some in the Black clergy), focuses overwhelming on police and more police.
In Oakland, numbers of cops have declined, due to cutbacks at the municipal level, starting in July 2010 with the lay-off of 80 officers. Unlike the rise in crime in Black communities, this depletion is blamed on the financial crisis. Between layoffs and retirements, etc., Oakland’s cops now number a bit over 600, which is down from a peak of 837 in 2008. For the politicians and pundits, more cops and tougher policing methods equal less crime. Former Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, for instance, an ex-trade union bureaucrat who morphed into a tough guy critic of Mayors Ron Dellums and Jean Quan, and liberals on the city council, pushes “solutions” such as gang injunctions, youth curfews and “stop and frisk.”
Cops on a slow-down “strike?”
Blame also falls partly on police themselves because of a sharp drop in the number of stops and arrests being made. While Oakland police made about 75 percent fewer vehicle and pedestrian stops in 2012 than they did just three years earlier, the real target of the pro-police anti-crime gang is not the cops, but the reform program being dictated by federal district judge Thelton E Henderson, the same judge who mandated federal receivership for California’s overcrowded state prisons due to its abysmal medical care. Henderson appointed a monitor to see that the police make improvements following the Riders scandal of 2003, which required $10.9 million to be paid to 119 litigants abused by various standard police tactics (planted evidence, beatings, and a blind eye by the department). But now the cops are on slow-down because of the insistence by the monitor that stops be accurately reported (as to the reason for the stop, the race of suspect, etc.)
“‘The policies become so restrictive that police work isn’t possible,’ said one officer on condition of anonymity. ‘You have to do everything you can just to keep your job safe, so why would you risk going out and being proactive?’”9
Enter William Bratton, knight in shining armor
The judge (Henderson), who wants to save the state from having to pay out millions in damages by making the police honest, while also protecting the poor and disadvantaged, has inadvertently hit on a contradiction: you can’t reform the capitalist state. In an exploitative, racist society, the police have to be bent, otherwise they can’t function. It is not possible to “fairly” oppress people.
As the liberals and conservatives squirm this way and that with their impossible situation, almost all of them (excepting Councilmember Desley Brooks) have decided to hire William Bratton, a 65-year old former veteran of Boston, New York and Los Angeles police “leadership,” as a consultant for Oakland police, in a $250,000 contract. Bratton is the “stop and frisk” advocate, whose policies have allegedly brought down crime rates in New York and LA, but whose tactics even some of his defenders admit constitute (or “lead to”) racial profiling.
Scientific American chimes in on crime
A recent “Sociology” piece by University of California Berkeley Professor Franklin E Zimring in Scientific American, asserts that New York (under Bratton) brought down its crime rate, “without lowering poverty and unemployment.” The article claims that this was done with a system called “CompSat,” which involves compiling data on serious crimes, and deploying police in those areas, “sometimes for weeks at a time, systematically stopping and frisking anyone who looks suspicious….” The article explains that this involves an “aggressive program of street stops and misdemeanor arrests.” The author also admits, however, that this police tactic is aggressive: “the street stops, bullying and pretext-based arrests fall disproportionally on young men of color, in their own neighborhoods.” He also admits that New York’s “homicide rate is still much higher than those of most major European cities.”10
Elsewhere, Zimring conceded that because of the concentration on street stops and misdemeanor arrests, more serious crimes such as car thefts were being ignored or under-reported as lesser incidents, in order to artificially reduce the crime rate that he says has fallen. Also, in an interview with the Oakland Tribune, Bratton “…acknowledged that stop and frisk is ‘an issue’ in Oakland, but defended the practice… ‘The challenge is to make sure they’re dong it lawfully and compassionately,’ he said. ‘It can’t just be in certain areas of the city.’”11 So, this much-heralded system of racial profiling and “bullying” street stops has to be done “compassionately.” I repeat: The contradictions of a racist, exploitative system can’t be magically resolved within the system.
Stop and frisk is everywhere already!
Furthermore, despite vocal protestations from Oakland Police Chief Jordan and Mayor Jean Quan about not wanting racial profiling and stop and frisk in Oakland, even as they were bringing in Bratton, the fact is that “stop and frisk” based on racial profiling is already basically the practice in all major urban police departments in the U.S., and has been for some time. Otherwise, there never would have been a need for police monitor Warshaw to insist on honest reporting, or for the cops to go on “slow down” over it (see above).
And lastly, on Bratton, if everything is so great now in Los Angeles after his tenure, how is it that a Black police officer like Dorner is willing to go to his death asserting that “nothing has changed” in LAPD, following the Ramparts and Rodney King incidents? Racial profiling “stop and frisk” is also alive and well in LA, as police street stops and bullying focuses almost exclusively in the Latino barrios.
Gun control, again
With the mass murder in Newtown Connecticut, and Obama’s reelection, gun control is back on the ruling class agenda, that is, gun control for us, not for them. They have everything from M-1s to cruise missiles and drone warfare (and surveillance). We need now, it is alleged, to turn in our (small arms) assault weapons, even though that has nothing to do with preventing deranged individuals from finding their way to Newtown or Columbine atrocities.
Of course the issue of guns in the U.S. is agonizing, since there are so very many, and almost all of them are put to the wrong purpose, whether it be cops gunning down innocent Black youth in Oakland, random criminal violence in the streets, shipping guns off to Mexican drug lords, mass murders by suicidal maniacs, …or hunters competing in a frenzied coyote kill contest. But still the truth is that the source of violence in this society and the world is class oppression, imperialism and war, not individual gun owners. And the U.S. government, like all ruling class states, has always tried to maintain its own monopoly on violence.
Gun control starts with the second amendment
The second amendment guaranteed the right to bear arms, for the militia, but it was really about gun control. Recall that all politics in the U.S., starting from the drafting of the Constitution through to the Civil War, revolved mainly around preserving the interests of both the slave and free states in a common oligarchical republic. The compromises entered into in this effort to keep the country united are the source of federalism and “states’ rights,” both of which are utterly reactionary and outlived notions today.
The second amendment did not mean that the southern planters and northern merchants who ran this country wanted the common people—and certainly not the slaves—to be armed! Citizen militias had, of course, been important (though fickle and undependable) in the Revolutionary War against the British, but that was over when the Constitution was being formulated. Above all, compromise between slave and free states meant that individual states had to have their own internal mechanisms of control. The second amendment gives to the states the right to form armed militias, chiefly so that southern states could put down slave revolts and catch runaways. Northern States also had some need to put down revolts, as in the case of Shay’s Rebellion, for instance, which was based on a private militia (not what the framers had in mind).
Working class movements and revolutions must be armed
Resistance to slavery took many forms, but the key to a slave revolt remained getting arms, as shown in the Civil War, when armed slaves fought for their freedom. And so it has been throughout the class struggle: ruling classes do not give up without a fight. Throughout labor and Black struggles in the U.S., armed workers detachments, and groups like the Deacons for Defense and the Black Panthers have played a key role. One can only wish they had been better organized, better prepared, and better armed than they were. Gun control laws were introduced in California and nationally in reaction to the Panthers’ peaceful—but armed—demonstrations, as in the visit they paid to the State Assembly in Sacramento in 1967, which was organized to protest a selective ban on weapons being introduced in the Mulford Act.
Those who seek revolution today must take a studied look at guns and violence. Gun control laws will be unable to stop random criminal violence, and will only reinforce the state’s monopoly on power. But a conscious, armed, Black-centered workers revolutionary movement can strike at, disarm and overthrow, the source of all violence: the oppressive, racist and war-driven capitalist system.
1 “The High Costs of Outsourcing Police,” by Darwin Bond-Graham and Ali Winston, August 8, 2012, East Bay Express. Elsewhere, Darwin Bond-Graham reports Blacks as 30 percent of Oakland’s population.
2 Quoted in, “Are the Oakland Police Going Down At Last, At Long Last?” by jpmassar, October 5, 2012, www.dailykos.com.
4 See Douglas A Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name, New York 2008, for more on this important history.
5 Robert A Gibson, The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1880-1950, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.
6 “Tears of Sorrow and Rage,” by Mumia Abu-Jamal, November 2, 2012.
7 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration In the Era of Colorblindness, New York, 2010, p. 187.
9 “Police stops in Oakland plummet; decrease seen as taking toll on crime prevention,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 13, 2012
10 Franklin E Zimring, “How New York Beat Crime,” Scientific American, August 2011.
11 Mathew Artz, “Bratton’s sights still on OPD,” Oakland Tribune, January 17, 2013.