Tag Archives: police

Meyer & Tarrow: The Social Movement Society

946055I confess, there are a lot of angry notations in the margins of The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century, edited by Meyer and Tarrow.

I won’t burden you with all of them. I suppose books are meant to provoke as much as inspire.

Their introduction opens the book, frames the book, is essentially a hypothesis put forward which other authors are all responding to. Their idea of a movement society advances three main points:

  • First, social protest has moved from being a sporadic, if recurring feature of democratic politics, to become a perpetual element in modern life

  • Second, protest behaviour is employed with greater frequency, by more diverse constituencies, and is used to represent a wider range of claims than ever before.

  • Third, professionalization and institutionalization may be changing the major vehicle of contentious claims–the social movement–into an instrument within the realm of conventional politics. (4)

Here is their definition of social movement:

We begin from the assumption that the social movement is a historical and not a universal way of mounting collective claims. Movements, in our view, are best defined as collective challenges to existing arrangements of power and distribution by people with common purposes and solidarity, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities. (4)

A bit broad, right? Also doesn’t capture much about scale, number and diversity of organisations, groups and individuals involved.

I don’t think this is entirely useful, this idea of social movement. I lean more to the idea that what is happening now is as much protest as caring people can manage in the absence of mass movement. I love much more the work of say Aldon Morris, who studies a concrete movement and looks at what is built and nurtured in hard times to serve as a foundation for when the spark comes and mass movement makes more structural and meaningful change possible. I think what Meyer and Tarrow define as  social movement is simply protest — and in this world of growing inequality, war and climate change, there is a lot to protest. That it is becoming less contentious though more widespread…that’s not too provocative:

In general, the evidence from both Europe and the United States suggests that the amount of highly contentious forms accepted and actually used by citizens seems to be more circumscribed than it was two decades ago. (8)

But what follows takes the decades following the sixties as a one-way and universalised trajectory rather than a cycle or spiral or any of the other potential forms (more likely trajectories based on my own research). It is in great part divorced from history despite their claims of historicity, from the wider social context of intensive repression, red-baiting, backlash, end of the cold war etc etc. that has taken place in the intervening decades:

A paradox is inherent in the professionalization of social movement organizations. Whereas the movements of the 1960s were animated by a democratic ethos that encouraged and legitimated participation at the grassroots of society, the following years demonstrated that the skills and resources for mounting the efforts that comprise a social movement could be, in fact, concentrated, reproduced, and professionalized. Those who developed those skills, taking them from one movement to another, may lose a connection with the groups they purported to represent. Professionalization is about drawing boundaries (Moore 1996) between accredited persons and others. Although the fuzzy boundaries between professional activists and their constituencies may support the ethos of democracy, they may also undermine the prospects of sustained and effective mobilization. Ironically, a movement organization concerned with effecting democratic reforms in the polity may be most effective by abandoning certain democratic and amateurish political practices. New technologies and forms of social organization have complicated this picture further. (15)

I don’t think this question makes much sense divorced from previous decades and centuries of protest and struggle preceding the 60s, all of which themselves come between periods of repression and greater conservatism. How does this match what happened to unions and activists drawn into bureaucracy and organisation after the Great Depression? While I think it’s important to look at professionalization and the changes modern protest groups have gone through in reaction to changing times, the questions the editors end up asking generalise from a very small period in history. They are also divorced from what drives social movement, divorced from questions on injustice, from the life and death issues many social movements engage with and do the best they can to address in widely different circumstances.  Those are the questions I am most interested in, and I missed them.

But, to return to what they do do, they argue institutionalization occurs through:

  • the routinization of collective action (familiar scripts)
  • inclusion and marginalization — those willing to play ball get access, others more easily shut out
  • cooptation – ‘challengers later their claims and tactics to ones that can be pursued without disrupting the normal practice of politics.’ (21)

Again, more interesting in a wider context, but still good things to analyse. So ‘How do ongoing changes in contemporary institutions affect the process of institutionalising dissent?’

  1. ‘social movement activists have learned to move between conventional and unconventional collective actions, and even to employ both sorts of strategies in combination’
  2. ‘police practices increasingly encourage the routinization of contention by cooperating with protestors in planning their events, avoiding provocations, and allowing them a public but circumscribed hearing.’ (23)
  3. ‘the tactics used by movement organizations and those used by more institutionalized groups increasingly overlap. (24)

These seem a bit common sense, especially in light of activists and organisations hunkering down through a period of more limited engagement, though I do think that we are seeing discourses and tactics of activism being coopted by those traditionally on the other side. That is interesting, but not really what they are getting at here…nor are they getting at what people think they can win through making these decisions to move towards institutionalisation that they can’t through more combative struggle — and why.

‘… because of the increasing incentives to engage in socially controlled collective action in our societies today, can we still regard the social movement in its classical form as a major player in the political struggle? (25)

I noted here, ‘everything about this sentence is wrong’. Nothing has ever been won for the poor and the oppressed without a struggle involving a whole lot of people. Perhaps this is not in evidence today, but I sure as hell hope it is not dead entirely. Does socially controlled collective action diffuse some of this anger, make this harder? That is a good question, but not exactly one answered here. Does it mean we’re back to armed revolution, to riots? Or is this the end of all opposition? Who can tell.

Finally, if states have become adept at institutionalizing movements and activists are becoming both more professional and more interchangeable with interest groups in their activities, what will happen to those actors who refuse the blandishments of recognition and legitimation? Will they profit as free riders from the institutionalization of protest? Will they simply fade away…? (26)

Sweet baby Jesus. Free riders? Really? I think there is no single phrase in the English language (that is not abusive) that I hate more than the term free rider. Technically free rider as a term includes babies and small children, people suffering from mental illness and physical disability, the elderly, all those people that for whatever reason can’t face down police to make a better world. Technically that word destroys the concept of a movement that cares for and works towards a better future for the entire society, not just ‘our’ people or the ‘deserving’. And then to question will they simply fade away? Not until the issues driving them to change the world do because movements arise out of real injustices, real suffering. No sign of that ending.

I plowed through the rest of the chapters, but given my feelings about the usefulness of the hypothesis, it wasn’t that useful.

I liked some of the content from ‘The Institutionalization of Protest’ by John McCarthy and Clark McPhail — yet it compares protests at the 1968 and 1996 Democratic National Conventions in Chicago without really acknowledging the immense differences in political moment. A time of insecurity and fear and mass movement in 1968 after over a decade of intense civil rights protest with real threats to the power structure and a growing move from non-violence to the Black Panthers and Black Power — and how does that compare to 1996 again? How does that shape police response shifting from ‘escalated force’ to ‘negotiated management’ (96)?

This article — and all of these arguments due to the framing —  separate the content of injustice from those protesting, it often (though not everyone does this) conflates social movement with ‘social movement organizations’ yet often fails to recognize the broad range of organisations still fighting, the interlocking array of tactics…doesn’t recognise that anti-racism struggles, homeless rights struggles, women’s and immigrant rights struggles aren’t just something that can be picked up or let go but mean life and death for many, and determine the strategies and tactics of groups and institutions closest to them accordingly. And those decisions are entirely about political moment and context.

Everything here is so tidy.

The police, for example, are seen as monolithic, but really they form a complex bureaucracy with many different (and disagreeing) parts — and one that continues killing black and latino people let’s not forget.

But Public Order Management Systems are interesting, defined as:

…the more or less elaborated, more or less permanent organizational forms, their guiding policies and programs, technologies, and standard policing practices that are designated by authorities for supervising protesters’ access to public space and managing them in that space. (91)

They quote a few stellar things, like this 1989 statement published in the journal of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)

[The Police] are…the first line of defense for the First Amendment rights to assemble peacefully and speak freely. Few unpopular ideas would ever get a public hearing unless the police were on hand to ensure the speaker’s safety and maintain order . . . The recognition of the police role as guardians of civil liberties and civil rights is one of the welcome fruits of the professionalization of law enforcement over the last several decades (McCarthy  & McPhail p. 89 quoting Burden 1992, p. 16)

They are not as astonished (or angered) by it as I am however. Break out the Don Mitchell and analyse how the opposite is true. Then there is this, from the City of San Francisco crowd management manual:

Pre-event Planning: …If event sponsors do not come forward to obtain needed permits…the Event Coordinator will … attempt to locate them and set up meetings. (94, quoting SFPD 1989, pp. 8-10)

Another nugget — these courses in public order management were developed by the U.S. Army Police School. There’s a whole lot to be done with that. But then it is all ruined with a line at the end about the police and protestors wishing to reduce the extent of ‘unintended violence.’ (109) Jesus. As though it were unintended.

These are the lines of lived experience often separating the poor, people of colour, and activists from researchers. No one where I grew up or ever worked with would believe it to be unintended — at least, not by everyone. Maybe there’d be a couple of people that saw it as a PR disaster, or even as morally wrong. But honestly, police brutality against certain communities and the ‘social movements’ working around those issues happens every day.

Then there are discussions of protest movements in Latin America with no acknowledgment of what they are up against: US military intervention, the IMF and World Bank… this happened in several chapters, and how can you properly discuss international and transnational strategies and coalition building without that understanding and analysis? And just for the record, I cannot respect the argument that the US Congress and Treasury Department or the World Bank are the people to lobby to tell Latin American states to protect indigenous rights. They are the people to lobby to demand they stop telling other governments to violate indigenous rights.

I will end with a shout out to what was good — I did really like Mary Fainsod Katzenstein’s ‘Stepsisters: Feminist Movement Activism in Different Institutional Spaces’ and the different struggles of women in the military and the Catholic Church over time. That was quite fascinating, firmly based in women’s experience and their own words, and nuanced. Yay.

Anyway, this raised good questions in my mind about institutionalisation of protest, how this shapes organisations and everyday experience of protest and what it can (and can’t win), and how this will shape what is possible for the future, but I’m not sure that’s where most of this was heading.

[Meyer, David S. and Sidney Tarrow (eds) (1998) The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.]

Ed McBain: New York from the 87th Precinct

copindexThe introduction to this first novel in Ed McBain’s series on New York’s 87th Precinct Cop Hater is pretty awesome if you like noir and you like cities. First, a primer on the world of hack writing, the regular churning out of quick novels that were then issued and re-issued.

Over lunch, Herb told me that the mainstay of Pocket Books was Eric Stanley Gardner, whose books they reissued on a regular rotating schedule, with new covers on them each time out. He told me Gardner was getting old…and that they were looking for a mystery writer who would eventually replace him.

Luck and skill and prolixity brought Ed McBain to write this series, with an idea then unique — to make the precinct itself the focus, with a cast of characters rather than a principal. I don’t know why it also surprised me to read this:

It is next to impossible to overlay a map of my city on a map of New York. It’s not simply a matter of north being east and south being west or Isola representing Manhattan and Calm’s Point representing Brooklyn. The geography won’t jibe exactly, the city remains a mystery.

The city, then, became a character.

So did the weather, which figures prominently in Cop Hater.

It’s fascinating, then, to find described all of these things I study, redlining, segregation, the shifting racial faultlines of the city and the poverty, misery and changed policing (and increase of police brutality, but you won’t find that here) that it brings with it:

Across the street from the theater was an empty lot. The lot had once owned an apartment house, and the house had been a good one with high rents. It had not been unusual, in the old days, to see an occasional mink coat drifting from the marbled doorway of that apartment house. But the crawling tendrils of the slum had reached out for the brick, clutching it with tenacious fingers, pulling it into the ever-widening circle it called its own. The old building had succumbed, becoming a part of the slum, so that people rarely remembered it had once been a proud and elegant dwelling.

This is the classic white narrative: a grasping and greedy slum, a force of nature reaching out to wrest from them the neighbourhoods they love. It takes over their apartments and their bars, and is often driven by the rising tide of colour:

The flare-ups within the gaily decorated walls of the bar were now few and far between, or–to be poetic–less frequent than they had been in the good old days when the neighborhood had first succumbed to the Puerto Rican assault wave.

Cop_Hater_(Ed_McBain_novel)It doesn’t much matter that he’s nice enough about the Puerto Ricans later in the paragraph, they’re still an assault wave at the white community. This is a world where police are the good guys and the papers are bleeding-heart liberal  — “first three pages of cheesecake and chest-thumping liberalism…”

This is a world where poverty exists and will always exist, same with crime and same with prostitution — anchored into a geography and unchanging. And of course, one that firmly believes whites built the cities on ground after Native Americans peacefully moved along:

La Via de Putas was a street which ran north and south, for a total of three blocks. The Indians probably had their name for it, and the tepees that lined the path in those rich days of beaver pelts and painted beads most likely did a thriving business even then. As the Indians retreated to their happy hunting grounds and the well-worn paths turned to paved roads, the tepees gave way to apartment buildings, and the practitioners of the world’s oldest profession claimed the plush-lined cubbyholes as their own.

Ah, the happy hunting grounds in the sky. It’s both extraordinary, and fucked up, this view that attempts to be that of the common man.

220px-Cop_Hater_posterThat passage also shows that it’s not just racism prominent of course, it’s also misogyny:

The femaleness reached out to envelop him in a cloying, clinging embrace.

The ladies are bound to betray you, but that is a common and well-known failing of theirs.

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The Watts Uprising: Sears & McConahay’s Politics of Violence

In The Politics of Violence, Sears & McConahay offer a detailed and academic study of the Watts uprising, sometimes known as the riots. Their goal in their own words:

This is a book about the political and social psychology of the Los Angeles Watts Riot of August 1965, an event that changed the course of American race relations. We shall attempt here to formulate, and to subject to rigorous empirical test, a comprehensive social psychological theory of urban mass violence. Two basic questions will be addressed: (1) Can riot participation rightfully be interpreted as a political act? (2) What were the major political effects of the riot? (vii)

The framing of this isn’t quite the way I’d go about it, but what it comes up with is very interesting. They follow these two main goals up with additional questions they believe are important, and that in themselves are insightful into the ways that the Watts uprising has been understand and the questions that it has raised for the wider society:

(1) Why did the riot happen in 1965, of all times, in the midst of what was apparently an unprecedented national civil rights effort, with the most sympathetic white public, President, Congress, and judiciary in history, and in the midst of great prosperity? (2) Why did it happen in Los Angeles, of all places, generally thought to be among the most pleasant, open, and egalitarian of American cities? (3) Was the riot politically meaningful in origin; that is, did it grow out of no longer tolerable social conditions that had to be reformed if further riots and miseries were to be avoided? Or was it a politically meaningless explosion, generated mainly by criminals, malcontents, or a few agitators, who managed to dupe hapless innocents? (4) What were the political consequences of the rioting? Did it lead whites to further sympathy for black people, and at long last spur them out of lethargy into remedial social action, or did it create a massive backlash that abruptly terminated the sympathetic consensus and thrust for civil rights progress? Did it horrify and terrify decent black citizens into a renunciation of all forms of confrontation, or provide for a general uplift in black pride and black solidarity, or fuel the advocacy of militant action and racial violence? Did race relations move into a more mature and realistic era, or regress into greater suspiciousness, hostility, and distance? (viii)

I liked this especially:

For simplicity’s sake, though, we have decided to use the term “riot” because it was used overwhelmingly in the media and by most of our respondents. Our data indicate, as will be seen, that it was more of a “rebellion” than a “riot,” but we will let our data speak for themselves and not try to prejudge the case by selecting a less commonly used word (ix).

Also this:

Blacks in Los Angeles had been angry for a long time, perhaps since first Negro arrived and the Los Angeles Times began printing a column (c. 1880)entitled “News From Nigger Alley. Nevertheless, most whites were unaware of the extent and depth of black grievances until after the rioting of 1965 (55).

But their findings on whites are more interesting really. They write:

One consequence of these mild peculiarities of the early settlers, and of the life style they created for themselves, was a profound degree of black invisibility–both before and after the mass immigration of blacks to Los Angeles. By “invisibility” we mean an absence of blacks in the perceptual world of white Southern Californians. Whites were (and are) physically isolated from blacks (134).

In analysing the reasons for this, Sears & McConahay come up with a list of explanatory factors: ‘The Naive In-Migrant’, often from the Mid-West and unused to Black folks and believing the West was free of such problems; ‘Racial Isolation’, a disperse urban pattern and segregation kept them apart and interestingly this: ‘the uniquely retreatist or privatistic life style of today’s new American suburbs has flourished in Los Angeles for many years, further diminishing the opportunities for interracial contact (135); ‘De Facto Segregation’ both in residence, but also shopping patterns and lack of public transportation causes greater isolation; ‘Invisibility in the Media’ (there is an amazing graph on this).

I’m not sure I buy their analysis that L.A.’s version of racism was primarily symbolic–having researched and read enough horribly vile leaflets and letters against integration, and given the Klan’s popularity. This sort of nastiness most associated with the deep South (from whence many whites moved to L.A.) was alive and well alongside more puritanical judgements, fear of the unknown and etc. I don’t believe much tension arose from whites attempting to impose traditional puritanical mores onto different cultures, alternative values and lifestyles — Douglas Flamming’s work, for example, on African Americans in L.A. seems to show at least a large portion of the community were just as believing in hard work and striving for middle-classness as anyone else. Where it does make sense is this world view demanding belief that each individual is what they make of themselves with no allowance for racism’s structural features.

So it’s a interesting line they take, mostly using ‘Black invisibility’ to argue that whites just didn’t know what was happening. I’d say more that they didn’t want to know, but this is really interesting:

Finally, it is this combination of invisibility, indifference, and ignorance, on the one hand, and the moralism of symbolic racism, on the other, that evoked, we believe, one of the oddest and least expected aspects of the riot; namely, the widespread feeling among blacks that the riot was a demand for attention more than an effort to redress specific and concrete deficiencies in their lives (144).

And again, they refer to this spatial aspect in which L.A. is a prototype rather than exception for sprawling development:

In the near future, at least, it appears that the dominant suburban pattern will be traditional values and privatize life styles in an ethnically homogeneous retreat from blacks who are isolated in the central city (even when the retreat is homogeneously populated with Roman Catholics espousing Protestant virtues). In this sense, then, Los Angeles differs from the rest of America only in that it is the most American of all (146).

So responses:

The racial polarization of local black and white leaders was duplicated almost immediately in the responses of the black and white publics, These descriptions of and feelings about the riot were as different as night and day and they formed the basis for a broad initial polarization over the issue of the riot, with blacks joined by a few liberal whites on one side, against most whites on the other….Most blacks perceived the riot as (1) a purposeful symbolic protest (2) against legitimate grievances, (3) designed to call attention to Blacks’ problems…When asked directly, a majority felt the riot did have a purpose or a goal, felt that the targets deserved attack, and agreed that the riot constituted a black protest. Also, when given a free choice of descriptive terms, a surprisingly large minority [38%] chose to talk about it in revolutionary or insurrectional terms… (159).

It continues: ‘Most though Whites had become more “aware of Negroes’ problems” and more sympathetic to them as a consequence of the riot’ (161). Also that ‘The blacks’ sympathies generally were with the rioters, not with the authorities. Disapproval of the rioters was not as common as it was of the riot itself’ (163).

It breaks my heart to read the contrast:

The story told by whites and Mexican Americans was quite different. Many (especially those close to the Curfew Zone) felt fear for their own safety or for their families’ safety during the disturbance. The Mexican American respondents in our sample (all of whom actually lived in the Curfew Zone) were particularly frightened: 52 per cent reported feeling a “great deal” of fear. Fear among whites was greatest in Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park, two integrated communities on the edge of the Curfew Zone (35 per cent reported a “great deal”) but, even in affluent Pacific Palisades 20 miles from the riot, 12 per cent reported “a great deal” of fear.
Accompanying the fear was much serious thought about obtaining guns for armed counterviolence. Forty-two per cent of the Mexican Americans and 29 per cent of the whites said “yes” to the question, “Did you at any time consider using firearms to protect yourself or your family?” Also, 5 per cent of the whites and 7 per cent of the Mexican Americans reported that they actually had bought firearms or ammunition as a consequence of the riot (164).

Almost all Whites and Mexican-Americans supported the tough, uncompromising stand toward the rioters that chief Parker and the other California law enforcement authorities established. Both groups almost invariably praised the authorities or criticized them for not being even tougher…Whites and Mexican Americans did agree, in general, that it had been a black protest but they were extremely unlikely to describe the riot in revolutionary terms…Finally, then, it should come as no surprise to learn that whites and Mexican Americans thought the riot would have quite unfavorable effects for blacks (165).

The impact this had on perceptions and strategies for struggle in teh Black community are also revealing:

Thus, our hypothesis was that the junction of the New Urban Blacks and “Watts” would leave the younger generation (irrespective of background) more drawn to imaginative and unconventional strategies, particularly those emphasizing protest and violence.

Participation in the Watts Riot itself was one key indicator of this effect. We have seen in Chapter 2 that youth was a critical factor in riot participation and in Chapters 6 and 7 that it was not merely “animal spirits” that led the young into the fray. Rather, they engaged in the riot from the same sense of grievance as older rioters.
Willingness to engage in future protest demonstrations and preference for the use of violence in the future both showed the same effect. The young were much more drawn to both protest and violence than their elders.

Malcolm X, the continuing rise of the Nation of Islam, U.S. and the Black Panthers…hardly a surprise. The authors tie the riots into a rise in Black Pride:

‘a new and more positive conception of what it meant to be black emerged in the aftermath of the violence. The riot ideology was intimately involved with this post-riot increase in positive black identity. Specifically, it seems to have occurred as part of the interpretation of the riot as a collective symbolic protest.

And this is beautiful really, in spite of painfully moralistic language and class expectations:

We have seen repeatedly that local grievances, riot participation, and the riot ideology were not to be found merely in a few deviants, isolates, political “kooks,” or half-socialized idiots. They were to be found at least as often (and frequently to an even greater degree) in the best educated, most sophisticated, most completely socialized, most modern blacks in Los Angeles. And the same is true of positive black identity: it was, in the aftermath of “Watts,” truly a mainstream value in the black community (189).

The conclusion actually does recap in detail the entire argument, and contains this nice summary of the various theories also put forward to explain the Watts uprising–and demolished quite convincingly by this book:

We constructed and then rejected empirically one formal nonpolitical alternative to our politics of violence theory, “the random outburst theory”…We also presented the far less formalized “theories” offered by authorities and by the general public. We described the conspiracy, contagion, riffraff, underclass, family life breakdown, and southern newcomer “theories” and indicated that, with the exception of unemployed males, who were quite active, they did not fit the data…The most systematic alternative formulation we considered was Banfield’s (1970) “fun and profit” theory. We described and refuted empirically his three main propositions: that the rioting simply reflected greater propensity to violence among lower classes, southerners, and the young; that it was merely a rampage or foray for pillage, rather than being motivated by identifiable and genuine discontents; and that the riot ideology merely represented post hoc rationalizations. (201).

And then in a fairly damning indictment, they list all of the recommendations made by numerous commissions on violence and rioting beginning in 1919, that are almost word for word the same:

The recommendations invariably called for a reduction of unemployment, opening of the job structure to blacks, reform of education and of programs to improve the scholastic attainments of blacks, reform of the welfare system (to cut costs) and to give the recipients “who wanted to work” assistance in getting a job, improvement of housing quality and availability, and, finally, suggestions for future police strategies. With the exception of this last [Kerner Commission], none of the recommendations made since 1919 has been pursued with any vigor and most have remained entombed in the bound official reports to be resurrected after the next series of riots (292).

The authors go further than these ‘liberal’ formulations. Ones I think the course of histor since 1973 has challenged (along with their theorization of ‘symbolic racism’) but here they are:

Jobs, housing, education, anti-discrimination laws–all of these are necessary, but insufficient answers to mounting black disaffection. In addition, symbolic gestures are called for, to deal with symbolic discontents. That a presidential candidate or a mayor would walk through the streets of Harlem or Watts or that a President would use the phrase “we shall overcome” in a message on civil rights has a profound positive effect….
With these cautions we conclude our “recommendations.” It is obvious that America does not lack for recommendations. What she lacks is equally obvious and very simple: the will to implement them. Since we doubt that white America is on the verge of suddenly acquiring this will, we feel little compulsion to add further to the list of recommendations (205).

Still No Justice For Smiley Culture

The Metropolitan Police Authority met Friday morning at City Hall, and the Justice for Smiley Culture campaign was there in force to hear just what they had say.

The meeting started, however, with an official letter of apology to the family of Daniel Morgan, admitting to 5 failed police investigations and 24 years of lies and inaction due to police corruption. All of it ended in the acquittal of his murderers. In the family’s words, they have been “lied to, fobbed off, bullied, degraded…” in a process that was “nothing short of torture”. They requested a judicial inquiry, and the MPA voted to recommend that they get one.

24 years. For an apology, and a promise of a recommendation for a full inquiry.

So we sat there, and you know anger was rising high as we were told that we could be given no information on an ongoing investigation. The Acting Met Police Commissioner Tim Goodwin acknowledged that he still had to look into whether or not those investigating Smiley Culture’s death were linking up properly with the community or the family. He denied knowledge of the earlier briefings about Smiley Culture stabbing himself through the heart while making a cup of tea.

And that couple of minutes, including some questions from other members of the authority, was all we got. Not even the respect of an official letter of condolence. The insensitivity was unbelievable.

You better believe we were all angry, and it showed. My heart broke to see the pain of his family and friends, trying to cope both with the earth-shattering immensity of grief in losing a loved one, and the impossibility of getting any answers, much less justice, out of the police. Tim Goodwin had already tried to move the agenda on to the next investigation when we broke it up, calling out no justice no peace and leaving the hall.

There have been far too many deaths following police contact, I’ve copied the official table with the numbers from the MPA below:

Year Black & Asian Other Total
1998-99 6 11 17
1999-00 4 12 16
2000-01 2 5 7
2001-02 4 5 9
2002-03 10 7 17
2003-04 6 9 15
2004-05 3 11 14
2005-06 7 10 17
2006-07 8 7 15
2007-08 7 9 16
2008-09 13 15 28
2009-10 13 11 24
to end of February 2011 10 15 25

What is most disgusting is the inordinately high percentage of Black and Asian deaths. This is clearly an issue that hits the Black community the hardest, which makes it even more important that others stand with them now. All of us bear the burden of making it right. Racism continues to be everywhere, it is institutional, and it is deadly; everyone who cannot know what it is to suffer it directly needs to remember that. It will take all of us to stop it, and it needs to stop.

For more information about what is happening, join the facebook group or follow the campaign on twitter:

Most importantly, there is a march on April 16th, assembling at Southbank Club (124 – 130 Wandsworth Road SW8 2DL) at 12:00, and support is needed leafletting to get the word out. Lambeth SOS (where this blog is also posted) will be working on this, but get in touch directly with the campaign by emailing justice4smiley@hotmail.co.uk or calling 07984 935 769.

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Zero Tolerance Policing (in the Dominican Republic?)

It sends chills down my spine really, to know Bratton’s out there making mad money as a consultant and spreading this everywhere. I know it’s considered a controversial issue but I stand pretty squarely on the side saying fuck the (U.S.) police. You add the proven corruption and racism to a larger political program and developer and business dollars? You get Giuliani and Bratton’s policies to clean up neighborhoods not by stopping crime but by criminalizing all of its inhabitants (of color) and getting them the hell out of there so the new wealthy (white) people moving in can feel safe, that’s what zero tolerance policing means to me. Just to be clear.

Funny though, Bratton’s plan is not exactly what’s going on in the Dominican Republic according to professor David Howard, nor has he been involved. They’ve just taken the prestigious name as proof of their ‘modern’ and ‘Western’ method, and have applied a particularly nationalistic twist. Of course, throwing 16,000 armed policemen into a small area (approximately 1 for every 13 people), instituting a curfew and 24 hour surveillance, and randomly arresting anyone looking at a cop wrong…well, that sounds about right. Though the scale is a bit mind boggling.

And of course,  approximately 3,000 of those police have been trained in New York and Miami. (I was going to throw in the possible effects of America’s military occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1917-21 and 1965-66 as well, but realized it’s maybe a tiny stretch to connect these facts. Or not.)

The placas have the jargon down as well, they are sanitizing these neighborhoods, cleansing them. But generally speaking they’re not criminalizing the entire population, nor is it parallel to the gentrification and displacement sweeping New York or L.A. Essentially they’re reinventing the image of the police, making a show of dealing with crime in a media friendly way, and hunting down Haitians. I’m not quite sure if this has slowed down since the earthquake, but I’m doubtful.

So. If you haven’t read Junot Diaz, either Drown or the Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, do not even finish this, proceed directly to buy these books and read them. He writes like a razor blade about the dark absurdity that seems to lie at the heart of Dominican politics (not that they’re alone in that). But here are some choice new facts.

First the Haitian thing. (Read Edwidge Danticat too, she’s amazing.) Dominicans, very generally speaking, hate Haitians. Particularly the ones who want to move to the Dominican Republic. The law says anyone born on Dominican soil who is not in transit (ie in the airport etc) is Dominican if they have a birth certificate to prove it. Trouble is, you often can’t get a certificate if either of your parents doesn’t have one, so you have some cases of 4th generation kids (dunno if you could even call them Haitian at that point), who don’t have birth certificates. And without a birth certificate you cannot get an ID. And without an ID you can be immediately arrested, and shortly thereafter deported.

But it gets better, because they’ve legally broadened the definition of ‘in transit’ to include all migrants. It’s called fun with words. And it means a lot of people in these neighborhoods have suddenly found themselves heading back to their ‘home’ country.

So the second thing. As part of re-branding themselves the police have seen technology as a major factor. So as part of this zero tolerance thing they have bought all these new jeeps equipped with the latest and greatest in tech. First, they all have laptops. Of course, they have no computerized data on crime or criminals to bring up on those laptops, but I suppose it’s the theoretical ability that counts.

Their other new gadgets? GPS units. Of course they are policing informal settlements with no paved roads and regular flooding. You can give coordinates but that will never help anyone actually get to you. And as for using it to get anywhere, forget about it.

And still I sat through the lecture with my stomach disappearing into itself and its fear of power combined with a legacy of immense violence and corruption embodied in 16,000 officers and neighborhoods essentially on lock down.

Homicide in L.A.

I rode my bike to the gym last night, and passed the little park just two blocks away…my friend Jose helped plant the trees there. I had to stop for a minute, confronted by the spectacle of more cop cars than I have ever seen in one place (outside of the DNC when it was here). 10 or 11 of them, and crowds of neighbors clustered on the corners…I remember hearing the sirens earlier, because there had been so many. But I always hear sirens.

And then I rode on without finding out what was up, feeling a little guilty about the huge spike of curiosity that tragedy always seems to evoke when it is not tied to people I love. When I came back a few hours later there were only two black and whites, and a handful of others with the city crest on the doors. Homicide. Kidnapping. I wonder.

I looked it up in the Times today and found nothing…I shall have to go back I suppose, looking in the list of homicides for next week. I found that John Ortiz, 46, was beaten in the head with a planter and killed only a block and half away from me on May 2nd. While I was sleeping.

And there have been 13 homicides this week in L.A. County, all shootings but the hit and run, and the drug overdose that apparently was not suicide. Almost all young men of color. Almost all in the ghetto. Even when the young men of color leave the ghetto they still get shot, the big story of the week being the rapper Dolla getting shot in the parking garage of the Beverly Center.

There are a structural reasons of racism and inequality and hopelessness that help explain why we kill each other. Mixed in with drugs and alcohol, passion and anger, the flood of guns. Mixed in with frustration turned on the wrong people, and life and death struggles over things that should never be life and death. It makes me angry and sad in equal measure. And sometimes I even despair just a bit. Each of these violent deaths has rocked a family to its foundations, and filled the markets and liquor stores of their neighborhood with old coffee cans, complete with pictures of the victim (usually with their kids or family) and a plea for money to pay for the funeral…I have helped pass those around. It breaks your fucking heart.

I wish the LA Times would print those photos, as none of us is an island… But people from our neighborhoods tend to be treated so, just some more fucked up kids.  They’re online with something that looks like a mug shot. Their names appear in a long list of other murders that is almost impossible to comprehend. One murder is news, 13? In a week? Two a day? Too much to follow up on, though the reporter on the crime beat does try.

Homicides: May 11 to May 18

The Los Angeles County coroner has confirmed the following deaths as homicides. The Times will report more details later this week:

Roberta Romero, a 24-year-old Latina, on May 11. Romero was shot near the intersection of Glenpark Street and Bellevue Avenue in Pomona.

Michael Moore, a 20-year-old black man, on May 13.  Moore was shot in the 1100 block of south Chester Avenue in Inglewood.

Erika Balayan, a 27-year-old Latina, on May 13. Balayan was shot in the 8300 block of Van Nuys Boulevard in Panorama City.

Robert Rodwell, a 28-year-old black man, on May 13. Rodwell was shot in the 1400 block of 105th Street in Athens.

Courtney Adams, a 24-year-old black man, on May 13.  Adams was shot in the 6800 block of Atlantic Boulevard in Long Beach.

Victor Moreno, a 19-year-old Latino, on May 14.  Moreno was shot in the 1700 block of East Vernon Avenue in Central Alameda.

Jose Chavez, a 30-year-old Latino, on May 15.  Chavez was involved in a hit-and-run near the intersection of Huntington Street and Third Street in Pomona.

Ly Tran, a 45-year-old Asian man, on May 15.  Tran was shot in the 13100 block of Lakewood Boulevard in Downey.

Alejandro Perez-Robles, a 25-year-old Latino, on May 16.  Perez-Robles was shot in the 2900 block of Hyde Park Boulevard in Hyde Park.

Javier Gonzalez-Cordero, a 19-year-old Latino, on May 16. Gonzalez-Cordero was shot in the 2900 block of Hyde Park Boulevard in Hyde Park.

Oleida Robinson, a 40-year-old white female, on May 16. Robinson died of an apparent overdose in the 10600 block of Soledad Canyon Road in unincorporated Los Angeles County.

Danny Quijada, a 30-year-old Latino, on May 16.  Quijada was shot in the 6300 block of Milton Avenue in Whittier.

Marcus Smith, a 31-year-old black man, on May 17.  Smith was shot in the 800 block of Osage Avenue in Inglewood.

Flight

Is an extraordinary thing. And to think about what it took for a single celled amoeba to transform over an unimaginable span of years into a being perfectly adapted to beat it’s wings and soar into the air … even more extraordinary. It is so much more impressive than walking or crawling or even pronking. I am in awe of it. This ability to fly turns even the most unlikable of all birds into something of grace and power

Wings mirror imaged and beautiful. Even a gull.

The way all of the feathers and muscles and bones work together to creat lift, break, turn. I took this next picture a couple of months ago in Arizona, a small hawk in the front yard

It’s amazing the way that each have adapted differently, the one for the ocean, for landing on water, for scavenging. The other for riding hot desert thermals, for soaring on winds without beating its wings, for lightening plummets to the ground and the power to break, scoop up its prey.

And then there are ducks. They also fly of course, but are much more amusing on the ground. Or in the water.

Practically running through the water in fact. And what extraordinary feet the American Coot has! They aren’t webbed, they look like blue green algea almost, and I tried to get a good picture but I failed.

I went paddle-boating on Echo Park today and the sun was shining and the sky was blue. Though it did turn a bit grey at the end.  After boating we walked to get some food, the park was full of families, and vendors of tacos and pupusas and carne asada and ice cream and chicharrones and elotes.

We started with elotes.

Roasted corn, y con todo? Lemon, salt, mayo, parmesan, butter and chile. A lot of chile if you ask for extra

Happiness on a stick really. And I hadn’t eaten anything all day, so we got pupusas after. As we were sitting eating we witnessed another sense of flight.

The human kind that happens when the pinche cops come along.

They inched down the road, giving that short siren burst of warning. Street vendors are unwelcome here. Surviving is important to them however, and so they chance it every weekend. They are always five minutes from a clean get away. And so the scene of community transformed. In five minutes all carts were packed up, and there were no more pupusas, elotes, carne asada, tacos, or ice cream. The tianguis spread along the side walks? Toys and pirated dvds and used clothes and a xylophone you paid to play and…all things nice. All gone.

They only left the evangelicals, screaming into their microphone, singing to synthesizer beats about the way Jesus colored in the lines of the world, and how we all needed to be saved.

Save

A funny police helicopter story

I spent all of yesterday and most of last night doing the final reviews of a 400 page and very tangled manuscript I’ve been editing for months, and I finally poured myself into bed after 1 am, feeling rather shattered though I had that nice sense of achievement because it is done, and was secure in the happy knowledge of just how GOOD it would feel to rest my weary bones.

And then the helicopter started up. Again. Every day this week. And the voice on the megaphone shouting –  come out with your hands raised – and it went on for hours and I lay in bed hating everything and everyone.

And so I woke up this morning late, unrested, and mildly cranky. But it did remind me of a funny story.

It belongs to my friend Carlos, truck driver, and definitely used to think he was tough…when not driving a semi he drove this souped up car with hydraulics. I’m not terribly impressed by hydraulics myself, but was pretty excited to experience them while cruising, rock en español and rap blasting on the radio…

At any rate, there was a helicopter circling his apartment in the middle of the night, as they tend to do in South Central, and that didn’t wake him up, but the blinding light that shortly filled his entire room did. It was the helicopter. And he heard the megaphone screaming out come out with your hands up. And it didn’t stop. And so after some sleepy and very confused thought he decided that inexplicably they must have come for him. So he went out onto his balcony in just his boxers with his hands behind his head, unable to see anything at all because of the spotlight and his heart pounding and his mind racing to try and figure out what exactly he could have done or who he could have been confused with to have been in such a position at all.

And then he heard the megaphone – “We weren’t talking to YOU! Get back inside!”

They were after the guy in the next apartment, and they got him too, and for the life of me I can’t remember why, which is a sad ending to a good story, but so it goes.

The absurdity of mass repression

Documentary after documentary. It is how I have been spending the tail end of my nights lately, after long days of work and time with friends. Some we have published, some are submissions for us to consider publishing, a few I throw in as reminders of what is already out there.

They are all of struggle, so at some point every night I have sat here with tears pouring down my face. Sometimes they are indefinable tears. I don’t know why masses of working people in the streets and facing down riot police always make me cry, but they always do. Perhaps for the hope they give me where there is so little hope left. Too often they are tears of sadness, for those who have been injured, tortured, killed. The worst was Black and Gold, where there is a mother grieving for her son shot by the police. I have heard that grief before, it is hoarse and raw and rending, it shatters everything in you to hear it. It flays you to bear witness and be able to do nothing. It takes me back remorselessly to the burial ground and the huge machine already covering the coffin and tamping the ground even as the mariachis still played. Maria almost screaming, if she had had any voice left. I cannot understand how this can be the world that we have created.

And I cannot understand how these things continue. Chicago, Alabama, Buenos Aires, Oaxaca, Burma, Greece…these are just a fraction of the confrontations where governments have turned on their own people.  Intellectually, of course, I understand the intertwining of government and capital, the need to retain power at all costs, the strength and cunning of propaganda combined with media silence. But fundamentally, everything in me revolts at its very possibility. Everything revolts at the idea that a government that turns its army and security forces onto thousands of its own people could retain the slightest shred of legitimacy. With anyone.

What is a government for, and why does it exist?

How can a legitimate government defend itself from its own citizens with police bearing clubs, tear gas, pepper spray, pistols and machine guns? With helicopter attacks, secret and open raids, illegal arrests, disappearances, torture, assassination, bombs?

How is it possible that we have come to accept that a government can repress a mass movement of its own people? Who else do we think it is accountable to?

In my cynicism I know that’s a beginner’s question. Of course they are not accountable to the masses of their people; they are accountable to the few, the wealthy, the elite that they themselves are part of. They hold the money and power, and if persuasion does not work, they will use force. I understand all of this, but even so. I rage at the fundamental absurdity of this being the universal system that defines the lives of all us.

Back in LA

My train hit someone today, the blue line at Vernon Station. The train hit someone. No one felt it, what is the measure of a human being against a hulking monster of iron and steel? We stopped and the conductor came on telling everyone to remain calm. Telling himself to remain calm. Two lives changed forever, and most people restless and angry only at the delay. Death today, or something close to it.

Welcome home to LA. I sat this morning, wondering how in fuck we have been reduced to this. Every time I come home I feel this, I see it clearly. How we have been reduced to this. Public spaces, angry faces, hard and drawn and bitterness carved. People take them off only when they get home. The world rolls past me, contained, when you’re in it no other world can exist. Homeless encampments along the train line, clothes and belongings scattered by police raids. They terrorize the most vulnerable. They stride along metro platforms, sunglassed, booted, guns pushed forward, large dogs beside them. Fundraisers for the city, reminders of who rules this place, and even in my anger I fear them. And here they are everywhere. I see hints of rebellion spray-painted in brilliance across gray walls, but around me there are simply people who survive. Survival is grim, it terrifies, it reduces life to a splinter working its way inwards. It kills senses, kills thought, kills compassion, kills joy. Life reduced to this. We live within the bones of capitalism, the structures of society, forces of history and economics that demand poverty, and place it here. And we yield with hardly a murmur, people getting on, making do. I understand riots, I do not understand why they are rare. I do not know what it will take to bring the structures down, and if they came down now I fear so much that we are too used to preying on each other. We do not look up but down when we inflict violence. We kill each other, we kill ourselves, we allow ourselves to be killed. I mourn my dead, in other worlds no one understands the number of dead, and I rage at this world with its invisible walls.  I wonder just what it is we have that we are so afraid to lose. I wonder how we can beat ourselves against walls without ever seeing them, without ever tearing them down. If we do not do it, no one will. Everyone on the other side is too afraid of us. Us I say…I grew up without choices but claimed them and I choose to stand here, it is a luxury of mine. I belong nowhere now, so I can chose which side I fight on. And I will always fight.

Tomorrow I will believe again in the possibility of building something better. I dream that it could grow large enough to bring the walls down with its tremendous swelling, I do not know another way to completely destroy them, and a breach has never proven to be enough. Tomorrow I will see again the strength and beauty that is here. But not today.

And you know, for all I write, the soundtrack of today said it so much better, The Roots, Bread and Butter, all of our cities are flooding and it never makes the news. All the levees are broken.

A child is born, his mother is gone
He in the middle of it literally, tusslin strong
For his life, the tide high
In the eye of the storm a mannish boy arrive
And the riot is on
Wit no spare time to try to respond
Or prepare times it’s hard not becomin a headline
Or prayin in the night when it’s bedtime
Or layin ya head down
Cuz you already know what it is now
You know a lot of leaders ain’t honest
And they can’t keep a promise
And I hate to speak about it but it’s all freakanomics
Cramped and proud of it, you amped and you rowdy
Treadin water tryina lift up ya head without drownin
This type of shit can make ya heart stop from poundin
Butchu pushin for the top too scared to stop
Now it gets deep, bodies are floatin around in the streets
Lotta people who won’t even be around in a week
Man get the operation gone
Whatch’all waitin on?
We been patient, y’all mo’fuckas takin long
The television gettin all the information wrong
Doin how they do it gettin they miseducation on
They already late
Somebody been was ‘posed to regulate
Instead of wait before they let the levee break
You try runnin from the truth but it’s givin chase
I got to ask myself yo, is any nigga safe?

[Chorus:]
A loaf of bread, milk and eggs, stick of butter man
Somebody mother lies dead in the gutter
Sheriff down by them that’s talkin that gutter
Tell the kids don’t look under those covers, mayne