On state violence, white male privilege and ‘Occupy’

by Nancy A. Heitzeg

“I ain’t about to go get arrested with some muhfuhkuhs who just figured out yesterday that this shit ain’t right.” – quoted by Greg Tate in The Village Voice

Angela-Davis-addresses-Occupy-Oakland-on-General-Strike-day-110211-by-John-Osborn-Bay-Citizen, On state violence, white male privilege and ‘Occupy’, News & Views Much has been written of late as to the “white maleness” of the “Occupy” Movement. The demographics of the participants, which varies from city to city, but which is consistently seen as predominately young white and male, is not fully reflective of the “99 percent.”

The language of “occupy” itself – this is the rhetoric of colonialism, conquest, imperialism, militarism and, well, “white” males: The class-based framing and the lack of intersectional analysis – it is difficult to undo “the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” by overlooking the centrality of white supremacy and patriarchy. The amorphous lack of specific demands, save that of attention – trust me, if my multi-race, multi-gendered, multi-sexuality crew and I are camping out in protest, in a public space at that, we know exactly what we are gonna ask for.

While the Occupy Movement may evolve and expand in new directions, form new coalitions, as of now, it is a movement dominated by “white” male privilege. And nowhere is this more telling than in the response to state violence against protesters and in the absence of a critique of the political economy of the prison industrial complex.

As of now, Occupy is a movement dominated by “white” male privilege. And nowhere is this more telling than in the response to state violence against protesters and in the absence of a critique of the political economy of the prison industrial complex.

In the aftermath of police actions in NYC, Oakland and elsewhere, some justifiable outrage and even more hyperbole abounded. Scott Olsen, the injured Iraq War veteran who galvanized Occupy Oakland critiques of police action, was described in various blog posts as “the Crispus Attucks of the movement.” Never mind that he is white. Or alive.

A recent NYPD action that moved protesters off a public sidewalk and resulted in 20 arrests was described by an observer as “the most egregious violation of constitutional rights I have ever seen.”


Rodney King? Oscar Grant? Amadou Diallo? Sean Bell? Abner Louima? Troy Davis?

How many millions more?

And where you been?

Perspectives on police

“Those of us who do not have white skin are the most policed people on the planet. Oakland Police Department shoots unarmed Black men and takes white men who engage police in shootouts into custody alive.” – Rich Ejire

A substantial literature documents the vast gulf in public perceptions of police between whites and communities of color. While whites often view the police as there to “protect and serve,” communities of color have long been clear that the police were there to, in fact, police them. As Laurence Bobo observed in the midst of the Henry Louis Gates Jr. affair:

“For most Blacks, this police-Black citizen interaction is an acutely sensitive terrain. For many African Americans, it is a space marked by live wounds, personal and familial memories of injury and insult, and the heavy weight of group experience of injustice. For most whites, however, there is nothing so close, so profoundly emotion-laced or so fundamentally defined by an ascriptive feature such as one’s perceived racial background. It is, in short, a place where the Venn diagrams of white America and Black America generally do not overlap … It is that point of everyday interaction where race plays out in a face-to-face encounter. In particular, it involves the type of encounter involving respect for police authority on the one hand and, on the other hand, respect for the rights of citizens who happen to be African Americans.”

Communities of color come to expect police encounters, and expect them on a daily basis, not just under protest or “crowd control” situations. Driving/walking/standing while Black or Brown and endless subjugation to “stop and frisk” policies are routine.

Encounters with police that involve excessive and/or deadly force are also routine for communities of color. The incidents tracked by Injustice Everywhere: The National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project and illustrated below also disproportionately impact people of color.

Police-Misconduct-graphic-web, On state violence, white male privilege and ‘Occupy’, News & Views

Perhaps most disturbing is the rate at which deadly force impacts communities of color. While local, state and federal law enforcement agencies keep absolutely accurate records of the number of police officers killed or assaulted in the line of duty – typically less than 60 killed per year – there is no comparable systematic accounting of the number of citizens killed by police each year.

This data is not nationally gathered or reported. The task is left to individual researchers to cobble together local and state-level data – much of which has had racial identifiers removed – and report what police only seem to be concerned about in light of potential litigation.

Anywhere from 350 to 400 civilians are killed by police each year — an average of one per day. This number is certainly an under-count since it is based on police shootings and does not include deaths by choke-holds, hog-ties, tasers, reactions to chemical sprays or injuries sustained in beatings.

Those killed by police are disproportionately Black and Brown. A variety of studies have found consistent racial disparities in police shootings:

“Since the 1970s, sociologists and political scientists have consistently found that minority suspects in the United States face lethal force from police officers at a disproportionate rate. According to 2001 figures from the Department of Justice, Black suspects were five times more likely to be shot and killed by officers than white suspects.”

Black suspects were five times more likely to be shot and killed by officers than white suspects.

A 2007 study conducted by ColorLines and The Chicago Reporter examined police shootings in the 10 largest U.S. cities. The findings were sadly predictable:

“African Americans were overrepresented among police shooting victims in every city the publications investigated. The contrast was particularly noticeable in New York, San Diego and Las Vegas. In each of these cities, the percentage of Black people killed by police was at least double that of their share of the city’s total population.

“A second significant point: Latinos are a rising number of fatal police shooting victims. Starting in 2001, the number of incidents in which Latinos were killed by police in cities with more than 250,000 people rose four consecutive years, from 19 in 2001 to 26 in 2005. The problem was exceptionally acute in Phoenix, which had the highest number of Latinos killed in the country.”

Until the Occupy Movement offers a systemic critique of routine police practices that target communities of color and not just those mostly white male occupados, then it will be difficult to imagine sustainable coalitions or a centering of non-white and non-male voices.

Perspectives on the prison industrial complex

“There are currently 12,000 prisoners on a hunger strike in California. This is major. We need to surround the prison grounds and give more power and love and solidarity to those in the racist/classist labor camps inside. We need to surround federal courthouses around abolishing the death penalty.” – Rich Ejire

A dramatic escalation of the U.S. prison population has occurred in the past 40 years, a 10-fold increase since 1970. Between 1987 and 2007 alone the prison population nearly tripled. The rate of incarceration for women escalated at an even more dramatic pace.

The United States, which has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of its prisoners. This is the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over 2.4 million persons are in state or federal prisons and jails – a rate of 751 out of every 100,000. Another 5 million are under some sort of correctional supervision such as probation or parole. The U.S. remains the last of the post-industrial so-called First World nations that still retains the death penalty, and we use it often. Nearly 3,300 inmates await execution in 35 states and at the federal level, and it was not until the early 21st century that the U.S. abolished capital punishment for juveniles and those with IQs below 70.

This increased rate of incarceration can be traced almost exclusively to the War on Drugs and the rise of lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes and other non-violent felonies. These harsh policies have not proliferated in response to crime rates nor any empirical data that indicates their effectiveness. This vast machinery, with its deep connection to profiteering, has come to be termed the prison industrial complex.

The prison industrial complex is a self-perpetuating machine where the vast profits (e.g. cheap labor, private and public supply and construction contracts, job creation, continued media profits from exaggerated crime reporting and crime/punishment as entertainment) and perceived political benefits (e.g. reduced unemployment rates, ‘get tough on crime’ and public safety rhetoric, funding increases for police, and criminal justice system agencies and professionals) lead to policies that are additionally designed to insure an endless supply of ‘clients’ for the criminal justice system (e.g. enhanced police presence in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, racial profiling, decreased funding for public education combined with zero-tolerance policies and increased rates of expulsion for students of color, increased rates of adult certification for juvenile offenders, mandatory minimum and ‘three-strikes’ sentencing, draconian conditions of incarceration and a reduction of prison services that contribute to the likelihood of ‘recidivism,’ ‘collateral consequences’ – such as felony disenfranchisement, prohibitions on welfare receipt, public housing, gun ownership, voting and political participation, employment – that nearly guarantee continued participation in ‘crime’ and return to the prison industrial complex following initial release.)” – Brewer and Heitzeg 2008

And unsurprisingly, mandatory minimums for drug violations, “three strikes,” increased use of imprisonment as a sentencing option, lengthy prison terms, adult certification for juveniles and the expanded use of the death penalty — all disproportionately affect the poor and people of color. Indeed this has been the history of the U.S. criminal justice system from the outset: The poor and especially people of color have been disproportionately policed, prosecuted, convicted, disenfranchised, imprisoned and executed. The current explosion in mass incarceration simply exacerbates this historical trend.

This has been the history of the U.S. criminal justice system from the outset: The poor and especially people of color have been disproportionately policed, prosecuted, convicted, disenfranchised, imprisoned and executed. The current explosion in mass incarceration simply exacerbates this historical trend.

Despite no statistical differences in rates of offending, the poor, the under-educated and people of color, particularly African Americans, are over-represented in these statistics at every phase of the criminal justice system. While one in 31 adults is under correctional supervision and one in every 100 adults is in prison, one in every 100 Black women, one in every 36 Latino adults , one in every 15 Black men, and one in nine Black men ages 20 to 34 are incarcerated. Approximately 50 percent of all prisoners are Black, 30 percent are white and 17 percent Latino. Race of victim, race of offender and social class remain the best predictors of who will receive the death penalty. A brief glimpse into the statistics – courtesy of NewsOne Prisons and Projects Series immediately reveals both the magnitude of these policy changes as well as their inequitable dynamic.

NewsOne-Prison-Facts-graphic, On state violence, white male privilege and ‘Occupy’, News & Views

One of the most insidious aspects of this project in mass incarceration is its connection to the profit motive. Once solely a burden on taxpayers, the so-called “prison-industrial complex” (PIC) is now a source of corporate profit, government agency funding, cheap neo-slave labor and employment for economically depressed regions. This complex now includes over 3,300 jails, over 1,500 state prisons, and 100 federal prisons in the U.S. Over 30 of these institutions are super-maximum facilities, not including the super-maximum units located in most other prisons. Nearly 300 of these are private for-profit prisons, and privatization of prison services is an increasing trend that magnifies corporate profits.

Certainly any critique of late capitalism in the 21st century USA must address the on-going connections between corporate profit and the mass incarceration and neo-enslavement of millions of mostly Black and Brown citizens. Right?

So far the response of the Occupy Movement has been “crickets.” Yes, there have been moments of solidarity for Troy Davis and in opposition to NYC Stop and Frisk. These efforts are laudable, but Occupy has offered no deep critique of the PIC and the connections between classism, racism and mass incarceration. As Greg Tate observes (the bold is mine):

“The predominant age range of OWS’s paler male participants is roughly 18-29. This age group among African American cats accounts for 40 percent of the country’s prison population – a national crisis which predates the bailout by several decades. This disgraceful disparity could likely continue after every OWS-er has been gainfully reabsorbed into the American workforce. Although Wall Street profits from our brothers’ massive enslavement by incarceration, so does Main Street. Perhaps OWS should ponder putting prison abolition on their unformulated list of demands. Until then, some Black progressives, though duly sympathetic, might not hear a roar coming from Zuccotti but simply crickets.”

Here’s the truth: Much of the “white” “progressive” “left” stood idly by throughout the incarceration explosion – their interest sparked only occasionally by calls to legalize marijuana or free white men such as Bradley Manning from “tortuous” conditions of solidarity confinement that frankly, however onerous, are routine for the “typical” inmate, who is typically Black or Latino. If they were paying attention at all, much of the “white” “progressive” “left” knew implicitly or otherwise that the PIC was never primarily intended for them anyway; it was and is a contemporary extension of both slavery and convict lease and serves as the major mechanism in the Post-Civil Rights Era for controlling communities of color.

For the “white” “progressive” “left” to now decry state violence as applied to them is, well, too little too late. Until Occupy addresses this key capitalist growth “industry” and major drain on governmental resources as well as the deep connections to both racism and gendered racism, then the economic analysis and the opportunity for meaningful coalition remains shallow indeed.

Beyond ‘Occupy’

“This is not the only revolution. This is a movement around class and economic oppression. The environmental justice movement is feeling left out of the living documents. What about queer rights? Native sovereignty? Abolishing the death penalty? Dismantling the prison industrial complex? Disarming BART police?” – Rich Ejire

“Occupy” has had great success in drawing world-wide attention to the economic exploitation of capitalism and the stranglehold the 1 percent have on resources that rightly belong to the 99 percent. Certainly communities of color and women, via the feminization of poverty, have suffered disproportionately from this greed. Variations from city to city reveal different degrees of success in attempting to address issues of inclusion. Off-shoots like Occupy the Hood are attempting to bridge that gap.

But as Bill Fletcher Jr. notes:

“The Occupy Wall Street movement is a fabulous display of antipathy to economic injustice and the elites who feel that they can ignore the growing misery suffered by the U.S. public. It is an audacious stand against a class that has acted in vampire-like fashion to drain the blood from the rest of the country.

“Yet it is a movement that must at some point confront the question: ‘Where to from here?’”

That remains to be seen. The full potential of Occupy can only be realized with a true commitment to intersectionality and multi-level social activism that includes both protests and participation in electoral politics. Quoting Audre Lorde, Angela Davis recently asked at OWS Washington Square:

“How can we come together in a unity that is complex and emancipatory? Differences must not be merely tolerated but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which poles creativity can spark like the dialectic.”

The diversity of the 99 percent must fully be represented – not just at the margins but at the center of discourse and agenda setting. True commitment to intersectionality requires much more than an “add and stir” approach, which ultimately often tokenizes the handful of people of color and women brought in as cover for a white male agenda. Attempts to address class disparities without attention to the role of racism, sexism and heterosexism ultimately is, again in the words of Audre Lorde, attempting to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. It will never happen.

The future of the 99 percent – of people of color, women, queers – must not be jeopardized further by a subset of white males whose privilege blinds them to the dangers of flirtations of “outreach” to the tea party right or to alliances with Ron Paul libertarians whose disregard for the historical and contemporary significance of the 14th Amendment is stunning. The future of the 99 percent must not be jeopardized by a subset of white males whose privilege blinds them to the history of hard fought struggles for the right to vote, whose willingness to stay home on Election Day, imagine primary efforts against the first Black president or third party fashion statements belies that very privilege. The rest of us can ill afford another Republican in the White House or a Supreme Court that moves even further to the right, undoing for generations the thin but hard won legal protections for people of color and women. That result means simply that the “occupation” remains that of women’s bodies and of Black and Brown people in still more jail cells.

In her remarks at Washington Square, Angela Davis made a call for intersectionality:

“We say no to big banks. We say no to corporate executives making millions of dollars a year. We say no to student debt, we say no to evictions. We say no to global capitalism. We say no to the prison industrial complex. We say no to racism, we say no to class exploitation, we say no to homophobia, we say no to transphobia, we say no to ableism. We say no to military occupation. We say no to war.”

I stand with her and the communities that have long said No! to all the oppressions, not just to classism alone.

And until “Occupy” demonstrates their opposition to all of it, it will remain a “white male movement,” one manufactured by some ad-busting Canadian culture-jammers whose regard for interests of all of the 99 percent is suspect at best.

So I will end as I began with a slightly more polite paraphrase of the opening quote:

I am not about to trust a “movement” that offers no critique of the role of state violence in upholding capitalist economic interests. I am not about to support a “movement” that simplistically centers class to the exclusion of racism, sexism, heterosexism. And no, I am not about to get arrested with some “white” guys whose interests are just their own, who only noticed injustice when they were the ones who got laid off, arrested, beat down or tased.

Instead, I will continue, as always, to Occupy Classrooms, Occupy Academic Journals and Conferences, Occupy Blogspots, Occupy Grassroots Community Groups, Occupy Political Organizing and Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts and, yes – Occupy Voting Booths.

Again, Bill Fletcher Jr.:

“When we counter-pose street-based activism to electoral activism, we ultimately stall. Protest alone is not enough. It simply says what we do not like. Today, we have to fight to put people power in the hands of those who are being crushed by the economic juggernaut. The 99 percent should be in the streets and in Congress.”

Our lives – quite literally – depend on it.

Nancy A. Heitzeg, professor of sociology and critical studies of race and ethnicity at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., is the editor of Criminal InJustice, a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 p.m. CST. This story first appeared on Critical Mass Progress.