by Suzanne Ross
Internationally renowned political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal has just published a brilliant 15-page pamphlet about the challenge of the period we’re living in in this country: the non-stop police murders of young people of color followed by one acquittal after another of the killer cops. Even when the unarmed young police victims are children, 11 and 12 years old as in the case of Tamir Rice, the police are let off without even a serious investigation.
It’s not that this hasn’t happened before in U.S. history. It has. But for many reasons there is a heightened consciousness about it today and it is a defining aspect of this decade: the police versus the people, usually people of color, and often children.
There is no respite from this recurrent, painful and outrageous saga except for the inspiring and courageous resistance of the young people in the streets, led by those of color. From Ferguson to Staten Island to the 120 college campuses that rose up last week, we are seeing levels of courage and resistance in the face of militarized police on a massive scale that we have not seen since the ‘60s and ‘70s.
In this pamphlet, Mumia analyzes who the police are, including the roots of their control strategies as dating back to the policing of Black slaves in the colonies and subsequently in the 13 states, most dramatically in the South and particularly South Carolina, but also in the North. He defines the necessity of control of the large slave population, especially in states where whites were a minority, as necessary to maintain the level of exploitation slavery entails.
He uses the Marxist analysis of the police as the enforcers of the will of the ruling class based on that class’s economic interests. He analyzes how that role continues in the post-slavery period to this day. A large oppressed minority population must continue to be controlled in order for the ruling forces to maintain their wealth by exploiting that population.
Anything that threatens that exploitation and the control that is essential to it will be fought by any means necessary. At great risk and great danger, the exploited and oppressed classes will rise up when those conditions become so intolerable that significant sectors of that group converge in fighting back against the oppressors with a courage that is contagious and soon joined by others.
In today’s street uprisings, the exploited have defined that exploitation as racial in character, involving in Ferguson such dramatic rip-offs in the city’s levying of fines upon fines on the poor to stuff its municipal coffers while imposing a vicious stop and frisk, and then arrest, policy to impose its total control over Black lives.
Hence the Black Lives Matter Movement, whose very name is a direct challenge to that exploitation and control. The message of “We can’t breathe” connects Eric Garner’s assassination by the police of Staten Island to the daily suffering of the people of Ferguson at the hands of their overseers, to the dozens of unarmed Black men and boys whose lives are snuffed out by a flick of the killer cop’s finger.
In this pamphlet, Mumia analyzes who the police are, including the roots of their control strategies as dating back to the policing of Black slaves in the colonies and subsequently in the 13 states, most dramatically in the South and particularly South Carolina, but also in the North.
Mumia addresses with careful historical precision the development of the frequently referred to contradiction of the police themselves not profiting economically from their role, but carrying it out with such vicious enthusiasm. Some liberals and even leftists have tried to argue, sometimes even on the battle lines – as I myself heard one time, as the police were approaching to attack and assault us back in the ‘80s – that the police are our brothers and, increasingly, our sisters.
After all, they don’t benefit economically from their role as police. Tell that to Eric Garner or Mike Brown as they were being murdered and to the families of Sandra Brand and Tamir Rice who are mourning the loss of their beloved children at the hands of the police. Or to the hundreds of cities in the ‘60s that rose up in flames, such as Watts, Detroit, Newark and many others large and small.
They were forced to rise up against both the horrible living conditions imposed on Black communities and the police actions that attempted to defeat their uprisings. This dogmatic definition of “class enemy” clearly misses the racial character of class in this country. Oh yes, false consciousness.
Mumia addresses with careful historical precision the development of the frequently referred to contradiction of the police themselves not profiting economically from their role, but carrying it out with such vicious enthusiasm.
But the role of the police as the enforcers not only of the economic interests of the ruling class but as the enforcers of white supremacy, much like the KKK, has already been addressed profoundly in W.E.B. DuBois’ “Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880.” Mumia provides this excellent 21st-century update.
Mumia adds to the now common “slave patrol” analysis of pervasive police lawlessness and violent control of Black people with impunity by introducing the particular role of the Irish. Citing Noel Ignatiev’s book, “How the Irish Became White,” Mumia explains how the Irish played a special role in the development of the police, especially in New York and Philadelphia – but probably Boston as well, I would think – where they were transformed from despised immigrants in the 19th century to major collaborators and enforcers of white supremacy in relation to people of color by the 20th century.
Initially forming violent gangs of self-defense, the Irish community morphed itself into a frontline enforcer of control over Black people. Interestingly, insofar as some of this analysis of the Irish gangs and their transformation into KKK-like defenders of “white power” is focused on Philadelphia where the Fraternal Order of Police, a particularly vicious and powerful police force, has targeted and framed both MOVE and Mumia.
As a result, both the MOVE 9 and Mumia have spent more than 30 years in prison for alleged crimes they did not commit and the Fraternal Order of Police does everything it can to keep it that way, to prevent their release, and to cover up the history of the cover-up and conspiracy to silence and kill these revolutionaries.
Mumia weaves through the history that clearly defines police as playing a role not much different from that of the KKK to the present, where the policy is obviously to allow any police officer fearful of Black people to claim self-defense even where there was no attack, no gun and no threat … and thus be acquitted of murder. We should note that “stand your ground” laws are thinly veiled rights granted to empower paranoid whites – seeing danger in every Black face, no matter how young – to control Blacks.
Mumia then tackles the challenge of “what to do.” He argues against meaningless reforms such as police wearing body cameras. What good did that do in Staten Island, where the cameraman filming the whole incident is the one then arrested and harassed, or with Rodney King, where the whole episode of the police’s vicious beating of Rodney is filmed and projected across the world on TV.
Mumia weaves through the history that clearly defines police as playing a role not much different from that of the KKK to the present, where the policy is obviously to allow any police officer fearful of Black people to claim self-defense even where there was no attack, no gun and no threat … and thus be acquitted of murder.
The inevitable result is the same: acquittal of the cop. He knocks the idea of community policing, where the community has no power much like the role the PLO agreed to in Oslo of policing the Palestinian population under Israeli control. The result was Palestinian police arresting and killing their own people.
He points out the uselessness of anything that does not change the power relations between the people and the police and refers back to a piece Huey Newton wrote on community CONTROL of the police in 1980.
Mumia follows the spirit of Huey’s proposal. The basic principles and goals would be:
- abolishing the existing police departments,
- establishing a Citizens Peace Force to serve the local community needs,
- selecting the persons serving in this capacity from their respective city council districts, and
- training those chosen and educating them in areas of urban problem solving.
Pie in the sky? In some ways, sure. But the young people in the streets are already demanding that the police be disarmed and that their use of tasers be immediately stopped given how many people have been killed by tasering and how it is used to intimidate as in the case of Sandra Bland.
Opening up grand jury hearings, having police wear body cameras, or creating powerless civilian review boards will solve nothing. We need a total transformation of the police, whom they represent, whom they are accountable to, how their members are recruited, and what kinds of people we should be recruiting.
We need the police living in the communities they serve and being subject to and accountable to the will of the people that they allegedly serve. Former Black Panther Party member, New York 21 prisoner and, still later, New York State political prisoner for 19 years Dhoruba bin Wahad has been talking about some of these ideas for several years now.
We need a total transformation of the police, whom they represent, whom they are accountable to, how their members are recruited, and what kinds of people we should be recruiting.
A group in Harlem that includes longtime organizer Brother Shep and the Freedom Socialist Party has been meeting to discuss some of these ideas. And there are probably hundreds of others, if not thousands, trying to figure out some of these alternatives to the deadly occupation army the police are at this moment.
“To Protect and Serve Who?” is truly a handbook discussing the roots and history of the police in this country, a class and historical analysis of who the police are, and finally a strategy for transforming the role and definition of the police and their power relationships with the people.
This is a must read handbook for all those on the frontlines of the struggle against police terror in the Black and Latino communities. It is also an indispensable tool for those who want to understand how to analyze this struggle and how to be supportive to our young and heroic frontline fighters. Dare to struggle, dare to win!
Suzanne Ross, chair of the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition in New York City, can be reached at SuzanneWRoss@aol.com. To order this pamphlet, especially in quantity to use as a focus for political study, contact City Lights Booksellers and Publishers, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133, 415-362-8193 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For individual copies or smaller quantities, you can contact the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition in New York City, at 212-330-8029 and leave your name and phone number. We have the pamphlets at all our meetings and events.