Monthly Archives: November 2011

Decolonize Safety (part 1): Understanding the Root Causes of Police Violence

So I’ve been trying to write this for some time now and it’s just too big to put into words.  A friend recently told me that when I write, I try to bring everything in all together—sometimes it works wonderfully and sometimes it doesn’t make any sense.  In the name of clarity, I’m trying to keep this short.  Partly it’s hard because that is just how this world works: everything is connected, sometimes as neatly as a patchwork quilt, sometimes as chaotically as a tangle of yarn the cat has gotten its paws into.  And I’m trying to write about things related to trauma these days and that makes my words jumble and strain even more, but here’s trying:

I’m thinking about Thanksgiving and police violence against Occupy protestors, the ways that they are similar.  I’m thinking about how they are both real things that hold lots of emotional significance for lots of people, that they are worthy of honor, holding, respect, and significance for many people.  I’m also thinking about how they are both layered on top of other, harder things: genocide and colonization and daily police violence against marginalized communities, which really is the same thing as genocide and colonization.  I can respect that Thanksgiving as a holiday, as a time to be grateful and connected in a culture of individualism, is a big deal for lots of people, including people who are aware that it is a celebration of the theft of land and the killing of millions of indigenous people in this place we now call the United States.  I can also respect that police violence against Occupy protestors is really hitting home for a lot of people: Sharon Martinas, a white anti-racist elder activist, pointed out a few weeks ago that this is probably the first time that many young, white middle and upper class people are experiencing or witnessing police violence firsthand.  That’s a really big deal.

The coordinated police crackdown against Occupy protestors is terrible, violent, and deserving of much attention and outrage.  It’s important to bear witness to police violence against protestors.  It’s an important step towards understanding what the state will do in order to maintain the status quo.  It’s part of beginning to see the police not just as individuals who may be part of the 99%, to use common Occupy lingo, but as part of a system of institutionalized repression and violence.  Sharing of stories and asking the world to bear witness are resistance strategies that have been used by people and communities that experience oppression probably since oppression began, whenever that was.   It’s an effective way to call the world to bear for its complicity in ongoing, hidden violences and also potentially some kind of harm reduction, some kind of safety plan: the more that people who the state wants to trust the police and see them as “community peace officers” are witnessing what the police actually do, the less it will happen, in theory.

But while we hold space for burgeoning attention to brutal police crackdowns against Occupy protestors, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture: police violence is a daily concern for marginalized communities.  These stories don’t usually garner media attention.  They don’t usually go viral on social media.  They are horrifically mundane and hidden from view.  The systems of oppression in this world depend on people with privilege remaining ignorant to the massive amounts of violence used daily in order to uphold inequality.

For many people, daily survival under capitalism is an act of resistance.   That means people of color, poor people, homeless people, migrant people, and queer and transgender people experience police violence, every day, as part of daily living.  All the time.  Every second of every day.  All the time.

Here’s some facts to help break it all down:

The last stat makes a really important point, so I’m going to say it again:  most African American women in prison are serving sentences for nonviolent drug or property-related offenses.  In other words, crimes of poverty, of trying to figure out how to eat and feed your kids and pay rent and bus fare to get to work on time.  Most people in prison are not there because of violence that they inflicted on another person.  Most people are subjected to incarceration and brutal interactions with the police because of the color of their skin or because of what they had to do to get by in this unjust world.

I’m thinking a lot about the messaging after Scott Olsen got hit with a tear gas canister and nearly died.  About how somehow the violence against him was extra unacceptable because he is a veteran, had fought in U.S. wars.  The cops aiming a tear gas canister against ANYONE’S skull is unacceptable, whatever that persons’ experience, whatever they were doing at the time, whoever they are.

Police violence against protestors is horrible, disgusting, unacceptable.  So is police violence against anyone, no matter what.  Just because we don’t hear about it or see it on the news every day doesn’t mean it’s not happening.  We have an opportunity right now, in the expansive moment that the Occupy movements have generated:  we can understand police violence against Occupy protesters as a microcosm of police violence against marginalized communities every day.  We can demand that NO ONE get assaulted by the police, whether they were protesting, selling drugs or sex as a way to get by, crossing a border, or walking down the street.

Let’s never again say “The police did that because so-and-so did something stupid.”  Let’s never again ask what someone did to incite police violence.  Naomi Klein writes about the civil war that is being fought in the United States, the system versus the people.  Sure, it’s a civil war, and it’s been going on for some time now.  They just can’t hide it anymore.  The police are not here to keep us safe, any of us.  The police are here to keep the system in place at any cost: that’s what they get paid to do, day in day, day out, by targeting people who the system is designed to silence because their very existence threatens the way things are.  It’s supposed to be so mundane we can’t even see it.  Now that we and the media are paying attention to police violence, let’s tell the whole story.

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Filed under #anti-racism, #occupyracism, #whiteprivilege, decolonize safety, prison industrial complex, racial justice, story telling, unlearning privilege, violence, witness as resistance