Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Realities of Race and Global Power

The great Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey once stated that “Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, [and] Japanese” were spared from being lynched because they are represented by some of the most powerful nations in the world.
With this statement, Garvey was making a direct connection between the treatment of a particular social group and their degree of power. Therefore, according to the argument, Blacks and Latinos in the United States can expect to suffer all types of state-sanctioned abuse (i.e. police brutality, lack of medical care, poor schools) because they lack significant power over the social, political, and economic system within the country they reside in. Although Garvey uttered these words nearly a century ago, recent developments in the world have re-enforced its significance. As was the case in Garvey’s day– one where the world was coming out of the ashes of World War I – we are experiencing a global shift in power and influence.
China is now a world power with India and Brazil at the brink. Feeling vulnerable for the first-time in centuries, European nations desperately banded together to form the European Union (EU) as a way to maintain political and economic power. While the United States is still the most powerful nation on the planet, it no longer has a monopoly. With mixed results in Afghanistan and Iraq and millions of dollars in debt owed to countries like China, America – according to many – is losing its firm grip around the world’s people and resources.
All of this creates an interesting dilemma for Blacks and Latinos, who along with Native Americans, have long occupied the bottom rung of U.S. society.
Centuries of slavery, racism, colonialism, legalized discrimination, economic exploitation, and incarceration have rendered a large number of people of color ill-prepared to acquire power domestically. With U.S. global hegemony lessening, Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans are faced with an interesting situation.
On one hand, declining U.S. power hurts the nation’s ability to force other countries to buys it products, which shrinks market share for its corporations and economic growth at home. As a consequence, domestic jobs and services become fewer and fewer with Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans – who are largely dependent upon the white power structure for life’s essentials – receiving even less. In other words, the poor could get poorer.
However, the situation possibly presents people of color a golden opportunity to destroy the oppressive social, political, and economic relationships that keep them in bondage. Established elements of the white power structure may become extinct or significantly downsized as foreign governments and companies gain control of the world’s landscape and markets. The void in power that could result from this scenario may be filled by Blacks, Latinos, or Native Americans. Barack Obama’s rise to the Presidency may the first of many examples to come that illustrate the before-mentioned theory.
Whatever side one chooses, it is important to consider one of Garvey’s other teachings. He believed that “the only protection against injustice is Power – Physical, Financial, and Scientific”. Physical power meaning the ability to defend oneself against attack and violence. Financial power meaning the ability to accumulate and increase material resources in order to provide the needs of a people. Scientific power meaning the ability to develop methods and tools necessary to master one’s environment. When considering Garvey’s criteria for power, it would appear that Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans have a long way to go to effectively grab social, political, and economic power within the United States. As mentioned earlier, America’s system of oppression has ensured such a reality. Until we develop a new game plan, people of color will be largely left with an over-dependence on government services and protection, social protest, and mainstream political activity as its core tenets of change. While the positive value of these tenets cannot be discounted or ignored, we must admit that they - in isolation – cannot and will not build power. As Garvey taught nearly a century ago and countries like China and India are proving today, power requires a long-term plan and commitment to building leadership and expertise in areas that develop a group’s skills, create group unity, and produce things that fill needs. Maybe then, Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans will be truly protected from the abuses they are currently subjected to.

The Importance of the Oscar Grant Trial

A recent decision to move the criminal trial of Johannes Mehserle – the former BART officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant on New Years Day – to Los Angeles has once again thrust the city to the forefront of controversy involving police abuse and murder. Nearly two decades after the Rodney King beating case and forty-five years since Watts exploded in protest of law enforcement’s brutal behavior, the Oscar Grant case offers Los Angeles yet another opportunity to show the world how far we have progressed, or regressed, in ensuring that everyone – including police officers – is equal and accountable to the law. As with any case involving law enforcement, it is not merely a legal matter. It is very much a battle for social power between the elements of the status quo (i.e. law enforcement, politicians, business) who benefit from police officers’ arbitrary violence against Black people in particular and those who are fighting against it. Specifically, the Mehserle trial will go a long way in concluding if the State of California is willing to convict a police officer for murder. While we are at least 6 months away from the start of the trial, its history-making potential begs for us to understand and analyze some important elements that will impact the verdict.
1. Support from Police –Mehserle is enjoying tremendous support from law enforcement despite the fact that he resigned from the BART police force and fled authorities to Nevada immediately following the shooting. Police organizations throughout the state have allegedly raised more than $3 million in support of his defense. Why would California police officers shell out millions to help someone who shot an unarmed person, quit the police force, and went on the run? They understand that if Mehserle is found guilty of murder it potentially creates a precedent that would make it easier to convict other officers of murder and other tougher felonies. Remember, the greatest taboo in law enforcement is to convict officers of murder. The belief is that they have the “right” kill – no matter how racist, tragic, and unjust. Police organizations will do whatever it takes to maintain that right.

2. Legal Strategy – Most people assume that because the incident was recorded for the world to see, Mehserle will automatically be found guilty. As many legal experts and activists know all too well, this is far from the truth. In order to receive the maximum punishment, the defendant will have to be convicted of either first or second degree murder. According to the law, first degree murder is pre-meditated and intentional. In contrast, second degree murder may be intentional but not pre-meditated. In either case, these are difficult to prove against on-duty police officers, who are given the right to carry and use a gun everyday. Furthermore, Mehserle has already stated that he mistakenly grabbed his gun and shot Grant. The Alameda County District Attorney, who hasn’t made decision yet on which charge they will pursue, has the huge responsibility to put together a strategy to disprove Mehserle’s theory and show that he killed Grant intentionally. Did he shoot Grant because he was a young Black man? Did Mehserle have a history of committing abuse and misconduct? These are some of the questions that may be considered by the prosecution in establishing intentionality and pre-meditation. There is a lot at stake. In the state of California, anyone convicted of first degree murder gets no less than a sentence of 25 years to life. No less than 15 years to life for a conviction of second degree murder. If Mehserle is convicted of either it would be a rare and historic moment. It would be similar to the first time Klu Klux Klan members were first convicted of murdering a Black man in the south.

3. Jury Selection – If history is any indication, these types of cases are largely won and lost during jury selection. In almost every police brutality and murder case, the officer’s attorneys will fight to move the trial to an area that can produce a pro-police jury (e.g. white, suburban) that will likely acquit their client. This tactic was recently used by Mehserle’s lawyers, who demanded that the trial be moved out of Alameda County for concern that the jury pool in the area was largely prejudiced against the ex-BART police officer. While they were pleased that the trial was moved, they were just as disappointed that it ended up in Downtown Los Angeles rather than a court in the more conservative, pro-police San Diego County. With a population more diverse and critical of police abuse and misconduct than many, the jury pool in Downtown Los Angeles potentially provides prosecutors in this case with a rare situation – a jury open to finding a police officer guilty.

When Oakland exploded in anger after Oscar Grant’s killing, many in Los Angeles sat on the outside looking at a scene so familiar to the civil unrest in 1965 and 1992. Now through the inner workings of the justice system, Angelinos are now center stage of another police-related tragedy. With a new LAPD chief in office and multiple investigations of Inglewood’s Police Department pending, the region’s leadership will be closely monitoring the Mehserle trial. Its verdict – whether guilty or innocent – may greatly impact the type of policing we will see here for the foreseeable future. Community activists and residents will need to be attentive and most importantly, effectively organize to make sure that police abuse and murder becomes a thing of the past.

Inglewood Police Woes: It's a Question of Leadership

Earlier this year, Inglewood was named an All-American City. While some may scoff at the controversy-plagued city winning such a distinction, I fully embrace it. Like America, the City of Inglewood is at a critical juncture in its history.
In particular, the city of over 120,000 residents is currently confronted with the question about what type of police department it will have from this point forward.
After the most recent rash of police shootings, which resulted in 5 unarmed individuals losing their lives in the last year, it has become resoundingly clear that Inglewood needs a significant change in police policies and practices. The situation has been further complicated by the Inglewood City Council's refusal to release findings from an Office of Independent Review (OIR) report concerning its police department – findings that probably aren’t favorable.
However, in every significant political moment, there needs to be one or more decision-makers who act in a courageous and just manner to create the change that is needed. We see this currently with President Obama’s principled stand for health care reform in the face of death threats and deceit. Inglewood also needs a courageous and just decision-maker to arise. Its residents demand and deserve someone who will not back down to reactionary forces within law enforcement, who prioritize protecting abusive police officers over community safety, trust, and integrity.
Inglewood’s current group of political leaders is an intelligent and highly skilled group. However, the question remains if Mayor Roosevelt Dorn and Councilmembers Danny Tabor, Judy Dunlap, Eloy Morales, and Ralph Franklin have the courage to do what is right, which would be the following:
1. Increase the powers and responsibilities of the Citizens Police Oversight Commission (CPOC)
Created in 2004 to provide civilian oversight, this commission was stripped of any significant power by the City Council and Police union. The Commission doesn’t even have the right to review cases of abuse or misconduct. The CPOC must have the power to review cases, conduct independent investigations, and make disciplinary recommendations to truly represent the voice of Inglewood citizens.
2. Engage a large number of Inglewood residents around what they want from their police department
One of the obvious next steps for the City of Inglewood is to engage its own residents about their thoughts and solutions to the issues facing their police department. My organization, the Families for Community Safety Campaign, recently organized volunteers to collect over 200 surveys from Inglewood residents on the subject. Our findings were profound but not surprising. For instance, the majority of residents surveyed do not think that Inglewood Police officers are held accountable for abusive behavior. This information is important and should be prioritized by Inglewood’s leadership when crafting solutions. Furthermore, frequent surveying of residents should be an often-used tactic by the Inglewood City Council. If a volunteer group can do it, the City of Inglewood should be able to do so.
3. Conduct a comprehensive review of the Inglewood Police Department in order to discover and change any practices or policies that encourage abusive policing (i.e. cleaning house)
The Inglewood Police Department has had 3 Chiefs in 10 years. Despite these frequent changes, it is clear that police abuse and misconduct continue to be tolerated, as evidenced by the actions -- and in some cases, inaction -- of both high-ranking and rank-and-file officers. The City Council, through Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks, must be creative and effective in establishing a humane and community-centered police department. This must be done by improving/changing the department's policies and procedures. Central to this effort must be thorough and consistent mandatory training for officers and management.
4. Make a public stand against the Police Bill of Rights and the District Attorney's consistent refusal to prosecute police officers who commit murder and/or misconduct
We have constantly heard about how the California Police Bill of Rights and the District Attorney's Office create the real barriers to ending police brutality. While it is true that police officers receive too much protection from state law and the DA’s office, the City of Inglewood can do a lot of good by instituting policy reforms and making a public stand against the Police Bill of Rights and the District Attorney.

In response to recent media coverage of the Inglewood City Council’s handling of the OIR report, its members are scrambling to “save face” and finally do something. However, unless the Mayor and City Council provide real leadership on this issue and act with courage, any proposed solutions will fail to make change. Given the current idea of creating a task force – which would have no real power either – Inglewood’s political leaders continue to fail at the expense of the residents of their All-American City.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Harambee Movement Agreement of Partnership

Harambee Movement - Agreement of Partnership
Harambee is a Kiswahili word that means "Lets All Pull Together"
We, as member of the world Afrikan community, have come together to carry out the Harambee Movement.
As part of the Harambee Movement, I promise to carry out the following with all of my heart, mind, and soul:
· I agree to Love Afrikan people under ALL circumstances and conditions -- no matter their location, status, deeds, or what they may call themselves.
· I agree to Support Afrikan people under ALL circumstances and conditions -- no matter their location, status, deeds, or what they may call themselves.
· I agree to Protect Afrikan people under ALL circumstances and conditions -- no matter their location, status, deeds, or what they may call themselves.
· I agree to work towards bringing political and cultural independence and land to our people wherever we are found.
By signing below, I promise to carry out the Harambee Movement with all of my heart, mind, and soul.
Print Name:____________________________________________
You Represent:_________________________________________

Beyond the Speeches and Tears in Inglewood

The Inglewood Police shooting of Marcus Smith was indeed a tragic event. Our condolences go out to his family who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
Whatever the circumstances behind the incident, we all must admit that the law enforcement agencies throughout Los Angeles County have a long history of shooting, beating, and killing Black and Latino people who are often unarmed, vulnerable, and defenseless. In this respect, Inglewood Police Department is not unique or an isolated example of racist policing.
However, we must also acknowledge that the masses of our community – for better or worse – still depend on the Police for protection. In fact, many of our folks want more police patrols, timely responses by the police when called, and increased police presence at community meetings. Some of our activists even get funding from police departments or law enforcement-related agencies. In short, getting the community’s support around substantive plans to reform policing is a daunting, yet essential tasks.
However, as organizers, we must put clear tangible ideas out before the people. Even if people don’t agree. Not just speeches and empty rhetoric. This is not to disrespect anyone's work, but our people deserve more!
For instance, the Police Chief in Inglewood has the final authority to fire an officer. As organizers we must ask the people, “Should this be so?” In order for a police officer to be tried and sentenced for murdering an unarmed person the District Attorney office must file charges and put together a good case. Unfortunately, the DA office share a comrade relationship with local law enforcement. As organizers, we must expose this contradiction and ask the people “Should this be so?” All law enforcement officers in the state of California receive tremendous protections from the California Police Bill of Rights. These set of rights make it difficult to fire or otherwise discipline an officer who has a track record of abuse and misconduct. As organizers, we must ask the people “Should this be so?”
Instead of generic calls for JUSTICE, we must demand that:
· The DA Office must be more aggressive in prosecuting police officers who commit murder and abuse. If not, we should create a special prosecutor office that will.
· Community boards must be created that gives taxpayers power to hold officers who are paid by their tax dollars accountable to the fullest extent. In Inglewood, they have a Citizens Oversight Commission that has no real power or authority to effect change in policy, procedure, or personnel.
· The Police Bill of Rights must be eliminated. Police officers should be equal under the law – not above it.
I recognize that Black and Latino are not just killed by law enforcement. However, nothing is more tragic that having a loved one murdered by someone who is shielded by the law, keeps their job, and never goes to jail. This is what happens basically everytime someone is killed by law enforcement officers.

The Politics of LAPD Crime Stats

Since becoming LAPD Chief in 2002, William Bratton has tried to convince Angelinos that the Police Department is significantly reformed and more humane.
While many people – especially Black and Latino residents – are not yet ready to nominate the LAPD for a Nobel Peace Prize for racial justice, even some of its most ardent critics are becoming increasingly friendly with Chief Bratton and the work of his nearly 10,000 officers.
One huge reason for this shift in opinion is the reported decline in violent crimes throughout the City.
When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa campaigned for re-election, he flooded the airwaves and television spots with claims that crime had dropped by historic amounts under his watch. Even Jack Weiss, City Councilman and candidate for City Attorney, attempted to claim partial credit. As chair of the Public Safety Committee, Weiss put forth that he worked closely with law enforcement to drastically decrease the amount of shootings and robberies.
However, it was Chief Bratton, a very skilled communicator, who took things a step further by stating that crime in Los Angeles is the lowest its been since the 1950s.
For residents in areas like South Los Angeles, which has suffered through decades of violence from gangs and the LAPD, even a modest drop in crime is greeted with guarded optimism. Currently, the news of crime at 1950s levels is received with glimpses of hope and exuberance. This has provoked a noticeable shift in attitudes towards a department once led by polarizing figures like William Parker and Darryl Gates. Neighborhoods that have long been victimized by racial profiling, Rodney King-style beatings, and police shootings of unarmed human beings, now eagerly want to believe Chief Bratton’s assertion that the LAPD is reformed and more humane.
Unfortunately, there is a strong possibility that the people’s increased trust in the LAPD is based upon lies and deception. As a recent LA Weekly article reports, Chief Bratton’s comparison of crime from 1950s to the present day was extremely flawed. If he had done so correctly, we all would see that the current murder rate is double that of 50 years ago. Using the same method, today’s robbery rate is more than double that of 1956. This same pattern continues for rapes and other serious crimes.
Instead of giving praise to the LAPD or City politicians, much credit should be given to the heroic work of regular people like those in the Hyde Park section of South Los Angeles. With very little to no assistance from the LAPD, residents work together to improve the quality of life in their community through organizations like block clubs and neighborhood councils. While crime rates are still much higher in South Los Angeles than other parts of the city, the efforts of its residents represent genuine attempts at taking control of their communities and day-to-day lives.
So what is the motivation for Chief Bratton to manipulate crime stats?
One, it gets political allies like Mayor Antonio Villaragoisa and Jack Weiss elected to higher offices. Two, LAPD gets rewarded with a larger budget, more officers, and greater political power. Lastly, it encourages Black and Latino voters – who make up a large portion of the electorate – to forget about the LAPD shooting of unarmed people of color like Dontaze Storey Jr. and Susie Peña, the $30 million in LAPD-related lawsuits paid out in February, or the fact that it is still practically impossible for a LAPD officer to go to jail or get fired because murder or misconduct.
Residents and taxpayers of Los Angeles need to look beyond the commercials and press conference sound bites. William Bratton – chief of the Los Angeles Police Department - is first and foremost a politician. In light of this, we must continue to organize residents and engage them on solutions such as eliminating the undemocratic LAPD Board of Rights, developing a special prosecutors office that will work to bring justice to those victimized by police misconduct, brutality or worse, and creating an elected citizen control board that will provide community-based accountability in regards to discipline, hiring, and training.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Our Solution to Police Murder in Los Angeles

No Longer Above the Law - Thoughts and Next Steps in Fighting Police Murder

The public outcry following the murder of Oscar Grant by Bay Area Rapid Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle again brings the issue of police abuse and accountability to the fore. For decades, black and Latino people in particular have been victimized by law enforcement in almost every way imaginable – beatings, choke holds, and of course shootings. Every step of the way, those communities have stood up and challenged such acts through protest, rallies, and even large scale rebellions.
However, what has been particularly missing in the police accountability movement – especially in recent years – has been the development of a clear, sustained movement that will result in changes of policy, procedures, and power dynamics within law enforcement.
While such shortcomings are due in part to the organizing ability and skilled messaging of police agencies and advocacy groups that defend their officers at all cost, the disunity and short-sightedness among community groups fighting police murder hasn't helped either.
Whenever the issue of police abuse becomes major, various individuals and groups jockey to exert influence over the philosophical direction of the movement. As a result, fruitless sectarian battles between revolutionaries – who see police misconduct as opportunities to spur mass rebellion – and moderates – who are searching for ways to negotiate – occur. This scenario leaves families and communities with no solutions and fails to provide a serious challenge to unified law enforcement.
The time has come to achieve tangible victories in the movement to end police murder and abuse.
● Be clear who the target is
It is common after an instance of police murder or abuse for masses of people to rise up and demand accountability and change. In Los Angeles, those demands are often levied at the police commission or chief of police. However, it is important to know that neither the commission nor Chief Bratton have final say in disciplining police officers. That power exclusively belongs to the LAPD Board of Rights, an unelected three person panel, which consists of two high-ranking LAPD officers and a so-called civilian. Their decisions are final and cannot be overturned by anyone, including the Police Commision or the Chief. An additional concern is that the Board of Rights disciplinary hearings are now closed to the public. This undemocratic process stems from outgoing City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo's misinterpretation of a 2007 state Supreme Court decision. In the end, the community has to depend on police officers holding their wayward colleagues accountable in closed door sessions. As one can expect, police officers are rarely punished or admonished.
While LAPD Board of Rights is part of the City Charter, it is supported by the California Police Bill of Rights, which was passed in 1976. The Bill of Rights provides enormous protections to police officers accused of wrong doing. If we are going to hold police officers more accountable, they need to get fired for misconduct. To do so, we must repeal the California Police Bill of Rights and challenge any efforts to make police disciplinary procedures private. Locally we must replace the LAPD Board of Rights with an independent civilian board that can fire, demote, subpoena, and investigate criminal cops. In addition, we need to put cops that commit murder in jail. To do so, we must elect a City and District Attorney willing to prosecute them or create a special prosecutor office that will.
● Win the messaging battle
Whenever public attention has turned to the issue of police murder and abuse, the law enforcement political machine does a skillful job at changing the discussion. When we confront them about officer misconduct, they will respond with the high level of violence within black and Latino communities. Law enforcement spin doctors will also call murders "bad shootings," and regard greater accountability and transparency as threats to the lives of police officers and their families.
We must remember that the issue at hand is police accountability. Therefore, we must reject the premise that we have no right to demand that police officers who commit murder go to jail. Unlike any other group in society, police officers routinely get cleared of murder, abuse, and corruption. Examples of officers being excused to commit crimes has become so common that law enforcement agencies act as if murder is in essence legal if a police officer does it. Police officers should enforce the law, not break it. Not only do officers who commit crimes get excused for perpetuating violence in vulnerable communities, they are often rewarded for their acts through "transfers" (a.k.a. promotions) to other departments or law enforcement agencies. These same officers go on to terrorize other poor and marginalized communities by committing the same crimes over and over again. Due to interpretations of state law, the files of officers are not open to the public, leaving community members unaware of the murderers that walk their streets.
As public employees, police officer personnel files should be made available to the community. Furthermore, when police officers commit murder they should get fired and go to jail. Until this happens, families will continue to grieve the murder of loved ones, taxpayers will continue to pay hefty multi-million dollar settlements to abuse victims, and officers who want to genuinely serve the community will pay for the deeds of their rogue comrades.
● Involve the community and – the "good" cops
In order to stop the rampant murder and violence of police officers, we must involve those who have lost loved ones to police murder, community residents and activists in a grassroots movement that will bring substantial and sustaining policy changes to law enforcement. We must also involve those officers that are sincerely dedicated to making communities safe and who will not stand for the violence committed by their comrades. These changes must result in clear and transparent measures to define and enforce police accountability so that the lost lives of Oscar Grant, Christian Portillo, Deandre Brunston, Carlos Rivera, Dontaze Storey Jr. and countless others will not be in vain.

Coalition for Justice Against Police Murder (CJAPM)