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Next steps in the struggle

January 5, 2007 | Page 9

BRIAN JONES looks at what's next for the movement against police violence.

IN THE wake of Sean Bell's murder, the anti-police brutality movement in New York has been reborn.

The December 16 mass march initiated by Rev. Al Sharpton was the largest protest since Bell's murder and represented an important step forward. Importantly, though, smaller groups have taken the initiative, before and since, to organize many other smaller protests.

So far, the movement has not coalesced around a clear set of demands. Placards distributed to the crowd on December 16 called on the city to "improve police and community relations now!"

While city council member Charles Barron called for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to be fired weeks ago, Sharpton, the de facto leader of the movement, has not taken up this call--though Sean Bell's parents also recently called for Kelly to resign. Sharpton has, however, endorsed the demand for an independent prosecutor.

Meanwhile, Black nationalist groups like the December 12th Coalition and the New Black Panther Party, which organized many of the smaller protests and also support the call for Kelly to be fired, tend to emphasize the need for a consumer boycott, actively seeking to stop shoppers from entering corporate chain stores in Harlem such as Old Navy.

Just as bringing together our forces on December 16 was an important step forward, likewise, the movement would benefit from a unified strategy and set of demands.

The appeal of the boycott strategy is that it seems like a way to have a material impact on the system--a way to take the struggle beyond mere symbolic protests. This idea shouldn't be dismissed, but it remains to be seen whether the idea of boycotting Old Navy can catch on as a way of challenging the police.

Also, no one should disparage the importance of symbolic protests at this stage of the struggle. The killing of Sean Bell has been very embarrassing for the city, and the anger over it has not dissipated. Symbolic protests at police precincts and government buildings can serve to keep the issue in the news, keep Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the defensive and, importantly, help build up and organize our forces.

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SOME HAVE argued that it doesn't matter whether or not Kelly is fired, since the problem of police brutality is bigger than any one person. This is undoubtedly true, but just as no boxer knocks out an opponent with the first punch, neither should we underestimate the value of demands that don't "knock out" the entire problem.

Firing Rumsfeld didn't end the occupation of Iraq, but it was an important victory for the antiwar movement. Similarly, firing Ray Kelly wouldn't end police brutality, but it would be an admission that the problem is greater and more systematic than a "few rotten apples"--an enormous victory that would give our enemy a black eye and strengthen our confidence to fight for greater changes.

Unfortunately, Sharpton's insistence that the movement is not "anti-police, only anti-police brutality" attempts to limit our horizon in advance of the struggle.

If we set our sights on superficial "improvements in police and community relations," we are likely to get much less than that. The more "anti-police" our movement is, the more likely we are to seriously reduce police brutality.

This is because the problem with the police is not just a matter of corrupt individuals messing up the noble mission of police work. The real problem lies in the fact that the mission of police work itself is rotten.

It is not a matter of bad individuals in a good institution, but of a racist institution that corrupts the individuals. Our movement should be anti-police because police work is an inherently racist, oppressive job.

Leaving aside the role of cops as participants in crime (drug dealing and prostitution come immediately to mind), the fact is police do not "solve" crime because they do nothing about the real roots of crime.

Black male unemployment in Harlem is up to 60 percent, working-class wages have stagnated, and essential city services for working-class people have been cut entirely or severely reduced. A few weeks ago, a panel commissioned by the city recommended the closure of six hospitals that specifically serve the poor. Two months ago, more than 5,000 people showed up to apply for just 200 jobs offered by a candy store.

What do the politicians propose to do about all of this? Put more cops on the street.

The bishop of Sean Bell's church described his neighborhood as "Little Iraq," and this isn't an exaggeration. There are 150,000 American soldiers in Iraq trying to control a population of 30 million. In New York, a city of 8 million, there are 40,000 police officers. Both places have the same ratio of occupied to occupiers: 200 to 1!

The job of police is to keep a lid on growing class anger, not to ease or end our suffering. And in neighborhoods that are being gentrified, such as Harlem, the police are unleashed to make the streets "safe" for new luxury condominiums and their upper-middle-class residents.

Another reason for the movement to be anti-police is that whenever anyone organizes to solve their real problems, the police are brought in to stop them. Has there ever been a struggle for freedom, equality or justice that the police have actively supported?

Police don't pick and choose which struggles to support and which to oppose. Their job is to violently put themselves in the way of every one of our movements, especially when our actions move beyond symbolic protest. The police are, in every instance, anti-us--therefore, it behooves us to be anti-police.

Simply put, ridding the world of police brutality requires ridding ourselves of police. Instead of building the forces of policing and repression, a just society would direct those same resources toward providing the kinds of jobs, housing, health care and education that people need.

This is the knockout blow we really need. We will never get there, however, if we can't land some smaller punches first. These should be aimed to weaken our enemies and put them on the defensive. Winning the firing or resignation of Commissioner Kelly is an excellent place to start.

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