Tactics in the fight to challenge police brutality

January 18, 2012

Johnny Mao reports from Seattle on an important discussion facing activists.

ONE DAY after federal prosecutors refused to charge former Seattle police officer Ian Birk for the 2010 shooting murder of John Williams, 100 police brutality protesters gathered for a rally and torchlight march on January 14, as part of a grassroots mobilization to call for the resignation of Police Chief John Diaz.

United under the banner "Defend the 99 percent: Bring Diaz Down," the campaign brought together Occupy Seattle organizers and community members around the demand for systemic change in the police force, with the first demand aimed at Diaz. However, the day of events revealed sharp divisions in tactics-- developments that could change the growth and complexion of the anti-police brutality movement in Seattle.

In overseeing the Seattle Police Department the past two years, Diaz has managed to sidestep any accountability associated with multiple instances of publicly documented police violence. These include the police abuse of Terry Jefferson, Martin Monetti Jr., Daniel Maceo Saunders, Angel Rosenthal, D'Vontaveous Hoston and Christopher Harris--in addition to the police murder of John Williams.

According to a Department of Justice report released last month, over a two-year period, officers committed civil rights violations in one out of every five incidents in which officers used force. Following the news, Diaz and Mayor Mike McGinn refused to assume accountability for their subordinates, but just days later, succumbed to the Justice Department's recommendations after a public letter of scrutiny from 35 civil rights leaders and the threat of a federal lawsuit.

Backtracking on his previous statements, Diaz said, "That was the wrong impression if I gave that impression, that somehow we weren't taking this seriously. I hope this shows the commitment the department has for this community."

"There's no question public trust has been damaged," said Jennifer Shaw of the ACLU. "Every moment the mayor does not make a stand for making the recommendations in this report, any dismissal of the data hurts his credibility and the police department's credibility."

The start of the march highlighted many of the voices affected by police brutality, and included testimonials from Occupy Seattle participants and community organizers, such as Millie Kennedy, a founding board member of Ndns for Justice, which is a non-profit group working for justice for Urban American Indians and Alaska Natives who are denied their civil rights based on their race and/or ethnicity, and Cindi Beech LaMar, a Ndns for Justice member.

"May the late John T. Williams rest in peace and his ultimate sacrifice, his fundamental loss of life, serve as the catalyst for institutional change to the Seattle Police Department regarding its use of excessive force toward people of color and real change to both Washington state and federal law that allows police officers, like Ian Birk, a badge to kill," said Kennedy.

As the march proceeded, it became evident that roughly half of the participants planned to employ black bloc tactics, including individuals wearing black in masse to avoid identification. Black bloc protesters hung up a self-identified anarchist banner, proclaiming, "ACAB [All Cops Are Bastards]," chanted "A Good Cop is a Dead Cop" and tipped garbage cans into the street in an attempt to delay the approach of police.

This blockade ended up being minor obstacles for marchers and the police. As such, the latter half of the marchers cleared the street as a matter of public safety for oncoming vehicles and pedestrians.

Instead of promoting solidarity among protesters, these black bloc actions communicated a message of undemocratic and erratic organizing with little regard for the rest of the march participants. This hinders other activists' efforts to grow beyond a group of 100 marchers.

A successful campaign to end police brutality in Seattle will find it strength, not in tactics that confine themselves to a few activists, but in building relationships and bridges between groups, organizations and communities of color.

Jorge Torres contributed to this article.

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