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Ferguson is a Wake-Up Call For America

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Police officers killed 400 people in the U.S. in 2013. Most died with barely a public trace – brief news coverage, a grieving family, a sparsely-attended funeral.

Michael Brown’s death was not unique. He was African American, young, and male. He was unarmed. The white, Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson shot him six times while Mr. Brown faced him in broad daylight, too far away to be an immediate threat. Mr. Brown’s offense was apparently that he ran away when Officer Wilson tried to arrest him for jay walking.

But then it hit the fan. The rage of a community sick and tired of life in a city with a poor, Black majority and a police force with three African American officers among 53 police. Poverty. Unemployment. Bad schools. Bad housing. Hopelessness.

It could happen anywhere. Including Oakland, where Alameda County sheriffs shot and killed the apparently unarmed 23-year-old African American man Jacorey Calhoun two weeks ago. Mr. Calhoun was allegedly a suspect in a crime that had occurred almost a month earlier, but no-one is explaining why he was killed. Deputy Derek Thoms, who killed Mr. Calhoun, has a history of misconduct complaints.

Our community has many questions to answer. Two stand out:

(1) What is the role of our police agencies?

(2) Can this nation ever rebuild its social contract?

Let’s start with the police. They play contradictory roles – people want them to safeguard our lives and property. Society employs them for social control.

Sir Robert Peel, who served as the English prime minister during the first half of the 1800s and created London’s Metropolitan Police Force in 1829, set out a set of principles still widely quoted by professional police officials. He declared, “The police are the public and the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

Peel also said, “the ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions,” and “police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.”

Whether policing in the United States, particularly in cities like Oakland, ever conformed to Peel’s principles is surely subject to debate. What is not controversial, however, is the reality that Oakland’s police are not members of the community. The vast majority do not live in Oakland. And they do not solve the majority of violent crimes that afflict our neighborhoods.

But Oakland is infamous for the police violence that led to 541 police abuse lawsuits from January 1, 2000, to August 21, 2012. According to the City Attorney’s office, Oakland paid out $11,466,868 to resolve 20 of these cases. This figure does not include the millions spent to hire outside counsel to defend the City or the $10.9 million spent to settle the Riders case and the millions more spent to monitor and to continue to argue about OPD’s compliance with it. Or the $7.0 million spent to resolve the Occupy Oakland cases.

KTVU Channel 2 did a study of total costs spent by Bay Area cities on police abuse cases. It showed that Oakland spent over $57 million from 2001 through 2011. By comparison, two cities with populations more than twice that of Oakland’s, San Francisco and San Jose, spent $28 million and $8.6 million, respectively.

Oakland’s police, like those in Ferguson, were transformed by the military hardware that began to arrive with the “war on drugs” in 1980 – tanks, helicopters, assault rifles, and night vision goggles. As in Ferguson, Oakland’s militarized police use this equipment to suppress protests – as it did against the Occupy movement in 2011.

And what about the social contract, the unwritten agreement between individuals and the government under which people accept the government’s authority over many aspects of their lives in exchange for the security and other benefits the government provides? When tens of millions of people are excluded from the benefits provided to the majority, social decay and disorder are inevitable.

In the U.S. today, the richest one percent control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. In Oakland the top 20 percent of households receives 49 percent of the total income, the bottom 20 percent receives three percent. Unemployment in Alameda County is 11 percent; for African Americans you double that number.

Three-quarters of our Oakland students qualify for free or reduced priced lunches; 42 percent are Hispanic, 29 percent are African American. Only 50 percent of African American and Latino students graduate from Oakland high schools within four years of starting. The state average is 80 percent.

This situation is not only morally wrong, it is a recipe for disaster. The future health of American society will depend upon its ability to close the income and privilege gaps that divide the rich and the poor, particularly low income people of color.

We can begin making the change we need. We can re-focus the police department to serving our communities and protecting us from violent crime. We can return the military hardware to the federal government and adopt a zero tolerance policy for police misconduct.

We can improve our schools and insist on the right of every child to learn. We can raise the minimum age to $15 and create good jobs for working people – working in our new hotels and restaurants, installing solar power, and providing other services.

We can protect tenants’ rights against evictions and build affordable housing for working people with contributions from the developers who want to create high-end housing.

Changing the world is tough. But we can create a new Oakland based on the principles of social and economic justice – beginning November 4.

Dan Siegel is a candidate for Mayor of Oakland.

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CounterPunch Magazine

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