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A Life Worth Less Than Train Fare

Another young, unarmed black man, Kenneth Harding, has been gunned down, shot numerous times in the back as he fled, his empty hands in the air in broad daylight. His crime had been a simple train fare evasion for which San Francisco police executed him in the street. Dozens of witnesses saw a sight that has become commonplace in US cities, capturing images with cell phones of police surrounding the man and watching him struggle and writhe from a distance, in a swelling pool of his own blood. Without either offering the severely wounded man assistance, searching him, or otherwise looking for the supposed weapon, the police, most of whom had their backs turned to the suspect, would later try and say that he had fired at the them and randomly into the crowd that had assembled. No one in the crowd said anything about him having or firing a gun. Police would later say one had mysteriously appeared, via an informant. The police publicly named Harding as a “person of interest” in a Seattle killing, a day after he had been shot dead by police. They are using a criminal conviction to attempt to further devalue his life. This piece is not about previous convictions, or the “official story” which the police are constructing as I write, about post-mortem murder suspicions and mystery guns. One thing is clear, as far as police knew he was a simple fare evader. As far as multiple witnesses could see, Harding had no gun and the shots all went one way.

Whether BART police, Oakland PD, or SFPD, the stories have been very similar. Suspects are gunned down in the street, no weapon, usually shot in the back as they ran, almost all men of color, a homeless or mentally-ill white man here or there. We get a similar story each time. One that is weak, lacks probable cause for lethal force, and is based on the opinion of the offending officers whose word is unquestioned by superiors, city officials, or the corporate press. Unless there is a video. Mehserle, the cop who shot Oscar Grant, thought his glock was a lighter and larger and fluorescent tazer, though it had a completely different grip. An exception to the rule, Mehserle did time for his crime ? a few paltry months. He was recently released. The OPD shot Derrick Jones in the back, he was carrying a scale. No charges were filed. Several killings of unarmed men of color in Oakland have yielded temporary suspensions, followed by reinstatements with back pay. Some acting, individual OPD officers have killed more than one unarmed man on separate occasions and still patrol the street, guns loaded, and ready to go.

The root causes of these murders by the police are multiple and far too complex to be fully discussed here: insulated and unaccountable police power committed to upholding a particular racial and economic order; psychological fear-turned-violence or plain hostility among the police; white supremacy at several levels of society from the motivations of suburban law-and-order voters to the historical legacies of the police in this country; to geographies of segregation, of which the Bayview is a prime example.

The result is a system of violence that is specifically targeted, on one level, and completely indiscriminant on another. Targeted in the sense that concentrated police presence, aggressive police tactics (profiling, checkpoints, not so random Muni train inspections for tickets, etc.), and police self-conceptions as occupiers of hostile territory are all almost entirely exclusive to poor, urban communities of color. The nature, logic, tactics and history of the police in communities of color is not a few bad apples, related to violent crime rates that have fallen, or a new phenomena. Within these targeted communities the violence of the police is often completely indiscriminate. A simple traffic stop, a response to a domestic argument, a skipped train fare. Case, after case, after case. Candlelight vigil, after community mural, after RIP rap, it is the same over and over. No gun. Hands up. Running away. Shot in the back. No accountability.

Some people use the words “police terrorism” to describe this reality. You don’t see this in the mainstream news, or on the lips of aspiring city council people, or from most non-profits in the community. Even people within movements against police violence get silenced for using this language by people who deem themselves more responsible or better educated. We have sketched the nature of the police in the city. What is the definition of terrorism? The US State Department defines terrorism as:

“Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets? usually intended to influence an audience.”

The police in the Bayview or East Oakland understand themselves as occupiers of the community, a premeditated understanding, though not inaccurate, of an enemy relationship ? not between cops and robbers, but between cops and communities of color. The political motivation is one of containment ? containment of a community plagued by unemployment, failing schools, anger, hopelessness, drug abuse, and violence. Police respond to crimes to an extent, but their more general responsibility is to control space, maintain order, and intimidate. This process is one of dehumanization of communities through social and economic exclusion enforced through various forms of containment, of which the police are the most visible.

People not subjected to this reality have the luxury of imagining it as something other than it is. Many can blindly accept law enforcement arguments, however unlikely. Many can actively or tacitly support the social relationships that have one group of unaccountable, overpaid men with guns, who almost always live in some other community, containing and terrorizing neighborhoods because the people who live there are poor, and of color, and somehow still considered worth less – worth less than a train fare apparently.

For the police and the people of the Bayview / Hunter’s Point, naivete and rationalizations are hard to come by. There is a war going on. The police talk about a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on gangs. People in the city talk about a war on the community, a war on the youth, a war on black men. The logic of occupation is the same in the Bay Area as it is in Baghdad or Afghanistan. The police and military cross train each other in counter-insurgency, police train soldiers headed to battle, soldiers return to train city police in urban battlefield tactics. Studies show that war, occupation, and Manichean frames invariable lead to dehumanization of generalized enemies, and that dehumanization increases the propensity for indiscriminate violence. This context of dehumanization and police violence in the Bayview is driven by age-old racism, and more recent economic restructuring (neoliberalism), along with efforts at gentrification, which have exacerbated racial inequalities from income to health to imprisonment. The State has relieved itself of the obligation to do anything about this reality except to respond with naked force. Couple this with shrinking budgets for schools, social programs and public assistance as police budgets swell, and you have an increase in inequality and potential unrest related to that inequality, which simply serves as a justification for more and more police and prisons under the existing political common sense of those in power.

The solution to an occupation is not kinder tools of occupation. The solution to war is not sensitivity training for soldiers. The solution to war, is a just peace. Who gets to kill with impunity, and who gets shot in their back for nothing and left for dead, is about power, about long histories of racial oppression and how they get played out day after day, year after year.

If the problem is inherently political than the solution is political as well. So long as the unemployment rate in Hunter’s Point is four times the city average, police will be concentrated there and will harness a disproportionate amount of community resources, leaving little behind for social programs. Schools stay below average at best, jobs are not created, unemployment remains high, more police are sent, and so on.

A vicious cycle of racialized poverty is interwoven with a vicious cycle of police occupation and terror. This is a war with several fronts of various direct and indirect forms of structural violence ? schools, employment, housing, etc. ? of which the police are the most visible and dramatic. The solution to this war is a just peace. A just peace is not possible without self-determination. Unarmed teenagers getting gunned down for not paying train fare is not a mistake, or an aberration, or “bad apples”, it is a discrete, everyday act of war, the inevitable outcome of every occupation. Enough innocent blood has been shed, it is upon us to not only bring an end to this ongoing madness, but to foster self-determined communities which unravel and dismantle the vicious cycles of violence of which the police are but the armed guardians.

Mike King is an East Bay activist and Ph. D. candidate in sociology at the Unversity of California at Santa Cruz.

 

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Mike King is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Bridgewater State University.  His work has recently been featured in Race & Class and the edited volume Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.  His book (tentatively titled) When Riot Cops are Not Enough: The Repression of Occupy Oakland will be published by Rutgers University Press in 2016.  He can be reached at mikeking0101 (at) gmail.com.

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