The recent murder of two New York city policemen by a lone gunman who apparently shot his estranged girlfriend less than 24 hours before the police were killed has created a scenario ideal for those intent on reestablishing the department’s dominance on the street and in the politics of New York City. Despite the fact that the alleged killer had no apparent connection to the recent protests against police brutality and murder, the police union and most of the mainstream media are already connecting the two. Police union spokespeople are telling Mayor DeBlasio to stay away from the officers’ funerals and police supporters are calling for his indictment on murder charges, solely because he meekly questioned the police tactics in the death of Eric Garner. Meanwhile, other cops and their supporters are blaming Al Sharpton for riling up the populace, thereby becoming an accomplice in the policemen’s murder.
This is not only absurd, it is a gross distortion of the facts. It is also quite dangerous, as one can see after reading the statement from the union telling New Yorkers that the department is now on a “wartime footing.” Of course, like most every war in which an armed force from the US takes part in, the odds are quite stacked in the department’s favor. Also like any such war, the provocation for the war originated from those in power. From the “stop and frisk” policies of local departments to the generally racist US criminal justice system that criminalizes men and women of color at rates unseen in any other nation in the world, if there is a war between the police department and whomever they determine to be the enemy, then that war has been going on for a long, long time.
Another element in the early reporting of this murder is a rather awkward attempt to link the gunman to all sorts of left wing organization that existed in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the New York Daily News even used the present tense when describing the roots of the Black Guerrilla Family (of which the gunman may or may not have been part of), writing “The gang is affiliated with leftist groups, including the Black Liberation Army, Symbionese Liberation Army, Weather Underground, Red Guerrilla Family, and Chicano Liberation Front, and one of its stated missions is the overthrow of the U.S. government.” (12/21/2014) This is just plain ridiculous.
The Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) was a prison affiliate of the Black Panther Party that began in the late 1960s. Its members helped prisoners learn to read, studied Marxism, and kept a certain order inside the California prison system. George Jackson, author of Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, was one of the group’s founders. He was murdered by prison guards on August 21, 1971, supposedly during an escape attempt. The actual circumstances of his death have never been clarified. However, what is known is that the Black Panther Party was undergoing a split at the time leading up to Jackson’s death. One faction was nominally under the leadership of Huey Newton and the other led (also nominally) by Eldridge Cleaver. The split revolved around (among other things) the immediacy of revolution, getting involved in electoral politics and the use of armed violence. It was exacerbated by personality clashes and manipulated by federal and local police agencies under COINTELPRO. The Party had provided Jackson with attorneys and led a movement in support of Jackson and his co-defendants (known as the Soledad Brothers) in their trial on very questionable charges in the murder of a prison guard. However, there were those inside the party who thought Jackson should try and escape, then fly to Cuba or another friendly country. Panther Eldridge Cleaver was already in Algeria and other Panthers were in exile in Cuba. There are many who believe that this element was infiltrated by police provocateurs who wanted Jackson dead. Others disavow the police agent element and think these Panthers just plain didn’t think Jackson stood a chance in the California courts. One of his lawyers told me many years later that, although he thought Jackson’s chances of getting out of prison were quite remote, he did think that Jackson would be acquitted of the murder of the guard. Unfortunately, Jackson’s murder made Jackson’s trial irrelevant.
The Black Guerrilla Family never forgave some members of Jackson’s legal team for his murder. In their minds it was the failure of those preferring the courts to free Jackson instead of the gun that insured his death. In 1980, attorney Fay Stender was murdered in her Berkeley home by a member of the BGF. Nine years later, Huey Newton was murdered in the streets of West Oakland by another BGF member. By the time of Newton’s murder the Black Guerrilla Family was just another prison-based gang dealing drugs, extorting businesses, and pimping. The Weather Underground, Chicano LIberation Front, Symbionese LIberation Army and Red GUerrilla Family–all of whom the New York Daily News claims are affiliated with today’s BGF–were historical artifacts. In other words, there is no connection. In fact, except for some political beliefs, there was not much connection at all between the BGF and any of those organizations when they were active.
There is no war against the police in the streets of New York City, no matter how much the police union wants one. However, that does not mean the cops won’t wage one against their perceived enemies. Like most wars, it will not make the region where the war is fought any safer. However, it will provide carte blanche to those cops on the force who consider their badge a license to harass, beat and kill those they fear and those whose lives they do not respect.
Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series. All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.