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Police, Racism and Progressives

Progressives, like liberals, tend to believe that the police in the United States’ capitalist society can be fair in their enforcement of the laws, doling out the same type of protection to the poor and non-white as they do to the wealthy and the middle class. They do not accept the more radical analysis which understands that the role of the police is to protect the white wealthy and middle classes from the rest of the nation. So, when statistics point out that hundreds of (usually unarmed) people of color and the poor are brutalized and even killed by police every year, these progressives see the problem as being one of incorrect training or just a small percentage of “bad” cops. In order to understand that this brutality and these murders are part and parcel of policing in capitalist America would require a rejection of the system most progressives and liberals are already invested in.

Recently, one of the former supervisors of the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division, Brandon del Pozo, was voted in as the new chief of Burlington, Vermont’s police department. The appointment process was not very public, at least in relation to how such things usually go in Vermont, and the citizenry of Burlington was only told of the selection a few days before the city council vote of approval. Despite calls from numerous residents, the City Council unanimously approved del Pozo’s appointment. The vote included the yeas of every Democrat, Republican and Progressive Party member on the Council. At the Council meeting where the vote took place, more than a hundred citizens gathered, expressing their opposition and asking questions both in the allotted time for public comments and via interruptions of the meeting itself. The citizens opposed to a vote at that meeting were not asking for del Pozo’s name to be withdrawn, only for a delay in the vote and a couple open meetings where the public could ask del Pozo direct questions. It was the refusal of the Council to consider a delay that infuriated those protesting. In the week following the confirmation, various civic “leaders” and the local daily newspaper decried the lack of civility on the part of the protesters. Of course, the fact of the Council’s (led by the Democratic mayor) lack of regard for the questions of its citizens was not discussed.

As an observer of this process (I live in a neighboring town), it looked like a case of police and politician collusion. Burlington’s mayor Miro Weinberger had made up his mind that Del Pozo was his man. Probably assuming that there would be many residents of Burlington who would oppose this appointment, Weinberger appeared to keep the hiring process as non-public as possible. This was despite del Pozo’s connections to a police unit in New York that was discovered to be infiltrating mosques and meetings of antiwar activists, not to mention accepting funds from rich private donors with their own agendas in the US war on the Muslim world. Even after an Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 4.08.22 PMarticle written by del Pozo in 2001 that appeared to approve racial profiling in some instances was exposed by a Vermont media source, the process was not delayed. Further research also shows an increase in “stop and frisk” searches on Black and Latinos in the Greenwich Village precinct del Pozo was assigned to from 2011-2013. There were some activists opposed to the appointment calling for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to chime in and at least ask for a delay in the vote. Those requests were ignored.

Ironically, Sanders would run into problems of his own regarding race and the police later the same week. He was interrupted during a speech he was making at a conference in Arizona sponsored by the internet organizing group called NetRoots. The protesters were from Black Lives Matter and demanded that Sanders and his fellow presidential candidate Marvin O’Malley directly address the matter of police brutality and murder of unarmed African-Americans. Both men reacted in a manner perceived as dismissive by the protesters, unleashing a storm of noise on social media. In the following days, Sanders has begun attempting to address the issues raised by Black Lives Matter, but it remains to be seen how effective those efforts will be. It also remains to be seen how he will deal with this important issue in the weeks and months ahead. It seems a natural that his focus on inequality would lead to a discussion of racism, given the intricate and complex relationship these phenomena have in the United States historically and in the present. If he fails to seriously address this in favor of focusing on a purely class-based approach that appears to focus mostly on white voters, Sanders risks not only losing support from people of color, but also from those white voters who share his social democratic vision but are considerably more in tune with the issues raised by Black Lives Matter.

As a sideshow to the issues raised in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri almost a year ago are recent statements by former president Bill Clinton acknowledging the effects of his criminal justice policy in the 1990s. This policy, which was an enhancement of policies begun under Nixon and Reagan and supported by almost every politician at the time, is largely responsible for the massive rates of incarceration, probation and parole in the United States. The policy itself was a thinly-veiled attempt to keep tabs on the African-American and Latino population in the US and a solution to the growing number of residents who would never be fully and permanently employed in decent-paying jobs. Perhaps the keystone piece of legislation in this policy was the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which became law in 1994. Among other things, this law expanded the list of federal crimes punishable by death, eliminated inmate education, and increased prison sentences and incarceration in general. It also put 100,000 more police on the streets. Ironically, one of the few positive sections of the bill, which would requires the United States Department of Justice to issue an annual report on “the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers” has never been enacted. Sanders, who was Vermont’s congressman at the time, voted in favor of the bill.

As noted at the beginning of this essay, progressives and liberals tend to believe that the police in a capitalist society are generally fair arbiters of justice. Implicit in this perception of law enforcement is that its members are to be trusted to protect and serve the greater good. This belief exists despite glaringly obvious and statistically irrefutable data proving that this is not true. This acceptance of the police as such stems from a belief in private property that is almost innate. One of the cornerstones of our culture is that the ownership of land grants the landowner certain rights. Indeed, in times past it was only men with property who could vote. Laws are on the books in some states that make it legal for a homeowner to shoot someone trespassing onto one’s property. A racist history that saw African slaves as property informs a society where far too many consider non-white members of the US to be lesser than whites. It also helps maintain an economic and social structure that places the majority of non-whites in harm’s way when interacting with those hired to protect that structure. One does not have to be consciously racist to participate in this mindset. Likewise, one does not have to own property to agree with the commonly held belief that owning property somehow instills a greater value to one’s personhood.

Bernie Sanders is correct in his understanding that it is the economic system that maintains and exacerbates the inequalities present in the United States. Where he falls short, like so many of his progressive supporters and colleagues, is in understanding the essential role the racist legacy of that economic system has in that system. Perhaps the events at the Netroots Nation convention will change that shortcoming. After all, anyone who honestly thinks Hilary Clinton or James Webb cares about police violence against Blacks and Latinos in any genuine way is delusional.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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