Seize This Time: Rahm Emmanuel, Bobby Seale and Community Control of the Police

In 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Point 7 of their 10 Point Platform and Program demanded “an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.”

Fifty years later, it hasn’t ended. Just ask the odious and embattled Mayor of Chicago. The question, to quote one Comrade Vladimir Illyich, is What Is To Be Done? Certainly, Rahm deserves to be hounded out of his office, for his complicity in police abuses and among many other reasons. (Google his name in conjunction with “privatizations” or “Chicago Teachers Union” or any number of other items.) But not even his fiercest detractors think putting a new face on top of Chicago’s power structure will be enough to save future Laquan McDonalds. It isn’t as if police brutality and murder are unknown in the numerous cities lucky enough not to be run by Rahm Emmanuel. It’s a national problem, and its roots run deep. So, again, what’s to be done?

The solution propounded by Hillary Clinton, numerous liberal do-gooders, and even much of the Black Lives Matter movement is that all police departments should use body cameras. Common sense should tell us that deeply rooted institutional problems don’t have simple technological solutions, and at any rate existing empirical evidence tends to suggest that “bodycams” help the police more than they help their victims. The idea that cameras pointed not at the cops but at the civilians they interact with, cameras with cops in control of the on/off switch, would be any kind of deterrent to police brutality is absurd on its face. Liberals cling to it for the simple reason that they have no better ideas.

Can the radical left do better? Socialists, anarchists, and other radicals often responded to the 2015’s many cases of high-profile police violence by talking about the ways in which that the traditions of American policing grew out of antebellum slave patrols. They’ve reminded us that cops are not on our side, that the police are the thin blue line protecting the power of the bosses from the discontent of the working class. All of this may be analytically useful, but none of it quite answers the question of what should be done about the problem of police brutality and murder, not in some distant post-revolutionary future where workers’ militias patrol the streets, but in the here and now.

The Panthers had an extremely specific proposed solution, one that it would behoove the contemporary left to dust off and consider. Bobby Seale explained it in his 1970 book Seize the Time.

We will have neighborhood divisions with neighborhood councils, who are duly elected in their particular neighborhoods. We’ll have two, three, four, and five police departments that work in conjunction together through the commissioners of particular neighborhood divisions, so there will not be a single police chief. The commissioners can be removed by the duly elected neighborhood councils. […] Now when this begins to move, the pig power structure is gonna say, “OK, you can have civilian review boards.” But all that does is allow the same old fascist power structure to keep control of the police while you have a front civilian review board, and that’s not what we’re talking about at all. What we’re talking about is righteous community control, where the people who control the police are elected by the community. They can be removed by circulating petitions for re-elections if they go wrong. We know that such a program is very positive and necessary in order for the people to have power in this country and to stop the avaricious businessmen from ruling us with guns and violating our constitutional rights.

Conservatives feeling defensive about accusations of police misconduct and liberals eager to prove their reasonableness often rush to insist that, “not all cops are bad.” Radicals’ response should be simple. “Perhaps not. But are they all good? Why not let the people who actually live in the neighborhoods being policed decide which are which?”

Ben Burgis is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Underwood International College, Yonsei University.