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How We Got the Tanks and M-16s Out of LA Schools

Today, after 18 months of ferocious uphill organizing the Labor/Community Strategy Center reached an agreement with the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Los Angeles School Police Department. They agreed:

To return all military grade weapons to the Department of Defense “Excess Military Equipment Program” AKA the 1033 Program that is arming police departments all over the U.S. In particular, they returned 1 Tank, a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle, 3 grenade launchers (“37 mm less less-lethal launch platforms” and 61 M-16 rifles).

To withdraw completely from the 1033 Program.

To provide a complete inventory to the Strategy Center and the public of every weapon they received under the program, when it was received, the serial numbers, and when and where it was returned.

To apologize for the policy that brought the weapons to Los Angeles in the first place.

The Strategy Center is the first group in the U.S. that we know of to win such demands. The LAUSD and the LASPD are the first government agencies that we know of— a police force of 500 officers and staff— to return all the weapons, withdraw from the program altogether, give a complete inventory of every weapon received and returned, and to issue a public apology a civil rights organization and the Black and Latino students and communities whose lives were threatened by the program. The precedent can be explosive. We have shown that even if by one bullet alone—let alone a tank, 3 grenade launchers, and 61 M-16s— we can reduce the police arsenal of weapons just as they try to increase them and can win the ideological war against the growing police state.

In our view, remembering Amilcar Cabral’s “tell no lies and claim no easy victories” this is a major structural, symbolic, and ideological victory for the Civil Rights, Black Liberation, Chicano Liberation, and revolutionary movements in the U.S.

Lessons from our No Tanks in L.A. and the U.S. That Can Help Organizers in Every Urban Center

Let me tell you the story of how we won this grueling battle of ideas and arms and some lessons for organizers in the U.S. who understand that the battle against the police/warfare state is the cutting edge of transformative organizing.

Identifying our own government as a center of counter-insurgency against the Black Nation

In August, 2014 Strategy Center organizers Manuel Criollo, Ashley Franklin, and Julian Lamb went to Ferguson, Missouri in solidarity with the movement protesting the murder of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson—and the larger crime of the U.S. government against the Black community and the Black nation. When we saw the use of tanks, assault rifles we understood this was part of the war against Black people. At the time, we did not know about the Department of Defense 1033 Program but we and others soon found out. As CBS news reported,

“For several nights this week, tanks, combat gear and assault rifles were seen in Ferguson, Missouri. It looked like a military operation. That’s because police departments in the St. Louis area— like those across the country—are arming their officers with equipment once on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of it is free of charge or bought with federal katrinasleggrant money authorized by Congress. In the past year, the Department of Defense has given local law enforcement over 600 MRAPs, the armored vehicles designed to withstand roadside bombs. Texas alone has received 68, Florida 45. The Pentagon program has given police departments over $5 billion worth of surplus equipment since the program launched in 1991: helicopters, firearms, protective gear, night vision, even computers and camouflage clothing. The local police also get federal grant money to buy the military-style equipment. One recent study by The Center for Investigative Reporting found the federal government has doled out more than $34 billion to local police departments since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.”

We did our research and found out that in Los Angeles the Los Angeles Police Department LAPD had amassed over 1,600 M-16 assault rifles, a military truck, military cargo plane and helicopter while the LA Sheriff has over 1,000 M-16 assault rifles, 2 MRAP tanks, and 62 mine detectors, all through the DOD 1033 program. We chose to begin the campaign by focusing on the School police because that was where we were doing most of our organizing and the issue of tanks in the schools would generate, we hoped, the greatest outrage that we could then bring to bear on the LAPD and President Obama.

Exposing the Double Cross by the LAUSD

At the time, the Strategy Center was involved in negotiations with the School Board challenging the school to prison pipeline. We had won the overturning of the Daytime Curfew Law through which the LAPD and LASPD had issued 38,000 tickets to Black and Latino students for “truancy.” We had passed a School Climate Bill of Rights to end the offense of “willful defiance” that was code for disciplining Black boys in particular for any signs of life or rebellion. And while we were negotiating in good faith with the school board and police we found out that, behind our backs, they had contracted for the tank, the grenade launchers, and the M-16s.

Making clear demands

The Strategy Center operates on a theory of “counter-hegemonic demand development” that I developed in my book, The Seven Components of Transformative Organizing. I learned that theory from my work with CORE, SNCC, SDS, the Black Panthers and my reading of Mao, Lenin, and revolutionary history. The objective is to raise real demands on the system that go to the heart of its ideological, economic, and political power and challenge the system itself. Manuel Criollo, the Center’s director of organizing, and I wrote a public letter to LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines with very clear demands.

1) Immediately withdraw the District’s participation in the Department of Defense 1033 program

2) Call on President Obama to end the entire DOD 1033 Program

3) Destroy or dismantle all military grade equipment obtained by the LASPD: specifically the documented 61 M-16 assault rifles

4) Make a complete inventory of LASPD’s military equipment and weaponry acquired throughout your enrollment in the 1033 Program

5) Document all weaponry currently in LASPD’s possession

6) Write to other school boards calling on them to discontinue their participation in the 1033 Program

7) Work with us to call on the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department (LASD) to immediately withdraw from the 1033 Program and to destroy their military weapons obtained through the DOD 1033 Program— in that LAUSD students and our Black and Latino communities are subject to the jurisdictions of those departments as well.

As you can see, this was both very specific in nature (almost all of which we eventually won) but also had the tenor of a revolutionary manifesto. (See www.thestrategycenter.org and Google for the full text of the letter).

Building a base around the demands

The Strategy Center is very lucky to have Ashley Franklin as our lead organizer. Recruited from Scripps College with strong roots in Belize and the Black community she is a truly gifted group builder, propagandist, and agitator. Under her leadership, Elmo Gomez, Cindy Donis, Laura Aguilar, Monique Jones, Michael Davis and dozens of other politically conscious students from our Taking Action clubs, especially at Roosevelt High School in East L.A. and Augustus Hawkins High School in South L.A. carried out extensive classroom presentations, one-on-one studies, revolutionary art exhibitions, call- in campaigns to board members and direct confrontations with the board. The moral power of the students themselves was a big factor in turning the tide. These are the people on the frontlines. They decided that killing the 1033 Program in the Schools was a life and death issue for them.

Framing the Debate Historically

Ashley, Manuel, and I teach revolutionary history as a critical component of political consciousness and building long-distance runners. Manuel teaches a course on the colonial nature of U.S. education for Blacks, Indigenous people, and Latinos. Ashley teaches about slavery and the Black codes. We use my book, Katrina’s Legacy, and the chapter on Black history, “History Can Guide US” in our political education work with students and faculty. In particular, we situate the counterinsurgency culture as a conscious effort by the white power structure to suppress the history and traditions of Black-led revolution in the U.S. And we say this directly to the people in power. In our letter to Superintendent Cortinez we wrote,

“In our reading of history, the expansion and militarization of urban policing was a deliberate backlash against the militancy of a Black Movement—a very orchestrated and racist ideological campaign waged by the Nixon administration with the support of many Democrats to portray Black and Latino communities as violent and inherently criminal. The war on crime, war on drugs, and war on gangs —and now, the indefensible war on “thugs and criminals”—has been a racist subterfuge to lock up Black and Latino youth for jaywalking, marijuana and alcohol possession, “resisting arrest”, “parole violation”, disorderly conduct, and loitering. It is an ideological and military response to a people’s right to protest and resist oppression and the virtual re-enactment of the Black Codes. It is shameful that the LAUSD would want any connection to these crimes against humanity and our communities. This has led to the most blatant character and actual assassination of Black youth in Los Angeles, Sanford, New York, Ferguson, Baltimore and every city in the country. We saw after the Sandy Hook shooting that the LAPD, with the support of Superintendent Deasy, authorized additional police patrols in and around elementary schools. For those who have a world view of advocating for police expansion they will consistently call for increased armed force used against unarmed communities, when in reality our communities need homes, jobs, mental health clinics, health care and a dramatic reduction in police. In the wake of the heartbreaking and devastating increase of police shooting of civilians throughout the country and growing scrutiny of the militarization of police, we have witnessed the weapons LAUSD has in their possession similarly being used against protestors in the city of Baltimore. The National Guard was deployed against a people overwhelmed with feelings of grief and anger.”

The students tell the school board they are aware of the racism of the system and its long traditions in the Black Codes and the war against the Black and Latino movements. The Board members, white liberal, Black, Latino do not like the accusations but the historical arguments give the students more confidence that this is not specific to their experience. They go beyond, “This is not good policy” to “You guys are trying to kill us” They confront the board with bullet proof vests and cardboard tanks and helicopters with the slogan, “Students are not bullet proof.”

Bringing the War Home

Ashley Franklin explains, “We won the battle of ideas with our own students. We explained that the U.S. is already at war with Black and Latino communities; the only question is do we want to fight back in the war. These weapons were there for a reason—what we call “counterinsurgency” against the next freedom fighters. The students understand and agree, through our Freedom Summer and other educational programs, that the Black and Latino communities are oppressed nations and peoples inside the United States, not just suffering “discrimination” but national oppression by U.S. imperialism. That explains why M16s used to kill civilians in Vietnam are used to kill civilians in Ferguson, Baltimore, and L.A.”

We confronted LAUSD President Steve Zimmer, “Your silence is consent. You say you did not know about them. Then you say you are “working on it” behind the scenes but in front of the scenes you do nothing but support educational and military racism.” We disrupted LAUSD Meetings forcing them to go into closed session and to turn their backs on the students. We called it “educational and military racism.” The students made bullet proof vests saying, “Students are not bullet proof” and kept asking the board, “Why do you want to kill us?”

Challenging the Democratic Establishment. How is it possible that the U.S. is able to bring weapons of mass destruction into its cities with little or no opposition? Despite their efforts to demonize Trump, Cruz, and the Republicans it is the Democrats who are the main danger in every major city in the country. With the defeat of the revolutionary movements of the Two Decades of the Sixties the Democrats have built corrupt, gentrifying, corporatized white liberal, Black, and Latino political elites who are both servants and agents of corporate capital and imperialist urban development. It was Bill Clinton who led “Effective Death Penalty and Counter-terrorism Act” and “ending welfare as we know it.” It was L.A. Democratic mayors Tom Bradley, Antonio Villaraigosa, and now Mayor Eric Garcetti who enthusiastically embraced the title of “corporate tool” as a badge of honor. And it is the Democrats who have created the “normalcy” of police surveillance and occupation in Black and Latino communities.
Most churches, community organizations, and social service agencies are “on the take and in the make.” They are part of the urban dictatorship of the political classes that suppress dissent and any challenge to Democratic officials from the local dog catcher to President Obama.

In this 18 month campaign we worked every way we could to build a broad coalition to challenge the police state. But most labor unions and community groups, even in Black and Latino communities, said they agreed with the problem but in actuality chose to sit it out. That is why it took 18 months—we built this movement virtually alone, not out of sectarianism or self-promotion but out of necessity.

Finding people of good will on “the other side—raising the moral challenge to those in power. It would be the height of arrogance or delusion to believe we brought the school board or the Los Angeles School Police Department to their knees. Our movement was impressive but still relatively small by historical standards—but relatively large by the standards of this age of reaction. When we disrupted the school board meetings we did so with elected officials we knew by name and had negotiated with for years. They knew we were smart organizers and were just doing our job. They could have called the police on us—but they didn’t. They chose to adjourn the meeting and go into “closed session” behind closed doors. And then we would meet with them and engage them directly one-on-one. Through conversations, arguments, phone calling campaigns, letters of record, demonstrations in the schools, the interventions of great teachers like Mark Gomez at Hawkins, inch by inch the system did move.

There are some people “on the left” who think that protest in itself can win victories and that “street heat” is the key to victory. But in this campaign and in “the movement” in the U.S. we rarely have the power to defeat elected officials or to win by force alone. We did not have the power to take over the system let alone overthrow it.

But, we had the power to confront people who believed they were not agents of state repression and as such, could appeal to them to confront the contradiction between their stated beliefs and their actions. In the end the school board and the LASPD did the right thing and we are very appreciative that they did. While we had many battles with Board President Zimmer he did move, in his own way at his own speed, to end the program.

Compare that to Mayor Eric Garcetti who lied to the Strategy Center, the Bus Riders Union, and the bus and rail riders. He voted to raise the bus fares after he had promised us he would not. He broke every promise he made at public hearings, backed every rail contractor in town, and didn’t give a damn when 500 bus riders and community groups told him they could not afford one penny more let alone $25 a month for the transit pass. Or look at L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas, once of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and now of the Friends of Capitalism caucus who does not even pretend to give a damn about low-income bus and rail riders but is part of the MTA plan to once again raise sales taxes to pay for more gentrification. Our organizing in the No Fare Increase—No Cars in LA Campaign was at least as creative and militant as the No Tanks in L.A. campaign. But there was not one elected or appointed official on the MTA board who would support our demands or our movement. They didn’t care if MTA riders ate bread or cake, drove a car, rode a bus, or walked to work.

In this story there are two more people who deserve real recognition for this victory—Board Member Monica Garcia and LASPD Chief Steven Zipperman.

Monica Garcia, a member of the LAUSD board from East Los Angeles, has always been the strongest voice on the board to work with us to end the school to prison pipeline, to end punitive and racist educational policies, and to fight for “positive behavior support” as an alternative to excessive discipline, policing, suspensions, and expulsions. At a time just weeks ago when our allies from Dignity in Schools Campaign all over the country were coming to Los Angeles to support our demands we asked every board member to come out to support us, call for the full accounting of the weapons, and to issue an apology. I worked with Monica Garcia to encourage her to put forth the first public apology for the 1033 Program that was so essential to our campaign. We could not allow the LAUSD and LASPD to just return the weapons—we had to get an agreement that the policies were wrong and harmful to the Black and Latino communities.

She wrote to the demonstrators,

“To the Members of the Labor/Community Strategy Center and the Dignity in Schools Campaign…I regret that LAUSD’s participation in the 1033 program may have caused a lapse in the trust LAUSD was building with many community partners including the Dignity in Schools Campaign. I apologize for any misunderstanding caused by this participation and the perception among some that LAUSD seeks to perpetuate division instead of creating communities that are safe, supportive and successful. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “we have a long way to go.” Let us commit ourselves to continue to work towards 100% graduation by increasing support services for our scholars, increasing graduation, fully implementing the historic Student Climate Bill of Rights and ultimately eliminating the racial disparities that exists in suspensions, expulsions and academic achievement.”
“Regret” “Apologize” “perpetuate division” “racial disparities” In this political context this was the first board member to apologize and as I read it to 300 demonstrators this was the strongest public acknowledgment of the role of our campaign and the demands we had raised.

And in the end, this civil rights victory against police abuse could not have happened without the support of LASPD Chief Steve Zipperman. Chief Zipperman is a unique, principled police chief who has a conscience, can be appealed to, works with instead of suppressing community groups, and accepts the contradiction of his role in society. Manuel Criollo and he have worked together for years and many LASPD officers have worked with us to oppose the “zero tolerance” rules they have been asked to enforce.

Manuel and I met with Chief Zipperman for two hours several weeks ago. When the LAUSD announced that they had returned all the weapons to the DOD the press asked us to claim victory and put the campaign to an end. We refused. We explained that we had no verification that all the weapons were returned and would not accept the undocumented statements of the board. We asked for a full accounting of every weapon— serial number by serial number. And then we demanded an apology from the School board and the police force. Now in organizing, you do have to know when to declare victory and when to stop making demands you can’t win after years of work. But the students were adamant that without verification and without an apology there were no guarantees the weapons were returned and no guarantees the policies would not be carried out again.

On May 18, Chief Zipperman kept every promise, word for word, that he made to us.

He began his 7 page letter by saying, “Our past and ongoing commitment to strengthening trust and partnerships with the Strategy Center and other community organizations remains paramount.”

This was followed by pages of every invoice, every weapon, every serial number, with a page of 61 M16s that start with serial number 1289118 and end 61 lines later with 1826156A along with the Fed Ex tracking numbers we requested.

He ended his letter to us and the public with the following, “A final thought. The LASPD recognizes the sensitive historical aspect of associating “military-like”equipment and military presence within a civilian setting. We recognize that this sensitive historical component may not have been considered when originally procuring these type of logistics within a civilian or K-12 public school setting. LASPD regrets that not recognizing that aspect of your group’s philosophical stance may have strained our relationship with the Labor-Strategy Center and various members of the school committee.”

In today’s historical context and in his institutional context this is a principled and perhaps risky decision— in which a police chief actually worried that he was straining his relationship with a militant civil rights and social justice organization as a rationale to agree to the issues we raised. Revolutions take place in unique and historically specific ways. We are very fortunate that the creative, impressive, and relentless organizing on our part had people on “the other side” who could be moved by our moral and political perspective.

So now the campaign—no we never stop—moves on to make demands on President Obama to issue an executive order to disband the DoD 1033 program altogether. He has already issued a very weak executive order modifying it; he has the power to end it once and for all. As the California Democratic Primary is on June 7 we will be calling on Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to support this demand on the president now—as well as pledging to end it if they are elected.

Last night at the Strategy Center’s Fight for the Soul of the Cities Planning Committee, members celebrated the victory and already began to talk about “So what do we do next.” We all agreed it would OK to defer the question for a few days and to use this Saturday’s general membership meeting for a big celebration—food, highlighting the work that people did, Martinelli’s sparkling cider (the full extent of our “letting go,” dancing, singing, drumming, and of course, more food. Victories are so hard to win against the state. It was exciting to hear a student say, “This is my first campaign and I can’t believe I have won such a big victory” while others, the young veterans, are saying, “You’ll see, there will be others ahead.”

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Eric Mann is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers and the author of Katrina’s Legacy: White Racism and Black Reconstruction in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. He can be reached at eric@voicesfromthefrontlines.com

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