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Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Wondering which side police in the U.S. are on…. left or right, is a more certain social science proposition than attempting to guess how many angels can safely fit on the head of a pin.

For those close to protest from the 1950s through today, including all facets of left protest, the broken and murdered bodies of protesters in the civil rights movement and the Vietnam antiwar movement, and movements beyond those heady days of protest are quite telling. Guns, fire hoses, batons, tear gas, fists, planting evidence, etc., have all been used viciously by police throughout the U.S. in doing the bidding of their political and financial overlords.

The militarization of the police began, not as a coincidence, in the 1970s. Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) “teams” were soon in evidence, as was the gathering of so-called intelligence by police units, a fact well known to Vietnam-era protesters, the movement to which mass policing responded. The dumping of military weapons and vehicles to the police was the direct result of the massive police mobilization during and following the Vietnam War. All that was needed was a globalized economy to begin the school to prison pipeline of which the police are an integral part.

Drug Abuse Resistance Education programs (D.A.R.E.), founded in Los Angeles in 1983, have been totally ineffective in stemming the tide of drug use in the U.S.  Indeed, D.A.R.E. has seen some police act as enforcers of discipline in schools in mostly poor neighborhoods and has furthered the school to prison pipeline in the U.S.

That many individual police have authoritarian leanings and behaviors comes as no surprise. The antipathy toward people of color in the civil rights era and beyond had its roots in the mass violence in the U.S. in which police were an integral part. That a member of the Black Panther Party would relate that violence is as “American as cherry pie” is no accident.

More recently, the repression by police, and especially the white shirts of the New York City police during the Occupy Wall Street movement, was effective in countering the push to begin to address the astronomical level of economic inequality that became pronounced as a result of the Great Recession, a recession largely caused by the globalization of trade, manufacturing, and the financial chicanery of the international banking establishment.

When antifascist protesters took to the streets of Washington, D.C. to protest the moron-in-chief’s inauguration, the police were aided by the liberal class in the U.S., including some in the mass media, who think that the power grab by the far right in the U.S. will end in some kind of genteel coffee klatch.

In August 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, police largely stood by while white supremacists and neo-Nazis beat up counter-protesters and finally killed Heather Heyer. The police response was reported by CNN in “Report on Charlottesville rally faults police over planning, failure to protect public,” (December 2, 2017).

When the police can’t get away with murder outright, they either resort to the tried and “true” technique of claiming they feared for their individual or collective safety, or as they did in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, falsely reporting that Michael Brown was some sort of dangerous criminal on the loose. When the police can’t get away with slander and libel, they sometimes shoot people in the back, or in similar ways, and those people turn out to be predominantly either black or brown.

In June 2016, as reported in the Guardian, white supremacists and neo-Nazis were allowed to get away with only very minor charges at the mayhem resulting from a far-right rally, while California officials “pursued criminal charges against eight anti-fascist activists who were stabbed or beaten…” Readers get the picture here without much embellishment of the facts.

What shocks in much of this again is how some liberals join the right in condemning the actions of anti-fascists while the grotesque outrage of what is actually going on in the far right in the U.S. is often seen on an equal footing with the pushback on the part of some on the left. Indeed, many revisionists on the left bemoan the actions of radical protest and protesters during the late 1960s and early 1970s in reaction to the grotesqueness of the Vietnam War, a reality that allowed the right in the U.S. to rewrite the history of that war into the “noble cause” rhetoric of Ronald Reagan.

By taking part in this condemnation and fabrication of history, with its forces of murder on the right around the world and in the U.S., the stage is set for further bloodletting. Witness Trump’s campaign rallies in 2016, when he encouraged the violent among his followers to do physical harm to counterprotesters. How far behind could mass murder and intimidation be?

“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” In other words, Trump gave a wink and a nod to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. How hard do readers think it could be for police to pick up on this green light to align with the right while physically and “legally” punishing the left.

In a small town in Rhode Island during the 1968 presidential campaign, just outside of the local Eugene McCarthy for President campaign office, teenagers, who routinely congregated both inside and on the sidewalk outside of that office, were routinely harassed by police. On one night, a young man was arrested by police and beaten at the local police station for the crime of being outside of the campaign office and being brash. No matter that the young man was the son of a prominent local businessman. The latter made no difference to the police who acted with complete impunity even then. On the federal level, the national police, the F.B.I., had long been involved in its formal counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) that included spying, harassment, and facilitating murder as standard operating procedures against protest and protesters.

It is both a quaint and outdated idea that police will be neutral arbiters of the administrative branch of governments. It is most often the case that police will act in tandem with the judicial branch with violence and mass incarceration often being the predictable outcome.

Whether it was the police riots at the Democratic nominating convention in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, or a simple traffic stop, or incidents of police wilding, the authoritarian nature of policing in the U.S. is apparent. That such generally unchecked and ultimate power over life and death on the streets of the U.S. often leads to deadly results need not come as a surprise to a government and people with a growing political right and in many cases the extreme right.

Indeed, the left’s admirable commitment to nonviolence is remarkable in the face of such repression.

More articles by:

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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