People’s Park and “Cop City”

Photograph Source: Chad Davis – CC BY 2.0

In Berkeley (California), there is a struggle against developers for the preservation of People’s Park, a memorial to decades of opposition to police violence and brutality. In Atlanta (Georgia), there is a struggle against the future development of a police training base called “Cop City” that is already feeling the teeth of police brutality. In Berkeley, People’s Park has become the home for many homeless victims of corporate derogation of the right to affordable housing. In Atlanta, Cop City has already become the symbol of corporate policing and its demolition of what remains of the people’s political rights.

When the source of social violence is able to rename itself as the authorized cure for that violence, it renders the entire issue irrational, like a language game played by drunken playboys. When the police kill a person saying “no” or running away, and they claim self-defense, or that their lives were endangered, they are just playing that game. Through the militarism of their training, they play a military language game as a set-up. They give a person a command, and when they don’t get instant obedience, pull out the gun.

The command is just a ploy, a military-style pretense to being lawful. The ploy is to give a humiliating command, one that a self-respecting person would refuse, and then punish that refusal. The cop has set the civilian up, as if they were in a military institution, but without consent. The law permits a cop to give a “lawful” command, but the cop determines its “lawfulness.” That is the language-game. The cop uses the command-obedience paradigm, but with the power to punish (by handcuffing, or arresting, or shooting in the back, etc.). It is used to criminalize self-respect, autonomy, and dignity. And the cops get to kill through that ploy.

As a bit of military culture, the cop use the command-and-obedience paradigm to whittle away at the democracy that civilians may still be dreaming of having. That is the dream that informs people’s sense of autonomy. And when assaulted by the police, it gets changed into a concept of social violence that is purely propagandistic, a mere tool for social control. And that is what the police plan for their Cop City. It will be a place to play war-games against the people by an armed machine that uses guns instead of language.

We know that, in the US, the police shoot an average of 1100 people each year. That is the tally of a government killing its own people. It is a pathology that not only kills, but leaves many others wounded and/or beaten. The police call it law enforcement, but the power to punish is the legitimization of impunity, which means the power to be a law unto themselves. They rename it, but it is at the center of social violence in this country. It has created the largest prison system in the world, holding 25% of the world’s prisoners (though the US has only 5% of the world’s people).

In Berkeley, People’s Park seeks to preserve a piece of land dedicated to the struggle against social violence. It stands as a bigger monument: against the War in Vietnam, and for the struggles against racism, colonialism, homelessness, and the impoverishment from inflation (secretly a massive wage-cut).

In Atlanta, today, a sister-city struggle is being waged against the police who wish to turn a forest on the edge of town into a massive training ground on which to play urban war-games. It is a struggle in the name of the same dream of democracy and justice. Though the City Council of Atlanta voted 10 – 4 in September to affirm the lease of the land, the people, some 70% of them, stood opposed to that; at a City Council meeting that went on for more than 17 hours, they came together to oppose the building of this “military” base. A letter to the Mayor opposing the project and calling for his resignation was signed by 48 local organizations.

The horror of this complex is its focus on urban warfare. It will have a “mock” city in which to practice maneuvers against urban demonstrators, an area for explosives training, a heli-port for Vietnam Era combat craft, and a number of shooting ranges. This complex will cost $90 million. The funds for it, beyond that paid by the city, will be covered by the Atlanta Police Foundation, with contributions from corporate backers, including Coca-Cola and the Bank of America.

The land that this Cop City will take over was originally the home of the Muskogee community, a very successful agricultural society (before English colonialism seized the land for slave plantations). The forest was called Weelaunee Forest, and is some 380 acres in extent. It is in part owing to a general movement for the re-matriation of indigenous land that opposition to this police urban war-games complex has grown in Atlanta.

The lie, and the killing

There are now activists who are occupying the land so that construction (aka destruction of the forest) cannot proceed. The police recently killed one of them in his tent, and arrested 23 others. The one killed, an activist named Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, was riddled with bullets after the cops said he shot at them first. Witnesses claim the cop who was shot was a victim of the police opening fire, and was hit by a police bullet.

Apparently, the police now desire greater urban military training so badly that they will lie about their latest victim. But, in fact, we don’t even have to assume the cops lied about Tortuguita; they lie about their need for military training, and their need to take the land, and the war they want to wage against the people, and their desire to abolish the people’s dream of democracy (one which is not expressed by their City Council representatives). It is a dream of democracy in which the people will have a seat at the policy-making table, and make policy concerning policing.

But, of course, genocide is always associated with lying because it depends on demonizing a people, and their cultural activities. It relies on transforming a people’s sense of autonomy and sovereignty into resistance — like a person’s refusal to obey when commanded by cops to violate his or her own self-respect and dignity.

And the police are already aware that their social violence, by which they criminalize the autonomy of social justice movements, make those movements seem like counterattacks. Thus they pretend to prepare for war.

Indeed, in the face of growing social justice movements to defund the police, and to restrict them to clear cases of law enforcement, there is a movement for Special Care Units to deal with cases of emotional crisis, people who can respond to those seeking help without guns or commands. That is the clear and popular statement that the military-style approach, their command-and-obedience paradigm, is what has led to so many police killings. And the police just want more.

The political process

What must not be forgotten, with respect to this Atlanta situation, is the evolutionary process leading up to the conflict. The controversy began with petitions. That is how political issues generally begin. There was land on the outskirts of Atlanta, home to a marginalized community (that is to say, not white), and a forest, dedicated to the indigenous who had lived in that area before colonial genocide exiled them from their homes.

The petitions didn’t get anywhere. They expressed an opinion that was not popular with the police, or with those who make money from policing, from armaments, from prisons, from political fear campaigns, and from the imposition of a dictatorial form of “law and order.” When the petitions were ignored, the next step was to go directly to City Council, and demand to be heard about the preservation of the forest. There were proposals made to council that would stop the police complex. And after City Council, always mindful of where the money comes from, turned those proposals down, the people turned to demonstrations. And more demonstrations. There were marches through Atlanta, and into the forest, and out of the forest. Marches that appeared with signs and chanting. The people tried. But they go home at night, leaving the representatives who choose to ignore the issue to ignore the marches. And to ignore the dream of democracy among the people.

In the face of that dream, the cops raise their suppression to the next level. They not only tell the City Council to vote against the people. The real lie that the cops tell is about themselves and their refusal to honor the people’s democratic desires. Ultimately, that is what gets transformed into violence. They kill a lone activist in his tent. And they deploy a new buzzword for their arrests: “domestic terrorism.”

It is a buzzword to indicate (though never to prove) that the demonstrations “started it,” that if there had been no demonstrations, there would have been no violence, no resistance, and no opposition to what the cops, or the politicians, or the banks, or the corporations, or the white supremacists, or the colonialists, or the genocidists wanted. With domestic terrorism, “we can have democracy with no social violence; all we need is that the people keep their dream of democracy to themselves.”

It is a buzzword that the people cannot counteract; it belongs to war. In a “war,” we have been told, instructed, and trained, that we must “support the troops.” And with domestic terrorism, the “domestic troops” have been sent out to fight the “domestic terrorists.” With this war authorized by the alleged representatives of the people, the cops get to outlaw demonstrations themselves. All they have to do is pretend to be enforcing the law. That will automatically shift the demonstrators to the domain of “enemy combatants.”

But the hypocrisy of the police lies in claiming that they face domestic terrorism from people demonstrating. That hypocrisy emerges from the process that the demonstrators have gone through to get to the point where confrontation with the police is the only next step. And like the shootings of the disobedient, it is an opportunity to get violent first.

Violence is their job, they say. They were hired to protect property, they say, and more important, to protect the rights of property. When people demonstrate against war, or against economic exploitation, or against environmental degradation, or against racial segregation, or against police brutality itself, or against any of the other evils by which profitability is imposed on the people, the cops will become violent. The police are hired to declare war on such movements. And to ignore the expense of that profitability that conditions the situation of the people. In the age of the corporate structure, it finally becomes obvious that those who enrich themselves only do so by impoverishing others.

Because the police job description requires them to ignore that fact, everything they do is a language game. It doesn’t matter how peaceful people are; it is up to the police to define people’s peacefulness, which will be defined as violence when the police decide to call it that. When the cops are being violent, they get to define whether their actions are violent or not. When the people do something in response to police violence, the cops gets to decide whether those actions are violent or not. The police have it both ways. That is the sure sign of the despotic.

Though the demonstrators are fighting against inequality and domination, and against the effects of police urban warfare, their fight will be deemed criminal activities. And that means that the police, who are there to preserve inequality and domination, are not there for law enforcement. Hence, domestic terrorism becomes the way the police overcome that hurdle, and make the one appear to be the other. Once one can call any political activity a form of terrorism, it can be outlawed, and one can declare war on it. The act of war becomes its own reward.

But the history of domestic terrorism law in Georgia is full of irony. It was passed in 2017 in response to the killing of a black church seminar studying the Bible. A white supremacist named Dylann Roof sat in on the seminar; he then pulled a gun and opened fire on the others, claiming they were his enemy because they were trying to take over the world. His white supremacism told him the world was his, and those on whose backs his world was dependent were trying to gain citizenship in it. So he killed 9 of them.

The law was later amended to include any act designed to “intimidate the civilian population.” But it is up to the police to decide who is intimidated and who is not by a demonstration.

According to the UN definition, terrorism is the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims. That leaves out the fact that it always has a theatrical aspect about it; it is aimed at one side of a controversy, and thus hopes to provide an example for others on the other side. That is how it seeks to pursue its political aims, by “intimidating” those who are to be the “recipients” of its theatricality. In the case of damaged bulldozers, the audience was the construction companies and the City Council.

But the amended definition would certainly hold for police brutality and police killings. They do their killing in public, so that the people of the community in which they kill will be intimidated, and grant the police the obedience they demand. Thus, the police are engaged in a war. War is the terrorism of the rich.

But there is the issue of clandestinity. The terrorist as perpetrator is hidden behind his act of violence. He lets his act of violence speak for itself. And this is what the cops do when they kill someone. They do it out front, in public, but they hide behind the badge. The badge gives them impunity, and says that their killing will be “investigated” by the department, under the assumption that their killing was legitimate. So they cannot be brought to justice as individuals because they hide behind their departmental procedures. It preserves their clandestinity as a group.

Indeed, it is their clandestinity that gives them their impunity, which means they can act as a law unto themselves. It makes them a group of killers who kill as a means of intimidating civilians.

But there is a legal problem with the police charging terrorism. When the police define an action as domestic terrorism, they are speaking for the civilian population that they claim is being intimidated by the act, without a clear and present complainant to file a complaint and thus speak as a plaintiff. If the police could locate the perpetrator, then they would have no call to outlaw the person’s acts as terrorism. It will be simply vandalism or assault or trespassing, or some such. To call any of those acts terrorism would violate the UN definition.

Thus, the problem with domestic terrorism is that it does not form part of a war against the elite of society, nor does it act clandestinely. All the police can pick up on is its intimidation. The police pick on this aspect of intimidation in order to get around the difficulty of criminalizing an entire demonstration, or even an entire social justice movement.

The police have the ability to substitute themselves for a complainant or plaintiff only in the case of victimless crime laws. Otherwise, they need a complainant, a person to come forward and sign a complaint. With victimless crimes, where there is no victim to come forward and complain, the police have to substitute themselves for such a complainant. That is the hidden injustice contained (as a despotism) in all victimless crime laws (such as drug use).

But in the case of “intimidation of the civilian population,” there is ostensibly a crime, but it is political and not personal, and so there is no one to come forward as a complainant against the intimidator. Only the police can play that role, meaning they are dealing with something which they themselves have defined as violence and intimidation. That is, it is part of the language game that the police play when involved in political suppression.

Indeed, if the police are the only ones intimidated by the act they are charging as terrorism, then they have substituted themselves for the people. It is a police state at war with its people: the conjunction of police military bases, an unaccountability for their killings, and charges of domestic terrorism.

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.