TTT Vol 11 #2 Summer 1998
THE PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX & THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
by Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans
Over 1.8 million people are currently behind bars in the US. This represents the highest per capita incarceration rate in the history of the world. In 1995 alone, 150 new U.S. prisons were built and filled.
This monumental commitment to lock up a sizeable percentage of the population is an integral part of the globalization of capital. Several strands converge — the end of the Cold War, changing relations between labor and capital on an international scale, domestic economic decline, racism, the U.S. role as policeman of the world, and growth of the international drug economy — creating a booming prison/industrial complex. And the prison/industrial complex is rapidly becoming an essential component of the U.S. economy.
PRISONS ARE BIG BUSINESS
Like the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex is an interweaving of private business and government interests. Its twofold purpose is profit and social control. Its public rationale is the fight against crime.
Not so long ago, communism was “the enemy” and communists were demonized as a way of justifying gargantuan military expenditures. Now, fear of crime and the demonization of criminals serve a similar ideological purpose: to justify the use of tax dollars for the repression and incarceration of a growing percentage of our population. The omnipresent media blitz about serial killers, missing children, and “random violence” feeds our fear. In reality, however, most of the “criminals” we lock up are poor people who commit nonviolent crimes out of economic need. Violence occurs in less than 14% of all reported crime, and injuries occur in just 3%. In California, the top three charges for those entering prison are: possession of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance for sale, and robbery. Violent crimes like murder, rape, manslaughter and kidnaping don’t even make the top ten.
Like fear of communism during the Cold War, fear of crime is a great sales tool for a dubious product. As with the building and maintenance of weapons and armies, the building and maintenance of prisons are big business. Investment houses, construction companies, architects, and support services such as food, medical, transportation and furniture, all stand to profit by prison expansion. A burgeoning “specialty item” industry sells fencing, handcuffs, drug detectors, protective vests, and other security devices to prisons.
As the Cold War winds down and the Crime War heats up, defense industry giants like Westinghouse are re tooling and lobbying Washington for their share of the domestic law enforcement market. “Night Enforcer” goggles used in the Gulf War, electronic “Hot Wire” fencing (“so hot NATO chose it for high risk installations”), and other equipment once used by the military, are now being marketed to the criminal justice system.
Communication companies like AT&T, Sprint, and MCI are getting into the act as well — gouging prisoners with exorbitant rates for phone calls, often six times the normal long distance charge. Smaller firms like Correctional Communications Corp., dedicated solely to the prison phone business, provide computerized prison phone systems— fully equipped for systematic surveillance. They win government contracts by offering to kick back some of the profits to the government agency awarding the contract. These companies are reaping huge profits at the expense of prisoners and their families; prisoners are often effectively cut off from communication due to the excessive cost of phone calls.
One of the fastest growing sectors of the prison/industrial complex is private corrections companies. Investment firm Smith Barney is a part owner of a prison in Florida. American Express and General Electric have invested in private prison construction in Oklahoma and Tennessee. Correctional Corporation Of America, one of the largest private prison owners, already operates internationally, with 48 facilities in 11 states, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Under contract by government to run jails and prisons, and paid a fixed sum per prisoner, the profit motive mandates that these firms operate as cheaply and efficiently as possible. This means lower wages for staff, no unions, and fewer services for prisoners. Private contracts also mean less public scrutiny. Prison owners are raking in billions by cutting corners which harm prisoners. Substandard diets, extreme overcrowding, and abuses by poorly trained personnel have all been documented and can be expected in these institutions which are unabashedly about making money.
Prisons are also a leading rural growth industry. With traditional agriculture being pushed aside by agribusiness, many rural American communities are facing hard times. Economically depressed areas are falling over each other to secure a prison facility of their own. Prisons are seen as a source of jobs — in construction, local vendors and prison staff— as well as a source of tax revenues. An average prison has a staff of several hundred employees and an annual payroll of several million dollars.
Like any industry, the prison economy needs raw materials. In this case the raw materials are prisoners. The prison/industrial complex can grow only if more and more people are incarcerated for longer periods — even if crime rates drop. “Three Strikes” and mandatory minimums (harsh, fixed sentences without parole) are two examples of the legal superstructure quickly being put in place to guarantee that the prison population will grow and grow and grow.
LABOR AND THE FLIGHT OF CAPITAL
The growth of the prison/industrial complex is inextricably tied to the fortunes of labor. Ever since the onset of the Reagan Bush years in 1980, workers in the US have been under siege. Aggressive union busting, corporate deregulation, and especially the flight of capital in search of cheaper labor markets, have been crucial factors in the downward plight of American workers.
One wave of capital flight occurred in the 1970’s. Manufacturing such as textiles in the Northeast moved south to South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama — non union states where wages were low. During the 1980’s, many more industries (steel, auto, etc.) closed up shop — moving on to Mexico, Brazil, or Taiwan where wages were a mere fraction of those in the U.S., and environmental, health and safety standards were much lower, allowing businesses to be “more competitive” — that is, more profitable at the expense of both the areas abandoned and the areas entered. Most seriously hurt by these plant closures and layoffs were African Americans and other semiskilled workers in urban centers who lost their decent paying industrial jobs.
Into the gaping economic hole left by the exodus of jobs from U.S. cities has rushed another economy: the drug economy.
THE WAR ON DRUGS
The “War on Drugs,” launched by President Reagan in the mid eighties, has been fought on interlocking international and domestic fronts.
At the international level, the war on drugs has been both a cynical cover up of U.S. government involvement in the drug trade, as well as justification for U.S. military intervention and control in the Third World.
Over the last 50 years, the primary avowed goal of U.S. foreign policy (and the military/industrial complex) has been “to fight communism” (and protect corporate interests). To this end, the U.S. government has, with regularity, formed strategic alliances with drug dealers throughout the world. At the conclusion of World War II, the OSS (precursor to the CIA) allied itself with heroin traders on the docks of Marseille in an effort to wrest power away from communist dock workers. During the Vietnam war, the CIA aided the heroin-producing Hmong tribesmen in the Golden Triangle area. In return for their cooperation with the U.S. government’s war against the Vietnamese NLF and other national liberation forces, the CIA flew local heroin out of Southeast Asia and into America. It’s no accident that heroin addiction in the U.S. rose exponentially in the 1960’s.
Nor is it an accident that cocaine began to proliferate in the US during the 1980’s. Central America is the strategic midpoint for air travel between Colombia and the US. The Contra War against Sandinista Nicaragua, as well as the war against the national liberation forces in El Salvador, was largely about control of this critical area. When Congress cut off financial support for the Contras, Oliver North and Bill Casey found other ways to fund the Contra re supply operations at Reagan and Bush’s behest, in part through drug dealing. Planes loaded with arms for the Contras took off from the southern US, offloaded their weapons on private landing strips in Honduras, then loaded up with cocaine for the return trip.
A 1996 expose by Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury News documented CIA involvement in a Nicaraguan drug ring which poured thousands of kilos of cocaine into L.A.’s African American neighborhoods in the 1980’s. Drug boss Danilo Blandon, now an informant for the DEA, acknowledged under oath the drugs for weapons deals with the CIA sponsored Contras. US military presence in Central and Latin America has not stopped drug traffic. But it has influenced aspects of the drug trade, and is a powerful force of social control in the region. US military intervention — whether in propping up dictators or squashing peasant uprisings — now operates under cover of the righteous “war against drugs and narco terrorism,” while the real narco-terrorists and narco-dictators operate with US protection.
In Mexico, for example, US military aid supposedly earmarked for the drug war is being used to arm Mexican troops in the southern part of the country. The drug trade, however (production, transfer, and distribution points) is all in the north. The drug war money is being used primarily to fight against the Zapatista rebels in the southern state of Chiapas who are demanding land reform and economic policy changes which are diametrically opposed to the transnational corporate agenda.
In the Colombian jungles of Cartagena de Chaira, coca has become the only viable commercial crop. In 1996, 30,000 farmers blocked roads and airstrips to prevent crop spraying from aircraft. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), one of the oldest guerrilla organizations in Latin America, held 60 government soldiers hostage for nine months demanding that the military leave the jungle, that social services be increased, and that alternative crops be made available to farmers. And given the notorious involvement of Colombia’s highest officials with the powerful drug cartels, it is not surprising that most US “drug war” military aid actually goes to fighting the guerrillas.
One result of the international war on drugs has been the internationalization of the US prison population. For the most part, it’s the low level ‘mules’ carrying drugs into this country who are captured and incarcerated in ever increasing numbers. At least 25% of inmates in the federal prison system today will be subject to deportation when their sentences are completed.
Here at home, the war on drugs has been a war on poor people. Particularly poor, urban, African-American men and women. It’s well documented that police enforcement of the new, harsh drug laws have been focused on low level dealers in communities of color. Arrests of African Americans have been about five times higher than arrests of whites, although whites and African Americans use drugs at about the same rate. And, African Americans have been imprisoned in numbers even more disproportionate than their relative arrest rates. It is estimated that in 1994, on any given day, one out of every 128 US adults was incarcerated, while one out of every 17 African American adult males was incarcerated.
The differential in sentencing for powder and crack cocaine is one glaring example of institutionalized racism. About 90% of crack arrests are of African Americans, while 75% of powder cocaine arrests are of whites. Under federal law, it takes only five grams of crack cocaine to trigger a five year mandatory minimum sentence. But it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine — 100 times as much — to trigger this same sentence. This flagrant injustice was highlighted by a 1996 nationwide federal prison rebellion when Congress refused to enact changes in sentencing laws that would equalize penalties.
Statistics show that police repression and mass incarceration are not curbing the drug trade. Dealers are forced to move, turf is reshuffled, already vulnerable families are broken up. But the demand for drugs still exists, as do huge profits for high level dealers in this fifty billion dollar international industry.
From one point of view, the war on drugs could actually be seen as a pre emptive strike. The state’s repressive apparatus working overtime. Put poor people away before they get angry. Incarcerate those at the bottom, the helpless, the hopeless, before they demand change. What drugs don’t damage — in terms of intact communities, the ability to take action, to organize — the war on drugs and mass imprisonment aims to destroy.
The crack down on drugs has not stopped drug use on the streets or in the prisons. But it has taken thousands of unemployed (and potentially angry and rebellious) young men and women off the streets. And it has created a mushrooming prison population.
An American worker who once upon a time made $8 an hour, loses his job when the company relocates to Thailand where workers are paid only $2 a day. Unemployed, and alienated from a society indifferent to his needs, he becomes involved in the drug economy or some other outlawed means of survival. He is arrested, put in prison, and put to work. His new salary: 22 cents/hour.
From worker to unemployed to criminal to convict laborer, the cycle has come full circle. And the only victor is big business.
For private business, prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation to pay. No language or shipping problem, as in a foreign country. New leviathan prisons are being built with thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and even lingerie for Victoria’s Secret. All at a fraction of the cost of “free labor.”
Prisoners can be forced to work for pennies because they have no rights. Even the 14th Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery, excludes prisoners from its protections.
And, more and more, prisons are charging inmates for basic necessities, from medical care, to toilet paper, to use of the law library. Many states are now charging room and board. Berks County prison in PA is charging inmates $10 per day to be there. California has similar legislation pending. So, while government cannot (yet) actually require inmates to work at private industry jobs for less than minimum wage, they are forced to by necessity.
Some prison enterprises are state run. Inmates working at UNICOR (the federal prison industry corporation) make recycled furniture and work 40 hours a week for about $40 per month. The Oregon Prison Industries produces a line of “Prison Blues” blue jeans. An ad in their catalogue shows a handsome prison inmate saying, “I say we should make bell-bottoms. They say I’ve been in here too long.”
Bizarre, but true.
Prison industries are often directly competing with private industry. Small furniture manufacturers around the country complain that they are being driven out of business by UNICOR, which pays 23 cents an hour and has the inside track on government contracts. In another case, US Technologies sold its electronics plant in Austin, Texas, leaving its 150 workers unemployed. Six week later, the electronics plant reopened in a nearby prison.
WELCOME TO THE NEW WORLD ORDER
The proliferation of prisons in the US is one piece of a puzzle called the globalization of capital.
Since the end of the Cold War, capitalism has gone on an international business offensive. No longer impeded by an alternative nominally-socialist economy or by the threat of national liberation movements supported by the Soviet Union or China, transnational corporations see the world as their oyster. Agencies such as the World Trade Organization, World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, bolstered by agreements like NAFTA and GATT are putting more and more power into the hands of transnational corporations by putting the squeeze on national governments. The primary mechanism of control is debt. For decades, developing countries have depended on foreign loans, resulting in increasing vulnerability to the transnational corporate strategy for the global economy. Access to international credit and aid is given only if governments agree to certain conditions known as “structural adjustment.”
In a nutshell, structural adjustment requires cuts in social services, privatization of state run industry, repeal of agreements with labor about working conditions and minimum wage, conversion of multi use farm lands into cash crop agriculture for export, and the dismantling of trade laws which protect local economies. Under structural adjustment, police and military expenditures are the only government spending that is encouraged. The sovereignty of nations is compromised when, as in the case of Vietnam, trade sanctions are threatened unless the government allows Camel cigarettes to litter the countryside with billboards, or promises to spend millions in the US orchestrated crackdown on drugs.
The basic transnational corporate philosophy is this: the world is a single market; natural resources are to be exploited; people are consumers; anything which hinders profit is to be routed out and destroyed. The results of this philosophy in action are that while economies are growing, so is poverty, so is ecological destruction, so are sweatshops and child labor. Across the globe, wages are plummeting, indigenous people are being forced off their lands, rivers are becoming industrial dumping grounds, and forests are being obliterated. Massive regional starvation and “World Bank riots” are becoming more frequent throughout the Third World.
All over the world, more and more people are being forced into illegal activity for their own survival as traditional cultures and social structures are destroyed. Inevitably, crime and imprisonment rates are on the rise. And the US law enforcement establishment is in the forefront, domestically and internationally, in providing state of the art repression.
Within the US, structural adjustment (sometimes known as either the Contract With America or Clintonomics) takes the form of welfare and social service cuts, continued massive military spending, and skyrocketing prison spending. Walk through any poor urban neighborhood: school systems are crumbling, after-school programs, libraries, parks and drug treatment centers are closed. But you will see more police stations and more cops. Often, the only “social service” available to poor young people is jail.
The dismantling of social programs, and the growing dominance of the right wing agenda in US politics has been made possible, at least in part, by the successful repression of the civil rights and liberation movements of the 1960’s and ’70’s. Many of the leaders — Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, and many others — were assassinated. Others, like Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt), Leonard Peltier, and Mumia Abu Jamal, have been locked up. Over 150 political leaders from the black liberation struggle, the Puerto Rican independence movement, and other resistence efforts are still in prison. Many are serving sentences ranging from 40 to 90 or more years. Oppressed communities have been robbed of vital radical political leadership which might have led an opposition movement. We are reaping the results.
The number of people in US prisons has more than tripled in the past 17 years, from 500,000 in 1980 to 1.8 million in 1997. Today, more than five million people are behind bars, on parole, probation, or under other supervision by the criminal justice system. The state of California now spends more on prisons than on higher education, and over the past decade has built 19 prisons and only one branch university.
Add to this, the fact that increasing numbers of women are being locked up. Between 1980 and 1994, the number of women in prison increased five-fold. Many of these women are mothers, leaving future generations growing up in foster homes or on the streets.
Welcome to the New World Order.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
Prisons are not reducing crime. But they are fracturing already vulnerable families and communities.
Poor people of color are being locked up in grossly disproportionate numbers, primarily for non-violent crimes. But Americans do not feel safer.
As “criminals” become scapegoats for our floundering economy and our deteriorating social structure, even the pretense of rehabilitation is quickly disappearing from our penal philosophy. After all: rehabilitate for what? To go back into an economy which has no jobs? To go back into a community which has no hope? As education and other prison programs — even physical exercise — are cut back, or in most cases eliminated altogether, prisons are becoming vast, over crowded, holding tanks. Or worse: factories behind bars.
And, prison labor is undercutting wages, something which hurts all working and poor Americans. It’s a situation which can only occur because organized labor is weak, divided by racism and chauvinism, and has not kept step with organized capital.
While capital has globalized, labor has not. While the trans-nationals truly are fashioning our planet into a global market, there is still little communication or cooperation between workers around the world. Only an internationally linked labor movement can effectively challenge the power of the transnational corporations.
There have been some wonderful, shining instances of international worker solidarity. In the early 1980’s, 3M workers in South Africa walked out in support of striking 3M workers in New Jersey. Recently, longshore workers in Denmark, Spain, Sweden and several other countries closed down ports around the world in solidarity with striking Liverpool dockers. The company was forced to negotiate. When Renault closed its plant in Belgium, 100,000 demonstrated in Brussels, pressuring the French and Belgium governments to condemn the plant closure and compel its reopening.
Here in the US, there is a glimmer of hope as the AFL CIO has voted in some new, more progressive leadership. We’ll see how that shapes up, and whether the last 50 years of anti-communist, pro-establishment bread-and-butter American unionism is really a thing of the past.
What is certain is that resistance to the transnational corporate agenda is growing around the globe:
In 1996, the people of Bougainville, a small New Guinea island, organized a secessionist rebellion, protesting the dislocations and ecological destruction caused by corporate mining on the island. When the government hired mercenaries from South Africa to train local troops in counterinsurgency warfare, the army rebelled, threw out the mercenaries, and deposed the Prime Minister.
A one day general strike shut down Haiti in January 1997. Strikers demanded the suspension of negotiations between the Prime Minister and the International Monetary Fund/World Bank. They protested the austerity measures imposed by the IMF and WB which would mean laying off 7,000 government workers and the privatization of the electric and telephone companies.
In Nigeria, the Ogoni people conducted a protracted eight year struggle against Shell Oil. Acid rain, and hundreds of oil spills and gas flares were turning the once fertile countryside into a near wasteland. Their peaceful demonstrations, election boycotts, and pleas for international solidarity were met with violent government repression and the eventual execution of Ogoni writer leader Ken Saro-Wiwa.
In France, a month long general strike united millions of workers who protested privatization, a government worker pay freeze, and cutbacks in social services. Telephone, airline, power, postal, education, health care and metal workers all joined together, bringing business to a standstill. The right wing Chirac government was forced to make minor concessions before being voted out for a new ‘socialist’ administration.
At the Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility in Minnesota, 150 prisoners went on strike in March 1997, demanding to be paid the minimum wage. Although they lost a litigation battle to attain this right, their strike gained attention and support from several local labor unions.
Just as the prison/industrial complex is becoming increasingly central to the growth of the US economy, prisoners are a crucial part of building effective opposition to the transnational corporate agenda. Because of their enforced invisibility, powerlessness, and isolation, it’s far too common for prisoners to be left out of the equation of international solidarity. Yet, opposing the expansion of the prison/industrial complex, and supporting the rights and basic humanity of prisoners, may be the only way we can stave off the consolidation of a police state that represses us all, where you or a friend or family member may yourself end up behind bars.
Clearly, the only alternative that will match the power of global of capital is an internationalization of human solidarity. Because truly, we are all in this together.
“International solidarity is not an act of charity. It is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objective. The foremost of these objectives is to aid the development of humanity to the highest level possible.” — Samora Machel (1933 1986), leader of FRELIMO, and first President of Mozambique.
At the time of publication, Linda Evans was imprisoned for her clandestine political actions in the Resistance Conspiracy Case. She was serving a disproportionately long prison sentence. She has since been released and worked diligently as a prison abolitionist and advocate for and with formerly-incarcerated people. Eve Goldberg is an award winning film maker and solidarity activist. This article appeared at the time in booklet form with extensive footnotes. Reprinted (minus footnotes) in TTT with the authors’ permission. Turning The Tide and this story appeared in the 25 Top Censored News Stories of 1998, edited by Peter Phillips out of Cal State University Sonoma.
BUILD A NATIONAL CIVIC COMMISSION FOR COMMUNITY CONTROL OF THE POLICE
A Call for Pro-Active Unity:
Build a National Civic Commission for Community Control of Police
by Michael Novick
The one category of serious crime which hasn’t registered a steep decline in the past few years is crime by the police. Although there is no single reliable source of statistics, it’s clear that the use of excessive and deadly force, as well as police corruption and misconduct, are on the increase. Beyond the question of misconduct, however, police conduct in the current period is a serious political and social issue. Police forces around the country are pursuing strategies of militarization and “aggressive policing.” Elite reform efforts are part of the problem. Community oriented policing, for instance, was described by one advocate as the domestic equivalent of psychological operations in the military, a method to control the thinking of a population or the enemy. The militarization and centralization of policing, within the U.S. federal system, is part of a global economic and political trend towards the undemocratic concentration of power and reliance on repression to maintain social control in a period of intensifying economic exploitation.
But in the face of this serious problem, existing community responses have tended to be reactive, piece-meal and/or localized. We tend to be hamstrung, as our rulers are not, by the fragmented nature of policing in the U.S. federal state, with more than 16,000 separate public police agencies, an alphabet soup of federal police forces, and hundreds of state and county jail and prison systems. Progressive forces are active around police and criminal justice issues in many scores of venues, but we toil often unaware of each other’s efforts, victories, hard-won lessons. There is no regularly published national voice for these campaigns that can provide evidence and analysis to arm the activists.
There are different social sectors and political forces in motion around holding the police accountable, yet differences in political orientation or focus seem to keep them from linking up. Copwatch groups operate independently of civilian review board campaigns. Justice committees for particular victims of police abuse may focus their organizing on one or another particular police practice, such as pepper spray, “hog-tying,” or inadequate training to handle mentally disturbed individuals. There is little formal contact between people doing work around prisons and death penalty issues and those dealing with police brutality on the streets. Other activists operate out of a classical “mobilization” model, aimed at drawing the largest number of individuals to a rally, without necessarily sinking deep and permanent roots in communities in struggle, or allowing for a deep, thorough-going and empowering political discussion among the ranks of those being mobilized.
What is needed is a way to cohere these efforts so that they can reinforce each other, surpass their own limitations, and help create a movement stronger and broader than simply the sum of its parts.
PART is calling on activists around the country to help build a National Civic Commission for Community Control of the Police. Such a pro-active, coordinated effort to make police accountability one of the top issues on the national political agenda could simultaneously build on and strengthen direct action, grass-roots activism at a local level. The key elements of the proposal are:
* Constitute a broad national commission embracing the varying tendencies of current efforts to deal with the problem. Its mandate would be to put police abuse, brutality and corruption at the top of the political agenda in this country. This commission would include police accountability and citizen review efforts such as those represented in the National Coalition on Police Accountability; national mobilizations such as the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation; local justice committees dealing with particular atrocities by the police; and Cop-Watch programs around the country.
* Establish self-organized grass-roots policy advocacy groups in various cities. These bodies can watchdog local police operations and policies, and develop a platform of community-defined policies on policing, such as the demilitarization of the police. Eventually, they could lead campaigns to institutionalize elected community control boards. The elected boards, parallel to the local elected community school boards which control public education, would not simply review occasional complaints against or abuses by the police — they would set policies and hold departments accountable for carrying them out, hire top administrators, and supervise operations. The right to vote for members of these boards should be much broader than the current limits on suffrage in the U.S. All residents over the age of 16 could vote, without regard to previous incarceration or immigration status.
* Develop and distribute materials on the rights of young people (particularly of color), who are the most likely targets or victims of police abuse. Through work on organizing the local policy groups, young people could be directly involved in producing and circulating these materials.
* Promote cooperation among existing Cop-Watch street-level community vigilance projects against police brutality, and develop new ones, by sharing “best practices” to produce a detailed organizers’ manual.
* Collect and disseminate timely research and exposures of the problem, as well as analysis of its roots and prospects for its solution. This information can be published in a mass-audience periodical produced and distributed by the network of activists associated with the commission, as well as through “new media” such as the Internet/World Wide Web.
This proposal is already garnering support and interest from some of the most prominent groups and individuals dealing with this issue locally and nationally. Moving ahead to concretely establish such a commission would lay a minimum foundation for producing a serious countervailing force able to answer untrammeled abuses of authority by police forces. It can set the groundwork for self-realized, and eventually institutionalized, community processes of democratic self-governance that can counter the hollowing out of existing local representative mechanisms under the pressures of economic globalization and privatization.
The question of who watches the watchmen is as old as the Roman Empire. But in the U.S. today, is has become a particularly urgent question. Following the 1991 beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers (witnessed by almost two dozen officers from several jurisdictions and videotaped by a civilian eyewitness), progressive forces in Los Angeles and nationally missed a key opportunity. The chance slipped away then to galvanize widespread outrage into a sustained movement that could have radically transformed the relationship between the police and the people they are supposed to serve, in the direction of community empowerment. More recently, the ugly torture last year of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima at the hands of the NYPD renewed a sense of urgency about the issue of police abuse. But in the absence of a strong, unified national initiative from progressive forces, the chance may again be lost to channel and focus outrage and disillusion into a pro-active movement that can put forward policy directives for the police, and expose and challenge the relations of oppression and exploitation in our society.
Clearly, policing is carried out in a context set by broader social, economic and political imperatives, including economic privatization, concentration and globalization. In the first Clinton campaign, and in the ongoing Clinton presidency, “100,000 new street cops” was the necessary corollary to “the end of welfare as we know it,” militarization of the border with Mexico, and “free trade.” But our movements cannot content themselves with challenging only the broader realities. There is a need for direct social and political struggle over the nature and accountability of policing itself. Gaining democratic control over the police is as vital as civilian control of the military. In PART’s anti-colonial analysis, this reflects the reality that police act as occupying forces and internal border guards in a system of domestic colonialism. It is this unacknowledged reality of white supremacy and empire which produces the inevitable injustices, as well as the intolerable pressures and us-against-them mentality of the police themselves. We must struggle to end the racial injustices and inequities inherent in the current system of policing in order to build concrete solidarity.
Yet this requires a pro-active movement that can do more than respond to particular atrocities or injustices. Only pro-active organizing can move towards transforming the thinking of people who have been organized by the state and media to demand ever more draconian measures for policing and incarceration. This is the lesson of previous successes as well as failures in our movement. Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center in San Francisco, an award-winning human rights activist on police abuse issues, a leading community fighter against abuse by the SFPD, recently published a sharp self-criticism of the police accountability movement in his city, which forced the Police Commission to fire killer cop Mark Andaya, yet failed to build the infrastructure or pro-active program to sustain and build that movement to grapple with the totality of policing. This problem is not unique to San Francisco. The movement that arose in Los Angeles after the beating of Rodney King became mired in the demand to replace the life-tenured police chief, and surrendered its ability to act independently, in favor of tailing the policy proposals of the elite Christopher Commission. The National Civic Commission for Community Control of the Police is an attempt to address that on-going weakness.
The goals of the National Civic Commission for Community Control of the Police are:
* to establish avenues and methods of communication among existing activists against police abuse and for police accountability, and to train new organizers;
* to promote a coherent multi-faceted strategy that ties together existing efforts, including grass-roots, street-level vigilance that can prevent abuse; demands and litigation for justice in particular cases of abuse; campaigns for effective community overview and review of police operations; demonstrative mobilizations against police brutality; and education directed to young people about laws and regulations governing police conduct;
* to intensify public awareness of the scope of repressive and militarized policing, as well as an understanding of the roots of the problem in current socio-economic relations, and an interest in shaping sound and well-founded popular policy initiatives for policing strategies and practices that meet community needs rather than following the dictates of corporate interests and political elites.
A key aspect of this proposal, holding it together as a national project, is a publishing effort that will include a nationally circulated print periodical focused on community control of police. The commission will collate and publicize information in a timely fashion about incidents of deadly force, brutality, custody deaths, improper chases, corruption and misconduct, and racism, sexism and sexual harassment within police and corrections departments. The research effort could include using a toll-free number and internet access, circulating independent community incident report forms, and a volunteer network of internet researchers and reporters who will exchange information from locations around the country. This network will simultaneously serve as a medium of direct communication among police abuse and accountability activists in different cities and states. The Commission’s publishing effort should also serve to draw together the “best practices” of activists around the U.S. and to publicize them as a foundation for further work. Possibilities include an organizer’s manual for informed community activism around policy alternatives for policing, with models for a community assembly and eventually an elected civic board to control the police, and a Cop-watch handbook, based on the lessons of existing community vigilance patrols, that could assist in establishment new groups of this nature.
Finally, the Commission should seek to initiate campaigns at the local, state and national level for independent special prosecutors who can specialize in cases of police abuse. The recent refusal of N.Y. Mayor Giuliani’s task force to recommend such a measure has served to once again push this issue into public discourse. It is an unfortunate reality that we can anticipate new incidents of police brutality and unwarranted, often deadly, force that will continue to demand such a remedy.
No project of this scope or ambition can succeed without the close collaboration of the many activists and organizations already dealing with aspects of this issue around the country and even internationally. This summer , on behalf of PART, I am traveling to cities around the country to promote this effort with police accountability activists, and to try to establish a concrete common work plan that could bring this effort to fruition on a national level.
The National Civic Commission for Community Control of Police can make a vital contribution towards reinvigorating democratic forces in our society in the face of the repressive tendencies and “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality currently governing policing. It can promote community empowerment as an antidote to the intimidation that systematic police brutality, abuse and disrespect are meant to engender. If you want to join this effort, and support PART’s other attempt to build anti-imperialist unity, please get in touch. Sign up for the e-mail distribution list of police abuse incidents, and send us reports. Subscribe to “Turning the Tide: Journal of Anti-Racist Activism, Research and Education;” four quarterly issues are $15 to individuals or $25 institutional, payable to PART, PO Box 1055, Culver City CA 90232; or email [email protected] . Consult the itinerary of cities where Michael Novick will be speaking and meeting with activists over the course of July and August, and get in touch!