In recent months, particularly after the graphic video of Albuquerque police – in a military style assault – shot and killed James Boyd for unlawful camping, the national media in the US has been picking up on the overlapping stories of police brutality and misuse of force, police militarization, and the inability/refusal of our system to hold police to account under the same laws they are allegedly enforcing. So – at the end of this brief comment on the national breadth and depth of this issue – I am putting out a call for those who read here to join me in an effort to try and DO something about the issues with which we are concerned.
Now that the mainstream media’s ear has been attuned to this issue – we are seeing more and more stories of such abuses of force and authority revealed as they are reported upon. But the issue is not new nor is it isolated to these particular instances. It is a long-standing, exponentially growing problem of national scope and significance. The police culture has changed – to where they in fact view citizens as “an enemy” among whom they patrol. Shoot to kill is not an accident – it has become normalized WITHIN the structure of authority – or “the system.”
It still does not fit with the theory or the rhetoric of how we expect our laws to operate. But the fact is the militarization of police across the nation is a fait accompli that has been building to this point since the “tough on crime” political rhetoric of national politicians in the late 1960s. It was never about policing – it was always about power.
In fact, if we fail to recognize two important factors we, as a society, will never understand the problem and thus never approach a solution: 1) this is a NATIONAL cancer that is destroying the country and undermining the legitimacy of officials and the authority of the system; and 2) this is NOT a racially centered problem – but a problem that has, on top of it and overlapping it, a racial element and dynamic.
We must recognize that the INSTITUTIONAL CAUSES of this crisis – this cancer which is eating away at the fabric of society – are long, deep and wide. They are embedded in a nexus of both national and local law enforcement cultures. A culture which has legitimized, in its own internal world-view, the militarizing trend that has been growing rapidly in recent decades across the nation. A trend which has been effectively SUPPORTED by a generally uninformed and disconnected public. Thus to address and hope to solve this problem – one has to recognize just how BIG a problem it actually is. This is not going to go away with the proper resolution in one community (if that is even likely to occur – which, unfortunately, it is not – as the system protects itself). It requires a national community to come together and become engaged – with a strategic mindset (not just to “protest” – but to act within the context of protests in such a way as to make a more significant impact. Mere protests serve purposes: they give people a means to give a voice to their frustrations and they give the world a familiarity with and the beginning of an understanding of a particular problem. But if you combine that limited role and power of protests – with other strategic actions – such as taking the law into your own hands … a law that is MEANT to be taken into your own hands … and taking action, as Citizens, to hold officials to account under the law. There is no need to keep “waiting” for “them” to “serve” “us.” WE must take the initiative – and as I will say in conclusion – the most effective means of STARTING a citizen-based MOVEMENT that can do more than voice the public’s concerns but actually contribute to actual changes I argue is to use the state Public Records laws.
The second issue that must be recognized is that the police problem is NOT merely a race-relations issue. There is, no doubt about it, a real racial issue, problem and dynamic ASSOCIATED with the police abuses of power and force, the double standards between police and citizens when it comes to being held accountable under the law, and the growing number of citizen deaths at the hands of a militarily-armed state.
Yes we can see in localities such as Ferguson, MO that there is a very real racial element to the particular problems on the ground there. A problem that can be seen throughout the country. Police often do not “look like” (or even “come from” or “live among”) the community they are policing. But we know, also, that nationally – the only “color line” that tends to be recognized by those who have become enculturated in the national police norms is the legendary “Thin Blue Line.” Black officers shoot and kill black citizens weekly (if not daily) in America. White officer shoot and kill white citizens. Because the officers are not themselves necessarily working, first, from a racial bias. (It is there – in certain places, with certain individuals, in particular cases; as well as “in the air” surrounding the police culture). But are starting – before the racist element may even begin to have its effect – from an “us vs. them” bias. The officers, no longer actually “in blue” (primarily wearing paramilitary non-reflective black or heavily armored camouflage battle uniforms), think of themselves as an “us” and the rest of us as a “them” – regardless of our color.
It is this fundamental disparity with traditional American principles – where police are there to “serve and protect” the citizens, rather than view us as all potential criminals or “the enemy” – which is the root cause of the problems that are existent and growing exponentially across the country. Yes – again – we can recognize that in cases such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner that there is an indisputable racial element and issue that needs to be addressed in the particular community – an issue that is spread across the nation and not limited only to one region or a particular locality. But an issue that, even if properly addressed, will not be able to solve the problem of the more general abuse of police power/force/authority and of the growing militarization, with the us vs them divide between civilians and the “militarized police” (police becoming but a domestic arm of the military) as the starting point.
To really address and solve this highly significant national crisis – will require a nationally organized Citizen effort with a very real strategic element consciously developed.
These issues have to be solved locally – one by one – until a growing norm and following trend are set that brings a similar impetus for change to bear across the nation (and not just in a momentary “hot spot”). But while the issue has to be addressed primarily through local means – local people cannot succeed at this on their own. Our system of government and governance is broken – it is corrupted at its core. People do not, on their own, have sufficient power – in actual effect – to determine government policies and actions – at either the local, state or national level. Not just acting as a mass of non-organized individuals standing up merely for what is right.
To succeed against the “interests” and “powers” that be, so to speak, local communities have to be incorporated into a national strategy. Where those with a common cause across the nation collectively cooperate and strategically organize to use that NATIONAL power to OVERCOME the local status quo and its opposition to change. If successful in a few particular communities that “movement” can begin to grow and spread – and its message and impact can begin to take on a life of its own.
But to get there some more, hard, work has to be done ON THE GROUND. And any of us – just ordinary citizens – have both the power and authority to take those first steps.
The first step is obvious: we need to know the facts. But the police and the local governments are attempting to limit and control what information the public is given. However – those activities are often a violation of the law itself. Most states – including Missouri and New York (the two most notorious of the most recent cases being there) – have very strong public records law with very limited exemptions. Most, if not all, of the records related to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, BY LAW, are already records that you and I – as members of the public – have a RIGHT to have before us.
Rather than waiting till others release them to us – its time for us to start standing up for our rights and forcing their release without further delay.
Therefore I am calling upon all of the readers of PINAC to comment on this thread that you are willing TO TAKE ACTION. Help by joining with me to do in New York City and in Ferguson, Mo what I have been doing in Albuquerque – with a major public records push BY CITIZENS to obtain transparency and seek accountability for those empowered and entrusted with law enforcement authority.
By Monday – I will have the first in a series of public records requests drafted for each of these two situations. What I am asking YOU to do – is to take the same request that I filed – and file it in your own name. Then keep us informed of what, if any, responses you get from City and Law Enforcement officials. We will start with the basics – we will demand the IMMEDIATE RELEASE of the complete set of reports filed after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. I want to see HUNDREDS – even THOUSANDS 0f people – making this same request – until it is finally released, as the law already requires.
Then I will be seeking help – to find those on the ground in each of those areas – to take the next step and ramping up the public records initiative. We need to build a base PINAC-ORP (Open Records Project) team in each locality. Working together with them, on the ground, we will seek to obtain any and all relevant records to these cases and to the issues underlying them – and to make all such records readily available to the public. We will need help, again on the ground in those states, seeking to find lawyers who are willing to take on the “powers-that-be” in Court and to defend the right to public records and the public’s right to know. We can do this – effectively – if we work together, across the nation as well as within each locality, in a strategic manner.
In this process we will learn – and expose – two things: (1) the facts that are directly related to the particular killings in these two cases; and (2) the facts that demonstrate how those local law enforcement and political agencies and officials deem themselves to be “above” the law – and not subject to laws such as the public records laws which are meant to empower citizens in the ability to hold officials to account to the public and under the law.
Let me know who is willing to stand up and help in this effort. On Monday – after I hear back from officials in Missouri – I will have the FIRST request ready to be made – and to be made by a large number of concerned citizens. I am hoping that those reading here will show how much latent and potential power we have by participating in this project.
Charlie Grapski, who is heading PINAC’s new Open Records Project, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.