“Amnesty for All”: Anti-Racist Activism to Control the Police Violence and Protect Protesters

By: Joy James

Budget Maneuvers amid Austerity Measures

The largest police force in the United States, the New York Police Department (NYPD) has a $6 billion annual budget. The $1billion “defund the police” demand by activists and concerned citizens resulted in the New York City Council doing creative counting. The budget meeting was set for 8:00pm on June 31, 2020. It began about 9:40pm with a contentious session. The budget was passed July 1, 2020, just after midnight. Protestors camped out in front of City Hall booed when City Council speaker, Corey Johnson shared the details. New York City moved about $300 million back to the Department of Education (DOE). For years it loaned money to the NYPD for school police. Speaker Johnson stated,on the passage of the budget, that it was not a “day of celebration…[but] a time of necessity.” Protestors reacted with frustration, anger, and resolve to continue social justice activism.

The adopted Fiscal Year 2021 budget for New York City (NYC) shows an over $420 million cut to the NYPD and a $44 million cut to the Department of Corrections. At the time of the vote, Speaker Johnson asserted that more than $880 million was cut from the NYPD; Mayor Bill De Blasio cited $1 billion. Critics, however, argue that the budget is “smoke and mirrors,” citing the City Council’s cancellation of the July 2020 cadet training while maintaining the October 2020 training for newly minted officers. Cuts to police overtime written in the budget might be fictitious. Citizens Budget Commissioner Andrew Rein stated that “Reducing police overtime by almost $300 million is highly unlikely given the weak history of overtime management.” In 2019, when there were no mass deaths from Covid-19 or mass deployment of police to intimidate or kettle protestors, the NYPD exceeded its overtime budget by $130 million. Given the overtime and pending lawsuits against the NYPD for documented acts of police brutality against peaceful protests, police-related costs will soar for 2020.

No hiring freeze was imposed on the NYPD; its Counterterrorist unit remains fully funded despite demands made by Public advocate Jumaane Williams and progressive City Council members. Substantial cuts were made to the DOE and social services for the impoverished and working class; however, over $400 million was put back into youth summer programs and employment (allegedly it was taken from the NYPD budget but that remains unclear). The issue of police accountability was never addressed by Mayor Bill De Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea. Both consistently denied that police brutality, malfeasance, and systemic racism were structural problems. Many were left some incredulousas their denials continued, despite cell phone footage that captured police riots and mass arrests on often peaceful protests following the murder of George Floyd and the deaths of thousands of New Yorkers from racial and economic inequities inflamed by the pandemic.

NYPD Violence

New York State (NYS) Attorney General Letitia James held virtual public hearings on police violence during the protests that led to a report and recommendations that a council rather than a mayor have the power to hire and fire police commissioners. James, a black feminist who had campaigned as a beneficiary of the civil rights and black power movements, had, a few months prior, appealed a superior judge’s release of a political prisoner on the grounds that he would not contract Covid-19 that was spiking in NY prisons and nursing homes. AG James’s successful appeal resulted in the former Panther contracting Covid-19 and DOCCS setting a precedent of minimal release of the nearly 40, 000 people incarcerated in NYS, including the aging and debilitated.

Protestors and press documented the NYPD’s assaults and beatings of peaceful protestors, its practices of “kettles,” and the indiscriminate use of mace/pepper spray. Officers drove police squad cars into crowds, placing protestors into crowded filthy cells with urine, feces, and mold on the floors. Reports state that the NYPD also crowded protesters into cells without Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) such as masks, and even confiscated masks. Aggressive arrests of activists continued after demonstrations subsided. Most recently, officers used helicopters/drones, police dogs, and tactical squads. What was not present was a warrant for a black protest leader who allegedly chanted in a megaphone to close to an officer’s ear. As noted by white activists during the NYC public hearings, police attacks and arrests disproportionately target black nonviolent protestors as noted by white activists. During testimony, NYPD Commissioner Shea denied that abuse was widespread. In 2019, NYC taxpayers paid $69 million in compensation for lawsuits against police abuses/homicides and false imprisonment. Those funds could have been used for food and housing security, child/family wellness, education and parks, medical care. Under current austerity measures and varied forms of abandonment, New Yorkers have dealt with over 23, 000 deaths in the city, a million jobs lost, food lines outside of churches. These traumas and losses were and are disproportionately borne by black and brown communities that are treated as expendable “essential workers.” The least resourced communities grapple with the most violence.

As the establishment press continues to report massive increases in civilian gun violence, the NYPD claims that a stark rise in gun violence is due to the decay of “law and order” stemming from protests and bail reforms for the impoverished and BIPOC. Yet, police narratives were countered by investigative journalism. Despite Commissioner Shea’s and Mayor De Blasio’s false assertions that the decline in 68% police arrests was due to courts abdicating their duties during the pandemic, virtual courts were open, and arrests preceded court appearances. It appears that police forces might have been deployed against largely peaceful protests rather than used to monitor gangs and illegal gun possession. The NYPD vigorously defends itself against all allegations of misconduct and all forms of reform. Some critics argue that the NYPD might be in violation of the Taylor Law for NYS public employees which addresses work stoppages or slowdowns.

Commissioner Shea informed AG James at hearings on NYPD brutality against protestors that the passage of the NYS “Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act” was largely ineffective. He stated that only the repeal of “50-a” laws, which shield police records, worry police unions. Police unions, which function as protection franchises and PR firms, are now suing to block public access to police disciplinary records. Some 4000 of the 36, 000 NYPD force have substantiated repetitive offenses against civilians. The NYPD and politicians continue to block or diminish substantive reforms. On August 17, 2020, ProPublica released data indicating that the NYPD routinely withholds evidence in police abuse cases. While the mayor and city apparently made no substantive cuts in the NYPD budget, Mayor De Blasio did authorize cuts to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which was to be funded at a certain percentage relative to the NYPD budget. The CCRB is planning for staff layoffs during a period of time, despite its needs for additional resources given the significant increases in NYPD abuse cases (collected from recently released files obtained through the repeal of 50-a legislation) and recent police brutality against peaceful protestors.

Intergenerational Black Leadership in Resistance

On the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion in the West Village for LGBTQ+ communities, thousands gathered for the June 2020 “March for Black Trans Lives.” The Brooklyn-based march was led by black trans women who chanted “Black Trans Lives Matter” and “Black Trans Power.” Targeted by the Co-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), Black Panther, Afeni Shakur (mother of Tupac Shakur), worked in solidarity with the Stonewall uprising leadership of black transwomen/”drag queens” while imprisoned at the Women’s House of Detention – working, collectively to wage an uprising against police repression.

There is a historical tie between the use of “BLM,” where in previous histories it meant “Black Liberation Movement.”  “BLM” as “Black Liberation Movement” rejects cooptation by politicians and corporate funders as mayors of Washington, D.C. and NYC leverage their personal identities, respectively as a black woman and white man with a black family, in order to support the status quo of policing. Refusing budget cuts and rigorous oversight for police departments, mayors of both cities, instead, authorized painting “Black Lives Matter” on avenues leading to the White House and Trump Tower.

From NYC to Portland, mobilizations by legal teams and bail fund collectives are countering the political repression of dissent. From FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s policies to “neutralize” the Black Panther Party. It did so by framing, with assistance from the Los Angeles Police Department, Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt for murder, and with the support of the Chicago Police Department, assassinating Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Today, taxpayers fund prosecutions the multi-million dollar settlements following such police abuses. Protests, posters, and murals consistently reference the Panthers, and link advocacy to counter the ongoing political imprisonment of political prisoners who have been incarcerated for decades: Jalil Muntaqim, Mutulu Shakur, Sundiata Acoli, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier and others. Meanwhile, Attorney General William Barr targets anti-racists with hyperbolic speech, criminalizing “black identity extremists” and “Antifa” all the while demanding more anti-terrorist police powers as the Trump Administration deflects public attentionfrom the white supremacist violence. Communities grieve the police homicides of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others killed by racist vigilantes and police forces.

Throughout the country, non-celebrity activists, like those from Ferguson, Missouri who sparked the Black Lives Matter street demonstrations, disproportionately incur the burdens of this movement. They include Melissa McKinnies, and the largely unknown and deceased Deandre Joshua, Darren Seals, and Edward Crawford.

Months before teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson in 2014, Eric Garner was killed by an NYPD chokehold and chest compression on a Staten Island street as he panted “I Can’t Breathe” eleven times. His daughter Erica Garner created a brilliant presidential campaign ad against police violence for Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016. She died in 2017 at the age of twenty-seven in poor health, exacerbated by hypertension and stress after seeing her petitions for justice to Mayor De Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and President Barack Obama largely rebuffed.

Communities Organize against Violence

Militarized responses to protests and draconian sentencing have led to increased calls for political amnesty for activists and more attention to protecting their rights. In pursuing legal strategies, activists are mindful that President Donald Trump has appointed 200 ultra-conservative judges. Pro-police politicians, prosecutors, and Attorney Generals also continue to limit or block substantive reforms and oppose amnesty and/or release for dissenters.

Still, with millions of US Americans grieving pandemic deaths, economic and work losses, dispossessions, and racist violence, battles to control police will remain a critical flash point for the future of US democracy. Fortifying communities to expand their capacity to provide legal, medical, political and communal defense is vital. Community leaders remain central in confronting organized predatory violence, and repositioning for those “caught between a rock and a hard place” — i.e., between civilian opportunistic violence and police predatory violence. Addressing the issues of colonial/racial capitalism, white supremacy, misogynoir and misogyny, and anti-lgbtq+ violence coexists with struggles to combat the exploitation of children and the natural environment. Everything needed to survive and thrive is fought for by frontline activists who also confront police violence and police expropriation of public resources.

The Ebenezer Fitch Professor of the Humanities at Williams College, Joy James works with the Abolition Journal’s Black Internationalist Union. Her most recent article on abolitionism is “Airbrushing Revolution for the Sake of Abolition.”

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