The Coalition Against Police Exectuions (CAPE) is a group of individuals which formed days after Oscar Grant’s murder and planned a January 14, 2009 permitted rally. Several Bay Area based nonprofits and organizations were called on to provide “security” in order to ensure a “nonviolent and peaceful” protest. The struggle that unfolded at the intersection of 14th and Broadway that evening was not surprising given that CAPE had attempted to restrict the goals of the movement to only calling for the city of Oakland to arrest and prosecute Grant’s murderer. This notion of justice reinforces the violent ways Oakland already responds to harm and conflict, and strengthens our dependence on a system that promises little more than increased policing, an intensification of surveillance, and mass imprisonment—tools designed to target communities that challenge the status quo. This particular situation was also startling because of the relationships individual security volunteers had with the protestors they were policing. As CAPE’s January 14th program came to an end, a loud voice repeated, “We don’t need the police, we can police ourselves,” over the sound system. While we agree that we don’t need the police, we have to wonder: is “policing ourselves” necessarily what we need to be doing?
Despite conflicting opinions between individual security volunteers, the security team that CAPE assembled used a variety of state- and police-reinforcing strategies and tactics that created a disheartening environment which sent the message that this team’s role was to work with the police by fighting the protestors. These tactics are examples of how activists and/or people actively policed and targeted by the state can be seduced into using the very tools of political suppression that police and politicians use every day, tools of suppression that keep us from taking over the streets every time the police shoot, beat, or arrest anyone; tools that continue, each day, to deny us our self-determination.
Some Of These Tactics Include:
Self Appointed Authority: CAPE had people appoint themselves as authorities, empowering themselves to tell other people what to do. By wearing bright orange vests to separate themselves from protestors, it was clear who the security team was supposed to control. CAPE made sure to ask representatives from a spectrum of community-based organizations to ensure that those who attended the rally would recognize at least a couple of those designated to be security. This could have been a positive attempt to make sure protesters felt surrounded by those they recognized, but because of the nature of policing this tactic created a situation where would-be protesters instead took on the role of policing the movement. Becoming “movement cops” by asking friends, allies, and potential collaborators to police each other, the security team created a situation where, in order to protest, demonstrators would have to actively work against their friends and comrades.
Threat and Intimidation: Security volunteers repeatedly shouted, “Leave or you will be arrested” over megaphones at an anti-police rally.
Shaming People into Nonviolence & Passivity: Some security volunteers attempted to use guilt to convince protestors to leave, insisting that this rally was for Oscar Grant. If we cared about the Grant family, they argued, we would go home and stop ruining their protest. A few of these movement police effectively shamed protestors into following their orders of nonviolence and tolerance, while a large majority of security team members remained absolutely silent and made no noticeable effort to question or intervene.
Using Hierarchies to Determine Who is Allowed in the Street: Security volunteers shouted and argued with protestors, starting a slippery competition over who was allowed to claim authority over the entire demonstration. This competition was typically based upon assumptions of who was the most oppressed and who had experienced the most suffering. Based on how you looked, security members assumed whether you were or weren’t capable of making good decisions; whether you should stay or whether you needed to go home. Security volunteers tried to justify themselves when making assumptions about protestors’ capability to make informed decisions in the streets against the cops, but these assumptions were clearly based on race, gender, age, and dress. The security team did what the police do every day—profiled and treated people like children, assuming we would be up to no good.
Denying Self-Determination: Many protestors wanted to be in the streets and face the police. Playing “movement cop” in a situation where people wanted to stay in the streets and face the cops enabled the security team to literally perform the police’s job. The security team effectively dispersed people who were enraged and wanted to express their anger at the state, denying people self-determination. These movement cops stripped away the power and momentum that had been established by separating people while police in riot gear formed blockades throughout downtown, preventing those involved from developing the kinds of solidarity, collaboration and informed decision-making needed to take an effective stance against the police.
When confronted on their tactics by protestors, some security volunteers explained they wanted to be between the people and the police in case the police decided to rush the crowd. This defense raises some key questions that security team members failed to acknowledge during the span of the night: If they were on the side of the people, then why did they face the crowd with their backs to the police? Why didn’t this so-called security team face the police like the rest of us that night?
How does deploying policing and control help us in any way? The state uses the threat of arrest and imprisonment every day to make us fear being in the streets and standing up to the state. It is these forms of intimidation and the criminalization of young people of color and communities of color that led to the executions of Oscar Grant, Gary King Jr., Andrew Moppin, Mac “Jody” Woodfox, Lesley Xavier Allen, Vernon Dunbar, Hector Jimenez, Anita Gay, Rosalyne McHenry, Casper Banjo, Jose Luis Buenrostro Gonzalez, Lovell Mixon, Alan Blueford and many more at the hands of police in Oakland. These tools of intimidation and criminalization that result in police executions must always be a part of what we fight against in the streets.
There would be no “Oscar Grant Movement” as we know it if it was not for the rebellion that occurred on January 7th 2009. If youth across racial and political lines did not come together to disturb the edifice of the Oakland police state, if the dynamics of direct action did not replace the illusion of the paper petition, if the flames of rage did not burn into the streets of downtown, then there would be no Oscar Grant Movement. Shortly after the Occupy Oakland encampment was claimed in Oscar Grant Plaza in the fall of 2011, the camp was declared a “cop free” zone. At the same time, while many Occupy encampments throughout the US struggled to articulate clear demands and goals, one of Occupy Oakland’s most coherent demands was to end the use of gang injunctions in Oakland. Occupy Oakland did something within the Occupy Movement that many cities had not yet done—it placed policing at the forefront of this era’s struggle against economic inequality and powerlessness. What would Occupy Oakland have been without the Oscar Grant Movement and its formative January 7th Rebellion? In both of these struggles, we see that despite the call for dynamic and unified movements across gender, racial, political and economic lines against police violence and inequality/powerlessness, some members of various organizations and communities insist upon a passive, predictable, and controlled effort. How will we ever be free if we’re unwilling to take the smart risks that inevitably come with daring to break away from oppression? If we are serious about liberation, then we must struggle through contradictions in principled ways rather than hide, give up, burn out or perpetuate oppression and social control.
The execution of Oscar Grant is not exceptional and is not a consequence of one bad cop; rather it is a horrifying symptom of the system of policing. Similarly, the violence perpetuated by the security team at CAPE’s rally is not a consequence of one organization, or a few individuals, but of the ways that many people, regardless of what uniform they’re wearing, help the pigs in blue and riot gear. We have seen very similar tactics used or upheld as acceptable during Occupy Oakland demonstrations and general assemblies since then. Rather than negotiating ways of working with the police and the city to respond to the violence of policing, we need to look towards each other and practice self-determination right now here in Oakland, and collectively create responses to violence that don’t involve tools of policing, surveillance, and imprisonment. We are capable of doing this. The moment we attempt to pacify one another is the moment the state can declare victory. Let us learn from the events of January 2009 and Occupy Oakland and build a fierce movement that will not crumble but propel us forward to demolish our common enemy: the police state.