If Michael Brown’s death is to lead to meaningful change, if he is not to become another Abner Louima or Amadou Diallo — shot by cops, protested about, and ultimately nothing changed — the struggle in Ferguson must become political, that is, it must develop a fighting electoral wing.
In the 20 years since the Rodney King beating inaugurated the citizen’s video camera as a new weapon in the fight against police brutality, there has been little to no meaningful police reform in the United States because such fights never developed such a wing.
Cops kill, we catch it on tape, and the judiciary absolves them of guilt, over and over again, year after year, decade after decade.
Ultra-left propagandists seize on this fact to prove “the whole system is corrupt”; “we can’t trust the state”; “we need a revolution.”
These statements are as true as they are irrelevant to the struggle in Ferguson. Like all anti-police brutality struggles of the past two decades, the fight in Ferguson will not lead to greater and greater protests that culminate in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the government but rather will degenerate (and already is degenerating) into rioting, petty theft, and ultimately demoralization as people get tired, give up, and stay home as their anger goes back underground only to explode again when the next Michael Brown is killed by the next Darren Wilson.
The only way to break this cycle of shootings-protests-demoralization is to advance the struggle to the level of politics, of political parties, as the only plane upon which the insurgent masses can begin trying to curb an out-of-control police force since protests and riots clearly have not and will not change police behavior.
The biggest barrier to this development is America’s apolitical and anti-political culture.
Elections, voter registration, and getting on the ballot are boring and prosaic; wrecking cop cars and street protests are exciting and ‘revolutionary.’ Both of these sentiments are a manifestation of said apolitical/anti-political culture and both (from opposite directions) ensure that the people marching in the streets for police reform remain party-less, without a choice on election day, without an electoral vehicle or arm of their own to organize, harness, and channel their energy into grabbing some political and governmental power to police the police. Because the Democratic and Republican parties are wedded to the police force as an institution, as an important constituency to avoid offending in any way, shape, or form, pro-police reform activists will have to run their own candidates on their own ballot lines and develop their own (preferably socialist) party to run against and defeat the police brutality-enablers that currently hold office.
In Ferguson, that means getting rid of the mayor, the city council, and most of all Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCollouch who ran unopposed(!) in the 2014 election and got 96% of the vote before deliberately botching the indictment of officer Darren Wilson.
Elections matter, especially when the winners end up in charge of handling police brutality cases.
Consider the following: in Ferguson’s 2013 elections, roughly 12% of eligible voters cast a ballot, with 6% of eligible Black voters casting a ballot compared to 17% of white voters. Nearly non-existent turnout is the secret of how James Knowles III managed to get re-elected as mayor. He got just 1,314 votes in a town with 24,334 registered voters and ran unopposed. (In 2011, he won by just 511 votes out of a total vote count of only 2,265.)
This is how Ferguson ended up with a white Republican mayor and five-sixths white majority on the city council even though it is a majority Black town that voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008. Overcoming this contradiction will require not only running serious pro-police reform candidates with roots in the local protest movement but also mobilizing and organizing a massive increase in Black turnout from single to double digits.
Withpolice reformers on city councils and in the mayor’s (and prosecutor’s) office, getting away with murder would be much harder for the police even though it would not diminish the need for protests, for civilian vigilance, and for grassroots organizing to keep the cops in check. It would still be a struggle but it would be a struggle on more favorable terms and with greater possibilities for positive outcomes (in the form of indictments and convictions when crimes are committed) than what follows police killings presently. It would open up the possibility of real, meaningful police reforms such as forcing all cops to wear body cameras, for example. When Rialto, California required police to wear such cameras, the results were dramatic:
“In the first 12 months, the department saw an 88% decline in complaints filed against its officers compared with the year before and a 60% reduction in use-of-force incidents. … the agency has also saved time by not having to conduct as many investigations into use-of-force incidents, and the department has seen a decrease in court costs because more suspects are agreeing to plea bargains because of indisputable video evidence.”
Locally successful fights for police reform could pave the way for national-level measures like the creation of a federal database of police shootings. It’s hard to fight a problem if you don’t know how bad/widespread it is and whether it is getting better or worse from year to year. Right now, no one knows how many Americans are gunned down every year by the police, not even the federal government.
Protests alone won’t save the next Michael Brown from the next Darren Wilson nor will cameras, but coupling both together with effective politics just might.