What Does Police Brutality Have To Do With Corporate Greed?
Police arrested 15 protesters around noon on Sunday as they sat in front of the Roundhouse in protest against police brutality. Their action has stirred up debate around some crucial questions at Occupy Philly.
On Saturday, Oct 22nd, a group of protesters marched to the Philadelphia Police headquarters, on 8th between Race and Arch, in support of a national day of action against police brutality. They blocked traffic on 8th Street and held an impromptu teach-in and sit-in on decreasing police brutality. The police closed down the street, where protesters remained through the night. The 15 individuals who were participating directly in the sit-in were arrested around noon on Sunday.
The group issued a statement after their arrest. They did not claim to speak on behalf of Occupy Philly, but as members of the movement, their action has elicited different responses from the highly varied groups and individuals at City Hall. Many support the sit-in, but some are criticizing it. After all, the police have been very accommodating of Occupy Philly–why provoke them with this action? Don’t police officers, who are often overworked and underpaid, belong to the 99%? Most of all, shouldn’t we stay focused on corporate greed instead of getting distracted by secondary issues?
Talking to supporters of the sit-in revealed a lot about the close ties between the police, the prison system, and corporations. What makes this issue especially crucial is its direct and immediate importance for Occupy Philly itself, a site that is under tight police surveillance at all times. Understanding the social role of the police sheds light on the most deeply exploited part of the 99%, who are often ignored and left out of the conversation.
The Prison-Industrial Complex
Prisons are an industry. The government enters into contracts with corporations to build facilities and administer prison populations. On the inside, prisoners often do work for which they are not paid. Corporations profit from this system of coerced unpaid labor, that is, in effect, very similar to slave labor.
Private industry control of prisons means that there is money to be made by sending more people to jail. The American Correctional Association is an umbrella group of corporations that seeks to enact tougher penalties and stiffer jail sentences for the poor and communities of color. The ACA has a real interest in increasing incarceration rates. Combine that with the fact that a felony conviction means that you lose the right to vote, and the result is an increasing population that serves as a source of unpaid labor and that lacks any political voice.
The recent case of Mark Ciavarella Jr., the Pennsylvania judge convicted for harshly sentencing juveniles in a “kids for cash” scheme, is a perfect example of what happens when profit drives incarceration.
Julia, who provided support to the sit-in protesters at the Roundhouse for several hours, explains that this is how “the police force, in effect, becomes the hired hand of the 1%.” As most people know, Philadelphia is no stranger to police brutality and corruption, but it’s a mistake to think that the problem is limited to a certain place, or that there are just a few bad apples in the department. Rather, the problem is systemic in nature: “Not every police officer is corrupt, but the punitive system as a whole is corrupt…. the system that is supposed to protect and serve us actually feeds into the corporate wealth of the 1%.”
Julia disagrees with those who think a discussion of police brutality distracts from Occupy Philly’s main theme: “I think it does the opposite: this really focuses the protest’s energy. Anti-police brutality is one of the clearest messages against corporate greed and against the capitalist system, [which has] become so strong and so powerful that it’s been able to cuckold this workforce that’s supposed to be protecting and serving us, and they’re protecting and serving the interests of the rich.”
Sarah, another supporter of the sit-in, remarked on the deep similarities between the ways in which police and corporations operate. Corporations are good at exploiting and intimidating people into a way of life, and police officers use their power to exploit and keep people in check. Both are expressions of hierarchy and oppression, working at different but related levels. “It’s about using a certain level of power and intimidation to keep people from feeling like they can do anything.”
Many of the young protesters who were arrested had never committed civil disobedience before. This was their first encounter with the police. For them, Julia points out, it’s a learning experience in “the fear that happens when you exhibit free speech and get punished for it.”
“The police are OUR economic issue.”
Colin had come out to Occupy Philly a few times before, when he could find time in his busy schedule. Although he works full-time and is caring for a newborn child, he knew he had to attend the protest against police brutality. Having grown up in a poor trailer park, he understood exactly how police brutality was an economic issue.
“[There’s] a lot of us who understand what it’s like to live in a community where police treat your sidewalk like a checkpoint, where youth are criminalized daily, where youth are considered drug dealers… right away, that is an economic issue… you’re already in a place where you’re expected to lose. You grew up in a community that doesn’t have any hope; all you do is fear the police.”
Colin is supportive of many of the popular issues in the Occupy movement, such as protesting predatory banks, ridiculous student loan debt, and foreclosures. He points out, however, that many people don’t have any savings to move from the banks to credit unions, they don’t have student loan debt because they couldn’t go to college, and they never owned a home. In these communities, incarceration is often the main issue: “we’ve been fighting this fight all our lives, not just at City Hall for a weekend. The stuff about police brutality and the prison system automatically made me turn my eyes and say, I gotta go down there right away.”
“Our economic issue is that we’re criminalized and put into prisons, and our communities are treated as if we’re all criminals automatically. This is OUR economic issue. This is how the 1% profits.”
If the movement is to continue to grow, Colin feels it needs to recognize and embrace the struggles of the poor and communities of color. “What we’re asking of the rest of the 99% movement is to recognize, if they intend to grow and win… they’re going to need to show some solidarity for people who are affected by this.”
Protest and Police Tactics
Joining in to help support the jailed protesters, Nyko expressed a deep annoyance with a common line heard at Occupy Philly: “People keep on saying, the police are the 99%. Yes, they are the 99%. But they’re also tools of the 1%, and their job is to keep this [protest] from happening.” It’s crucial to understand how they do this, even as the friendly faces of Civil Affairs smile at you.
Julia’s knowledge of police tactics comes from first hand experience. She’s been brutalized, harassed, and arrested at protests in the U.S. and abroad; each time, she was behaving in a non-violent manner. She told this story about her experience at the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC to illustrate how the police serve the interests of the wealthy: “One of the RNC delegates started harassing me. I spat on the ground, and the RNC guy grabbed a cop and said, ‘That girl just spat on me!’ And I said, ‘No I didn’t, I spat on the ground.’ and the cop said, ‘She spat on the ground.’ He saw me. And the RNC guy said, ‘Who do you work for, us or them?!’ And the cop started chasing me…. That puts into focus police brutality feeding into corporate greed.”
It’s no wonder she’s developed a deep understanding of the ways police exert control: “[At Occupy Philly,] we’ve had a good relationship with the police, but that’s a tactic, just like any other. What I’ve seen in other occupations and other movements is the desire—and I think this is Mayor Nutter’s desire—that it will get cold, we will get bored, we will get restless, and we will go home…. even though we’re putting ourselves through homelessness, cold, difficulty… the media can play it off as us looking weak-willed.”
So far, the police have been smart in not being heavy handed, but this tactic has its limits. “It has been historically known that if police are brutal or if they do arrest, that’s usually a rallying, unifying thing. The tactic here is for those to not happen, so that we won’t rally, we won’t feel unified, and we’ll go back to our homes. [This is] not a necessarily good tactic for Mayor Nutter, because for a lot of people at Occupy Philly, this IS their primary residence. We’re doing tons of homeless outreach; we’re working with people who need this place, need this space.” This solidarity is making the occupation more powerful and deeply entrenched than anyone could have foreseen or planned.
We Are The 99%, We Just Can’t Be Here With You
Several people present at the sit-in relayed the story of a man from Kensington who spoke about trying to find people in his neighborhood to get involved in Occupy Philly. Even though many wanted to show their support, they wouldn’t come to City Hall, because they saw what the cops did in their own neighborhood, and they were afraid of the heavy police presence.
“The brutality that I’ve experienced as a protester is nothing compared to the brutality I’ve heard other people experience as a poor, black person in North Philadelphia,” remarked Julia.
Are those communities part of the 99%? Of course. If the movement is serious about including all peoples who have suffered at the hands of the 1%, we need to build solidarity. That means recognizing that although other people’s struggles may be different from your own, they are related and deserving of support, because we’re all facing a common enemy.
Without solidarity, we fall into divisive arguments that miss the bigger picture. In fact, a protester named Ian commented that one of the functions of the police at protests is to maintain class divisions. “They’re there to coral people’s political messages into one that is safe and convenient for the ruling classes.”
Amanda, a protester and supporter who had been with the sit-in Saturday night and Sunday morning, has been urgently calling for solidarity with the jailed protesters. “These types of autonomous actions are very important to remind people of why we’re here. We need to change the status quo. The way we do that is through these types of interactions and actions that push that status quo, and that say, you can’t be violent anymore, you’re not going to brutalize our communities. Nonviolent civil disobedience is not illegal. People need to be more trusting of their communities versus the authorities that are policing their communities. People need to be supporting each other’s struggles so they can be supported in their struggles.”