On June first, thousands of residents of Worcester Massachusetts poured into the common before the town hall. Perhaps the largest of the demonstrations the city has seen thus far, this body would march to the courthouse and back, spending a few hours chanting and listening to speeches attempting to make sense of the murder of George Floyd and innumerable other black men, women and nonbinary people by police over decades. This particular Monday protest began at 5pm after many got off work and was organized by a Worcester town councillor. Retroactively, attendees might say that this person’s presence discouraged confrontation with the police and protected peaceful demonstrators.
The speakers that day, chosen by our councillor, were not of one single or united perspective about America’s critical moment. Generally they affirmed the audience’s belief that black lives are being systematically devalued and eliminated by American institutions and that this is completely unacceptable. In other words: black lives matter.
But some speakers had political messages extending beyond indictments of police brutality and affirmation of black lives. Of course, police departments everywhere had to be overhauled with reforms, but we should forget the idea of abolition. This was a time for us to stand with the many good cops around the country who were demonstrating alongside us against brutality. Clearly not all of them were bastards.
Most importantly, as went the councillor’s closing speech, we had to change the existing systems responsible for police brutality. We were obligated to vote out the pro-police brutality politicians, instead electing ones who will legislate peaceful policing and justice. Of course, there are no term limits to the Worcester city council and our councillor-organizer will be up for re-election within the year.
The protest on June first in downtown Worcester was peaceful. The police, in contrast to many cities around the country, cooperated with demonstrators and organizers, regulating traffic but restraining from force within the daylight. It was not until around eleven pm that evening, crowds having died down significantly and the councillor departed, that Worcester PD trapped dozens of peaceful demonstrators on a road where they were tear gassed, shot, beaten and arrested.
This police brutality, employed against protesters of police brutality, did not stop the Worcester town council from only a few days afterwards increasing the budget of the police department to a total of fifty-two million dollars annually. For reference, the city’s Health and Public Services budget is six million dollars and the public library’s budget is four million dollars, both having been defunded significantly since last year.
The story here in Worcester is not unique. All around the country police have been kneeling in the morning, marching in the evening and committing war crimes after dinner. My town councillor isn’t unique either. There are many people far more powerful than minor government officials who wish to see the immense and historic energy of these protests directed into electoral politics, superficial police reforms, and anything else which will not fundamentally disrupt power structures within the United States. Whiteness and capitalism have plenty of beneficiaries who will defend these hierarchies when they come under threat, none the least of which being the American police.
We must remember now that police are not a fact of life, they are a product of specific historical conditions. The indegenous people who lived here long before us did not have police forces and neither did early European colonists for that matter. Police were originally created in the United States to prevent slaves from escaping the antebellum south and since then they have been violently suppressing strikes and labor unions across the country. In other words, the main function of the American police has always been to maintain existing power structures within the country at great human expense.
This repressive duty is exactly what we are seeing the police fulfill now. Millions around the country are protesting because they cannot silently tolerate any society which mandates that people live under the constant threat of violence. In response to these peaceful demonstrations, police have been beating protesters, shooting them with deadly rubber bullets, employing chemical weapons prohibited by the geneva convention, and overall sidestepping our constitutional and human rights to enforce order at all costs. The hundreds if not thousands of documented cases of police brutality in the past few weeks alone proves that this is not due to a few “bad apples” misbehaving. Police are now fulfilling the professional obligation they have always had: violently suppressing people who are struggling for their liberation.
It’s also essential to point out in a discussion of American police brutality that working class white Americans are also brutalized and murdered by police although at far different rates. Police are a racist and a classist institution which targets poor black people, well-off black people, poor white people, and even well-off white people if they threaten to disrupt the systems police protect. Many of the demonstrators in Worcester the night of June first who were beaten, shot, gassed and arrested were also white and I’m sure some were middle or upper class.
Currently, we are witnessing the potential of direct action with massive popular support. The Boston and Los Angeles city councils are considering some of the largest reductions to police departments’ gargantuan budgets in history, relocating funding to social services within communities which are currently criminalized and brutalized by police. The Minneapolis town council voted unanimously to disband the police department and reorganize a community-oriented approach to public safety.
We have to understand the potential of this movement. Many would like to see action end at retroactively disciplining specific officers without removing the institutions responsible for police brutality to begin with.
But we have the potential to replace the entire classist and white-supremacist American police force with public services that actually contribute to our livelihood and safety. We have the potential to seriously address hundreds of years of racism, classism, commodification and violence for dispossessed people in the United States of America. We have the opportunity now to create a tradition where huge segments of American society hit the streets and disrupt business as usual until injustices stop.
These victories, representing tangible steps towards a society in which poverty and skin color are not criminalized, aren’t occurring because we decided to cooperate with police who attack us hours later. Cities around the country are not debating police abolition because we spent months organizing political campaigns. We are on the precipice of historic social change because when it has popular support, direct action gets the goods.
Leave social media for the important news. Donate to your local bail or legal defense fund and attend every peaceful demonstration possible. Organize one yourself if necessary. Just remember that these protests ending with anything short of abolition means a return to normal for millions of Americans: police brutality, racism and the constant threat of violence for the crime of existing.
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