By Cassandra Devereaux
On November 30, the City Council of Oakland, California, voted to approve a raise of 12.5 percent for the officers of the Oakland Police Department. They did this quickly and without soliciting feedback from the public, in advance of a turnover in city government that will soon swear in more progressive candidates elected in November. Tellingly, this also happened seven months before the expiration of a current Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that set the wages of this heavily militarized force. The councilmembers attempted to accomplish this in secret, but the vigilance of community members and organizations such as the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) got the word out. The community mobilized at the eleventh hour, rallying community members to protest.
The Oakland Police Department has until now been awarded a staggering 41 percent of the city budget, the highest percentage tracked in a report created in collaboration between The Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives and the Black Youth Project 100. This study examined 10 major metropolitan areas in the U.S., including New York City, Los Angeles and Detroit. It concluded that investment in mental health, housing, youth programs and living wages are more effective in establishing thriving communities than police funding. Notably, this raise was approved the same week the Oakland PD broke up the Housing And Dignity Village camp for homeless women. A United Nations report condemned Oakland and San Francisco for committing human rights violations against their homeless populations. While police continue to leech these cities’ financial resources, there have been no meaningful attempts to correct the U.N.’s damning findings.
Rampant police abuse in the Bay Area
Fifteen years ago, the City of Oakland was forced to agree in court to institute reforms to the police department to curb violent abuses under a federally Negotiated Settlement Agreement. These venal cover-ups and the choice to richly reward the vicious officers responsible have put the lie to these promises. Two days prior to passing the pay raise, the Oakland PD was ordered by U.S. District Judge William Orrick to reopen three tasks under their NSA. This was the result of a hearing when evidence came to light that they were covering up use of force incidents. The number of open items under the NSA has therefore been raised from the previous seven to 10. Regardless, the city has bent the knee to the OPD, catering to their every request, and has chosen to enrich the officers of this corrupt force.
The Oakland Police Department’s crimes include an officer handcuffing a 14 year old African-American girl and striking her in the face at the site of a shooting as she attempted to tend to her infant brother. Their suppression of civil unrest is brutal, and militarized forces have inflicted brain damage in the course of assaulting a group of protesters. Oakland officers that were in the chain of command of those involved in the 2016 “sex scandal” (which broke out over the sexual abuse of a minor who used the name Celeste Guap) were later promoted. This abuse of a minor and its coverup took the widespread use of police authority and the threat of arrest to demand services from sex workers to a new level.
Among the victims of Oakland PD murder are Richard Perkins, a man who was killed in 2015 while in possession of a pellet gun, and high school senior Alan Blueford, who was standing peacefully on a street corner in 2012 with friends when officers approached him with guns drawn. He fled and was gunned down. In 2017, Marcellus Toney, too, was fleeing; on orders of police, he was slowing down with his hands up and saying “okay” when he was tased. He later died in the custody of the Oakland Police Department. Nathaniel “Nate” Wilks was shot dead at the age of 27, the same year as Richard Perkins. The community mobilized in force to counter the Oakland PD’s claims justifying the killing as part of apprehending a criminal. All of these men were Black.
This boon given to Oakland’s ruthless officers is part of a broader trend in pay raises for police forces in the San Francisco Bay Area. Oakland’s 12.5 percent topped the nine percent raise San Francisco approved in May. Days after Oakland’s approved pay raise, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) raised officers’ pay by 16 percent.
San Francisco’s police department is notorious. Among the murders committed by SFPD officers is the killing of a Latino man named Alex Nieto. Four officers, responding to a 911 call, swarmed to Mr. Nieto’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhood as he sat in a park not far from his home while eating a burrito and tortilla chips. They opened fire on him, ending his life with multiple gunshot wounds to his torso and head. Likewise, Amilcar Perez Lopez, a Guatemalan man, was murdered by police in San Francisco’s gentrifying, historically Latinx Mission neighborhood. Mario Woods was a young Black man who was killed by the SFPD. He was shot 20 times, six of which were in the back.
Similarly, BART police are infamous for their lethality. One example is the killing of Sahleem Tindle, shot by police in the back across the street from the West Oakland BART station. Most well-known, they shot Oscar Grant in the back as they pinned him face down in a prone restraint. A member of the Black community, his story was the subject of the celebrated film “Fruitvale Station.” Whether in Oakland, San Francisco or BART, only Johannes Mehserle, Oscar Grant’s killer, was ever prosecuted and convicted for their murders; rather, they enjoy myriad privileges alongside these unwarranted raises.
Coming together against police terror
Police terror is neither a new story nor one unique to the Bay Area. With perverse irony, the raises for Oakland and BART forces were approved the week that, 49 years prior, the charismatic leader Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and Deputy Chairman of the national Black Panther Party, was murdered by police in the Chicago home he shared with his pregnant partner. It was in Oakland that Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale met, establishing the revolutionary Marxist organization and creating a legacy for workers and oppressed peoples in the United States to this day. In addition to creating community medical clinics and breakfast programs for children, the Black Panthers conducted armed patrols of their neighborhoods in order to monitor the actions of police and discourage abuse of their power.
The Black Panther Party’s program of “policing the police” was perceived as such a threat by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that he described them as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and launched extensive counterintelligence operations (COINTELPRO) to subvert and destroy the Party. It was as a result of this program that Hampton was assassinated by the Chicago Police Department.
In the Bay Area, a place that is rapidly gentrifying to accommodate booming tech industries, where civil unrest and popular uprisings are becoming more frequent and ramping up in intensity, one must recall the legacy of the Black Panthers. In this year where craven state forces compete with each other for recruitment by giving ludicrous pay raises to the brutes who prowl impoverished, oppressed communities and suppress them from flourishing, we cannot cease developing and instituting programs to hold agents of a violent, repressive state force to account and to defend our communities.
Revolutionary Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, in “State and Revolution,” described the state as “a power which arises from society, but which places itself above it and becomes more and more alienated from it. What does this power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men [sic] which have prisons, etc., at their disposal.” Within the borders of the United States, we see these special bodies of armed agents of the state largely in the form of the police departments existent in every community. They have long since become alienated from us, and are increasingly above us, rarely held to account to violence done in the name of destabilizing neighborhoods. They feed the appetites of the gentrification that moneyed interests require. They murder, beat, abuse, and fill for-profit prisons with unpaid black and brown labor.
The police “serve and protect” the ruling class
It is said that the police “serve and protect.” Unspoken is the question of what they serve and who they protect. One thing is certain: it’s not the working class nor is it oppressed peoples. It is, instead, the ruling class. To further reward the very agents enforcing human rights violations against poor folks and minorities to the cost of life-saving social services can only be concluded to be an act of class warfare. The wealthy and their institutions are striking downwards at the masses whose labor creates the wealth that billionaires enjoy. They toss a bone in the form of extra pay to their attack dogs. Police are their thugs who protect them and their interests. They do not serve to keep the people safe.
The specter of class warfare is often weaponized against the working class in order to keep us submissive and turn us against those who point the way to liberation. We must learn to see that class war is already inflicted upon us, to understand its strategies and identify its agents. We can only defend our lives when we join in solidarity to answer those assaults against us. We can win revolution and establish a better world, but only when we fight together, shoulder to shoulder, and keep our eyes always on victory.
We have the world to win, but we must abandon our pastoral myths of the kind, folksy small town sheriff and his harmlessly bumbling deputy such as those that Andy Griffith and Don Knotts portrayed. We must scrap the narrative of heroic police fighting crime and defending the innocent fed to us by Hollywood and draped in its glamor, bathed in spectacular explosions and rendered in meticulous CGI. The reality of our police is that they are enemies of workers and minorities, enforcers of the ruling class’ interests. They are agents of our subjugation. We need to defend ourselves and our communities, and we need to do it together, hand in hand, in solidarity and revolutionary love.
All power to the people! Venceremos!
James Burch, of the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP), speaks to the Oakland City Council. | Video: Terri Kay
This article was modified on Dec. 20, 2018. A photo and video were added.