Whom do police serve, and what do they protect?

Community protest the murder of Ronell Foster by
The family of Ronell Foster protest his murder by Vallejo police officer Ryan McMahn. | Photo: Terri Kay

By Cassandra Devereaux

A 2014 Washington Post piece has been making the rounds on the internet of late. It bears a title you might hear in a bad Hollywood film from a bloviating villain:

“I’m a cop: If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me”

The murder of Botham Jean, in his own home, by officer Amber Guyger and of Atatiana Jefferson in her own home by another officer puts this headline to the lie, as do countless other police murders of Black people. Nevertheless, the article continues in this demagogic vein. Author Sunil Dutta went on to write,

“Working the street, I can’t even count how many times I withstood curses, screaming tantrums, aggressive and menacing encroachments on my safety zone, and outright challenges to my authority. “

Apparently, cursing, screaming, and the like are instances when police find inflicting terror justifiable. One need only watch the protests of the day to see this sentiment in practice. Peaceful but angry protestors are regularly assaulted by police, their backs to the fascists they protect. Such an incident took place in August of 2018 when Portland Police aimed a flashbang canister directly at the head of Aaron Anthony Cantu, fracturing his skull and inflicting traumatic brain injury. Cantu was wearing a bicycle helmet which it easily pierced to connect with his head. Having one’s head covered does not excuse police firing a so called “less lethal weapon” in a potentially lethal manner. But, protestors were cursing at the police, and he stood with them. He wasn’t “aggressively encroaching their safety zone,” he was fleeing. Nonetheless, he challenged police authority and needed to pay.

As is the custom in schools here in the U.S., I was taught to believe that the police were friendly neighborhood officers sent to protect the innocent and serve a law-abiding public. You had nothing to fear, I was told, as long as I was obeying the rules. This, however, was many years gone, and before most of us had a video camera in our purses and pockets in the form of cell phones. Coming from a position of relative privilege, I saw little to challenge this view as a child. It was well into my adulthood that this narrative came crashing down. I considered myself progressive. I had attended some demonstrations against the wars of the day, for HIV+ and LGBTQIA2s+ rights, protested at an Army base said to control part of our nuclear arsenal, and defended clinics at which abortions were available. A pretty impressive resume, I thought, but I had never had much experience with police.

It was in this mindset that I moved to Chicago. It was a scant few years after four officers of the Los Angeles Police Department were videotaped beating Rodney King, a Black man, while he was laying on the ground. The incident was still very much in the public consciousness. One evening on an excursion to the South Side to hear some live blues, some friends and I were pulled over by police. Confused about the reasons, we nevertheless pulled over and complied. The police who came to our window wore plain clothes rather than uniforms. This would later strike me as odd for officers assigned to traffic duty, but it meant that they weren’t wearing their badges. I cannot recall if we had the presence of mind to ask to see them. Because one friend had injured himself skateboarding earlier that day, he had a walking stick to lean on. When the police saw this, they ordered us out of the car. Using the reasoning that this was a “carried weapon” despite it simply being in the car at his feet, they ordered us to spread-eagle with our hands on the car and we were searched with a very invasive and aggressive pat down. A tail light had been busted out.. At least it had been by the time we were permitted to look.. But what we got, besides a ticket, was an order to turn the car around, to stay out of the South Side. We got a lecture, replete with racialized terms like “animals” and “savages”, talking about how we’d be “torn limb from limb”. Bad things would happen, we were told, if we didn’t turn back. Their meaning was clear.

The police were white, and one of them had a Cubs cap. While it may appear that this detail is an anodyne one, it’s important to remember that Chicago has two baseball  teams. The White Sox are the team of the vastly Black South Side. At the time, White Sox sportswear was popular with rappers and hip hop culture, and was ubiquitous streetwear among much of Chicago’s Black youth. To see someone wearing Cubs gear could simply mean that they were a Cubs fan, supporting what was at the time still the loveable losers. However, it also indicated that the person belonged to the much whiter communities north of the “loop,” Chicago’s business district. For a cop turning white people around and back to where they came from before they got to the neighborhoods where police terror bore down on the Black populace communicates a message, intentional or otherwise. In the days after Rodney King’s beating at the hands of the LAPD exposed to the world the predatory nature of these armed agents of a depraved state, potential white witnesses were being herded by police from the neighborhoods in which they violently suppressed Black dissent  like thugs of a two-bit warlord.

I wouldn’t say we respected their authority, but we submitted to it. We retreated several blocks, then doubled back and had our night of music. We didn’t challenge the police and and we- a mostly white crew- weren’t hurt.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are few police forces more infamously violent than the Oakland P.D., and the competition from San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), and elsewhere is great.  However there is another that the Anti Police Terror Project, or APTP, says has “taken the crown” as “the most rogue, violent and corrupt police department in the Bay Area”. That is the police department of Vallejo, California. Vallejo is a city in Solano County on the west shore of the San Pablo Bay, with a bit over a hundred thousand people. It is known as home to  thriving art and LGBTQIA2s+ communities. On a darker note, three victims attributed to the infamous Zodiac Killer were found in or near the city. His identity remains wrapped in mystery.

The  killers of Willie McCoy a.k.a. rapper Willie Boar are not a mystery.  Their names are Ryan McMahon, Collin Eaton, Bryan Glick, Jordon Patzer, Anthony Romero-Cano and Mark Thompson who were officers of the Vallejo Police Department. In February of this year while he was sleeping in his car, these killer cops fired 55 rounds over 3.5 seconds into the body of the 20 year old in a fast food establishment’s parking lot. According to Oakland attorney Melissa Nold, he was shot in the “center of his face and throat and blowing off part of his ear.” He was also shot in the chest, shoulder, and arm. The police claimed they tried to wake him. They claim he was reaching for a gun in his lap. His family disputed this. When body cam footage was released, the police claims were put to the lie. No gun was revealed in the footage, and more to the point, they made no effort to wake him. Instead, they stood around the car, talking calmly about five minutes. They pointed their firearms at his head for over a minute, firing when the victim scratched his shoulder. His family described his killing as an execution by firing squad. The video reveals this description to be apt.

Officer Ryan McMahn killed McCoy one year after shooting a fleeing man in the back. Ronell Foster had been riding a bicycle and minding his own business, harming and threatening nobody. McMahn claimed he merely wanted “to educate the public on the dangers that this person was creating for himself and the traffic on Sonoma Boulevard.” He asked Foster to stop, and described the 33 year old Black man as having a “deer in the headlights look”. before pedalling away. It would have been entirely reasonable for Foster to fear for his life and hope to escape yet another killer cop. If so, at the very least his characterization of McMahon would have been correct. This murderer in uniform chased Mr. Foster into a dark alley, armed with a firearm, pepper spray, a taser, and a flashlight. According to McMahn, he fired his taser, but it had no effect on the man who then, the report says, wrested the flashlight and was menacing the officer with it. We have no way to substantiate this as the body cam footage was apparently off until the shooting. What we do know is that Mr. Foster had been shot in the back and back of the head seven times. We see the flashlight falling to the ground when the cam was allegedly turned on, although Adante Pointer shared photos to substantiate his claim that it was the officer beating the victim before the shooting.

These are only two examples of innocent victims of a lethal police department. Mario Romero is another Black victim, killed by VPD on 9/2/2012. Angel Rico Ramos, murdered in his home,by Vallejo Police on January 23, 2017 by VPD, is another man of color so murdered. One might expect that this record would lead to some form of accountability for the department. To the contrary, just last month, not only were all officers given a sizable raise, but the rules on mandatory drug testing for officers have been loosened. Previously, if an officer had killed someone through a shooting, vehicular accident, or via any other means or had caused great bodily harm, the department could order drug testing. Now this power has been placed solely at the discretion of the supervisor, and only if they declare that they had reason to believe intoxication played a role. Accountability has not increased, it’s been significantly decreased and the killer cops are taking home a heftier paycheck.

It is yet unclear how many more murders have flown under the radar, escaping public scrutiny. It would be easy to describe all of the above as rogue cops. However, such a description assumes that they are an aberration, an exception to the rule.

The first modern police force was formed in Boston in 1838. Capitalists in the shipping industry had previously been hiring private guards to safeguard their goods and property,. They sold the idea to the public whose taxes would fund the armed force as being for the greater good, when in reality it was a scheme to save themselves the cost of paying for the protection of their property and commodities. As police spread, they adapted to serve the needs of the capitalists in each region. And when they were formed in the South, the “property” with which plantation owners extracted profit from their fields were African slaves. Slave catching patrols had existed since 1704, and it was natural that southern capitalists would be thrilled to have the public foot the bill by having the police take on this function. After the Civil War, they continued to serve the same class to stay in their position. They kept the freed Black people an underclass, sometimes trading in blue uniforms for white sheets. Meanwhile, they expanded their service to the capitalist class in a myriad ways, notably as brutally violent strikebreakers in the early 20th century.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded in 1966 as a means to protect Black bodies from police by monitoring their activities in the Black neighborhoods they brutalized. A charismatic leader in the party, Fred Hampton said in what was perhaps his most famous speech,

“When I leave, you’ll remember I said, with the last words on my lips, that I am a revolutionary. And you’re going to have to keep on saying that. You’re going to have to say that I am a proletariat, I am the people. I am not the pigs. You’ve got to make a distinction.”

Black Panthers were being killed and jailed by police with great frequency. Hampton understood the likelihood he’d meet this fate, and indeed he would be executed in the middle of the night in his own bed by a “firing squad” of police much like Willie McCoy faced. It was in the face of this reality that he laid out so simply and powerfully the reality of the irreconcilable antagonisms between the people and the police. His words serve and a reminder that we can’t be on the side of both, and must choose to side with the oppressed and working people. Hampton told us, as so many revolutionaries have, that the way to do this and to free ourselves is as proletarian revolutionaries.

When we see the brutality of Hampton’s killers, the Vallejo police force, or any other agencies in the Imperial core, we are not seeing a righteous institution violated from within, we are seeing the nature of the beast.  U.S. police are inseparable from their historic and present functions of serving the bourgeois class. They have never broken from their function of keeping workers down, protecting capitalists’ property, and keeping oppressed nationalities and peoples from gaining the strength needed to overthrow the oppressors. The leftist slogan “All Cops Are Bastards,” often shortened to ACAB, is not contradicted by the aunt or uncle with a badge who loves their children and takes care of their neighbor’s dog when they’re out of town. It is an acknowledgement of the truth that the function of the police is to repress Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples and the entire working class, uphold the systems of our exploitation, and protect the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.  All police, to the last, serve this function. They avoid accountability through ever evolving means, from herding white kids away from Black neighborhoods to selective use of body cams. Theirs is an institution that can never be reformed under capitalism, as our current state of late capitalism relies on them to hold the system together. They are enemies of the working class and oppressed peoples and are irreconcilable with our liberation. We will challenge the police, and as is their nature. some of us will be hurt. But on the other side of this struggle, we will free ourselves of their brutality as we topple the bourgeoisie and build a world by us for us.

This post was modified on October 29, 2019. The photo was updated and a video was added.

1 Comment

  1. “The role of the police is not to serve and protect the people. It is to serve and protect the system that rules over the people. To enforce the relations of exploitation and oppression, the conditions of poverty, misery and degradation into which the system has cast people and is determined to keep people in. The law and order the police are about, with all of their brutality and murder, is the law and the order that enforces all this oppression and madness.”

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