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Cell Blocks for Killer Cops?

Supporting the jailing of cops who kill isn't incompatible with working to abolish prisons.

Protesters gather outside Baltimore City Hall the night charges were announced in Freddie Gray's death. Michael Rogers

On May 1, people in Baltimore poured into the streets in celebration after State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the six cops involved in the death of Freddie Gray would all face criminal charges, including second-degree murder against one of them. The filed charges were proof of the power of protest in Baltimore and the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Last year, the refusal of grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City to bring charges against officers for the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner sparked the movement’s biggest marches and actions yet. Just last month, in Chicago, protesters angrily demonstrated against the acquittal of Dante Servin, who was on trial for killing twenty-two-year-old Rekia Boyd in 2012.

Though an indictment is a long way from a conviction, the charges in Baltimore showed people weary of seeing police go free — no matter how awful and well-documented their violence — that protest can have an impact.

So it’s reasonable to think that anyone participating in the Black Lives Matter movement would want to see the cops responsible for the epidemic of police murder indicted, prosecuted, convicted, and put behind bars. But this issue has become a topic of debate among some groups of activists.

For example, some protesters at a Chicago demonstration last year objected to the slogan “Send the killer cops to jail.” Similarly, at a public forum, a respected leader in the movement commented that she thought it was positive that Jon Burge — the former Chicago police commander who oversaw the torture of more than one hundred black and Latino suspects — was now out of prison.

The objection is that putting such police officers on trial and locking them up lends legitimacy to a system that is racist and violent to the core, and encourages people to have a false faith in it.

I agree that the system is racist and violent to the core, but I also think that activists can call for the prosecution and imprisonment of killer cops, while at the same time upholding their principles, including a vision of a future world without prisons or cops. In fact, the struggle to hold police responsible for their racist violence can help make the movement bigger, politically stronger, and more confident — so that it can continue to organize for those bigger changes.

The people in the movement who raise questions about jailing police officers who kill are prison abolitionists. Their logic is that if we are in favor of dismantling prisons, we shouldn’t be in favor of sending anyone to them now. They argue that we ought to support releasing prisoners now, even if they are people like Burge.

I’m also in favor of a society without prisons. We want to work toward a day where no one is incarcerated and where prisons are boarded up for good or, if possible, converted into useful buildings. A society that got rid of prisons wouldn’t have a police force like the one today, and it certainly would come up with far more advanced ways of coping with individuals who attempt to harm others.

But even to think about such a future is to invite an obvious point: we are very far from that now. And so the question is, what helps us build a movement that can work toward that goal in the future — but that can also confront the abuse and violence inflicted by police every day, disproportionately against people of color?

In order to address this, we need to look at the bigger picture.

As Eugene Debs often said, the judicial system in the US is like a net designed to catch the minnows and let the whales slip through. Add in the racist nature of the system, and the inevitable result is that prisons are filled with poor people who are disproportionately people of color.

Wealthy people commit the same crimes every day, but they can hire good lawyers and avoid conviction, or at least get light sentences. Plus, there are other crimes that the rich commit daily, but no one is ever punished since their crimes are legal in a capitalist society.

Because the judicial system is part of a state apparatus to maintain the status quo, the men and women who run that system are also above the law. Prosecutors commit misconduct on a daily basis. They hide evidence, go after the wrong people even when they know otherwise, threaten and cajole suspects — and even if they are caught, they are hardly even reprimanded.

The same is true of police. Even when officers are caught on videotape committing clearly improper and illegal acts — like the beating of Rodney King in 1991 or the chokehold murder of Garner last summer — they almost never see the inside of a jail cell.

Of the dozens of cops and detectives who worked under Burge, only he went to jail — and on a federal perjury charge. He was never charged by the Cook County prosecutors he worked with as a cop. The other torturers continued working for the Chicago Police Department, some still to this day.

So too with everyday police harassment and abuse. In Chicago, journalists and activists pressured the city to release a list of police officers with more than 10 complaints against them from 2001 to 2006. There are 662 cops on the list — some of them with as many as 50 abuse complaints, which adds up to about one per month. Nearly every single abuse complaint on the list is followed by the number “600” (indicating that no action was taken against the officer).

Another report from a University of Chicago law professor found that between 2002 and 2004, there were 10,149 complaints filed against police abuse. Only 19 of these complaints led to suspensions of a week or more.

The message is clear: cops can expect to do what they want and suffer no consequences. On the rare occasions when they are punished, it’s usually because of mass pressure. The North Charleston, South Carolina cop who shot Walter Scott in the back might have gone free, even though his crime was documented on video. But because he committed the killing during a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is shining a spotlight on police violence, he is one of the very few instances in which a cop is tried for murder for an on-duty shooting.

When our side, against all odds, is able to get a cop indicted and even convicted, it doesn’t give the system greater legitimacy. Both the struggle itself, and the victories when we do win, help expose the racism and violence of the police and the racial and social inequality of a system that claims to stand for justice, but carries out the opposite.

There is another reason to demand that cops who kill go to jail: the deterrent effect. This is what you hear most of all from the family members of victims of police violence — that they are fighting for justice so no one has to go through what they have.

Constance Malcolm’s eighteen-year-old son, Ramarley Graham, was fatally shot in 2012 while standing in the bathroom of his New York City apartment. The city agreed to a $3.9 million settlement with the family, but Malcolm told Colorlines in February that real justice would be seeing Richard Haste, the cop who killed her son, “fired and prosecuted to the fullest extend of the law.”

When the interviewer asked Constance if “keeping up the fight is the ultimate display of faith in the system,” she replied, “I would say, if you just sit and let police kill us and not be held accountable, it will keep happening.”

Ron Kuby, a left-wing defense lawyer in New York, agrees. He points out that the money for settlements with victims of police violence or their families doesn’t come out of the police budget, but from local government. Because the financial pinch isn’t felt by police departments. Kuby argues that only criminal prosecutions have any chance of changing police behavior.

Organizing to get police indicted and sent to prison isn’t easy, and even when it is successful, the punishment is almost always too lax. The murder of Oscar Grant III at an Oakland transit station in 2009 caused an upsurge of angry protest. After months of organizing, the cop responsible, Johannes Mehserle, was charged with murder, making him the first cop in California to be tried for murder for a shooting committed on duty.

But the jury eventually voted to convict Mehserle of manslaughter, the least serious charge. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and only served one behind bars. “What you take from this is that Oscar Grant’s life was not worth very much,” said John Burris, a lawyer for Grant’s family.

In Chicago, activists are reeling after a judge directed an acquittal for Servin, who shot and killed Rekia Boyd in 2012. Boyd and some friends were in a park when Servin, who was off duty at the time, got angry that they were being noisy. While in his car, he fired off five bullets over his shoulder from his unregistered Glock. One struck Boyd in the head, killing her. Yet the judge even cleared Servin on a charge of reckless conduct and reckless discharge of a firearm.

The goal of everyone protesting police violence and the judicial system is to make sure black lives count for more than this. This will only be secured in a world where racism is eradicated and the current system is overturned completely. But in order to get to such a place, we need to build a struggle organized around concrete demands in the here and now.

To take a different example, the fight to win a $15 minimum wage is a concrete and ambitious demand around which a strong movement has blossomed. Achieving this aim won’t do away with exploitation of low-wage workers. But as long as we have wages, we are in favor of workers getting a fairer share of what is owed to them (even if under capitalism, they will never be paid everything that is owed to them).

Winning better wages strengthens the movement by showing that struggle can achieve real gains for workers. Does this mean we are sowing faith in capitalism because a just demand has been achieved? No — because as we fight, we also articulate what it will take to win a society with true equality, without exploitation.

The same thing applies to the struggle against racism and police brutality. In this fight, we should support measures that can curb the abuses and violence of police. A number come to mind: demilitarizing police departments that have gotten surplus military equipment from the Pentagon; making every cop wear a body camera; requiring all interrogations be videotaped; diverting government funding from police departments to useful social programs; and creating police oversight boards that are genuinely responsive to the communities cops patrol.

Winning some or even all of these things wouldn’t end racist police violence once and for all. We know, for example, that police will find ways to shut off body cameras — and even if they don’t, just being captured on video carrying out a killing doesn’t guarantee that a cop will be punished, as the case of Garner and many others show.

But the video evidence is important for our side, even in these cases, because it helps activists counter the lies of police. In fact, there is studies have found that body cameras cut down on police abuse; even this small measure of relief is important. And we don’t end our list of demands with body cameras.

Win or lose, the fight to win these advances can focus greater attention on the injustices driving the movement, put police and the judicial system on the defensive, and give more people confidence that change is possible.

We aren’t yet in control of the state, and until we are, we can’t do away with prisons and cops. But we can work toward a society that doesn’t need either one and talk about how we can get there. We just can’t operate as if we live in that society already.

We need to say that the long-term goal of our struggle is a world without police and prisons — and in the here and now, we want police held accountable to the same law they impose on the rest of us, including going to jail for committing murder.