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Changing the narrative in Grand Rapids: Deconstructing a Pro-Police meme

May 7, 2019

I make it a point to monitor the Facebook pages of the Grand Rapids Police Department, the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association and Friends of GRCops.

I do this for a variety of reasons. First, they monitor my FB page and the pages of numerous other organizers and autonomous community groups. Second, I think it is important that we are aware of how they present themselves to the public, since there is  a clear propaganda war being waged by the police, their supporters and those in the community that are critical of police. Lastly, I think it is important to track what they are posting, since it can help us dismantle the idea that policing as it currently exits is normal and necessary. It is to this last point that wanted to address a recent post of the page Friends of GRCops. I found this post the other day:

This post is instructive in some many ways. Such a statement is not only misleading, it presents the world through a binary lens, where you only have the good guys (cops) and the bad guys (criminals) in society. Presenting police in this binary fashion also serves to remove all historical context, thus erasing the origin and history of policing in the US.

In Kristian Williams’ important book, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, we discover that the origin of policing in the US has its roots in the organized violence of slave patrols. The function of slave patrols was to police slaves, and if necessary, capture and return them to the slave plantations. After the Civil War, police forces spent a great deal of their time forcing newly freed blacks into subservient economic and political roles. During the Jim Crow period, local police departments made it their business to enforce Jim Crow laws as well as to either participate or stand by as white people lynched black people.

In addition, if anyone is even remotely familiar with the history of labor organizing in the US, then you would know that in almost ever instance, local police departments sided with robber barons and bosses, often beating and arresting workers who were on strike or engaged in other militant tactics to win worker demands. (see Jeremy Brecher’s book Strike!)

Another way to look at the real function of police departments is to look at any social movements in history – civil rights movements, indigenous movements, environmental, animal rights, LGBTQ or anti-war movements – then ask yourself how the police interact with these movements. Overwhelmingly, the function of police is to subvert, harass, intimidate and arrest those who participate in social movements. In other words, the police protect power and maintain the status quo.

A second major reason that the Friends of GRCops meme is instructive, it that it also dismisses the lived experience of those who have been the targets of police, those who have been harassed and those who have been abused. Black and brown communities have suffered the most at the hands of the police. This does not mean that people “want to make war” against the cops, it simply means that the police have a long history of targeting communities of color. As Alex Vitale, author of the recent book, The End of Policing, says:

Well-trained police following proper procedure are still going to be arresting people for mostly low-level offenses, and the burden will continue to fall primarily on communities of color because that is how the system is designed to operate – not because of the biases or misunderstandings of officers.

The Friends of GRCops meme is ridiculous and arrogant, even if we just look at what has happened in the past few years in Grand Rapids. The anger and frustration with the GRPD is completely understood when we think about the fact that the police have been pulling guns on black youth, latino youth, beating people who do not comply and the fact that the most recent study conducted once again demonstrates that the GRPD racially profile black and brown motorists.

One additional reason why the Friends of GRCops meme is instructive, is that it wants us all to believe that the police are the only one who can provide public safety. Again, such a notion is ridiculous, since the function of the police has not historically been about public safety. However, even if we accept that notion, there are plenty of examples where communities provided their own safety.

For instance, during the famous 1919 General Strike in Seattle, which saw over 100,000  workers actively striking, labor organizers actually patrolled the streets to keep people safe. In the south in the 1950s, Robert Williams and other military veterans, responding to white nationalist violence, organized gun clubs to defend the black community. This same tactic was expanded to many other black communities in the south, where eventually groups formed for self defense, called the Deacons for Defense and Justice. We often forget that the Black Panthers were called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, since one of their primary goals was to provide safety for their communities.

In 1970, the Black Panthers hosted the Revolutionary People’s Convention, which included delegates from the American indian Movement, the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, the Gay Liberation Front and the Students for a Democratic Society, One of the proposals that came out of this convention was that the existing legal system would be replaced and that policing would be done by each community, utilizing volunteers in what Huey Newton called a community-controlled “peace force.”

More recently the Movement for Black Lives continues this tradition, with more community control and accountability, stating that they want:

Direct democratic community control of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, ensuring that communities most harmed by destructive policing have the power to hire and fire officers, determine disciplinary action, control budgets and policies, and subpoena relevant agency information.

In fact, there are more and more groups that are advocating that when a problem arises, groups are advocating that people shouldn’t call the cops, rather they should seek out other sources, of which there are many

Lastly, there was a fabulous example of how people can keep each other safe, which took place during the May 1st A Day Without Immigrants march. Movimiento Cosecha allies have been offering crowd safety trainings over the past 2 years so that immigrants feel safe coming to actions. People learn skills and tactics on how to practice community safety, especially for marginalized populations. Those of us who have white privilege can leverage that privilege to benefit the safety of immigrants in any number of ways and the May 1st march was a great example of this, as can be seen in the meme here, which is a perfect counter to the meme at the top from Friends of GRCops.

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