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Coming to terms with the function of policing in the US and in Grand Rapids Part I

July 19, 2020

In recent days, more and more people have become aware of federal officers in unmarked vans grabbing people off the streets in Portland, Oregon. 

While some may find this practice alarming, it is consistent with the history of state repression in the US. For example, in 1919, federal agents rounded up some 3,000 dissidents, many of whom were anarchists, socialists or members of the radical labor union, the IWW. This action was led by US Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, which is why it is often referred to as the Palmer Raids

It is vitally important that those of us committed to collective liberation become familiar with this history of state repression. Not only is state repression an integral part of US history, it is important in terms of how we organize against it. An excellent overview of this history of state repression can be found in the book, Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States, by Jules Boykoff.

Additionally, we have to fundamentally alter our understanding of policing in the US. The recent Black Lives Matter uprising that is happening in cities all across the US are beginning to wake people up to the realities of US policing. There is so much about policing that we need to unlearn, especially since our perceptions of what law enforcement does is so different from what the documented history can teach us. However, it is understandable that our understanding of policing is so biased,when one considers how the function of policing has been presented to us in K-12 education and how cops are represented in the dominant cultural narratives in the US – TV shows, movies, etc.

How the GRPD deals with dissent

When it comes to how law enforcement deals with public dissent and dissidents, we need to understand that the police rely on two fundamental strategies:

Negotiated Management – also called Command and Control techniques – this is when police attempt to negotiate actions, always with the goal to manage it. This often takes the form of cops asking people to get permits to protest, showing up at a protest to let everyone know that they are there to keep people safe, when in fact they are there to manage or control public dissent.

Escalated Force – this is where the state uses surveillance, infiltration, negative press, pre-emptive arrests, protest zones and the use of less lethal weaponry to suppress public resistance. This is what we have seen in Grand Rapids beginning on May 30th, where they have used weapons agains the public, relied on curfews, brought in the National Guard, sought to control the public narrative in the news media and have created the good protester/bad protester dichotomy.

Until we come to terms with these facts, we will continue to view the police as a necessary good and only seek to reform the GRPD. When we speak the language of copspeak – of police reform – we see the world as police do. Police reform is the science of police legitimation accomplished through the art of euphemism. Police reform speaks in a language carefully calibrated to limit our ability to understand police as anything other than an equitable force and indispensable institution.

Ultimately, we have to see that police and policing, even in West Michigan, function to protect power. Black communities have understood this about the US, since the country was founded. James Baldwin, in his famous 1966 essay on policing, referred to policing as a function of an occupying power. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense used the same language several years after Baldwin wrote his essay, always referring to the police as an occupying force.

However, white communities don’t tend to see the police through the same lens, especially white liberal communities like Grand Rapids. As Alex Vitale, in his groundbreaking book, The End of Policing:

For liberals, police reform is always a question of taking steps to restore the legitimacy of policing…………They want the police to be better trained, more accountable, and less brutal and racist – laudable goals, but they leave intact the basic institutional functions of the police, which have never really been about public safety and crime control………..The reality is that police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and highly managing the behaviors of poor and nonwhite people; those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements.”

This notion of policing and what function the GRPD plays within the system of power, is becoming clearer to more and more people. What has become apparent to more people since May 30th is the GRPD’s use of the two strategies noted above, both the Negotiated Management strategy and the Escalated Force strategy. For the past 7 weeks both strategies have been employed by the GRPD, and at times simultaneously.

We have been attempting to document the GRPD’s use of these two strategies, beginning with the article we wrote just after the May 30th protest, entitled, Don’t Let the System Control the Narrative on the Black Lives Matter protest in Grand Rapids

Since then, we have written numerous articles on the GRPD, in the following order:

A Brief History of how the GRPD responds to protests and dissent 

We need a campaign to Defund the GRPD 

Is there really any such thing as a Peaceful Protest?

They are going to do what they want: Grand Rapids, the GRPD and the illusion of Democracy 

How did a third of the City’s Budget get designated to the GRPD: The Safety 95 Campaign and White fear in Grand Rapids 

Grand Rapids Police Officers Association releases statement against the calls for Defunding the GRPD 

Local news reports Cop exonerated from shooting civilian with 40mm chemical round during the May 30 uprising in Grand Rapids, but fails to discuss the Riot-Control Industrial Complex 

Grand Rapids City officials, deception and Defunding the GRPD

WOODTV8 uses far right sources to demonize anti-racist and anti-fascist movements 

Grand Rapids news media acts as a conduit for the GRPD, twice in the same day 

The GRPD & Respectability Politics vs Community Control over public safety 

Ultimately, what we have been doing at GRIID is to provide an ongoing counter-narrative to what the City of Grand Rapids, the GRPD and the commercial news media have been presenting since May 30th. And we will continue to do so as long as the resistance to state violence continues in this community.

In Part II, we will look at how the GRPD uses counterinsurgency tactics to management and suppress public dissent.

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