by Brian Bean
April 18, 2017
DONALD TRUMP’S attorney general is sending a clear message: The new administration wants to be at the head of the pro-cop backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement.
On April 3, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo ordering a review of all Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations and reform agreements of local police departments across the country.
“Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective policing,” the memo stated. “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” The new DOJ policy is widely expected to lead to a reversal of federal oversight of many of the country’s most corrupt and violent police forces.
Over the past two years, a series of high-profile DOJ investigations–carried out because of the pressure exerted by massive protests after the police murders of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Laquan McDonald in Chicago–brought into the national spotlight some of the entrenched racism, unchecked violence, willful negligence and unaccountability in U.S. police forces.
The federal investigations didn’t punish any of the killer cops, but their exposure of police wrongdoing enraged the Fraternal Order of Police, which has been a Trump ally since the start of his campaign.
The likelihood that Sessions is going to end DOJ oversight poses a challenge to activists fighting police terror, who have often utilized the civil rights-era strategy of appealing to the federal government to curtail local abuses.
There were always contradictions in a strategy that looked to racist and violent national institutions to oversee racist and violent local ones. Now it’s going to be especially important for organizers to connect a strategy for reforms to a call for the reduction and dismantling of the police, based on an understanding of the destructive role they play for working-class people.
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THE DOJ investigation of Ferguson cited a litany of police abuse and concluded that disparities in arrest, tickets and use of force “stemmed from unlawful bias against and stereotypes against African Americans.”
It described a department that sought to increase revenue by carrying out a dizzying number of stops and tickets by an almost entirely white police force against the majority Black population of the St. Louis suburb. Additionally, a trove of internal e-mails between police and municipal officials revealed common racist invectives aimed at the Black community.
The Baltimore report concluded that the Baltimore Police Department “routinely violated” the constitutional rights of and used excessive force against Baltimoreans that “overwhelmingly” affected Black residents.
The report stated that police practices “perpetuate and fuel a multitude of issues rooted in poverty and race” and have “unnecessary adversarial interactions” with community members. Racist comments and slurs were found to be commonplace in the department.
The Chicago report was the most recent of the three and perhaps the most damning, outlining how the second-largest police force in the country routinely harasses and intimidates Chicago’s Black and Brown residents with impunity.
Chicago cops are depicted as though they believe they are in a B-grade movie, chasing suspects through alleyways, shooting out of moving cars, using torture to extract confessions, making dirty deals for guns and dropping off kids in rival gang territories to scare them, all the while dropping racist slurs and taunts.
These DOJ reports are a step forward in that they brought criminal conduct by the police to light, but they also seriously limited in that none of them have delivered the most basic demands for justice coming from those protesting killer cops.
In Ferguson, the feds backed up Officer Darren Wilson’s version of the events that led him to murder Mike Brown, even while its report painted a picture of a police department so duplicitous that none of its members should be believed even about a parking ticket.
In every instance, the proposed reforms, from body cameras to more training, fall woefully short of the urgency of the level of brutality and racism recited in page after page of the reports. The stern rebukes of racist practices are followed up with meek shuffling of Titanic deck chairs.
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EVEN CONSIDERING these severe limitations, however, Sessions’ decision to disavow these reports is a grotesque affront to those victimized by the police and all their loved ones and supporters.
With a one-and-a-half-page memorandum, Trump’s attorney general negated over 500 pages of evidence gathered over years by his own Justice Department. Amazingly, Sessions even admitted to a reporter at the end of February that he hadn’t read the reports on Ferguson and Chicago.
The message being sent to police in those two cities and across the country is chillingly clear: you have complete impunity.
Sessions has a long documented of racism, including his infamous claim when he was a U.S. attorney to be “okay” with the Ku Klux Klan while his office was investigating a case of lynching committed by that very organization.
Sessions is also another example–like Scott Pruitt in the Environmental Protection Agency and Betsy DeVos in the Department of Education–of Trump’s strategy of naming cabinet officials who have made clear their intention to destroy the very departments they are charged with.
Sessions’ position against the use of consent decrees, which the federal government has long used to change the practice of local bodies, sets a dangerous standard of denying admission of any systemic problem with the country’s police departments. “The misdeeds of individual bad actors,” declares the new DOJ memo, “should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement and agencies perform in keeping Americans safe.”
After years of protests against police atrocities and a national conversation about why U.S. police commit so many more murders than most of their international counterparts, Trump and Sessions are bringing back the tired “a few bad apples” excuse for police misconduct–and then pledging to look the other way and stay out of it.
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ACROSS THE country, police departments and their cartel organization–the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)–are driving a counteroffensive against the blows they sustained from the visibility of their crimes because of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Trump has had a series of meetings with the FOP since taking office–most recently at the end of March, less than a week before the issuance of Sessions memorandum–during which Trump assured the cops that any federal money cut off from “sanctuary cities” wouldn’t affect police department budgets.
Chicago has been a focal point for Trump’s pro-cop agenda. He’s used the city’s murder rate, which should be seen as an indictment of American racism and poverty, as the latest version of “Willie Horton”: Republican racial code to criminalize Black poverty and justify the removal of oversight and fetters from police powers.
Dean Angelo, the former head of the Chicago FOP, hasn’t seemed to mind Trump using his city as a poster child for ineffective policing. Instead, Angelo came out of the Trump meeting gushing about how the president “was truly supportive of us.”
The Trump-FOP love affair has already having real ramifications in Chicago.
Last fall, the city’s police chief Eddie Johnson–in anticipation of the release of the DOJ report regarding Chicago and under community pressure from the massive protests against the killing of Laquan McDonald–adopted a slightly more restrictive “use of force policy” for the department.
But last month, Johnson issued a revised draft that walks back the meager reforms from the previous document. Among other changes, the new “use of force” policy removes language requiring cops to use the “least amount” of force with suspects; states that police can use force even if an alternative to such force exists; and expressly says that police are not obligated to provide medical aid.
Another reflection of the new mood in Chicago is Kevin Graham’s election last week as the city’s new FOP president.
Graham and his “Blue Voice” slate ran on an anti-reform message, and Graham refuses to speak to the media because of its “anti-police ideology,” a charge that bears a striking resemblance to Trumps pressroom grudges and temper tantrums.
The fact that Chicago cops saw Dean Angelo–who ensured that the union hired Laquan McDonald’s murderer and repeatedly lambasted any criticism of police while most of the city gasped at seeing the execution of the 17-year-old youth–as a sellout reflects the dangerous belligerence among cops that is being stoked by Trump, and now being given a green light by Sessions.
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THE DISGUSTING encouragement of police violence by Republicans like Trump and Sessions shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Democrats haven’t offered any meaningful alternative, and continues not to offer any.
In Chicago, whatever meager reforms being pushed by Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel only came after Emanuel faced widespread calls to resign for his role in covering up the McDonald murder for 400 days.
The mayor’s chief reform is to replace the ineffectual Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) with a Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) that still won’t have the authority to issue its own subpoenas or do anything other than make recommendations. Meanwhile, Rahm is hiring 1,000 more cops and increasing police presence in schools to combat gun violence while offering no solutions to the poverty and hopelessness at the root of the violence
After Trump’s late night Twitter threat to “send in the Feds” if Chicago’s crime rate doesn’t fall, Emanuel’s response was “just send them.”
Now Trump’s apocalyptic vision of a crime-ridden Chicago is being used by Sessions to allow police departments around the country to be even more violent and criminal themselves.
The “hands-off” position of the Sessions DOJ will undermine any strategy of appealing for reforms from a Democratic administration, which yielded some needed exposure under Barack Obama, but no substantial change.
None of the Obama recommendations presented any alternative to the police monitoring themselves. None put forward a goal of citizens having less contact with the police, or acknowledged that the solution to crime lies not in more police but in addressing the widespread poverty, racism and hopelessness in so many communities.
Building an opposition to the police in Trump’s America will be a challenge, but we have no choice. If police murders happened at a rate of over 1,000 per year under the supposedly “anti-police” Obama administration, they will certainly continue in the reactionary climate of today’s official politics.
Just as they did under Obama, cops under Trump won’t reduce violence but increase it, by putting more young people in jail and destroying more lives, especially Black and Brown ones. We have to connect the struggle against Trump with the movement against racism and police violence–and build greater understanding that cops have the same regressive social function regardless of which party is in power.
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