Straight to Court: The Case for Private Prosecutions

If there is one issue that has marked American society in the last year, it has been a lack of accountability for violence against people of color – especially by law enforcement. Men like Michael Brown, John Crawford III, and Eric Garner all died at the hands of police officers who were never even indicted, let alone tried and found guilty in a court of law. The rampant impunity that negligent police officers enjoy has been the rallying point for many protests and demonstrations since last summer.

The process from investigation to indictment to trial is usually not one that favors the alleged perpetrator, but mounting evidence shows that the system protects its own as multiple police officers escape accountability for actions both minor and egregious. In the United States, if anyone commits a crime, it is up to the state to hold them accountable – even if agents of the state are the ones who stand accused. This is part of a long tradition in which crimes are seen not only as crimes against a particular victim, but against the state and society itself. State prosecutors punish suspected criminals by defending the rule of law that binds our society together, not by merely seeking justice on behalf of victims.

This is one of the ideals on which our justice system rests, but in practice this turns out to be a legal version of “#AllLivesMatter” as the victim all but disappears in cases labeled “State v. Defendant,” leaving the quest for justice in the hands of a state attorney. These public prosecutors don’t always dole out justice evenly, however, and throughout history minority victims have faced huge obstacles in gaining any modicum of justice. Recently, in police killing after controversial police killing, news cameras have awaited announcements from county prosecutors and state attorneys who have decided not to file charges. More often than not, the state has failed to hold itself accountable.

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Black Lives Matter demonstrators in NYC last November.

This is not surprising. On top of the racial disparities of the Unites States criminal justice system, the fact is that prosecutors work alongside police departments on a regular basis, and as such we should not expect them to suddenly be willing to crack down on police violence. Prosecutors have tremendous power at the early stages of an investigation if they want an indictment, but recent history shows that this isn’t always the goal. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCullough showed as much when he shepherded Darren Wilson’s case into non-existence and then reprimanded the media and demonstrators rather than make any attempt to discipline a police force responsible for preying on the residents of Ferguson.

Even in the rare instance that prosecutors do indict police officers, they face incredible obstacles and costs. When District Attorney Kari Brandenburg first began considering handing down indictments for two police officers for shooting and killing a homeless man in Albuquerque, police began investigating her for allegedly bribing witnesses related to an incident involving her son in an attempt to “destroy [her] career.” Later, when Brandenburg finally did issue the indictments, she immediately paid for it. The next day, when a prosecutor from her office went to investigate a different, unrelated murder, police denied her entry to the scene, citing a “conflict of interest.” Such blatant intimidation and brazen attempts to deny victims justice is only possible because police have so much power in American society and the U.S. criminal justice system.

In the face of such obstacles, we should expect most prosecutors to default to supporting police departments, regardless of the evidence or public opinion. Mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, petitions, speeches, and even a direct line to City Hall have failed to change the course of police impunity in New York as well as Ferguson. Very rarely are indictments handed down for police officers who kill people in the line of duty, and even more rarely are they found guilty.

In the absence of criminal indictments, the families of victims have tried to seek some semblance of justice in civil court.  Just in the last year, the relatives of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and many others have filed or considered filing civil suits or wrongful death claims against those responsible for their loved ones’ murders. However, while these lawsuits may win the families of victims some compensation for their loss, there is little done to actually hold their killers to account.

Protesters in Union Square this April.

Protesters in Union Square this April.

When civil suits are filed against police officers for excessive force or other forms of misconduct, the police officers themselves seldom pay. The penalty often doesn’t even come from the police department at all, but rather from the city’s municipal coffers. The Baltimore Sun released an investigative piece last September – spread widely in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s murder in Baltimore this spring – that found that over one hundred people have won court settlements against the city’s police department in the last four years alone (this represents only one third of the 317 lawsuits filed against Baltimore police in the same time period). The city spent $5.7 million in pay outs in addition to $5.8 million in legal costs defending officers.

Little to none of this money comes from the police officers in question, however. According to the Baltimore Sun investigation, “an agreement between the city and police union guarantees that taxpayers will pay court damages” in cases in which officers were following department guidelines on the use of force, and “in such settlements, the city and the officers involved do not acknowledge any wrongdoing.” There is some degree of restitution, but no accountability and no incentive for police officers to change their behavior. From the police officers’ standpoint, even when found guilty, nothing changes.

Most recently, the City of New York reached a $5.9 million settlement with the family of Eric Garner in order to avoid a civil lawsuit. However, this money won’t come from the police department, and as a result will not give any disincentive to the NYPD – even though the officer who killed Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, did so using a chokehold maneuver banned by the department. Pantaleo remains unindicted and at his desk job, and other officers are well aware that there is no punishment for breaking the rules and killing unarmed civilians.

In a study [pdf] of such lawsuits across the country, legal scholar Joanna C. Schwartz found that “between 2006 and 2011, in forty-four of the seventy largest law enforcement agencies across the country, officers paid just .02% of the dollars awarded to plaintiffs in police misconduct suits. In thirty-seven small and mid-sized law enforcement agencies, officers never contributed to settlements or judgments.” In a summary of her findings, Schwartz states that during this five year time span:

Governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement. Law enforcement officers in my study never satisfied a punitive damages award entered against them and almost never contributed anything to settlements or judgments— even when indemnification was prohibited by law or policy, and even when officers were disciplined, terminated, or prosecuted for their conduct.

With such protections in place, filing civil suits against police officers only hurts the cities that employ them. While there is hope that such actions would encourage cities to discipline such officers and do more due diligence in police training, hiring, and other responsibilities, this isn’t always the case. In Baltimore, while some officers were forced to resign, many kept their jobs even after being found liable in court because the department’s internal investigation cleared them. Even the state judicial system was secondary to the police departments’ own institutions – this reinforces the idea that police are above the law in nearly every possible way.

If public prosecutors won’t indict officers, and city governments shield them from the costs of civil suits, how can they be held accountable?

In the case of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old boy shot in Cleveland for carrying a toy gun in a park, there may be an answer.  In early June, more than six months after Rice was killed by Officer Tim Loehmann, the Cuyahoga County Sherrif’s Department concluded its investigation and handed over its findings to county prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty, who will present the findings to a grand jury to determine whether or not to proceed with indictments.

While everyone else is awaiting the grand jury’s decision, community leaders and activists in Cleveland have taken the initiative and asked a judge to issue an arrest warrant. By doing this, these community leaders are trying to circumvent the process that we have all seen unravel in the cases of other victims of police violence, from Staten Island to Ferguson. According to the New York Times, “Ohio law allows anyone with ‘knowledge of the facts’ to file a court affidavit and ask a judge to issue an arrest warrant. If approved, the arrest would be followed by a public hearing, and community members said that was preferable to allowing prosecutors to make the decision in secret.”

This attempt to secure a private prosecution rather than one through the state prosecutor’s offices may allow Rice’s family to have more control over the indictment, and may force Officer Loehmann to actually face accountability – or at least public scrutiny. If the tactic yields any success at all, it will be an important step towards attaining justice and give hope to those struggling to end police impunity.

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Such private prosecutions are incredibly rare in the United States, but they can be found in other parts of the world. In fact, private prosecutions have played a critical role in modern history as the foundations on which the emerging international justice movement has been built. In her book The Justice Cascade, political scientist Kathryn Sikkink points to human rights prosecutions in Greece, Portugal, and Argentina as beginning the shift towards individual accountability for serious state crimes like torture – a shift we continue to see today on the international stage.

In Greece, the first human rights prosecutions were held after the right-wing government was replaced in 1974. Just a month after the transition, Alexandros Lykourezos, a Greek lawyer who had returned from exile, initiated private prosecutions against military government leaders for treason for overthrowing the democratic government seven years prior. He was followed by others who filed charges against officials for torture and for the murder of students in the Athens Polytechnic uprising. According to Sikkink, “the private prosecutions both forced the government’s hand and relieved it of the burden of having to initiate prosecutions itself.” This brought about justice even in the face of government officials who did not want to focus on accountability for their predecessors.

Soon after, Argentina tried the leaders of the right-wing government that had tortured, murdered, and disappeared thousands of leftists and alleged communists in its Dirty War. Just two years after the junta stepped down in 1983, President Raúl Alfonsín’s government prosecuted several junta leaders. But it was everyday citizens and their use of private prosecutions that charged almost three hundred military officers for their actions during the authoritarian years.

When the expansion of accountability led to the attempted Easter Coup in 1987, Alfonsín issued amnesties for members of the junta to satisfy powerful criminals and prevent a return to the dark years of military rule. The strength of the military had forced the government to step back through its use of force and intimidation. Years later, however, the citizens of Argentina grew tired of impunity and once again used private prosecutions to find ways to hold torturers and murderers accountable.

Photos of those disappeared by the military junta commemorate the Dirty War in Argentina. (Photo by Pablo Flores, via Flickr)

Photos of those disappeared by the military junta commemorate the Dirty War in Argentina. (Photo by Pablo Flores, via Flickr)

Led by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an association of mothers and grandmothers whose children had been kidnapped and disappeared by the military junta, civilians began to push for true accountability in Argentina. In addition to torture and murder, there were many cases in which murdered communists lost their children, who were given away to military families to be raised away from “subversive” influence. The mothers’ association argued that the guilty military officials had never been charged with abducting children, and as a result had never been granted amnesty for such acts. After a decade of state-sanctioned impunity, the authoritarian leaders were back in the dock thanks not to the government’s prosecutors but to citizens determined to see justice carried out.

In these countries, as in Cleveland, private prosecutions served as a channel through which victims can seek not only compensation for their loss but true justice in the courtroom. As Sikkink states, “in a judicial system with strong private prosecution provisions, like that in Argentina, victims can insist that a prosecution continue, even when the state prosecutor would like it dropped.” In Cleveland, the Reverend Jawanza K. Colvin, a pastor and one of the community leaders bringing forth the charges, stated that “as citizens we are taking this matter and the matter of justice into our hands.” Walter Madison, a lawyer for Tamir Rice’s family, explained that “here we are taking some control of the process as citizens.” This is a democratic effort to do what democratically elected governments cannot – rein in police violence by ending impunity.

Just as private prosecutions helped victims find justice for torture and murder under right-wing authoritarian governments in southern Europe and South America, private prosecutions offer a new avenue to accountability for victims of police violence, among other prevalent crimes – especially for the more vulnerable in our society. While perhaps different than a state campaign of torture and murder, police violence in America is an issue with a long history and tragic consequences for America’s minorities. To many people of color, the difference between the two issues is probably not very big. For this reason, the actions of activists in Greece and Argentina are more than a sufficient parallel to efforts to hold police accountable for their actions. Private prosecutions are the link that ties them together.

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This method of bypassing the state is not new, but it is novel. As Noah Feldman explains, an Ohio state appellate court ruled that private prosecutions were legal in 1957, and in 1960 a state law was passed codifying the practice.

Feldman begins his analysis feeling uneasy about whether we should applaud such actions or not. “The law… would tend in the long run to give an advantage to families with greater means to greater political clout. They, after all, would have the resources to collect affidavits and go to court,” he says. “Tamir Rice’s family has that capacity because this case attracted national attention and the help of clergy and civil-rights leaders. But the families of other, less heralded victims might not be so fortunate.”

Feldman is right that our society is unequal, and that we shouldn’t expect a provision such as private prosecutions to be any different. As much as private prosecutions would give the victims of police violence, rape, and illegal foreclosures a chance to put cops, rapists, and bankers in jail, those in power would also have yet another tool which they could use to discipline the vulnerable. But we shouldn’t convince ourselves that they don’t already do this. The nation’s rich and powerful already have all the tools – one of which is the state – on their side. That’s why police impunity, rape culture, and unregulated capitalism are the norm and accountability for their perpetrators is the exception.

If we can bypass the state in these early stages, however, we could at least remove one part of the system that protects the powerful and ignores the downtrodden. Sure, those with the backing of executive boards and police unions would still have the best lawyers, but a public that was committed to accountability could rally behind victims of our society’s major ailments – inequality, racism, sexism. Private prosecutions could address issues of structural violence by indicting those responsible for carrying out direct violence and forcing the issue to be discussed in the open.

Despite this worry, Feldman closes his editorial by saying that “prosecutors’ offices are always going to be tempted to go easy on the police with whom they must work. Ohio’s law deserves to be copied – not just by a few jurisdictions, but by all.” Indeed, private prosecutions should be an option for the most underprivileged in our society to seek justice.

In the weeks and months that follow, Cuyahoga County’s justice system will be the next battleground for the struggle to hold police accountable. But whether County Prosecutor McGinty’s grand jury finds reason to indict officer Loehmann or not, the people have spoken, and they have asked a judge to issue indictments regardless. Just like in other countries plagued by state violence of one form or another in history, Cleveland now has a chance to move past impunity and towards real accountability.

Black Lives Matter, Direct Action, and the Sanders Campaign

The Left was rankled when Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted an event at Netroots Nation last month, putting Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders on the spot about racial inequality and police violence. The tension has continued since, with several protesters recently cutting a Sanders event short in Seattle. The actions have prompted a lot of anger and confusion from Sanders supporters that haven’t thrown their full support behind the movement for racial justice. The conversation is one worth having, but let’s try to avoid using this tone and maybe re-center the conversation on what black people in this country face, rather than the plight of liberal politicians. Instead, I’ll highlight what others have written about the issue, because they all put it more eloquently than I.

Speaking about radical left ontology, Nikhil Pal Singh addresses the potential – and necessary – roots of a truly anti-racist, radical leftism at Social Text:

In the US historical experience, black freedom struggles offer key insights into how radicalizing opposition to racial domination is a route to a universalist politics of human emancipation grounded in political economy. In the era before WWII, elite consensus viewed capitalist civilization as a racial and colonial project. Despite post-racial and post-colonial transition, it is not clear that capitalism suddenly stopped being what Cedric Robinson termed “racial capitalism.” From structural adjustment to subprime mortgages, the naturalization of the unequal worth of peoples has been retained as one of the surest ways to justify and profit from collectively enforced misery.

Activists shutting down a highway in New York City last November.

Activists shutting down a highway in New York City last November.

If Sanders is serious about pulling the Democratic Party to the left, it should require embracing anti-racism as the heart of the movement. As Malcolm Harris argues in his review of Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist, the conflict between an anti-racist political movement on one side and a liberal political campaign on the other is “between one theory of universal liberation and another, between a race-blind reformism and a shard from a shattered revolutionary tradition.”

One issue is that many liberals who aren’t on board with Black Lives Matter don’t understand this tactic. Even though a quick google search will define ‘direct action’ as “the use of strikes, demonstrations, or other public forms of protest rather than negotiation to achieve one’s demands,” many observers continue to believe that protesters should appeal to the Sanders campaign rather than interrupt it, that they should ask for a platform on racial justice rather than demand it. Never mind the fact that Black Lives Matter has, from the get-go, been about stopping the status quo and disrupting a system – and a society – that doesn’t bat an eye after ending black lives. That’s why highways, malls, and everything have been frequently shut down. That’s why campaign events are being shut down.

Activists marching through Penn Station last month, on the one year anniversary of Eric Garner's death.

Activists marching through Penn Station last month, on the one year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death.

Now, tactic and strategy are different, so it’s also worth addressing the strategy behind who gets interrupted. As Elie Mystal points out, this tried and true strategy of “[g]oing after your friends is effective when your enemies have already tuned you out and your friends have relegated your concerns to fringe issues inappropriate to talk about in front of independents. The Democratic party has pushed racial justice to the sidelines for a generation now. They nod and wink to the African-American community with the smug assurance of ‘what are you gonna do, vote for the Republican?'” The strategy has been used by the LGBT movement, the Tea Party, Occupy, etc. And, in light of the fact that Clinton’s events were notoriously controlled and closed to the public up until recently, it makes sense for activists to target Sanders. In fact, as Mystal points out, these actions have a really easy-to-follow logic:

White progressives are like, “Oh, but why don’t you go after Hillary Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders?” Fools. THIS IS HOW WE GO AFTER HILLARY CLINTON. The minute Sanders figures out that to defend himself he has to take the attack to Clinton on racial justice is the minute you’ll understand what is going on here. Bernie Sanders isn’t going to win. But he’s the only one who can pull Clinton to the left. If he wants to “be a friend” to the black people, then he needs to ACT like it.

And, Clinton aside, these actions have directly changed how the Sanders campaign conducts itself. Racial issues have been featured in messaging that used to be centered solely on economic inequality, and Sanders has begun to put together a platform on the issue (albeit still nascent), as Jamil Smith notes.

Smith is also smart to point out that problem is not so much Bernie Sanders himself as it is his supporters who quickly denounce activists for interrupting events, some even calling for activists to be arrested, apparently missing out on the whole year of left activism against police violence. As Malcolm Harris tweeted yesterday (pardon me while I paste them together):

People are taught to be really embarrassed and shamed and uncomfortable when someone disrupts a speaker. Seeing that language a lot. Public vulnerability in others is hella embarrassing. It’s scary when someone grabs a microphone, we’re all the sudden asked to pick sides. And the first instinct is to shame them for making this demand, for asking more of us than we expected. Easiest to boo and demand a return.

At the same time, Trump goes up there and talks about buying politicians in both parties. That system is obviously worth disrupting. At this point in the cycle it makes total sense to me to attack the electoral system’s ability to incorporate left dissent through the Dems.

I’ll give Jamil Smith the last word:

Sanders acolytes insist upon nominating their candidate first as an ally for black people. They act insulted that they are not trusted to recommend their candidate as the top advocate for black liberation in the presidential race. Yet, they and the campaign spend time devising tone-deaf chants (“We Stand Together”) to drown out any future protesters, as [campaign press secretary Symone] Sanders announced during a Sunday night event in Portland. I’m not against criticizing activist tactics, but the idea that #BlackLivesMatter protesters are hurting their cause by challenging candidates, even those considered allies, is based in the notion that the burden of making change is on them. It isn’t. Too many Sanders supporters appear to be caught up in their feelings when a protester rubs them the wrong way. They ask, why are the protesters so rude, or annoying, or targeting the “wrong guy”?

In response, I ask simply: Since when are protest tactics designed to make the people whom they are targeting feel more comfortable and less annoyed? And since when is Sanders, or Carson, or any candidate exempt from being pushed? Just since Friday, we’ve passed the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, having seen both another young man killed by a cop and more violence in Ferguson. Yet we still have black conservatives like Carson letting the world believe that black activists trying to fix this are the true racial problem, and some white liberals telling them to ask for help more politely.

Whose Violence Matters?

There is unrest in Baltimore, and police violence is the root of it. After Freddie Gray’s spine was inexplicably severed while in the back of a police van, protests in Baltimore – which began peacefully – have boiled over. As police deployed themselves out to Gray’s funeral and armed themselves in riot gear in the face of a student walk-out protest, things have escalated rapidly. You all know where I stand on this, and after dozens of dead black bodies and dozens of free police officers, I don’t know what else to say. Read these instead.

In September of last year the Baltimore Sun published “Undue Force,” the product of a long investigation into the Baltimore Police Department’s misuse of force and the consequent fallout as the city was forced to pay out millions of dollars and the relationship between residents and their city was further frayed. The investigation found that:

Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.

Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.

The department didn’t track the lawsuits leveled against officers – leading to one officer still having his job despite being the target of five different lawsuits. The list of violent abuse of power goes on and on. The Violent Crimes Impact Unit alone has been subject to numerous charges, in addition to such horrific anecdotes as “Three other members were charged in 2010 with kidnapping two city teens and leaving one in a Howard County state park without shoes, socks or his cellphone,” and “a detective threw Anthony Anderson, 46, to the ground during a drug arrest. Anderson’s spleen ruptured, and he died a short time later.” The article is filled with in-depth, personal accounts of victims of police violence. As Conor Friedersdorf said of the report, in an article that includes numerous other instances of BPD abuse: “There are so many good reasons for locals to be outraged.”

If that is who the BPD is, then what about Freddie Gray and the other people of color in his community? If we can hypothesize that the answer to “why did the police arrest and murder him?” is that they are part of a militarized force bent on abuse and built on state violence, then we can also guess as to why Freddie Gray ran from them in the first place. Because he had nothing to gain by staying put. People run from cops because they are scared of them.

In a Baltimore Sun editorial, Gray’s predicament in Baltimore is described as “all too typical in a neighborhood where generations of crushing poverty and the war on drugs combine to rob countless young people like him of meaningful opportunities.” The neighborhood that he lived in is emblematic of the type of circumstances many are finding themselves in. Even just compared to the rest of Baltimore, Freddie Gray’s neighborhood had twice the unemployment and poverty and higher levels of crime. The neighborhood is home to more inmates than any other part of the state, and 1 in 4 juveniles was arrested between 2005 and 2009. This level of mass incarceration and poverty has eviscerated the livelihoods of people like Gray. With no money and no jobs, facing police bent on abusing and arresting you and a system in which the odds are forever stacked against you, how should one respond when the police claim yet another youth?

And so they protested. And those protests achieved little. And there was property damage. And suddenly everyone came to denounce protesters for lashing out in rage. But, as said in a poignant post in defense of Baltimore protester’s actions:

As a nation, we fail to comprehend Black political strategy in much the same way we fail to recognize the value of Black life.

We see ghettos and crime and absent parents where we should see communities actively struggling against mental health crises and premeditated economic exploitation. And when we see police cars being smashed and corporate property being destroyed, we should see reasonable responses to generations of extreme state violence, and logical decisions about what kind of actions yield the desired political results.

And on the narrative of non-violence as the only acceptable form of protest belies the fact that the forces many face are far beyond “respectable” protest, and instead demand resistance against such forces:

When the free market, real estate, the elected government, the legal system have all shown you they are not going to protect you—in fact, that they are the sources of the greatest violence you face—then political action becomes about stopping the machine that is trying to kill you, even if only for a moment, getting the boot off your neck, even if it only allows you a second of air. This is exactly what blocking off streets, disrupting white consumerism, and destroying state property are designed to do.

And on the subject of property damage and looting, a reminder to read Ta-Nehisi Coates back when liberals decried looting in Ferguson. At that time, Coates noted that “property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America. They describe everything from enslavement to Jim Crow laws to lynching to red-lining. ‘Property damage and looting’—perhaps more than nonviolence—has also been a significant tool in black ‘social progress.'”

In the shadow of more property damage and looting in Baltimore, Coates doubled down against those who demand non-violence from protesters but make no such demand of an inherently violent state:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.

Today the police deployed in riot gear to face off with demonstrators at Freddie Gray’s funeral and a student walk-out. And violence erupted as those who have been under the thumb of a broken system tried to fight back. In light of these actions, and looking back and past confrontations:

Tuesday update: As Baltimore continues to struggle and parts of the city smolder, it’s becoming more clear that – regardless of how long it lasts – there’s an uprising in Baltimore. Why?

Partially because of rampant inequality.

Partially because property is seen as more valuable than black bodies:

At the corner of Pratt and Light Street a few dozen people held up traffic and staged a spontaneous die-in, sprawling themselves on the asphalt in poses straight from crime-scene photos. There was a comparatively light police presence along the route, but dozens of officers in riot gear blocked the crowd from getting near the stadium, which seemed to confirm the protesters’ most damning suspicions. A man near the front shouted, “They only care about the Orioles!”

The scene seemed like a neat summation of much that animated the protests in Baltimore and beyond. In Ferguson, on the night that the grand-jury decision declining to charge the officer who shot Brown was released, police were deployed largely on the main commercial strips. In the triage logic of municipal governance, it makes perfect sense to protect valuable real estate and businesses. But to people already infuriated by the self-protecting reflexes of bureaucracy, this was an additional insult—not because businesses don’t warrant police protection but because they could scarcely imagine the police deeming their own communities as worthy of protecting that way.

Partially because capital has eaten away at Baltimore’s people:

But of the entire scene [in Baltimore yesterday], the most salient thing wasn’t the destruction wrought by protestors — the cop car demolished, the payday loan store smashed up — but by capital: the decrepit, boarded-up row houses, hovels, and vacants in a city full of them.

These are the streets in which Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has now declared a state of emergency, the same streets that would suffer fromhis austerity. They are the streets that have endured astronomic unemployment rates for decades, even as Democrats have run the city unrivaled. And they are the streets where police folded up Freddie Gray’s body “like origami,” then restrained him with leg irons in the back of a police van and delayed calling for an ambulance.

Partially because of desperation and resistance. Riots are a grasp for control under a state that leaves you impoverished and incarcerated:

If the sustained psychological terror of being reared in an economically disenfranchised neighborhood, babysat by a failing school, and abused by aggressive police didn’t leave you with the tools to effectively organize against state sanctioned terrorism in a way that society finds “respectable”—in other words, voting and being polite enough to say, “Please, suh, don’t kill us no mo’!”—then far be it from me to mourn the loss of Nike socks and Remy bundles and exaggerated reports of violence against police that leave out this week’s violence at the hands of police, and of White counter-protestors who attacked and berated people for the past three days on the city’s streets.

[…]

Continuing to perpetuate the myth of “act good, get treated that way” does nothing to protect us from the reality of police terror and mass incarceration, which work hand-in-hand. This is not a case for riots, but acknowledgment that they aren’t the work of thugs and ne’er-do-wells, but an SOS call. The question is, are we willing to listen? We should, because our people have finally changed their mind.

Partially its that they must be tired of non-violence’s failure to convince the state to back up.

The Right Kind of Victim

Earlier today a friend and colleague argued that, although police violence and race were important issues that deserved a public conversation a la Ferguson, Mike Brown wasn’t the “right” kind of person to be the locus of this conversation. This person cited some stuff about Darren Wilson’s innocence – stuff I disagreed with, but which is not what I want to talk about here. Instead, he referenced the case of Tamir Rice – the boy who was shot for carrying a toy gun literally the moment that police arrived on the scene, and was subsequently refused care by the officers and was later pronounced dead. There is video of the police misconduct. The victim clearly wasn’t charging the officers. This is where to organize protests.

Hours later, I saw news that Eric Garner’s murderer was also cleared by a grand jury. There is video of Officer Daniel Pantaleo putting Garner in an illegal chokehold. There is proof of police misconduct. The coroner ruled it a homicide. And the police officer won’t even stand trial.

Earlier today, I argued that – regardless of what one thought about Mike Brown’s death – the organizing and protests should continue. If you believe that police violence is a problem and black lives matter, you should be in the streets no matter what. Because the problem of police violence is a national crisis.

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When protesters tried to shut down New York City two weeks ago, it was as much about the injustice of the Ferguson grand jury as it was about the impending Staten Island one. It was also about Tamir Rice. And Akai Gurley. And numerous other men of color killed by police who are sworn to protect.

When we look for the right kind of victim, we will always be waiting. The anger at racist police violence has reached its breaking point, and there shouldn’t be any discussion about the right kind of victim. Victims are victims, and we need to organize now – before there are more.

When Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting on a bus, she galvanized a movement against segregated buses. But Claudette Colvin should have galvanized the same movement, but she wasn’t the “right kind of victim.”

When the bus driver told Rosa Parks that he would have to call the police if she didn’t get up, Parks replied, with extraordinary self-possession, “You may do that.” When the police arrived, she went without resistance. When the cops came for Claudette Colvin, she yelled at them that they were violating her rights, and refused to move. They dragged her from the bus. When they kicked her, she kicked them back.

Ever since I was first made aware of Colvin’s story and others like it, I’ve been adamant that these stories are worth remembering – these lives are worth remembering. We shouldn’t only rally around the perfect symbols of resistance and victims of injustice. We should rally around every victim of injustice. Every time there’s injustice.

Waiting for the right kind of victim means ignoring the actual victimization of black bodies across this country. Waiting for Tamir Rice means that Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Oscar Grant, and other victims of police violence.

We shouldn’t wait any longer.

Protesters staged a die-in at Grand Central tonight immediately after the announcement of Eric Garner’s grand jury. There is a demonstration planned at Foley Square tomorrow afternoon. If you’re against police violence, find a demonstration near you – or start one.

Prosecute the Police

Vice recently ran a piece by Molly Crabapple that seeks to answer the question of how to stop cops from beating and killing people all the time. It’s an important question, given that police really do beat and kill people all of the time. There’s no national database, but there are many who have tried to keep an eye on police violence – but how can we stop it?

In the piece, Crabapple expounds on the fact that police aren’t held accountable for their actions, even when this involves injuring or killing civilians. Watchdog groups and accountability processes are toothless and impossible to navigate, and police departments quickly engage in cover-ups and character assassination of victims to discredit any allegations that there was police misconduct. In the rare occurrence that a police officer actually faces punishment, usually he is merely given paid leave or a desk job while the city or county pays out huge fines or settlements to victims and their families. The actual officers face little punishment at all.

In a country where daily life is increasingly criminalized—especially in poorer communities—police officers are protected from the consequences of their actions. Instead of being jailed, their punishment might be getting assigned to desk duty.

“It is virtually unheard of for police officers to be arrested and charged for assaults committed against ordinary civilians. It just never happens.” Scott Levy, a lawyer who is director of the Fundamental Fairness Project at the Bronx Defenders, told me.

[…]

The money for settlements comes from taxpayers, not the abusive officers or the police departments that employ them. In New York City, payouts for Bronx detective Peter Valentine’s illegal raids cost taxpayers nearly $1.3 million. Valentine, meanwhile, continues to “serve” the city.

If a victim accepts a settlement, the cop generally does not admit wrongdoing, which means the assault that led to the payout will not be held against him if and when he attacks others.

Crabapple’s solution is to police the police:

These meta-cops could be given quotas of officers to arrest each month. They’d no doubt lean heavily on quality-of-life violations, arresting cops who made communities unpleasant by groping black teens or hassling street vendors. As cops do now, these meta-cops could be promoted based on their arrest numbers. They might sometimes detain cops for rudeness, or failing to present ID, but that’s to be expected. Their jobs would be stressful. They’d have to lay down the law.

Of course, cops who used force against citizens would be handcuffed immediately, held for up to 72 hours in order to be processed and charged. If they didn’t plea out to a lesser crime, they’d be brought to trial, to determine if force was really used in self-defense or defense of others.

She admits that it’s a facetious idea, but the idea of using the police’s tools to crack down on their violence is not unthinkable. Reining in their impunity would require some kind of enforcement.

Reading through her piece, though, I was reminded of something I wrote a long time ago, about private criminal prosecutions. In some countries, civilians could bring criminal charges against state officials (such as police) in an attempt to hold them accountable where the state had failed. Given that, as Crabapple admits earlier in her piece, states attorneys are just as complicit by refusing to prosecute renegade officers and politicians are just as complicit by always supporting their boys in blue, perhaps accountability is better in the hands of the people.

The idea of using private prosecutions to hold police accountable is in the same vein as “meta-police,” in that we use the state’s usual channels for perpetuating violence (stats, quotas, lawyers) to try to curtail it. While “meta-police” may be better than allowing police to police themselves, any police overseers are still police. Any government attorney still works for the government. Taking action in the courtrooms, but outside of the state’s bureaucracy, could be a more sure way to hold police accountable.

Obviously, changing a fundamental piece of our judicial structure isn’t exactly an option on the table. And, as one person featured in her article states, the best solution is to abolish the police. In the meantime, finding ways to hold police officers accountable is an important thing to do.