OOHA DEFENDS THE COPS; WE DO NOT
The intention of this article is both to clarify our position on the police, and to engage in principled dialogue about tactics and strategy in the anti-eviction movement. Take Back the Block realizes that we have made some of the same mistakes that we now see in the movement. In order to build a strong movement, we must constantly examine ourselves and others, pushing each other forward always.
“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains,” wrote Rosa Luxemburg. The true nature of police, the enforcer of chains, is less clear for the majority of the population during low movement times. This has never been the case for black men, immigrants and homeless people who feel the clarity, the mandate of the cops every day through bruises on their bodies and the threat or experience of imprisonment. This wall was broken for a few months when a mostly white, disillusioned section of the population poured into underused parks that were quickly surrounded by police in cars, on motorcycles, on bikes and horses, with the single intent of crushing peaceful gatherings and encampments. While the police trampled on tents, waving batons and laughing at us for demanding jobs and healthcare, they left shoppers alone who were camped out on sidewalks all day and night to buy discount deals on Black Friday. The police force under the orders of the mayors could not maintain the façade of contradiction: their essential role is to keep us subjugated and intimidated and to protect the rule of the rich (despite the often referenced basic duties of police, like traffic control).
While the newly active people in Occupy were painfully discovering the role of police, the Atlanta area police continued their killing spree of unarmed black youth. This led to frequent marches steaming with rage, pouring into the streets of downtown Atlanta, with chants ranging from “Fuck the police” to “Hey pigs, what do you say, how many kids have you killed today?!” Joetavius Stafford, a 19-year-old high school student who was gunned down by police officers in a MARTA station on his way home from homecoming, was on everyone’s minds. Then there was Ariston Waiters, another unarmed youth, who was murdered by a police officer behind a shed, out of sight from witnesses. His family began to attend marches and rallies calling for justice, which they continue to do today, unwilling to be forgotten as another casualty of white supremacy. Personal experiences were creating an understanding across racial and class lines, obliging solidarity between the more privileged occupiers who were experiencing police repression for the first time and those that experience police terror daily.
Things in Atlanta exploded even more when news of Trayvon Martin’s murder reached the city. The Atlanta public packed out rallies again, speaking out against racism and police brutality. During these months, many Atlantans were openly disillusioned with the APD and the institution of policing. Though the diagnosis and solutions varied, many people were taking a stand. Some were standing up against police brutality or the racism of individual officers, and others were against police altogether. As the last remnants of the parks were cleaned out by police and the steam evaporated from the national popular demonstrations, most of us were forced to go back to normalized routines. The “moment’ of exposed contradictions–the small rupture of clarity we experienced–is now just a memory and we are still trying to make sense of it. The APD successfully broke up resistance and continues its murderous practice. Even the mildest reforms to humor the public haven’t been taken–APD has not fired its officers who were directly implicated in the high-profile murders, nor stopped their practices of harassing and targeting black and brown people.
How does Occupy Our Homes Atlanta (OOHA) tell a different story?
A couple of weeks ago, national newspapers ran stories of Occupy Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Department repairing their relationship. The press release was sent out by an organization called Occupy Our Homes Atlanta (OOHA), an NGO-style, anti-eviction, activist group that formed from the ashes of Occupy Atlanta. The story was highlighting OOHA’s latest campaign to protect a retired police woman named Jacqueline Barber and her family from eviction. Jacquelyn served the Atlanta Police Department (APD) for 20 years as an undercover narcotics detective. She was injured on the job in 1998, forcing her into early retirement. Years later, she developed cancer and underwent treatment. She lives in Fayetteville, Georgia with her daughter and 4 grandchildren, in a house much larger than those OOHA generally defends.
Most outsiders cannot distinguish between OOHA and the Occupy movement which was a broad tent of resistance. The Occupy movement has disintegrated mostly due to heavy police repression, but groups like OOHA were able to grow. OOHA has participated in various campaigns to keep individuals in their homes, many times successfully. Their usual formula in developing campaigns is as follows: find a foreclosure victim who is relatable and safe; help them sculpt an emotional personal interest story; launch an aggressive media campaign; ask people to donate money and supplies; and work with the bank to agree on a more manageable mortgage. When the threat of eviction arises, OOHA uses tents and activist support in the yards of the houses to stall the police from removing the families from their homes, which are tactics left over from occupying the parks. These campaigns rely heavily on the sympathetic charity of outsiders, the interest of the media, and good faith in banks to work outside of their interests.
OOHA’s choice to defend Jacqueline’s home betrays the experiences of Occupy. One of the most dynamic struggles in Occupy Atlanta was the rejection of police brutality and the police as a force that served and protected the people. This lesson was learned in a multitude of ways from sympathizing with police brutality victims such as Joetavius Stafford, Ariston Waiters, and Troy Davis (Woodruff Park, where OA was based, was actually renamed to Troy Davis Park by the occupants), to actual lived experience of massive, baseless arrests, police scare tactics and the brutality on Occupy activists. Although many claim–namely the mainstream media–that Occupy had no real demands, lessons or aim, many of those that participated in Occupy were bonded together by a rejection of the cruelties of the ruling class. Throughout the process of Occupy, we were reminded that the police were the hired guns of the 1%, who, though often poor and struggling, fight against their own interests in maintenance of the status quo. OOHA’s choice to defend a former undercover cop’s home is not only in opposition to the ideals of many of the Occupy activists, but a betrayal of learned experiences.
The implications of adopting this case reach beyond OOHA. Since the beginning of Occupy Atlanta, many non-activists have understood activism as in relation to Occupy, so when news headlines read “Occupy Atlanta Joins Forces with Police to Save Retired Detective’s Home,” it may as well have read “Atlanta Activists Join Forces with Police.” These outright fabrications and lethal distortions are perpetrated by a group that is fighting for justice. It was not the propaganda of the APD or the ruling class to promote that “cops are here to serve and protect,” but the propaganda of OOHA. This act was committed with good intentions but is nevertheless inexcusable.
OOHA’s organizing model leads them to make bad strategic choices because the success of their campaigns often relies on the conscience of enemy forces and elite public figures. The non-profit like model of OOHA creates the necessity to “sell” to a specific audience the legitimacy of a fight, requiring the sympathy and interest of mass media. Mass media outlets that reported only a year ago on the battles between occupants and cops are now able to weave a tale of redemption in which occupiers admit their previous immaturity and reach out to a cop as a sign of peace and reconciliation–an olive branch. In the meantime, Occupy activists are still undergoing cases from unjust arrests made a year ago (some of which have been stalled because cops have destroyed or withheld evidence).
Some tactics have also been proven unwise. When the stories fail to rally up the public and the police come down heavy handed to enforce the bank’s eviction, Occupy Our Homes often must rely on their bodies to defend the homes. A common tactic used during an attempted eviction, blockading the house, has proved unsustainable and costly to the movement. In one Occupy Our Homes Minnesota case, the group attempted multiple blockades resulting in 23 total arrests.
OOHA’s reliance on this model, most importantly, leaves behind so many people from dispossessed black and brown communities. Narrating these stories perpetuates a culture of victimization – not a culture of collective resistance. The message is always, “I did everything right, I was an upstanding member of society and then extenuating circumstances hit and I am in deep water.” The underlying logic: “good” people deserve housing- it is counter to the society we are fighting for that housing is a privilege, not a basic necessity that we must provide for each other. It is important that OOHA does more than proclaim that housing is a basic human right; w must always demonstrate that in our work as well. The “exceptionalism” of each case doesn’t demonstrate that.
A culture of collective resistance would be one which stresses the agency of communities to actively fight against the banks, the state that bailed them out while our bank accounts hit negative, and the police who enforce their will. When we victimize ourselves and then rely on enemy forces we are immediately weakening our position as active agents against our own oppression. Banks will never be our allies; they concede to small struggles for the sake of PR, not for the sake of progressing humanity. Mass media, which is funded by corporations, cannot be trusted to work for our defense. We must be able to struggle collectively against the forces daily suffocating us, and we cannot do that by having to appeal to those that put us there in the first place. We must be able to at the same time build collective refutation of ruling-class institutions, build alternative community institutions to fill the gap. This “one home, one compelling story” is barring us from actually developing a real praxis of liberation. It may have been the police that physically destroyed the camps and arrested us but it is groups like OOHA that are distracting us and themselves from creating a real movement that we so desperately need. Ultimately, the OOHA model replicates the narrative of appealing to the conscience of our oppressor. Stokely Carmichael, a Black Power leader, hit the nail on the head when he pointedly stated that the oppressor has no conscience, to rely on that is to fight a losing battle.