The Deep Rooted Crisis of Police Violence in the USA
Executive Producer Eddie Conway and David Correia, author of Police: A Field Guide, examine police propaganda that criminalizes victims of police violence and works to halt any radical responses to it
EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore.
In the immediate aftermath of the killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento police justified their actions by saying that Clark was advancing toward them with a weapon, leaving the officers with no other choice but to shoot to kill.
POLICE CHIEF HAHN: Officers pursued the subject and located him in the back of the residence and began to, and where he began advancing on the officers. Officers began, believed the subject was pointing a firearm at them. Fearing for their safety the officers fired their duty weapon striking, the subject multiple times. The involved officers held their position for approximately five minutes until additional officers arrived. Officers approached the subject, handcuffed him, and began lifesaving measures.
EDDIE CONWAY: On Friday, March 30, an independent autopsy conducted on behalf of Clark’s family revealed inconsistencies in the Sacramento police department’s version of the incident, namely that Clark was not facing the officers when he was shot to death.
DR. BENNETT OMALU: So the first shot he received would be number seven, to the left side and back of his chest. And the propulsion of the bullet, and the injuries caused, may have shoved him around. And he turned around, and his back was facing the officers. If you see the video, he was shot first, he turned around, and immediately he received a cluster of subsequent bullets. The proposition that has been presented, that he was assailing the officers, meaning he was facing the officers, is inconsistent with the prevailing forensic evidence as documented at autopsy.
EDDIE CONWAY: That same day, Baton Rouge police released the body camera footage of Alton Sterling’s encounter with police. The video shows two officers making death threats and screaming profanities at Sterling before firing the fatal shots.
BATON ROUGE POLICE: [Video of Alton Sterling encounter with police]
EDDIE CONWAY: The Louisiana Attorney General declined to bring charges against the officers, claiming they were attempting to make a lawful arrest.
To talk about this ongoing crisis of police violence and the protests that has erupted in response to it I was recently joined by David Correia, an activist and author of “Police: A Field Guide.” David, thanks for joining me.
DAVID CORREIA: Thank you for having me.
EDDIE CONWAY: Could you start off first by talking a little bit about your book?
DAVID CORREIA: Sure. I recently published a book, along with my co-writer Tyler Wall, who is a professor at the University of Tennessee called “Police: A Field Guide” with Verso. And the book, it comes out of my own experience not just as a professor but as an activist working on an anti-police violence organizing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which just about four years ago they shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless man, unarmed, under similar circumstances to Stephon Clark in Sacramento and so many other people all over the country.
And one of the reasons, so the book is kind of, almost like an encyclopedia of cop terms, lke threat, and emergency, and taser, and police helicopter. Almost 100 terms. And the point of the book is to get at what we call ‘cop speak.’ Really everything we think we know about police and the words we use to talk about police comes to us from police. You know, the cops don’t just patrol our streets, they patrol the language we have to talk about police. And we wanted to write a book that gives activists a different language.
Because after a murder, and I’m going to call what happened to Stephon Clark of murder, after a police murder like what’s just happened in Sacramento, what usually happens is the forces of police reform seize hold of a community. It happened to mine in Albuquerque. And the language and the talk starts to focus on things like police training and police hiring.
SACRAMENTO CITY COUNCILMEMBER: We will begin tonight, and April 10 specifically, with a rigorous and honest public discussion about the numerous questions of policy, protocol, and training that arose out of the police videos released last week.
DAVID CORREIA: And generally this has nothing to do with confronting the problem of police violence or confronting the very real fact of histories of police violence against poor people of color. Rather it’s entirely about reinforcing the legitimacy of police in general. They will say explicitly, we want to restore the community’s confidence in police. That’s what reform is about. It’s not about confronting the very real problem of racialized police violence in our country. It’s just about blunting the anger of activists and family members of people killed by cops. And it ensures that this is going to happen again. And our book is an effort to try to confront that and interrupt that language, and give us a shared language to, to really transform the racialized patterns of policing in this country in ways that police reform never will.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. We’ll revisit that, your book, again later on. All right. Can you give me kind of like an update or overview of what happened in Sacramento?
DAVID CORREIA: Well, you know, what happened in Sacramento was pretty, anyone that lives in California, particularly Southern California, knows the familiar sound of police helicopters over their homes. There was probably no state in the United States with more police helicopters flying above it than California. Actually, LA County and the LAPD have the largest police helicopter units in the U.S. In the world, really. So what happened to Stephon Clark was similar to what happens every day in LA, and even in Sacramento or northern California, which is, which is this intense property policing, in which the cops identified some suspects and decided to unleash the sort of full force of the police force. They were chasing a suspect on the ground and in the air. They finally located someone who they thought was a suspect. It happened to be Stephon Clark in the backyard of his grandmother’s house. They shot at him 20, times killing him. He was, of course, holding a cell phone, which is a common story about police killings. A man with no weapons holding a cell phone or a wallet, as we know from Amadou Diallo in New York years ago.
There have been, as anyone who’s watching this is probably aware, protests in Sacramento since the March 18 killing of Stephon Clark in which Black Lives Matter activists and others have have shut down the town. Shut down the city council meeting, circling the police, the basketball arena, refusing to let people in. And you know, providing, I think, a direct challenge to business as usual. Because that’s what police violence is. Police violence is business as usual. And activists have really directly challenged that business as usual, and that that has continued even after Stephon Clark’s funeral the other day.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. It seems to me that the team, the Kings, who obviously was impacted by this protest, it seems like they have stepped up and joined in with the Black Lives Matter movement and protests to do something. You think this will have any kind of change on public attitudes?
DAVID CORREIA: I hope so. You know, as long as the players for the Kings are the ones leading this alliance with Black Lives Matter, not the ownership of Kings, then I think that’s a real and meaningful change in the way that this protest is developing versus other protests. Because you know, historically what generally happens in protests over police violence is local community leaders, Chamber of Commerce, business leaders, political leaders will align themselves with the police and the forces of reform. And as long as the Kings, particularly the players, align themselves with the family of Stephon Clark and the activists demanding an end to police violence then I think this could be a really meaningful.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. I notice also in just, just this month, March, there’s been protests. And this is above what happened and outside of what happened in most cases in Sacramento, in Texas, in North Carolina, in New York, in Chicago, in Illinois, and in Ohio. Are you keeping up with this kind of stuff, all these protests going on?
DAVID CORREIA: Yeah, I mean, I think that, I’m not involved in any of the political organizing in cities outside of Albuquerque, police violence. I think what people need to realize is that, you know, these are there, there is no coordination, really, between all of these protests all over the country. These are local issues that are the same no matter where you are. And so the fact that we have, you know, another summer developing with widespread protests against police violence all over the country says a lot more about the problem than it does about the organizing against it. What it tells us is that police violence isn’t going to go away no matter how much reform the Department of Justice promises us. It’s not going to go away based on any of the reform that local police departments promised they might engage in. It’s only going to, it’s only going to, the only way to transform it, I think, is to confront it the way we’re seeing.
We’ve seen the last I think five, six years, and we’re seeing again this spring and summer, which is organized protests in city after city after city confronting both the specific issues like the murder of Stefan Clark in Sacramento, but also what really I think gives purchase to all of these local protests is the fact that there’s long histories of police violence against poor people, and poor people of color everywhere. This is not isolated to Sacramento or Ferguson or Baltimore or New York. This is everywhere. And that the fact that these protests are everywhere is indication of that.
EDDIE CONWAY: One of the things I noticed when I was like looking at the background of this story is that in the last four years, 2356 protests took place across the country, and still haven’t had any kind of real impact on the police, or the police behavior. And I notice in the book you talk about capitalism a little bit and the police being the front line. Is that the systemic problem here? It’s not just that they need training or they need to behave themself, or they need to love the citizens. What’s what’s the real problem, why do they keep doing this?
DAVID CORREIA: Well, in our book I think what we’re trying to do is point out, to provide a language to talk about police that lets us get past this sort of assumption a lot of people bring to their understanding of police, which is that police are here to serve and protect us. And when they don’t, when they do something outrageous, when they do something like they did in Sacramento and murder Stephon Clark, that that represents an aberration of an otherwise progressive and important institution in society. And the point we want to make in the book is that that when you talk about police you’re not talking about law. You’re not talking about crime fighting. You’re talking about order. The police, the job of police is to impose order. It’s to literally fabricate the order. And we should ask, when we talk about police, what order is it?
And first of all, it’s, it’s an order based on property. It’s not an accident that the police were out to find Stephon Clark because of what they consider a property crime. They were looking for somebody they claimed who was breaking car windows. It’s often property crimes, or the police effort to police property crimes, and brings them into contact with people they eventually will harass, arrest, or kill.
So if we’re talking about order and not crime and we’re not talking about law, then we ought to ask, what is the order of police? And it’s a racialized order of property. Police defend property rights first and foremost, and they patrol the color line in this country. And those two things are conflated in the world that police operate. But there’s this idea that police now, there’s some sort of difference here. Police are on the public payroll. But police on the public payroll are no different than the cops on the private payroll, the security guards that we might more readily recognize as serving specific economic interests. The people that pay the private police salaries. But let’s just remember that the police, the public police, the ones we think serve and protect, don’t serve and protect everybody equally. They serve property owners primarily, and they patrol a color line that is related and conflated with those questions of property.
But despite all those protests you’re pointing out, I don’t think we can point to any police department and say, oh, this police department has resolved the problem. This is the one police department that has finally transformed away from these patterns of racialized policing. And the reason that can’t happen is because that’s not what police is. Police is an institution of the racialized control of poor people of color. And until we understand that the language of reform will do nothing but what it intends to do, really, which is just restore confidence in police. That’s the job of reform. Not to confront the problems that we recognize historically and ongoing, but just to restore the confidence in police so that they can return to the job they’ve been doing.
And so in every sort of reform process that’s developed in every city that I’ve looked at, the result is the same. And often reform really means more cops, more weapons, an expansion of the police powers generally into the lives of poor people of color. That’s, that’s what reform really means, and that’s what we’re trying to interrupt in the book.
EDDIE CONWAY: Let’s talk for one minute about your book. You kind of, like, give the definitions for activists so that they can recognize police speak or double speak, or whatever you want to call it. But how do you see this book aiding activists going into the future in terms of making change?
DAVID CORREIA: Well, you know, I’ve been following what’s happening in Sacramento. And you know, one similar thing happening, happening in Sacramento that happened in Baltimore, that happened in Ferguson a few years ago, was that this there’s this really intense anger, and rightfully so, by family members and friends and other activists have been working on this issue so courageously and for so long. And then, and then in the past in other places what I’ve seen is the equally as intense effort by elected officials, appointed officials, to convert that anger and that commitment against police violence, that, that absolute political desire to end racialized police violence, into something else. And it’s through promises of reform. We’ll fix the police. We promise. We will, we will we will raise our training and improve our hiring standards. And we’ll give police cultural sensitivity training, and we’ll use more non-lethal weapons. And those promises aren’t promises that that fool a lot of activists who know better, particularly family members of people who have been killed by police. But they fool enough people, or, or they convince enough people it’s worth a try. And they’re willing to believe that police reform might do something, because what else can we do? We can’t abolish police is the idea, we have to do something. And so we end up engaging in these reform processes that don’t ultimately do anything.
If our goal is to end police violence, reform’s not the route to it. Remember, there’s no justice for Stephon Clark in the law. The law explicitly endorsed his killing by police. And so if there’s no justice in the law then there’s no justice in reform. And there’s no way to end police violence through the sort of official avenues of reform. We have to, We have to build popular movements against police violence that refuse the language of reform. And that’s what the book is trying to do. The book offers definitions of terms that cops use and reformers use and tries to reveal them for what they are. As not avenues for redress for people confronting police violence, but as kind of Trojan horses into movements to defuse the anger and the commitment against police violence.
So the book is, it’s called “Police: A Field Guide,” and it really is a field guide. It’s meant, it’s meant to be a guide that you can use on the street and in organizing meetings to figure out ways to both understand what do they mean when they say threat, what do they mean when they say unarmed, what do they mean when they say justified. How should we understand the taser. What is the police dog, really. All those terms are defined so that we can have a shared language which isn’t one of the police give us. And, and it also, the whole book is premised on the idea that we all have a cop in our head. Like, we’ve all been raised to believe, many of us, not all of us, but many of us are raised to believe that the police institution is an intrinsically good institution that is made bad by a few bad apples, or a few mistakes by leaders, and as long as we fix it we can solve the problem. And our book rejects that premise and instead says no, the police institution does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It is not an accident that we, if you’re, if you’re opening your eyes you’re seeing a pattern that goes back as far as anyone can remember of the police killing of black young black men, and Indigenous men and women, and Chicana and Chicano men and women. And that’s not an accident. That, that’s what police is designed to do.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. Well, I think, I’m sure your book will be a valuable resource to activists across the country. And thanks for sharing that information with us, and thank you for joining me.
DAVID CORREIA: You’re welcome. And thank you for having me, Eddie.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. And thank you for joining the Real News.