Given all the antagonism between police forces and the Occupy movement, you might think there is a nuclear-charged line between them which no one could survive crossing. However, in Boston, something interesting has happened.
I'm part of a local group, called Clean Up BPPA, which got vocal and active about the rampant bigotry in the Boston Police Patrolman's Association (BPPA) newsletter. It garnered a lot of attention when we convinced sponsors to pull their advertising. Some of that attention came from the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO). They're excited that we were able to get some public spotlight on the bigotry within the force. Now they want to work with us and Occupy Boston. They've made a public invitation for Occupy Boston to join a town hall they are hosting this Sunday.
In a strange turn of events, some of us from Occupy may end up working with some of the police. Can we talk about that below the fleur de Kos?
The first thing to note is that Clean Up BPPA is not an Occupy Boston (OB) group. A couple of the more vocal of us are, indeed, from OB, but several in what we call "the core" of this very ad hoc group don't identify as OB and don't want Clean Up BPPA to be identified as an Occupy group. There is no hierarchical command structure. This means that anyone who wants to participate in the action can and they can voice their personal opinions as they see fit. Since some of those voices have an Occupy perspective, you will see some Tweets or Facebook entries which tend to focus on an Occupy angle to the story. That can get confusing for the public. We work hard to make the distinction, particularly when we are contacted by the press.
Still, there are a couple of us with strong ties to Occupy Boston. What we publish in our Twitter and Facebook streams does seep into the consciousness of OB. We have even seen some OB actions in support of Clean UP BPPA (see Chalkupy Boston). So, when MAMLEO wanted to host a town hall and invite OB, they knew we could pass that invitation along, which we did:
The Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO) will host a Town Hall meeting this Sunday, August 5th to discuss the BPPA newsletter Pax Centurion and the open letter sent to Mayor Menino about discrimination in the City of Boston. They welcome the participation of all concerned citizens in this important discussion and look forward to working with activists to clean up the BPD.You might notice that this invitation doesn't explicitly mention Occupy Boston. Our blog reaches out to a broader audience and we wanted to make sure that anyone who was interested felt welcome. We then passed a more explicit invitation along to OB via some working group email lists and an OB discussions page on Facebook. We've heard that there is some positive response and that members of OB will be there. This is exciting!
It's also odd. There has been a lot of animosity in OB regarding the police. As someone who is now living with a permanent back injury due to how I was treated by Boston Police when I was arrested, I am wary. It takes a lot for me to put aside my outrage and my distrust to consider crossing that line and working with police officers.
When we first started Tweeting about what we were seeing in the newsletter, The Pax Centurion, we got some feedback from Occupiers. Some were baffled, others were dismissive.
Retroactive disinterest at #BPPA cyber "activists." since when was #occupy about policing hate speech? All will be forgotten in a week.I don't mean to pick on the person who tweeted this, it's simply a public expression of what we heard privately, quite a bit. As with others, this person later apologized. You see, after a while we were able to explain that we weren't just "policing hate speech." We recognized that if the official print voice of the police union was publishing this kind of content - and it had been for decades - it wasn't just about speech. It reflected a culture on the force and that culture impacted both their community relations and how they fulfilled their duties as police officers. The newsletter was the tip of an iceberg. That iceberg very well might be related to how the Boston Police and the the City of Boston view and respond to not just people of color, but also protesters.
4:10 AM - 5 Jul 12 via Twitter for iPhone · Embed this Tweet
In fact, the newsletter spews a lot of right wing political rhetoric. It speaks of all kinds of people with contempt, including "liberals." Could it be that the internalized politics of the police have made them that much more vulnerable to becoming a militarized arm of the police state, rather than peace officers serving their communities? Could this be a little window into how our police force gets co-opted by the Department of Fear? (yes, that site is satire, but our security policies have been basically about instilling fear so that we'll give up our rights.)
Is it appropriate for a police force to have, much less publicly express and advocate for, a political agenda? In a letter to the Boston Phoenix, the editor of the newsletter, Jim Carnell, comes right out and refers to the newsletter not as a union voice, but as " a conservative publication authored by police officers". The police force is paid for by every citizen, of every political stripe, via their tax dollars. It seems inappropriate that the force would hold and advocate a particular political stance. How can those who don't have the same political views feel they will be treated fairly? Policing is supposed to be a piece of our justice system. Politics are not about justice.
According to the United Nations Criminal Justice Information Network, this is the role of police:
Law enforcement officials shall at all times fulfil the duty imposed on them by law, by serving the community and by protecting all persons against illegal acts, consistent with the high degree of responsibility required by their profession.1Is human dignity protected when your police officers print this?
Law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons.2
In one editorial from 2010, Pax managing editor James Carnell attacked the mother of Manuel DaViega, who died in a police shootout that April. Carnell wrote: “All due respect to motherhood and fully understanding a grieving mother’s attempts to put blame anywhere but where it belongs, but your son was a maggot and a scumbag".Per the City of Boston's web site, this is the mission of the Boston Police force:
We dedicate ourselves to work in partnership with the community to fight crime, reduce fear and improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods.Which communities can they possibly partner with when, as Chris Faraone, journalist at the Boston Phoenix, puts it, "Whether Muslims, women, or gays, no pedestrian is safe from Moccia’s rhetorical wrath."
Our Mission is Neighborhood Policing.
Is it any wonder that there was no possibility of good relations between Occupy Boston and the Boston Police?
Imagine if you're person of color, a woman, someone who is gay or transgender and you are a police officer? If the powers that be on the force have allowed this offensive rhetoric to be spewed for decades, then the powers that be are not at all concerned about bigotry and anti-discriminatory practices within the force. They may have been forced via public pressure to allow non-white, male officers on board, but they aren't going to give them any power to influence the culture and policies. Nothing can change in terms of community relations until things change inside the halls of the police force and City Hall.
Can you see why this town hall meeting on Sunday is not about OB/police relations? As compelling as it may feel to focus on that if you've been a part of Occupy, we need to be careful about co-opting the agenda. MAMLEO is excited to work with Occupy because they feel a common cause: at the root of the Occupy movement, what we're fighting is oppression. It's also an opportunity to show some anti-oppression solidarity. That is, recognize that you can't focus on your own oppression. In fact, the key to generating a society without systems of oppression is to foster a sensibility where we are all concerned about the oppression of others. At this juncture, the oppression we need to focus on is the oppression that non-white, non-male officers are enduring inside the police force.
This is an opportunity to focus on a very specific piece of the bigger puzzle of oppression endemic in our whole society. While the bigoted culture of BPD is what fuels it's willingness to repress our First Amendment rights, that isn't going to change until the internal culture changes. We must be patient. We must show solidarity with those who are living at the effect of this culture every day, in every way. Their work lives are infected with it. Their livelihoods are tainted by it. They are, currently, powerless to effect any change of policy on the force. They need public support.
This isn't just about a newsletter. It's about looking at the systemic way in which the ability for a few voices to maintain control over the newsletter reflects a systemic system of discrimination throughout the force. That system isn't just about the Patrolman's Association, either. If the Commissioner or the Mayor really wanted to instill a culture of anti-discrimination, it would have happened. The lame public statements of "they have a First Amendment right to write what they want", doesn't cut it. There is a Conduct Unbecoming code which applies to officers even when they're not on duty. How could it not apply when they are speaking officially as police officers?
If a police officer can be fired for one bigoted statement, as happened to Justin Barrett in 2010, then how have these officers, headed by Thomas Nee (BPPA President) and Jim Carnell (Pax Centurion Editor), gotten away with this for decades? There are political factors at play here. To push back, we must generate political will. We can't do that by focusing on Occupy Boston.
The effects of a bigoted police force are felt in every neighborhood. The fact that the Editor feels quite comfortable naming the police newsletter as a "conservative publication", where he spews opinions about his pension being lost due to those on public assistance using EBT cards, suggests that the police see themselves as serving the agenda of the wealthy. That's a very small percentage of the Boston population. Everybody else should be outraged. We all need to start educating each other on the varied ways in which this bigotry feeds into the prison industrial complex, the suppression of First Amendment rights, the unfair treatment of people of color and those of low-income. We're talking here about bigotry being proactively expressed by people with guns and badges. We have endowed them with authority. By maintaining a culture which views so many with disdain, they are abusing that authority. A bigoted authority breeds a bigoted society. If they're holding the guns and the authority to arrest, society organizes itself around avoiding their wrath, when it should be organizing itself around justice, sustainability and compassion.
We all need to stand together here. Even if some of us don't agree with the very concept of authoritarian institutions. Our current reality is that they exist. The first step to anything different is to at least fight the corruption of that authority.
Please, join us at the Town Hall. It would feel so hopeful and inspiring if that church were filled to the brim tomorrow. (Yes, it's to be held in a church. Not my favorite setting, but I plan on being a gracious guest.) Let's all swallow our own disdain, our own anger, our own pride and our own reactions to individuals. This is bigger than any one person or one group. Come to listen. Listen far more than we speak. Hear the stories of the officers and their struggles. Take in the stories of communities of color and the profound impact that bigoted policing has on their lives. Consider ideas they might have for how we can work with them. Offer your solidarity. Offer to help build the political will to generate the change needed. Offer any media or political leverage that the Occupy movement can muster.
I realize it feels surreal to contemplate working with police officers. These aren't just any police officers. These are police officers who have reached out to Occupy because they actually see the value of the movement. They see common cause and have a hope, a vision, that that common cause can be applied in a very concrete way right here in the halls of Boston, one of the most racially divisive cities in the United States. Those divisions are cemented into place by the culture we see reflected in the Pax Centurion. We have a chance to drive cracks into that cement. That could be profound.
Please join us! RSVP on Facebook.
What: Town Hall meeting
Why: To discuss discrimination in the City of Boston
When: Sunday, August 5, 2010, 8-10pm
Where: Global Ministries Church 670 Washington Street, Dorchester Ctr, MA 02124