Part 2: How They’re Doing It in Seattle

From The Washington Post:

Antonio Ochoa has no formal security training. But around 3 a.m. on recent Saturday, [he] were called to help defuse the situation unfolding on a street corner. A man had been yelling, and he began punctuating his anger by knocking over a metal trash can.
Ochoa, who is white …, did not engage the man, who is black, directly. Instead, [he] began picking up trash, while giving the man space. He quickly turned apologetic and offered to help clean up.

For the past several days, Ochoa, 28, has been serving as an unarmed volunteer “sentinel,” or guard, in the protest zone. Ochoa, a self-described leftist libertarian recently furloughed from the Seattle International Film Festival, and other volunteers have been serving four-hour shifts to help to keep the peace.

The zone was formed last week amid the Black Lives Matter protests. Activists had gathered at a neighborhood police precinct to call for accountability and an end to police violence. In response, on June 8, police officers left that area. A spontaneous protest encampment has since sprung up outside the building, run by volunteer activists.
Core to the zone is a vision of a self-governed community with no formal policing. Instead, volunteers, many of them avowed police abolitionists, have begun to organize their own safety force.

Among other incidents, these volunteers have confronted a man throwing apples and threatening punches, a car driving toward a large crowd of pedestrians and a vehicle circling the block repeatedly and taking photos. Volunteers say they have engaged with armed visitors from outside the city who came to the zone convinced that Seattle needed saving from left-wing agitators.

They have defused fights, protected store windows from vandals and handled mental-health crises. Protesters rushed to douse the flames when a lone arsonist attempted to set fire to the precinct early Friday. The director of an LGBTQ resource center publicly thanked sentinels from the protest zone Sunday for their assistance watching over a broken window until plywood arrived, attributing the incident to a mental-health or drug-addiction issue with a person who regularly sleeps in the center’s doorway.

Volunteers say this work is a way to highlight what a city without police might look like. “We have a chance to really build something here, so I have a vested interest in defending that as a part of my community,” said Ochoa, who lives in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. “I live on the Hill, and the police presence here has always been tense and kind of malicious.”

Over the weekend, about two dozen people served as sentinels, provided the micro-neighborhood with a round-the-clock security presence. From a folding table under a pop-up tent on the sidewalk, a volunteer coordinated schedules on a whiteboard and notepad.

On Sunday, a half-dozen people inquired about signing up…. The coordinators paired volunteers to establish a buddy system, handed out radios for on-site communication and added phone numbers to a group chat on the encrypted text service Signal.
They offered basic tips in de-escalation: Speak in a low volume, establish a dialogue, use slow hand movements to communicate that the situation is calm, alert offenders that they are being watched.

That was the approach a pair of volunteers took with a man throwing apples at passersby. Ochoa and others watched him carefully, while assuring him that their intention was not to hurt him. He punched one of the sentinels, who did not retaliate. Eventually, the man calmed down and left.

“These alternatives that don’t involve forcing someone to the ground and immediately handcuffing them work and provide for a much safer community in general,” Ochoa said.

Listening and trying to understand the needs of those who are in an altered mental state — whether drunk, high or struggling with mental illness — is essential to the approach.

A sentinel who goes by the name Mark Markinson said addressing conflict in this way helped him calm a person threatening punches, by offering him a slice of pizza. It turned out he was hungry. “I don’t walk up to any situation assuming that I know who’s wrong,” said Markinson, dressed in black and sporting a cap with the trans pride flag superimposed with a rifle decal and the phrase “Defend Equality.”

Markinson describes himself as an anti-fascist, anti-racist community defense advocate. He is a gun owner, but he was unarmed Saturday night. He was serving at the occupation’s southernmost barricade, where eight people practiced pushing aside three metal jersey barriers and three empty plastic water wells to open the barricade’s proverbial gate for local residents and business owners. They had the routine down to 12 seconds.

“The person yelling isn’t necessarily wrong,” Markinson said. “Ultimately, maybe nobody is wrong. You just have to listen to who is in the argument and de-escalate and mediate, possibly try to get those individuals not to be around each other.”

“You just can’t go into that situation with any preconceived notion about who might be causing a problem,” he said. “Often I feel like police officers go into those situations with a lot of preconceived notions.”

Markinson, who is white, said he struggles with his own implicit bias in the face of a culture that ingrains an irrational fear of darker-skinned people. “That’s something I’ve actively tried to combat for a very long time,” he said. “It’s important to make sure that you’re aware that it’s there and try to learn as much as you can about other people….”

Markinson views Seattle’s ongoing experiment as part of a lineage of anarchist neighborhoods such as Exarcheia in Athens, Rojava in northeastern Syria and Free Christiana in Copenhagen. Ochoa draws comparisons to the National Confederation of Labor, which arose during the Spanish Civil War, as well as the small U.S. towns that have eliminated their police departments in favor of neighborhood watches.

The model does have its challenges. On Saturday, dozens of people surrounded a fire-and-brimstone street preacher who regularly disrupts local protests with in-your-face threats of eternal damnation.

When efforts to escort him out peacefully failed, someone dragged him on the ground. One person briefly put him in a chokehold while others blocked attempts to film the incident…. Later that afternoon, a couple dozen people marched up to the precinct with U.S. flags held aloft. A crowd gathered around them, and one of the flags was confiscated.

Firearms present a different challenge. Many of the volunteers are licensed gun owners, but bringing a weapon changes the dynamic. “If you are open-carrying, de-escalation is more challenging because at that point you are also a threat to anyone that you come up to,” Markinson said.

But that can leave volunteers vulnerable. Sentinels say they are particularly concerned about right-wing groups such as the far-rjght Three Percenters and the Proud Boys, a group that has made headlines for its part in violent clashes in Portland, Ore., and New York.

Armed white residents lined Idaho streets amid ‘antifa’ protest fears. The leftist incursion was an online myth.

An uneasy compromise could be seen early Sunday, when a sentinel who gave his name as James Madison stood at the southern barricade with an AR-15 draped over his chest, as he has done on other nights.

Madison said he was standing guard because of reports of a “known threatening vehicle” circling near the autonomous zone. “We found the owner of that threatening vehicle’s Twitter, and he clearly intended to do harm to the protesters based on his tweets,” he said in a text message. “There are a few of us who are armed.”

At the much quieter eastern barricade, Ochoa found that volunteering connects them with the neighborhood in a way they have found lacking. “U.S. culture is extremely atomizing, especially in terms of how suburban neighborhoods and apartment buildings work… The sense of community that I grew up with in a smaller town is completely dissolved as I move into a city, so having community involvement like a neighborhood watch or a rotating council of people making decisions is something I think needs to happen for any sort of brighter future in the United States.”

Part 1: Fixing the Police

When politicians and police talk about reforming the police, it’s good to be skeptical. From The Guardian (see the article for a number of links):

Body cameras, bias training and other popular initiatives have not addressed systemic problems

New York banned chokeholds. Seattle required de-escalation training. Los Angeles restricted shooting at moving vehicles.

But those reforms did not stop police from killing Eric Garner, Charleena Lyles or Ryan Twyman, who died when officers used the very tactics that the changes were supposed to prevent.

Since the early days of Black Lives Matter protests six years ago, lawmakers and criminal justice groups have pushed reforms aimed at curtailing discriminatory and deadly police conduct. Some mayors and police chiefs mandated the use of body cameras for police officers. Other local governments passed regulations that banned controversial policing tactics. Departments hired more officers of color, and African American officers took over troubled departments.

But as the death of George Floyd continues to spark a national reckoning over police violence and an avalanche of videos has shown militarized officers brutalizing protesters, city leaders are facing mounting pressure to recognize that those incremental reforms have not addressed systemic harms and, as some studies show, have not diminished bad behavior by police.

Activists say those realizations have created unprecedented momentum for the more radical ideas they have long promoted, like defunding and abolishing police, and reinvesting in services.

“We’re watching in real time all these alleged ‘reforms’ failing,” said Phoenix Calida, a sex worker rights activist in Chicago. “None of it is doing what it’s supposed to. De-escalation isn’t working. Using ‘less violent’ methods isn’t working. Having cameras for accountability isn’t working. So why did we dump all of this money into ‘reforms’?”

The false promises of popular reforms

A growing body of research suggests that some of the most widely adopted reform efforts have not succeeded at curbing police violence in the ways the policies intended.

Research into the use of body cameras by police officers has shown no statistical difference in behaviors or reduction in force when the cameras are on. Body cameras also haven’t stopped egregious killings, have rarely led to discipline or termination, and have almost never yielded charges or convictions.

In 2018, three years after Sacramento began a $1.5m body-camera initiative, officers fatally shot unarmed Stephon Clark in his family’s backyard. The release of the videos traumatized the family, but prosecutors ruled the killing was justified because officers thought his phone was a gun.

In Oakland, California, a police department monitor found that officers were failing to properly turn on cameras nearly 20% of the time.

And over the years, police have mostly used footage to prosecute civilians, research shows….

Policies aimed at preventing excessive force and protecting free speech rights at protests have similarly led to little change. In protests across the country this week officers from some of the same departments that enacted reforms were seen violating those policies.

In Austin, policy dictates that officers may use beanbag rounds to de-escalate potentially deadly situations or “riotous behavior” that could cause injury. But at one of the early protests after Floyd’s death, police fired a beanbag round at a 16-year-old boy’s head, even though he was alone on a hill far from officers, and appeared to be watching the events. His brother said the ammunition fractured his skull and required emergency surgery. “The policies certainly don’t allow you to shoot an unarmed child in the head for no reason,” said Emily Gerrick, managing attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project.

In Los Angeles, protest footage analyzed by the LA Times appeared to show officers firing projectiles at someone’s head and firing from a moving vehicle, both of which are prohibited.

And although New York’s governor touted a new state law passed this week banning police use of chokeholds, others have called it “useless”, noting that the city police department had banned the practice in 1993, two decades before an officer placed Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold.

Studies have also come to mixed conclusions as to whether increasing the diversity of police forces has led to culture changes within those departments.

One researcher who interviewed hundreds of residents of Ferguson and Baltimore after the uprisings in 2015 found increased representation didn’t address structural and cultural problems within the departments… Despite its relatively diverse force, Baltimore continued its “severe and unjustified disparities” in stops and arrests of black Americans, the justice department found in 2016.

When Eddie Johnson stepped up as Chicago police superintendent in 2016 following intense controversy over the killing of Laquan McDonald, he immediately faced backlash for saying he has never witnessed misconduct in 27 years on the job….

“People thought that being black he would understand systemic racism,” said Calida, the Chicago activist. “Having more racially diverse police isn’t going to help”…

Efforts to train officers to more frequently use non-lethal force have also not stopped tragic killings. In 2017, Seattle insisted it had created a progressive model for crisis intervention and de-escalation training, aimed at finding ways to slow down situations, isolating people so they can’t harm others, and using non-lethal force.

But when Charleena Lyles called 911 to report a burglary, two officers showed up to her door, and within less than three minutes shot her dead in front of her one-year-old son, later claiming she was holding a knife. Both officers had completed the crisis training.

There is also minimal evidence that implicit bias trainings affect officers’ prejudiced behavior on the job, and some research suggesting they could even be counterproductive, making officers resentful and more entrenched in racist viewpoints. In San Jose, California, earlier this month, a black community activist who had trained police on implicit bias for years, and personally knew the chief and others, tried to de-escalate a confrontation between officers and protesters. Police shot him in the groin with a rubber bullet…

These kinds of repeated scandals are reminders that misconduct, abuse and brutality aren’t isolated acts that reforms can fix, activists said.

“The issue is not a ‘bad apples’ problem,” said Alisa Bierria, an organizer with Survived and Punished, a prison abolition group. “There is something specific about the institution of policing that is intrinsically violent.”

That idea was exemplified this month in Buffalo when two officers were suspended after video showed them shoving a 75-year-old peace activist to the ground. More than 50 officers, the entire emergency response team, resigned from that unit after the suspension, apparently in support of the two colleagues.

The push for alternatives

In the wake of protests, a handful of US mayors have pledged to reallocate some funds from police, and many more have, once again, promised to improve policies.

But given the failure of many past reforms, a coalition of activists actively opposes such moderate policy shifts and argues the US needs more radical change, pointing at the failures of past reforms. These activists say that it would not only be a waste of the momentum of these global protests, but that continuing to rely on police departments to address their own violence will simply lead to ongoing harm.

They point at the continued power and influence of police unions and legal protections for police officers accused of wrongdoing and excessive force as barriers to change. If police and politicians who oversee law enforcement continue to adopt policies that focus on fixing individual behaviors, they say, it will not address institutional and deeply embedded cultural problems….

Let’s Escalate! Another Perspective

From The Onion (five years ago):

Good afternoon, sir. Go ahead and roll your window all the way down for me. My name is Officer Daniel McEwen from the Greene County Police Department. Now, do you know why I’m pulling you over today, being overly aggressive, and charging you with a felony count of assaulting a police officer?

I’m going to need to see your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. Thank you, sir. Now, just sit tight in your car while I take a look here and grow increasingly hostile. I’m just going to start addressing you in an unmistakably threatening tone that is specifically meant to intimidate and provoke, and then drastically escalate the situation so that it quickly gets out of hand.

Are you aware of the speed limit on this road, sir? It’s 35. I had you clocked at 52 miles per hour, which is why I had to stop you and exhibit a nakedly confrontational, antagonistic, and condescending attitude, practically daring you to challenge my authority in any way whatsoever. You can’t be driving that fast around here, so I’m going to have to write you a ticket and then violently place you under arrest the moment you do or say anything that isn’t in complete and utter compliance—or which could even be remotely construed as noncompliant—with every single instruction I give to you.

Do you understand all that, sir?

If you have any questions about this ticket, I’d be happy to wildly overreact to anything you say that shows the slightest hint of resentment, annoyance, or resistance. Really, while you have me here, I can easily interpret any snide remark or frustrated comment as a potential threat to my safety—even so much as an angry look—and respond in a disproportionately combative way by erupting in unwarranted rage, taking out either my 50,000-volt Taser or my handgun, and pointing it directly at you through the driver’s side window.

Now, I have to head back to my patrol car real quick, so please bear with me here for a few minutes. Then you can be on your way to jail in no time as soon as I come back and forcibly remove you from your vehicle, slam you into the asphalt, cuff you, and jam my knee into your back as I radio in that I need backup right away because you’re resisting arrest—all the while both outright ignoring your vocalized concerns for your safety and directing my own petty, barbed insults at you. Just so we’re on the same page here, you’ll be getting three points on your license for speeding and also assault charges that carry a minimum sentence of one year in prison, but you’ll be assumed guilty of both while I automatically receive the benefit of the doubt despite any and all evidence to the contrary.

You know what, why don’t you step out of the car, sir? And put that goddamn cell phone away.

Let’s Escalate! What Could Go Wrong?

A long article in Jacobin, a socialist magazine, asks “Why Are the Police Like This?” and then offers an answer. I wasn’t convinced that they got it totally right:

As it turns out, the institution [urban police forces] emerged to police all people whose freedom the ruling class feared. In the United States, as in other countries, the police were created to manage the social problems of a capitalist society — poverty, crime, and class conflict — while suppressing radical challenges to that society. As those challenges became more serious, the police became more militarized. The institution that in the United States has been directed with special force and ferocity against black people is, today, the most visible and violent part of an all-purpose apparatus of discipline and control. Once we grasp the origins of the police and why they militarized, we can recognize why all workers share an interest in transforming the police.

As evidence, however, consider what happened when a black man, Rayshard Brooks, fell asleep in a Wendy’s drive-through lane in Atlanta. From The New York Times:

Police dashboard and body-camera videos show that Mr. Brooks was compliant and friendly with the officers when they first approached him and for some time after that, and the encounter turned to a struggle when the officers tried to handcuff him.

The police were called to the scene initially because Mr. Brooks had fallen asleep on the drive-through line of the restaurant. The video shows Officer Brosnan waking Mr. Brooks in the driver’s seat of a car and asking him to move the car to a parking space. Officer Brosnan appears to be unsure whether to let Mr. Brooks sleep there or to take further action.

He calls for another police officer, and Officer Rolfe arrives twelve minutes later. Officer Rolfe searches Mr. Brooks and then puts him through a sobriety test, which he fails. Mr. Brooks asks the officers if he can lock his car up under their supervision and walk to his sister’s house, which is a short distance away. “I can just go home,” he says.

Officer Rolfe asks Mr. Brooks to take a breath test for alcohol. Mr. Brooks admits he has been drinking and says, “I don’t want to refuse anything.” When the test is complete, Officer Rolfe tells Mr. Brooks he “has had too much drink to be driving,” and begins to handcuff him; only then is Mr. Brooks seen offering any resistance.

It wasn’t necessary for somebody to call the police (i.e. bring well-armed law enforcement officers into the situation). It wasn’t necessary for the police to escalate the matter by introducing hand cuffs.

Everything that happened, however, up to the moment when Officer Garrett Rolfe shot and killed Mr. Brooks, is consistent with Jacobin‘s explanation.

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Update:

Rayshard Brooks was shot twice in the back, according to a release by the Fulton County, Georgia, Medical Examiner’s Office.

Hillary Clinton Made a Great Speech

At the A.M.E. Church conference in Philadelphia on Thursday, July 8th, the day after the killings in Dallas. The full speech is here, with excerpts below the video:

Partial transcript of her remarks:

Gun violence is ripping apart people’s lives. They’re trying to tell us. And we need to listen.

I know that, just by saying all these things together, I may upset some people. I’m talking about criminal justice reform the day after a horrific attack on police officers. I’m talking about courageous, honorable police officers just a few days after officer-involved killings in Louisiana and Minnesota. I’m bringing up guns in a country where merely talking about comprehensive background checks and getting assault weapons off our streets gets you demonized.

But all these things can be true at once. We do need police and criminal justice reforms, to save lives and make sure all Americans are treated equally in rights and dignity. We do need to support police departments and stand up for the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to protect us. And we do need to reduce gun violence. We may disagree about how to do all these things, but surely we can all agree with those basic premises. Surely this week showed us how true they are.

Now, I have set forth plans for over a year to reduce excessive violence, reform our sentencing laws, support police departments that are doing things right, make it harder for the wrong people to get their hands on guns. For example, there are two important steps that I will take as president.

First, I will bring law enforcement and communities together to develop national guidelines on the use of force by police officers. We will make it clear for everyone to see when deadly force is warranted, and when it isn’t. And we will emphasize proven methods for de-escalating situations before they reach that point.

And second, let’s be honest — let’s acknowledge that implicit bias still exists across our society and even in the best police departments. We have to tackle it together, which is why in my first budget, I will commit $1 billion to find and fund the best training programs, support new research, and make this a national policing priority. Let’s learn from those police departments like Dallas that have been making progress, apply their lessons nationwide.

Now, plans like these are important. But we have to acknowledge that — on their own — they won’t be enough. On their own, our thoughts and prayers aren’t enough, either. We need to do some hard work inside ourselves, too….

I’ve tried to say for some time now that our country needs more love and kindness. I know it’s not the kind of thing presidential candidates usually say. But we have to find ways to repair these wounds and close these divides. The great genius and salvation of the United States is our capacity to do and to be better. And we must answer the call to do that again. It’s critical to everything else we want to achieve — more jobs with rising income; good education no matter what ZIP code a child lives in; affordable college; paying back debts; health care for everyone. We must never give up on the dream of this nation.

I want to close with a favorite passage — a passage that you all know — that means a great deal to me and I’m sure to many of you, from Galatians. “Let us not grow weary in doing good” — “for in due season, we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.”