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What Solidarity Looks Like: Not the Peace Police (Part I)

Undercover oakland

Last night, December 10, 2014, after marching for about four hours from downtown Berkeley to downtown Oakland, with only about three hundred people at most, as the #BlackLivesMatter #BrownLivesMatter demo was seemingly winding down, some folks courageously outed two undercover cops (not infiltrators, mind you; they blend in much better and disrupt in much more subtle, long-term ways, including by building trust and friendship with various protesters). One of the undercovers got spooked and whipped out a gun; they also arrested one or two black people — seemingly at “random” (i.e., due to the logic of institutional racism). There are many photos of this, such as the one here. Oakland police are scurrying to deny it was one of theirs, and word is that these are California Highway Patrol cops. Still, many Oakland cops were on hand, on foot, in cop cars and vans, and overhead in the ever-present helicopter. They watched their or someone else’s cop do this, and didn’t intervene.

This incident is surprising and not surprising.

The cops seem tired; they admitted it themselves in an article on December 9 ( Our nightly protests these past two weeks have already cost the Oakland police department $1.36 million in overtime alone — and that’s just one of the many police departments, city, state, and federal, out there every night following us visibly and in the shadows (

This vibrant, dynamic movement sparked by the courage and resolve of #Ferguson is raising the social and economic costs of the US business as usual of police murdering black and brown people, in particular, on a daily basis without cause, save for white supremacy. So many people are stepping up and stepping out — from the thousands of newly politicized high school students yesterday in Berkeley who walked out of their classes and into the streets, decrying the violence of policing and its relation to “the whole damn system,” to the families of those who have lost loved ones to murderous police and who have long known, intimately, that “it’s not a bad apple; it’s the whole damn tree.”

It is not surprising that individual, exhausted cops are “freaking out” and making such “mistakes” as pulling out a gun on protesters.

Nor is it surprising, as happened on December 9 in Oakland, that groups of uniformed cops are given orders to shoot “nonlethal” bullets from their perch on a freeway down on to protesters on the street below — bullets that injured, and have been known to permanently maim and kill. For the moment at least, the police forces have lost control and are on the defensive, and the only way for them to strive to regain it is to bring their frequently hidden violence (or hidden, at least, to many who are now protesting) into the light of the nightly marches, to be captured on Twitter, Instagram, and mainstream media cameras galore.

This is, as they say, a “teaching moment” for the US public — or it should be, if people are even remotely listening, witnessing, or participating in this remarkable uprising.

And make no mistake: it is an uprising.

As the nights wear on, you see more support, both in the streets but also, tellingly, from passersby in cars, folks leaning out their windows or doorways to cheer protesters on, in casual conversations overheard or classroom discussions. It is weaving its way into the social fabric, and making for many new “recruiters” to the side of #BlackLivesMatter #BrownLivesMatter. It not only isn’t stopping; it is spreading.

That is why, unsurprisingly, the police are getting more and more serious about using every weapon in their tool box, from ammo to lies, to stop it — to divide and hence stop us.

What is surprising is not the police violence, not that the police use guns aimed squarely at people, not that the cops daily murder people of color in the United States. That is the reason we millions are out on the street — our bodies as a massive exclamation mark that “enough is enough is enough is enough. It has to stop!”

And it is not at all surprising that because we are spotlighting police violence, the police who are on the streets with us are none too happy. They are, in fact, enraged — a rage that probably puts the best of our rage to shame. They are not there to protect protesters, as some seem to still think, nor even hinder them from demonstrations about topics at a remove from policing. Police themselves, or more exactly, the institution of policing as a whole, is precisely the target.

They know that. And when cornered, as they increasingly are, they are going to get even more freaked out, more violent, and sloppier, based on their correct belief (backed by courts, states, nonprofit industrial complex, and other organizations and powerbrokers) that they are immune to criticism, much less responsibility, much less having to worry about suffering any consequences if — when — they kill people — again and again and again.

But, it seems, too many people on the streets still don’t get it. They are surprised when an outed undercover cop pulls a gun.

That is the surprise here. How can the nightly street lessons not firmly be underscoring the reason we are already on the streets?

Instead of being able to plainly see the relationship between the clear-as-day institutional pattern of cops as killers, cops as violent enforcers of everything from racism to gentrification, and our contestation of that fact — and thus why police on the streets with us are absolutely the violence, absolutely the violent ones, absolutely going to violently target people of color and especially black males — the “peaceful” protesters last night started quickly tweeting and circulating myths about the undercover cops who were outed last night. Here is how my Facebook friend and comrade Tio Brooke, Oakland, put it today:

Undercovers are outed by militants at great personal risk, get a gun pulled on them by freaked out cops and the story already being propagated online is the asinine conspiracist/peace police fantasy of the cops ‘instigating looting’ with absolutely zero supporting evidence.

“Yeah, I know all about police tactics and cointelpro. Been intimately acquainted with that shit for my 30 years of street action and organizing. Keep your armchair theories to yourself and recognize propaganda when you see it.

“‘Outside agitator’ or ‘cop agitator’ . . . both are red herrings and not only don’t capture the complexity of what is going on but both are dangerous and stupid tropes being used to confound and divert.”

Tio is right. We are being diverted. The police probably laughing over their doughnuts and coffee about how easily we are diverted. That, alas, is one of the best tools in their box.

Let’s give police departments more of a run for their money, confounding and diverting them, not vice versa.

We need to confound the logic of state and its police apparatus by stepping up the concept of “solidarity” — not merely in name but unfailingly in practice, whether on the streets or elsewhere. Everywhere. We need to have each other’s backs, just like the folks who bravely outed these undercover cops, putting themselves in harm’s way to try to ensure everyone makes it home after a night on the streets.

We need to remember why we are on the streets to begin with: cops will and do kill, every single day in this United States, and often more, with near-complete impunity. They do it to uphold the system that has, from the start, stolen land and stolen lives in the name of colonialism and capitalism, social control and social domination, wealth and power for some, and misery and impoverishment for many.

Solidarity is a strong weapon. It is likely our best weapon. Even if the state doesn’t have a full monopoly on violence, as anarchists of old contended, it has a vast arsenal of violence, ranging from teargas and tanks to torture, from endless amounts of guns and endless amounts of prison cells.

Solidarity is what initiated #Ferguson protests across this continent and now world; it’s what is keeping our fires of resistance burning; it’s what is fueling our desires for a new world. Solidarity has built a movement against killer cops and white supremacy, and that’s no small achievement given the history and legacy of genocidal racism in the United States. If we can craft smarter, stronger, more empathetic, higher walls of solidarity to surround and sustain us, together in our differences, we might just succeed in walling out the world of hierarchical social forces intent on breaking us down and ripping us apart.

What does solidarity look like?

For one, it looks like not jumping to conclusions, especially based on things you didn’t see, rumors you overhear, reports from mainstream media, or spins on events by the police.

It means not letting your own discomfort(s) get in your way of being there for others, even if that means you need to walk away from something for a few minutes to collect yourself, or skip a street protest to rest and do some self-reflection, which then might better allow you to push past your discomforts.

It means being precise in your language about what is troubling you about various strategies. “Peace” is a vacuous word in light of all the violence forced on people daily, from killer cops to homelessness to domestic assault and rape, to climate-change disasters and diseases. The list is long and painful. “Peace” is poor shorthand, in our protests, for “this act/behavior feels hard for me.”

Think about what makes it feel hard for you. Think about why something that feels hard for you — like dumpsters being put in the streets for a barricade to hinder ongoing riot cops and protect you, the demonstrator, and your friends — isn’t different from you helping to put a picnic table on I-80 earlier in the week to block traffic several hours and, yes, keep riot cops at bay so as to protect each other and hold the street. Think about why a fence being ripped open so people can escape a police “kettle” (i.e., when police surround us on all sides, with no exit, in order to contain or arrest) or climb up on to a freeway for another takeover isn’t substantively any different in terms of “peace” or “not peace” than some other piece of lifeless property being broken, often as symbolic point about complicity with racist gentrification and police as the enforcers of “cleaning up” neighborhoods for rich people to move in.

Likely what is hard, really, is that certain actions trouble your own life experiences and especially socialization; that’s OK! None of us are immune from being socialized, badly, by racism in a racist society, even if disproportionately so.

For instance, with places like UC Berkeley costing tens of thousands per year, many students now come from sheltered and/or upper-class backgrounds, whether they are white or people of color. They are gaining degrees within an institution that is now structured to manufacture the next generation of wealthy and powerful elites, whether in business or the nonprofit industrial complex. So you might, as a student, not have been exposed to what it means to have your kids be target practice for every cop who walks by, simply because they are black or brown. You might not get how it feels to be evicted from your home, made homeless, made criminal. It might feel scary, challenging, or discomforting to now be exposed to ideas, people, and varied life experiences and upbringings that are far from your own underlying assumptions and lived experienced. That’s OK.

You can walk through and beyond those assumptions; you can choose solidarity not charity, to be on the side of the dispossessed, as accomplices and co-conspirators in shaping an egalitarian and self-organized society. As a student who has already chosen to step into the street, despite the odds of that happening given the reactionary state of “higher” education, you can choose to become a rebel who thinks and acts for themselves, collectively with others — and stay one, even if it takes you a while to work through your prickly feelings.

What’s not OK is what students and others are doing with their prickly feelings on the streets to their purported fellow protesters.

It is not OK to take out your own personal limits on others who are trying, like you, to create a better form of social organization, especially when those others are often people who are the precise targets of policing because of skin color and/or class and gender, politics and/or tactics — or whatever.

So rather than yelling “peaceful protest” and waving fingers at people who are doing things that discomfort you — tactically and politically — see your discomfort as your own growing pains, as a wake-up call, as all of us becoming different and better people through the many beautiful, varied, powerful acts of making social change toward a better world as we discomfort ourselves and society.

For example, several nights ago, right in front of the Berkeley police station and lines of riot police, a black person tossed a bit of garbage in the direction of the cops.

A white person who looked visibly shaken by that act quickly screamed at the top of their voice, while gesturing frantically toward the black person, “Provocateur! Stop them!” and so on, whipping many other people up to do the same thing.

Fortunately, the black person wasn’t arrested, and two white people stood behind the person who was loudly outing them. Also fortunately, the white person realized just as quickly that they were putting the black person in profound danger. “I was feeling upset,” the white person said. “But I should have walked away for a minute or two instead of yelling. I won’t do that again.”

A lack of solidarity can also be traced to disagreements about strategic symbols, strategic choices, and/or forms of organization, and wanting to see things go a certain way. Perhaps this is not the kindest way to put it, but such an outlook, at heart, relies on notions of control: protesters wanting things to go their own way — a singular way that fits with what they think is the best thing to do. That translates into a sentiment: “we” need to do something [fill in a single tactic or strategy] that “people” can understand.

Yet as should be apparent from all the rainbow of strategies, tactics, protests, and direct actions as well as prefigurative politics flowering across the United States, different direct actions and tactics speak to different people. That’s precisely why this gorgeous (albeit always messy) movement is staying so strong, growing so much. Indeed, it is dynamic because people have been innovating tactics, sharing them across the continent via social medias, and then borrowing them for their cities and towns, to further innovate. Some people are moved by die-ins in malls; others by trains or freeways or bridges being blocked, or kids walking out of their schools in defiance of their teachers; others are touched by seeing a new luxury restaurant’s windows smashed, knowing that such places mean more policing, criminalization, and evictions of people of color and the poor; still others are moved by graffiti on the side of police cars, because it signals that the police aren’t thoroughly in control as an invading army; and on and on. Mostly, many are simply moved by the fact — and therefore are starting to join enthusiastically in the protest, too — that millions of feet are pounding many miles of pavement night after night after night against killer cops and white supremacy.

We haven’t stopped, though the police are working overtime to divert and confound us.

Yes, maybe we need to “stop” to now better self-organize, so that certain groups or voices don’t end up commandeering marches or megaphones. So that we can do deeper, sustained jail and court support as follow-up to arrests. So that we can strategize on how to really shut down this system, in myriad ways, and practice, at the same time, new ways of being and living, a new society that makes this old one truly look as brutal as it is and that ultimately makes it history. So that we can share ideas and tactics with each other on how to better outwit the police as we struggle against them. So that we can do trainings on how to offer forms of mutual aid, from medic to legal to educational to standing by those who already, always, bear the brunt of state violence.

Yes, maybe we should “stop” in order to stop handing comrades over on the streets, directly or indirectly, to those same policing agents who injure, imprison, abuse, and kill.

Let’s practice solidarity, and if you don’t understand how that looks: Ask others! Learn! Listen! Read about past and present movements! And then test out how it feels to be in solidarity with others (good! always good!).

*This is the first in a two-part article on security culture and solidarity as weapon. See Part II here.

Originally published on Cindy Milstein's blog.

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