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Barack Obama rankled “defund the police” activists this week when he said that “snappy slogans” like theirs turned voters off. Maybe it would be better, many of them joked, if they simply prepended another snappy slogan—“yes, we can”—to “defund the police.” Obama was arguing in his capacity as a former president, perhaps one who felt unduly pressured by the Black liberation movement that had exploded anew on his watch. He had forgotten the lessons from the activism of his younger years about how progress is made in this country and what role activists play in making it.
After white police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black Minneapolis man, a demand long popular among left-wing and radical Black activists went mainstream: defund the police. Any activist well-versed in the movement will tell you that it’s an effort to reallocate municipal funds from police departments—many of any size are equipped with weapons of war—toward people-centered programs like mental health services or public schools. But one need not be an activist to understand the slogan’s plea: take resources away from the cops who hurt us.
As racial justice protests spread across the country, the Black Lives Matter movement gained large, multiracial support. But even after watching what felt like an endless loop of police unleashing violence on protesters in major cities and suburban towns across the country this summer, liberal pundits and elected Democratic officials thought the demand to shrink police budgets was too radical and too confusing. They fretted that the idea that perhaps a suburban Ohio town of 78,000 doesn’t need a mine-resistant tank, or that cops don’t need more money to tear gas protesters or to shoot Black women while they slept in their beds, would hurt Joe Biden’s candidacy or turn off anonymous white voters who were considering voting for some down-ballot Democrat but who might now run screaming from the specter of Black people asking not to be killed. After all, what else should left-wing activists be doing besides making sure that Democrats win their elections?
Perhaps it is shocking to Democratic politicians, strategists, and those who consider party registration a central part of their identity, but activists do not exist solely to get Democrats elected. They are not instruments of electoral leverage. Let’s consider the way progress and actual change have always worked in the United States.
The idea that enslaved Black people could be freed was once a radical idea. During the 1860 election, the New York Times published a story about Abraham Lincoln’s conservatism on the slavery question, grateful that anti-slavery activists like Wendell Phillips, a prominent abolitionist, had not backed Lincoln. “Thank God, Mr. Lincoln has not yet fallen so low as to command Mr. Phillips’ respect, on the infamous terms which alone can earn it,” the author wrote. “The Abolitionists have nominated a candidate of their own for the Presidency, and are likely to relieve the Republicans from the damaging odium of their support.”
The following year, the paper published an op-ed looking for a compromise to the slavery “problem” and settled on slow, gradual change for the institution. “We have admitted the impossibility and the folly of the immediate abolition of Slavery,” it read. Apparently, the “sudden release” of millions of Black people in civil society would be ruinous for a group of people who were dependent on their slave masters. It’s the same story. Slavery and police brutality are bad, but shouldn’t the machinery of change be slow and grinding?
This summer, as pundits tittered over the polling popularity of defunding the police, I drew comparisons to the civil rights movement:
Much like police reform, the Civil Rights Act, the sweeping bill signed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 enjoyed broad popular support at 58 percent and a 1965 Gallup poll found that 76 percent of Americans approved of the proposed Voting Rights Act of 1966. But after the 1964 act became law, 68 percent wanted only “moderate” enforcement of its mandates. In fact, 42 percent thought the government was moving too fast to bestow voting rights and the right to be served in public places to Black people.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. also polled horrendously in the 1960s. Now, it feels as if white people invoke him at every turn.
But one doesn’t even need to look that far back to find more examples. As a millennial who grew up in religious settings, I vividly remember when gay marriage was unpopular among the public, an issue full of that “damaging odium.” In 1996, it was Democratic President Bill Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. In 2004, during his re-election campaign, George W. Bush signaled support for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages, drawing ire from Democrats, including his Democratic opponent John Kerry. But Kerry wasn’t pro-gay marriage. He only supported civil unions. “I believe the best way to protect gays and lesbians is through civil unions,” he said in 2004. “I believe the issue of marriage should be left to the states.” Sound familiar? In 2005, only 37 percent of people believed same sex couples should be allowed to get married.
Less than 20 years later, no Democratic candidate would dare come out against gay marriage, lest they be rendered an irrelevant bigot. In short, we’ve progressed as a country. But not because activists finally shut up or softened their slogans or accommodated themselves to “moderate” sensibilities—no, they did quite the opposite. After suffering a series of losses at the ballot box (11 states had passed anti-gay constitutional amendments in 2004) and California passed Prop 8, a state ban on gay marriage in 2008, activists regrouped. As The Atlanticreported in 2015, a coalition of gay rights formed a consortium to centralize the message and the strategy. The original message—”an appeal to reason that enumerated the benefits of marriage that were being denied to gay people”—was abandoned in favor of a more radical appeal: Gay marriage was about love. Snappy, you might say.
I remember all the polling suggesting that "same-sex marriage" was an election loser and that queer people should opt for lesser protections if they wanted to win at the ballot box.
Grateful for every activist who says "we don't care what's popular, we care what's right."
Today, would any respected official or pundit dare suggest in public that Black people having the right to vote is radical? Is there a person worth listening to who would argue that we should’ve abolished slavery a little more slowly or perhaps not at all? The argument from many liberals is that getting Democrats elected is the only way to bring about change. But Barack Obama was president for eight years, during which time countless Black people became hashtags after their very public and violent deaths went viral.
The criticism of defunding the police isn’t about the slogan itself or whether it’s too confusing. It’s about change, and about who gets to make it. In truth, pundits and moderate liberals are uncomfortable with change, particularly when the demands for it are coming from people in the street, moving on their own power. The critics either simply don’t want to defund the police or don’t want to offend the moderate white voter, who has the immense power to hold Black progress hostage. But when that progress is finally achieved, those same moderates will put themselves at the center of the story of the movement, co-opting the fight that they once said was far too radical.
Defense attorney John Pierce, right, speaks as Kyle Rittenhouse, left, listens during an extradition hearing in a Lake County, Illinois, court in October.Nam Y. Huh, Pool/AP
Katie Walker was reading in bed just before midnight on October 8 when she saw a strange text message on her phone. It was a student who lived in the apartment building that Walker (not her real name) had recently moved out of. He was alarmed, because two men he’d never met had knocked on his door around 9 p.m., asking for Walker. They said they were investigators but refused to identify themselves, and they proceeded to knock on just about every other door in the apartment building asking for her whereabouts. “My roomate [sic] asked to see ID and they laughed said no and walked out of the building,” the student texted her. He said the guys looked “sketchy.”
Walker sat up in bed, nervous. She wondered whether the men were white supremacists, coming after her now because of what she’d seen in August in Kenosha, Wisconsin, less than an hour’s drive from her home. She’d gone there as a medic, to help people who were tear-gassed or otherwise injured during anti-police demonstrations. During the protests, she’d spotted Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old with an assault-style rifle. Soon after, he shot and killed two people, one of whom Walker tried to assist with medical care. He also wounded one of her fellow medics, whom she knew personally. (He says he fired in self-defense.)
After that awful night in Kenosha, Walker filed a police statement about what she’d seen near the shooting, hoping that would be the end of it: The experience left her exhausted, with post-traumatic stress disorder, and she wanted to lie low for a while and recover at home. But with the news now that two strange men were trying to track her down, she dialed the local police and left another statement. An officer jotted down that the two men had “looked scummy,” and sent someone over to the building to walk around and lock the door. Walker stayed up the rest of the night with her boyfriend, worrying, and reached out to the FBI.
The next day, her phone kept buzzing. And she wasn’t alone: The men called multiple members of Walker’s family, including her parents. It turns out these guys weren’t random white supremacists: They still refused to give their names, but, according to Walker, they mentioned they worked for the legal firm representing Rittenhouse, who now faces homicide charges. They said they wanted to take her deposition, something she’s not required to do under Wisconsin law except under very specific circumstances. One of the men also asked Walker whether she planned to give a statement to the cops about what she’d seen in Kenosha, and she said she already had. She begged them to leave her alone and hung up, but one of them called again later. Terrified, Walker reached out to John Pierce, a lead attorney for Rittenhouse. She told him about the men and asked him to make them stop.
“He didn’t deny that he sent the men; he didn’t acknowledge it either,” Walker told me recently. “All he said was, ‘I understand.'” And she prayed that he did. But the next day she received yet another phone call, from Pierce’s number, she said. When she answered it, the line was silent for a minute. She hung up, shaken, wondering whether he’d accidentally pocket-dialed her or was trying to scare her, to keep her from testifying.
Walker pulled out her computer and started doing some research. What she found did nothing to assuage her concerns. Pierce, it turns out, is no fringe attorney: His Los Angeles–based law firm, Pierce Bainbridge, had previously represented high-profile clients and several Trump supporters, including Rudy Giuliani and former Trump campaign figures George Papadopoulos and Carter Page. Because he’s based in California and not licensed to practice in Wisconsin, Pierce needed an order from a judge to represent Rittenhouse. Prosecutors have asked for a hearing to oppose that order. (They are also asking the judge to require Pierce to follow Wisconsin rules about pretrial publicity or face sanctions; they accuse him of making statements, in interviews and on Twitter, that violate rules of professional conduct, such as by commenting on the character of Rittenhouse and victims in the case, sharing information that would be inadmissible at trial, and suggesting that the prosecution is politically motivated. His comments, they say, could prejudice jurors and encourage them to acquit Rittenhouse for reasons unrelated to the law.)
What’s more, Walker found that Pierce is no stranger to menacing tactics. Walker stumbled upon a Medium post by a former Pierce Bainbridge attorney who is now suing Pierce for alleged wrongful termination. In it, she learned that Pierce is also accused of harassing his ex-wife. Mother Jones reviewed court records from a child custody case, and found that, in the course of a single day in 2019, Pierce sent his ex-wife more than 60 texts laced with violent language after she told him she couldn’t drive their son to soccer because of a work conflict: “I will bury u if I have to,” he allegedly wrote in one of the texts, copies of which were submitted to the court. “I will find u at Armaggedon [sic] and fuck u up.”
“I am good,” he wrote in another message that day. “U are evil. God is on my side.” In the texts, he repeatedly called her a “slut,” “cunt,” and “bitch,” and threatened to “hunt” her down. In one message, he mentioned a television character known for torturing terrorists: “Watch Jack Bauer on 24 if ur curious what I’m capable of.”
The next day, according to court records, Pierce apologized to his ex-wife and said he hadn’t meant what he texted her, but she remained afraid. She received a temporary restraining order against him, telling the court that he’d expressed a desire to kill her before, something he later denied.
Walker kept learning more. She connected eight days ago with Jennifer Sulkess, a Los Angeles resident who alleged that she was also intimidated by another attorney at the Pierce Bainbridge firm in a separate case. The firm had been retained to represent a Russian billionaire named Sergey Grishin, whom Sulkess had accused of harassing her and her friend, Grishin’s ex-wife, allegations he denies. The two women had taken out temporary restraining orders against Grishin, as he simultaneously pursued lawsuits against them. (These legal cases are ongoing.)
In September 2018, Sulkess said, the Pierce Bainbridge attorney instructed someone to repeatedly photograph her and Grishin’s ex-wife without their consent in public. The next month, she said, a man went to the apartment building where she had recently lived and showed the office manager there her photo, saying Sulkess was wanted for allegedly fraudulently borrowing money—accusations from Grishin’s lawsuit that she denies.
Months later, at about 8 a.m. on a Sunday, a few weeks before a restraining order trial, Sulkess pulled into the parking garage of her new apartment and found that someone else had parked in her assigned spot. “As I go to back up, I see this guy in my rearview mirror, which is quite startling,” she told me. He stood near a pillar, taking photos of her, and then approached and served her with legal papers, even though she had her own attorney who could have accepted the documents during business hours. “It was so overdramatic,” she said. “The rest of the week, you’ve got this thought in your head—like, are people going to jump out of the pillars? It’s designed for psychological warfare.” She and Grishin’s ex-wife started checking the hallways of her apartment to see if there were wiretaps.
In May, Sulkess filed a complaint with the State Bar of California about the Pierce Bainbridge attorney, Amman Khan, who has since moved to another firm but still represents Grishin. She did not mention the parking garage incident but accused him of other misconduct, including sending people to photograph her. But in June, the state bar closed Sulkess’ complaint without formally investigating the allegations. “We have determined that your complaint does not present sufficient facts to support an investigation,” wrote Scott D. Karpf, a senior trial counsel for the state bar. Pierce, his firm, and Khan did not reply to questions from Mother Jones.
Before talking with Sulkess, Walker had already filed her own complaint with the State Bar of California about Pierce and his firm. “My connection to Pierce and Bainbridge is that I am one of the witnesses in the Kyle Rittenhouse case. I believe they are harassing witnesses including myself,” she wrote. But she was disappointed to hear that Sulkess’ complaint had been closed. Now she had little hope that the agency would help her, and as far as she knew, the police and FBI hadn’t done anything to track down the men who’d gone to her old apartment building. So she agreed to speak with me. She wanted to come forward in the media, she said, because some of her friends were also witnesses the night of the Kenosha protest, and they’ve been scared off from testifying after hearing about her experience. They “saw significantly more than I did,” she told me. “And they’re afraid to go to the police and file witness statements, because they’re concerned that the same thing will happen to them.”
She added, “They’re like: ‘We might go to the police. But only if John Pierce faces some sort of consequences.'” She said none of them wanted to speak with media.
Mother Jones reviewed Walker’s complaint to the State Bar of California and her police report, and spoke with the student who texted her from her old apartment building. We also verified her real name, age, location, and corroborating reports about what she witnessed at the Kenosha protest. But we are not publishing these identifying details because of her concerns for her safety and the high-profile nature of the Rittenhouse case. The teen has become a celebrity on the right, accumulating $2 million in donations to post bond ahead of his trial. Earlier this month, people in Washington at a pro-Trump demonstration that included members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group that has advocated violence, chanted together, “Break out Kyle!” And on November 21, a lawmaker in Florida, state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, went so far as to tweet, “KYLE RITTENHOUSE FOR CONGRESS.”
Walker is taking her own precautions in the meantime. She hasn’t heard from Pierce lately, nor from the two men who went to her old apartment. But she wonders if she should arm herself anyway. “I’m not pro-gun,” she told me. “But after having a stalker in college and having this happen,” she added, referring to her experience with Rittenhouse’s case, “I was like, I want some way to defend myself.”
Kyle Rittenhouse, left, with backwards cap, walks in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 25, 2020, at a protest about police brutality. Adam Rogan/The Journal Times via AP
On Friday, Cynthia Green stood outside a grassy field at a folding table, selling french fries, corn fritters, and rib sandwiches to try and raise enough money to bury her 18-year-old son, who had been shot dead by a sheriff’s deputy in Cocoa, Florida, one week earlier.
Green couldn’t afford the funeral costs on her own. And that’s not unusual: Families often struggle to gather enough money for expenses after police shootings. Many state governments offer financial assistance to the victims of violent crimes, but victims of police violence don’t qualify.
Green’s son, Sincere Pierce, left their home in Cocoa around 10:30 a.m. on November 13, and got into a car with some friends. Green, who is Pierce’s great-aunt and legal guardian, was leaving the house at the same time, and noticed a couple of sheriff’s deputies drive by. She got into her car and started following the deputies, afraid they might harass her son and his friends.
A few minutes later, she watched as her son’s car pulled into a driveway of a residential house. The deputies got out of their cruisers and ordered the driver to stop, according to dash-cam video. But he backed out of the parking space and started driving toward one of them, the officers say. “Please, don’t shoot! Please, don’t shoot! My baby’s in that car!” Green recalled screaming, according to a New York Times report. Deputy Jafet Santiago-Miranda fired his gun multiple times, killing Pierce and 16-year-old Angelo Crooms. Green says that from where she stood, their car did not appear to be heading toward the officer.
The deputies later claimed they wanted to pull the driver over because they suspected the car was stolen. But a lawyer for Green argues it was not stolen—it belonged to Crooms’ girlfriend. Police say two firearms were later recovered from the vehicle.
Green is now trying to raise $50,000 for her son’s burial expenses. By Sunday evening, she had gotten about $38,000 through GoFundMe. In other states, families who lost loved ones during police shootings have tried similar strategies. Michelle and Ashley Monterrosa, whose brother Sean, 22, was shot in June by an officer in Vallejo, California, recently told me they also used the fundraising website to pay for his funeral. But there were other financial problems. The sisters said their mom was exhausted after her son’s death but could only take a few days off work to grieve, because of the pressure to keep paying bills. One of the sisters’ high school teachers was trying to crowd-source funds from the community to help cover therapy costs.
The same day Green was selling corn fritters to pay for her son’s burial, Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, finished amassing $2 million in donations. It was enough to post bond so he could leave custody ahead of his trial, where he faces homicide charges for shooting three people who attended a protest against police brutality in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August. Rittenhouse says he fired his weapon in self-defense, and that he went to the protest not to participate, but to prevent people from looting stores.
Rittenhouse was fortunate to get out of detention. Around the country, people regularly get stuck in jail for months before their trials because they can’t afford bail, and disproportionately these are people of color. Rittenhouse, who is white, posted bond with help from his attorneys, who created a group called the #FightBack Foundation to raise funds for him. His attorneys have used their Twitter accounts to call for donations while they promote conservative causes and show their support for President Donald Trump. “President Trump won reelection by a landslide. Biden cheated,” tweeted Rittenhouse’s attorney Lin Wood, who filed a lawsuit in Georgia seeking to block election officials from certifying Biden’s win in the state.
In another tweet on Friday, Wood thanked actor Ricky Schroder and a Minnesota businessman allied with Trump for contributing to Rittenhouse’s fundraiser and “putting us over the top.” Rittenhouse’s case has become a cause célèbre among the right wing. Last weekend, people at a pro-Trump demonstration in Washington chanted together, “break out Kyle!” On Saturday, a state lawmaker in Florida, Rep. Anthony Sabatini, tweeted, “KYLE RITTENHOUSE FOR CONGRESS.”
Two other organizations—one that supports gun rights and another that supports militias—gave $100,000 total to Rittenhouse’s mom, Wendy Rittenhouse, according to the Chicago Tribune, which cited another attorney, John Pierce, who has worked on the teen’s case. She is using the money to pay her bills while she takes time off from working.
In California, Sean Monterrosa’s mom might have benefited from the same break to process her son’s death, but she had to keep showing up to work seven days a week. Her familylives in a one-bedroom home in San Francisco; Sean, a carpenter, had contributed a sizeable portion of their income. I talked to Sean’s sister Michelle in August. “It hits her hardest when she gets home at 4 p.m.—that’s when I see her cry every day,” she said of her mom, who works as a caregiver for an elderly woman. “That’s around the time when Sean would come home from his job.”
Demonstrators protest the death of Walter Wallace Jr.The Washington Post/Getty
On Monday afternoon, nearly an hour into a virtual public hearingon how Philadelphia should oversee its police department, the Reverend Mark Kelly Tyler jumped into the video meeting, turning on his camera and microphone to inform the members of the city council’s Special Committee on Criminal Justice Reform that a young Black man had just been fatally shot by the cops.
Walter Wallace Jr., 27, had been killed on a street in West Philadelphia by police responding to a 911 call from Wallace’s relatives, who, according to a lawyer for the family, requested an ambulance because Wallace was experiencing a mental health crisis. A video of the shooting that circulated immediately on social media showed Wallace walking toward officers, who backed away from him with their guns drawn, while somebody yelled to “put the knife down.” They then fired at least 14 times.
Tyler saw the footage as the public meeting was beginning. His 16-year-old daughter had sent it to him on Instagram within minutes of Wallace being shot. The co-director of POWER Live Free, an interfaith activism campaign focusing on criminal justice issues in Philadelphia, Tyler at first didn’t believe it was real—it was so recent it hadn’t yet made the news. “It’s truly horrifying,” he told the committee when it was his turn to speak. “A man had a knife and I cannot—I stopped counting after 10 shots. So, I’m going down to the scene.”
Now, amid the unrest over Wallace’s death, residents of Philadelphia are voting on whether to establish the new body, which would be tasked with reviewing and improving police officer conduct, holding the department accountable for officers’ actions, and establishing a clear and transparent process for the handling of police misconduct complaints.
But the measure, known as Question 3, does not spell out how members of the commission would be selected, what their responsibilities would be, or how much power they would wield over the police department. Instead, it authorizes the city council to decide.
That means that if Question 3 passes, it will be in the hands of the city’s elected leaders to decide if the new body will be able to impose meaningful accountability on the Philadelphia Police Department—or if it will be a recreation of the existing, underfunded Police Advisory Commission, which Tyler has called “beyond toothless.” After budget cuts and the departure of its executive director, the current commission currently has just a handful of employees and a $550,000 annual budget to provide a check on a $727-million force of roughly 6,500 police officers, according to the Inquirer. (Kenney had previously restructured the commission in 2017, but not much changed—it now focuses on issuing reports about systemic issues in the department, while civilian complaints about police are handled internally by the police department.)
On Monday, the Special Committee on Criminal Justice Reform held a hearing to gather input from community members on what the commission should look like if Question 3 does pass. “This historic ballot question will create a blank canvas,” Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said at the start of the meeting. “We as a city will be able to paint rules and regulations that will allow for questions of conduct of police to be considered.”
For months, POWER Live Free has been hosting town halls on Facebook Live with police oversight experts and professionals from around the country to gather ideas for how the new oversight body could work. Among their priorities, Tyler says, is for the commission to be independent of the mayor’s office, with elected members from different districts of the city, and to have full responsibility for setting police department policy. At the Monday meeting, Gayle Lacks, another leader of POWER Live Free, outlined additional demands: more investigators, a database of complaints, and guaranteed direct access for the commission to all police department records, with penalties for the police department if it doesn’t comply with requests for information.
Eventually, Tyler adds, he would like the new commission to have the power to hire and fire the police commissioner, and determine how officers should be disciplined—but that would take another ballot initiative, as well as some serious wrangling over the police union contract. “What we don’t want is for this to be business as usual—that some deal gets cut with the [Fraternal Order of Police] and with the police department and council, we come out and police accountability in Philadelphia 2.0 is worse than before, and again, we have nothing but window dressing,” Tyler says.
It’s still unclear how or whether the cops who shot Wallace will face repercussions for his death. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said the officers—who have not been publicly identified—have been taken off street duty while a team led by District Attorney Larry Krasner investigates; Outlaw has promised to release 911 recordings as well as the body cam footage. On Thursday, a lawyer for Wallace’s family said it did not want the officers charged with murder because “they were improperly trained and did not have the proper equipment by which to effectuate their job.” They intend to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
After logging off early from the council meeting, Tyler spent Monday evening talking to young people on the streets of the city who, he says, believed the officers fired because they were afraid. “When they see us, it’s not as somebody who’s having the worst day of their lives, who needs to be saved,” Tyler says. “It’s like this threat that needs to be extinguished.”
He hopes voters will draw a line from the shooting to their vote on the ballot measure: “These things are not disconnected. Our hope is that the community will see the same thing that we see—and recognize that this is a real moment for a much bigger win for all of us.”
George Floyd protesters shut down the westbound lanes of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge on June 14, 2020.Chris Tuite/ImageSPACE/MediaPunch/IPX
Smile. If you’re in downtown San Francisco’s business district, you’re in view of Motorola cameras so sharp they can pick out the color of your eyes, the marks on your face. San Francisco cops used the footage to identify and arrest one man whom camera operators could see so clearly they nicknamed him “Dimples.” Then the police used the cameras to monitor protests against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And then they got in trouble.
Today, the city of San Francisco was sued in California Superior Court by three locals who took part in anti-police-violence protests. Hope Williams, Nestor Reyes, and Nathan Sheard allege that city police violated their civil rights and broke the law by using the privately owned cameras’ live feed to carry out dragnet surveillance of protesters.
They’re being represented by the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties group based in the city. The suit seeks a judgment that the police broke city laws requiring local law enforcement to not “acquire, borrow, or use any private camera network” without approval from the city’s Board of Supervisors.
Residents were promised more restraint when the camera network, which now covers 135 blocks, was set up. “The police can’t monitor it live,” cryptocurrency mogul Chris Larsen assured San Francisco’s ABC7 News earlier this year. “That’s actually against the law.”
Why is a venture capitalist opining on the cameras to begin with? Larsen is responsible for them. A San Francisco native, he funded the initial placement of the cameras and the “business improvement districts” that monitor them, assuring city officials and concerned citizens that he took their privacy concerns seriously. Police…did not, the lawsuit alleges.
Records reveal that SFPD’s Homeland Security Unit obtained real-time access to the cameras on May 31, as major protests were taking off in the city, and requested a five-day extension on June 2, which it received. The cops also received real-time access to the cameras to monitor gatherings for the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl, and San Francisco’s 2019 Pride Parade, according to the San Francisco Examiner. (The cameras are disproportionately concentrated in shopping districts and adjacent low-income neighborhoods.)
Under San Francisco’s Surveillance Technology Ordinance, police need approval from the city’s Board of Supervisors to acquire and use new surveillance technology. The ordinance provides exceptions for “an emergency involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to any person.”
SFPD argues that its use of the cameras met the “imminent danger” standard; ACLU of Northern California attorney Matthew Cagle calls SFPD’s argument “a power grab that defies the law and brushes off the democratic checks on their power.”
“It was a tactic to provoke fear,” says plaintiff Hope Williams, and “an absolute, blatant disregard of the Surveillance Technology Ordinance in San Francisco.” Williams says she had a “visceral reaction” to finding out about police surveillance of the protests: “What troubles me the most is how this would affect the movement.”
Police nationwide have been quick to jump on surveillance technologies as they become available. Generous police budgets, on the rise despite a growing protest movement, allow departments to stock up on devices that track movements, listen in on calls, and even monitor biometric responses—a digital companion to police militarization. Tech firm Clearview AI, the subject of a HuffPost profile that alleged the company had employed open white nationalists, claims that “over 2,400 law enforcement agencies” have licensed its facial recognition software, often without outside oversight.
“Surveillance technology expands police power in a very dangerous way,” Cagle says. “That’s one of the reasons that San Francisco passed an ordinance. Just the other day, we found that they had illegally used facial recognition.”
(Larsen, the venture capitalist behind the cameras, says they don’t use facial recognition technology. “We’re strongly opposed to facial recognition,” he told the New York Times in July, calling it “too powerful given the lack of laws and protections.”)
San Francisco police, like their counterparts across the country, have scaled up conventional intelligence-gathering efforts to include a new array of tools for breaking into mobile phones, tapping into wireless communications, monitoring gatherings from the air, and automatically scanning license plates.
The city, long a home of left activism, has given police plenty to surveil. The department’s intelligence unit amassed over 10,000 files, beginning in the 1970s and covering everything from South African divestment protests to AIDS crisis protests, queer liberation protests, and student sit-ins at San Francisco State University. (One San Francisco police inspector, the lawsuit notes, was caught selling SFPD files on anti-apartheid protesters to South Africa’s government.) But new technologies, and cooperative business interests, have radically expanded their reach.
Even surveillance spending that appears tough to argue with—like ShotSpotter, an audio surveillance network meant to detect gunfire—can cost far more than shoe-leather policing and still produce few results. From the beginning of 2013 to June 2015, an 18-month period, ShotSpotter issued more than 4,300 alerts in San Francisco. They yielded two arrests.
Surveillance of protests, though, has led to arrests. Since May, police in Texas, Washington, and New York have harnessed surveillance technology to track down protesters on a variety of questionable charges. In Texas, state officials used surveillance footage to arrest a 25-year-old Black man despite an affidavit that “didn’t portray him engaging in any illegal behavior.” At least a dozen other Texans were arrested in that round of surveillance-based investigations.
Cases like those are part of Cagle’s concern. “If this is left unchecked,” he says, “surveillance networks will radically expand the police’s presence exactly at a time when we’re having a public conversation about these police departments and the power that they have.”
The San Francisco Police Department referred Mother Jones to the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office. We’ll update if we hear back.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, with MPD Chief Medaria Arradondo looking on. Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune
After the federales showed, on Portland’s 55th consecutive day of rage, Mayor Ted came through. Mayor Ted Wheeler, alma maters Stanford, Harvard, Columbia MBA; author of Government that Works: Innovation in State and Local Government; imminent tear gas victim:
#Portland's mayor went downtown last night to address the demonstrators who have been protesting racial injustice and police brutality nightly for nearly two months now.
Wheeler bounced after the cops sprayed him, but it’s not as if he’d gotten a friendly reception from his civilian constituents, either. “How can you let your people get gassed out here every night?” the crowd yelled at him, even as he spoke out against federal goons in the city and qualified immunity for cops. If the heckling seems odd to you, keep in mind that it was this Ted Wheeler:
Portland's mayor and police chief defend Tuesday night's policing, while Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty called reports of indiscriminate tear gas and flash bang use "completely unacceptable"https://t.co/778zIgUPpP
In Minneapolis, there was the viral clip of protesters telling sweet, telegenic, Trudeauesque Mayor Frey to “go home, Jacob, go home!” They’d asked Frey, an erstwhile civil rights lawyer, to pledge to defund city cops. He declined. They sent him packing.
In Philadelphia, where cops openly coddled white-power vigilantes, Democrat Jim Kenney said he’d add $19 million to Philly PD’s budget before retreating under fire. His city’s schools face a $38 million deficit. (Kenney had already overseen a 30 percent jump in Philadelphia’s police spending.)
Anarchists and opportunistic leftists, neither of whom were present, for instance, in this viral video showing cops smashing up a downtown storefront. It wasn’t an anarchist who maced a man trying to barge through a police line, nor was it an opportunistic leftist who “would throw a flash bang or tear gas just randomly into the crowd.” Those were cops.
A Seattle cop shown on video deliberately rolling his bike over a wounded protester’s head and neck has been put on leave https://t.co/DVOcyQKwCz
In Washington, DC, NPR asked Mayor Muriel Bowser if she’d had second thoughts on raising the police budget.
“Not at all,” she said.
In Chicago, Lori Lightfoot raised the bridges to keep downtown protest-free, leveraging the city’s brutallegacy of apartheid. Even Richard Daley, a feudal mayor if there ever was, never tried moat-and-drawbridge segregation. Instead of coming downtown, Lightfoot suggested, protesters might try a moment of silence—the racial justice pause that refreshes.
All-blue city councils behind them, hours of footage in front: hundreds of unprovoked beatings and shootings on tape, the kind of proof prosecutors drool for in any other case.
The Moundsville Police Department has added a vehicle to the fleet! I’ll tell you everything this MRAP offers- and explain how the department get it for free- tonight on @WTOV9pic.twitter.com/qveCV7X1i9
Why are Democratic mayors risking everything to defend the indefensible?
Let’s play SimCity. You won the race; you’re mayor. You’re an ambitious type who probably does want to help. But you’ve been in the big chair for a minute. You’ve burned hours and hours meeting with the rich, cutting ribbons for the rich, taking calls from the rich. You figured out by week 2 why your predecessors didn’t do the nice things they promised. You don’t answer to anyone whose first fear is the cops.
The technically independent police foundations are tax-free operations, staffed by senior ex-cops, that donate surveillance cameras, rifles, and SWAT gear to local police departments. They’re a not-so-elaborate scheme to turn that cash (and Verizon’s, and Halliburton’s, and Facebook’s) into deep, loyal relationships. Why would Blackstone throw all that money at police? Can’t hurt that it’s Earth’s biggest landlord, a line of work that’s always counted on the badge for pandemic evictions, tenant disposal, color-line enforcement, and more. Call the #BlackLivesMatter LinkedIn posts icing on the cake.
These are familiar faces at your office. If Joe Billionaire has your ear and spends millions of his own on police, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what he’s saying in those off-record City Hall sessions.
So you don’t feel pressure to make a real offer on cop budgets. The people demanding it pose no electoral threat. What are they going to do—vote Republican? You do not take them seriously. You are genuinely scared of urban revolt, but only from the folks who scare you. The ones at Goldman, BlackRock, Wells Fargo, Amazon, Target, Walmart, Chevron, Coke. (Google any of thosenamesnext to “mayor.”)
These are your friends—if you deliver. You know them well from their threats to leave town, nailing you to the wall for yet more tax breaks. And from your attempts at paying them to come over. And if they make your constituents a little, well, broke, or if their services cost more than you can afford, they’ve still got your loyalty (and pensions). When they get regulated, you’re right there to rail against it. If you’re lucky, they might hire you later.
And because you are basically sane, you don’t expect to win a race after making enemies of your most powerful constituents—from individual upper-middle-class homeowners up the chain to landowners, bank owners, business owners, business-owner owners, and “human capital stock” owners—by allowing or encouraging deep police cuts. The Democratic mayor who breaks that seal also breaks Democrats’ tenuous electoral bond between the rich and the rest.
Remember how Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker groveled when a prankster posed as “Tea Party sugar daddy” David Koch? Your blue-city mayors can’t escape that dynamic; they, too, are behind-closed-doors grovelers.
You might challenge the very rich, in a limited way, on a few issues. But you see them, you know them, and you need them. You’re accountable to them, not the crowds. And you know they’ll react to an imposition—a bit of property tax, dash of integration, too much transit—by mounting a keener electoral threat than either police or their victims can muster. And they have unmistakable views on race.
In the 1950s, upper-middle-class white Texans ran a high-profile insurrection against the Social Security tax they now had to pay for “domestics.” These people called a payroll tax for cleaners—I swear this is true—“indentured servitude.” Similar efforts carried on for decades.
In the 1960s, a John Birch–backed white voter revolt assassinated California’s mild new fair housing law by a two-to-one margin.
In the 1970s, nearly likable Republican George Romney enraged suburban Michiganders by opposing segregation. But he couldn’t stop their bare-knuckled campaign against school integration, which led to the Supreme Court’s screeching U-turn on busing.
The rallies against pandemic safety, where I WANT A HAIRCUT mingled freely with ARBEIT MACHT FREI, are the latest poison fruit off that tree.
All of these movements were gleefully vindictive toward political opponents, happy to ax incumbents, had easy access to funding and friendly media; when white money goes to war, it does not fuck around.
Hence the push to blame police unions, an enemy Democrats can agree on. Lori Lightfoot, finger on the pulse of the white North Side, has cultivated a high-profile spat with Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police. But it’s not the union Lightfoot’s scared of. With few exceptions, police unions already hate and oppose these mayors at every turn. If cops could unseat most blue-city mayors, there wouldn’t be many left.
The Minneapolis police union campaigned all-out against a Frey predecessor, the moderate Dem R.T. Rybak; Rybak beat the incumbent two-to-one, an unprecedented margin of victory. Police unions are hard-right institutions, and it really does limit their electoral power.
But mayors have every incentive to pretend it ain’t so. Who wins if you think the cop unions are that powerful? Who wants to be seen as well-meaning but stuck in an impossible bind?
So police budgets grow with the political heft of the rich, which overpowers majorities. And almost all the truly rich live in blue cities.
That means, for mayors, that their police violence dodges translate into real risks avoided, real political capital preserved among the Ring doorbell class. Jacob Frey didn’t stare into that rally and see the people he usually answers to. Ted Wheeler dropped in, six weeks into Portland’s daily protests, after a critical mass of white moms arrived. He bailed after an hour—back to a crowd that simply does not vote on police brutality. They vote on what the Northwestern scholar Jeffrey Winters calls “wealth defense.”
That, Winters writes, is your mayor’s real tightrope walk:
If the rich are unarmed or do not rule directly, the armed state is the sole source of security.…The modern state—which is possible only if there is a separation between wealth holders and their capacity to engage in or hire violence for wealth defense—gains much of its legitimacy from the successful replacement of violence done by individuals with rule-bound coercion done by institutions.
No display of conforming behavior is more important to modern wealth defense than a respect for property, which during the rise of absolutist states fully metamorphosed from self-enforced claims to state-enforced rights.
This is why Frey said, in his inaugural address: “Yes, we must expect more accountability from our police. But we also need to expect more of ourselves.”
It’s why Frey described structural racism as “$31 billion of lost opportunity in our amazing market due to gaps between people of color and white people,” and said, “Any smart business person would agree that this would be an unacceptable loss.”
Nothing about redistribution or taxes. That’s not because of the police unions. It’s about who has the last word at City Hall. These protests, for Wheeler and Frey, de Blasio and Durkan, are crises of legitimacy: friction fires between their job description and their actual job. This is white money’s thumb on the scales of justice. Their only choice is polite omertà.
In New York City, when footage emerged of a police car mowing people over, Mayor Bill De Blasio said he was “not going to blame officers who are trying to deal with an absolutely impossible situation.”
In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper said vandalism “does not represent our city.” But he doesn’t feel the need to call out a SWAT team who lobbed explosives at reporters.
[Louisville police] shot a reporter with rubber bullets as she broadcast (for which they apologized) and fired tear gas before curfew into a crowd that “looked peaceful,” admitted a police official. None of that was deemed worthy of censure.
This is about negotiating in public. To stay credible, politicians have to tailor their reform offers to the degree of “legitimate” anger, to the public perception of what’s going on. They can’t afford to acknowledge the evidence because they can’t afford to act on it.
Those videos, reports, and broadcasts defy equivocation. They show methodical brutality against people who pose no threat. They give the lie to the “bad apples” line. They reveal that mayorsdo notdirectly controlpolice. In other words, they call for change on a scale your most powerful neighbors just won’t accept. City Hall cannot bear very much reality.
And that’s what sleights-of-hand like Durkan’s and Frey’s are about. They’re about being able to say, when they defer and demur and preserve every core element of police power, that they’re not betraying the clearly expressed will of their constituents. Paint the protesters as rioters and looters, and fewer people mind when you don’t reform jack.
Look, this is the heart of the cop thing. John Jay liked to say that those who own the country ought to govern it; for most of history, they did. In early states, “a plunderer could become in effect the chief of police as soon as he regularized his ‘take,’” the historian Frederic Lane writes. That didn’t go out of style with chain mail. On the American frontier, Montana Territory sheriff Henry Plummer moonlighted as chief of the Innocents, a crew of killer highwaymen. Plummer began his career as a plain criminal, switching to vigilantism after police let him kill an escaped prisoner—and eventually took it professional. His successors just keeppoppingup.
England’s typical early sheriff, in the words of one history, was “a regional dictator with true executive authority,” whose office—a key forebear of modern police—was professionalized during the “consolidation of the gentry’s grip on local government.” From 700 to 1700, says Lane, “the most weighty single factor in most periods of growth, if any one factor has been most important, has been a reduction in the proportion of resources devoted to war and police.”
So we made a devil’s bargain: To get the rich to quit financing bandits, militias, and private armies—maybe even abide by some laws—early states had to subsidize property defense, big-time. Modern policing was born. The veneer of equal protection ain’t deep.
These individuals experience the height of privilege and are co-opting peaceful demonstrations that were organized by and meant to center people of color, particularly Black Americans.
In the last decade, there has been just one good study on how mayors think. “When asked if cities should work to reduce income inequality,” it found, “a majority of mayors said ‘no.’” That includes a majority of Democrats. This, too, was true of both parties:
Overall, the mayors surveyed rated their relationships with their business communities, neighboring cities and their congressional delegation as positive. The relationship with federal government agencies and the state government were regarded as being more difficult.
You’d never guess from that how the feds and states ply mayors with cash. The late Ben Barber was the leading expert on mayors:
Benjamin Barber, the political theorist and author of “If Mayors Ruled the World,” is wildly biased in favor of de Blasio. He says he voted for him, has met with him to offer advice… For all that, Barber has not been swayed by de Blasio’s soaring rhetoric about reducing the gap between rich and poor.
City Hall has wised you up. You know the police unions will wither without cash, like every force in city politics. But you need constituents who see them as a rock in the road. To make a serious offer on defunding, you’d have to be more scared of your poor than your rich. You’re not.
The uprising, from Portland to New York to Louisville, has hardlypaused since June. This is the US in the grip of democracy—a real contest for power, with all the fear and uncertainty that entails. Democracy crackles. It is not tidy or clean. But markets hate fear and uncertainty, and our electeds are tasked to avoid it. For you, the mayor, a little martial law is by far the better deal.
As he was preparing to speak, Wheeler was briefly interrupted by two protesters who rushed forward chanting, “Stop the sweeps, people are dying on the streets,” an apparent reference to sweeps of homeless camps. Wheeler did not mention them after they were quickly escorted outside by police. Nor did he refer to several other people in the crowd that held signs calling for a rent freeze during his talk. But he listed homelessness and housing affordability among the challenges he intends to address.
And then his speech kicked off, and Wheeler stood before his constituents and said: “Talk is cheap. Action is what matters. I know you’ll hold me accountable.”
He meant it. He just wasn’t talking to most of them.
On March 13, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was asleep in her bed with her boyfriend when four police officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department used a battering ram to burst into her home. Multiple witnesses say they did not knock or identify themselves, however one witness says that the officers did announce their identity. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, assuming it was intruders, shot at the police officers. In response, the cops opened fire. After 32 rounds, they had killed Taylor and shot up some neighbors’ apartments. Walker was arrested and charged with attempted murder.
Six months after Taylor was killed, following a massive public pressure campaign largely led by advocates in Louisville, the state of Kentucky announced the results of a grand jury investigation of the case. The consequences for the crime of shooting Breonna Taylor to death in her own home while she slept were that three LMPD police officers will face no charges. Former LMPD officer Brett Hankison—who was fired in June for his role in her death—is being charged with three counts of wanton endangerment for shooting into the apartments of Taylor’s neighbors.
The sheer inadequacy of the charges reverberated across the country. Criminal justice advocates and Black Lives Matter protesters denounced the outcome. The stark contrast between the reality that Black people have been killed by police for much lesser crimes—including Taylor, whose only crime was sleeping in her bed—and the stunningly lenient charges communicates something that is increasingly impossible to ignore: A police badge appears to grant officers the right to circumvent the legal system, even as they claim to uphold it.
The decision on whether or not to indict Breonna Taylor’s killers was handled by a grand jury. During Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s press conference after the charges were announced, he said that it was important to follow the law, and that the law enforcement officials involved in the killing of Taylor had the right to presumed innocence until proven guilty.
The accused is innocent until proven guilty says @kyoag
And yet, why wasn’t Taylor presumed innocent by the agents of the very same system they relied on to dismiss her death?
“This is the most absurd legal maneuvering that I have ever seen,” said Lonita Baker, the National Bar Association Vice President for Regions and Affiliates and lead counsel representing Taylor’s family in a statement. “If [Hankison’s] behavior was wanton to those in neighboring apartments, it was likewise wanton to Breonna and Kenny. He should have been charged with wanton murder and another count of wanton endangerment.”
It seems as if due process and the presumption of innocence can be flexible concepts, deployed for the convenience of law enforcement. For others, especially Black people, that right is often stripped away, which means that regular citizens are held to a higher (or is it lower?) standard than armed public servants. Cops often deploy the “fearing-for-their-lives” justification as reason for shooting and killing civilians, whether those civilians are or are not armed. That same right did not extend to Walker. He was wrong to use a weapon to protect himself and his home against intruders, and yet the police were justified in shooting Taylor because they were protecting themselves. The charges against Walker were dropped in May.
This is not a new deadly contradiction. Back in 1895, the New York state legislature created the Lexow Commission to study the actions of the New York City Police Department after pressure from a social reformer. The commission found that the police “form a separate and highly privileged class.”
"It appears that the police form a separate and highly privileged class, armed with the authority and machinery for oppression and punishment, but practically free themselves from the operation of criminal law."
The Lexow Commission said this about U.S. policing in 1895.
To add insult to injury, in the six months between Taylor’s death and Cameron’s announcement, the city settled a wrongful death suit for $12 million with Breonna Taylor’s family. A settlement, naturally, whose bill the taxpayers will foot. The city also banned no-knock warrants so that police will announce themselves before breaking your door down. The settlement and the reforms are tacit acknowledgments that something bad happened here, but let’s not drill down on who’s responsible.
Routinely escaping consequences or accountability allows police to continue to inflict violence, pain, and trauma on the same communities over and over again. But what has taken place during 2020 feels worse. In the past, both major political parties would engage in the requisite mealy-mouthed calls for peace and understanding, while denouncing violence on “both sides.” But courtesy of Donald Trump, Republicans no longer need to pretend that they’re interested in equality. After Cameron’s press conference announcing that no one would be held responsible for the death of Taylor, the president was the first to applaud. Not surprisingly, Cameron is a Republican.
Asked about the Breonna Taylor case, Trump says Kentucky’s AG, Republican Daniel Cameron, made a “really brilliant” statement and is a “star.”
Of course, law enforcement can act with impunity. Who can blame them with this kind of high-level support?
As more information was revealed about what the charge of “wanton endangerment” actually meant, a cruel truth was revealed: According to the state of Kentucky, the only crime the cops committed that night was one against property. Taylor’s walls mattered more than her life. As protesters took to the streets to decry the empty charges and the unjust system that police officers seem to uphold only when it suits their own, they were met with tear gas, arrests, and armed white gangs—who’ve been glorified by Trump, Republicans, and the conservative media. A suspect was taken into custody after shooting and injuring two police officers. What is the correct response to a system that repeatedly uses violence and then cherry picks the legal mechanism to justify it? More violence may not be the answer, but it certainly starts addressing the heart of the question.
A grand jury has indicted a former Louisville police officer with wanton endangerment of the first degree for actions he took during the raid that led to the death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed in the early hours of March 13 when police officers raided her Louisville apartment. The two other officers involved in the shooting will not be charged. The outcome was announced on Wednesday following a process led by Daniel Cameron, Kentucky’s attorney general.
The charged officer, Brett Hankison, blindly fired his gun into both Taylor’s apartment and a neighbor’s, violating department policy requiring that officers have a line of sight. For this, Hankison was fired. At the time, Louisville’s interim police chief Robert Schroeder found that Hankison “displayed an extreme indifference to the value of human life” when he “wantonly and blindly fired ten (10) rounds into the apartment of Breonna Taylor.” on March 13, 2020.” But according to the indictment against Hankison, the wanton endangerment charges are the result of firing into Taylor’s neighbor’s apartment. His bond was set at $15,000.
Protests calling for charges against the officers who took Taylor’s life have taken place in Louisville for more than 100 days. On the eve of the announcement, the city took steps to control potential coming protests. On Tuesday, the city was placed under a state of emergency order, a 25-block permitter was closed to traffic, city administrative buildings were boarded up. On Wednesday, prior to the announcement, a 9pm curfew was announced and the state national guard was activated.
Taylor’s death was the result of a police raid gone horribly wrong. Police claim they announced their presence, but inside her apartment, Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker claims he and Taylor heard an intruder breaking down the door without identifying themselves. In self-defense, Walker shot at the officers. The officers shot back, killing Taylor. The raid itself, part of an operation targeting her former boyfriend, should arguably never have involved Taylor.
Cameron, a Republican and acolyte of Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, chose to have a grand jury determine charges. Grand juries are generally known to fulfill the will of the prosecutor that leads them. In many cases involving officer shootings, they have facilitated decisions not to charge while serving as way for prosecutors to deflect public blame for the decision to the grand jury.
This post has been updated with more information about Hankison’s indictment.
A demonstration against police brutality on June 14, 2020 in Miami.Joe Raedle/Getty
Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump lackey, is pushing legislation that would outlaw protests that turn disorderly and allow law enforcement to round up and prosecute all present, transforming participation in a protest from a protected constitutional right to a crime. The changes read like the rulebook of a dictatorship—and rather than being an aberration, represent a hot new trend on the political right.
The sweeping proposal out of Florida would allow state authorities to lock up and deny rights and benefits to anyone who attended a gathering deemed violent or disorderly. If you’re involved in an “assembly” of more than seven people where some property is damaged, you and everyone alongside you can be charged with a third degree felony. The same goes for unpermitted protests that block roadways. Drivers who murder or mow down protesters blocking roads would be given new legal defenses, as the proposal says drivers who hit protesters while fleeing are not liable for injury or death. The package would strip counties or municipalities who chose to reduce their police department budgets of state funds, essentially removing local control over spending.
Today I announced bold legislation that creates new criminal offenses and increases penalties for those who target law enforcement and participate in violent or disorderly assemblies. We will always stand with our men and women in uniform who keep our communities safe. pic.twitter.com/ITl5GmmrZJ
“This effort has one goal: silence, criminalize, and penalize Floridians who want to see justice for Black lives lost to racialized violence and brutality at the hands of law enforcement,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, in response to the proposal. “Protesting is, and always has been, an indispensable part of our democracy’s history. We will fight any bill that violates the First Amendment.”
DeSantis’s push didn’t come out of nowhere. President Donald Trump warned recently that any protests against him on election night would be put down as an “insurrection.” In June, as Confederate statues around the country were toppled in anti-racist protests, Trump signed an executive order directing prosecutors to charge protesters who damage federal monuments and to withhold funding from cities that do not protect monuments. His attorney general, Bill Barr, has urged federal prosecutors to charge protesters under insurrection statutes. Trump and Barr used tear gas against peaceful protesters gathered outside the White House in June, a display that signaled that even peaceful gatherings are considered unacceptable.
The introduction of this proposal just days before Floridians begin to receive ballots is widely seen as a political move by DeSantis, who admits it will only be taken up in March, when the legislature next convenes. Indeed, DeSantis himself has said he wants voters to judge politicians on the ballot this fall based on their response to his vision. “Every single person running for office in the state of Florida this year, whether you’re running for the House, whether you’re running for the Senate, you have an obligation to let the voters know where you stand on this bill,” he said Monday. “Are you going to stand with law and order and safe communities, or are you going to stand with the mob?” While Florida has not been a hub of protests this year in the way cities like Portland have been, DeSantis’s move underscores attempts by Trump to turn the November election into referendum on law and order.
DeSantis’s anti-protester wishlist doesn’t just read like a political document but also like an act of fear. In Florida, a state closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, the GOP controls all three branches of government. At the federal level, the power imbalance is starker. Republicans control the White House and Senate despite Democrats getting more votes for president and their Senate candidates, and together they are in the process of ramming through another Supreme Court appointment that will solidify conservative dominance over the nation’s highest court. In such a system, the opposition often has no outlet but protests. So it’s unsurprising that DeSantis and Trump want to shut those down too.
President Trump offered a full-throated defense of the killing of Michael Reinoehl, the Portland man suspected of killing a member of a right-wing group last month, claiming that Reinoehl’s shooting by law enforcement officials was the inevitable price to be paid for his alleged crimes.
“This guy was a violent criminal and the US Marshals killed him,” Trump told Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro in an interview that aired Saturday. “And I will tell you something: That’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution.”
The remarks, which essentially encouraged extrajudicial murders by US police, come as the latest in the president’s open promotion of violence against his perceived political enemies. He holds his supporters to a very different standard. Less than two weeks ago, he defended the 17-year-old Trump fan suspected of killing two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after police shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back. In the case of that suspect, Kyle Rittenhouse, Trump stressed that the situation was still under investigation, suggesting that it was important to let the justice system play out before rushing to any conclusions.
Trump’s call to reserve judgment doesn’t appear to extend to Reinoehl, who an eyewitness says was killed by police without warning. The morning after his interview with Pirro aired, Trump on Sunday similarly demanded that prosecutors pursue a “fast trial death penalty” for the person suspected of shooting two police officers in Los Angeles.
Donald Trump Jr. speaks at the Republican convention in August. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images
Donald Trump Jr. seems to think that the shooting by Kyle Rittenhouse, the white 17-year-old from Illinois, of three protesters last month in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is just another case of “boys will be boys.” Speaking in an interview on September 8 on the TV show Extra that has since gone viral, Don Jr. said he and his father had not condemned Rittenhouse for killing two people and injuring a third because they were still waiting for due process in the case.
He then added, “He’s a young kid. I don’t want 17-year-olds running around the street with AR-15s—maybe I wouldn’t have put myself in that situation, who knows? But we all do stupid things at 17.”
“That’s a little bit beyond stupid,” the interviewer, Extra correspondent Rachel Lindsay, responded. Don Jr. didn’t really take the point. “Really stupid, fine,” he said. “But we all have to let that process play out.”
Don Jr. was on the show to promote his new book, Liberal Privilege. But if we’re going to talk about privilege, let’s talk about the reasons why white teens accused of violence are so often described as boys who got a little too rowdy, but Black teens accused of violence are often regarded as predatory adults. They’re “murderers” who should be executed, as President Trump put it when referring to the now-exonerated Central Park Five in New York City back in 1989.
This kind of rhetoric trickles down into our criminal justice system and translates into vastly different punishments for kids based on the color of their skin. As I reported in an investigation a few years ago, Black teenagers are significantly more likely than white teenagers to be sent to prison for the rest of their lives when they commit violence. From 2012 to 2018, an astonishing 72 percent of teens who received life-without-parole sentences around the country were Black. Prosecutors and courts seem to believe that when these kids hurt someone, they can’t be rehabilitated and should be locked up until they die—no second chances. But when a white kid like Rittenhouse hurts someone, people like the Trumps argue he’s just young and foolish like “we all” were once. If that’s not privilege, I don’t know what else is.
President Donald Trump talks to a crowd of supporters after arriving at Wilmington International Airport, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, in Wilmington, N.C. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
The Trump administration has found yet another way to ratchet up racial tension in the country. This time, it’s by targeting race-related trainings for federal employees, calling anything with a focus on white privilege “un-American propaganda,” according to a memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget, released late Friday night.
“These types of ‘trainings’ not only run counter to the fundamental beliefs for which our Nation has stood since its inception, but they also engender division and resentment within the Federal workforce,” OMB Director Russell Vought wrote in the memo. Vought added that all federal agencies will be tasked with coming up with a list of contracts that involve subject matter like “white privilege” or “critical race theory” and then do everything within their power to cancel those contracts.
The inspiration for this Friday night announcement may have been a Fox News appearance on Tuesday night by Chris Rufo a filmmaker and fellow with the right wing Discovery Institute. He was on Tucker Carlson and suggested that federal employees were being indoctrinated with dangerous left wing ideology. “It’s absolutely astonishing how critical race theory has pervaded every institution in the federal government,” Rufo said. “What I have discovered is that critical race theory has become, in essence, the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy and is now being weaponized against the American people.” After Friday’s announcement, President Trump triumphantly tweeted.
The news comes as another branch of the federal government cautions about the rise of white supremacy. The Department of Homeland Security is set to release a report that identifies white supremacists as the most serious terror threat facing the country. In three drafts of the report obtained by Politico, DHS says hate groups and white supremacists pose a more imminent threat to American safety than any foreign entity—including China and Russia. “Foreign terrorist organizations will continue to call for Homeland attacks but probably will remain constrained in their ability to direct such plots over the next year,” all three documents say, according to Politico.
These divergent messages from the federal government clearly appear to be tactics to energize the Trump base just before the election. They come on the heels of a violent summer, roiled by protests against police violence and confrontations with armed vigilantes. That “American carnage” Trump described in his inaugural address? This is it.
One of Dijon Kizzee's uncles grieves at a makeshift memorial where Kizzee, a 29-year-old Black man, was killed by Los Angeles sheriff's deputies in South Los Angeles.David McNew/Getty Images
Dijon Kizzee, a 29-year-old Black man, was riding his bicycle through South Los Angeles on Monday afternoon when he noticed two sheriff’s deputies trying to stop him. He got off the bike and started running.
The deputies say they wanted to stop Kizzee because he was riding in violation of vehicle codes. They chased him down the street. A scuffle ensued, and Kizzee dropped a jacket on the ground; wrapped inside it was a gun. When the deputies spotted the firearm, they shot him multiple times, killing him.
The sheriff’s department hasn’t specified which vehicle codes Kizzee allegedly broke, and a spokesperson claims he reached toward his gun before the deputies shot him, something that can’t clearly be confirmed by the available video footage. The killing, which came about a week after an officer shot Jacob Blake several times in the back in Wisconsin, has spurred renewed protests in Los Angeles amid a nationwide movement to stop police violence against Black people.
Kizzee is not the first Black man to die as a result of one of these stops. In August 2014, the same month a Ferguson cop shot Michael Brown, who had been walking down the street, a sheriff’s deputy stopped Dante Parker, 36, while he was riding his bike in Victorville, California. The deputy said Parker matched the description of a burglar, and after struggling to detain him, officers used a Taser about 25 times, killing him. The district attorney’s office declined to press charges against the deputies, saying Parker died because he was also on drugs after an autopsy report showed he had PCP in his system.
There’s no nationwide data on the dangers of biking while Black, but studies in individual cities reveal an alarming trend. In Oakland, California, Black people accounted for nearly 60 percent of cycling stops by police from 2016 to 2018, making them over three times likelier than white cyclists to be pulled over, per public records obtained by Bicycling magazine. The situation isn’t much better in Chicago, where 56 percent of all bike tickets were issued in majority-Black neighborhoods in 2017, even though US census data shows that bike commuting is more popular in the city’s majority-white neighborhoods, according to the Chicago Tribune. In Washington, DC, Black people accounted for 88 percent of cycling stops from 2010 to 2017, though they make up about 45 percent of the district’s overall population, according to more public records obtained by Bicycling. And Black people in DC were far more likely to be stopped for the vague reason of appearing “suspicious.”
Florida offers more disheartening statistics. A 2015 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that Black people accounted for 8 out of 10 cyclists who were ticketed in the city for problems like riding with someone on the handlebars. After Fort Lauderdale began requiring residents to register their bicycles with the city, the Broward Palm Beach New Timesfound that Black cyclists received 86 percent of cycling citations from 2010 to 2013, even though Black residents were significantly more likely than white residents to register their bikes.
It’s hard to get a broader look at the problem because many cities don’t share data on the race of cyclists stopped by police. Bicyclingrequested public records from 100 of the most populous cities, and only three complied. Los Angeles, where Kizzee was killed, has been a holdout. According to the Associated Press, the sheriff’s department has not provided these statistics, and the police department does not break down its data about vehicle stops by category.
County Superviser Mark Ridley-Thomas told the news wire that since Kizzee’s death, he’s heard stories of other Black people who were allegedly harassed by police while biking. “Right now, I’m sad, and I’m mad at the same time,” Kizzee’s aunt Fletcher Fair told the Los Angeles Times. “We are tired. We are absolutely tired.” It was the second fatal shooting by sheriff’s deputies within a block during just a few months.
On Tuesday, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) posted a picture of armed Black demonstrators on Facebook and captioned it with a threat: “I’d drop any 10 of you where you stand.” Facebook quickly removed the post for inciting violence, but the point was clear. Louisiana is an open carry state and Higgins is a big proponent of gun rights. Yet he thinks Black people exercising their Second Amendment right in a peaceful protest is a threat to be eliminated. As he assured anyone who was paying attention: “We don’t want to see your worthless ass nor do we want to make your mothers cry.”
Higgins certainly has an appreciation for law enforcement. He’s a former police officer, who, according to his Congressional profile, “worked patrol, primarily night shift, and he was a well-known SWAT operator. Prior to joining Congress in 2017, Higgins is best known for his Crimestopper videos for the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office.”
Instead of worrying about the widespread devastation, the pandemic, and the real needs of his constituents, who include Lake Charles residents who suffer from high rates of poverty, Higgins was focused on Louisville, Kentucky. Black armed demonstrators there were marching for Breonna Taylor, the EMT who was shot and killed in March by Louisville Police while she slept in her bed. “Nothing personal. We just eliminate the threat,” Higgins’ post read according to the Advocate. “We don’t care what color you are. We don’t care if you’re left or right. if you show up like this, if We [sic] recognize threat…you won’t walk away.” It was a brazen display of a double standard. After Facebook removed the post, Higgins posted a follow-up message.
No, I did not remove my post.
America is being manipulated into a new era of government control. Your liberty is…
“I suggest you get your mind right,” he continued. “I’ll advise when it’s time gear up, mount up, and roll out.”
It’s no secret that many white gun owners only support open carry and gun rights for themselves. But in the past, gun rights advocates wouldn’t broadcast that they considered Black people with guns to be a danger, whereas white people packing heat were just freedom-loving patriots. But, thanks to the relentless incitement by President Donald Trump, armed white people are increasingly seeing themselves as above the law and are unapologetic about bragging about it.
Higgins’ post is yet another instance that proves that many conservatives don’t really want law and order, what they want is impunity to inflict violence. As I explained last week:
The organizing principle seems to be that there are laws and a social order to adhere to, and if you dare violate either by defying a police officer’s orders or some other social rule, you may have to pay with your life. That is, if you’re a person of color. For armed and aggrieved white men and occasionally women, apparently, a different set of rules apply.
After Kyle Rittenhouse, an 17-year-old white vigilante killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and was subsequently charged with murder, Donald Trump and the conservative apparatus defended him. Some even hailed him as a hero and a Christian website raised $237,000 for his defense. To them, Rittenhouse was boldly protecting people and property and helping maintain law and order, thus sending very clear signal to millions of aggrieved racists. As I wrote:
But as this era of pervasive corruption, state-sanctioned violence, and a pandemic that’s killed nearly 180,000 people makes abundantly clear, the harshest punishments for violating “law and order” are only doled out to certain people in certain places. When Trump and other right-wingers say they want “law and order,”they’re really sending a signal—less a dogwhistle than a bullhorn—to the other people guided by white supremacy: Break any law you want to maintain the current order.
If a 17-year-old committing a deadly crime can be considered a win for law and order, it only makes sense that a sitting member of Congress can openly threaten to kill Black protesters. Apparently, that’s how heroes are made.
President Trump—who spent the weekend unleashing incendiary tweets as deadly violence roiled Portland, Oregon—continued promoting bizarre conspiracy theories Monday night. He launched baseless attacks against his political opponents and suggested that the police officer who shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, may have simply “choked,” like players in a golf tournament.
The explosive remarks came during an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that aired just hours after he refused to condemn the 17-year-old charged with killing two protesters in Kenosha last week. The Fox interview is all but certain to fuel more anger and division as the president prepares to travel to Kenosha on Tuesday, despite pleas from the Democratic governor to cancel the visit. Here are some of the worst moments from his sit-down with Ingraham.
Trump says Biden is being controlled by people in “the dark shadows”
In one of the strangest moments of the interview, as Trump ranted about people “controlling” Joe Biden, Ingraham asked Trump to identify the individuals that he believed to be “pulling Biden’s strings” in order to transform the famously moderate former vice president into a radical, left-wing extremist. It appeared to be a soft-ball question—Ingraham suggested former Obama administration officials as one possibility—but the president swung and missed.
“People that you’ve never heard of,” Trump said instead. “People that are in the dark shadows.”
That proved even too much for Ingraham, who interrupted to say that the remark sounded like a conspiracy theory. But Trump descended further, mysteriously alluding to “thugs” in “black uniforms” that had supposedly attempted to travel from a “certain city” with the intent of inflicting violence at the Republican National Convention. “There were like seven people on this plane like this person, and then a lot of people were on the plane to do big damage,” he said. Trump said the incident was “under investigation” but declined to offer further details, telling Ingraham that he’d tell her more “sometime.”
Trump praises his supporters as “tremendous” while accusing Democrats and the media of inciting violence
“My supporters are wonderful, hard-working, tremendous people,” Trump told Ingraham. “They turn on their television set and they look at a Portland or they look at a Kenosha…They’re looking at all of this, and they can’t believe it.”
Ignoring his own record of inflaming tensions and promoting violence, Trump went on to repeatedly blame Democrats and the media for the current unrest. At one point, Fox News showed a montage of Democrats encouraging Americans to stand up to the Trump administration—apparently as evidence that Democrats were guilty of inciting violence. The montage included three Black lawmakers—Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Rep. Ayanna Presley (D-Mass.)—along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Later, when Ingraham asked why Gov. Tony Evers and other Democratic officials in Wisconsin didn’t want Trump to visit, Trump pointed, without evidence, to a cover-up. “They don’t want the media to cover what’s really going on in blue-state America,” he said.
Trump says the police officer who shot Blake may have simply “choked” under pressure
In a moment that appeared to downplay the actions of the police officer who shot Blake, Trump compared the officer to a “choker” struggling under the pressures of a golf tournament.
“Shooting the guy in the back many times, I mean, couldn’t you have done something different?” Trump asked rhetorically. “Couldn’t you have wrestled him?” He then paused to suggest that Blake could have been going for a weapon during the encounter—seemingly to provide an excuse for the officer—before repeating his “choker” comparison.
“You could be a police officer for 15 years and all of sudden you’re confronted,” Trump continued. “You’ve got a quarter of a second to make a decision. If you don’t make the decision and you’re wrong, you’re dead. People choke under those circumstances, and they make a bad decision.”
A protester is arrested in Louisville, KentuckyImagespace/Zuma
After Jacob Blake was shot several times in the back by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer Rusten Shesky, and was lying paralyzed from the waist down and handcuffed to a hospital bed, right-wing media, conservatives, and the usual crowd of other assorted racists were searching for a justification for what seemed to the rest of the world as an unprovoked assault. Some said that Blake was reaching for a knife. Others insisted he was resisting arrest. The more creative ones claimed that he had sexually assaulted a minor (something the police officer likely wouldn’t have known). And so, of course, he deserved to be maimed. The basic message was obvious: His very Blackness meant that he couldn’t possibly be considered to be an innocent victim. He always had it coming.
Blake has joined a perpetually growing list of Black people who’ve been on the wrong side of a gun clutched in the hand of someone unable or unwilling to see our humanity; Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd—their stories are different yet remarkably similar. Arbery, who was shot and killed by armed white men in Georgia for the crime of Running While Black, was falsely accused by right-wing media of robbing a home. Taylor, an emergency room technician who was killed by Louisville Police while sleeping in her own bed, has been described as being involved in the drug trade, despite no evidence and her family’s insistence that this is simply not true. And Floyd, the catalyst for the ongoing protests and the uprising sweeping the country, has been described as having resisted arrest and having fentanyl in his system.
But even if all of these false allegations were true, they still would not justify the killings. Police and white people with guns are not the judge, jury, and the executioner, even though recently they have done a good job of adopting all those roles. The rush to search for an excuse, any excuse, for these deaths rests in one underlying assumption: There is no such thing as a Black victim.
Unfortunately, this also seems to extend to Democrats, liberals, and other anti-racists who are constantly on the defense, desperately trying to prove that these deaths are unjust. As soon as the victim is accused of resisting arrest or smoking weed in college, well-intentioned people flood my social media feeds with videos and images of Black people doing absolutely nothing and still being targeted or killed by police as counter-narrative to a false narrative they seem to have accepted. They are searching for the perfect victim, the clear cut case that will finally convince the right and other assorted racists that we aren’t to blame for our deaths.
There’s a problem though. All that these good intentions achieve is to reinforce the idea that some Black people do deserve to be killed by police. And if they’re convinced that Black people are incapable of being victimized, what purpose does the search for the perfect victim serve—other than diverting our attention to the real victim and traumatizing the rest of us with endless loops of death?
In the Trump era, the denial of victimhood has been expanded to include anyone who fights to curb police violence. Despite the administration’s claim that they support peaceful protesters, all demonstrators continue to be depicted as anarchists, terrorists, thugs, and looters. When Kyle Rittenhouse, a white armed 17-year-old from Illinois, shot three protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two, the president couldn’t even bring himself to denounce Rittenhouse or offer words of sympathy for those who were slain (who happened to be white). He did, however, offer words of regret for Aaron “Jay” Danielson, the far-right protester who was shot dead in Portland on Saturday.
The backdrop for all the violence unfolding in the country is the coronavirus. The highly contagious disease has sickened more than 6 million people making the United States the country with the worst outbreak in the world. The impact of the disease hasn’t been equitable. Black and Brown communities have suffered disproportionately from the infection and deaths, partly because those who live in these communities are more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions.
For months, conservatives and Republicans have been pushing the lie that only those with underlying health conditions can die from the virus, as if that explains the mortality rate instead of the utterly inept response of the administration to the crisis. Over the weekend, as the coronavirus death toll climbed past 180,000, Trump retweeted a false claim that only 9,000 people had died from the virus in the US, because researchers estimated that these were the only people who didn’t have any other underlying conditions. Those tens of thousands of other people with diabetes or high blood pressure or even high cholesterol were going to die anyway. In other words, like victims of police shootings, they basically had it coming.
Essentially blaming tens of thousands of COVID-19 victims for their own deaths helps Trump do the only thing he’s good at doing: not taking responsibility. If the death toll is dramatically lower, Trump doesn’t have to shoulder any blame for his disastrous handling of the pandemic. If Blake deserved to be shot seven times, and the vague possibility of fentanyl made it only reasonable for Floyd to have had his airways restricted until he died, then police violence against Black people isn’t endemic in this country. The wave of violence at protests over the last few weeks becomes Joe Biden’s fault. After all, if victims of police brutality and 183,000 from the coronavirus deserved to die, then Trump can blithely exempt himself of any responsibility at all. He can just sit back and watch it burn.
Supporters of President Donald Trump attend a rally and car parade from Clackamas to Portland, Oregon, on August 29.Paula Bronstein/AP
On Sunday morning, as President Donald Trump made his way to his golf course in Sterling, Virginia, he passed a Grim Reaper waving the sign that read “183K”—a reference to the mounting death toll from the coronavirus pandemic.
Hours earlier, instead of focusing on his government’s pandemic response or condemning the killing of a man shot in Portland, Oregon, Trump took to Twitter to champion his supporters and condemn Black Lives Matter protesters as the two groups clashed in the Oregon city on Saturday night.
First, at 4 a.m., he took to Twitter to label Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler a “FOOL” and called on the National Guard to intervene in Portland’s demonstrations. The video featured Trump supporters shooting paintballs at peaceful protesters.
The big backlash going on in Portland cannot be unexpected after 95 days of watching and incompetent Mayor admit that he has no idea what he is doing. The people of Portland won’t put up with no safety any longer.The Mayor is a FOOL. Bring in the National Guard! https://t.co/bM6ypak94t
The truth, of course, is more complicated. “Murders are also up in Jacksonville and Miami, both of which are overseen by Republican mayors and a Republican governor. And this is all happening under Trump’s presidency,” Vox‘s German Lopez wrote. “The trend doesn’t appear to be partisan.”
A few minutes later, Trump responded to a tweet by National Review editor Rich by calling on DC Mayor Muriel Bowser to “arrest these agitators” or else the “Federal Government will do it for you.” The video Lowry shared features Black Lives Matter protesters in the nation’s capital blocking traffic while protesting in the streets.
On Saturday night, the White House announced that Trump would visit Kenosha, Wisconsin, as demonstrations unfolded in the streets. But on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, Rep. Karen Bass of California saw through the purpose of the visit as a means to “to agitate things and make things worse.”
In yet another sign of how Trump is fixated on gaining support, no matter how stained the source, he “liked” a tweet commending 17-year-old Trump supporter Kyle Rittenhouse, who was charged with killing two men and injuring another during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, over the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Trump dodged a question about Rittenhouse on Saturday, telling a reporter: “We’re looking at it very, very carefully.”
The president liked a tweet that says accused Kenosha killer Kyle Rittenhouse “is a good example of why I decided to vote for Trump.” pic.twitter.com/l0qvMIkB7C
The president’s tweets represent a means to an end. His retweets of his supporters shooting paintballs at protesters in Portland serves to instigate the violence-riddled vision of American cities he thinks is true. He leverages his platform to decry anti-racist protesters, frustrated at the near-monthly injustices they are seeing as “agitators” to reinforce the misleading notion that American cities, specifically Democrat-led ones, are unruly and in shambles. It’s a Nixonian message from a time long past that’s meant to sow discontent, to create a chaotic view of American life months before his reelection and depict an unstable society that he believes he alone can fix. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Washington Mystics wear T-shirts with seven red circles on the back to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by police. Courtesy Espn2/ZUMA Wire/Cal Sport Media via AP Images
NBA players return to the court today after ending a strike that started earlier this week over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The league and players, reportedly with some encouragement from Barack Obama and Michael Jordan, agreed to resume games and establish a social justice coalition that will, among other things, focus on improving voter turnout and pushing for criminal justice reform.
The strike was a powerful act of protest that inspired other athletes elsewhere in sports—from the WNBA to professional baseball to soccer and tennis and college football—to do likewise. Colin Kaepernick, who famously knelt before San Francisco 49ers games four years ago to protest police brutality, wrote to LeBron James thanking him for his solidarity.
But let’s not forget that there already was a social justice coalition in professional basketball. And that plenty of pro basketball players had already risked their paychecks by taking a stand on matters of social justice. I’m talking about WNBA players, who have long been among the most effective and persistent activists in sports, though they are little recognized for it.
WNBA has had a social justice council since the beginning of the season. Just a reminder that they have been the blueprint for professional sports. https://t.co/1ZkgdpBFWY
Nearly two months before the NBA announced its social justice coalition, the WNBA in early July launched its own version. Players decided to dedicate their season to Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT who was killed when police barged into her Louisville, Kentucky, home in a March raid. The WNBA players announced that their Social Justice Council, with support from advisers including Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, would raise awareness about issues of race, voting rights, LGBTQ advocacy, and gun control to “address the country’s long history of inequality, implicit bias and systemic racism that has targeted black and brown communities.”
After Kenosha police shot Blake seven times in the back last weekend, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks said they were striking on Wednesday, and other teams in the league soon joined. That night, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics walked onto the court wearing shirts that together spelled out Blake’s name, with seven red circles in the back of each shirt, drawn to look like bullet holes. The players pushed their league to postpone its scheduled games as well. “This isn’t just about basketball. We aren’t just basketball players,” Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins told ESPN. “We’re going to say what we need to say.”
In Slate, Maitreyi Anantharaman documents the WNBA’s long history of activism—on everything from gun violence to abortion rights to police brutality. Players have made great sacrifices to show up for causes that are important to them. Minnesota Lynx star Maya Moore, an Olympian in the prime of her career, left the league last year to to push for the release from prison of a wrongly convicted man named Jonathan Irons; he was free in July. And earlier this month, after Kelly Loeffler, a Republican senator and WNBA team co-owner, criticized players for their activism, some wore pregame shirts endorsing her political opponent. WNBA players raise their voices even when the stakes of doing so are high, and they’ve scored results. As Anantharaman writes for Slate:
A thorny truth: In the stark terms of dollars and cents, the women here wielded far less power than did the men. “When we talk about playing and not playing, the implications that has on a female basketball player [relative to] a male basketball player are dire,” Nneka Ogwumike, an All-Star forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and president of the WNBA’s players union, told ESPN when asked about the risks of the players’ decision.
Ogwumike is right to some degree. The WNBA’s financial circumstances—it is said to be heavily subsidized by the NBA—have always transmitted a kind of unspoken threat to the league’s players. Why rock the only boat that stands between you and drowning? But WNBA players do have quite a bit of leverage, if not the kind that shows up on a balance sheet. Their activism has earned their league and its parent company enormous goodwill. For years, they have dutifully played their parts as crown jewels of the NBA’s claim to progressivism. At any moment, they can call the NBA’s bluff in public spectacle. When they, say, agitate a member of the ownership class, the women of the WNBA can force a league to decide whether it will really live up to the marketing copy.
By all means applaud the NBA players for joining the fight, but be sure to remember the women who were there, too, rolling up their sleeves and showing everyone how to get shit done, despite making less money and getting less attention for their troubles.
People in New York City protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer.John Lamparski/SIPA USA via AP Images
Somewhat predictably, the Kenosha police union has come to the defense of the officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back last weekend in front of his young children. The union presents its version of events as exculpatory, but by any standards beyond those of a police-supremacist status quo it would be a damning confession of attempted murder.
In a statement released on Friday, the Kenosha Professional Police Association argued that officers drew their guns because Blake was allegedly armed with a knife, had “actively resisted the officers’ attempt to gain compliance,” and remained unaffected by their Tasers. “As the uncontested facts above demonstrate, the officers involved gave Mr. Blake numerous opportunities to comply,” Brendan Matthews, an attorney for the union, wrote in the statement, seemingly attempting to blame Blake for the outcome. “He chose not to.”
These claims are not actually uncontested. Attorneys for Blake say he did nothing to provoke the police, and Raysean White, a witness who filmed the encounter with a cellphone, said he heard officers yelling about a knife but did not see one in Blake’s hands. The Wisconsin Justice Department, which is investigating the shooting, has neither confirmed nor denied the police union’s version of events. And video footage isn’t conclusive: The officers weren’t wearing body cameras, and White’s cellphone footage shows only about 11 seconds before the shooting begins. In that footage, Rusten Sheskey and another officer, who both appear to be white, can be seen following behind Blake, who is Black. Their guns are drawn as Blake walks toward a parked SUV. Sheskey grabs Blake’s shirt from behind and shoots him repeatedly in the back as Blake leans into the driver’s side door, his three children in the backseat. (A second video from another witness shows Blake on the ground scuffling with police prior to the shooting, but it’s blurry and hard to make anything out.) State investigators say they found a knife on the floor of the car.
Even if Blake had resisted officers and did have a knife in his possession somewhere, that shouldn’t be a justification for offloading seven rounds into his back as he was walking away from them toward his kids. The fact that police officers in Kenosha think this is a colorable excuse is a reminder of how twisted our system of accountability and justice is. Police officers around the country have made similar excuses after other instances of police brutality, and they tend to work. Around the country, with the help of judges and prosecutors, officers have regularly gotten away with shooting people who were unarmed—some were sleeping in a car or sleeping at home on a couch—because laws in most states allow cops to use deadly force if they can come up with a reason for why they thought a person in their vicinity might harm them, even if they were wrong and the person posed no real threat.
Blake is now recovering in a Milwaukee hospital, paralyzed from the waist down. Attorneys for his family say he had been trying to break up a domestic disturbance between two women when the police arrived, and that the officers were the aggressors. The shooting prompted protests across the country this week and has become another flashpoint in the movement to end police brutality against Black people.
Like police unions around the country, Kenosha’s Professional Police Association has a history of defending officers who use deadly force. In 2015, after Officer Pablo Torres shot two people over the course of 10 days, the Kenosha union even erected a tone-deaf billboard of the officer smiling in his uniform, thanking people in the city for their support. In Blake’s case, Matthews, the union’s attorney, said that officers were called to the scene because of a complaint that Blake was allegedly trying to steal someone’s keys and car. The officers, he added, knew that Blake had an open warrant for felony sexual assault, though he hasn’t been convicted. Again, that’s not a valid justification for trying to kill him. “Blake forcefully fought with the officers, including putting one of the officers in a headlock,” Matthews said. That’s not a valid justification, either. Also, it’s not uncommon for police officers to lie in their reports of shootings.
“Based on the inability to gain compliance and control after using verbal, physical and less-lethal means, the officers drew their firearms,” Matthews concluded. “Mr. Blake continued to ignore the officers’ commands, even with the threat of lethal force now present.”
We know this playbook well by now. After police shootings, it’s all too typical for officers to try to smear the victim by pointing to an alleged criminal history or coming up with reasons why officers feared for their safety. The laws are often written to make it easy for prosecutors to listen to the cops’ side of the story. But ultimately the cops’ argument is straightforward. Matthews’ final bullet point all but says it: Blake did not cooperate, and thus deserved to die.
By Dayvin Hallmon, as told to Samantha MichaelsAugust 28, 2020
The Black String Triage Ensemble plays outside in AugustCourtesy of Dayvin Hallmon
Whenever there’s a shooting, Dayvin Hallmon turns to his violas and violins. He’s the founder of the Black String Triage Ensemble, an all-volunteer Black and Latinx orchestra in Milwaukee that plays music at crime scenes to help the community grieve and heal. Before creating the ensemble in 2019, he lived in Kenosha, first as a college student and then as an elected government official for a decade starting at age 23. On Monday night, Hallmon, 35, drove from Milwaukee back to Kenosha with his ensemble as hundreds of people took to the streets to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer. Tear gas soon surrounded their makeshift stage as they tried to play their instruments. A couple of days later, I talked to Hallmon about his troubling experiences with the police in Kenosha, and how he was processing the news of the shooting:
The person I affectionately call my twin flame told me about it. She sent me a text message on Sunday. I was in my apartment, talking to my pianist, and I looked at my phone and I’m like, Whaaat? I said, “Send me the video link, send me the video link,” and my twin flame sent me the video link, and so I watched it, and it was just straight-up murder. And I looked at the pianist and I said, “Kenosha is gonna burn to the ground.”
I grew up in Racine, but I lived for a while in Kenosha. In 2003, when I was beginning college, I had just come out of the closet to my mother. My mother, a Christian woman, at the time was extraordinarily homophobic, and she kicked me out of her house. I had just started a job at Kmart, and I went to work, but I hadn’t even gotten my first paycheck, I didn’t have any money, so at lunch when I had nothing to eat I just got the violin out of the car and played it. I ended up in Kenosha because a friend of mine there took me in. I just never had enough money to leave.
My stepfather was a doctor. I come from an upper-middle-class family, and we were not taught to be afraid of law enforcement. We were taught to be aware and respectful, but fear was never a component. As a boy, my baseball coach was a white man, Officer Garrett, and my team was called the Mount Pleasant Police Department Enforcers. But in college in Kenosha, I was pulled over, if not every week, every two weeks. When I tell people that Kenosha broke me, this is what I’m talking about. It was a radical shift from what I had known and what I was accustomed to. Awareness is one thing; fear is altogether different.
After college, I ended up on the Kenosha County Board representing a city district. Around 2010, I was coming home from a haircut, and I saw a police squad, and the hood on the dash was up. It seemed strange—the station was nearby, was the engine overheating? Then I saw on the other side of the hood was a Black man who was being illegally searched. They were using the hood of the squad to block the dash cam. Another time, I remember walking to church down 56th Street, right past the elementary school, full almost entirely of Black and brown kids, and there were law enforcement with big guns and riot gear, charging down the sidewalk in the afternoon. And they charged directly into a house I had just walked past, with the school across the street. And the babies are getting ready to be let out, and anything could go down when you charge into the house, and nobody told the teachers to keep the babies inside. It’s something that would never, ever happen in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood.
One day I came home from work, and a police squad rolled up, two white officers, and they say, “Someone’s looking for you.” I said, “There’s nobody looking for me,” and “Listen, I live right here, I’m not going anywhere, but I just got off work, I’m tired, I’d like to go lie down.” And one of the officers says, “Stay where you are.” So they had me outside my apartment for probably a good hour. I just stand there, just as cool and just as emotionless as I can be. And there was no one looking for me. And I got no explanation as to why I was detained. When I told folks on the county board, someone said, “Well, did you tell them you’re a county supervisor?” I said, “Should I have had to?”
I felt like there was no progress that could be made. There were far too many people that were just comfortable. I said, well, I’m a musician, not a politician. I really want to go focus on music. And Kenosha had this thing called Keyed Up Kenosha, organized by the downtown business association, where they had artists paint pianos, and they plopped them in areas of downtown Kenosha. People could just walk up and play. And I was walking through, and I thought, “Well, my constituents in Uptown”—which is considered one of the ‘hoods—”they need music. The people who live in my neighborhoods need this and don’t have access to it.” And so there was this question that just got dropped in my spirit: What would happen if after a shooting, a bunch of string players showed up who were Black and Latinx and they played a concert that wasn’t Bach, wasn’t Beethoven, wasn’t Mozart?
Now I’m the founding music director of the Black String Triage Ensemble, a group of Black and Latinx string players—violin, viola, cello, upright bass. They respond to shootings and police brutality, in the immediate aftermath of those events, to come to the scene, and to play a 30- to 40-minute concert based off the five stages of grief, with the sixth stage of faith thrown in at the end. Because if we don’t believe it’s going to get better as human beings, we don’t move forward. The music they play is all Black and Latinx composers—spirituals, jazz, blues, soul, gospel, and classical. It’s not designed for people who have close relationships with the victim, because that is a much longer trajectory in terms of healing. But it’s for everybody else who, maybe you live down the street, or you frequent the store on the corner, or you’re coming out of church next door to where this went down. For everybody else in that space, the last thing they need on their minds is a shooting before they go to sleep. And so the work that we do is designed to help people grieve and have a sense of peace so they can move forward.
We normally play in Milwaukee, but after hearing about Jacob Blake, I tried to make arrangements on Monday to go play in Kenosha. We have roughly 20 players. Some of these are mothers with kids, or teachers. Folks have jobs, so it’s very difficult to do this. So from the Triage, we had about five players, and I called in a few white allies from Legion of the Soul, which was formed because there were all these people who wanted to do string vigils for Elijah McClain. In the car, it was quiet. There would be a curfew at eight o’clock and our performance was scheduled for 7:30. Were they gonna start shooting after the curfew? Were they gonna open fire?
When we walked up to Civic Center Park, it was just a sea of Black and brown people like I’ve never seen in Kenosha before. And they were young, in their 20s and teens. There was a van that had a speaker system, and somebody was playing James Brown’s “The Payback.” And it wasn’t until we started pulling out instruments that I started to see some confused looks on people’s faces. I went over to the van that was blasting the music, and it was a few Black men, and they saw me with the viola and I made the hand gesture for volume, where you turn the knob down. And I said, “We play only Black and Latinx music.” The brother nodded, and he turned off the music entirely. They needed to know that we weren’t going to play Beethoven and Mozart. Otherwise, you don’t have any purpose of being there.
I could see as we were setting up, that more people started to gather in front of the courthouse and started chanting at law enforcement. And I looked at the musicians and I said, “Start playing now.” Our goal was to use the music to stave off the violence as long as possible, while not getting swept up in it and becoming victims of it. I said, “Any silence that you give this space is not good. Just keep playing.” I was playing too because there weren’t enough people for me to conduct yet.
Then other players showed up, and I swapped the viola for the baton and started conducting. And as I was conducting, I could see the young Black and brown people taking water bottles and hurling them at the sheriff’s deputies in riot gear. And I look over to the right, and I saw two white men with tattoos. They’re not hanging out with anybody Black or brown, and their energy stood out like a sore thumb. And my brain said, “The white supremacists are here.” As that’s going on, there’s a guy in a red shirt, a Black man, standing in front of the line of officers, and he starts chanting and he’s getting everybody amped up, and I’m like, “Just keep playing, just keep playing.”
It went from water bottles to somebody having a slingshot, shooting stuff over the trees, over our heads toward law enforcement And then I heard a sound; it had to be a smoke bomb. And then tear gas started to drift in our direction, and we were flushing our eyes with bottled water that my mother had brought to us—she lives in Kenosha now. My 75-year-old bass player said, “Brother Dayvin, I’ve never been tear-gased before.” And so we’re flushing out our eyes and we’re hiding behind trees, because we heard something like gunshots, and we had heard somebody say, “They’ve got rubber bullets.” So we’re trying to protect the instruments.
It was unlike anything we’ve ever done before. Once the National Guard, the sheriff’s department, and armored vehicles came out, it was like, “Okay, this is going to be all-out war. We’ve got to go.” And we packed up the stuff, we went to the cars, everybody said goodnight. And you know, we all hugged each other and said, “Let’s make sure we all check in,” and everybody drove off, and when I got home, I got a text message from my friend: Two buildings away from the place where we parked, the building was completely engulfed in flames.
Since then, I haven’t really been able to eat. I haven’t really been able to sleep. I haven’t really been able to think clearly. What bothers me is two things. I need an explanation as to why my government that I used to serve in is making all the wrong decisions. I don’t think they’ve publicly issued an apology to people of color in Kenosha for the pain that this causes. My mother called me, she said they’re not even mentioning it. I said, “Because if they did, they’d have to admit that they’ve been harboring white supremacists in their community, and that the mayor knew about it and the county executives knew about it, and nobody would do anything.” It was routine. People fly the stars and bars of the Confederate flag off their pickup trucks and race. They go back and forth, up and down 60th Street in the middle of Black and brown people. That’s racial intimidation. And when I asked [a county official] about it, you know, she just said, “Oh, Dayvin, it’s everywhere.”
No, it’s not. What is it about you, Kenosha, that these people feel comfortable here? What is it that you all don’t want to tell me? Why is it that your Black county board colleague during the meeting was begging and pleading with you, because he saw white supremacists running around the city and throughout his district, because he saw what the police were doing to his constituents and told you…why did nobody take up that mantle and fight? Why didn’t you fix this?
I have felt like I should cry about all of this. And I just haven’t been able to. I tried so hard. I did everything I possibly could. And no one gave a damn. I just don’t understand why.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited. The Kenosha Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.