I woke Tuesday morning with tears in my eyes. It was a rough night. Popped outside for the dog’s last walk, a little after 8 p.m., after San Francisco’s unnecessary, open-ended curfew. There were a half-dozen people hurrying down the sidewalk, alone, something I’ve gotten used to in the pandemic shutdown.
Tucked in doorways, a few people were settling in for the night: Surly Sue, a crazy-smart, semi-hostile full-time resident of the block; Gandolf, a thin man who reads at the parklet before he beds down; and Babushka, a silent, heavily clothed woman, who sleeps sitting on a stool. All three are my parents age, far too old to be living on the street, but that’s where we are.
A police SUV moved down the street, lights flashing and determined like the “fire engine” in Fahrenheit 451. It did not stop, it just cruised slowly, without challenge from other vehicles.
A few hours before my walk, I listened to President Trump’s phone call to the governors. Trump talked of dominance and how the world was laughing at him. He urged the governors to militarize so that he would not appear weak. He had Attorney General Bill Barr take over. Barr made a more “literate” case for fascism. General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, was introduced by Trump as someone who had never lost a battle. Milley spoke of “securing battle space” in the cities.
Moments before Trump’s first address to the nation, a strong-man speech designed to make things worse, we learned what “securing battle space” meant. At a quarter-to-seven Eastern time, Trump had the Park Police and Border Control clear Lafayette Park of peaceful protesters, with tear gas, rubber bullets, flash-bang shells, and truncheons, a horror show that his spokesmodel claimed never happened. After Trump’s speech, the president and his junta marched across the park to a church for a photo-op. Trump had his picture taken while he awkwardly held a Bible in the air as if he was hailing a cab, and then he walked back to the White House to hide.
One day before, on Monday, Trump broke his days-long silence with threats of violence against protesters and against the Constitution. He urged governors to use military force against those on the street, insisting that he would send in federal troops to stop dissent if mayors and governors failed to do as he ordered. He and Barr called protesters “domestic terrorists” and continued to mis-characterize a political tendency – antifa – as an organization. He vowed to jail antifa and their anarchist friends. While none of Trump’s threats can be legally carried out, his words give license to police who already have too much power.
Bad white people cheered Trump and his racist authoritarianism. “Good” white people – along with a small handful of people of color – help Trump’s cause by misquoting Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, urging protesters to “stop the violence,” violence initiated by the police. The critics – few who have engaged in street protests or experienced police violence – urge us to return to a time that never existed, an America progressed through thoughts and prayer, obedience and civility. They trivialize people’s anger and concerns by denying American history.
I am not naïve. While I encourage people to vote and engage, I’ve never idealized the system. I am not shocked by the brutality of the police or the mis-characterization of activists and protesters. In his call to the governors, Trump repeatedly referenced Occupy Wall Street. He framed Occupy as a dangerous threat and called the police crackdown on them as “beautiful.” Trump was riffing off the past.
As Naomi Wolf reported back in 2011, in response to the Occupy protests, Obama’s Department of Homeland Security set up a conference call to advise 18 mayors on “how to suppress” the protests. And then the crackdown came. Thousands were beaten. Wolf reported that “a state supreme court justice and a New York City council member were beaten up; in Berkeley, California, one of our greatest national poets, Robert Hass, was beaten with batons.” Many more were arrested.
In the 1990s, there was the “Green Scare,” during which the FBI targeted Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front as “eco-terrorists.” This despite acknowledging that both groups explicitly condemned harming people and generally engaged in peaceful protest and attacks on property. Peaceful activists and direct-actionists were rounded up and jailed. When they protested, they were beaten.
The war against radical environmentalists happened in concert with police repression of the anti-globalization movement. As with Earth First! and ALF, anti-globalization was characterized as terrorism. Activists were targeted and protests were met with extreme violence by the police, situations that were intensified by sensationalized news coverage. In Puerto Rico, repression of activists is so common that the ACLU included police violence against protesters in a report on repression in Egypt, Argentina, Hungary, Israel, South Africa, Kenya, and the UK.
The police violence we see in Washington, DC, Minneapolis, New York City, and other cities didn’t start in the 1990s. It is an American tradition. As Robert Goldstein writes in Political Repression in Modern America From 1870 to 1976 (1978, 2001),
The holders of certain ideas in the United States have been systematically and gravely discriminated against and subjected to extraordinary treatment by governmental authorities, such as physical assaults, denials of freedom of speech and assembly, political deportations and firings, dubious and discriminatory arrests, intense police surveillance, and illegal burglaries, wiretaps and interception of mail.
We also see it in the Insurrection Act of 1807, an odious piece of legislation Trump has threatened to tap.
On Wednesday came pushback. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper made a statement that seemed to contradict Trump and his authoritarian militancy. I write seemed because Esper couched his terms very carefully. He didn’t reject repression of protesters, but objected to using the military to repress protesters at this time.
Esper said nothing of the using ATF, DEA, Border Patrol, Park Police or other fed agencies to quash dissent. He said nothing of the National Guard and their dystopian show of force on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And he willingly walked with Trump to St. John’s. So, I don’t give Esper’s words much heft. They read like face-saving and ass-covering, or ass-saving and face-covering. It’s tough to separate the face from the ass in this administration.
Esper was clearly under pressure from the military – active and retired. General Jim Mattis, who previous held Esper’s job, wrote:
Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.
In that statement Mattis does more than denounce Trump. The general says that the Commander in Chief is destructive and should not be followed. Granted, Mattis is retired, but, damn Sam, this is a guy who previously said that presidents deserve quiet from former officials. Things are so bad that Mattis broke silence, criticized the president, and suggested that the Commander in Chief commands no one.
Of course, President Bone Spurs, the man who hired Mattis, twitted that the general is “overrated,” not that anyone is listening. According to the Washington Post, military leadership circles, past and present, are against Trump on this and they are speaking up. Again, the military openly countering the Commander in Chief or making any comment on anything remotely political is not normal. Normal is grumbling behind closed doors, among carefully chosen allies, or thinking about dissent and keeping silent. Normal is the bluster we heard from the Joint Chief’s Milley.
To break with normal means that the officer corps uneasy about Trump and that there is grumbling in the rank and file. No surprise. As I wrote elsewhere, Trump has denigrated and attacked people who serve, while using them as props. The dissent could also be a reflection of demographics within the armed forces. As of 2017, one-third of the military active was composed of people of color. In the Army, the biggest of the services, only 53% of the soldiers are white, 23% are black and 17% “hispanic.”
On Tuesday, Stephen Colbert interviewed Wes Moore, a decorated Army veteran and author of a book on the reaction to the police murder of Freddie Gray. Moore compared Trump’s fantasy of soldiers patrolling the street with his experience in Afghanistan. He said that no matter what the mission or how well-intentioned soldiers are, if deployed in American cities, the military would be seen as an occupying force and citizens would react as Afghanis did with Americans. Peaceful protesters would meet militancy with militancy and violence would escalate. Moore added that it can only be this way.
I agree. Earlier in the week I wrote:
Whenever there is a conflict between freedom and authoritarianism, the only true losers are those who are on the side of freedom. Freedom loving people flinch and authoritarians take what they can. Authoritarians flinch and the status quo remains…
Men in uniforms with shields and truncheons is authoritarianism. A cloud of tear gas is authoritarianism. A mass of police or national guardsmen in formation is authoritarianism. Empty streets due to a curfew is authoritarianism. When all these things dominate the landscape, that is when we notice freedom.
Freedom exists in the space that authoritarianism doesn’t occupy. That is why when people who fight for freedom retreat, authority takes its place. And once authoritarianism takes space, it is really difficult to evict. That is why freedom fighters need to hold space.
If the military is deployed to repress dissent, protesters will act as freedom fighters and hold their space.
Moore also commented on the militancy of the police. He noted that when the police act like the military at war and treat citizens as the enemy, the police become an occupying force. He added that even donning military garb – shields, armor, helmets, weapons belts, etc. – is provocative. Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, pointed out much of the same in an interview on the PBS NewsHour. Dress for the job of warrior and police become occupying armies. Bring in surplus military gear, especially MRAPs and other military vehicles, and the message is “WAR!” Declare war, and violence results. There is no other outcome.
Ironically, it is the military that flinches when it is called to attack American citizens, not the police. With police, the culture of militarism and occupation is deep. Here in San Francisco, the police have long had an adversarial relationship with the public. It is a tension that goes back more than a hundred years and is based in the clannish nature of SFPD and accumulation of power over time.
When San Francisco’s police department was established, being a cop was as glamourous as working as a garbage man, though without the respect afforded to the trashman. Because the pay was lousy and conditions worse, it was hard to find recruits, a situation which opened the door to “less desirable” segments of the population – Immigrants.
In San Francisco, as with cities on the East Coast, it was the Irish who took full advantage. While Italians also gravitated towards policing, the Irish quickly grabbed the brass. So, here you have two situations: A job which holds great stigma among the general population being done by a segment of the population that is also on the outs with gen pop. The reaction of the Irish dominated police force was to establish itself as a power base apart from society.
Over time public attitudes towards the police changed, but the clannish nature of the SFPD did not. Newfound respect for cops meant that they were trusted with more responsibility, which gave police more power. The insularity of the police meant that the increased power went unchecked – perfect conditions for corruption and police brutality to thrive, which is exactly what happened.
Corruption is not only an abuse of power, but it is an excellent way to garner and consolidate power, especially when police corruption meets political corruption. Patronage, jobs and promotions are traded for votes and soon SFPD is a political player with as much influence as the Chamber of Commerce or the Longshoremen’s union. Influence means protection, protection means that an insular, cultish organization staffed by men with guns becomes a stand-alone power that is unresponsive to oversight by regular citizens. Corruption and abuse flourish, while attempts to reign in the police are easily defeated, a situation that persists today.
This is San Francisco, far from the progressive paradise that exists in the minds of anyone who doesn’t live here. Over the last six years, the city has had seven high profile, controversial police shootings, in which five people have died. Four of these killings happened in either the Mission district or neighboring Bernal Heights, the most progressive parts of the city. The past week has seen the police flood neighborhoods with cops, to enforce an open-ended curfew.
Our corrupt mayor, London Breed, supports and encourages this heavy-handed policing. She also called in the National Guard, who have yet to be deployed. Breed has also used the police to sweep homeless encampments in neighborhoods that she was about to dine or visit in. Although Breed has had an adversarial relationship with SFPOA, the police union, she was elected with strong support from law enforcement. San Franciscans do not see her as an ally when it comes to reigning in police power.
Those fighting for police reform and accountability organize in this environment. Over the past few election cycles, activists seeking police accountability fought hard and made a few significant gains. In 2018, campaigners defeated San Francisco Proposition H, which would have supplied SFPD with tasers. The issue brought enough people to the polls to result in a progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors. The 2019 election firmed up that majority and put progressive public defender Chesa Boudin in the District Attorney’s office.
While Boudin faces some criticism, he has started to institute reforms, none very popular with SFPD. After video turned up of a San Francisco police officer with her knee on the neck of a suspect, George Floyd-style, Boudin dropped the suspect’s charges. On the same day, the Board of Supe’s Rules Committee gave a thumbs down to the two moderates nominated by Mayor Breed to serve on the Police Commission. One of the nominees had run for DA on a “law and order” platform. Neither had met with any police accountability activist groups or any organizations representing black or Latinx San Franciscans.
While we look at the total failure of the president to do absolutely anything to help anyone but his grifter friends, focus on Trump v. Biden, and watch Congress. It is important to note that the real change is happening in cities and states. It is happening because people like you and me are making it happen. In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors is in the hands for progressive because locals worked hard to make it happen. A progressive DA was elected because locals worked hard to make that happen. Progressives also took over the city’s Democratic Party because people worked hard to make that happen. There were many losses along the way and a lot of dark nights of the soul, but hard work prevailed. The hard work will translate to policy and, hopefully, measures to break police power.
Again, progressive electoral success did not happen because San Francisco is a “progressive paradise.” It is the result of citizen engagement and hard work. It will only continue through engagement and hard work. Of the two supes who voted down the mayor’s mods in committee, only one is in a “safe seat” (Mission district). The other represents the Sunset, which trends “conservative.” He won because he is a long-time presence in the Sunset and ran a hard race against a moderate carpetbagger.
Of the supes’ prog majority, only two members are “guaranteed” re-election. One is the Mission supe. The other is a fixture in his district, North Beach, which can go prog or mod depending on the candidate. Every other prog will have to fight like hell to keep their seat. It is quite conceivable that Chesa Boudin is a one-term DA.
Also, as successful as prog/rad activists are in district races and the last DA’s race, traditionally progs have had lousy results in city-wide elections. Not only is our mayor is a moderate, the last progressive mayor, Art Agnos, was voted out of office in 1992. He served only one term and was replaced by Frank Jordan, a former police chief.
The people who represent San Francisco in Sacramento are moderates. When Nancy Pelosi retires, her seat will probably be filled by a moderate. Elected officials who jump from San Francisco to the big time (Newsom, Harris, Feinstein) are moderate or conservative Dems.
(When I say moderate, in San Francisco that means: Beholden to real estate interests, developers, landlords, tech, and the Chamber of Commerce. Also, supportive of the established power structure, including police power. I do not mean pro-LGBT, women’s rights, civil rights or anti-Trump. On social issues, San Francisco politicians are de facto progressive. On economic issues and criminal justice, we follow national rules).
Point is: The success SF progs have had is the result of effective organizing, high citizen engagement, and very hard work in an atmosphere that, in regards to police and economic power, is not much different than any other place in the country. Whatever advantage San Francisco has in its open-minded population is countered by the presence of Big Money. The money that tech and real estate interests pour into political campaigns far exceeds the norm across the country. We win only when we fight and fight hard. We win only when we engage and organize effectively. We win because activists are able to explain the importance of an inside/outside game.
On Wednesday, tens of thousands of people filled San Francisco streets, protesting police violence and the murder of George Floyd. Activists were at the protests registering people to vote. Organizers drew connections between the needs of the people on the street and the work of the people inside. Protesters were told that because activists worked hard to put people on the inside who will respond to the street, we are in the position to get some accountability from the police.
Of course, making change will not be easy, it never is. It will not go fast enough, it never does. We will fail often, we always do. All that is part of the process. It is part of life. Fine, use all that to inform and drive us to work harder. When we succeed, the victory will be so much sweeter and we will not take our successes for granted. We will need that high and determination, for, as the old spiritual says, freedom is a constant struggle.