The Oakland Police cannot be reformed partly because reformers are not even willing to fight for incremental change
Trigger warning for mention of sexual violence.
The city of Oakland is mired in its worst police scandal in decades which, considering the depravity of its officers, is saying something. The problem is not just the police killing and beating young Black and Latino men. No, that is not a crisis, that is the status quo. We now have a completely different problem involving dozens of cops paying a teenager for sex who was under age for some of these interactions. To be clear, this is not simply a sex scandal but a rape scandal, as the young woman involved was a minor during some of these interactions and could hardly be assumed to provide consent when the armed men having sex with her could easily send her to jail.
What broke this story open was the suicide of one of the cops who left a note exposing what he and his co-workers were doing. Investigators soon realized that his wife also died a year earlier, shooting herself in the head with two gunshots, or so it seemed, leading her family to believe that she was actually murdered by her husband, the cop who was committing statutory rape. This led the Oakland Chief of Police to note that it is not uncommon for people who commit suicide by gun to fire multiple shots. Yes, he really said that. At the height of the crisis, the City of Oakland fired him and two successive police chiefs in nine days before City Hall assumed leadership of the department.
This scandal has broken in the middle of a growing national struggle against police terrorism, a struggle which has often had Oakland at the center. So if there is any place or time where there might be the political initiative for a substantial reform effort to curb police violence, it is in Oakland right now. There has in fact been a political initiative in the form of a proposed ballot measure pushed by the Coalition for Police Accountability which will create a new police commission, and yet the meddling of various allies has watered this measure down so much that it shows once again how various police “reformers” are not even willing to push for their own reforms. More and more police reformers–not to mention police abolitionists–have become resigned to the fact that this commission will have hardly any power at all and might even make police defender and Mayor Libby Schaaf stronger.
The police are a fundamental part of capitalist society. So long as there is wealth inequality and white supremacy, there will be armed bodies of men and women to enforce it and they will be above the law. Attempts to curb the power of the police often have little impact because the entire political status quo is prepared to defend them. Additionally, there is no law or bureaucracy which can watch over a group of cops in their daily violent interactions with the populations they police. They are a political and military operation unto themselves, and every politician and bureaucrat knows not to touch them.
As far as reform efforts go, the basic idea of a police commission is inherently flawed. The strategy of holding police accountable by forming a new bureaucracy that will, somehow, be willing to make hard decisions or even have the power to carry them out is highly unlikely to succeed. We vote for all of our main political leaders, and yet that does not stop them from increasing capitalist exploitation or expanding the prison system, and it does not assure that the police will not commit wanton beatings and killings either. There is plenty of bureaucracy within the City of Oakland, none of it showing any initiative to do anything about the police. The stated goal of this commission, however, was to be independent from City Hall but even that, it turns out, is too much to ask.
Labor rights for cops
Oakland police officers are disciplined and fired all the time. The problem is that the police union can fight any of these decisions and send them to an arbitrator, who overrules firings and puts these cops right back on the force. Any disciplinary action, carried out by anybody, Mayor or police commission, is useless if the arbitrator just gives the cop their job back. This includes an officer who shot a man in the back, killing him, who was fired but had the decision overruled in 2011 by the arbitrator. This is the status quo in Oakland and in many other cities as well.
The initial police commission proposal would have ended arbitration but, lo and behold, that portion has since been removed. The Oakland Police Officer’s Association, the police union that never saw a cop kill a man and thought there was anything wrong with it, did not want to end arbitration. But the bigger problem is that SEIU 1021, probably the largest union in the city representing thousands of Black and Latino city and county workers, also did not want an end to arbitration. They signed a joint letter along with the OPOA and several other unions insisting that arbitration remain available for police.
The unions succeeded in removing the clause that would end arbitration and the revised proposal even minimized the commission’s ability to subpoena police and retrieve their personnel records. This is the direct consequence of seeing workers’ rights and police officers’ rights as being inherently the same, as opposed to fundamentally at odds with each other. Bizarrely, the Coalition has continued to feign unity with the 1021 leadership, announcing their gratitude at having the union’s support for the proposal after the union made their proposal powerless.
People from outside of the Bay Area may not appreciate what an enormous stab in the back this is. SEIU is known nationally for its bureaucratic apparatus and its support for the Democratic Party, but Local 1021 has been led by the reform caucus “Change 1021” since 2010. Many in the leadership are Leftists and progressives of various stripes. They are known as the activist union which often supports causes outside of narrow wage and benefits issues. In return, they often receive the support of a wide variety of activists when it comes time to negotiate a new contract or even strike.
I was involved in a campaign to fire an Oakland cop a few years ago and worked alongside many rank-and-file 1021 members, all of whom I would work alongside again. We attempted–with some but minimal success–to get the leadership of 1021 on board the effort to fire and prosecute the killer cop. They occasionally spoke at our events but were clearly reluctant to stick their neck out too far. Was their reluctance based on their opposition to firing a cop with no due process, based on their belief that “cops are workers too” and an injury to one is an injury to all? The answer is clearly yes, though most of us didn’t even consider that at the time.
During this time, 1021 organized a strike and shut down at the Port of Oakland and asked for–and received–the support of the group I was working in. We all supported workers. We all had shut down the Port before and jumped at the opportunity to do it again. This is what solidarity looks like. In return for our solidarity, we now get slapped in the face.
When the leadership of SEIU 1021 works with the City Council to protect the jobs of racist, killer cops, this is not what solidarity looks like. This is what stabbing your allies in the back looks like. The leadership of the union took actions that harmed not only efforts toward police abolition but even efforts toward police reform. When we say we are going to hold our more moderate and powerful allies’ feet to the fire, we need to actually do it. Otherwise, we are not serious. We are just playing games while people are getting gunned down in the street, patting ourselves on the back for building broad unity while our “friends” are literally working with the cops. We are telling our enemies that we are not going to fight very hard and we are telling our “allies” that they can do whatever they want. This is the status quo of broad, progressive activism and it is no wonder that it is a failure.
Independence or co-dependence?
But this is not the only reason the police commission proposal is now so weak. The other is it’s complete and utter reliance on the City Council and the Mayor. Initially, the proposal was lauded for its “independence.” These days, that words means anything but actual “independence.” Any time anybody throws that word around, a trivial investigation will usually find that just behind the scenes are Democratic Party operatives and officials looking to send the entire project into safe channels that will not challenge the status quo.
It is no different in this case. Initially, there were two police reform measures, one coming from the City Council and another from the “independent” Coalition for Police Accountability. Some of these activists have worked decades to curb police brutality and have even been the victims of it themselves, so we cannot just dismiss their efforts or take them too lightly. And yet, we have to question their judgment when they use the word “independent.”
Behind the scenes–though not that far behind the scenes–of the crafting of the “independent” reform measure were two other members of the Oakland City Council with absolutely no credibility in the movement. Their proposal to create an “independent” police commission is not even going to open up the election of the commissioners to the corrupt process of capitalist elections. Rather, the Oakland City Council and the Mayor will propose a board that will then appoint four of the commissioners themselves. The Mayor will then directly appoint the three other commissioners. It boggles the mind how anybody thought this was independent from City Hall. The City Council members working with the Coalition soon adapted further to the mildest political pressure, as anybody could have predicted that they would, stripping out the measures that could have actually kept a few cops fired.
We do not need to read Marx or Bakunin or Malcolm X to appreciate the problem with this proposal. We need look no further than the court of Judge Thelton Henderson, the federal judge who has overseen the troubled Oakland police department for many years. Time and again, he has hammered the political leadership in Oakland City Hall for failing to implement the most basic reforms, in particular for failing to keep fired cops from returning after arbitration. A few years ago, an officer was sued for illegally strip searching two men in public on the streets of West Oakland to look for drugs. After a court found the officer liable for $40,000 in damages for violating their rights, the City Council voted to pay for his judgment, even though he was no longer even working with the department, in part because the corrupt internal affairs investigation found there to be no wrongdoing. One of these council members, Libby Schaaf, is now the Mayor of Oakland.
This is the status quo in Oakland, daily humiliations and harassment approved after the fact by city leaders. And yet these politicians are the very people that this reform effort was handed to on a silver platter, so they could throw it on the ground, stomp on it and flush it down the toilet.
For some of the activists involved in this effort, the need to find allies in City Hall is so ideologically ingrained that it will never change regardless of a mountain of evidence or even the pleading of a moderately liberal judge. At the end of the day, they will say, at least we made some important allies. This, and not actually curbing police violence, is their real goal in life.
One of the more visible leaders of the Coalition once told me that former Mayor Jean Quan did more than any Mayor in the history of Oakland to hold the police accountable. This is the Mayor who oversaw the Oakland Police Department during the violent crushing of Occupy Oakland and the killing of several Black men, including the young man whose campaign I was involved in. Quan did nothing for the family that asked for her support, to say the least. Quan’s husband, Floyd Huen, spoke at a recent City Council meeting and noted that nobody was killed by the police in the last year or so of Quan’s four year administration. The bubble of self-congratulation that these people live in is extraordinary. They must tire from patting themselves on the back so often, but apparently they don’t. All of their excuses serve no end beyond their desire for keeping their seat at the table.
Ultimately, the police commission measure was made so ineffective that even many of its supporters ultimately abandoned it and may not vote for it. Which is fine, except that what we really need to do is look back at the process to enact it and see how this failure was preordained by the strategy and the assumptions behind it.
The problem with police reform is not simply that the police are structurally immune from a legal process that either supports them or is powerless to coerce them. This is, certainly, the major obstacle at the end of the day. However, we rarely get to the end of the day. The current problem with police reform is that reformers are simply not up to the task of pushing for the basic reforms that even moderate critics insist are necessary. Rather than battle the status quo, they want to make friends with the status quo, unwilling to recognize that their friends and allies will not risk their positions to disrupt police power.
The farce that remains of the police commission proposal should be a reminder to many of how fruitless it is to expect real change to come from negotiations with City Hall. Sadly, many reformers will be quick to forget all of these lessons in their urgent struggle to remain politically relevant.