“Sanctuary Cities” and Black Community Control of the Police
March 29, 2017—Advocates of Black community control of police need to do some serious examination of the swirl of issues surrounding the fight over “sanctuary cities.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week upped the ante, threatening to withhold not only future federal funding to cities that refuse to vigorously enforce federal immigration laws, but to claw back Justice Department grants previously awarded to resistant municipalities. Although there is no question that police-oppressed communities have a huge stake in resisting the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant juggernaut, the demand for Black community control of police must not be compromised in the shuffle and scuffle between Democrats and Republicans.
At the heart of the issue is the federal role in law enforcement. Traditional “civil rights” forces have long sought to curb police abuse through appeals for federal intervention, including demands for cut-offs in Washington’s aid to local departments. Everybody knows the dance by now: community outrage over police terror is channeled into the U.S. Justice Department, which promises investigations and the possibility of federal suits, sometimes culminating in “consent decrees” that imposed limited reforms on the offending department. When the reforms fail to stop the cops from behaving like an occupying army in the Black community—as in Cleveland, which has been subjected to two consent decrees in the 21st century—repeat the process.
The profoundly conservative civil rights establishment has only one response to systemic white supremacy at the local level: call in the feds, a time-consuming process that is designed to dissipate dissent and diverts attention from the goal of community empowerment. Local police departments have successfully evaded even their base-line responsibility to report the number of civilians they kill every year to the FBI, whose estimate of the national carnage is thought to be off by half. Black Richmond, Virginia, congressman Bobby Scott, got a bill passed in 2000, that would have required the collection of data on fatal encounters with police, with vague provisions for withholding funds for failure to do so. But the law was allowed to quietly die in 2006. In December of 2014, in the wake of the Ferguson rebellion, Scott’s bill was reauthorized by Congress, and was joined on the U.S. Senate side by a Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) bill that would provide grants for “tip lines and hot lines” to allow the public to report to the feds on police killings. However, Booker and Boxer did not push for defunding of uncooperative departments.
Defunding cops is a non-starter among most Democrats and virtually all Republicans—a political fact that further neuters the traditional, call-in-the-feds response to police terror. However, starving the criminal injustice system on the local level is a different story. Last year, the Movement for Black Lives launched a nationwide campaign to dramatize the huge imbalance in the amounts spent on local Black community housing, health and education needs, and maintenance of the police state. In this context, defunding the police is a matter of community priorities and empowerment, rather than an appeal for the national government to set things right.
The democratic solution to police oppression lies in the exercise of self-determination through Black community control of the police. When local community representatives control the budgetary, hiring and firing process, appeals to a “higher” authority are neither necessary nor desirable.
Donald Trump’s war against immigrants is a fascist-inspired offensive that is inseparable from his plans to forcefully pacify Black America. Back in January, Trump vowed to “send in the feds” to tame Chicago. This week, he met with the head of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, who was eager both to enforce oppressive immigration laws and to “reduce the gun violence in the city of Chicago”—through application of more massive police violence.
Former president Obama’s position is no different than Trump’s; his rhetoric is simply softer. Obama’s Justice Department announced, last July, that it would withhold federal grants to local jurisdictions that refuse to provide immigration data to federal agencies. In other words, he set up the machinery for Trump’s crackdown—after racking up a record as the champion deporter in U.S. history.
Solidarity with immigrant communities is crucial to the struggle for Black liberation in the United States. However, that does not mean making common cause with the Democratic Party, which attempts to portray itself as a friend of immigrants, and whitewashes the fact that Trump’s offensive against the undocumented is essentially Obama’s policy with a meaner, orange face. It certainly does not call for an alliance with the likes of mayors Rahm Emanuel, of Chicago, and Bill di Blasio, of New York, whose police wage relentless war against Black neighborhoods. These cities provide no “sanctuary” from police predation for people of color, immigrant or native born, and it is a damnable lie to pretend otherwise. Sanctuary is only possible when the cops are directly answerable to the people, through Black community control of the police.
Hopefully, these first two months of Donald Trump has taught folks what they should have learned under Obama: that calling in the feds is no substitute for building people’s power. It’s often just the opposite.
—Black Agenda Report, March 29, 2017