Reproducing Ourselves for a New Society: Fighting the Police at School and in the Streets

The following is a short piece by Florence Johnston Collective, who have been participating in the anti-police activity here in New York following the acquittals of Darren Wilson and Daniel Panteleo.

“This Stops Today”

Since August of this year (2014), people in Ferguson, Missouri have been in the streets, experimenting with a wide variety of resistance against police violence, spurred by the murder of 18 year old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.  A little over two weeks ago, Darren Wilson was acquitted through a secretive Grand Jury trial of the murder, and last week another police officer, Daniel Panteleo, was similarly acquitted following his murder of Staten Island resident Eric Garner.

For the past two weeks, thousands of people all over the country have engaged in some of the most militant protests this country has seen in decades.  In cities where the norm is for protests to be per-approved by the police and for marches to stay on the sidewalk, protestors are taking over and shutting down major highways and bridges.  In situations where six months ago people may have been frightened or scattered by the police, they are fighting back, using the cops’ tools of violence against them–throwing back barricades and tear gas canisters, and forcefully releasing their fellow protesters from arrest and incarceration.

At least one New York City march last week began with a reading of Garner’s last words.  Before gasping “I can’t breathe” eleven horrific times before Panteleo and his fellow officer made sure Mr. Garner would never breathe again, he said this:

“Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today. Why would you…? Everyone standing here will tell you I didn’t do nothing. I did not sell nothing. Because every time you see me, you want to harass me. You want to stop me (garbled) Selling cigarettes. I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. please please, don’t touch me. Do not touch me.”

What these words reveal, beyond the complete disregard of human life by the police, is the history of harassment Garner faced as someone allegedly involved in the informal economy (the police were supposedly harassing him for selling loose cigarettes, although he was not arrested nor charged), living in a mostly black and working class neighborhood.  What they also reveal is that despite the threat of state violence, Garner took a stand against this abuse.


Protestors in New York take the entire West Side Highway

Police, Bosses, and Reproducing Capitalism

Usually we only hear about police violence in the media after a murder by the police has been captured on video or led to neighborhood uprisings. However, the everyday experience for many people, especially black and brown working class and poor people, is one of nearly constant surveillance and discipline through the violent arm of the state. This is especially the case for people who are performing either low waged or completely unwaged caring work. Home health aides (HHAs) and certified nursing assistants (CNAs), nannies, single mothers left to take care of a family when a partner has been taken by the criminal justice system, sisters, brothers, fathers, grandparents, and cousins who are living in non-traditional families to make ends meet and survive, and all of us who receive a portion of our wages through the state in the form of housing or workfare are disproportionate targets of the state. Not only are we at the mercy of the state for our livelihood, we are on the frontlines when the hammer comes down.  Historically, people experiencing homelessness, living in public housing, or working in the informal economy (particularly sex work) are subject to the most abject violence but also the most consistent harassment. Just look at some of the recent attacks: Akai Gurley, shot dead just for walking through a poorly maintained NYCHA building; Islan Nettles, a transwoman who wasn’t killed by the cops, but was left to die by them after being beaten outside a precinct; Sandra Amezquita, a pregnant woman who was beaten by the cops after she stepped forward to defend her son against their attacks;  Tanesha Anderson, who was supposed to undergo a psychological evaluation at a medical center, had her head slammed on the ground and then was murdered by the cops in front of her family.  Meanwhile, people receiving welfare are under constant threat of losing their last thread of survival, while “benefits” are more like a leash to the system than actual support. Even then, there is the threat of losing their benefits or receiving jail time for engaging in activities that most upper class people do without concern.

Where do the police come in? It takes a lot of work to keep people enslaved in low wage work, running circles at the welfare office for crumbs, and most importantly to keep us from working together to fight these conditions.  Just in the last year, some states began including drug testing as a requirement for receiving food stamps, and as we reported earlier this year, a new Tennessee law puts pregnant women in prison for testing positive for drugs–but only poor, working class, and mostly black and brown women are getting tested in the first place.  Daily, we are harassed in the streets by cops, at work by our bosses, in our service jobs by upper class clients and patients; without direct access to the true cause of our misery–forced exploitation through a system built on our backs and defended by murderers with a blank check to end us–we tend to turn on one another.  We fight with our neighbors on the block, get our co-worker in trouble at work, neglect to care for our client, yell at our kids.  These are all reasonable responses when we’re so beaten down.  We call these conditions, where the majority of people are left with no way to get food, housing, or other needs without either working for someone else to get money or by proving to the state that they cannot work and getting (less) money “capitalism.”

Selma James, in her piece “Sex, Race, and Class,” describes how “reproduction” under capitalism isn’t just reproduction of individuals, but the reproduction of class relations.  Anyone working in a school, hospital, or nursing home can see this happening, as our capacity to have solidarity with either our “clients” or our coworkers is limited by disciplinary mechanisms in our workplace.  In schools, teachers and staff are required (sometimes through explicit policy, and other times through social pressure that comes from the top down) to enforce rules that, rather than create circumstances for learning, creativity, and free expression, are only in place to keep order, productivity, and to reduce any social time students might have together. When school staff are required to behave this way, it creates a wall between students and staff, but also antagonism between staff. Rather than all fighting together against low wages, job insecurity, overwork of both staff and students, and a high level of surveillance, the social conditions create a circumstance of competition and mistrust.  Similarly, following cuts in services and staff in many New York major hospitals, administration has doubled down on technologies to monitor the activity especially of the lower paid workers such as CNAs and nurses. In many nursing homes, CNAs are required to take on so many cases that they cannot complete their work before the beginning ot the next shift, leaving their co-workers–with whom they have limited time to interact–to clean up the mess.

Without the police, it would be really hard to keep this cycle going.  Without bosses, it would be nearly impossible to keep people at the same workplace from uniting.  Without the broken mis-education system, youth would lack the structures that push them into a world of submission and they might strike back against their grim future under capitalism.

Walkouts, Marches, and “Reproducing” Struggle

While our daily experiences in work, at home, and in the social security office might sound grim, these same conditions of division and discipline give us the means to come together and fight back.  By way of example, we can look at the student walkouts that have been occurring all year in New York, and which have escalated since the non-indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Panteleo.  New York City high schools are perhaps famously antagonistic places.  In 1998, all “school safety” officials came under the jurisdiction of the NYPD.  Since then, we have heard countless formal and informal reports of abuse–everything from coerced sex to unprovoked arrests.  Students going to school see metal detectors at their door, and know that if they speak back to their teachers or administrators it could mean detention at the hands of the state, not just in a classroom.  At the same time, the restructuring of NYC schools places a great deal of pressure on students and staff.  Students are subject to standardized testing from 3rd grade on, and schools are consistently closed based on “poor performance.”  Few schools still offer comprehensive music, art, dance, or physical education programs, and many public schools have antagonistic relationships with co-located charter schools that often have even more exploitative working and learning conditions.

Students walk out of John Jay High School in Park Slope, Brooklyn

Students walk out of John Jay High School in Park Slope, Brooklyn

Students from East Village High School defy the DOE to march

Students from East Village High School defy the DOE to march

Given these circumstances, students’ recent response, walking out of class and into the streets, is not just notable, but an act of bravery and defiance.  It points towards the refusal of the exploitative and oppressive conditions within schools.  On December 1st, one week after the release of the Darren Wilson verdict, hundreds of students from several different high schools marched out from as far as Queens and South Brooklyn to join together at Union Square.  Since then, schools such as John Jay in Park Slope, Brooklyn Technical High School in Fort Greene, Henrick Martin Institute in Manhattan, and various small schools in the Bronx have had marches and rallies outside their own schools in the streets, or to local choke points, such as Brooklyn Tech’s march to Barclay’s Center, a large intersection which has become a flashpoint for street blockades in Brooklyn.  As recently as the day before this text was written (12/9/14), students in an East Village School defied orders by the DOE and led a march to the Brooklyn DA’s office, mostly by themselves with just a few supportive parents.

So far the content of the youth walkouts have primarily focused on human rights and the end to police violence, and conditions at individual schools have not been taken up on a broad scale (to the best of the authors’ knowledge).  However, just by working together against the system, students are already breaking down the hierarchy they face on a daily basis.  On Facebook, students debated for the December 1st walkout whether to leave during class or after; would be more effective to disrupt class, or not?  Students are practicing their own forms of from-below democracy, and are rejecting the top-down discipline they are subjected to daily.

Similarly, in the streets protesters have stopped responding to orders to disperse, instead linking arms and chanting “stay together.”  In a society that currently relies on competition between individuals, the protests in the streets and walkouts from schools are a strong departure from the top-down domination and internal division that we often feel in our day-to-day lives.  By the very act of coming together, at times even despite the threat of state-sponsored violence, we are building a new world to inhabit.  People have shown that their resistance will not die down.  Even if on the surface these protests appear to be or someone else’s life, we are nonetheless creating the conditions to change our own.

Florence Johnston Collective looks forward to seeing everyone in the streets, and to being with our co-workers, neighbors, clients, students, and new comrades.  We will not stop fighting until the most exploited among us transform the caring work we do now for a low wage and in order to line someone else’s pockets, into true voluntary care for one another.

Hood by hood, block by block, fight the bosses and fight the cops!

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