Police Violence, Resistance and The Crisis of Legitimacy
Kristian Williams – January 2011 – Solidarity
ON SEPTEMBER 5, 2010, Los Angeles police shot and killed a Guatemalan day laborer named Manuel Jamines.
The next day, a crowd gathered on the corner where Jamines died. They assembled a small memorial, then piled debris and set fires in the street, and hurled rocks and bottles at the cops, reportedly injuring several.
Police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas; they arrested more than two dozen people. Rioting continued for three nights running.
Police claimed that Jamines was threatening passers-by with a knife — a story widely disbelieved in the Latino community and contradicted by eyewitness accounts. “I did not see a knife in his hands,” one witness told reporters.(1)
“He had nothing in his hands,” another confirmed; “At the moment when the police were shooting, he had nothing.”(2)
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa promised an investigation, and simultaneously voiced his support for the police. “These guys are heroes,” he said.(3)
Los Angeles is the most recent site of a multi-city policing crisis affecting the entire West Coast. What clearly sets a number of recent cases apart is not the fact of police violence, but the fact that that violence is being challenged. The controversy, in other words, is not only about violence, but about authority. It is a crisis of legitimacy.
In Oregon and Washington, as well as in California, an assortment of legal proceedings, peaceful marches, riots, and repeated attacks against police and their property all point to the contested nature of police violence and the slow normalization of violence in response.
Oakland: Exceptional Symbols
Oakland, California set the tone: On New Year’s Day, 2009, transit police killed an unarmed Black man, Oscar Grant, in front of numerous witnesses. Video of the incident shows Grant lying facedown, his hands behind his back.
One cop, Tony Pirone, can be heard calling him a “bitch-ass nigger;”(4) another cop, Johannes Mehserle, draws his gun and shoots Grant in the back, point-blank.
Grant’s killing sparked a series of protests and small riots. Largely in response to the rebellion, the authorities arrested Mehserle and charged him with murder.(5)
More than a year later, in July 2010, Mehserle was convicted — not of murder, but of involuntary manslaughter. The response of the community, once again, was outrage expressed in marches, barricaded streets, broken windows, dumpster fires, and looting; damages were estimated at $750,000.(6) Mehserle was sentenced in November to just two years in prison, provoking further unrest.
It was barely two months after Grant’s shooting, in March 2009, that a Black ex-con named Lovelle Mixon killed two Oakland cops at a traffic stop, and then two more during the SWAT raid to bring him in. Mixon died in the shoot-out.
These two cases immediately came to symbolize the tense relationship between Blacks and the police — a relationship often defined by violence. Yet both cases are also exceptions to the usual pattern, though they are exceptions for very different reasons.
Grant’s case is exceptional, practically unique, because police are so rarely punished for their violence; Mixon’s because, in the conflict between African Americans and police, the casualties are usually all on one side.
Washington State: “We will fight!”
Further north, in Washington State, at least nine cops have been shot since Halloween, 2009; six of them died.(7)
In a way, the chain of events began on November 29, 2008, when King County Deputy Paul Schene beat a teenaged girl in a holding cell. The following February, the deputy was charged with assault and a videotape of the incident was released. He was fired that September, and later tried — but not convicted. …more