Fist up fight back: lessons for the movement against police brutality from Cincinnati

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A black and white photo showing a large crowd at a Black Luves Matter Protest called ain 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray.

2015, Mass Rally in Solidarity with Freddie Gray who was murdered by Baltimore police

Written with Griffin Ritze

What does an effective movement against police brutality look like? Despite recent setbacks, we argue that Black Lives Matter: Cincinnati, in its structures to its tactics, is exemplary of the kind of organization our side needs to be building in a much more serious way if we want to win in the long term.


In June, a judge declared a second mistrial in the case of former University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing, a white police officer who murdered an unarmed black motorist. Nearly two years before, Tensing pulled Sam DuBose over for a missing front license plate and at the end of a short traffic stop, DuBose was shot in the head, killing him instantly and sending his car speeding down a residential street.

The second trial began seven months after a jury was unable to come to a verdict the first time around. And as with the last case, a coalition of groups including Black Lives Matter: Cincinnati (BLMC), Socialist Alternative, Socialist Students, the NAACP, the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, Democratic Socialists of America, and others came together to build the largest possible base within Cincinnati’s working class around an explicit call for a conviction.

The mistrial came only days after a hung jury occurred in the trial of the police officer who murdered Philando Castile just outside of Minneapolis. Both killings were caught on camera for the entire world to see and yet neither case resulted in a conviction. Hours after the result, Socialist Alternative joined hundreds of other activists in Minneapolis to protest the injustice. In Cincinnati, pouring rain kept a larger crowd away after the DuBose result, but the over one hundred protesters did turn out with chants of “it’s raining injustice, this court is disgusting.”

Then in late July, County Prosecutor Joe Deters announced that he would not move forward with a third attempt at a conviction, essentially ending the prospects for any legal recourse at a local level. The judge in the second trial, Leslie Ghiz, formally dropped the charges against Tensing a week later. Deters, a right wing politician, is no friend to the Black Lives Matter movement and the initial indictment of Tensing was out of the ordinary for the prosecutor who is usually quick to come to the defense of any cop cops who uses force on the job.

Sam’s murder in June of 2015 came at a high point in struggle nationally. The movement had exploded following the August 2014 murder of Missouri teen Mike Brown, and Cincinnati itself was no stranger to the threat of police brutality and the fightback against it. For decades, there has been an ebb and flow of organizing against the justice system which criminalizes the city’s poor. Racial profiling, laws targeting the poor, systematic divestment in housing and jobs have all disproportionately affected Black working class communities.

In Cincinnati, as with every other city in America, state use of violence and repression divides the city’s working class residents along racial lines in the service of deeper ends. It is no coincidence that DuBose was killed by a University police officer, nor that DuBose was killed in a neighborhood on the brink of gentrification. Around campus, heightening race and class contradictions, which pit students against longer term residents under the increasing strain of capitalist re-development, were bound to produce results like this at some point.

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Hypernormalization in a Prismatic reality.

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How to fight it.

There is a popular photo app called Prisma that takes a user’s smartphone photo and passes it through a series of filters and automatic rotoscoping to produce something between a Roman mosaic and a watercolor painting. This manipulation of reality creates works of art from what may otherwise be mundane, poorly composed photos–a boon for those of us who have never taken a good photo in their lives. “Artists beware! AI is coming for your paintbrush too…” warns a Techcrunch review quoted on the app’s website. But far from simply automating the jobs of artisans, something technology has done for centuries under capitalism, Prisma takes our drab reality and makes it appear as an image on a fun house mirror. This isn’t so much a They Live scenario where we are lied to directly (though that certainly happens), as it is a deliberate move on our part. We fracture the image in front of us, preferring a more compelling version, something that is ready made for sharing on the networked world of social media, and the curated lives we offer there.

Adam Curtis’s recent Hypernormalization posits that, more and more, our experiences are becoming uncoupled with the picture of the world that are presented by the media elites and governments and mediated by traditional systems of power. And we know this, but there is little we feel we can do, because any standards of behavior or mechanisms of power checking are completely undermined. Bankers break the law and do horrible things resulting in millions losing their jobs and homes, but they aren’t prosecuted. Cops shoot unarmed blacks in the back and plant evidence, all on camera, but face no jail time. Wars are waged on lies around terror or good western morals, but when the lies are exposed and the reports point to those responsible, the purveyors are let off and hailed as elder statesmen. And to all of us, the results come off as completely expected and normal; to have a chain of cause and effect would be the truly striking thing. Hypernormalization is our individual and collective attempt to make order of the barrage of nonsense–to accept not just the unacceptable, but the impossible.

For Curtis, who released his film in October, a figure like Donald Trump (and his electoral success) fits perfectly into this off-kilter bizarro-world. Trump called the bluff of the traditional elite and their pantomime grasp of power. He used the sheer confusion of the Prismatic apparatus to rise to power, making not a straightforward case for why he should become president, as exemplar of traditional state power Hillary Clinton tried to do, but via misdirection from the linear narrative of the election and sometimes a complete rejection of recent historical facts. Trump is the affirmation of this new disjointed reality, in a Gibsonian sense, he is the living avatar of the Tessier-Ashpool family who sleep while the twin algorithms of facebook and financial capitalism system drive up their profits with credit and clicks.

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Understanding Shallow Libertarianism

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Introduction

When the moderator of a recent event held by the Socialists Students at the University of Cincinnati opened the floor for discussion, a libertarian in the audience was the first to raise a comment from the crowd. Though the evening’s main presentation focused on problems of war, exploitation and austerity, recent eruptions of radical activism and what political formations and openings for exist inside and outside bourgeois electoral politics, the man took aim at philosophical concepts of socialism itself. His points were made in an attempt to draw out contradictions, logical fallacies, and philosophical bankruptcy from socialists and deserve a response. Even if these comments were shallow and evoked laughter from the audience, we should put the commenter’s political and historical naivety aside and be prepared to answer to claims such as these. The statements, which were directed more at the rest of the event’s audience than its speakers in the front of the room, meant to draw the attention to apparent drawbacks of socialist ideas and towards right-libertarianism, and had three main points:

First, he referred to the work of Jerry Cohen, a late philosopher and socialist. Cohen, the man claimed, said that in a socialist society, an “eye lottery” would subject the citizens to randomly give up an eye in case another member of that society was lacking sight.

Second, he warned the students in the room that in a socialist society, the government (or some ruling body—I can’t remember the specific organ) would decide what they would study and what work they would do, resulting in the summary dismantling of any freedom we might enjoy today.

After a response from the speaker, the man’s third claim was that those in the room misunderstood the system we live under. He insisted that he too had reservations about the economy we live under, but that we misidentified this system and socialism wasn’t the correct alternative. He called the broken system “crony capitalism,” under which a small group of wealthy people have managed to gain political power and control of the state and it’s tools, especially the IRS, and were able to direct great pools of money and resources away from where individual citizens might spend it given fuller control over their wealth and profits. A “pure” stateless capitalism would be much superior, he insisted, and in these pure conditions state functions, such as welfare and laws about a minimum wage, would take the form of charitable donations.

These points display both a lack of understanding of  what constitutes socialism and a questionably analysis of the capitalist system both as it exists today and as it functions theoretically. They also come straight from the Mises Institute, which is a right-wing think tank advocating libertarian capitalism. A cursory search of Google for “G.A. Cohen eye lottery” returns a 1998 review of Cohen from the Institute itself and countless blogs that reference this review. Read the piece if you wish, but I wish less to engage with this review than to pivot to the nature of the night’s discussion and what can be drawn from the points made and pose some suggestions for responses for comrades.

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To continue the fight against police brutality when an officer is killed on the job.

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Cincinnati is undergoing a crisis of policing. In the past two weeks, there have been two officer-involved shootings where a black man was killed. In the second shooting, just today, the officer also died. There are few details about today’s shooting, I’m writing this on my lunch break, just an hour after the news of the cop’s death was made public, and just a day after a Black Lives Matter rally calling for answers surrounding the earlier killing. It is being implied that the shooter in today’s case had a death wish, but we have seen how, even in the absence of any discernible intention, they will justify the force in whatever way they can while condemning any and all of the actions of the civilian dead.

Prior to these shootings, the early summer heat brought on a series of highly publicized incidents of gun violence around the city, which bubbled over into a political crisis. Chief Blackwell’s job is currently in question, and he has even expressed his own desire, however small, to resign under this hostile climate.

Not in question is the role of the police in the first place, and we’ve seen the first of the reforms put forward to curb with apparent uptick in violence. The reform getting the most attention is the curfew imposed on teenagers out late at night and the introduction of holding centers for parents to pick up their kids, a measure meant to, depending on who you ask, either get violent youth off the street, or to protect them from the violent around every corner. The city budget called for dozens more police to be hired on top of the over 1000-strong police force. And as the state power begins to assert itself, we are beginning to see what that looks like. On June 9th Quandavier Hicks was killed in his apartment after the police entered under dubious pretenses, giving changing stories of what ensued and describing events physically impossible given the house’s architecture.

In Fairfield, a suburb of Cincinnati, a 12 year old girl was forcefully ejected from a pool, her jaw and several ribs broken in an incident which started when another pool goer didn’t have the correct swimwear. Her pregnant mother was also roughed up by the police and a white bystander who was helping the responding officers hold the suspects down. The matter evokes images of McKinney, Texas, where a similar incident occurred just a week prior, leading to the resignation of one of the officers involved. Some who are familiar with the Fairfield complex claim that the pool’s attire rules have been selectively enforced as a means to control the race of patrons.

The recent events and the national movement around police brutality has led to a renewed milieu of serious distrust of police in the city, which, as Baltimore rioted, was remembering the 14th’s anniversary of the April 2001 riots after Timothy Thomas’s murder by Officer Stephen Roach.

But when a cop dies, the conversation changes.

We know what the immediate fallout will be. When two cops in New York were killed in during the period of national response to the non-indictment of a third officer that had previously choked Eric Garner to death, the movement entered into minor crisis. The police union in New York, performed a kind of work stoppage and literally and figuratively turned their backs to Mayor de Blasio who they claimed had, via a lack of action and minor sympathy for protesters (de Blasio has two black children), had helped create a situation that was hostile to the police in the city.

This also comes during a week when the criminal justice system will be lauded for the handling of the case of the racist Charleston murderer who killed 9 blacks gathered at a church known for its founder Denmark Vesey. In 1822, Vesey was killed by the state for a plot involving hundred of slaves and supporters to overthrow the system of bondage in the southern stronghold. The shooter, a young white man, was caught within a day and will no doubt be sentenced to life in prison, or death.

Though separated by almost 200 years, the case of Vesey and the Charleston shooter, speak to the current racial situation of policing in america. After a hasty trial, Vessy was put to death over intention. Vesey’s crime was threatening the system, the Charleston shooters crime is reinforcing it. In this way, the actions of the police in doing their jobs are not so different.

Blackwell is an apparent expert on “community policing,” which is simply the the postmodern reorganization of the police force following the decades of the urban crisis. While the police are, perhaps, less hostile in Cincinnati, having undergone reforms following 2001, their role remains unchanged. Also unchanged is the general rate at which they are killing blacks in Cincinnati, 3 to 4 a year, a similar number in the lead up to the riots.

The death of the officer in Cincinnati comes at a politically important time, when the Cincinnati Police have a growing need to both consolidate their power and justify their existence. The police are there not to protect life or protect property, they are there to protect the system as it currently exists.

We should expect more reforms, and more task forces. More police and more criminalization of everyday life, all in the name of addressing these issues. More Citizens On Patrol, a cornerstone of the top-down model of brand of community policing so lauded in Cincinnati, will roam the streets. In Northside, my neighborhood and the neighborhood where Quandavier Hicks was killed, white COP members will observe the normal actions of their young black neighbors from afar and file reports of what they see to the police at the end of their excursions. There will be more “good guy loitering” as the white petty bourgeois call it, to displace the problematic loitering; read: young, black and male.

The police and their violence is the glue holding together our racist city as a whole, the sugar baked into the cake. Cincinnati’s segregation, a product of both natural and human geography–of race and class and hills–will be enforced and amplified under the guise of being tough on crime. The praxis of community policing will be thrown out of the window in the pursuit of lower statistics in the important areas, but the marketing of a friendly police force will continue.

The movement itself can expect to bear some of the brunt of this heightened policing, our actions will be called inappropriate and in poor taste. We will be labeled criminals and thugs for holding peaceful rallies and demanding accountability of the institutions of power.

And everyone will be called on to do their part. Also this week, 3CDC, the public-private redeveloper responsible for the gentrification of Over-the-Rhine (which recently reached new heights as $650,000 homes came onto the market in what in 2010 was declared the country’s most income disparate census tract), announced plans to renovate the well used Ziegler park. Just as with the renovation of Washington Park, a few blocks west, the discussion around this renovation revolves around apparent criminal activity and the need to make the park more safe and accessible for regular people.

Several weeks ago, Black Lives Matter had a rally that started in Zielger park. While some regulars were initially hostile, saying the rally needed to be several blocks south “where the white people are,” they came around, and several young mothers and their children joined the event, while dozens of others, mostly black, continued with their business, either unfazed or supportive. Outside the park, the police kept close watch, but not because of the rally, but because they are always there.

Nothing the police are doing is out of the ordinary, they are acting completely normally within their role in our society. The people at Ziegler park know this. No amount of additional police, no next day press conferences to explain their actions, no heightened levels of surveillance, no lrads or armored vehicles, no boot camp days for troubled youth, no additional patrols, no meetings with community councils–nothing that serves to bolster the effectiveness or public image of the various institutions of social control will relieve the underlying cause of the troubles we face.

What we should, perhaps, try to imagine is a world where the police are never there in Ziegler park. Not in some sense of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but a world where the historic role, and apparent necessity, of the police is brought to an end. Good policies, and good police, will only go as far as they are able to under the general conditions in our system. A system of racism and capitalism, directing violence downward toward the working masses, where blacks disproportionately find themselves. The daily violence of poverty and hunger, of want, is ignored, while the control of the problems born out of it are focused on to the tune of $130 million each year in Cincinnati. Police budgets are blindly increased while social services, school, jobs, recreation and housing are all subjected to reviews and cutbacks.

Poverty and racism, central to our system, can’t be reformed out of existence, and no level of investment in think tanks or task forces will fix these issues. Policing is a problem of geometry–the solutions are always forced down from above. A movement rooted in the masses is the only force with the ability to can manifest that imagined society where, instead of the boot forever stamping on the human face, the boot is nonexistent.

We can not let the events of today take us off the streets. If anything, they are another example of the necessity for our movement to go further, to challenge not just the actions of the police, but the grotesque society they defend.