Democrats scramble for legitimacy in new civil rights movement

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Shawn Gaynor's picture
Millions March San Francisco
Protesters gather in front of city hall, but are prevented by the San Francisco sheriff's department from using the steps. Photo by Jim Killock via Flickr.

By Shawn Gaynor

Last week's “Millions March” was in many ways the high point in America's new civil rights movement. Communities mobilized across the country to demand greater police accountability and an end to police practices like New York City's “Stop and Frisk” program that have become an open door for racial profiling and police targeting of communities of color.

When it was time for President Obama to finally make a stand on race (an issue he has eschewed throughout his presidency) he took the action of forming a committee to examine police reform, only to hand it over to Charles Ramsey, who heads the nation's most exclusive police think tank – the Police Executive research Forum(PERF). Ramsey was tapped by Obama despite having arguably the worst record on human rights of any major US city police chief. In fact, Ramsey has made a career of cracking down on social movements from anti-globalization to the anti-Iraq War movement. More recently it was Ramsey's think tank PERF, from which policy recommendations from Obama's committee for “police reform” will flow, that coordinated the crackdown on Occupy with a series of high level national phone calls.

All of this has left the Democratic Party with less juice in the tank than normal for refocusing the national anger over police brutality, and the disparities in the treatment of minority communities, from outrage at the system to energy in support of their political party. The normal echos from the Democrat leadership of “I feel your pain” have largely fallen on deaf ears as the nation's executive branch and justice department, lead by African American leaders, have failed to address the concerns of the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets in disgust over what they say is a historical and persistent double standard in how justice is dealt out in America.

Civil rights protester Erin Clark, speaking to The Outsider at the “Millions March” in Oakland said, “At this point we are so hurt, that we can't depend on the system any more. We are now aware of that and we are moving out of it. We are transcending the oppression. This is an example and it is the first of many. And it's not going to die, because people are too hurt to keep walking around hurt like this.”

Fresh off of a thrashing across the nation in the midterm elections, and widely viewed as a party who has abandoned their base in favor of the interests of corporate America, the Democrat's are putting everything they have into getting out ahead of the police brutality issue – which apparently isn't much.

In Washington, DC, the “Millions March” was lead by the Reverend Al Sharpton, an aged civil rights leader who has recently dealt with a scandal that forced him to admit his role as a federal law enforcement informant. In Sharpton's hometown, New York City, liberal mayor Bill de Blasio, was in near political lockstep with controversial New York City police chief (and PERF board member) William Bratton, who has been the driving ideologue behind policing philosophies “broken window,” and New York's “stop and frisk” policy.

The San Francisco Bay Area, which has seen non-stop civil unrest since the Ferguson grand jury decision not to charge officer Darren Wilson for the slaying of unarmed African American Mike Brown, has been equally slim on credible leaders to draw disgruntled minorities back into the Democrat Party, though it has not stopped them from trying.

In San Francisco, it was disgraced San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi who took the mike to address a crowd upset at the heavily armored police presence preventing them from using the steps of City Hall.

Mirkarimi, long the darling of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in San Francisco, was caught up in a domestic abuse scandal that almost cost him his position as Sheriff. The scandal has marred his political allies, sending progressive San Francisco city supervisor David Campos to an electoral defeat after PAC groups headed by tech moguls Ron Conway and Reid Hoffman spent over a half million dollars to make Campos' support of Mirkarimi a central issue in his race against now state assemblyman David Chui.

Mirkarimi's presence, as a white police officer who stood accused of domestic violence by his Venezuelan wife, at the head of a major police reform focused civil rights march could not have been more tone deaf. KPFA Pacific corespondent Sabrina Jacobs, who covered the San Francisco “Millions March” on Saturday, told The Outsider, “Market street was lined with cops in riot gear ready to go. For Mirkarimi to get up in front of thousands of people and say this silliness, it was a bunch of hot air. You're ready to tear gas and beat us, and at the same time your going to talk about inclusiveness. That's insane.”

As Mirkarimi recounted a recent chance meeting on a flight from Washington, DC with Wanda Jackson, mother of Oscar Grant (a slain African American youth shot while handcuffed on the ground by BART police on New Years 2009) the crowd could be heard in the background shouting, “wife beater.” As Mirkarimi reflected on his recent trip to Washington, where he attend Federal Justice Department meetings on police reform, some in the crowd started yelling, “WHO DO YOU REPRESENT?”

The focus of the Justice Department meetings regarded “community policing,” i.e. more money for more police officers, more police equipment, and a more intensive “boots on the ground” police presence in minority neighborhoods. This has been the echoed solution of the center-right Democrat Party in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury. African American protest leaders tried several times to politely take the microphone back from Mirkarimi as an insulted crowd chanted, “Who do you serve, who do you serve?”

The San Francisco Sheriff's Department then refused the crowd access to the steps of city hall, where many political rallies in San Francisco conclude, saying the group lacked the proper city permit to use the steps.

In Oakland, as Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who lost her recent re-election bid due, by in large to resentments over her part in the crackdown against the Occupy movement, walked along with the march as a participant. During her tenure as Oakland Mayor, Quan hired NYC chief Bratton as a high paid consultant for the troubled OPD.

When some local activists tried to call her out for her role in the violent police crackdown on recent police brutality protests in the East Bay, she insisted that the repression had come from the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and not from the Oakland Police Department for which she is responsible.

CHP and other area law enforcement have been called in to police Oakland and Berkeley during the unrest under an arrangement know as “mutual aid,” where surrounding police department work together in cases of civil emergency. The nature of the “mutual aid” agreements legally forbids the visiting departments from acting as frontline forces against civil-unrest, but Mayor Quan seemed to echo what protesters have said – that despite its explicit illegality, CHPs, and not the local OPD have been used in a premeditated frontline role against the protesters.

The issue of CHPs involvement boiled over last week as an undercover CHPs officer, accused of inciting the crowd, drew his sidearm after being exposed by protesters as a police officer. The incident went viral on social media, exposed CHPs involved in policing the Oakland and Berkeley protests in a way that is seemingly illegal under the “mutual aid” agreement. Prior knowledge or planning by the Quan administration of CHPs' frontline and undercover, in-crowd, involvement would constitute a crime. Quan and the OPD have been careful to characterize the CHPs officers involvement as “plain clothed,” rather than “undercover,” as they run for political and legal cover.

It is hard to see right now where the new energy for a new civil rights movement will lead. But it is clear the minority youth of today, raised in an era of political tokenism, are looking inward for leadership, and not to the tired promises of Democrats attempting to lead both law enforcement and protesters alike.

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