Beyond Cops, Courts and Jails

Rage. Fury. Sadness.

I am filled with an emotion I cannot name, where deep anger meets tears that are both too familiar yet so raw.

by Marina Sitrin via

I want to feel disbelief, yet I quietly shake my head back and forth, again, and yet again, knowing that the killing of young black men and women does not matter to those in power in society. It does not matter to those who defend those in power in society.

There is a powerful and righteous rage rising across the United States. “Hands Up Don’t Shoot!” and “I Can’t Breath!” are being shouted by hundreds of thousands of people around the country. Many hundreds of cities and towns have had outpourings in the streets at the Ferguson verdict and then again at the Eric Garner decision. Hundreds of universities and high schools have had walkouts and die-ins. Even some tabloid newspapers have used the headline of “I Can’t Breath,” while some politicians and legal associations are calling for investigation into the deaths of these two young men.

The rage is powerful and necessary. Stopping traffic, blocking bridges and highways, closing subway and metro stations, walking out of universities, colleges and high schools and shutting down department stores is tremendous. We are pulling the emergency brake. It is a manifestation of our collective and individual power. We can stop business as usual. We must stop business as usual. One of the questions I hope to begin to open with this is how can the momentum continue in the streets while we begin to transform our day to day realities – not waiting for the state or courts to perhaps, maybe, respond somehow.

While some changes might be made at institutional levels – and they might even have some effect, such as a different composition in the police force, more oversight of police violence, citizen committees to oversee police abuse etc.. Overall the institutions of power, as they exist, are not going to change – they will not become non-racist – they will not value black and brown bodies. Rules might change, policies might be revisited and some police forces may even be retrained or reorganized – and this is good. But this will not undo a society built on white supremacy. We must remake our society – the same way we are manifesting our fury, we need to come together and reorganize everything. As we are in the streets shutting things down we can and must simultaneously begin to open up new ways or organizing.

Below are a few glimpses of ways people around the world, from Argentina to Mexico, the US and Canada, have been trying to resolve issues without the courts, police or jails. This is not intended as an exhaustive list, but merely to try and help expand our collective imaginations as to what is possible in our neighborhoods and cities … now.

In the late 1990s in Argentina, the hijos, children, of those who were murdered by the military dictatorship in the 1970s – daughters and sons of the 30,000 “disappeared”, came together to speak to society – to change society – neighborhood by neighborhood. HIJOS (Daughters and Sons Against Silence and Forgetting) believes that it was in part the silence in society that allowed so many people to disappear from their homes – taken by the police and military, even in broad daylight. They organize actions, escraches, to speak to this silence. They do not go and protest in front of the judiciary or government buildings demanding the prosecution of those involved in the dictatorship, instead they organize to speak to their neighbors, “outing” and marginalizing those dictatorship collaborators living free in society. They focus on creating a different political climate, one that will never again allow people to stand by while their neighbors are kidnapped, tortured and murdered. The first step in doing this is educating people in the neighborhood as to the history of the targeted individual who participated in the dictatorship. As people become more educated as to what this person did, they begin a campaign to ostracize him – doing things such as asking local bakers not to sell him bread, barbers not cut his hair, neighbors not talk to him, car services not to give him rides etc.. Then, after weeks of organizing and educating in the neighborhood, most escraches conclude with a symbolic act where the person’s house is marked, usually with red paint, so that all can see that the person who lives there participated in the torture and death of others. It is also a way to publicly break the silence of allowing such people to live in peace among us. The perpetrators are marked and the community does not allow them to live in peace. … Imagine this with each case of killings by the police.

In Guerrero Mexico, fed up with the corrupt police stealing, beating and killing people, the various communities came together and clandestinely formed an alternative police force, coming out in the mid 1990s, declaring themselves the new alternative autonomous police and forcing out the corrupt police from the state. Yes, in Mexico – a place with one of the most corrupt and violent police and vigilante systems in the Americas. Augustin Barrero C., founding member of the Policía Comunitaria and head of the then newly formed police executive committee reflected: “We knew that organizing our own police would immediately expose us to the repression of the state authorities. So we organized the police secretly, step by step, and on October 14, 1995, we declared simultaneously in 36 communities in 3 municipalities the existence of the Policia Comunitaria. Then the indigenous authorities informed the public attorney, the army and the regional government that we had founded the Policia Comunitaria.” Helacio Barrera Q., another organizer of the Policia Comunitaria commented, “And they told us that this is not possible because it is illegal. But we told them we were not asking for permission, we were just informing them what the people had decided in their assembly. And we also told them that the communities decided that the army and the police were no longer allowed to enter our territories without prior permission.” The Policia Comunitaria continues to this day, with challenges of course, but still autonomously policing the region of Guerrero, Mexico. (from Occupying Language: The Secret Rendezvous with History and the Present)

Initiated by First Nations in Canada, and now used in parts of the United States as well, Circle Justice is a concept of healing amongst those who have been harmed, those who committed the harm and the community. It is sometimes outside the framework of the “justice” system, and intends to heal rather than punish. There is a wide variety of ways in which this is enacted, including on autonomous native lands as well as in some public schools. “The process is value driven. Primarily, it is designed to bring healing and understanding to the victim and the offender. Reinforcing this goal of healing is the empowerment of the community to be involved in deciding what is to be done in the particular case and to address underlying problems that may have led to the crime. In reaching these goals, the circle process builds on the values of respect, honesty, listening, truth, sharing, and others.” ( Depending where and how it is used, it can be a binding decision making process, so both creating healing as well final adjudication.

In Alaska the Alaska Native Justice Center “was established to address Alaska Natives’ unmet needs regarding the Alaska civil and criminal justice system in response to the increasing disproportionate rates of victimization, incarceration and other justice-related issues impacting Alaska Natives throughout Alaska. … ANJC’s Mission is to promote justice through culturally based advocacy, prevention and intervention initiatives to restore dignity, respect and humanity to all Alaska Natives.” This community based program has been especially successful in helping people who have a history of incarceration not entering the system again.

Similarly, in the United States people are organizing alternative adjudication processes. Modeled to a large extent on the Native forms of Circle Justice, and/or the Brazilian Restorative Justice Circle model, and with many variations, some using formal institutions as a back up, others not, people are solving issues of “crime” amongst themselves. The results have been huge. “A Restorative Circle is a community process for supporting those in conflict. It brings together the three parties to a conflict – those who have acted, those directly impacted and the wider community – within an intentional systemic context, to dialogue as equals. Participants invite each other and attend voluntarily. The dialogue process used is shared openly with all participants, and guided by a community member. The process ends when actions have been found that bring mutual benefit.”

Since the 1990s there have been many dozens of Cop Watch groups organized, the purpose of which is to both keep track of those police who are violent and make that list public and accessible as well as follow the police while on patrol with recording devices. The idea behind the second part is to deter violent behavior by the police, hoping that the fear of being documented will give them pause before beating or killing someone. It is also intended to be a tool in holding police accountable later if/when they do act violently.

Yes, we must continue in the streets. To fight and to rage. But also to meet one another. To see what we have in common. To begin in our neighborhoods and take them back – back from the police, the courts and the state. We can monitor our own communities. We can resolve our own conflicts and we can remake our entire society. We have already take the first step – we are out in the streets.