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Saturday, August 19, 2006

The rise of the global urban battlefield and the death of unregulated space

The LA Times ran an interesting article a few weeks ago on the tense situation in what the police there call the "South Bureau," which includes the Rampart Division. Many will remember Rampart as the home base of the infamous CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit, an anti-gang formation within the police department that themselves engaged in drug-dealing, frame-ups and murders, among other gang-like behaviors.

For example, in a case of "mistaken identity" CRASH officers opened fire on Carlos Vertiz, who was discovered to be unarmed after a ten round barrage of gunfire brought him down. CRASH officers planted a shotgun on his body as he lay bleeding to death on the street, claiming he had pointed it at them. In 1996, two CRASH officers shot 19-year-old Javier Ovando, likewise planted a gun on him and then lied about it. The judge sent Ovando, paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair because of the attempt on his life, to prison with a 23-year sentence because he failed to show 'contrition' for a crime he never committed. When the scandal of his incarceration began to break and the officers finally confessed to their frame-up, Ovando was freed - after having served two years.

Needless to say, tensions between police and the residents of this working class and poor, multi-racial and heavily immigrant section of LA are not good. Trust for the police is low after so many decades of brutal LAPD occupation and military-style policing (called "command presence"), of which Rampart's CRASH unit was a vanguard but not alone. Since the scandal, police have repeatedly been caught in egregious and violent attacks on residents, including the fatal shooting of a 19-month-old baby and the vicious beating of suspected car thief, Stanley Miller. Caught on tape by news helicopters, Officer John Hatfield smashed Miller 11 times with his service flashlight as the cameras rolled overhead.


According to a blue-ribbon study released in July and reported in the LA Times, the LAPD suffers from the stubborn persistence of the "warrior cop."
[The] evolving clique of aggressive LAPD officers who rely on force and intimidation has resisted 40 years of attempts to manage crime in the city differently.

The warrior cop — known more blandly within the LAPD as the "proactive police officer" — was the invention of Police Chief William H. Parker, who headed the LAPD from 1950 to 1966. That style of policing and the officers who embrace it have done much to protect Los Angeles in the years since. In many ways, they are symbolic of the city's police — think "Dragnet," "The New Centurions."

But officers who take it too far, who cross the line from command presence to unlawful force, have also been responsible for devastation. Their racial callousness and penchant for brutality fueled the Watts riots of 1965 as well as the riots that erupted after the Rodney G. King verdicts in 1992. They were responsible for the Rampart scandal, and they have supplied much of the tension between police and minority communities that was a defining feature of late-20th century Los Angeles.

No commission, no mayor and no chief has ever succeeded in bringing that culture to heel; indeed, it remains iconic in the city's police force.
Certainly, the LAPD's infamy for it's aggressive policing is well-deserved, but the reporter's suggestion that they "protect Los Angeles" certainly requires a Stockholm Syndrome-like view of history, in which the oppressed are somehow served through their oppression. Still, the LAPD's reputation for violence and corruption must be viewed in the political context of the United States. This country offers so many example of belligerent agencies that singling out one over the others can seem a bit like choosing a kick in the face over a kick in the crotch. From the "41 shots" of the NYPD to the corrupt Philadelphia PD and the viciously racist New Orleans Department, violence - very often racialized and aimed at people of color - remains endemic to American policing, just as it did a hundred and fifty years ago amongst the patty rollers that terrorized the Antebellum South. My own hometown of Phoenix has set records for police shootouts, one of which just left a six-year-old wounded and in the hospital thanks to a police bullet.

But, policing is at its heart a defense of the capitalist and bureaucratic class and, with stakes that high, violence is never off the table. So, we shouldn't be surprised when the police resort to it. America remains a country in which white supremacy remains the primary contradiction and ruling class strategy for domination. American police forces, it is sometimes conceded, arose out of the need for the capitalists to control the militantly organizing workers of the Northeast. Certainly this is true. But, regionally, American police forces also track their not-so-distant origins, powers and duties back to slave patrols, the capture and return of escaped slaves to the Southern Slavocracy and the displacement of indigenous peoples and Mexican farmers from their lands. As a result, police violence continues disproportionately to fall on people of color.

So the LAPD's problem - as on most forces - goes beyond just a handful of macho officers, as even Warren Christopher, former Secretary of State and stalwart defender of the system, was forced to admit in 1991 when he chaired a commission on the LA police. "This is something that has worried me for a long time. It's much too glib to talk about bad apples. It's much broader than that," he said.


However, we are in an era of deepening and possibly irreversible (outside of revolution) divisions between rich and poor, and technology increasingly makes a large segment of the global working class completely unnecessary either as producers and consumers. The logic of capitalism used to be expanded markets and expanded consumer bases, but increasingly it seems to have written off whole segments of the global population. Crisis looms. Perhaps capitalist logic today remains the logic of the cancer cell, but global capitalism is looking straight genocidal these days. Certainly that would go a long way to explain what to reformers appears to be a cold ignorance on the part of the system for the plight of much of the planet's population. When viewed this way, the global AIDS crisis, water scarcity, food crises and global warming seem more like a political project aimed at population reduction and control rather than some strange series of merely selfish policy omissions. Certainly, someone like Webster Tarpley has done a good job of linking the ruling class - including the Bushes - to eugenics and population controls of all kinds in the not-so-distant past.

So, taking nothing for granted and despite the fact that, as the Economist reported in June, "[e]ight out of ten [Americans], more than anywhere else, believe that though you may start poor, if you work hard, you can make pots of money," the police and their elite masters have embarked on a determined quest to broaden the tools at their disposal for the domination (and therefore exploitation) of the working class and poor. Those they don't hope merely to dispose of, that is. Towards this end, police departments across the country have actively and enthusiastically added less-lethal weapons to their class war arsenals.

However, as the experience in my own city has shown, this generally only increases incidents of use of force, often to the confusion of liberals who, eternally hoping for the realization of the non-violent, victimless Utopian state, fail to grasp the real purpose behind the technology. How could a less-lethal arsenal increase the violence rained down like a summer monsoon on the heads of the poor in Phoenix? An Arizona Republic study in 2004 found that despite the claims by police agencies that stun guns offer a safe alternative to the gun and the baton,
...an Arizona Republic analysis of police reports of Taser-related incidents from 2003 found that Phoenix police were far more likely to use the stun guns to make someone obey orders at a traffic stop than to bring down an armed robber.

Officers used Tasers repeatedly last year as compliance tools, to avoid chases and physical confrontations. The officers shocked people who made threatening gestures, tried to run away or would not follow commands to raise hands, turn around or lie on the ground.
The study also found that
[r]ecords show that Phoenix police shocked 377 people with the stun gun last year. The Republic's analysis of use-of-force records shows that in nearly nine out of 10 cases, individuals did not threaten police with weapons:
  • A shoplifter who stole four cans of soup from a Food City and fled on a bike was tracked by helicopter and shocked when officers dragged him to the ground.
  • A 15-year-old boy at Alhambra High School was shocked in the back when he told officers he would fight if they attempted to arrest him on a marijuana charge.
  • A drunk who ignored repeated commands to leave a Dunlap Avenue bar was shocked in the back as he walked away.
The Republic reported that Virginia police consultant James Ginger had concluded that, "When you see what is happening with Tasers across the country, it is fairly clear it is not being used as it was meant to be . . . as an alternative to deadly force."

But, here's the secret: the new technologies and tactics deployed by police departments across the country are not intended as tools to reduce violence. That may be a side effect in some cases - clearly it is a selling point - but the new technologies are designed primarily to increase the ability of agencies to project the force necessary to maintain the domination of the domestic elite, and that necessarily increases the likelihood of violence. Again, it's not as simple as macho police behavior.

True, less-lethal weapons have the added benefit of fitting the rhetoric - more like the myth - of the democratic state, where the violence inherent in the state is more easily pretended away or justified retroactively by the presence of supposedly responsive formal political institutions (i.e., why riot when you can vote?). But anarchists realize the lie behind the myth of the non-violent state and the exploitative nature of the democratic state. Nevertheless, it bears repeating: all weapons deployed by the state serve to augment its power, and that is necessarily the power to exploit and coerce.


In a world that is rapidly urbanizing, and in which disparities in wealth have reached record proportions (including here in the US), it should come as no surprise that police departments worldwide are focusing on the city as the class war battlefield of the 21st Century and that they hope better to project force within its inner city streets and even suburban cul de sacs, if necessary, to maintain the status quo. Effectively stoked by the media, police and elite class, the meth craze has already primed the suburbs for surveillance. Now barely even trusting of their own white neighbors and expanding their postmodern return to the land movement into the former inner cities, both settlers and suburbanites alike cheerlead the expansion of surveillance and policing into the rapidly colonizing and conveniently renamed "mid-city" arts districts across the country, further augmenting the technology already implemented to spy on rapidly evacuating public housing. Never believing in such a thing as "too many cops," white folks across the country have welcomed the new surveillance, never imagining that it might be used to keep them in place once the classic middle class has been evaporated by an ungrateful ruling class.

Meanwhile, Third World rural populations, either physically or economically coerced off their land, have gathered in astonishing numbers and frightful conditions despite the utter failure of the cities to provide either jobs or income, quite unlike the slums of industrializing Europe or America did. Indeed, in some parts of the world more than 90 percent of the population works - or somehow gets by - in the informal economy. That doesn't mean just doing the same job without paying the taxman. As more and more people compete for the limited jobs, and as more and more people flood into the cities, Third World residents increasingly divide up of existing work into smaller and smaller pieces that provide less and less to live on. Things are changing.

Indeed, in the United States the rise of the racist Minutemen in the age of offshoring and globalization begs the question of whether the tried and true white reactionary tactic of returning the factories and land to white control can even succeed. This despite the nostalgic enthusiasm of the racist militia's boosters, now eagerly spreading their attack into the nation's heartland and day labor centers. Those jobs have left for good and are not coming back. This, combined with the lack of consensus within the capitalist class when it comes to defending the privileges of white workers as a bulwark against revolution (so critical historically to the maintenance of capitalist domination) raises the question about the elite's future commitment to such standard strategies of domination as the cross-class alliance of white supremacy and limited sharing of the imperial largess with the home population, unfairly shared as it is along class, gender and race lines. It may well be that the elite hopes to eliminate many of the economic privileges of whiteness while maintaining the other, less paycheck related advantages. Will the white working class still police the rest with such a reduced deal? Time will tell.

In such a time of transition, when technology is taking on a greater role in the policing of the entire population, we ought not to be surprised to see reciprocity and fluid relationships between scientists, police and the military - both abroad and at home. Thus, LAPD officers train the Iraqi police force and First World militaries train in North American cities for urban warfare. The army deploys microwave weapons for crowd control in Iraq and then sends sonic weapons to New Orleans. This transition from old style divide and rule policing to a broad strategy encompassing all physical and electronic space must necessarily rely on flexibility, increasingly effective projection of force and, most of all, technology. This is especially true in a world dominated by an elite increasingly interested in leaving most of the population not just poor, but destitute and powerless - if not dead.


Thus, we have a recent article from the Christian Science Monitor about the increasing use of unmanned drones by the LA County Sheriff's Department.
It looks like a model plane, and sounds nearly silent. It costs $30,000, and could pay for itself in its first hour of use.

Law-enforcement officials in Los Angeles County, who police 10.5 million people - say it is the future of policing in America.

"It" is a drone. The three-feet-long, remote-controlled airplane with tiny video cameras can fit in a four-inch-diameter tube - and thus in a car trunk, or over the shoulder like a quiver of arrows.

The tiny drone will be able to provide law enforcement officers with a bird's-eye view of just about anything. It's intended to find lost hikers, skiers, surfers, children, elders, and more. It can also be used in hostage situations and other violent standoffs in rural or urban areas and to surveil fleeing crime suspects.
In this piece, and as usual, despite the obvious relationship between the military and drone technology, the reporter reveals his belief in the lie of benevolent technology (not to mention a benevolent police force - a cognative dissonance that in LA must require massive amounts of energy spent on active denial to maintain). And so, when the journalist lists the benefits the technology will bring to the community, notice that he first cites the rescue applications, like finding lost hikers, etc, to which no sane person could possible object, leaving even the oppressive applications for the end. Don't worry. It's all good, the new system's increased reach can save you from yourself even if you go hiking above your skill level.

Interestingly, lacking a class analysis, the critics cited in the article miss the point entirely, focusing on the red herring of privacy rather than focusing on the true, repressive nature of the technology. Thus, critics can express their concern that
"...privacy is fundamentally a right to be let alone and go about your business and daily life without having the government looking over your shoulders. It is as disturbing if they are looking over your shoulder with a drone flying overhead as much as over your shoulder literally."
And to this charge the police and their boosters can quite honestly respond that
"This is intended for search and rescue, quick deployment during a fast-moving fire, or even a post-Katrina search operation," says Sam de la Torre, the SkySeer's developer. He notes that anything the SkySeer can see is permitted under current federal and state laws regarding helicopter surveillance. "We are not going to be looking in back windows and invading privacy. We are going to be trying to save lives," he says.
Now, of course, we all know that the police will "mis-use" drones, just as they "mis-use" other technologies, however, that really misses the point. As the same article reports,
Because of their portability and versatility, drones could become indispensable tools for the sheriff's department activities after testing resumes possibly within a couple weeks or September at the latest, according to officials.
The point of these technologies is what they bring to the table in terms of increasing the power of the police to defend the privilege and power of the elite class, not the aberrational violations of privacy (as bad as those are). We must not make "exceptional" or "bad apple" arguments about technology any more than we make them about police. Technology, like police, operates both within the system and as a force on the system at the same time, but it is directed by and in defense of the ruling class.


Because, the fact is, the elite understand exactly what the LA Times reported Monday about that neighborhood near the Rampart Division.
The real estate he's referring to is South Los Angeles, an area singled out last week by a blue-ribbon panel as a deeply troubled hot spot where tensions between residents and police run so high that civil unrest could erupt at any time.

"It's hanging by a thread," said civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who spearheaded the panel's examination of the LAPD's Rampart Division scandal. "I would not be surprised if something were to blow there this summer."
According to the report by Rice and the panel, a dangerous combination of factors makes that section of the city volatile: It includes poor, disenfranchised neighborhoods that feel victimized by gangs, drugs and the police who are supposed to protect them, and a "thin blue line" of officers who face life-threatening dangers as they try to keep peace with limited resources.

"These are not just underclass poverty descriptors," warned the Rampart report, "these are the trigger conditions for the city's next riot."
Similar conditions prevail in Mumbai, where police recently rounded up 300 residents of the Naya Nagar slums of Mahim for questioning about the Mumbai commuter train attacks. Firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's base of support is the Sadr slum, home to 2 million residents, and a vicious battleground against imperialism and indigenous rivals. Finding their options limited, the slums are fighting back, targeting systems through decentralized resistance and terrorism, from Sadr City to the Niger Delta. Faced with the impossibility of challenging the world's empires and states on the battlefield, they have increasingly engaged in net-war - a run, strike and hide attack on systems with systems disruption as its goal.

With social and economic stratification only likely to increase, and with net-war revealing the empire's vulnerable soft underbelly paradoxically exposed everywhere, it's no coincidence that, aside from investing in more police, agencies are investing heavily in new technologies that they hope will close the gaps and place every physical and electronic space under at least potential - and ideally perpetual - surveillance at all times.

It only took London police five days to track down surveillance camera images of the four alleged bombers, also employing a netwar systems attack against the London transportation system (probably in collaboration with elements within the security services itself). Next time will take much less. Police appealed in the early days for citizens to turn in cell phone images that might reveal the bombers identities. Indeed, cell phone video of the attacks appeared very early on the internet and television. The new technological police state is intended to be everywhere at all times, even if the only enforcer is a citizen with a cell phone.

Thus, seeing into the future, New York Police Commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly can say without a hint of a contradiction on the New York Police Foundation website,
"Overall crime rates are at their lowest level in forty years. At the same time, the Police Department faces unprecedented demands since September 11th with the threat of global terrorism. Defending the City from this persistent threat, while continuing to combat conventional crime, will require major investments in technology and equipment."
In a seeming contradiction, although present crime rates are down, the need for police technology somehow has increased? Like the global collapse in general, this dichotomy only makes sense if we realize that the elite class and their police protectors are looking to the future - a dead-end future - in which the exploited classes have even more reason to revolt. After all, while a dialectic between the exploited and their exploiters surely exists, the rich, the bureaucrats and their police thugs are the architects of the new world; as revolutionaries, we would be wise to look closely at their plans and not chalk up every apparent failure of the system to incompetence or short-term selfishness. After all, we anarchists know that the system delivers largely as intended and that democratic capitalism is not a sufficient answer to the problems we face today.

So it should be no surprise that the Feds have stepped up in a major way with massive subsidies for police department technology acquisitions. The elite has a vision, and they recognize that it requires massive investments in technology to come true. Anarchists would do well to put technology squarely on the table for deep analysis and criticism - not just as a elite tool open to potential abuse, but as something fundamentally in opposition to human freedom and any project of revolution. Failure to do so risks also failing to understand the way that power will be projected in the future, and that can only contribute to defeat for the working class in our struggle to overthrow the capitalist and bureaucratic class, substituting in its place a world of equality and freedom.


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