I recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Gene Grabiner, a SUNY distinguished service professor emeritus in Buffalo, N.Y. He writes on social justice and social class and has recently published work on strategies for police reform in the U.S., some of which are being considered in Buffalo, NY. He recently published a short piece for Weave News titled Buffalo PBA VP Blog Post Threatens Cop Violence Against Civilians.
SP: Why have you chosen to study the issues of policing? Discuss some of your research.
I have a long-standing research, writing, and practical interest in the fundamental and decisive issues of social justice and social class, often in the context of constitutional civil liberties, the legal system, and what is termed the rule of law.
We constantly hear this prattling about "rule of law," but is this "rule of law" neutral, without any class content? Does the “rule of law” somehow stand above the fray of social class issues or class struggle? All sorts of horrors have been done under color of law: the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, slavery, the Holocaust, Jim Crow, the New Jim Crow, abortion prohibition, LGBTQ repression, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the handcuffing of elementary school children (predominantly children of color), by police officers, etc.
Once we seriously analyze the neutral-appearing "rule of law," or the patent deceit that “all are equal before the law,” the wraps are off. Anatole France put it this way: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids all people from sleeping under bridges, stealing bread, and begging in the streets; the rich and the poor alike.”
It is highly questionable that "rule of law" and "law and order" are merely neutral terms. As is often the case, “protect and serve” means that those who have more to protect get more and better service. So it is important to ask: Whose law, what order? These are basic class, race, sex, and gender questions that must be understood and addressed in discussing the rule of law. And once we raise these questions, we can begin to think about, and strategize about, what is to be done.
To illustrate: the Obama Administration Department of Justice (DOJ) did extensive research on police brutality in America and prepared a number of consent decrees requiring positive and pro-community changes in various police departments across the country. Some of these decrees have already been implemented, and others were in process of implementation as of November 8, 2016. Under President Trump’s DOJ, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is intent on rolling back these decrees in favor of a law and order approach to policing (along with the continuation and intensification of the New Jim Crow’s, “War on Drugs”). These contrasting DOJ attitudes express different class, race, sex, and gender etc. concerns and approaches as applied to the rule of law.
We cannot and should not ever simply or fully speak of the “rule of law” in the absence of addressing the underlying class interests or property relations that give rise to a particular, historically-developed, legal system.
Policing has come to be the enforcement mechanism of this rule of law. Even since its inception, and just like the law, the institution of the police has never been a neutral or, in fact, a non-political one. At its outset in England, the Metropolitan Police or the ‘Bobbies’ (founded in 1829), were organized to control the “dangerous classes” on behalf of the English ruling elite. These "dangerous classes" were primarily the urban working class, perceived by the ruling class as a potentially rebellious, if not revolutionary, mob.
In the U.S., the overseer system, the slave patrols, and private security forces such as the Pinkertons were used to repress the working class. These bodies of armed men and their practices became precursors to the American system of policing. But it should be pointed out that as the State evolves, it also addresses street crime. This is part of its legitimating function. This suggests the very complex character of the evolved State.
On the one hand, it is a mechanism for containing class antagonisms so that they do not break out into open warfare. That containment failed during our Civil War. Subsequently, containment of class antagonisms was re-established on terms favorable to the emergent industrial capitalist class and the bankers. Later on, and due to labor and civil rights activism, concessions were wrung from the State.
The State, which is, for us, the Enlightenment State, takes the role of victim in criminal trials: as in “The people v….”. This formulation of the State as “the people” is a rational and progressive development. For it means that the Enlightenment State rejects personal revenge, tribalism, and clan justice (hence, hostility to vigilantism—hostility to Cliven Bundy et al). However, as more reactionary social forces have risen over time, we now have “victim’s statements” which may sway juries or judges, and which I believe move away from the notion of State as victim, restoring individual and family victimhood; the victimhood of blood—which I view as a step back in time. Much more needs to be said about the State than this interview permits. Among other texts, I recommend Shlomo Avineri’s, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State. But let’s talk about the class character of criminal behavior, and which groups the State routinely addresses as criminal.
Generally speaking, what we see as crime, and what the media incessantly focus on, is crime authored by working-class people, crime in the streets: not crime in the suites. It is true that, from time to time, corporate criminals are brought low. This is often merchandised as the perfectibility of the system. But even this has so far been avoided in the U.S. when it comes to the forces that perpetrated the Great Recession. Indeed, former Attorney General Holder (who was neither prompt or forceful in prosecuting the perpetrators of the Bundy Ranch standoff) has said words to the effect that banks are ‘too big to jail.’ (By way of contrast, Iceland recently imprisoned 74 bankers.) So, there is a definite class interest related to the role of policing.
Your readers might be interested in a classic article that unmasks police and legal system neutrality,“Defenders of Order or Guardians of Human Rights?” “Defenders of Order or Guardians of Human Rights?” by Herman and Julia Schwendinger.
What do you think police should do to improve police-community relations in Buffalo?
There are 10 community police officers, (two per district), out of 735 sworn officers, in the Buffalo Police Department, (BPD). This is inadequate and unacceptable. All blue shirts should be trained extensively in community policing skills and de-escalation skills. And they should walk regular beats.
Based on reporting done by the Investigative Post, BPD officers undergo only two hours of combined de-escalation training and firearms training per year. They read some textual material provided by Albany on the de-escalation issue and then take a written pass/fail test on the same. In Rochester, New York, just 60 miles down the road, the respective hours are three and one-half and eight. Buffalo has a “shoot/don’t shoot” simulator that has not been used in years. Rochester’s is in use. Moreover, Buffalo has not sent a single police officer to the FBI Academy, the nation’s premier police training facility, in 16 years.
Given Buffalo’s racial demographics, its first long-term commitment must be the hiring of more African American, Hispanic, Native American, and female cops. The city of Buffalo is 38.6 percent black, 10.5 percent Hispanic, and 50.4 percent white. The Buffalo Police Department does not reflect these demographic data. Out of 735 sworn officers on the Buffalo force, 21.4 percent are African American, 7.4 percent are Hispanic, 0.27 percent are Asian, and 0.41percent are listed as “other.” 70.6 percent of all Buffalo police officers are white. 78.6 percent are male and 21.4 percent are female.
On October 19, 2015, as a means of encouraging increased minority and female hiring in the Buffalo Police Department, Mayor Byron Brown and Police Commissioner Derenda have asked Buffalo residents to apply for one of 50 available “pre-employment” scholarships to the Police Academy. His program appears to have been successful and should be expanded.
Of all officers in the BPD, only 44%, live in the City. In order to strengthen their commitment to community policing, going forward, all new hires to the Buffalo Police Department, (BPD), must be required to live in the City. There have been positive steps taken in this direction. Since the new Buffalo-PBA collective bargaining agreement has been approved, all new BPD hires shall be required to reside in the City for at least seven years.
What impact do you think peaceful protests against police brutality could or should have?
Colin Kaepernick’s protest was effective at generally spreading the idea that the United States anthem, flag, and pledge are meaningless and empty in the face of profound racism and lack of real equality and fairness in our country. Kaepernick’s protest inspired athletes in other NFL teams, and in college and high school football teams as well, to kneel with him.
One entire Texas youth football team, the Beaumont Bulls (ages 11-12), knelt during the national anthem to protest racist treatment of people of color. All the players are African-American. One or two coaches knelt with them. The consequence was that the balance of their football season was canceled. Obviously, those canceling the season completely missed and/or ignored Kaepernick’s point.
On the other hand, I do not know how many people were mobilized by John Carlos’s and Tommy Smith’s upraised fists in their 1968 Olympic protests. But their stance made news worldwide. Only one year after Muhammed Ali refused the draft, they were the first black athletes to raise their fists in formal sports competition. The point was made throughout the media. And it resonates today.
But with Kaepernick, the numbers who knelt were far greater than the numbers of protesting athletes in the days of Ali and Carlos and Smith. Not only did Kaepernick have many fellow NFL kneelers, they were also members of the NFL players’ union. And, when it comes to the anthem and the pledge, this response-as-refusal has become multi-racial.
My hope is that Buffalo public school children – black, white, Hispanic, Native American, and immigrant – will learn from Carlos, Smith, Ali, and Kaepernick, and feel stronger about themselves in standing up against injustice. Perhaps these flash points in struggle should be part of the curriculum—a way to connect athletics to politics.
What are some community groups with whom you collaborate? Are you working on new studies, policies, actions, etc.?
I have been working for over a year with both Open Buffalo and the Partnership for Public Good on the question of police reform in Buffalo. From time to time, members of other community groups have been involved in this effort. In the past, I have worked with the Committee Opposed to the Psychiatric Abuse of Prisoners, and Building Bridges, a Jewish-Muslim social justice organization. In 2012, I did a talk for them on the unconstitutionality of government spying on religious groups, and on the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practice and its impact on the New York City Muslim community. I also remain a union member and a delegate to the WNY Areal Labor Federation.
Currently, in light of the election and the threat to progressive social forces in America, I am working on an essay entitled, “In Defense of the Enlightenment State.”
In most conversations about police reform, activists talk about what police must do to build productive relationships with the community. Rarely do they ask what the community should do. What are some ways that the Buffalo community can help police be better police?
Community organization is the key for better relationships with the police, especially in Buffalo’s low-income, underemployed, minority, and largely poor communities. And there are surely enough social justice groups around to help in that work. Here I am referring to: CEJ, PUSH Buffalo, VOICE Buffalo, Open Buffalo, the PPG, among others. Community organizations must also link up with organized labor and its strategy of working with allies and friends.
 Document: Buffalo Police Department, “Residency by Rank, Rank Demographic by Race-Sex, As of 12/2/14”