An exposure to black poverty and police terrorism

On the 20th of September, on the eve of the People’s Climate March in Manhattan, New York, I attended a small workshop concerned with experiences of poverty, its deep causes, and efforts of resistance to falling deeper into the cycle. The coordinator of the workshop was a social activist from Cleveland, Ohio, as were a number of participants of the workshop. The participants were mostly black mothers and fathers, some younger white students and activists, and a few people from Detroit involved with the local burgeoning campaign for water rights security.

The first speaker was Connie, a self-described Revolutionary Community Activist, whose understated presence was quickly blown away with a condemnatory fervour that came down hard upon those she identified as responsible for the widespread and deepening state of poverty of the black community in Cleveland and elsewhere. She began with a discussion of how Child Protection Services operates to break down families. The threat of child confiscation looms over every decision and action made by a parent living in public housing. For them, misdemeanours are automatically upgraded to felonies. If a child or parent engages in such misdemeanours, most commonly marijuana-related activities, there is a case for child confiscation. A joint butt left in a ashtray is evidence enough. For adults, having two such felonies against your name is sufficient to bar you from most job opportunities. Domestic violence occasioning police involvement, too, is grounds for child confiscation. This makes a particularly dangerous trap for people living in abusive households. When faced with the possibility of having their family broken apart, many women turn away from seeking protection. In fact, almost any difficulty that less economically advantaged households might face – such as energy or plumbing problems – can arouse the interest of CPS agents and the threat of confiscation. In such circumstances it is difficult not to see the operation of the CPS as a racist and classist instrument of subjugation.

Numerous other women attested to the oppressive workings of the CPS. Some of their stories were particularly affecting, such as Diane (also from Cleveland). Her children had been taken from her and sent to foster homes when police intervened in a violent scene at her home. Upon seeing them again, six weeks later, they were angry with her. How could you let this happen? They had been told by their CPS agents that Diane asked the department to take them away. The insidious nature of the CPS’s workings are hard to believe, and yet, the horrific scene of mother-child separation is only the first in a picture of demoralisation, total alienation, and estrangement from society, that Connie went on to describe. The younger children would be sent to relatively permanent foster homes, brought up usually in white, religious families. Older children, however, would drift from one house to another until reaching eighteen, when they would be relinquished from the care of the state. Finding themselves on the street with little to no support network, usually disrupted educational experiences and few skills to secure themselves stable employment, these young men and women face a destiny of falling back into state care, this time as prisoners, that can seem cripplingly inevitable.

Marxist-aligned participants in the workshop noted that these trashed and neglected people, either left free yet unskilled and uneducated, or otherwise imprisoned, are easily collected and exploited by sub-minimum wage employers, or in mandatory unpaid prison. The people whom the U.S. government is structurally predisposed to whittle away before they are even born end up contributing the most unappealing labour necessary for the continued perpetuation of the racist, classist society. The constant threat of police vigilance in the poorer communities of this society – reinforced in some places with military force, wM16s and Sherman tanks in their urban arsenals, and helicopter flyovers routinely deployed – evidences plainly the structural relationship of the state to its most underprivileged citizens as one of brutal control, division, exploitation – as much psychological as material. One of the last remarks of Connie that particularly impressed me was her question, “why focus and speculate upon terrorists in distant lands when the true terrorist presence is right here, in our own neighbourhoods?”

It is difficult to grope for solutions when there seems to be such enveloping darkness hanging over everybody’s head who chooses to engage with these problems. In the light of the widespread resistance at Ferguson and in other black communities around the country, Connie reserves some optimism that a gradual change in perspective and willingness to comply with state terrorism is occurring. She notes, “young black men and women walk by police with a new, fiery glint in their eyes”. The state is a bully, and the most effective way to overcome a bully’s oppression is to fight back.