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Cheap video and freeways: The new accomplices of #BlackLivesMatter

Summer 2015 has begun with a now-familiar series of chaotic weather patterns (Texas's years-old drought turning into massive flooding) and yet more police acquittals in brazen acts of murder, this time of an officer who fired 49 shots through the front windscreen of a car into two unarmed men in the front seat.

Baltimore showed that the Black Lives Matter movement is alive and well, and the city of Baltimore itself was already synonymous with police corruption, a racist legal system and the bleaker side of the American dream, courtesy of The Wire cable television series, which one can buy on the street in Mexico these days.

It's hard to say for certain if the movement will continue or what shape it will take, but seeing as how the state simply out and out refuses to legally restrain or chastise the cops, I'm imagining we'll see more protests.

I want to point out what you could call infrastructural elements of society that the movement has taken advantage of, and which have aided its success.

By structural accomplice I mean a technological or industrial feature of U.S. society that has played a part in the success of the BLM movement so far.

1. Digital Cellphone Video

    This one is pretty obvious -- but it's no accident that the Oscar Grant protests and the subsequent organizing in the Bay Area in early 2009 against police brutality happened precisely when phones with a video record function became affordable and widespread. Simply put, we now have hard evidence of what happened, whereas before it was always the cops' word against the victim's, if they were still alive, or a witness's. Now the whole world can judge for themselves by viewing the video footage of the events in question.

    The Rodney King beating in Los Angeles in 1991 was at the time an anomaly: it just so happened that someone had a video camera nearby and recorded King being beaten by police. Now we have a Rodney King video every week (or more frequently) -- and not necessarily because police beatings have gone up but because now they can be recorded much easier.

    When any of these killings happen, the argument of the police always involves the officers' perceived threat to their personal safety. The rules covering the officers' behavior are laid out in a book of regulations and in the trial each move on the part of the cops is explained as a reaction to a perceived threat. Could it have appeared to the officer that the suspect could do them any harm? Then the reaction that followed was justified.

    During the Rodney King trial this is precisely what the defense argued: each officer claimed to have been afraid for their life, and an expert witness broke down every frame of the video, showing how each bodily movement of the lying-prone-on-the-side-of-the-highway King could be "reasonably" believed to have been a potential threat to the officers.

    I'm not one to ascribe dramatic historical changes specifically to technology, but cellphone video may be a game-changer. You could say that it "forces the hand" of liberals. Because in many of these instances of police violence the victim is indeed "guilty" of some infraction, be it shoplifting, illegally selling cigarettes, fleeing the police by foot or car, whatever.  There's yelling, aggression, threats of violence, dramatic chases. The victim had a rap sheet a mile long and hadn't paid child support in a decade. They had obviously been passed over every year for the annual Chamber Of Commerce Award for Community Inspiration. That still doesn't mean they can be executed on the spot.

    So the question becomes: do you believe it should be acceptable for a suspect in a crime, any crime, to be shot dead as opposed to arrested and tried? And having a video recording of the events forces those on the fence to answer that question. Okay, this guy was indeed breaking a law, or acting crazy, or whatever -- do you or do you not believe it should be legal for him to be killed for said infraction?

    And the response from the police is always to say that the officer could have been in danger. Somewhere along the way the duty of a police officer: "To Serve And Protect" turned into "The Individual Officer's Safety Is Our Top Priority." And from that streams every justification and acquittal in these cases. It also doesn't help that police are now being trained by the military, including the Israeli army. I'll leave it to another writer to explain how this all came to pass, but the fact that a musician can simply pull footage from the internet and create a horrific video collage of police violence is testament both to how easy it is to record and disseminate video these days, and how out of control the police are.

     

    2. The U.S. Highway System

    The geography of U.S. cities is more sprawl than sidewalk. Main Street U.S.A. in 2015 is an eight-to-12 lane asphalt-topped corridor raised on concrete pylons above a now-demolished working-class neighborhood. This was not a foregone conclusion: highways could have been built on the outskirts of cities, with wider avenues made to get traffic to the highways and communities preserved within the city. The story of the "Freeway Battles" of the 1970s are an interesting case of how a little forethought might have had long-term positive effects, but the truth is that most of the fights were lost and highways went ripping through the urban guts of Anywhere U.S.A.

    And very importantly, the majority of U.S. highways were designed for locally bound vehicles as well as interstate commerce, both on the same roadway. And so Soccer Mom en route to pick up her kids, a broke immigrant in a wheezing 1982 Nissan on his way to flip burgers, and a double-length Peterbilt loaded with new cellphones bound for Canada, are all cruising down the same thoroughfare when those pesky activists block it with their bodies or, in the case of Stanford students, with an empty automobile.

    Because in this age of post-Fordian capitalism, of just-in-time production, it is not the actual point of production that is the weakest link in the chain, i.e. the automobile factory or the iPad assembly line, but instead it's the means of circulation that becomes the most important and therefore vulnerable part of the process. And that circulation includes commuters, stuck in traffic in between their multiple jobs.

    And those same commuters will usually themselves live nearby an onramp or an overpass onto an interstate freeway, which gives them a disruptive power that for instance slum dwellers in the global south or Palestinians may not share, being as they are more isolated and/or restricted to their designated neighborhoods. By contrast, most big cities in the Southern and Western U.S. are crisscrossed with highways that pass through or near multiple neighborhoods. Points of disruption lie everywhere.

    At the same time, this is nothing new. Transportation hubs like seaports and railroad lines have always been targets for strikes and shutdowns by social movements…maybe we are just "re-booting" the activists of the past, finding new places to upend business as usual in the pursuit of justice.

    So for precisely these reasons blocking freeways is a brilliant tactic. It can slam whole regions to a halt, as both commuters and cargo find themselves stranded. After all who cares if there's a huge rally in front of San Diego City Hall? The majority of the population will never even lay eyes on the building, demonstrations or no demonstrations. But shut down California Interstate-5 and everyone takes notice because you have just turned their afternoon into a sundrenched SoCal pergatoria.

    And so across the fruited plain, take note: when you want to get the public's attention, block a freeway during rush hour. It's the new Sit-In. And there will always be an onramp, cloverleaf, or tollway ripe for the taking, somewhere nearby where you live.

     

    3. The ubiquity of surveillance cameras

    Maybe this is just a corollary of number one -- but ever-present surveillance video allows for people to subpoena the video files and for the events to be judged, again, in the court of public opinion, which is a good thing because otherwise it becomes the police's word vs. the victim's, who is often dead. Now, as in the case of Tamir Rice in a public park and John Crawford in a WalMart, the world can be a witness. I never thought more surveillance cameras might be anything good, but maybe in this case it's a surprise asset.

    Looking Ahead

    So what’s next? Of course it’s impossible to know, but I will say this: there appears to be a rise in social movements in the U.S. of poor people, or at least movements that have economic interests at their core. The Black Lives Matter movement(s), the Fight For 15 (which won in among other states Arkansas, home of Tom Cotton, arguably the most fascist of all our Senators), adjunct college faculty unionizing around the country...

    And this is occurring at the same time that the U.S.'s massive archipelago of prisons, which began expanding in the 60s and 70s and reached its height under Clinton, is being downsized for fiscal reasons. None less than Rick Perry, then-governor of Texas, led a panel at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference on the political wisdom of letting people out of prison. Of course he said nothing about the racism of the U.S. penal system, or how its growth came about as a tool of political repression -- his angle was all about saving taxpayers' money. But he and the other speakers at the CPAC panel also pilloried the War On Drugs as a failure, and lambasted the fact that the majority of prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent crimes.

    And it's more than just talk, as conservatives are moving on this issue: Texas now leads the country in releasing prisoners. So what will the response to these movements be, by the state, now that they cannot use a "war on crime" as political cover? They'll likely have to come up with something brand new. Look for creative and exciting new forms of repression, coming this season from the same folks who are already recording all your phone calls. I predict a huge push by cops to destroy video evidence wherever possible, like these brave heroes did when they raided that most dangerous of locales, a marijuana dispensary. The state might well start with a law that makes videos of police by non-police inadmissible as evidence in court, and then punish people who film police by making it illegal to do so, and so no one will even bring videos forward as evidence or they’ll get thrown in jail themselves.

    In the meantime, everyone in Anywhere U.S.A. has to keep up the pressure: every time the cops shoot someone, demand accountability. If the victim was themself firing a pistol at the police or something, well then that will come out in the investigation, but there must always be one. And it's simply ludicrous for police to act as if the citizenry wanting information about their actions is some sort of deeply ungrateful insult to their craft. If the cops don't understand why they need to be transparent well then they shouldn't be police officers in the first place.

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