In August 2015, National Public Radio (NPR) – a partially state-funded national American broadcaster – anointed a handful of activists to speak as leaders of #BlackLivesMatter, and offered them a platform to release a set of policy recommendations that claim to address the issue of police violence. The stated goals of this campaign, named Campaign Zero, are to “live in a world where the police don’t kill people by limiting police interventions, improving community interactions and ensuring accountability.” What Campaign Zero actually proposes is a reactionary political formation built on a mixture of liberal compromise, neoliberal opportunism and reactionary conservatism.
First and foremost, those who spoke on NPR have no claim to a position of leadership in a diffuse and networked movement like #BlackLivesMatter, such a thing being a logistical impossibility with such a broad and dynamic organisation. Though presented by people in power as “radical”, the three specific goals quoted above are based on the liberal assumption that the police need to be trained, tweaked and reformed, rather than abolished entirely. Not only are these proposals inadequate, the methods by which Campaign Zero would achieve them – by lobbying existing power structures for piecemeal reforms – are sorely lacking.
The single potentially redeemable policy recommendation – their call to establish “community oversight” – nonetheless completely fails to contend with the fact that the police still murder with impunity even in cities which currently have such “review boards”. There is also no mention of the serious political influence the police have over many local governments, governments which would fear retribution if they ruled against officers. Most importantly, there is no mention of democratic control over the police – probably because democratic, community control over the police would effectively eliminate police altogether. But that is clearly not the goal of Campaign Zero.
From there, things just get worse. Implementation of body cameras is named as a top demand, even though we’ve seen body cameras which are pointed away at the key moment. We know police tamper with and turn off videos, or just say “fuck it” and murder people in cold blood while being filmed.
Community representation is another top demand, even though cities like Los Angeles and New York do this already, with little or no change to the levels of police violence. Folks of colour are actually represented at nearly every level of government in this country. Yet in places like Washington D.C. members of the black Congressional corporate class sit high and mighty while young people are shot and killed without a peep from those in power. Even our first black President, along with our second black Attorney General, can’t seem to muster even a sliver of political courage or ethical conviction to hold a single police officer accountable. Clearly black faces in high places cannot address these problems.
Ending for-profit policing is another demand. The campaign’s website cites examples from New Mexico, Illinois and Ferguson, Missouri as evidence that this demand can be met. However, this demand does not call for the abolition of the function of policing itself, only for a change from how it is done. The same can be said for the for-profit prisons that are never mentioned. Not once. Demands on companies like the GEO Group and the CCA, both of which base their long term profits on keeping prisons full, are nowhere to be found. These companies, whose increase in market share is literally based on the philosophy of “lockin’ niggas up and creating new slaves,” are essentially let off the hook and tacitly encouraged to continue doing their work. Which ultimately begs the question: What’s so much better about having the state carry out racist policing or mass incarceration anyway?
The most reactionary set of demands made by Campaign Zero is their call to establish “fair police union contracts.” These demands range from removing provisions in the contract that allow officers to “expunge or destroy records of past misconduct (both sustained and unsustained) from their disciplinary file” to “receive paid leave or remain on desk-duty during an investigation following a police shooting or other use of deadly force.” The main problem with these sets of demands is that they give too much ground to the legitimacy of police unions. Fighting for “fairer” police union contracts is quixotic at best and reactionary at worst. Police unions should not determine how they implement these policy changes; the people should. Police unions just last year marshaled opposition to and ultimately defeated a weak federal attempt to hold them somewhat more accountable. Can we really expect police unions to exercise restraint when it comes to the implementation of their contracts, especially when hundreds of people have lost their lives just this year? The existence of these kinds of protections for officers, giving them a tacit license to kill, are not incidental. State executions of Black people in America are part of a historical continuum and are central to a fundamentally racialised order.
If attempting to find a middle ground with obviously white supremacist police unions seems bizarre to you, take some comfort in the fact that the more radical elements of the movement are organising for actual change. The hashtag and movement calling on the world to recognise that #BlackTransLivesMatter has elevated and centred the most marginalised stories and voices – at a time when the life expectancy of a Black Trans woman is 35 years. BYP100 led a nationwide resistance demanding accountability for the Black women and girls whose lives have been cut short. And in Chicago, radical Black organising over many years led to landmark reparations for survivors of police torture.
Campaign Zero aims to achieve nothing close to any of this. That’s because the actual goal is to simply soften the contradictions of capitalism and pacify folks in destitute economic positions. But hey, what could one reasonably expect from liberal activists if not semi-consistent rhetorical lip service to equality and freedom while actually continuing to prop up and support the war on working class communities, whose support they also so desperately need come election time?
If Campaign Zero truly wants to establish a world where police don’t kill people, it would make plain the fact that the police on the block in the U.S. today are historically linked with the overseer on the 19th century plantation. It would make clear that policing becomes unnecessary when people determine for themselves what is best for their communities. However, Campaign Zero does none of this, and I am wholly unconvinced that this campaign is a serious attempt to end black lynchings at the hands of the Mass Incarceration Complex. Campaign Zero aims to change just that: zero.