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They May Kill Some of Us, But...: Kiwane Carrington and the Hierarchy of Violence

In nearly every city across the continent, the victims of police executions disappear from headlines after a day. But some names live on to haunt their killers, and their killers' bosses. In Oakland, Oscar Grant. In Minneapolis, Fong Lee. And now in Champaign, Illinois, Kiwane Carrington.
These killings reveal the murderous hierarchy in which police everywhere operate. An unarmed youth of color is shot and killed, and officials seek to make the incident quietly go away. But when police officers are shot and killed--as recently happened in two high profile Washington state incidents--they receive lavish state funerals and are almost universally hailed as heroes, even by political progressives. As we see, only when this hierarchy is turned on its head and the state's monopoly on force is removed does justice begins to emerge.

On October 8, 15-year-old Carrington and a friend--who are both African American, and who both carried no weapons--found themselves locked out of the north Champaign home where they routinely stayed. A neighbor called the police to report a burglary, and the first responder was Champaign Chief of Police RT Finney. When one of the teenagers tried to walk away, Finney grabbed him. Another officer, Daniel Norbits--who was also on the scene when Champaign police beat a developmentally-disabled man to death in 2000--arrived and fired his gun. The bullet went through Carrington's elbow and into his heart.

On Tuesday, Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz released the state's report into Kiwane's murder. But that report was pre-empted by a people's investigation. Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice received a FOIA request of emails between the City Council, Police Department, City Manager, State's Attorney, and others. Beyond the sickening tone of solidarity towards the killer and his colleagues, as if city authorities were the ones suffering in the murder's aftermath, the emails revealed evidence of collusion and contamination in the investigation making the outcome a foregone conclusion.

The investigation conducted by law enforcement
from surrounding agencies was exactly what community activists and north Champaign residents expected: an exoneration of officer Norbits and chief Finney. It was the predictable outcome of police claiming to police the police.

We would be well served to contrast this cover-up with what happens on the rare occasions that law enforcement is on the receiving end of violence.

Some People Shoot Back

The Seattle-Tacoma area has experienced two monumental police killings in less than a month. First, one officer was killed and another wounded as their squad car sat in parking lot. Another car drove up alongside and someone opened fire out the window, before the car made a reverse three-point turn and sped away. Indignant authorities seemed clueless for days until on the day of the officer's funeral, they arrested suspect Christopher Monfort. Prosecutors now claim that Monfort was also responsible for the firebombing of several Seattle police vehicles timed to coincide with the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality on October 22.

More recently, four officers were killed in Tacoma when, while sitting in the back of a coffee shop, a person stormed in, shot all four and escaped. However, suspect Maurice Clemmons was himself shot and killed by Seattle police two days later.

In the Twin Cities of Minnesota, recently an officer in the suburb of North St. Paul was shot and killed when responding to a domestic dispute. (Unlike the two Washington state killings, this killing does not seem to have been motivated by anger towards the police.) On the same day of his extravagant funeral, which was attended by 4,000 and included a six-mile procession lined by thousands more, dozens of Minneapolis police evicted Rosemary Williams from her home on the minority-majority block she's lived on for over 50 years. Community members had occupied the foreclosed-upon house for two months, building a movement against foreclosures and inspiring others to resist their evictions. Then, when the banks had enough, the MPD swooped in, pepper-spraying, kicking and arresting neighbors who showed up to protest. Meanwhile, the black bands worn on the officers' badges to "honor" their one fallen soldier often covered their identification numbers.

Last weekend back in Illinois, activists and community members gathered at Urbana's Independent Media Center to commemorate 10 years since the founding of the global IMC movement at the anti-WTO street demonstrations in Seattle in 1999. We heard stories of Seattle police, frustrated at losing control of the city to its subjects, applying pepper spray directly to the eyeballs of sitting demonstrators, shooting enough tear gas to deplete the entire city's supply, assaulting citizens with rubber bullets--and then lying about it.

In the independent documentary about the "Battle of Seattle," This is What Democracy Looks Like, a nonviolent demonstrator tells the camera, "Don't they understand that if we wanted to raise hell, we could've?"

The biggest library on the planet could not contain all the stories of injustice at the hands and weapons of the police. So why are we surprised on those rare instances when the violence flows the other way, when people do raise hell?

What Goes Down, Might Come Up

The fact that more cops don't don't lose their lives in retaliation is nothing short of amazing, considering the the disparity of violence flowing in either direction. This is not a value judgement on the act of shooting a cop, but simply a fact: it's shocking it doesn't happen more. It's also shocking that even nonviolent resistance to law enforcement institutions is so low.

Let us be clear: In this social system, violence down the hierarchy - committed by governments, militaries, police agencies or individual cops upon ordinary people - is acceptable. Violence up the hierarchy - by, say, a person without a badge assaulting a person with one - is despicable. It's rarely seen, and even more rarely critically examined.

This is why, insanely, sharks who attack swimmers make the evening news, but dams that kill millions of salmon are allowed to stand. It is why, insanely, women who strike back at their abusers are given jail time, while most rapists and the social structures that reinforce rape culture are also allowed to stand. It is why, insanely, hate crimes against indigenous activists are not prosecuted, but whites are allowed to turn the victims of genocide into mascots (such as the not-yet-slaughtered University of Illinois "chief") for our amusement. And it is why, insanely, a person who kills a cop is widely considered a villain, while the police department that inflicts massive physical violence (in the form of beatings, kidnappings, and killings) and structural violence (in the form of stripping communities of the ability to solve our own problems) upon our neighbors can then rescue a cat from a tree and win our adoration.

A post to Portland Indymedia was one of the very few voices questioning this hierarchy in the aftermath of the Washington state killings. It asks of the police:

Do they not get this? Do they really not understand how angry people are? Do they not see how tired we are of them running around intimidating people, beating people, pepper spraying people, SHOOTING CHILDREN, lying, arresting people and making up reasons for it, and all of the other things they do? Do they really think they will keep on getting away with it? Well, perhaps those four dead cops in Tacoma can be a wake up call to them. Again, I'm not condoning the killing, but neither am I going to stand in judgment of a man who finally had enough of it, and took some of them out. Maybe they should be thinking about that.

Some Of Us, All Of Them

Clearly, the actions of most cop-killers are not part of a broader anti-police organizing strategy. But--and this is the problem with nearly all coverage of such killings--a few may well be calculated calls to collective action. There's no way to know. And others are surely individual acts of what the powerless call justice and the powerful call revenge.

That said, successful organizing happens primarily, though not only, aboveground. It uses legal channels as well as illegal ones, and overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, nonviolent tactics. To successfully counter the police and build alternative institutions, we need every tool in our toolbox and every skill of our neighbors.

In Oakland last January, speak-outs and education efforts turned into peaceful rallies. After receiving nothing in return, a militant demonstration took over downtown. Windows of cars and corporate businesses were smashed and fires set in the street, and rallies continued for months. The arrest and charging of killer cop Johannes Mehserle led to a new slogan: "Riots Work." Public opinion soon became so strong that a judge decided to move Mehserle's trial away from Oakland.

In Champaign in October, hundreds marched past the Champaign police station in protest, but didn't provide any threat of what would happen if their demands were not met. A comment from Carrington's aunt about the police following the march revealed how much cops worry that their hierarchy will be broken even by small assaults on private property: "I wish they had protected my nephew they way they're protectin' the streets," she said.

At the U-C Independent Media Center, an exhibit of traced hands on pieces of colored paper is strung from wall to wall. On the hands, kids and adults write things they want to do when they grow up and things they want from Champaign Police Chief Finney. Many ask for Finney's resignation, apologies, and explanations for the shooting. Just as notable are the small scope of some of the wishes: "I want to cook," says one; "I want more black police officers," says another. The hands exhibit, a moving artistic expression of community solidarity, nonetheless makes it clear who has the power as long as the hierarchy is in place.

Thomas Jefferson said about the indigenous peoples of North America, "In war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them." He said this with all the confidence and resolve of a fully armed white cop staring down an unarmed black teenager. And he was almost right.

We need the same resolve, and we need the necessary tools to turn that resolve into action. We need courage, love and rage. We need to say: they may--and do--kill some of us, but we shall destroy all of them: all institutions of the police and all oppressive authority.

minneapolis-st. paul IMC volunteer