PORTLAND, Maine- One of the most common objections to last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstration that shut down parts of Portland’s Old Port on a busy Friday night in July, and resulted in the arrest of 18 protesters, is that the police shootings of unarmed black citizens that have become a regular fixture of the cable-news cycle “do not happen here in Maine.”
As Chris Busby wrote in his Bangor Daily News column (07/21/2016), questioning the overall efficacy of the protest, “If Portland cops are engaging in any racist behavior, word of it hasn’t reached my ears…”
But Black Lives Matter detractors can no longer make such naive assertions.
Chance David Baker, 22, was fatally shot by a Portland Police officer on Saturday, Feb. 20 at Union Station Plaza. Baker, who is black and had a history of mental illness, was seen outside the Subway restaurant, wielding a pellet gun and acting erratically, according to eye witnesses. Police were, reportedly, unable to discern that the pellet gun was not a rifle.
The PPD officer who shot Baker, Sgt. Nicholas Goodman, previously used deadly force prior to Saturday’s incident. Goodman has been placed on administrative leave following the shooting.
Baker had struggled with substance abuse as a teenager, and had been in and out of homeless shelters, according to local news reports. Still, friends said Baker had made great progress in recent years. They praised his selfless nature and committed work ethic. Baker was working three jobs just to make ends meet.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck lashed out at criticism of the PPD’s use of deadly force the following Wednesday, telling reporters he is “disgusted” by local officials who have “politicized” the shooting.
“I am saddened, I’m disappointed,” said Sauschuck at a press conference, “and I’ll tell you I’m disgusted by any use of a tragedy to further some kind of political agenda…”
The citizens of Portland are disgusted as well, Chief: Disgusted that police throughout the country feel they can kill unarmed people of color at will without repercussions.
Speaking of “politicizing tragedy,” Sauschuck was scheduled to receive an honorary commendation from the Portland City Council during its Feb. 22 meeting. Mercifully, a group of protesters loudly disrupted the provocatively-timed ceremony, causing the council to go into recess, and the police chief to flee City Hall before it could be concluded.
Baker’s death marks the third fatal shooting by a police officer in Maine so far this year. Much as we like to believe otherwise, we are not immune to racist police violence, here in Maine.
Yet, in our imperialistic culture of mandatory troop worship, many Mainers are reflexively rushing to express sympathy and condolences not with Baker or his friends and family–but with the officer who murdered him in broad daylight.
Eileen Reynolds of Brunswick defends the “brave, heroic sergeant,” in a Feb. 22 letter to the editor in the Portland Press Herald, “who prevented what easily could have resulted in a disastrous situation.”
“This incident,” Reynolds writes, “… should reinforce all of us to appreciate and stand behind our law enforcement officers.”
Donald Trump–who campaigned on a pledge to be a “law and order president”–has, likewise, stoked pro-police sentiments, perpetuating the false narrative that law enforcement officers are “under attack.” Trump and police-worshiping Republicans have countered the mantra of “Black lives matter,” with the ludicrous rejoinder, “Blue lives matter.”
Legislators in Louisiana recently passed a “Blue Lives Matter” law, which expands the list of protected classes under the state’s hate crimes statute to include police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel.
But not only is there no “war on cops,” police work overall is not actually as dangerous as we are frequently led to believe. A 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of the most dangerous jobs in America does not even list law enforcement among the top-ten. Instead, the survey found that truck drivers, fishermen, electricians, and garbage collectors all face a greater threat of injury or death on the job.
Thus, it is difficult to understand why Goodman felt compelled to use lethal force against Baker, rather than resolving the situation by talking him down and apprehending him. Perhaps the answer becomes clear when one considers the origins of the modern police force and its roots in the late 19th century slave patrols.
The epidemic of police violence towards people of color is not, as is often suggested, the result of a “few bad apples.” The entire system of capitalist law enforcement is rotten to the core.
“The modern police institution is at its core racist, elitist, undemocratic, authoritarian, and violent,” writes Kristian Williams in his recently updated book, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America.
These are the institution’s major features and it did not acquire them by mistake. The order that the police preserve is the order of the state, the order of capitalism, the order of White supremacy. These are the forces that require police protection … These are the ends the police serve.
Far from being members of the working class, the police have historically been the bourgeoisie’s first line of defense against strikes, peaceful protesters, and the threat of slave insurrection in the antebellum South. Though police officers generally make a fairly modest salary, their elevated position in society often causes them to identify more closely with the wealthy elite.
And the overall selective nature of the implementation of law enforcement grants individual police officers (who, unlike most workers, generally go about their job unmonitored by a boss or supervisor) wide leeway in terms of who, precisely, to target. This leaves them to rely on subconscious (and, in all likelihood, racist) prejudices about what a “criminal” or “suspect” looks like, how he dresses, his skin color, etc. Such leeway also provides greater opportunity for corruption.
As George Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia:
I have no particular love for the idealized “worker” as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.
Baker’s death must not go unpunished. We should fully support the implementation of body-cameras on all PPD officers–an effort many of the “liberal” local news outlets oppose.
But our efforts for police accountability must not end at body-cameras alone. Indeed, I ultimately envision a world where we do not need the police at all–at least not the institution of policing as it currently exists. (Williams, in his book, points to a form of democratically-run community policing as a viable alternative.)
In the meantime, let us place blame for Baker’s murder squarely where it belongs: With Sgt. Goodman, and the racist, hyper-masculine culture of violence that the police ultimately serve.
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