Can the Black Panthers offer Jamaicans Lessons on Checking Police Violence?

Police violence against the working-class

Amnesty International’s recently released report1 documents the murderous and violent behaviour  of the police within the island’s African working-class communities. Since the arrival of Africans in Jamaica as enslaved workers straight up to the present period of flag (in)dependence, relations between the African labouring classes and the law enforcement entities have almost always been violent, conflictual and deadly.

The behaviour of the police has made it clear to the masses that the police exist to serve and protect the interests of the privileged classes. Jamaica has a population that is close to 3 million people and it has one of the highest rates of police killing of civilians in the world. In 2000, the cops killed 149 civilians. This murderous behaviour peaked at 307 citizens in 2010 and dropped to 101 police-involved fatalities in 2015.2 The marked decline in police murders has been attributed3 to the creation of the Independent Commission of Investigations,4 in 2010.

It might take students from the petite bourgeoisie or the middle-class years of exposure to critical criminology or sociology or political economy courses in university in order to grasp the true role of the police in class-based and/or racist societies. However, those of us from the ranks of Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” have PhDs in the field of race, class, gender and repressive policing from the distinguished University of Lived Experience.

The global folk philosopher and revolutionary cultural worker Bob Marley correctly reminds us that “who feels it knows it, Lord” and our experiential knowledge has taught us that our encounters with the armed guardians of the ruling-class might earn us an untimely residence in the land of the ancestors. Many of us feel and understand the frustration of dealing with widespread police violence and how it led the character in Marley’s song I Shot the Sheriff5 to put an end to the brutality and harassment of Sheriff John Brown.

The testimonies below from African-Jamaican working-class women might provide an understanding of the compelling motive behind ridding the world of Sheriff John Brown by the victim of police violence:

Dem is no good. Instead of come to build peace, dem come to build war… Whenever they hear a community is violent, they come in with the intention to kill.

Another women [sic] said:

Some of dem come in their uniform. But when they come to kill yuh pickney [your child], they take off their badge… and they come in a mask… One police comes with three guns, so when they kill yuh pickney them put one on him. Nuff [lots of] mothers a grieve right now for police that kill their children.

The Black Panther Party and Resistance to Police Violence

As I reflect on the content of the abovementioned report from Amnesty International on police violence, I could not avoid thinking of the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) in the City of Oakland, California and the immediate issue that provided the reason for its creation. Police brutality against the African working-class and poor was the triggering issue behind the emergence of the BPP.

The Black Panthers’ militant, assertive and courageous pushback against the police’s violent class and race containment practices won them support in Oakland, across the rest of the United States and elsewhere in the African Diaspora such as Canada, the Caribbean and Britain.

The BPP’s armed, cop watch patrols in working-class African American communities were totally legal. But it frightened the cops who generally have the courage of lions when the possibility of physical retaliation from the prospective victims of police violence is nil or negligible. The Black Panthers were also armed with knowledge of the citizens’ rights when confronted by the police as well as the right of members of the community to observe and document the interaction between the police and the detainees.

The BPP should be credited with being the originator of the cop watch programmes that have sprang up across the United States and Canada in the last fifteen years to monitor and record contacts between the public and the police.6

Lessons from the Panthers and Organizing against Police Violence

So, what can the Black Panthers’ history of resistance offer to the need to build a mass movement in Jamaica against rampant police violence against members of the labouring classes?

First, the Black Panthers made clear the need for organized collective action by way of the formation of political organizations of and by the oppressed. The BPP became the vehicle through which the cop watch patrols and the necessary resources were mobilized to collectively fight police terrorism.

Working-class individuals cannot effectively fight police violence as individuals. We are vulnerable to police violent retaliation when we resist these agents of the state as individuals. Amnesty International reveals the reign of terror that is carried out against witnesses and family members who seek justice. As such, “Most families asked that their identity be protected for fear of police reprisals.” They would not share their experience with police violence without their identities being concealed. But they have power in numbers or collective action, if this Ethiopian proverb can be believed: “When spiders unite, they can hold down a lion.”

Organizers or activists must give priority to working with the people to create neighbourhood-based working-class organizations with the capacity to fight police violence.7 The late Trinidadian revolutionary Pan-Africanist and organizer Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) consistently reminded us that “Organization is a weapon of the oppressed.”

Second, the Black Panthers have demonstrated to us that cop watch patrols or programmes may alter violent and criminal behaviour of the police. The communities that are affected by police violence ought to create a 24/7 cop watch programme to monitor and document the actions of law enforcement agents. With a united and organized presence in the streets they would be able to intervene in cases where extrajudicial executions or unlawful killings seem imminent.

Cop watch programmes would limit the tendency of the cops to alter the crime scene in order to cover up their violent and criminal actions against the working-class. Witnesses, as documented in the Amnesty International report, gave accounts of the police removing spent shells from the crime scene, planting weapons on victims, injuring themselves to justify extrajudicial executions, willfully avoiding securing the crime scene or cleaning the crime scene of evidence of police wrongdoings.

With the widespread availability of smartphones and camcorders, the cop watch patrols are in a position to record instances of police violence and attempts at concealing their handiwork.

Third, the Black Panthers used their knowledge of the law to assert their right to watch the police from a prescribed distance that did not constitute obstruction of the cops in carrying out their work. The cop watch programmes should organize know-your-rights educational programmes in order for people to know under what conditions the police may stop, question and search them.

The people would also be taught the extent of their right to watch and document the activities of the police in the community. They would also be instructed on the information that they are legally obligated to give to the cops without the benefit of consulting their lawyers. It becomes easier to exercise these rights when the people are willing to show up in numbers when a person is stopped, questioned and/or searched by the cops in the streets.

Fourth, armed self-defense against the extrajudicial executions and unlawful killings that are allegedly carried out by the cops should not be excluded from the resistance toolkit of the victims of police violence. It would be hypocritical of Jamaicans to praise and valourize the armed resistance of Nanny of the Maroons, Paul Bogle and Sam Sharpe (all national heroes), while denying the same right of self-defense to the descendants of these national heroes.

Jamaica’s relatively strict gun control legislation from the 1960s to today8, in effect, legally disarms the working-class, who are the victims of the violence of the lumpen or criminal elements and the police. The working-class needs access to the means to defend themselves against all social predators. The members of the bourgeoisie are able to easily meet the stringent criteria to own and carry licensed firearms.

Fifth, the Black Panther Party experienced massive repression from America’s secret police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI, and local police departments.9 This type of state response must be anticipated when the oppressed organize against police violence and for liberation. We must become conversant with the workings of the counterintelligence programmes of the state and its agents in repressing and disrupting our movements for justice.10

Lastly, the Black Panthers have indicated to us that our organizing among the poor and the working-class should give strategic attention to their self-determined needs. The survival social programmes of the BPP addressed some of the basic needs of the people such as food, shelter, clothing, healthcare and education. The FBI was most fearful of the BPP’s Free Breakfast for Children Program because of its potential to win broad legitimacy and support for the radical agenda of the organization among African people.11

The community organizers or activists will encourage higher levels of participation of the Jamaican masses in the resistance to police violence when they look at the totality of their needs and build the people’s capacity to self-organize around the said needs.

Self-emancipation was articulated by the Pan-Africanist revolutionary and intellectual Walter Rodney as the method through which the people should enter the stage of history as the central actors in the drama of revolution-making.

Conclusion

The Caribbean revolutionary, humanist and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s description of the security force in colonial society fits the reality in neocolonial, capitalist Jamaica of the twenty-first century:

The colonized world is a world divided in two. The dividing line, the border, is represented by the barracks and the police stations. In the [neo]colonies, the official, legitimate agent, the spokesperson for the colonizer and regime of oppression, is the police officer or the soldier.12

The people of Tivoli Gardens experienced the Tivoli Garden’s Massacre by the police and the army. The members of this working-class community would be in full agreement with Fanon’s articulation of the role of the police. Other working-class Jamaican communities would express the same sentiments.

This latest Amnesty International report on police terrorism in Jamaica should be read by all Jamaicans of good conscience. The latter should become motivated to engage in organizing projects that are aimed at resisting police violence. On Friday, December 2, 2016, the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work and the Institute of Caribbean Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, are hosting a screening of the film “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.” It starts at 6:00 pm and takes place in the Multi-functional Room near the main library on the Mona campus, Kingston Jamaica.

This free public education event could be used as a forum to discuss and plan for the development of a working-class led movement against police violence. The discussion at this forum could also explore how to assist the people of Tivoli Gardens and the Tivoli Committee in independently prosecuting political leaders and police and military security officials for the massacre of over seventy people in the working-class community of Tivoli Gardens.

Even the Commissioner Terence Williams, current leader of INDECOM that investigates allegations of police wrongdoings, has called on citizens and civil society organizations to bring private prosecutorial cases against the police and public officials when their rights are violated.13 Lloyd D’Aguilar, convenor of the Tivoli Committee, had this response to Williams’s stance:

INDECOM is correct: The so-called justice system is anti-justice for poor people and we must be prepared to be our own prosecutors when we cannot get justice — especially from the DPP [Director of Public Prosecution].14

D’Aguilar further states that:

The Tivoli Committee and the victims of the 2010 Tivoli Gardens Massacre intend to use private prosecution to bring the Superior Commanders to Justice. Let’s hope INDECOM supports us when the time comes.

It is high time for us to build a working-class led mass movement against police-cum-state violence in Jamaica.

  1. Amnesty International, Waiting in vain, Jamaica: unlawful police killings and relatives’ long struggle for justice, (London: Peter Benenson House, 2016). []
  2. Ibid. 12 []
  3. Ibid. 3 []
  4. Independent Commission of Investigations, (INDECOM) About Us []
  5. The Wailers, I Shot the Sheriff, Burnin album, Tuff Gong Studio and Island Records, 1973. []
  6. M. David, “Movement To ‘Police The Police’ Started With The Black Panther Party For Self-Defense,” Counter Current News, September 25, 2015. []
  7. Ajamu Nangwaya, “On the rebellion in Ferguson, Missouri: Organizations are the lifeblood of social change,” Rabble, August 20, 2014. []
  8. Rosheika Grant, How to: Getting a gun license, The Jamaica Star, February 2016. []
  9. Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, (Boston: South End Press, 1990), 63-100. []
  10. Brian Glick, War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About It, (Boston: South End Press, 1989. This small volume should be treated like an American Express credit card – don’t leave home without it or engage in social movement activism without owning and reading it. It is that good! []
  11. Darryl Robertson, “The Black Panther Party and the Free Breakfast for Children Program,” African American Intellectual History Society, February 26, 2016. []
  12. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (New York: Grove Press, (1961) 2004), 3. []
  13. Balford Henry, INDECOM wants citizens to pursue private prosecutions, Jamaica Observer, 23 July 2015. []
  14. Lloyd D’Aguilar, Facebook post, November 26, 2016, 4:50 p.m. []
Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is an organizer, writer, and lecturer at the University of the West Indies. Read other articles by Ajamu.