Cops and Capitalism: Tandem Terror in Philly’s Walter Wallace Jr. Protests

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Walter Wallace Jr. was killed by Philadelphia police on October 26. A participant reflects on the protests and the use of terror by police in a capitalist system.

An activist leads chants through a megaphone in front of a crowd of protesters for Walter Wallace Jr. against police brutality.
Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

The many acts of police violence and brutality this summer illuminated the significant role that the police state plays in maintaining the status quo for the ruling class. After the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake, it was clear that the brutalization of Black Americans would continue to be a common sight in this racist empire, even amid a lockdown during a worldwide pandemic. When the Philadelphia police violently tear-gassed protesters on June 1 on Highway 676 in Philadelphia, the state’s stubborn attempt to squash any sort of collective consciousness was laid bare. Now the murder of Walter Wallace Jr. and other acts of violence and intimidation perpetrated by the bourgeoisie highlight the way that capitalism works as a constantly menacing figure in our lives. Not just an intimidating figure, capitalism and the state enact real violence toward working-class people in order to maintain the status quo, keep the proletariat under control, and crush dissent. Living in Philadelphia during these protests has taught me that this terror comes from cruel physical violence and mental anguish that is carried out by the cops under capitalism.

On the night of October 26, after Wallace’s death at the hands of the police, I headed out to protest his killing with a group of friends, and I soon experienced police tyranny that I had begun to normalize after this summer. In June, I was tear-gassed, though not as badly as some of my comrades, and this led to months of torture and sheer fear. I had shown up at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway encampment a few times and felt the collective fear of the residents and other protesters when we had no idea how the day would end. But every “eviction” ended with the police staying away until another eviction notice was posted weeks later, and we would feel the terror all over again. But the extreme fright I felt this past Monday was significantly worse. This time, I feared that I would be trampled, beaten, and brutalized. After the tear-gassing in June, many protests this past summer were fairly unremarkable as police appeared to leave peaceful protests alone. This Walter Wallace protest, however, was already working out to be more radical, as protesters began to break windows, light trash on fire, and antagonize the police to let out their frustrations with another act of police brutality in our city. This type of behavior, however reasonable, could incite the cops to violence, and I was ready for the worst.

Walter Wallace, a 27-year-old Black man, was killed that Monday, outside his home in West Philadelphia, after two police officers shot over 10 bullets into his body. His family told the police that Wallace suffered from mental health issues and was in distress at the time of the shooting. Once the news spread of his death, the city began to buzz with a discussion of mass protests and rebellion, and people began to take the streets.

That night we were face to face with a line of police behind a row of barricades. We flipped them off a few times and screamed at them to quit their jobs. They looked incredibly bored, but a little restless too. I was talking to some friends when everyone in front of me suddenly stopped in their tracks and raced in the other direction. I was worried I would be trampled if I did not join in. I realized that the cops were rushing the crowd, pushing us forward. I began running as fast as I could, making sure to stay with one of my friends but losing the other in the chaos. The cops brutally beat everyone in the front lines with their batons; they appeared to have no remorse. I watched the weapons slam down hard on my comrades, each strike hitting their limbs with reckless abandon. Each hit repeatedly directed the full force of the cops’ body weight onto the protesters’ bodies.

Once again, there was a calm before the storm until a sudden mass of protesters began to run for their lives, and I knew it was about to get even worse; the cops came with full power, and I knew that if I didn’t move now, I would be trampled and beaten to the ground. I found refuge on a porch, where I watched everyone on the streets run for their lives with the cops on their tails. This time, a lot of protesters were not so lucky, and each cop had found a protester to brutalize. Next to me there was a young woman being treated by street medics who were fixing a bandage onto a head wound. I frantically texted my friend who I had lost in the struggle minutes before hoping he was safe. On the other side of the porch railing, another young girl was being beaten; she appeared to be unconscious as her body laid on the ground, unmoving, yet the pigs continued to attack her. Other folks on the porch with me began to wail and yell with what sounded like true sorrow and terror at the sight. I heard the people scream at the cops to stop, but they did not seem to cease their attack. I was so distracted by the night that I was frozen in time and could not fully grasp the gravity of the situation. After a few minutes of absolute fright, the cops dispersed, dragging her into a transport van, and I lost sight of her in all the commotion. Luckily, I was able to locate my friend soon after.

Even after the first few nights, the intimidation continued through curfews, constant helicopter presence, and an increase of police in West Philadelphia neighborhoods. On Wednesday and Friday nights, the city ordered a 9 p.m. curfew, which increased the probability of arrests of the working class, protestors, and jail support; Black and Brown folks were especially at risk. Just the existence of a curfew felt like fascism, repression of our movement and our freedom of assembly. I visited West Philadelphia a few days later to help out with some mutual aid work. Every corner had about 12 cops waiting for something to happen, with riot shields at the ready. The area was under occupation, and in a historically Black neighborhood, this felt even more like intentional terrorism, to increase the collective trauma that Black residents would experience this week. This was not the first time this community had been brutalized by the state: the police bombed the MOVE homes in 1985 in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood. The physical threat of the police was a constant this week and is a chronic feature of the lives of everyday Black Americans.

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For the past few years I saw police brutality as a routine and oppressive characteristic of America, but only recently did I discover that it was a deeply integrated and intentional feature of the United States that cannot be reformed. When I first heard about victims of police violence like Philando Castile and Sandra Bland, I believed that these cases were singular examples of failed policies — rather than structural issues built from white supremacy and capitalism. I began to advocate for anti-bias training, body cameras, diversity in police stations, and other neoliberal solutions. While well-intentioned, reforms do nothing to meaningfully destroy the system that caused these issues in the first place; they work only to upload white supremacy and capitalism within the system itself. These reforms allow cities to increase their spending (in the billions!) into useless programs in police departments, which stops tax money from actually benefiting the community through necessary services like public transportation and education.

While defunding the police would produce positive change, we still need full abolition of the police. The police, the military, and the prison-industrial complex all serve to maintain capitalism, and you cannot remove the harmful history from these institutions. These establishments need to be completely abolished to head in the right direction toward ending white supremacy, as we must work to remove whiteness and racism from civilization even under socialism as it is deeply tied to society. After reading a variety of articles and books written by Black Marxists and listening to Black and Brown voices on social media the last few months, I realized the significant role that the police play in a capitalist state.

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Through my studying, I learned that the state plays a stabilizing role in maintaining class antagonisms in order to preserve the status quo, by using a “standing army,” or the police. The police serve only the bourgeoisie, despite the liberal idea that the criminal justice system is equitable and serves all people; in reality, the police, the military, and the prisons benefit only the wealthiest of Americans.

Similarly, white supremacy, capitalism, and the police are tightly linked. White supremacy maintains alienation between the working class by separating workers who should stand on the same side, into opposing groups, white vs. Black. Under this framework, white supremacy and the criminal justice system sustain capitalism. There are not just “a few bad apples” who participate in police brutality; as the common protest saying goes: “No good cops in a racist system!” With all these systems working in conjunction; terrorism toward Black Americans is deeply rooted in American society. The only way to remove this structural racism through frequent intimidation and oppression is police abolition, which is only possible under communism. You cannot abolish the police and still expect racism to cease under capitalism. The police are just one factor that the ruling class uses to maintain the status quo; just as you cannot expect white supremacy to disappear under socialism (without attempts to rectify institutional racism); you cannot expect class antagonisms to disappear after removing a facet of a racist system. The police must be abolished in conjunction with a transition to communism. Instead of the police, there would be a focus on restorative justice in which sexual assault and mental health advocates would handle certain crises while community members would escalate conflicts without violence. Reading about police brutality is vastly different than experiencing the tyranny first hand.

You might be interested in: From Black Lives Matter to Revolution

This week’s protests and events have shown how terror is a necessity under the capitalist state. The police have become more emboldened in their violence against protesters. They are using their rage at being labeled “the bad guys,” and constantly having to be on the opposing side of a popular movement, which has made them bitter and reactionary and led to an increase in brutality during these protests. Between the constant threat of police brutality and cop occupation, Black Americans continue to suffer under this malicious harassment that has been carried over from chattel slavery of the 18th and 19th centuries. This frequent intimidation, oppression, and racism that comes from a nation built on white supremacy and capitalism highlight the need to fight for and support Black Americans and the need to support the Black Lives Matter Movement.

For now, we have to use this collective energy from the people on the streets to our advantage and organize through community groups and individual organizations toward our fight for socialism, separate from reformist and liberal politicians who stop our movement in its tracks. Hopefully one day we can live in a world of collective unity, selflessness, and love; one in which the criminal justice system, the military, and the police are abolished and replaced with restorative justice and community care; and one in which class antagonisms, racism, white supremacy, and oppression cease to exist.

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