by Ellen Isaacs
For three years, a multiracial group of young public health workers and students have been fighting to pass a resolution condemning police violence as a public health problem (www.endingpoliceviolence.com), and this year it was adopted in a rousing anti-racist victory. A summary of the proposal says that:
Physical and psychological violence that is structurally-mediated by the system of law enforcement results in deaths, injuries, trauma, and stress which disproportionately affect marginalized populations (e.g., people of color, immigrants, individuals experiencing houselessness, people with disabilities, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Queer (LGBTQ) community, individuals with mental illness, people who use drugs, and sex workers). Among other factors, the misuse of policies intended to protect law enforcement agencies have enabled limited accountability for these harms. Further, certain regulations (e.g., anti-immigrant legislation, policies associated with the war on drugs, and the criminalization of sex work and activities associated with houselessness) have promoted and intensified violence by law enforcement toward marginalized populations. While interventions for improving policing quality to reduce violence (e.g., community-oriented policing, training, body/dashboard-mounted cameras, and conducted electrical weapons) have been implemented, empirical evidence suggests notable limitations. Importantly, these approaches also lack an upstream, primary prevention public health frame. A public health strategy that centers community safety and prevents law enforcement violence should favor community-built and community-based solutions.
The APHA is the largest public health organization in the country and is purported to be liberal or even progressive, although the leadership aims to ally itself with the Democratic Party. The battle over this resolution has clearly shown what liberal means in reality. For two years, the policy board rejected the resolution, always demanding this or that small change. The larger voting body, the Governing Council (GC), also rejected it, raising concerns about criticizing the police or their supporters despite the well known statistic of 1000 racist police killings a year. Two years ago, in order to avoid a floor debate and a vote, the leadership suspended their own rules (an unheard of maneuver) and agreed to instate the policy for one year. They hoped it would just die a quiet death, but that was not to be.
The authors rewrote the resolution, answering all the criticisms, and reintroduced it again. They leafleted, spoke up at sessions or created their own, organized a well-attended off-site half-day meeting about police violence, and held a demonstration before the vote. This year it passed by 87%. Unlike most resolutions, which quickly fade from public view, this one was publicized in The Guardian (11/15/18) and on social media. It will now be used to support the struggles against forced incarceration of psychologically troubled homeless people in San Francisco, against police responding to calls about the mentally ill in crisis in New York City (New Yorkers can sign the petition at https://chn.ge/2RPLmeb), and many others.
The long fight to pass the resolution gave rise to many discussions and debates. Some of the authors feel that it is possible to abolish the police or prisons in this society. This view fails to recognize that the police play a pivotal role in controlling and intimidating the most oppressed members of society, as they have since the days of the slave patrols. Police harassment functions to suppress the anger of the victims of racism and builds racism by attributing disproportionate arrests of non-whites to faults of the victims. Police protect the rich from the poor by siding with the bosses during labor disputes or insulating those in power from large protests. Police attack desperate immigrants, driven from their homes by US imperialist policies, with tear gas and threaten lethal force. As economic hardship grows – which it will given the declining power of the US in the world, as climate disasters increase, and looming war necessitates a draft, the police will be an important part of suppressing an ever angrier working class. (See articles on Mass Incarceration, The Decline of US Imperialism, Immigration and Fascism on this blog). Mass incarceration of over two million people, 59% of whom are black, will continue to create a huge body of people unable to find jobs or housing or vote.
Other discussions raised were whether racism hurts everyone, or only those who are directly affected. The widely held ideas of “identity politics” and “white skin privilege,” encourage the view that all whites benefit from racism, even those that earn only marginally higher wages or have slightly better social benefits than their black, Latin or immigrant co-workers. The counterargument was made that racism hurts all of us, except the corporate class, by lowering the general scale of wages and social services and dividing us against one another. Only a multiracial movement can have the breadth and strength to fight for the quality of life we need and reverse war and economic or climate disaster.
Thus the battle to win passage of this resolution raised the consciousness of the authors about the need to fight racism, raised the issue of the police as an instrument of racist state suppression to the general membership, and forced a large liberal organization to adapt a policy far to the left of their comfort zone. We encourage others to come to the APHA next year in Philadelphia and wage similar battles in other organizations.