In Anti-Racism, Community is Important but Cops are Problematic

November 17, 2021
by Matt Stannard

A shout out and some observations about the fight against organized hate: The shout-out is to Casper College’s Psychology faculty for hosting a movie and discussion last night. Turnout was solid and the discussion after the showing of Not in Our Town was inspiring, sincere, earnest, vulnerable. The celebration of community is important because solidarity is a motivating force. Synergy in anti-racist response, from local media to churches to elected officials matters. Of course, the efforts need to be led by grass roots groups who are not themselves overtly and arbitrarily excluding people, and who can stand independent from the institutions a campaign or movement brings on board. A hint of anti-racist populism should be present, as difficult as that currently may be for some folks to wrap their heads around.

So in 1993, white nationalists threw a cinder block through a Billings, Montana family’s window–their kid’s window, which was displaying a menorah–and inspired thousands of residents of Billings to mobilize against anti-Semitic violence and anti-Black racism. The story is iconic and familiar by now. Since the 1990s, a very long time ago ideologically, the significance of the Billings story for the fight against racism has consistently been this virtuous ability and drive to “come together” against isolated and virulent acts of intolerance. By the way, Billings still has a robust and energetic anti-racist movement.

The Billings story is also significant because it was labor organizers, represented in the documentary by Rand Siemers, who initially began to build the coalition responsible for the powerful messaging, mutual protection, and collective argument Billings made against the white nationalists who had been targeting the Black and Jewish residents of the city. We learn, in fact, that the labor movement uniquely understood the histories of these kinds of fights. In fact, labor has a mixed history on oppression, but its centering in the documentary where so many groups were doing their best is important–labor was also doing its best in and for Billings in the 1990s.

To gain fidelity, the narrative shed anomalies like indifferent or hostile churches and focused on the groups who were in. And alongside labor, anti-racist churches, a vocal lead newspaper and thousands of ordinary people, we also saw the police. The brevity of the film forces a kind of elevation of the BPD as protagonist in the story, coming to the aid of white nationalism’s victims and targets and thus taking an institutional stand against that violence.

Any lessons to be drawn from that representation will surely be limited, since police and sheriff departments around the country have long been landing spaces for racists, from garden variety unorganized bigots to highly organized identity zealots. Racists and fascists are deliberately staffing police departments. Republican politicians tolerate and even celebrate this, while liberal and centrist Democrats wring their hands but haven’t acted on the clear data and conclusions repeatedly put forward by research spanning at least as far back as the early 2000s and almost certainly before then.

Where the “exceptional” and alarming acts of direct infiltration are disturbing because they appear as a crisis of policing, treating that crisis as exceptional risks blurring the systemic and institutional violence underlying it. Billings has one of the highest rates of cops killing people–data which is harder to find going back to the 1990s but which suggests an endemic problem that must have been around in some form or another while Police Chief Wayne Inman was (we can assume sincerely) expressing his concerns about racism on the documentary.

This, and not some arbitrary ideological zealotry, is why many anti-racist action coalitions won’t work with police officers, and why even those who do often do so reluctantly. It’s arguably irresponsible to call the police to report a racist incident when there’s a risk you’ll be calling people aligned with or sympathetic to the incident. It’s true that many departments will put their best face forward when responding to systemic racism, but it’s also true that when the rubber meets the road, cops will often side with, protect, and passively (when not actively) work for the far right–something I got to see first hand during the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Laramie, when protesters were subject to nitpicky arrests and in one instance hit by a police car, while MAGA counterprotesters were never cited and could be seen having collegial conversations with some of the cops.

At last night’s event in Casper, we had a good, short discussion about the role of the police in tolerating and perpetrating racism. I don’t think the solution is to simply and bluntly call out anti-racist groups for their choices of engagement with law enforcement, although I think we should always ask questions and publicly point out the magnitude of racist-cop collusion in the U.S. We should at least invite people to read the reports or watch videos like this, this, this, and this alongside idyllic but important narratives like Not In Our Town.

Above all, we need to build big numbers and issue clear messaging: Wyoming is again filling up on white identity, racist and fascist groups, they can do serious harm (both in normalizing hate overall and through specific acts of violence) and they’re riding on a wave of far-right energy that national data and local experience confirm includes many law enforcement personnel.

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