By Karma R. Chávez
I’m not Black; I’m Chicana. So if that matters to you as to where critique comes from, then feel free to take what I am about to say with a grain of salt. However I do believe our struggles for liberation are intimately linked. My Black comrades have already been making versions of the critique I am going to offer here, and my hope is to elevate their voices and critique to the pages of this paper. And in my view the critique can’t be made enough, and let me put it simply: Why in the hell was MPD a sponsor of Juneteenth celebrations last weekend? Juneteenth, which commemorates when the slaves freed themselves, has been celebrated by Black communities for more than a century with an emphasis on education and self determination. The institution of police was originally created to protect private property, especially slaves, and in what many view as a continuation of that legacy, MPD arrests Black people at a rate of 11 to one compared to whites. What do police have to do with education and self determination for the Black community here or anywhere?
For the past several years organizations like Freedom Inc, Young Gifted and Black, Community Response Team, and the No Dane County Jail Working Group have been drawing stark attention to the issue of state violence, particularly police violence against Black people and how that leads to embarrassing amounts of incarceration of Black folks in this county and state. Those critiques have been met with support, confusion, opposition, and in the case of MPD Chief Mike Koval, downright hostility. That hostility has recently gotten so intense that even white allies like Brenda Konkel and Bill Leudders are calling for Koval to be removed from his post. Koval seems to me like one of the rotten apples that people are so fond of blaming for police problems, but as Matt Braunginn put it in a facebook post the other day, people seem to forget the rest of that adage: one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. And many of us who support Black liberation, community control of the police and prison abolition believe that the whole bunch—as in the institution of the police as we know it—is spoiled rotten. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t good police officers who care about the community or that we can’t love our friends and family who pay the bills through police work.
It does mean that we demand radical structural change of the institution that puts power in the hands of the communities most impacted by state violence. It also means that both MPD and the Black-led organizations and Black individuals who co-signed on MPD’s co-sponsorship of a Black liberation celebration should think about what that means not just for the likes of those whose analysis they don’t agree with, but for the Black folks all across town who are the victims of an 11-1 arrest rate disparity and who make up 50+% of the Dane County Jail on any given day. What institution is responsible for those horrific numbers? How does a celebration like Juneteenth honor the legacy of Black liberation and the abolition of slavery when the very institution designed to squelch all forms of Black self determination is a sponsor and from what I understand (I chose not to attend this year due to MPD’s co-sponsorship), was present everywhere?
I get why MPD would want to sponsor this event. MPD is clearly on the defensive (and they should be given the failures of the “Madison Model” for the Black community) and they will do whatever they can to try to put on a show proving they really are an institution of “Officer Friendlies.” But the numbers and the actions of Koval and Matt Kenny, the officer who killed unarmed Black teen, Tony Robinson, should speak far louder than a little money thrown at an event for Black people that actually kept Black folks from their own celebration! What I don’t get is why the Black community would not only allow this to happen, but champion it and then defend it in the face of principled critique!
A friend of mine told me a story the other day about her uncle, a white guy who has two adopted Black kids. As the kids were watching the news and seeing all the police violence against and murder of Black folks, they told their dad that they were scared of the police. His response? He took the kids down to the station to meet some police so that they would see the police were actually the good guys. I can’t help but see the Black community’s willingness to bring their kids to last week’s Juneteenth celebration as a similar move: it shows the community that the police are the good guys.
I have no doubt that the police at Juneteenth put their best foot forward and that they had a lot of fun hanging out with the kids and the families—the ones who weren’t too afraid or politically opposed to attend. But I think we all know the reality of how some of those same cops will behave toward Black folks when they’re on the beat, away from the limelight and doing the good work of state violence. And no matter how much MPD plays ball with kids, or sponsors community events, until it fundamentally changes as an institution, no amount of goodwill is anything but empty public relations. How is this not transparent to all communities of color? How many more Black and Brown people need to be harassed, profiled, brutalized, locked up, and murdered with impunity for people to realize that police as we know it are in fact the enemy? I realize taking this position is scary, but I believe with all of me that it is necessary for the vitality of all poor communities and people of color. And this is why I stand in solidarity with the Black liberationists and their allies in the community who demand better.