On the Local Uprisings: Containment in Houston

By Camilo Torres, reposted from Regeneration Magazine

Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images

“But repression does not always come dressed up in riot gear, or breaking into offices in the middle of the night. It also comes in the form of the friendly “neighborhood liaison” officer, the advisory boards to local police departments, and the social scientist hired on as a consultant. Repression is, first and foremost, a matter of politics: it is the means the state uses to protect itself from political challenges, the methods it employs to preserve its authority and continue its rule. This process does not solely rely on force, but also mobilizes ideology, material incentives, and, in short, all of the tools and techniques of statecraft. We have to understand repression as involving both coercion and concessions, employing violence and building support, weeding opposition and seeding legitimacy. That is the basis of the counterinsurgency approach.” Christian Williams

Part 1: Defense

Since national protests erupted after the police murder of George Floyd we’ve seen a huge increase in Houston of new BLM activists, organizations, individuals, communities and small crews of leftists become active. In the midst of this activity it’s hard to make sense of what the strategy of the police and politicians is in relation to the protests. While some cities are faced with violent repression, others, like Houston, are dealt with using a lighter touch. Mechanisms of  state coercion, concessions, sanctioned multi-racial leaders and protests have been implemented locally in the struggle to preserve authority and legitimacy. Overcoming this limit of counterinsurgency is of utmost importance for police abolitionists everywhere. This analysis is my own observations of counterinsurgent forces and strategies, and what defensive measures people fighting to defund and abolish police can take to oppose it. 

Recuperating the Rebellion

On Friday, May 29th the first protest in Houston for George Floyd was held. The protest was organized by BLM Houston in Downtown. It quickly became apparent that something was different about this protest. Not only did the number of people surpass what BLM Houston was expecting, things got off to a rowdy start as protesters openly confronted police, attacked cop cars and confronted protest organizers. In this video a local organizer can be seen calling out a BLM Houston leader for collaborating with cops leading to a physical altercation. As night fell protesters stayed in the streets and began attacking businesses Downtown. The leaders of these rebellious acts were Black and Brown youth that attended the protests from across the city. 

However, as uncontrollable as people’s actions were over the weekend, they were swiftly recuperated by various political forces. In the matter of a few days rappers Bun B and Trae tha Truth would take the lead in assembling a coalition that included the Mayor, Police Chief Art Acevedo, BLM Houston as well as other activists and community organizations. The coalition included a mix of middle class, small business owners and public sector executives of Black celebrities, Democratic politicians and liberal activists. They called for a rally at Discovery Green Park in Downtown that attracted over 60,000 participants. This was one of the biggest protests Houston has seen against a national instance of police murder. The crowd had energy and there were pockets of people here and there that started their own chants, carried militant signs and stood up to police. 

Protesters listened to a few speeches at the park, kneeled in a moment of silence and then marched over to City Hall. This time the police joined in the march with Police Chief Acevedo leading the way. At City Hall people listened as Bun B, the Mayor and other activists spoke about our righteous anger, our right to protest peacefully, and we were left with promises of reform.  

As evening approached a couple thousand still remained in the street with the most militant sticking around until nightfall. Throughout the event the Houston Police Department (HPD) closely surveilled things and preemptively set up police units and barriers to control the crowd. HPD waited as the number of protesters thinned over a few hours as people got frustrated, discouraged, or simply tired from the heat. The fact that Downtown Houston is laid out in a grid format made controlling the crowd easier. When the last few hundred protesters refused to leave HPD cracked down in the cover of night and violently arrested them. Whatever energy, anger and contempt for law enforcement that existed was provided a proper opportunity to vent and continue with their lives. Those that stayed in the streets afterward got the stick. 


Effective Counter Insurgency

The counter insurgency plan by HPD, the Mayor, Democratic Politicians, activists and celebrities was very clear and well executed. Their containment strategy entailed effectively controlling the political narrative, remaining proactive in their actions and dividing the “good” protester from “bad” protester by sowing mistrust and suspicion among people. Local Twitter posts were rife with stories of bricks being left out by police during protests to tempt people, red baiting of white anarchists, outside agitators, and white kids with skateboards. Key in orchestrating and implementing this strategy were the combined efforts of Mayor Turner and Police Chief Acevedo. 

Acevedo, the son of a right-wing Cuban immigrant, made national news because he condemned Trump, hugged, marched and kneeled with protesters, cued the waterworks as he made emotional speeches at protests, and attended George Floyd’s funeral. Part of what made this possible is the trendy portrait politicians paint about Houston’s liberal multicultural composition. Houston, like most big cities in Texas, is liberal. We’re a majority minority city and the most diverse city in the US for a number of years running. Chief Acevedo was able to use this to make a political pivot and focus on Trump by appealing to the “us” (POC) vs “them” (Trump, the right, white people) framework. Acevedo drew attention away from the 6 local police murders that took place in a span of 6 weeks, and focused on respectability and the outside agitator myth. In the end, the rhetoric of “we’re not like those other cities” won the day. The years Acevedo spent honing his community policing skills in Austin prepared HPD for this moment. Mayor Turner delivered the follow through punch when he gave his speech. During his time on stage he affirmed that the space people were present in didn’t belong to him or the city, but to us, the people of Houston. He praised Mayor Frey of Minneapolis for condemning the actions of all the cops involved in the murder. He tactfully admitted that there is much work to be done in Houston for underserved communities, and reasserted his commitment to improving conditions. Finally, he used the presence of the Floyd family to morally pressure people to respect their wishes to keep things peaceful. Additionally, Mayor Turner is doing his best to stay ahead of the curve by deciding to take down or relocate local confederate and colonial statues, pass “criminal justice reforms” and adopting some #8Can’tWait policy. All useless “reforms” in reality.   

Furthermore, local media, like popular hip hop station 97.9 The Box, have been fundamental in pushing and supporting this counter insurgent strategy. This coalition is working hard to provide an acceptable political vision for struggle through voting, petitioning, partaking in local political institutions, town hall meetings and partnering up with politicians. They’ve been proactive and unchallenged so far in this. This counter insurgent strategy isn’t new to Houston. This has been the approach locally since the Ferguson moment and possibly even further back. 

Yet, Houston is not alone in experiencing this approach of a “softer” counter insurgency. Baltimore is another example of how community policing strategies have been applied in this moment. A very different experience from 2015. While the legitimacy of the police continues to be shaken the state has not lost all authority and remains flexible in the approach it takes in repressing large protests from city to city and region to region. 

This strategy and their combined efforts successfully prevented a bigger explosion in Houston. For now.

Defensive Maneuvers

To undermine this counter insurgency there are a number of things those of us organizing to defund and abolish police can do. For one, we can show up to protests in groups with our own bull horns, militant signs, slogans and chants. We can fight to change the protest environment and link up with other protesters who share our outrage by giving them a space to express their thoughts and emotions. We can distribute literature that shares ideas about tactics and strategy.

Cops that enter our protest endanger everyone. We should not let cops join, lead, or freely walk around in our protests. We need to make sure protests are as cop free as possible by kicking them out of our spaces. If you see someone talking to a cop, encourage them not to engage and strike up a conversation with them about why. In relation to this, we need to make sure we’re not incriminating ourselves by taking pictures or video of protesters doing illegal activity. If you do take pictures or video, make sure you blur their faces out if and when you publish them. Too many of us are catching charges and facing jail time for destroying property while killer cops roam free. Of course, this goes for snitching as well. If you see something going down, keep it to yourself. 

Judge people by what they propose and do, not by their identity or rhetoric.  Black and Brown liberals are looking for opportunities to deflect our rage, shut down debate, weaken revolt and silence Black and Brown radicals. People who use ally and privilege politics support this dynamic by giving voice to these liberals who they nominate as spokespeople for all Black and Brown communities. 

Also, we can have an understanding of how a combination of all tactics complement one another in the streets. From the most militant to the most passive. Don’t denounce each other’s actions, it only serves to weaken, criminalize and demonize our movement and communities. Support each other when we fight back. There is a need to organize anti police-repression committees to protect ourselves from the state and support those of us that are jailed during protests. Finally, we can transition from these moments of street protests and form organizations with contacts we made to fight long term for police abolition. All this will go a long way in resisting cooptation and counter insurgency, and make sure we’re setting the terms of our own movements. 

In the follow up piece I’ll discuss the limits we’re facing in Houston, potential openings for intervention and what strategies the left can undertake to go on the offensive. 

Part 2: Offense

In the previous piece I discussed the counter insurgent strategy of the Black, Democratic politicians, activists and celebrities. Here I’ll examine some limitations Houston is facing, potential openings for intervention and strategies that police abolitionists can implement on the ground to go on the offensive. 

Limits

It’s important to note some of the local limitations the struggle now faces as popular energy has been demobilized and things appear to return to “normal.” Locally, BLM Houston has held a few discussions with other organizations that have taken up the mantle of defunding the police and police abolition. While their rhetoric comes off as radical, actually struggling to abolish police remains an abstraction for some time in the distant future. Their solutions focus primarily on economic demands of redistributing the city budget, reforming bankrupt institutions, legislative action, building ties with elected officials and trying to pressure them. There is no assessment of how these institutions we’re supposed to channel funds into produce and reproduce capitalism or white supremacy. But, they currently have no leverage to push through any demands. In many cities, calls for reform are entertained by politicians after intense, often physical, large scale confrontations with the police and political power structures. To think we can skip these confrontations and expect to gain any change, whether radical or liberal, is absurd. 

All the effort celebrities like Bun B and organizations like BLM Houston put into containing the energy and rage of the popular protests have now hobbled organizing efforts. Proof of this can be found in the city council’s recent decision to increase the budget of HPD to just under $1 billion despite record numbers of people protesting in Houston. To put this in context, the total city budget for Houston amounts to just over $5 billion. Making the amount police receive about ⅕ of the budget. Why shouldn’t the city council ignore demands by activists? What real pressure are they feeling? When mass movements directly confront the police and political establishment through riots, occupations of police precincts, sit-ins, freeway take overs, uncontrolled marches, no cop zones and unruly mass protests they provide the basis for change. The fact that there was no direct confrontation with the police or politicians in Houston leaves the demands activists make here toothless.           

Although challenging to overcome, none of these limitations are insurmountable, and there remains much to be optimistic about. 

Hope For The Future

While many of the larger protests were held in the city center, after 2 weeks activity started to ripple outward and move into the neighborhoods that surround Houston. In recent weeks we’ve seen protests take place in Baytown, Pasadena, Second Ward, League City, La Porte, Pearland, Galveston, and Kingwood. Despite demobilization efforts hundreds of people have been attending these smaller actions which shows there is still energy and desire to carry on the struggle. This is significant because the key, in part, to unlocking Houston’s radical potential is building organizing projects in communities. Not all, but many of these areas face problems in gentrification, police brutality, housing, health care, wage theft, flooding, etc. If there is energy and social awareness about injustice then we have space to link up and struggle with people around police abolition. I’ll go into detail about this in the next section.      

Moreover, there appear to be cracks forming in the “soft” style counter insurgent approach by the Mayor and Police Chief. On the night of June 2nd protesters who remained in the streets were arrested, without a curfew in place, and put in a gym for most of the night at some substation. Protesters were left huddled together en masse, zip-tied, without water, and some had their face masks torn off by police. After this incident, at a later protest, Chief Acevedo was booed by the crowd, had water dumped on him and shouted out of the area. The look on his face was irate as he was escorted away by undercover cops. His hypocrisy was laid bare as protesters confronted him about his actions the night of June 2nd. 

These are not minor details and represent significant openings for defunding and abolishing the police. 

What Next?

While I’m not opposed to efforts that focus on defunding police, that should be one tactic that’s part of a broader campaign to disempower, disarm and disband police. Our approach should not be defunding police first, and perhaps sometime in the future fight to abolish them. We need a multifaceted approach that immediately fights to strip away the power and presence of police in working class Black and Brown communities. The terms of our movement can not be set by the Democratic Party, celebrities or professional activists. With calls for defunding and abolishing police gaining popularity nationally the time is now for police abolitionists in Houston to create our own vision for struggle that isn’t limited to purely incremental economic demands, or reforms. We must be more precise about demands to defund the police, and keep in mind how this demand could be recuperated. Defunding police is not something we can simply uncritically support. 

We need to wage and support campaigns against police brutality when people are killed locally. There has to be a concerted effort to call out the hypocrisy of the Mayor and Police Chief when they’re marching with protesters, or making promises of change. We can no longer solely partake in national upsurges in struggle without using these moments to fight against what’s happening to working class black and brown people in Houston. This can only happen if we’re actively and directly building in these communities. 

Policing pervades our daily lives. A strategy to disempower, disarm and disband HPD can be waged in schools, hospitals, workplaces, and neighborhoods. Across the US cities are making advancements in defunding, disbanding and cutting ties with police. We can work to further build the movement by creating independent working class institutions that mediate conflicts instead of calling the police, neighborhood media outlets that report on community life and politics, self defense groups that stay vigilant and push back against police harassment, demand labor unions disaffiliate from police unions, run campaigns to repeal repressive police policies and militant tenant unions. The possibilities are endless. 

Houston “not being like those other cities” means we’re behind the curve. If we want to break the holding pattern of their counter insurgent efforts and fight to defund and abolish the police, we can no longer wait until “the right moment” or “more favored conditions”. 

The time for police abolitionists to organize is now. Turn up!

Camilo Torres is a member of the Houston Tenants Union, you can find the Houston Tenants Union on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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