Grassroots Power vs. Police Brutality

— An Interview with Claire Cohen

WIDESPREAD POLICE ABUSE is a long-time, normally mainly secret side of life in capitalist America, especially for minority communities. Now, in a number of cities, outrageous cases of police murders of civilians and grassroots outrage are forcing the issue into the open.

In our previous issue (ATC, November–December 1999) we interviewed Chani Beeman, co-chair of the Riverside (CA) Coalition for Police Accountability, on the December 1998 police shooting of Tyisha Miller, the ensuing coverup and public organizing that has followed

Here we speak with Dr. Claire Cohen, a veteran of African-American community organizing in Pittsburgh, PA and an activist in Citizens for Police Accountability. ATC has spoken with her on previous occasions, most recently in our January-February 1997 issue, where she discussed the origins of CPA in the light of the police murders of Johnny Gammage (October 1995) and Maneia Bey (Thanksgiving 1994).

Claire Cohen was interviewed by David Finkel and Dianne Feeley from the ATC editorial board.

Against the Current: Since our last conversation, we know you have successfully organized and won a referendum for a Civilian Police Review Board (CPRB). Please tell us how this campaign came about.

Claire Cohen: This referendum campaign ultimately grew out of a number of instances where young Black men were killed by policemen over the years. A group of us came together from a variety of organizations and discussed how we could address this.

These included Campaign for a New Tomorrow, Citizens Coalition for Justice, Alliance for Progressive Action, Committee to Counter Hate Groups, Cry Out/Act Up, United Electrical Workers (UE), Parents Against Violence, 1199P, National Council for Urban Peace and Justice, and at one point the Pittsburgh Greens; the Million Man March Local Organizing Committee and Pittsburgh Metro Labor Party chapter came on after we had started, and the NAACP and ACLU had some level of involvement.

For a long time, while we didn’t have a name, we came up with a number of ideas, one of which, based on looking at what other cities had done, was to go for a civilian police review board. Now, Pittsburgh operates under a Home Rule Charter which has certain stipulations that complicated things.

At first we thought we couldn’t get a referendum, but then with careful study of the law we came up with what we could ask for. A CPRB wasn’t the only thing we wanted; we also wanted to organize neighborhood groups as a kind of Cop Watch.

We’ve found it much harder to get that off the ground; but after two or three years of study we decided it would be easier, in terms of effectively mobilizing people, to launch a campaign for a CPRB. It wasn’t we expected this to solve the police brutality issue; it was a question of finding a clear target for organizing.

We did a lot of talking to people on the streets, and it was clear with each new killing that the grassroots were increasingly supportive of the CPRB idea. Then when Johnny Gammage was killed (followed by acquittal of the police officers involved — ed.), support went way up.

First we went to city council, but they weren’t interested. Then an African-American candidate, Sala Udin, ran for council and won. As he’d promised, he put forward a bill on police review, but it failed, as of course we knew it would.

Then we decided to launch a referendum. We could do it for the spring or the November ballot. We preferred November, so that we wouldn’t be outside petitioning for signatures between December and February! But Sala Udin saw a chance for leadership and jumped on it — in November (1996) he announced a petition drive. So we groaned and went with it. Our relations with Sala, let’s say, had their ups and downs.

We had already been thinking of strategies to get support based on grassroots efforts. We had already compiled a list of a couple of hundred names of interested people. We began community training for “district activists,” who would in turn train other people to do petitioning, a model based on one of our members’ experiences in another organization.

These training sessions weren’t just dry meetings. We did role play, lots of fun stuff, and gave people a chance to talk about their own experiences with the police. We invited the media and made the events interesting for them to cover.

We made great use of one of Sala Udin’s ideas: In Pittsburgh city council members can initiate neighborhood district meetings (there are nine council seats, elected by district). Each councilperson is supposed to get out the information out about the meeting to be held in his/her district.

Sala set up meetings for each of the nine districts. The first one, which he organized himself, was a failure because he didn’t organize for it well. We decided we would take on organizing the other eight meetings: We leafleted, went door to door, handed out flyers on street corners, did phonebanking, all to let people know about the community meetings.

As a result we turned out one, two, three hundred people for each meeting. People came out to testify in favor of a CPRB, and about their bad experiences with the police. Then you’d have maybe two or three people speaking against — usually the same people at each meeting, the head of the police union Smoky Hines and one or two others.

ATC: Were these meetings significant public events? And how wide a cross section of the community participated?

C.C.: Yes, these meetings did make the media. And we were actually surprised by the number of white people who came out, I mean mainstream people.

The worst abuses of course have been suffered by Black people — I’m not aware of any whites actually killed by police. But while the police union was trying to paint this campaign as hoodlums and crooks and a narrow Black issue, that claim was dispelled early on.

We were shocked by stories from little old white ladies and businessmen. There were cases like that of an elderly woman who had just been robbed, and the police officer was angry because his lunch was interrupted; or a mainstream guy who was enraged because his sister, who had multiple sclerosis, was stopped and dragged out of her car by a cop who fondled her breasts right in front of traffic.

We had already been holding meetings with the ACLU with testimonies from people. At one point they had seventy cases of police abuse. When Smoky Hines kept saying this was all a bunch of crooks, people got even angrier.

ATC: What was the balance of forces on the city council?

C.C.: At first we had only three on our side, two Black and one liberal council member. But in Squirrel Hill, a wealthy and predominantly white community, where the two city council members (two districts overlap that area) had opposed the review board, one of them saw the handwriting on the road and changed his mind.

The other one wasn’t even going to attend the district meeting. He was off at some other function. But when word reached him that we had turned out 200 people to speak out for a CPRB, he came running! Gradually, in fact faster than we had dared expect, momentum built in favor of a CPRB.

ATC: Tell us about the organizing of the referendum petition campaign.

C.C.: When we started our petitioning, we made sure that the media would know we were going to be petitioning at a certain place and time the next Saturday. And we had our petitioners well- trained in every detail on getting valid signatures.

It was really exciting: We would invite the press to every training. At least as many white as Black people showed up. We even had some policemen on the sly tell us they were for it.

We needed eight thousand signatures. By the end we had 23,000–24,000. The Election Board threw out a certain number, but left us with 20,000. Now, once we had the signatures there was a deadline by which we had to write the actual wording for the referendum, and we did that too. We had researched exactly what kind of language would be allowed and the word limits.

The last obstacle was that the police union challenged our signatures — they tried to throw out 13,000 of our signatures. It was completely bogus and arbitrary — for example, they challenged my signature!! So we had to go back to validate all these signatures with handwriting experts.

After this baloney another 10,000 were ruled “inconclusive,” whatever that was supposed to mean, but we were still on the ballot. The next thing was to make sure people got out to vote. We didn’t slack off on that either. We made palm cards so people would know the exact voting procedure.

And when the vote took place, in May 1997, we won the establishment of a Civilian Police Review Board, by a solid margin of 60%–40%.

ATC: Terrific. Then what? How did the board actually get set up?

C.C.: Since then it’s gotten harder. We knew that what happens is that the police simply defy the board, so that people get discouraged and it doesn’t work. But in cities where the review board is successful, it’s where the campaign didn’t just stop, but kept a lot of pressure on the CPRB to function properly. So we realized that would be the next step.

Now in terms of constituting the board, there are some restrictive aspects of the charter. We would like to have an elected board, but elected bodies aside from city government aren’t allowed. So the way we wrote the referendum language was for a seven-person board appointed by the mayor, with four of those to be selected from a nine-person slate submitted by city council.

The board cannot include city employees or officials, but must be city residents. The functions and powers of the board are clearly defined: to receive citizen complaints on police misconduct, establish mediation, to hold public meetings — which must be open, as we’ve learned from studying other situations — with subpoena power over witnesses and documents and the power to compel compliance, and to supervise a staff and a solicitor.

Board members serve staggered four-year terms. It’s not paid, The board cannot impose discipline. It makes recommendations to the city and the police chief, who must respond within thirty days.

ATC: What’s been the impact on police behavior, as you see it and as the community sees it?

C.C.: To be fair and clear, there’s been another factor at work too. Because of our actions and the ACLU’s involvement, the federal Justice Department came in and imposed some rules on police behavior.

The CPRB itself got off to a rough start, as the mayor was taking his time and there was delay in setting up an office and staff. They stalled so long that we called a press conference and offered to donate an old phone, a raggedy fax machine and some folding chairs to open up the office. That helped embarrass the authorities and get them to move.

Since then the board has made a couple of good decisions. One was famous, because the case involved a cousin of Tammy Wynette (the country-and-western superstar) who came to town with a boy friend who is Black, and they got roughed up by a police officer while they were visiting someone in a hospital.

The overall impact has been a decline, certainly not the elimination, of police brutality. The police have been complaining that their work has been “hampered.”

There is still lots of abuse. In the past, however — before the CPRB and all of our agitation — over the previous five years there were 1,700 cases of brutality, some of them absolutely egregious including a dozen Black men killed by police, and in all these cases no policeman had ever been disciplined. Absolutely none, not even one reprimand.

When the Justice Department intervened, one fact that came out was that somebody in the police department was actually counselling officers to ignore people’s rights in certain neighborhoods. It was just that blatant!

Now when there’s a complaint, something happens. Approximately a dozen of the worst officers with the most egregious records of repeated abuses, have been reprimanded. A couple of them may even have been removed from the force.

In January two Black men, who were brothers, were stopped for a traffic violation and shot. The policeman claimed they were coming at him and he acted in self-defense, but they were shot from the side and back. One died, the other was seriously injured. This time he was actually removed from the force, though he’;s contesting it — that simply never happened in the past.

There’s a lot of work to be done. But it makes some difference: Now there’s a grudging admission from the authorities that “maybe there were some abuses in the past,” where before the attitude was hat anybody who complained must be a crook.

The next step is the neighborhood cop watch that I mentioned. That’s going to take a lot longer. It’s a little harder to mobilize people.

The reason it’s slower now is that there isn’t that deadline, that immediate urgency around getting the petitions or writing the language or getting out the vote. Maybe it will take some specific event to generate new motion. But we still have all of our activists’ names and we intend to keep moving forward.

There also needs to be continual monitoring of the board.

Some police have refused to show up at board hearings, and the board hasn’t been able to do much. Some people in the community complain because the change hasn’t been enough. But we told people when we were doing the organizing work that all this is only the beginning.

ATC 84, January–February 2000