Time for Decisions on Movement Decision-Making

On May 14, tensions inside the St. Louis movement for justice reached a critical stage. Some younger protesters felt that more established organizations were hoarding money that should be going toward basic needs. They were successful in demanding that checks be written to seventeen people personally, and the account designed to meet joint needs was emptied. This piece was written in an attempt to understand and contribute to the healthy debate that has followed.     –John Chasnoff


In the wake of the internal controversy surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement in St. Louis, many have called for a re-thinking of the financial structures governing our dispersal of money. I completely agree that we need a broad-based black-led democratic process around moSolidarity3.jpgney and around sorting out issues. I also think MIssourian Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) and the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) have gotten a bum rap, along with some fair criticism, for trying to carry on in the absence of such structures.

Democratic structures are not easy to create. Both MORE and OBS have proposed and tried to implement them since the fall: the People’s Movement Assemblies, the model for various Circles with representation on a Steering Committee, the creation of the Action Council, the support for a Black Unity Table etc.

But the movement would not have happened in nearly as successful a fashion if those two organizations had not put all of themselves and their resources on the line, in the process creating and administering the crucial jail support system, raising the money and creating structures for Ferguson October, and more. In the absence of a democratic process, someone had to be the stewards of the money, and many of us have seen the rank theft and embezzlement that can happen in the movement when a non-principled person is given access.

That being said, the criticisms of the Non-Profit-Industrial-Complex and any other top-down approach are valid. The issues around what kind of work gets funded and what does not is crucial. The movement would not have happened without the spontaneous and ongoing protests in the streets, and that work should not be devalued because it is not “organized.” But clearly there is no way to pay everyone to protest. There might be ways to better support that work, the way unions support workers with strike funds. Organizations can be set up to provide social services such as food and housing, unlike MORE and OBS which are oriented toward political action, if they structure themselves to receive and spend money with accountability. We need to sort that out.

OBS and MORE responded to those critiques by setting up processes for others to apply for the money; some of those worked and some did not, partly because new protesters did not have any systems for receiving and being accountable about money. Both orgs were transparent about all the finances, but transparency in the absence of better communication and decision-making structures wasn’t enough.

Maybe OBS and MORE didn’t prioritize these issues enough or be creative enough…I don’t know. I do know that they offered to create better structures once again with those sitting in at the MORE office, but folks just wanted the money. That is the poor choice that I think Jamala Rogers (a founding member of OBS and a signatory on the bank account in question) was focusing on, along with the choice in giving in to those demands.  The fact that things got to the place where those choices were even being put forward—that’s on all of us, not just the ones who ended up in a situation we all contributed to.

The point is to avoid blame and to recognize almost everyone’s good will rather than factionalizing. There’s a place for well-thought-out non-profits and for those who dislike them. There’s a place for more traditional resistance and for new models of resistance. There is a role for money in the movement and places money should not be. In fact, there’s a need for all of that and a way to work together, as long as we actualize, in the words of Assata Shakur, our “duty to love one another.”

Summer Distractions: An Open Letter to Bill McClellan

by John Chasnoff

I totally get where you’re coming from with your latest column, hoping that a good baseball season could help unite a divided St. Louis. And I hate to be a wet blanket about the Cardinals, especiallKeep Calmy since my lawsuit against the police for the World Series ticket scandal has certainly relied on the area’s baseball fever for publicity.


I am wary of St. Louis returning to a feel-good summer pastime when it has yet to do much of the real work on racism, policing, and the courts which would give us better reasons to actually feel good. Who can afford to go to a baseball game, after all, when all their money from subpar wages is getting sucked up by municipal court fines?

Listening to sports on the old transistor could have been a fatal distraction to your patrolling marine in Vietnam, but it has the virtue of being a charming story. Similarly, using sports as a charming distraction from solving our serious problems could end up being fatal for the region.

The protests were designed to shake people out of their comfort zones—to force change by bringing the issues to people who can too easily afford to ignore them. Is the nostalgia to return to baseball-induced superficial regional unity really just a desire for the privileged to return to the status quo? Me, I long for the day when baseball is only one part of the communal joy all of us participate in by living in a more just society.

I know, I should lighten up. Maybe if we all enjoy a brew and a Cardinal’s game together we’ll get to talking about the other things that should unite us as human beings.


It hasn’t happened yet.

Civilian Oversight and Community Control

A Response to the Socialist Alternative

–John Chasnoff

February 5, 2013

As someone who supports the bill for Civilian Oversight of the police in the Board of Alderpersons, I am pleased and excited to see the Socialist Alternative fully engaged in the issue. I share tWhat Community Control Looks Likeheir respect and gratitude to the many dedicated protesters who have fought for a transformation of the police in our society. Unlike the Socialist Alternative, I think the proposed bill is worthy of that struggle and people’s support.

I hope we can continue the dialogue in formats like this and in person, as there is much strategy and many tactics, as well as details of the proposal, to discuss.

Perhaps it would be best to start the discussion by clearing up many misconceptions about the bill. The Socialist Alternative flyer contains some of those misconceptions, and I’m concerned they can foster disunity. The following points quote from the flyer and then discuss the issues:

“…the only available evidence for the board to review is generated and vetted by the police department.” This is not accurate. The police department would generate the initial evidence, but the COB can conduct its own independent investigation whenever it feels the police have done an inadequate job.
“Someone would still have to report a complaint against an officer directly to the police department.” Not accurate. People can file complaints with either the police or the COB.
“The Board of Aldermen in St Louis cannot grant any agency subpoena power; this can only be done at the State level.” Subpoena power can be granted either at the state level or through a change in the St. Louis City Charter. The companion bill we are proposing (already drafted) would put the issue on the ballot for citizens to make the change. It is also important to note that subpoena power would be seldom used, since the police are required by BB 208 to turn over all evidence to the COB.
“…it [the COB] has no independent funding with unpaid board members expected to utilize the current staff in the Department of Public Safety. If the COB is made independent without new funding, there will be no budget to cover the staff needed to properly organize the cases being reviewed by the board.” It would be great to find money to pay the COB members, but the rest of the quote isn’t correct. The COB would be a separate line item in the City budget. It will have funding. It will not rely on “current staff” in the Dept. of Public Safety; new staff can be hired from the outside—the bill only makes reference to the fact that they would technically be employees of the Dept. of Public Safety. The companion bill to house the COB in a new Dept. of Civilian Oversight would not leave it unfunded. It would still have its own line item in the city budget and in fact would have more independent control over that budget.
“Because meetings of elected officials would have to be held in public due to Sunshine Laws, people could attend meetings of the board and read the notes to ensure its effectiveness.” The Sunshine Law makes no such distinctions between elected officials and appointed ones. All the records and meetings that are open with elected officials are also open under the proposed COB. The problem is, the Sunshine Law closes personnel records. I personally have a long-standing lawsuit fighting to open some of those records. But to allow for open hearings would require a change in state law that is many more years away. I for one don’t want to wait for civilian oversight in the meantime.
“The current bill allows Mayor Slay to select board members from a list proposed by the Alderpeople. This makes it inevitable that those selected would be police lobbyists and loyalists to Slay.” This is not an accurate description of the selection process. It ignores half of that process—the required public hearing and the needed confirmation of the mayor’s nominees by the alderpersons. Many alderpersons do not want a COB composed of “police lobbyists and loyalists to Slay” and will push back against any such nominees. The community has two chances for input—first in advocating for specific names to be recommended by the alderpersons and then second, holding the mayor and the alderpersons accountable at the public hearing if those candidates are not put on the COB.

I understand that this selection process is still questionable in some folk’s minds. They, like the Socialist Alternative, would like to see an elected COB. I understand the desire to avoid the influence of the mayor and others who already control the police department. Ideally, the COB should be accountable to a different set of people. But I don’t think an elected COB would meet our needs. Elections are controlled by monied interests—we could end up with a Board beholden to Rex Sinquefeld and Civic Progess. The election process also produces politicians who operate superficially to sway public opinion. Just look at our current crop of politicians to see how that’s working out for us. There are other problems with elections; I wrote a whole piece on it which you can read here. The long and short of it is that I believe we have just as good a chance of getting a decent COB with the proposed selection process, IF we stay engaged and make it work for us.

The larger vision put forward by the Socialist Alternative is community control of the police based on a COB that has “full powers over the police.” They include in those powers “control over the police budget” and “disciplinary power.” They also want the COB to “re-evaluate the entire training, hiring and procedures of the department.”

I think it’s important to unpack these goals. First, the proposed COB would have the power to re-evaluate training, hiring and procedures. One of its most important functions is to do just that through its broad powers to audit and recommend changes for all procedures, operations and policies.

But the other functions belong with a Police Commission than a COB. It is crucial to recognize that these are two very separate types of agencies with different types of authority. A COB is designed to handle complaints and make policy recommendations. It is not designed to run the police department. Creation of a people’s Police Commission is a lofty and possibly a worthwhile goal, but don’t criticize the COB for not being that Commission. A discussion of such a Commission has its own complicated threads—most Commissions (like the one we just dissolved by a vote of the people in 2013) have had the powers described by the Socialist Alternative but have been ineffectual pawns of the police. Perhaps we can design a better one, but lumping everything we might want under the heading of a COB is to ignore the fact that articulated powers dispersed in various community-responsive groups might be a better way to go than creating one overburdened catch-all agency. For instance, do we really want the same group that sets policies for police having the authority to oversee those policies and evaluate that they are working?

The main thing is, this discussion is now happening with a wider group of people than ever before. That’s all for the good, but in the process let’s try to recognize that many of us are on the same side. We may see different pathways and even envision different solutions, but we will best succeed by communicating and achieving functional unity. I look forward to continuing to work on that.

The Case Against an Elected Civilian Review Board–Short Version


–John Chasnoff

January 26, 2015

Many fVote-with-Moneyolks are unhappy with the selection process for the proposed Civilian Oversight Board (COB). They believe that policing is already controlled by politicians and money, so we need a healthy dose of input from the disempowered to make a COB work. That’s absolutely true, but are elections the way to get there?

Here’s the case against an elected Civilian Oversight Board (COB):

1) Elections are controlled by the monied elite already. With elections we could end up with a COB dancing to the tune of Rex Sinquefeld or Civic Progress.

2) When we elect people whom do we end up with? Politicians. They tend to operate to get re-elected which means they are prone to govern by soundbites, lack of principles and ambition. Maybe the type of person we need for a COB is an activist who would never run for office but would hold him/herself accountable to his/her constituency. Maybe elections are a bad way to find that type of person.

3) In a segregated city, elections based on geography could result in a polarized and non-functional board, with members always playing to their base and unwilling to work together. We’ve seen it in Congress. We don’t need a gridlocked COB.

4) Police are mandated to provide equal protection for all. To do so, they often have to protect unpopular ideas, unpopular groups—the minority—from the “tyranny of the majority.” If police are too influenced by the will of the majority they can become part of the lynch mob. We already have biased policing because we live in a biased society. More democracy won’t help that.

The trick with policing is to come up with the right balance of responsiveness and professionalism that gives us a community-based system that works for everyone. The process of COB selection in BB 208 fcomes close to that balance. It allows for grassroots input in submitting names to alders and at public hearings. It allows for aldermanic checking of the mayor through the confirmation process if s/he ignores their input. At each step along the way, elected officials ignore their constituents at their peril.

This system is not ideal, and it is not guaranteed to work for us. There is no designable system that comes with such a guarantee. Any system only works if we make it work. This one can work for us if we work it. We shouldn’t cast aside this “bird in the hand” for a “two in the bush” that has its own flaws and is not necessarily as advertised.

The Case Against an Elected Civilian Oversight Board–Longer Version

–John Chasnoff

January 26, 2015

The Ferguson movement is headed into its next phase—one where we add to the continuing agitation our concrete work to build a better world with a better policing system. It’s crucial that whatever we do makes for real chanVote-with-Moneyge—constructive, revolutionary change—not meaningless reform that doesn’t actually make things better on the ground. Civilian oversight of police for the city of St. Louis has come up as one of the first things we can accomplish. It’s therefore a testing ground for us to sort out what we want, what qualifies as a revolutionary vision and what qualifies as a legitimate step to get us there.

Civilian oversight is hopefully a worthwhile reform that moves us in the right direction by creating greater transparency, greater public input into policy, and greater accountability.
Even for those who accept that reasoning, many folks are unhappy that the current bill for civilian oversight doesn’t have an elected board. I can see why. Policing is already controlled by the political class and they in turn are overly controlled by the monied elite. It’s no wonder, then, that the police and the laws they enforce are skewed against the disempowered, i.e. the poor and people of color. So it only makes sense that any agency set up to provide checks and balances on the police needs a healthy dose of grassroots representation.

Given that reasoning, an elected civilian oversight board (COB) seems at first thought to be the way to go. But there are serious problems, counter-revolutionary problems, with an elected COB. It isn’t the ideal solution (there is no ideal solution) and it isn’t the only way for us to approximate the ideal.

So here’s the case against an elected COB:

1) Our electoral system is skewed against the already disempowered. Citizens United is just one example of the problem. We should not equate elections with a system of grassroots democracy. Elections have largely been captured by the monied elite. We could well end up with an elected COB dancing to the fiddle of Rex Sinquefeld or Civic Progress. Of course, we can still overcome Big Money through people power. But so too can we overcome the flaws of many other selection processes with people power, and it’s not a given fact that elections give us our best shot at doing so.

2) When we elect people to office, what type of people do we get? The answer: politicians. Politicians are engineered by the system and the need to get re-elected to behave in certain ways. How many protesters have been routinely disappointed by politicians as we’ve been out protesting?
Politicians grandstand. They mug for the cameras. They take credit for other folks’ work. They act based on soundbites rather than principle because they need mass media to sway mass opinion to vote for them. They use one political office as a stepping stone to other positions with more power.

Of course there are exceptions. But even politicians of real character need to be held accountable by the kind of people power that digs deep into issues, pays attention to detail and doesn’t let the politicians get away with things.

Maybe there’s a different type of person, one not driven by a politician’s motivations, who would be better suited to serving on a COB. Maybe that person is the kind of activist who would never run for office but would be the person holding the politicians accountable in the first place. Maybe there’s a better way than elections to get that kind of person on the COB.

3) Since our city is so highly segregated and polarized, there is a strong possibility that an elected COB will be a dysfunctional COB. Representatives from some areas will clash with the representatives from others. With each side accountable only to their own electorate, there is no incentive to come together. Just look at Congress for an example of dysfunction in a polarized society. Perhaps the give and take that would be part of the nomination and aldermanic approval process will result in a more productive outcome.
4) Police need to be shielded to some extent from the vagaries of political influence and majority rule. That may not sound like a revolutionary statement on its face. But police are different than school boards or other government agencies where direct elections may make more sense.

Here’s why: police are tasked with providing equal protection under the law. They need to protect minorities as well as the majority. That means equal protection for unpopular opinions, unpopular life styles, unpopular sexual orientations, unpopular groups. In that role, police should often stand as a bulwark against the majority view.
If police are overly subject to the shifting winds of direct democracy, they can too easily become the enforcers of the “tyranny of the majority” rather than the protectors of civil liberties. There’s even a good argument to be made that any COB should over-represent those people who are historically most abused by the system. Otherwise the COB could just reflect the prejudices of those already privileged. Let’s not forget that we have a biased policing system only to the extent that we have a biased society. More direct democracy won’t fix that problem.

On the other hand, police can become so walled off from the community that they only represent special interests.

The trick with policing is to come up with the right balance of responsiveness and professionalism that gives us a community-based system that works for everyone. Since the COB is not a governing body, an elected COB might be one component of achieving that balance. But the more power you give it, the more balanced it needs to be.

We’re not too far from that balance in the system being proposed for COB selection. The process begins, if we make it begin at this point, with the community feeding names to our elected alderpersons. They in turn give recommendations to the elected mayor, ignoring community input at their peril. The mayor selects seven nominees, ignoring the alderpersons’ recommendations at his/her peril. The alders then have the obligation of approving the mayor’s nominations, pushing back if s/he has ignored them or tilted the COB too far in one direction or another.

The community has the opportunity to weigh in at mandated public hearings, a second chance for us to have our voices heard. In the end, if we are unhappy and believe so much in the electoral process, we can vote in new alders and a new mayor.

This system is not ideal, and it is not guaranteed to work for us. There is no designable system that comes with such a guarantee. Any system only works if we make it work. This one can work for us if we work it.

The trick for revolutionaries is to dream big and then create the practical steps for getting there. Never lose sight of the dream, but don’t let the very idealism of the vision paralyze us from doing what’s necessary to achieve it.

How We Went Wrong With Intelligence-Led Policing

–John Chasnoff

January 3, 2015

Why the current crisis in policing? Part of the answer is that social media has brought long-standing abuses to everyone’s attention. But it is also true that there has been a change in policing strategy since 9/11 that has accelerated the militarization of police and intensified policing’s disconnect from the community.

During the last decades of the twentieth century there was a strong emphasis on “community policing.” This police_officer__is_this_protection_or_is_it_controlmodel stressed a partnership between community and police. Officers were encouraged to reach out to community leaders to understand local issues and solve them. Oftentimes this meant using tools other than arrest and incarceration, focusing on underlying problems and finding social solutions that prevented crime rather than just reacting to it.

After 9/11, “intelligence-led policing” came to the fore. In its most benign form, this is simply data-driven crime fighting—learning where crime is and what crimes are being committed, and putting police there with specific strategies to stop it. This came to be known as “hot-spot policing.”

Even this seemingly benign strategy is fraught with problems for people of color. Here’s how that works: blacks are targeted for arrests in disparate numbers (see St. Louis’ 18 to 1 disparity in marijuana possession arrests despite similar usage rates when compared to whites). Thus data erroneously shows higher crime in black neighborhoods. Therefore, black areas are targeted as hot spots, more arrests are made there, and a vicious cycle is created.

But intelligence-led policing causes even more deep-seated problems. It has been relied upon to justify the use of surveillance, such as street cameras and St. Louis’ proposed Real-Time Intelligence Center, which is based on the old arrest-and-incarcerate model rather than community policing.

“Intelligence-led policing” has also perverted the “community oriented policing” model. Policing has become about data collection rather than solving community problems. When police now talk about “community oriented policing” in this new era, they too often talk about it as a way to better evaluate community networks and gain information on community leaders.

Finally, there has always been a strain of American policing that is based on counter-intelligence strategies developed overseas by the military. It has shown itself in waves of domestic repression from the Palmer Raids, to the McCarthy era, to Cointelpro.

This tendency has been renewed and strengthened by “intelligence-led policing” since 9/11. It is manifested in the New York City Intelligence Unit that spied on Muslim communities for years. The parallels between rooting out insurgents in Iraq and dealing with urban gangs at home are being explicitly made. The phrase “real-time intelligence” comes from drone data-gathering and dissemination techniques developed in Iraq.

Police no longer see themselves as community partners. Instead they are engaged in military-style surges and neighborhood incursions to root out crime. And this reliance on military strategy has only reinforced the increasing desire for heavy military equipment in our towns and cities.

These trends, in combination with the on-going long-term repression of black communities, created the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown and the military response that followed. It will take a fundamental shift in police culture, and a radical shift in the power relationships of police and the community, to set things on a better path.

Colliding Viewpoints and Contradictory Functions of Policing

–John Chasnoff

December 11, 2014

There are two ways that people think about police, and they butted heads December 8 at the second Ferguson Commission meeting.

First, there is the “serve and protect” view. From this vantage point, policing is a noble profession, entered into bthe_government_warning_poster-p228076763569607017trma_400y those who want to help their community. Police catch the “bad guys,” putting themselves in danger to protect the innocent. This is the image police have of themselves. Chief Dotson began his Ferguson Commission presentation with an ode to this model of policing. The crowd could not contain itself with rage and indignation.

Why? Because there is a whole other view of police, and it is the motivating force behind the uprising that began here and is sweeping the country. This viewpoint was reinforced by the actions of police in response to protests in the streets. In this second view, police are the primary organ of the state used to repress “undesirables,” primarily blacks. American policing began as an institution to catch runaway slaves. It was the frontline enforcer of Jim Crow. Under the new Jim Crow its mission has been to sweep people of color into the prison-industrial complex. Much of the repression has been implemented through the War on Drugs, which, because of disparate treatment, has been essentially a war on communities of color. Along the way, police milk the poor for money to run city governments, whether through municipal court fines or asset forfeiture. “Serve and protect” simply does not apply to whole groups of black, brown, and other disadvantaged people.

For those holding the first view, needed police reforms are relatively minor. Want more officers of color? Recruit in the high schools. Excessive use of force a problem? Better training is the answer.

But if the problems in policing are more systemic—intricately bound up with its underlying mission to protect the interests of the elite—those reforms can seem ludicrous or even traitorous to oppressed peoples. After decades of declared war on their communities, how can you ask youth of color to join the enemy? No Police Athletic League or Officer Friendly in the schools can make that relationship right. And no individual training will fundamentally change police behavior if policing’s ongoing mission remains the repression that is so bound up with its history.

Fact is, both views are correct. Police serve two contradictory functions in our society. No doubt that the police “serve and protect” those privileged by race and class. That selective protection is highly tainted support for one viewpoint but also proof of the second. But even in communities of color cops do rush into danger and protect people from harm. Police are not wrong in saying that many in those communities are asking for that protection. Still, it is also undeniable that police often do more harm than good in those same communities, frequently brutalizing innocents and catching people up in a system of overincarceration that provides few services for personal growth and few chances for success after one is criminalized.

The Ferguson Commission, if it is to succeed, needs to show itself capable of rising to acknowledge these two realities. The Commission is by its very nature set up to create reforms within policing as currently structured. But tinkering, even major tinkering, is not enough. The Ferguson movement is calling for a transformative change in policing—systemic change. That change is still being imagined. But any contemplated reforms must serve the dual purpose of providing short-term relief of current suffering and also moving us step-by-step toward long-term liberation of oppressed communities.