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Wealth, Poverty, and Social Control in the Golden State

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People took to the streets in Oakland following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The doors to the OPD headquarters were fittingly covered in red paint

In capitalist society, the wealth of the working class is appropriated and hoarded by a tiny elite – the ruling class. This ruling class creates a state in its image in order to protect its wealth and ensure its continued enrichment at the expensive of all subordinates. This state, which includes the police, becomes increasingly brutal as class lines sharpen during periods of economic instability – dips, crashes, and depressions that are built into the economic system. California, the largest and most diverse state in the U.S., is a fine example of a state in the decaying stages of capitalism, during which the misery of the many increases alongside the enrichment of the few, and the armed wing of the state polices the widening class divide with increasing brutality.

Wealth

In 2015, the state of California passed in front of Brazil and France to become the 6th largest economy in the world. The top ten economies in the world are now the U.S. ($17.8 trillion GDP in 2015), China ($10.9), Japan ($4.1), Germany ($3.6), the UK ($2.9), California ($2.5), France ($2.4), India ($2.1), Italy and Brazil ($1.8 each). (The global collapse of capitalism – some predict a new collapse within the year –  is reflected in the fact that only the U.S., China, California and India have growing economies). Only the U.S. (536) and China (213) have more billionaires than California (131 in 2015). The combined wealth of these individuals is worth more than the GDP of many countries. The governor of California, Jerry Brown, has a net worth of $4 million, and California congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is worth a whopping $74 million (making her the 3rd wealthiest member of congress). Larry Page of Google (Mountain View, CA) and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook (Menlo Park, CA) are multi-billionaires behind corporations ingrained in the bourgeois state and its apparatuses of surveillance and control.

Poverty

While a handful Californians are incredibly wealthy, the majority are very poor. In fact, California is the most unequal state in one of the most unequal countries in the world (just a Louisiana is the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated nation in the world). California has the highest poverty rate in the country, with %27 of children living in poverty; in 2013, 48.8% of children in the state were poor or near the poverty line. That same year, around one quarter of the state’s total population lived in poverty. One in ten Cal State University students are homeless, and one in four go hungry. Housing prices across the state continue to rise, and many people in the Bay Area are being forced out. In San Francisco, low wages and increasing home prices ($2,795 average for a one bedroom, $4,222 for a two) are forcing hundreds of school teachers and paraprofessionals to leave. Rents have skyrocketed in Oakland, with many forced to work two or three jobs just to get by and many people, most from poorer black neighborhoods, being pushed farther and farther away.

 

As the wealth gap (and therefore the life expectancy gap, literacy gap, education gap, etc.) increases, the class differences in society become increasingly pronounced. The ruling elite must maximize profit and maintain social control, and an increasingly repressive state is needed to control people as they are thrown into deeper and deeper poverty; a brutal economic system requires a brutal state to defend it. In step the police, who in California have time and time again been exposed as agents of the status quo who rape, murder, and pillage with impunity.

Social Control

The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland largely in response to police brutality against working class blacks. One of the many tactics of the Panthers – dubbed public enemy number one by J. Edgar Hoover – was to police the OPD. Armed with guns, pencil and paper, and citizens’ rights leaflets, Panthers would follow OPD cars, stop whenever they stopped, and make their presences known to the officers. (It’s no surprise that the nation’s first gun control laws were passed in California – with help from then-governor Richard Nixon and the NRA – to take guns away from the Panthers). Since 2000, Oakland cops have killed 90 people – 74% working class and black.

In 1996 a group of four OPD officers – the “Rough Riders” – began a spree of violence that led to $11 million in settlements and 90 cases being thrown out. In 2000, all four officers were charged with terrorizing and beating suspects, planting evidence, and making false arrests over the four-year period. (An all-white jury would later clear the four officers on eight counts and deadlocked on the remaining 27). Since 2003, the OPD has been overseen by a federal monitoring board (labeled “independent” but currently led by a former Rochester police chief) and mandated to make certain reforms – changes the OPD consistently fails to make.

In 2009 Oscar Grant was killed by a shot to the back from Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle (video).

Throughout 2011 Occupy Oakland protestors were routinely harassed and beaten by police, and agent provocateurs infiltrated encampments. Protestor Scott Olsen was nearly killed by a non-lethal round to the forehead (video). Officers covered their name tags with black tape, illegally detained several reporters and protestors, and abused and denied council and medical care to many of those in custody. Settlements for police abuse during Occupy Oakland have topped $6 million, a portion of the nearly $74 million the city has spent since 1990 to settle over 417 lawsuits against officers – the largest sum spent by any police department in California.

In November of that same year, UC Davis police officers harassed and pepper sprayed protesting students (video).

In 2014 a California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer was filed savagely beating a 51-year-old black woman. No charges were filed (video).

In March of 2015 A Los Angeles cop executed Charly “Africa” Keunang with at least two “contact gunshot wounds” (muzzle of the gun pressed directly to the skin) to the chest. Keunang had been living on Skid Row, one of the most impoverished areas in the state.

On December 2 San Francisco cops executed Mario Woods firing squad style as he walked away from them (video).

In June of 2016 the OPD faced a PR setback when department practices of sex trafficking and statutory rape became impossible to hide. The now well known incident involved “at least fourteen Oakland police officers, three Richmond police, four Alameda County sheriff’s deputies, and a federal officer.” Mayor Libby Schaaf is scrambling to keep her job.

Less than three weeks ago police in Castaic shot and killed William Bowers, a homeless white man riding a bike.

Social Control

This is the reality of life in California, the great liberal Golden State – extreme wealth for the ruling class and its ilk, a sliver of mobility for a lucky few, increasing immobility for many, and dire poverty for the rest. Police officers in California have free reign to terrorize and control the majority of the state’s population in order to enforce foreclosures and displacements, protect private property, and crush political dissent. While women, those gender nonconforming, and people of color are particularly vulnerable to the state’s racist and divisive filth, all those who sell their labor power in order to make a living are susceptible to state violence. The lumpenproletariat and reserve pool of labor are deemed criminal and rendered vulnerable to the full brutality of the capitalist state.

As the wealth gap in California becomes more pronounced – as school budgets are further slashed, housing prices rise, medical expenses increase, social services are gutted – the police will be tasked with subduing an increasingly politicized working class. Already, the police are being given new weapons to control the masses. The battle lines have long ago been drawn around the class divisions in society, and the current mood is captured well in advertising for Urban Shield 2016: “Intense Training for Intense Times.” (Urban Shield is a cesspool of police and military grade weapons. All are encouraged to protest Urban Shield on September 9).

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A ruling class always seeks to do two things: increase profits and maintain social control, using all forms of coercion available.

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