National Debate on Policies to Address Police Violence Must Prioritize Local Community Control 

Interview with Max Rameau, Pan-African theorist and author, conducted by Scott Harris

Last month’s police murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee and the recent release of video recordings of five police officers’ deadly assault on the 29-year-old black man, has renewed a nationwide debate on how to address police violence.

The May 25, 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis provoked thousands of protests across the U.S. demanding an end to police violence targeting communities of color and a new system of accountability for law enforcement, but there’s been little substantive change. The Democratic-controlled House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in March 2021, but was blocked by Senate Republicans. The legislation had a number of provisions supported by advocates of police reform, but for many others it didn’t go far enough.

Now, as many Americans are once again focused on addressing the issues of police violence, Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Max Rameau, a Haitian-born Pan-African theorist, campaign strategist, organizer and author. Here, Max assesses the public policy options that are being proposed to rein in police violence, while advocating for the adoption of new systems of local, decentralized community control to “re-imagine and re-envision the very nature of policing itself.”

MAX RAMEAU: I agree that there’s an ongoing debate that has resurged and we’ve seen this happen over time. Of course, it’s happened in a big way with the Rodney King beating in ’92 and it’s just continued since then. Of course, it happened before that as well.

I think one thing that is a relatively new trend that I think we’re going to see more of is that we’ve seen large segments of the black community which have stopped debating about reforming the police. So there are these calls for, for example, to defund the police, which have some questions as to whether or not that would work for a number of reasons on a number of different sides. But that is a great example, I think, of where people have stopped saying, “Okay, these are the laws we should change, these are the policies we should change.”

There’s no longer a debate in a huge segment of the black community about reforming the police, because we think that history has borne out that that is not going to be effective. For those of us who are looking for really different solutions, this is a good moment for those who think that they want to or can reform the police, this has got to be a low moment for folks who are thinking about ways of reforming the police because there’s segments of the population that don’t literally don’t think that that’s possible.

Where I think the debate can and should be going and will increasingly be going will be in the areas of not changing the police in terms of changing policies, in terms of changing certain laws about how the police interact with people. But change who actually in charge of the police, both in a real sense, but also in an implied sense. We’ve seen this happen several times, of course, with several white cops beating up on on black motorists or even nonmotorists, beating them to death.

What we haven’t seen is groups of cops, particularly black cops, beating up white people. And I don’t think it’s because there’s no black cops who don’t like white people. It’s because the black cops know that they can’t do that and get away with it. Even they know on a subconscious level, even if nothing else, that they’re not working for the black community and they’re not able to do certain things to white people that they are able to do to black people. And that really is a question of “Who then is actually in charge, on whose behalf is the police operating?”

And I think what we need to change ultimately is who the police is fundamentally working for in an overt way and also in a more social way, in an implied way. I think that’s where the debate is going, and that’s why we’re calling for community control of the police. Not because we want to reform a police department or sue the police department, but because the only way to really change it is to change who they actually work for, to change the person who is paying the piper.

SCOTT HARRIS: Max, I wanted to ask you to talk specifically about what are some of the models of community control of police departments? I’m guessing that’s apart from some of the citizen review commissions or civilian complaint review boards that exist in many cities where citizens do have some input and oversight powers on certain police departments. But maybe you can give us some of the models that you think work best and maybe examples of those models in operation across the country.

MAX RAMEAU: So there are not many examples of this model that we’re talking about across the country. What we call now the civilian review boards you know, what they do is they take a system that’s already working in a particular way and that’s these police departments. And then they review what those police have already done.

And in some cases, they have the right to make recommendations. In some cases, they don’t have that right. In no case do they have the right to fire people, fire police who are murdering people. But in some cases they have some right to levy some kind of disciplinary action. That is not the same as control and that is not what we’re calling for.

In the late 1960s, the Black Panther Party called for community control over police. And they actually put it on the ballot in two cities: in Berkeley, California and in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In both instances, they lost. Millions of dollars were mobilized even at that time in 1968, 1969 were mobilized in order to fight against those ballot initiatives. And what they said is that those cities should be divided up into policing districts. And those policing districts could be made up from scratch or they could overlay exactly political districts or wards and that then each district would get to vote and say, “We want to keep the existing police department that we have or We don’t like this police department. We don’t have control over this police department. We want our own police department that follows the orders of those who live inside of the policing district.”

Now, we have a few differences between the way we’re thinking about it and the way the Black Panther Party was thinking about it. But the fundamental idea is the same: it’s that police departments should be democratized and that they should be run, they should be controlled by not some oversight at the end or some review process, but that local communities should have the ability to hire the police. They want to tell those police that this is the way we want you to enforce laws. These are the laws that we want you to focus on. These are the laws we don’t want you to focus on.

And then if the police don’t do that, they would have the ability to fire those individual police officers or even order those individual police officers arrested for breaking the law. And that would represent control.

At that point, review boards would seem like your child’s play in comparison. This would be the real democratization of these forces that are allowed to carry guns, allowed to deprive us of our liberty and sometimes even able to kill us.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Max Rameau (18:28) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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