James Burch has been organizing against police violence since 2016, when a group of five protestors went on a hunger strike to draw attention to the murders of men of color by the San Francisco Police Department. He’s now the Policy Director of the Anti Police-Terror Project, an Oakland-based group that has been calling for years to defund the Oakland Police Department and reinvest city funds in essential social services. Burch talked to The Forge about the organizing APTP has been doing during the uprisings and what he thinks is necessary to make “bold and principled” changes in the weeks and months ahead. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

Tell me about the Anti Police-Terror Project and how you came to get involved.

Anti Police-Terror Project is a Black-led organization that seeks to end state violence in communities of color. It was started in the wake of the murder of Oscar Grant as a coalition of folks who had the knowledge that if we didn't get into the streets and demand accountability, then there would never be accountability. Out of that evolved an organization that now seeks to be proactive against state violence, and, particularly, police violence. We seek to change the conditions that allow for the state to kill anyone, particularly Black, brown, Indigenous, LGBTQ, and disabled folk, and so that's where we find ourselves right now.

What organizing work did you do before you got involved with APTP?

My career has been dedicated to trying to fight back against the state, and, as my politics have evolved, so have the strategies that I've employed. When I was in college, I taught a class on short stories and poetries at a prison in Connecticut. And then, after college, I went and worked at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, where we used impact litigation to fight against the conditions of the criminal justice system, prisons, jails, detention centers. More recently, I have evolved into a policy person who follows the lead of folks who are directly impacted and folks on the ground. That started when the Frisco Five engaged in a hunger strike in San Francisco to protest the murders of Alex Nieto, Luis Gongora, Mario Woods, and Amilcar Perez Lopez. At that point, it was [a] movement moment. And those folks who went on a hunger strike ignited the city of San Francisco behind them and marched on City Hall, and ultimately got Chief [Greg] Suhr fired, removed from the police department. That’s where I went from someone who was a civil rights lawyer to someone who wanted to figure out everything I could about organizing, how to support organizers, and how to use that as the primary vehicle for change.

How does this moment feel different? 

This is nationwide. The country has galvanized behind the people of Minnesota and so the magnitude is so much greater. I think that the demands that are made reflect the magnitude of the situation. Whereas back then, the call was to fire Chief Suhr, now you're hearing the call to defund and abolish the police. It was clear to me then that the people of San Francisco wanted the police abolished, but as organizers they had to pick their strategy. This is just a much bigger moment for all of us and a bigger opportunity to put our real demands on the table and force the state to respond.

How do you see your organizing work with APTP as laying the groundwork for this moment?

I know that when Cat Brooks coined the phrase Anti-Police Terror Project, police terror was not a thing. We talk to people about police terror now, and they have a very visceral and clear idea of what you're talking about. The conditions, when it comes to the people's knowledge about who the police are and what they traditionally have and continue to do to the most vulnerable among us, it can't be a mystery unless your eyes are closed.

For the last five years now, we've been running the Defund OPD [Oakland Police Department] campaign. We’ve been stating that we want the police budget reduced by 50%. Obviously, we want the police abolished, but we thought that was as far as we could go without stretching the people's imagination beyond the point they were willing to understand. Now, when we see what's happening in Minnesota, it's like, "Well, what does 50% really mean now?" But again, as organizers, it's really important to create a big tent, as big a tent as possible, for all people to come in and understand our point of view in a moment like this without betraying our principles. In the City of Oakland, the political conditions for saying, "Abolish the police," right now, I don't think we would get as much traction as we do with, "Defund the police by 50%," which is blowing up across the City of Oakland. We made a People's Budget two or three years ago that called for the City Council to cut $30 million from the OPD budget, and the answer was no. It’s just really inspiring and really emboldening that the people have picked up this defund language so quickly and so comprehensively. We've seen several petitions in Oakland to defund OPD that we haven't even started. It’s kind of a funny moment where the people are speaking without even hearing the message that came from us or that we've been trying to lift up for the last several years.

Has it surprised you how fast what feels politically possible has shifted?

Personally, yes. Several months ago, Steven Taylor was murdered in a Walmart in San Leandro during a mental health crisis, and we threw a car caravan in his name, and it was a beautiful moment. And much love to everyone who came out and everyone who put it on. I really don't want to sell the moment short, but, at the same time, it didn't get anywhere near the attention police murder is getting right now. To me, every time the police kill someone, it is a tragedy. And I could list names all day of folks who we've been lifting up and just putting our whole hearts into honoring those names and not getting a fraction of the people who are coming out right now. 

I also want to lift up other movements that are having a difficult time getting attention [right now]. I've been speaking to some comrades who are worried about the DACA decision coming down from the Supreme Court any day now and not feeling like there's any space for them. We're holding a Black and brown solidarity rally for Erik Salgado, who was murdered by the California Highway Patrol two days ago. And the folks who have been rallying for Sean Monterrosa, who was murdered by Vallejo police, and trying to show solidarity for him as well. 

We're keenly aware that this is a moment. It’s one of those times where we really need to be bold and principled. We need to fight for the things that we dream about right now and not let chokeholds or police commissions or anything that is not central to the demand become the biggest victory we win. And, as someone who works with families who are victims of police violence, we lift up that they have told us that justice for them is banning chokeholds. And our organization will not leave that behind or make sure that that doesn't happen. But we know that politicians don't want to defund the police. They don't want to dismantle the police. They want to ban chokeholds and tear gas and rubber bullets, and put in some more transparency and accountability measures and then call it a day and say, "Okay, we have good police now." And it's just very difficult to honor both our abolitionist principles and our work to center families and their vision of justice. We have a vigil in a couple hours for a person who was killed two days ago. And we were in a Car Caravan the day before that for someone who was murdered in the jail. 

It is an unbelievable burden to continue to organize when we know policy decisions are being made at lightning speed right now by actors who are incredibly unprincipled and not grounded in the realities of the wants and needs of the people who have been doing this work, and the people, most importantly, who are most impacted by this work.

What do you think needs to be done to achieve those more radical changes?

Well, it depends [on the] arena we're talking about. Things are different at the local level than they are [at] the state or than they are at the national [level]. Locally, we're pushing defund. Locally, the most radical ideas can be pushed because there's the most direct representation. And then the state lags behind and the national lags behind that. And so it's very difficult to do because we're an organization over capacity right now to organize and then participate in both of those conversations. We're pushing defund at the local level, and really, we're pushing defund at the state level. We know that, at the state level, they're going to pass all of the lower-hanging fruit. We know that folks are going to pass those anyway, there's already a bill moving on chokeholds that no one's going to vote against. There's a bill on rubber bullets that no one's going to vote against. We need to see what bills come out in the next week or two and then see what the folks who are most impacted think. And then, at the same time, we’re pushing abolitionist principles loudly and proudly. 

What kind of innovative organizing strategies have you seen on the ground in Oakland during the uprisings?

I've seen a lot more attention be paid to access as a product of both the work of the disability justice movement and the COVID-19 situation. I know as APTP, we're constantly thinking about how we can provide a safe space for people to participate, for everyone to participate in this rebellion. Just because you're immunocompromised doesn't mean that you don't want to break curfew. And so, what can that look like, and how can we as an organization create a sustainable structure that allows for that to continue to be a priority for our organization moving forward? 

At the Fuck Your Curfew protest, we had ASL and live captioning. We also made space in the event thread and encouraged folks to break the curfew at home and post pictures of it in the event thread and on social media and tag their council people and the Mayor. We've done several car caravans to maintain social distancing, but when state repression amped up and the curfews were instituted, we felt there was a need to get the people into the streets, and so we attempted to hold a mask-on socially distanced protest. We have learned that social distancing and gathering in spaces like that, it doesn't happen. And at the same time, the risk of harm of state repression when a curfew is instituted is so great that we felt, as an organization, we not only had to make space for the people of Oakland, but also try to add to the folks who are putting pressure against the concept of a curfew in general across the United States. I think I saw North Carolina publicly break curfew. I was seeing posts about that. And then the other day, I saw, "Fuck your curfew," in New York in Brooklyn.

Our hope is to provide organizers across the country a blueprint to fight state repression. And we are, of course, not alone. There are absolutely brilliant organizers doing that across the country. More specifically, organizers in Minnesota have allowed us to believe that we can just demand that they dismantle our police system and that can be a thing that happens. And I just want to sit on that for a second because that is a new thing that I believe is instantly possible that I didn't believe several days ago. I think one of the other responsibilities in this moment is to constantly challenge what we believe is possible at all levels and not be afraid to be as big as the moment and settle for lesser demands than the things that we really want.

 

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