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The streets are on fire. The most widespread social upheaval in at least a generation has engulfed the United States, as the questions and concerns around policing and its brutality has taken center stage. In this volatile and urgent time, we find it deeply troubling and offensive to those who are protesting, to the families who have lost loved ones and to those who have lost their lives, that the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) would choose to honor Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Deputy Chief Michael Downing for the “Community Partnership Award” at its annual banquet on December 13, 2014.
The relatively recent murders of Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, and Eric Garner, to name a few, reveal a deeply rooted racial animus at the heart of the United States, as the shooting and murder of Black peoples has become routine. According to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, every 28 hours a Black person is killed by an official of the State. And just recently, in the wake of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the United Nations Committee on Torture issued a report that criticized the United States for the “frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals.” Here in Los Angeles, the Youth Justice Coalition issued a report in August 2014 which revealed that law enforcement in Los Angeles killed 589 people since 2000.
Embedded within this matrix of murder are deeply rooted issues of racial profiling, the militarization of policing, and the role of police as a form of domestic counter-insurgency within Black and Brown communities that has included everything from “Stop and Frisk” policies, to gang injunctions, as well as the increasing collusion between local police and the U.S. military. And the LAPD is no stranger to these policies – in fact it has been at the forefront of many of these developments, and Deputy Chief Michael Downing has been a central figure.
Michael Downing has been the Commanding Officer of LAPD’s Counter-Terrorism Special Operations Bureau (CTSOB) since 2006. Under his leadership the LAPD has created one of the largest architectures of surveillance, profiling, spying and infiltration of any police department in the United States. Contrary to MPAC’s claims that Downing has spoken out against Islamophobia, the very programs Downing leads are creating a culture of fear and suspicion that give further rise to anti-Muslim racism and the continued profiling of Black and Brown communities. Here are some examples:
- In November 2007 the LAPD Counter-Terrorism Bureau under Michael Downing launched the Muslim Mapping program. At an October 2007 U.S. Senate hearing, Downing said the intent of the program was “to take a deeper look at their history, demographics, language, culture, ethnic breakdown, socio-economic status, and social interactions.” In an interview with the Los Angeles Times Downing stated that MPAC “had embraced the vaguely defined program ‘in concept.'” The program was ultimately scrapped due to a strong backlash by the larger Muslim community and their allies.
- In March 2008 the LAPD-CTSOB spearheaded the National Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) program by issuing Special Order 11 – changed to Special Order (SO) 1 in January 2012. Defining suspicious activity as “observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning of activities as taking pictures, using video cameras, drawing diagrams and several other benign behaviors. Many of the files are transmitted to Fusion Centers where they may be uploaded into national data bases to be shared with thousands of law enforcement agencies, private contractors and other government agencies and entities. Michael Downing is one of the strongest proponent of this program. A March 2013 LAPD Inspector General audit of the SAR program revealed that in four month sample of race data 82% of these secret files – SARs were opened on individuals identified as non-white and the largest number was Black people, proving the inherent racial profiling embedded in such programs.
- In June 2011 Michael Downing testified at the U.S. House of Representatives on “The Threat of Muslim-American Radicalization in U.S. Prisons” where he raised the specter of “inmate meetings and gatherings taking place using religion as a ruse for other activities” and for jail staff to monitor such activities and use video and audio equipment for these purposes. Given that young Black men are disproportionately the overwhelming majority of incarcerated folks in the United States, many converting to Islam, it is not surprising that Michael Downing would be so concerned as to “take our (LAPD’S) model and counter-terrorism strategy for Los Angeles and as much as possible apply these principles to prisons.” This practice of policing prisoners reflects a deeper fear of the politicization of inmates, in the tradition of Malcolm X, George Jackson and others – the rise of Black liberation movements and the demand for social justice is too high a price for state actors like Michael Downing to allow to flourish.
The racism of the LAPD and of every other police department in the country is a racism that permeates the social and political fabric of American life. As people of conscience, we cannot continue to support repressive policies in the name of political expediency and what amounts to rank opportunism, particularly when it’s at the expense of the very Black and Brown communities that many of us come from. Let’s stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are protesting and raising their voices, and let us abandon our desires for “honorary whiteness”- for there is no truth to this lie. The sooner we realize this, the closer we will get to real political engagement. Wake up MPAC, you are on the wrong side of history.