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Journal of the Plague Year (#18)

Berkeley, CA July 20, 2020 — You’re wandering around the East Bay Hills, energized with the desire to express solidarity with millions of  your fellow citizens, angry and determined to do something abut the source of their anger.  

Look for a little sign saying “Steam Trains” and an adjacent parking lot on the east side of Grizzly Peak Boulevard.  (Which may or may not be locked down, re-opened,  or something in between).  Once shorn of your car (or bike!) look for a smaller sign indicating a path to the Vollmer Peak Trail.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it:  Find out who Vollmer was, look at the righteous recent communications from Berkeley’s Mayor and City Council about “A New Vision for Public Safety.”  And communicate to them what you’ve found out: Vollmer needs have his soiled name removed from the site.

Here’s some help.

According to Wikipedia,  August Vollmer (1876-1955) was a partner in Patterson & Vollmer, a hay, grain, wood and coal supply store, at the corner Shattuck Avenue and  Vine Street near a fire station just north of downtown Berkeley. 

In 1898, Vollmer enlisted in the United States Marines, fighting in the Spanish-American War in the Philippines.  It was, by all accounts, one of the most brutal and bloody conflicts in U.S. history,  although since most of its estimated 300,000 victims were Philippino civilians it is usually airbrushed out of history as taught in the U.S. 

In 1907, when Berkeley changed  from being a town to being a city, Vollmer  transitioned from Town Marshal to Police Chief . He was elected president of the California Association of Police Chiefs, even before titled changed  from Marshall to Chief.  Vollmer reorganized the all-white Berkeley police force into a military clone.

So accepted was such a model in his era that in 1916, UC Berkeley established a criminal justice program headed by Vollmer.  His courses taught how there were "racial types” and how “heredity" and "racial degeneration" contributed to crime. 

Building on his reputation, Vollmer then was hired to “reform” the Los Angeles Police  Department, a notoriously corrupt and brutal organization, especially cruel towards those perceived to be of Mexican origin.  He was also a proponent of “scientific” policing, including the now infamous “lie detector,” which was subsequently found to be so unreliable that results from its use are now excluded as evidence in courts.

As the LAPD got ever more violent over the ensuing decades,  Vollmer’s reputation was nevertheless saved.  His academic advocacy of social work agencies to deal with “quality of life” infractions committed by “racial types” that did not orient them towards deviance (i.e. white folks).    

The esteem for Vollmer’s  leadership blurred over his racist distinctions among ethnicities, which had been cited decades earlier by Hitler apologists as explanations for Nazi genocide against ”non-Aryan” (i.e. Jewish) people, as well as “deviants” (LGBT, mentally ill, disabled, and communists). 

Berkeley’s government – controlled for years by a city-wide elected Republican majority – lionized Vollmer.  After his  death, “Bald Peak,” in what became Tilden Regional Park (of which Vollmer was a founder) was renamed for him.  

Berkeley’s overwhelmingly white police were not necessarily less macho than others, but they liked to think of themselves as different.  They even had brown military uniforms as late as 1987 when they changed to the standard blue.

Last week’s horrific invasion of Portland, Oregon by several thousand camo-clad, unidentifiable federal forces can be seen as a logical successor to uncontrolled and out of control “law and order” elements within law enforcement, of which Vollmer’s era was a part.   While this activity had been present in this country,  much before Vollmer, its continuance is considered part of his legacy.  In fact, since before the United States’ 18th century formation, vicious law enforcement was a key element in the institution, expansion, and maintenance of slavery.  

Each zealot who has power seems to seek to institutionalize and codify enforcement over law.  It  is hardly surprising that Trump is part of that dangerous and destructive heritage.  A new gang called BORTAC (Border Patrol Tactical Unit) seems to be the hub around which other muscular crews are deployed in Portland. BORTAC incorporates members of the TSA, the Federal Protective Service, and the Coast Guard.  Nominally in command is Chad Wolf, acting secretary of Homeland Security, whose earlier notoriety came from his advocacy for and implementation of   government agencies which forcefully (and illegally) separated suspected illegal immigrants from their children. (See #7 in this series for the Reagan era’s expansion plan for nationwide military rule through “Operation Cable Splicer” and “Operation Garden Plot.”)

There is always justification put forth by governments for such seemingly unconstitutional behavior.   The Trump-Barr cult is no different. But if you think that might change with the now likely ouster of Trump et al, it should be remembered that he who might be our next President had a key role in providing such justifications. As did his political party.

“Joe Biden and the other Democrats in the Senate introduced legislation that resulted in the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984,” writes Harvard professor Jill Lepore in the latest “New Yorker.”  

“A decade later as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden helped draft the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, whose provisions included mandatory sentencing.  In May, 1991, two months after the Rodney King beating, Biden introduced the Police Officers Bill of Rights” which makes it almost impossible to prosecute uniformed officers for committing murder and injuries.

Lepore also reminds us that Democrats Biden, Clinton, and Obama were all heirs to their party’s implementation of institutionalized illegality and brutality codified by Lyndon Johnson.  His “Great Society” included the 1965  “Law Enforcement Assistance Act”  “under which the federal government would supply local police with military-grade weapons.”  

During the 1965 Watts uprising against police brutality the LAPD chief,  William H. Parker, said he was acting “very much like fighting the Viet Cong.”  This included Vollmer era policing once again, as the LAPD spent a disproportionate amount of time patrolling Black neighborhoods and arresting  and brutalizing Black  people.’  (Note to the Berkeley/East Bay Regional Park District authorities.  When the LAPD’s central headquarters was demolished in 2019, the name “Parker Center”  disappeared with it.  The new headquarters does not have a person’s name on it.)

“Johnson’s “Great Society,” Lepore concludes, “essentially ended when he asked Congress to pass the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which had the effect of diverting money from social programs to policing.”  

“Qualified immunity” laws effectively shielded killer cops from prosecution, and even from paying parts of civil settlements from their actions (though state and local governments are not so immune, and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are paid to victims and survivors of encounters with police.) 

A major demand of the “defund the police” movement calls for repealing “qualified immunity” provisions.  Biden opposes such repeal.

Vollmer’s era also featured the already historic and now continuing U.S. effort to “model” national governments around the world.  Under Johnson, at least 82 countries received equipment and “training” via U.S. funded agencies and corporations.  Nixon and Reagan continued LBJ’s trajectory, and of course so does Trump.  How seriously this needs changing can be seen daily, in accounts of how law enforcement kills with impunity throughout “blue” California, in Oakland (“Alameda County Cleared Officer but OPD said man shot in 2008 Was Not A Threat to Police”  East Bay Times, 7/19/2020) and Vallejo (“Pelosi Calls for FBI Probe Into Police Killing” (ibid).

Internationally, the U.S. can count on some approval for actions like the Trump Troopers in Portland.  Having “trained” government and private “security” forces, the U.S. can turn to conscienceless leaders in places like Egypt and the Philippines for mutual applause.   

And even formerly “progressive” politicians like Mexico’s Manuel Lopez Obrador, who once in power find it more convenient to institutionalize violence rather than law.  “In effect, the army and navy are going to be handling police duties until 2024,” said Santiago Aguirre, director of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center in Mexico City. “[Both] have a long history of not being accountable, especially in cases of serious human rights violations.” (NY Times, 7/12/2020)

Before visiting Trump in Washington earlier this month, Lopez Orbrador issued a decree that “perpetuates the practice of deploying Mexico’s armed forces for policing duties as the country’s homicide rate climbs to new records. Mexico recorded its most murderous month on record in March – a grim tally nearly matched in April, in spite of Covid-19 quarantines throughout the country.” (Guardian, 5/20/2020).

When not busily invading their own country (Portland) Trump and his minions are contributing to its depopulation by their incompetent, deadly approach to the COVIC-19 pandemic.  More slowly, and without much publicity, they are dealing in  individual death.  Not many people can feel safer now that Dustin Honken, Wesley Purkey, and Daniel Lewis Lee are dead, executed in an Indiana federal prison last week.  The death penalty has been abolished in 108 countries, and is either outlawed or unused in all but 29 U.S. states and territories.   So-called “pro-life,” supposedly devoutly religious politicians like attorney general William Barr choose to  take what many see as God’s power to themselves.  

And once you do that, and once you believe force and killing are the answers to so many vexing issues, and once you build on what is already the most lethal collection of force on the planet, what’s to stop you from doing what to whom?

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