Wanted: An End to Police Terror

The front page of the Philadelphia Free Press, “an independent revolutionary newspaper,” declares two police officers “wanted by the people” for the killing of Harold Brown (May 25, 1970).

When police kill unarmed Black people, you often hear pleas to lock up the cops in prison. But it rarely happens. Within the space of a couple weeks, however, after the killing of George Floyd and the brutal attempted suppression of rebellion in response, this plea has been accompanied by more radical demands to abolish both police and prisons.1 Popular demands now go beyond and even contradict the traditional calls for indictment, conviction, and incarceration of killer cops. Of course the carceral state of police and prisons has not gone away yet, but the people in the streets are more convinced than ever that it doesn’t need to exist and are more committed than ever to its eradication. Defunding police is on the table, as a step toward the positive project of abolition, by which we mean the active creation of new social forms and institutional pathways outside the capitalist state that make its versions of justice and safety irrelevant and unsustainable.2

How did this shift in sentiment occur so quickly? The contemporary ordering of social life in the United States has been marked by a hypertrophic penal sector that metes out punishment to the most vulnerable but offers impunity for capital. The pursuit of justice has been defined by a rote binary of punished in a cage versus unpunished and free. This situation shapes the demand for traditional, state-sanctioned, prison-based punishment even of killer cops.3 And yet within the language of vengeance or retribution toward police who kill, with the blunt anger and desire to inflict pain that shapes this demand, there is also a hidden desire for another way, for a way out. There is also an acknowledgment of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of convicting white cops under the present system. The rapid and ongoing fluctuations in the tenor of demands, from punishment to its rethinking, therefore, help us to re-examine the plea to punish, and to find immanent within it the seeds of this abolitionist approach. One source is unexpected: the do-it-yourself wanted poster that many militants have carried in the streets after a police murder of a Black person.

The present rebellion compels us to ask how the wanted poster, which is an instrument of the penal sanction and repression so frequently wielded against radicals, also became an instrument and incubator of freedom. If official wanted posters illustrate the edges of state power, necessarily highlighting attempts by revolutionaries, dissidents, and misfits to escape its grasp, unofficial wanted posters from a venerable Black and communist tradition provide a window onto subterranean social struggles to reconfigure the state, making impossible demands upon it. By directing the mechanisms of the state against it, these protest artifacts signal how to transcend the capitalist state.

***

Think about the radicals whose wanted posters are instantly recognizable. Angela Y. Davis should be first on the list. Assata Shakur is next. Her poster highlights her slave name, listing Assata Shakur as one of her aliases. Today, thousands, maybe millions, around the globe revere Davis. Her iconic image on a poster created and circulated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), with her gravity-defying natural hair, contributed to her fame. That the FBI needs to continually update its wanted poster for Assata Shakur with digitally rendered age progressions is a testament to her ability to remain free, to avoid re-capture. 

Buried in the FBI’s online repository of wanted posters is a capsule history of radical Left militancy. Assata Shakur represents the most militant strains of the Black liberation struggle, while less well-known figures like Leo Frederick Burt, accused of bombing a university building in Madison, Wisconsin, and Elizabeth Duke and Donna Joan Borup of the May 19 Communist Organization represent the white New Left’s turn to sabotage and guerrillismo in the 1970s and 1980s. Until recently, the FBI’s Wanted Posters were the place where you were most likely to see people identified as Marxist-Leninists. The repository highlights at least one younger militant, accused of sabotage for the Earth Liberation Front. 

These aging posters index what Marx, pulling from Shakespeare, called the “old mole.” They mark the underground and submerged spirit of revolution, which occasionally bursts into view. When this happens, some cower. Others exult. Along the way, the mole eats into roots, destabilizing treestands. As Peter Stallybrass points out in a close reading of Marx, “The modern German for subversive activity—Maulwurfsarbeit—means literally the work of the mole.”4

The mole represents both repetition—what else can a mole do but burrow?—and newness—wherever it emerges, it breaks new ground. The wanted poster represents a similar dynamic. The images are always outdated. The past haunts the present, but time’s passage is a ghostbuster. The poster will only ever be effective if someone spots the wanted person now and glimpses their former self. Whatever the offense, the act of fleeing, of being on the lam, enacts refusal to submit to constituted authority. One may have engaged in revolutionary activity to end up on the wanted poster, but the fact that the wanted poster remains tacked up in the post office illustrates how revolution simmers, changing its complex properties in the process. Flight becomes a continuous imperative, revolutionary in itself. The old mole grows wings.

***

If the wanted poster is a hieroglyph of state power, of the police capacity for repression and ability to inflict racialized terror, it can also be turned against state power. It turns out right as New Left militants were appearing on FBI Wanted Posters, anti-revisionist and New Communist Movement groups were producing their own do-it-yourself wanted posters, fashioned in protest against state violence. These urgent documents re-theorize state legitimacy, crime, and violence itself, refusing bourgeois conceptions. 

In Harlem, five days of increasingly militant protest followed the killing of a 15-year-old Black boy, James Powell, on July 16, 1964, by an off-duty white police lieutenant, Thomas Gilligan. This episode of unrest inaugurated the decade’s cycle of rebellion across northern cities. Within a day or two of the outbreak of protest, members of Progressive Labor plastered the streets of Harlem with a poster. “WANTED FOR MURDER,” it blared across the top, above a photograph of a white police officer. “GILLIGAN, THE COP,” it read beneath the photo. Which murder he had committed required no explanation. This actually was not the first time Lieutenant Gilligan, a former Marine, had shot someone on the streets of New York City. This killing, however, was the most politically consequential. 

This poster bore an address and phone number for Progressive Labor’s Harlem Defense Council. Progressive Labor was a relatively new formation, begun as a magazine. A left Communist Party offshoot hatched by two expelled members, it was one of the first anti-revisionist groups of the 1960s. Calling itself Progressive Labor Movement, it had been active and visible in the preceding months in New York City and nationally. A later iteration would play a key role in the break-up of Students for a Democratic Society at the decade’s end. 

After an uneasy calm returned to the streets, a Black electrician, Bill Upton, who chaired Progressive Labor’s Harlem branch, organized a march a few weeks later. It violated a ban on protest issued by the New York Police Department (NYPD). He faced a number of criminal charges as a result and was eventually sentenced to a year in prison on a charge of “criminal anarchy.” During the sentencing hearing, a defiant Epton addressed the court in a long, incantatory speech that traversed the globe to emphasize interconnections between state violence in Harlem and US neo-colonial conquest from Africa to Latin America to Southeast Asia. Within the umbrella question “Who are the real criminals?” Epton asked, “Did we issue the Gilligan Wanted for Murder poster?” “Yes, we did,” he responded to his own query.

Did I write articles exposing the U.S. government’s role in the rape of the Congo? Yes, I did!

And do I support the Congolese people in their struggle to regain control of their country? Yes, I do!

Did I speak and agitate on the streets of Harlem, and all over the city, for a better way of life for the people of this city and country? Yes, I did!

The Harlem Defense Council’s wanted poster predicted that existing avenues of remedy for police abuse would be dead-ends. Sure enough, the NYPD’s civilian complaint review board, composed of departmental appointees, absolved Gilligan, the cop, of wrongdoing. A grand jury cleared him as well. Black New Yorkers already shared a widespread consensus that the existing civilian review board, created in 1953, was toothless. In fact, the initial mobilization in Harlem, the day after Powell’s death, was a rally demanding the creation of a new and independent review board. The next day, protesters marched on a precinct house, calling for Gilligan to be suspended. Cops soon responded with gunshots, rifle butts, and truncheons. 

New York’s Mayor Wagner resisted these calls for an external review board, buoyed by a picket of 5,000 off-duty police officers in June 1965. Some cops shouted at a small gathering of Congress of Racial Equality counter-protesters: “Send ‘em to Vietnam, that’s where they belong.” This sentiment had been disseminated nationwide from the top, by law-enforcement leaders like Honolulu’s police chief Dan S. C. Liu, who called review boards a “cancerous assault on America’s liberty.” To a national gathering of mayors in 1963, Liu railed that review boards were “a secret weapon of a foreign ideology whose first objective in a bid to gain control of a nation is to disrupt, corrupt and, in general, to destroy the police.” If review boards were tantamount to Bolshevism, then the wanted poster decrying their impotence represented an even more anarchic form of abolitionism.

One day short of a year after Gilligan killed Powell, another NYPD officer killed another Black man, this time in Brooklyn. The Harlem Defense Council noted the grim anniversary on another wanted poster, now for “LIEBOWITZ, THE COP.” Wagner’s successor John Lindsay instituted a weak version of civilian review, itself quickly outlawed by referendum after the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association mobilized against it. 

Police were enraged by these posters, and their creators faced state persecution. For his part, Gilligan sued, claiming libel and demanding upwards of $5 million in damages. Named in his lawsuit were, among others, Bill Epton, who admitted his role, Martin Luther King, Jr., who had nothing to do with it, and the print-shop that had printed the poster. The lawsuit wandered through the courts before petering out. In a direct link to the responses of repression and misdirection now emanating from the highest echelons of the state, Gilligan’s attorney was the “genius” largely responsible for Donald Trump’s early political education, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s most loyal acolyte during the second Red Scare, Roy Cohn.

***

Less than four months after Cohn filed Gilligan’s lawsuit, the Los Angeles branch of Progressive Labor, now named the Progressive Labor Party, issued its own wanted poster. This one followed the rebellion in Watts in August 1965. Like Harlem’s uprising in July 1964, police abuse also touched off the uprising on the west coast. After Rena Price charged a cop while defending her son Marquette Frye from police, she was arrested. So was another woman. While onlookers to the arrests battled officers who tried to disperse them, rumors quickly spread that Black women had been brutalized. These rumors were the spark. Decades of racist brutality were tinder, laid down by the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and the California Highway Patrol. And the vociferous response to the uprising by local police was like the Santa Ana winds, a hot draft of bigotry and abuse that both led to and followed untold destruction of blocks upon blocks of Black Los Angeles. 

The Progressive Labor Party placed the blame at the feet of the LAPD’s deeply conservative chief, William H. Parker. “WANTED FOR MURDER,” the poster read, “Parker the Cop / in Watts.” Parker had been so certain of his agency’s ability to quell unrest that earlier in the year he refused an offer from Washington of planning aid, meant to cool tensions and prepare the police for an uprising. That decision paralleled one by the mayor, Sam Yorty, to decline millions in War on Poverty funds from Washington, lest they empower L.A.’s poor. By putting Parker on the poster, who had not himself pulled any trigger, unlike Gilligan, the wanted poster raised the culpability to the systemic level while acknowledging that Parker was the most powerful individual in Los Angeles, particularly when it came to Watts. During the rebellion, 23 people died at the hands of police and sheriffs, and well over 3,000 were arrested. The two cops who died were hit with “friendly fire.”5

The shocking sight of the old mole in August 1965 debilitated Parker. He underwent emergency heart surgery around six months after the rebellion, and in July 1966, he collapsed at a ceremony while receiving a standing ovation from over a thousand veterans of the Marine Corps. 

***

Police around the country kept killing people, and the Progressive Labor Party, as well as other anti-revisionist groups, kept issuing wanted posters. If the second Red Scare was characterized by the demand that radicals “name names,” these posters turned the injunction back on the state. In May 1970, the cover of the Philadelphia Free Press, “an independent revolutionary newspaper,” featured photos of two cops, “WANTED BY THE PEOPLE.” “Caution,” advised the paper—playing on tropes of the police procedural, a genre William Parker almost single-handedly invented—these cops “are armed and should be considered dangerous.” 

In 1973, NYPD officers killed ten-year-old Clifford Glover.6 The mimeographed poster that appeared after the young Black boy died was rough-hewn and raw, as if to indicate what the bullets had done to his back as they entered. Unlike most posters, this one depicted both the shooter and the young victim, to emphasize the age disparity. The poster included the home address, in Suffolk County, of “Pig Thomas Shea,” about 30 miles from where Glover encountered him. Putting the address on the poster shattered the blue wall of silence that typically protected police accused of misconduct.7 It was also a signal: justice would require boisterous, unauthorized tactics, not adherence to official procedure. Beneath the word “Wanted,” the poster read “DEAD FOR-THE MURDER of CLIFFORD GLOVER.” The wanted poster delivered the Old Testament by xerox.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1976, a cop killed a fifteen-year-old boy, Randy Evans, in Brooklyn, by shooting him point blank in the head. “Wanted for Racist Murder” declared another Progressive Labor Party poster, naming the killer and issuing a date for a “Peoples’ trial.” “Randy’s Crime: Being Black,” the poster stated. At the cop’s official trial, the judge declared the cop not guilty for the killing, by reason of insanity. A spectator in the courtroom shrieked at the officer, “You better commit suicide!” Even some Black cops had protested earlier when the union posted bail.

***

In most situations, one appears on a wanted poster before conviction, before a finding of criminal guilt by a court. The wanted poster represents an encounter with the law and a failure or mistake on the part of the legal bureaucracy. Usually, the person got away. Often, the poster would note that she had a prior record. What makes a wanted person a risk is that the law already knows her. The radical DIY wanted posters, displaying killer cops, suggest that the audience already knows the cops—and already knows they would get away with it. They evince the collective knowledge that comes from living in a police state, the experience of hiding and dissembling, of everyday fugitivity. The year before Gilligan killed young Powell, James Boggs wrote that the mention of a police state for most Americans conjures “some other country,” as the average person “doesn’t see his own police state.”8 These wanted posters were guides, organizing tools, helping to elucidate the mechanics, if not the purpose, of police power.

Ordinarily, the risk calculus of policing selects not from a race-neutral and juridically vacant baseline, but treats prior exposure to state violence and abandonment by capital as criminal propensity. This suggests not only that cops need criminals. The criminal suspect as such exists as a product of policing. The relationship is one of mutual production and reproduction.9 Yet the DIY wanted poster also interrupts this mutuality. By individualizing the system-wide violence of state power, the poster makes tangible what otherwise can seem anonymous and abstract, in turn revealing how the traditional wanted poster, depicting Angela Davis or Assata Shakur, becomes an invitation to militancy, hailing the disaffected to resist apathy and fight back. 

For Progressive Labor’s Black organizers, the wanted posters continued a tradition of petitioning begun by other Black communists, most famously represented by We Charge Genocide, William Patterson’s detailed compendium of violence against Black people, presented to the United Nations in 1951. We Charge Genocide offered 250 pages of evidence that Black people were experiencing systematic elimination, through lynchings and police terror, as well as socioeconomic neglect and exploitation by white America.10

This framework informed John Harris, a Progressive Labor activist in Los Angeles, who issued a wanted poster in 1966 that resulted in a charge of criminal syndicalism.11 The communist critique placed police killings on the same level as capitalism’s tendency to create racialized labor aristocracies and to hold a surplus of impoverished laborers in reserve. The people killed instantly by the discharge of police bullets and the people killed slowly by discharge from the labor process were one and the same. On his poster, John Harris connected another LAPD shooting, of Leonard Deadwyler, which he called “Murder by cops,” to “death by unemployment,” due to poverty and hunger. Both were “methods of systematic extermination.”12 Beyond demanding “a court of the people” to try the killer cop, Mayor Yorty, and Chief Parker, Harris argued that South Los Angeles, the Black part of the city, constituted one giant concentration camp. In this camp, Black people faced rampant unemployment, even though General Motors and Goodyear operated major plants smack in the middle. He argued that if eighty percent of the residents of South Los Angeles were Black, then eighty percent of the employees of the plants should be Black too. And if that did not change, then Black people should shut down the production process. Progressive Labor distributed the poster at demonstrations outside an inquest into the Deadwyler shooting. Harris (correctly) argued that the inquest was unlikely to bring justice, and for Black people in Los Angeles to ask the LAPD to fix its own racism was like Jews petitioning Hitler. “This extermination isn’t going to be stopped by going to the court of the exterminator,” he declared. 

On all of these DIY wanted posters, the killers were white, the victims Black. By reversing the expected race/class polarity, particularly by displaying Parker himself, these posters became instruments of critique, revealing not only the pervasive political whiteness of police, but policing as a machine of racial stigmatization.13 Numerous experts who testified to Congress about these posters, as discussed below, misinterpreted them. The fear was that they aimed simply to flip the script of police racism: inspired by the agit-prop, Black people would now kill cops with impunity. But these posters did not hope to flip the script so much as transcend it. By issuing a modest, pedestrian demand for arrest of a known killer, they illustrated how incapable the criminal justice system was to provide justice.

***

Yet the DIY wanted poster, as a form, is politically ambiguous. If anyone can make one, anyone can appear on one. During the 1960s, a couple years after their appearance on the Left, they started to appear on the Right too. The type of political action that accompanied them distinguished their purpose. Also in response to the state’s approach to rebellion, a right-wing outfit in Detroit called Breakthrough published a wanted poster. It depicted Jerome P. Cavanagh, the (white) mayor of Detroit (1961–1970). The prime mover behind Breakthrough was a (white) Detroit parks department employee, Donald Lobsinger. He was a troll decades before the first online shit-post. Lobsinger frequently disrupted progressive events. His crew forged tickets to gain access to a speech in Grosse Pointe by Martin Luther King, Jr., in March 1968, just three weeks before his assassination. King declared the heckling, which Lobsinger led, the worst he had yet experienced at an indoors speech. Lobsinger later estimated Breakthrough mobilized 100, or even up to 300, to picket the speech. He assigned some of Breakthrough’s wags to drive their cars in circles around the venue, menacing attendees and honking, while displaying placards that labeled King a “traitor.” That had been the message of Breakthrough’s wanted poster in 1967, too, directed at Cavanagh. 

Breakthrough’s poster offered a thousand dollars as a reward for the arrest and conviction of Mayor Cavanagh. The poster even declared that there was an “official warrant of arrest,” sworn before a notary public. In this sense, this poster evinced trust in binding legalisms. Breakthrough accused Cavanagh, after the rebellion in Detroit, of “criminal negligence,” consisting of “Malfeasance, Misfeasance, and Nonfeasance of the duties of the chief law enforcement officer as Mayor of the City of Detroit.” Although 43 people were killed, plus almost 1,200 injured, and over 7,000 arrested during the rebellion, Lobsinger felt the law-enforcement response was feeble. He blamed the mayor, while declaring that the rebellion was only a foretaste of the coming guerrilla insurrection, when Black Detroiters would invade the white suburbs, like the one where King spoke. Breakthrough’s slogan was “America Forever, Communism Never.” 

***

In general, the DIY wanted poster was an urgent and immediate response, meant for localized consumption. It galvanized neighbors and spooked local authorities. Particularly as mimeograph and photocopy technologies advanced, the posters became easy to produce and easy to discard. Yet a couple of the 1960s Progressive Labor Party posters gained longevity, as the fears of Black guerrillas that Breakthrough expressed went mainstream. The posters became part of the permanent record of U.S. government efforts to suppress Black insurgency. 

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) focused on the wanted poster for Gilligan, the cop, in its 1967 hearings on “Subversive Influences in Rioting, Looting, and Burning.” The official record of the hearings reprinted that poster and others discussed in this essay, along with photographs of Epton and other Progressive Labor members. The hearing record included a photograph, originally printed in Life magazine, of exuberant young Black protesters storming into the street, holding aloft the Gilligan Wanted Poster. These posters alarmed HUAC members because they seemed to indicate a pattern. One law-enforcement expert, Herman D. Lerner, who had worked for both military and civilian outfits and lectured regularly at the Agency for International Development’s International Police Academy, answered a key question about the subversive influence on rioting by identifying “definite patterns … repeated over and over again”:

The style and timing of many police brutality allegations have been identified by specialists on the riots as characteristic of certain subversive groups; the poster entitled “Wanted for Murder” with the name and the picture of a policeman who has been made a temporary symbol of police brutality was used both in Harlem by the Harlem Defense Council, a subsidiary of the Progressive Labor Movement, during the 1964 riots and in Los Angeles; the stoning of firemen after fires have been set; the organized chanting of slogans; the references to genocide; the distribution of inflammatory handbills by known subversive groups giving instructions on how to make Molotov cocktails and on how to disrupt and to kill white persons; the actual behavior of rioters in a manner consistent with these instructions; and the use of youth and student groups as auxiliaries in ways which a number of subversive groups have done over the years. 

The frequent, systematic repetition of such standardized events, styles, and sequences in widely dispersed areas could not be accidental. For such events to have occurred just once would have required planning, organizing, training, and preparing.

With this answer about the pattern of tactics shared among radicals, Lerner revealed the fundamental problem with the accusation that subversives were behind the unrest of 1964–1967. Although it was, of course, true that Marxists like Bill Epton provided a ready explanation for both the triggering incidents and the underlying anger of Black Americans, this explanation tried to make sense of the pattern of police abuse. Rather than to subversive manipulation, the “frequent, systematic repetition of such standardized events” applied far more directly to Black people’s experience of the racist urban life-world of capitalist America, with a die cut by federal policy: joblessness, degraded and exorbitantly priced housing, inadequate schools, usurious consumer credit and overpriced goods, inattentive medical care, aloof elected officials, patronizing but meager social services, and the discretionary despotism of policing backstopping all of it.

***

Today, the old mole is breaking new ground. Rebellion is more widespread than in decades. The proximate spur was police killing a Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, five years after the uprising in Baltimore after the police killing of Freddie Gray, and almost six years after the uprisings in Ferguson after a police officer killed Mike Brown, Jr. At the protests that marked the efflorescence of Black Lives Matter across the country then, it was common to hear demands for criminal charges against killer cops. Chants you may have joined included: “Can’t stop! Won’t stop! Until killer cops are in cell blocks!” and “Indict! Convict! Send those killer cops to jail! The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” The intensity, breadth, and rapid spread of the current uprising indicates how deeply people who voiced those chants five or so years ago now feel the inadequacy of the demand. 

The whole damn system has conditioned us to equate penal sanction with justice, and prison with retribution—because everyone knows how horrific prisons are in the United States. Prosecutors operate within this attenuated ethical compass but still find ways to shrink it further. After Mike Brown’s killer avoided indictment and people rose up, Baltimore state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby moved quickly to charge six police officers in Freddie Gray’s case with a range of offenses, including second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. At the time, many observers believed these charges were designed to pacify young Black people in Baltimore, who had been in open rebellion and may have rebelled again on May 1, 2015, if not for the charges. Ultimately, none of the officers would be convicted, in part due to Mosby’s incompetence.14 In the short term, these charges may have been effective at lowering the temperature, but in the longer term, individualizing what was systemic only delayed a reckoning. A similar bid to pacify the country by arresting the killers of George Floyd has failed.

The rarity of criminal charges for police who kill contrasts with the common tendency of prosecutors to overcharge regular people, turning misdemeanors magically into felonies in an intimidating bid to force plea deals.15 This machinery of justice grinds people down. Thus, a common refrain among students of the carceral state is that the problems of interpersonal violence and state violence are connected: the former expresses a lack of social protection, the latter an excess of policing. Underprotected and overpoliced—this is the fate of so many minoritized neighborhoods across the United States and beyond. Since the 1960s, protests continually highlight the interconnection: the criminal justice system is the only answer to injustice but it perpetually fails to bring justice, especially by protecting cops from punishment while providing no opportunities to redress economic injustice.

A pessimistic reading of the DIY wanted posters places them in a genealogy that ends in Mosby’s failed prosecution of the Baltimore cops. This reading sees them as demanding more police power when policing falls short, just as police reformers inside the profession have sought for decades. It trusts that imprisonment brings closure to survivors, rather than further extending the ripples of pain and loss. Its impulse is a hope that finally, at long last, state violence will be directed against the right targets, not the wrong ones, against the capitalist class, rather than on its behalf. This reading is incorrect, however. No one who has been in the streets since the killing of George Floyd could buy it. No one burns down a police precinct house hoping it will lead to the successful prosecution of a killer cop. It is the action of those who understand that the police are the least democratically accountable institution in the country.

The more generous reading offered here understands that the process of raising political awareness pushes people through the limited demand to lock up killer cops and to move beyond it—in order to conclude the whole damn system is guilty as hell. This is the reading the movements encourage. Among the most radical and committed movement opponents of the carceral state are those who lose loved ones to police violence, like Nicholas Heyward, Sr., whose thirteen-year-old son was shot and killed by a cop in Brooklyn in 1994. Heyward died at the end of 2018, after dedicating twenty-five years of his life to reining in police power in New York City. Carl Dix remembered Heyward as connecting the killing of his son to 400 years of oppression of Black people, “He didn’t just want to know that the system was perpetrating injustices against the people, he wanted to know why and what could be done to stop it.” Heyward led countless marches and protests, supporting many others who lost kin to killer cops. He could often be seen holding a wanted poster, displaying the cop who had killed his young son. Heyward was under no illusions about how long and arduous the road to radical change would be.

The repeated détournement of the official wanted poster, in the term of the Situationists, suggests that the building blocks of revolutionary transformation are present all around us. They are immanent to our social situation. But they are less like Legos, pre-shaped and pre-designed, than like Play-Doh, in need of shaping and configuration. Some will need to be crushed and reconstituted. That is the work of politics. The long history of creative experiments connecting police violence to capitalist exploitation and immiseration suggests that the most appropriate response to police violence can be found in another Situationist slogan that describes what we are doing in the streets right now: be realistic—demand the impossible.

References   [ + ]

1. My thinking in this article would have been impossible without the influence of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, Derecka Purnell, and Josmar Trujillo. I am also grateful for assistance to Chloe Watlington, Aaron J. Leonard, Pat Blanchfield, Max Felker-Kantor, Robert Cavooris, and the archivists and dealers of rare ephemera who have collected these wanted posters, including D. Anthem, Division Leap, and Brad Duncan.
2. Drawing on Ruth Wilson Gilmore, in the words of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten,  “Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.” The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 42.
3. The best brief analysis of this complicated situation, from which I am drawing, is Derecka Purnell, “The Killer Cop Who Took Eric Garner’s Life Walks Free. How Do We Secure Justice?The Guardian, July 16, 2019.
4. Peter Stallybrass, “Well Grubbed, Old Mole: Marx, Hamlet, and the (Un)Fixing of Representation” Cultural Studies 12, no. 1 (2010): 3–14, 11.
5. An excellent source is the newly published account of the rebellion by Mike Davis and Jon Weiner, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (New York: Verso, 2020).
6. Clifford Glover should not be confused with Milton Glover, a Black veteran of the US war in Vietnam, shot eight times in 1976 when he brandished a Bible in defense as Houston police officers approached. That police murder plus several others became the focus of organizing by the Revolutionary Communist Party and Vietnam Veterans Against War in Texas. These murders were then mentioned on the iconic Houston punk single “The Badge Means You Suck” by AK-47, highlighting the occasional convergence of the New Communist Movement in the late 1970s/early 1980s and punk rock.
7. Around this time, various New Left activist-writers began revealing identifying information, whether names or home addresses, of police and Central Intelligence Agency operatives alike. Usually drawing from public records, they were not breaking the law, but authorities still grew incensed. See Kaeten Mistry, “A Transnational Protest against the National Security State: Whistle-Blowing, Philip Agee, and Networks of Dissent” Journal of American History 106, no. 2 (September 2019): 362–389; Davis and Wiener, Set the Night on Fire.
8. James Boggs, The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1963), 91.
9. Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America’s Long War (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017); Stuart Schrader, Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).
10. David Helps, “‘We Charge Genocide’: Revisiting Black Radicals’ Appeals to the World CommunityRadical Americas 3, no. 1 (2018): 9.
11. Like in Bill Epton’s case, the criminal syndicalism charge was extremely vague, transforming supposedly protected speech into an act of violence. Based on Harris’s case, the California Supreme Court eventually overturned the criminal syndicalism law. See also, Paul Harris, “Black Power Advocacy: Criminal Anarchy of Free Speech” California Law Review 56, no. 3 (May 1968): 702–755.
12. For its part, immediately after Deadwyler’s funeral, the new Committee to End Legalized Murder By Cops, whose members helped form the Communist Party’s Che-Lumumba Club (Angela Davis later became a member), printed a call for a demonstration bearing the headline “WE CHARGE MURDER!” Davis and Wiener, Set the Night on Fire, 239–240.
13. Singh, Race and America’s Long War.
14. Numerous restorative and transformative justice initiatives have since emerged and flourished in Baltimore, bearing little relationship to Mosby’s office.
15. Police killed almost 1,100 people in the United States last year, though exact numbers are difficult to obtain. A recent estimate is that 1,500 killings annually is a more accurate total. This amounts to around one third of homicides by strangers. In some states, if police killings were counted as if in a single city, that city would have the state’s greatest number of homicides. Police are infrequently charged criminally for killing in the line of duty in part because in many locales collective bargaining agreements protect police, including by delaying investigations and otherwise making them difficult. Not content to help destroy the workers’ movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, police in the United States also stole its tools in the late 20th century.

Author of the article

is Associate Director of the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship and Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing (University of California Press, 2019).