Confronting the racist checkpoints in Washington, D.C.

Confronting the racist checkpoints in Washington, D.C.

No Checkpoints! No Police State!

In the face of growing community outrage, the Metropolitan Police Department announced last night the temporary suspension of checkpoints that had set the stage for a martial-law-like occupation in Washington, D.C.’s Trinidad neighborhood. 

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The ANSWER Coalition, along with other concerned organizations and individuals, took to the streets to oppose the measure starting on June 7, when the police first established the checkpoint and dragnet sealing off part of the Trinidad neighborhood. They also held a banner that read “Jobs and Education, Yes! No Checkpoints! No Police State!” The ANSWER Coalition and others maintained a presence at the checkpoints nearly every day or night they were in effect. Volunteers also went door-to-door with a leaflet titled “Stop the New Police State” that included a “Know Your Rights” section on the back.  

When we were at the checkpoint on Saturday night and on the following days, the majority of cars attempting to pass through were diverted because police claimed their reason for entering the neighborhood was not “legitimate” or because they did not provide identification. 

Community residents who were allowed to pass through also objected. One woman, who lives on the block just west of the checkpoint, was questioned as to why she was driving onto a block immediately adjacent to her own. She was attempting to find parking with her young son in the car. Another resident described the checkpoint as a “nerve wracking” experience that she dreaded on her entire ride home from work. 

The police had long planned to institute this illegal and unconstitutional checkpoint system, but needed a pretext to set it into motion. A terrible weekend of violence in Washington, D.C. that took nine lives finally provided the opportunity.  

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In their literature, ANSWER asserted that if the Metropolitan Police Department could establish a checkpoint and pass system in Washington, D.C., it would become a model employed against Black and Latino communities in urban areas throughout the United States. 

Where the police set up their first checkpoint makes clear what is really behind this new “anti-crime” crackdown. 

The Trinidad neighborhood is a mostly Black neighborhood, but it sits close to the H St. Northeast area, which the city government and developers have an aggressive plan to gentrify. But to attract new, mostly white, well-to-do people who generally make up the majority of gentrifiers, the city has to overcome its reputation for crime and violence.  

Accordingly, the D.C. police hope to create the illusion of “safety” through the complete lockdown of poor Black neighborhoods close to mixed or totally gentrified neighborhoods.  

Caneisha Mills, a Howard University student and D.C. resident who organized opposition to the checkpoints, said: “In addition to harassment of everyone in the neighborhood and massive data collection, the police hope to arrest a large number of people, mostly young Black men, on all sorts of minor open warrants or vehicle violations. They can claim they have arrested a large number of ‘criminals.’ Ultimately, they hope to use this constant harassment to drive people out of the neighborhood, clearing the way for gentrification.” 

Trinidad is not the only neighborhood being targeted by these martial-law type programs. Following a number of youth shootings in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, a historically Latino neighborhood that is ground zero for gentrification, police also increased their visible presence and created a new unit to “deal” with the youth “gangs.”  

The city initiated an “All Hands on Deck” policy with every officer in the force on duty for an entire weekend. They proposed a door-to-door program to try to force residents to submit to searches of their home. Most recently, the city proposed to put up thousands of cameras all across the city to keep constant watch over the city’s residents. 

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Police Chief Cathy Lanier and D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles (who lives in a wealthy estate in Virginia) never address the root cause of crime: poverty and inequality.  

In D.C. there are virtually no decent job opportunities for young Black people from impoverished neighborhoods. Many participate at varying levels in different illegal sectors of the economy in order to make extra money or as their sole income. In this pressure cooker of poverty and illegal business, violence is inevitable. Only a flourishing of educational and employment opportunities can turn this situation around. 

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Mayor Fenty—who claims to be so concerned about stopping violence—recently implemented a school “reform” plan that closes the only trade high school in the city. His administration let the school fall apart, keeping it in unsafe condition—which included exposure to asbestos—and canceling many advertised programs. Parents at the school have filed a lawsuit against the school district. 

The city government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on sports stadiums and spends millions more on assault rifles for the police. But when it comes to schools, libraries, health care programs or jobs, the funds always seem to run dry.  

The checkpoints are more than civil rights violations. They provide a smokescreen for the city government’s gentrification schemes, for its criminal neglect of the city’s poor Black neighborhoods, and for the city’s obscene inequalities.

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