The Link Between The Environment and Police Reform

by Matt Simmons, Redwood Coalition for Climate and Environmental Responsibility

The Redwood Coalition for Climate and Environmental Responsibility (RCCER) calls for the establishment of a Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board. While RCCER is an organization mainly focused on the climate and the environment, we see these issues and the issue of police reform as inextricably linked. In order to understand why, we have to examine the history of policing and the environmental movement on the North Coast.

Here on the North Coast, the police have historically abused their power in order to help extractive industries destroy the environment. During the campaign to protect Headwaters Forest, the Humboldt County police jabbed pepper-spray-drenched Q-tips into the protesters’ eyes to try to coerce them to end the protest. During Redwood Summer, when someone detonated a pipe bomb under the driver’s seat of Judi Bari’s car, rather than investigate the attack, the FBI and Oakland Police arrested her for transporting the bomb. (Bari and co-defendant Darryl Cherney sued the FBI and the Oakland Police  for violations of First and Fourth Amendments, i.e. Freedom of Speech and protection from illegal search and seizure and false arrest and ultimately won the suit.) The police exist to defend the status quo. And the status quo is bad for the planet.

These kinds of incidents are not relegated to the past. In June 2019, Mike Gamms was beaten by Humboldt County police officers while acting as a video journalist at a longstanding logging protest of an area containing significant old-growth forest. The assault resulted in a fractured rib and several other bruised ribs; a large contusion to his right eye socket; a three-centimeter laceration on his left upper lip; contusions on his nose; and the loosening of a tooth. 

RCCER believes in a future where Humboldt County no longer engages in activities that exacerbate the climate crisis. In order for that future to become a reality, we will have to dramatically change our society, economy, and way of life. This kind of dramatic change will necessitate protest and direct action. Research any historic societal change and you will find that direct action and protest were at the heart of the movement. From Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr., non-violent direct action has been one of the only tactics that can convince a powerful nation to change its behavior. In order to change the status quo, people will need to make noise and get in the way. In the words of John Lewis, people will have to make “good trouble, necessary trouble” in order to shake society out of its mindless sleepwalk towards a climate catastrophe. 

And when protestors engage in nonviolent direct action, they deserve to have their civil rights protected. They deserve to not have to fear that the police will beat them, or pepper spray them, or refuse to investigate their murder. They deserve to know that the police are accountable to the citizenry and that the police are under the control of the People, not the other way around. As such, it is necessary for any Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board to have subpoena power and the authority to recommend disciplinary action. Subpoena power will allow the Board to compel witnesses to appear and testify regarding police misconduct. This includes requiring police officers to testify against one another or face a contempt charge. That way, the Board can effectively investigate the police when they are accused of misconduct. The authority to recommend disciplinary action will ensure that the Board is taken seriously and can effectively respond to, as well as deter, police misconduct. Too often when disciplinary action for officers is determined solely by the police, the consequences fail to measure up to the seriousness of the  misconduct and other offenses. Hopefully, the review board can help change that pattern.

With these two powers, a Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board will become a powerful new tool for checking the abuses of the police. This way, the police are answerable to the people and can be held accountable when they abuse their power. No longer will the police be able to unaccountably terrorize protestors of all stripes. Creating a Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board, with subpoena power and the authority to recommend disciplinary action, will be a small but important step towards ensuring that Humboldt County becomes a safer place for everyone.