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Cops Actively Prevent Marginalized Communities From Accessing Food and Safety

The existence of cops is integral to keeping poor people from having their basic needs met, whether it is through criminalization or guarding dumpsters full of food.

CW: poverty, mentions of police violence

On Tuesday, February 16, images of a dozen cops guarding dumpsters went viral on Twitter. People were rightfully horrified—and unsurprised—that cops were spending their time and our money on making sure hungry people couldn’t dumpster dive. WYV has been publishing article after article showing how food is political… and it’s honestly never been more clear.

Before the cops arrived, employees at a Fred Meyer store in Portland had thrown away pounds of food when their store lost power due to a snow and ice storm. Amongst the food were lobster tails, hot dogs, tiramisu, veggie platters, and pounds of red meat. More than 300,000 people had lost power in the area due to the snow storm and many others were snowed in and couldn’t leave to get food. Once word got out that the store was discarding this much food, a crowd formed, hoping to salvage whatever food they could. To be clear, the crowd was about 10 people and they were met with 12 armed officers. The cops eventually left. 

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Given that so many people were in need, it’s especially horrid that the store’s employees (likely because of management or corporate rules) decided to throw away all of that food in the first place. Calling the cops to literally guard a trash can—rather than just looking the other way or simply giving the food to the community—is beyond cruel, considering how many people’s needs are not being met by the government. We should be helping people get what they need to survive in any way possible, not siccing fascist pigs on them as they try to feed themselves and their neighbors. 

Of course, cops are happy to do this type of work. They and their thin blue line evangelicals claim that they protect and serve but they simply exist to uphold capitalism and white supremacy. Their existence is integral to keeping poor and working class people from having their basic needs met, whether it is through criminalization or guarding dumpsters full of food. This is a perfect example of this type of behavior—but it’s not the only one. Not by a long shot.

I was reminded of one such example while reading Dean Spade’s Mutual Aid. In 1969, FBI Director/Demon J. Edgar Hoover wrote that “the BCP [Breakfast for Children Program] represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP [Black Panther Party] and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.” Of course, the FBI and their ilk committed an immense amount of violence toward the Black Panthers—murdering their leaders, arresting their members, and more. One of these acts of violence happened the night before the Chicago BPP was set to begin their own breakfast program. Cops broke into the church hosting the Black Panthers and urinated all over the food that was meant to feed poor Black children the following morning. As agents of a capitalist state, police officers consistently work towards subduing communities’ efforts to feed, house, and protect themselves—especially if those communities are Black, Latinx, Muslim, poor, trans, sex-working, and/or disabled. 

In 2018, officials in Kansas City poured bleach—literal poison—on perfectly edible food reserved for houseless and food insecure people. They justified this by saying it was for public health reasons and that food distributions done by so-called establishments require permits. The group involved was not a nonprofit, but rather a group of individuals coming together to share a meal with their houseless neighbors. These laws are common across the United States, passed under the guise of public health and sanitation. In reality, they’re being used to criminalize the unhoused and those who help them—specifically, those who feed them. If unhoused people can’t have their needs met in a particular area, they are likely to move elsewhere, creating an environment that rich, white folks see as better for their gentrification and development. 

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The protests in the summer of 2020 were another example. As people took to the streets to protest police violence and murder, the police responded with more violence. Not only did they attack protesters with riot gear, but they also targeted medics and organizers involved in mutual aid efforts. In Asheville, police officers surrounded a medical tent with shields drawn while cops inside emptied out water bottles, destroyed snacks and supplies, and wreaked havoc. They said that the water bottles were a danger to the officers—the officers with shields and bulletproof vests and guns. Similarly, officers in Louisville were seen smashing milk jugs and water cases set up by organizers for protesters who were affected by tear gas or simply needed water to drink in the summer heat. 

When you look at the history of police in this country, including all the way back to their inception as slave patrollers or private property guards, it’s always been about keeping rich white people in power and the rest of us desperate to survive. Access to food and water shouldn’t be controversial—it should be a given. The fact that government resources are going towards cops guarding a dumpster and preventing people from accessing food during a simultaneous pandemic, unemployment crisis, and climate disaster shows that their priorities are not just off—they’re deliberately cruel. Joe Biden just re-committed to not defunding the police. The US will ultimately funnel even more money into a killing machine while people all over the country continue to die because of government inaction and state violence. 

Food is political. Shelter is political. Survival is political. Mutual aid is radical—and necessary. It’s crucial that we engage in mutual aid efforts, particularly in getting basic needs met. Because the government isn’t just not helping, they’re actively getting in the way. 

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Reina Sultan is a Lebanese-American Muslim freelance journalist and one of the co-creators of 8 to Abolition. She is a PIC abolitionist and anarcha-feminist working to dismantle systems of white supremacist cisheteronormative patriarchy. Her work can also be found in VICE, Bitch, ZORA, Greatist, Teen Vogue, and more. Follow @SultanReina on Twitter for hot takes and cat photos.

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