Parallel Sovereignty on Rose Street in Baltimore

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

This will be a shortish post, but short in the way that an astronomer’s note announcing the discovery of a new planet doesn’t need to be long.

As readers know, I’ve been following the various “protest movements” — for want of a better term — for quite some time: Tahrir Square (2011), the state capitol occupations (2011), the indignados (2011), Occupy proper (2011-2012), as well as Quebec’s carré rouge (2012), and, this year in Water Cooler, the Hong Kong Umbrella movement and the widening circle of actions that began with the Ferguson protests over Darren Wilson’s killing of Mike Brown. That’s rather a lot, isn’t it?

I’m sure there are many more movements; and I’m quite conscious that a master theory is lacking: One that would unify, for example, the examples just listed with fractivism, landfill and mountaintop removal opposition, and so on, which are generally placed under the heading of civic engagement rather than “protest.” We often hear comments to the effect that “the culture must change,” but I would direct your attention to these movements to find out how the culture is, in fact, changing, and who is driving the change. (If you want an example of movements from the past that changed the culture, consider ACT-UP, which I’ll assert without any evidence cleared the ground for gay marriage. And of course, there are the civil rights movement and the suffragettes, both of whom changed the culture, sometimes in very unpredictable ways.[1])

Throughout, I’ve tended to look at reports of specific actions within these movements through the lens of Gene Sharp’s 198 Methods of Non-Violent Protest and Persuasion, mostly because it helps to have a taxonomy to control the mass of material.[2] So, for me, following these movements is rather like being a birdwatcher, except that instead of shouting “ZOMG! That’s a Red-footed Falcon!” I’ll be reading along, processing the events of the day, and suddenly think to myself: “Hmm. That’s an example of #57, Lysistratic nonaction.” Or whatever. So imagine my delight when I encountered an example of the extremely rare #198, Dual sovereignty and parallel government, in the following video! From The Real News Network:

Here is the key portion of the interview, where Producer Megan Sherman interviews Kevin McCamant, a clinical psycologist who works with the Rose Street Community Center in Baltimore, MD:

SHERMAN: The employees at the Center addressed what some referred to as black-on-black crime by focusing on lowering the murder rate in the areas surrounding the 800 block of Rose Street and de-escalating conflicts that could lead to violence.

MCCAMANT: The two issues that have been longstanding on the one hand are the police misconduct and brutality and on the other hand what has been called black-on-black crime.

I want to underscore that Rose Street has been for a long time dealing with that issue of, quote, black-on-black, endquote, crime. The homicide rate midyear citywide in Baltimore was the lowest in 30 years.

In the news they were talking about they couldn’t figure out how this had happened. Well, I can tell you how it happened. Many of the people in this room have risked their lives on a regular basis on their blocks to intervene and defuse potentially lethal situations before they came to violence.

In other words, they took over the policing function from the State; that looks like about as clear a case of “dual sovereignty and parallel government” as I’ve seen. Granted, it’s a small territory; and granted, the Rose Street Center isn’t performing other State functions, first and foremost collecting taxes. Nevertheless, it’s these “volunteers” who handled the possibility of violence themselves; they didn’t call the occupation forces 911; and this is entirely rational: I subscribe to a newsfeed with the keywords “police shooting,” and all too often, when people call 911, the cops show up and whack somebody; Tamir Rice is just the latest example of many.[3]

* * *

Throughout the Ferguson protests, I’ve been amazed by the dazzling tactical ingenuity[4] of the actions: The die-ins and the transport blockages, for example, both of which scaled neatly geographically and across classes. And in Baltimore, we have another example of this ingenuity, although not in the context of the Ferguson protests per se, but in terms of a deeper, longer, and more thoroughly considered resistance. Clearly there is more to this story, and I hope to learn more.


[1] For example, some say that the Wizard of Oz is a critique of populist theories of money.

[2] Considered as a taxonomy, Sharp’s 198 Methods is not exhaustive; for example, the Mad as Hell Doctors did road trips in favor of single payer in 2009; but there’s no taxonomy item for “caravan.” And there are a lot of other problems like that. Still, the 198 Methods are a noble effort, and many actions do fit into Sharp’s categories.

[3] One objection that might be raised is that “This is vigilantism.” But since the object is to defuse violence, not inflict it, I’m not sure the cases are the same. Another might be “But they’re taking the law into their own hands.” And yes, that is what “parallel sovereignty” means.

[4] Once the movement spread to the coasts from the Midwests, old forms seemed to take over: Sharpton’s marches on the East Coast, and black bloc-style wankery on the West, look like two sides of the same counterfeit coin, to me.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Guest Post, Politics, Surveillance state on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Worker-Owner

    So, we might conclude that Community Co-operation was more effective than 21st Century US Policing? Also: found the notion of people putting their lives on the line to intervene and defuse threatening situations a useful counter-strategy of putting lives on the line to create threatening situations. Something to think about.

    1. Uahsenaa

      It amazes me how often and how many make the argument that police are justified in using extreme violence, because they are at risk in their jobs, and yet here we have people undergoing the same risks, but because they are prevented from using violence as a means, they have drastically better outcomes.

      1. hunkerdown

        And yet, if you work in a mini-mart and dare to escort someone out the door, you’d be wise to have a lawyer on retainer.

  2. lyman alpha blob

    Love that guy about half way through after praising the protest and die in tactics saying “But guess what, we here in Baltimore city, in the Rose St vicinity, got our way that we’re going to respond – class action lawsuit”.

    In my experience, that’s some language that really make the neoliberals types stand up and pay attention!

  3. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thank you for this, Lambert. Reading this I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s response when he emerged from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Recent developments in the aftermath of Tahrir Square are also instructive in this regard.

    A democratic republic is dependent upon the active, informed and continuing involvement and will of the people.

  4. jgordon

    You have touched on something incredibly meaningful and important here. To flesh it out a bit I’ll ask: if a group of citizens performs a function more effectively and humanely than the state, isn’t the legitimacy of the state somewhat diminished then? People will say to themselves: here is this nice group of volunteers going around making my neighborhood safer out of the kindness of their own hearts, while on the other hand I’m paying tribute to another group (the state) that is in return for my contributions sending out legions of hardened, well-paid thugs to make my life even more miserable than it already is.

    It seems likely that the form of government we all take as a given here is fundamentally at odds with human nature. Rather than being a force of good, for whatever reason it corrupts or destroys anything its tendril reaches into. Parallel sovereignty is an implicit acknowledgement of that fact, with citizens on the ground fashioning their own structure to compete with the corrupt and inept official structure on offer from the state. This seems to me to be a protrusion from the deeper level of reality of human society forcing its way into the standard pablum narrative that the state and its economic scheme is the be-all and end-all. In fact, looking at it another way, “the state” is simply the largest and best-armed (and self-interested) social organization in a sea of social organizations–each with just as much legitimacy or lack thereof as any other.

    1. John Zelnicker

      You make some good points, jgordon, but also an error. Governments are not “corrupt”; institutions do not have ethics and morality. The humans who are in control (whether inside of gov’t or outside) are the ones who are corrupt. Replacing them with moral and ethical humans will change the “corrupt” nature of the institution.

      Which is not to challenge the idea of parallel sovereignty as an effective strategy, but to note that there are others that should also be pursued at the same time.

  5. different clue

    People can do what they are best at. People will be best at the course of action they believe in the most.
    Culture-first changers can try that. Political action-takers in pursuit of particular goals can try that. All the different groups and movements can watch eachother and see what seems to be working.

    That Baltimore group wouldn’t be taking the law into its own hands unless/until it holds its own peoples’ courts to determine who did what AFter something happens, and then decree and enforce their own punishments. In the same way, as long as Black America doesn’t quietly form secret Leopard Societies in the old African tradition to quietly slowly and without-fingerprints delete certain problem officers, then Black America is not engaging in illegal vigilante action.

  6. ewmayer

    Isn’t “defusing potentially lethal situations” precisely the sort of thing old-fashioned beat cops – who knew their beat and the people living on it intimately – were expected to do? One more “feature” of the adversarial wall of separation between modern-day cops and the people.

    Watch any older TV cop series such as The Naked City or Dragnet (both are late-night staples on the MeTV network) and you’ll be astonished at the then-vs-now difference in day-to-day interaction between police and the policed.

  7. beene

    Lambert, thanks for an interesting article.

    Though this is an interesting an positive example of community activism, it is almost the same legal outcome. The public pays for a corrupt system threw suit.

    The problem of the police getting off for murder and other violations of human rights remains. That is the office of prosecution which even ignorant people know can sent you too trial for jay walking if it desires to do so, is not affected.

  8. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit

    Sounds to me like it’s a simple case of the community creating “peace officers” rather than relying on “law enforcement officials” in order to create a legal system centered on and responsive to the community, rather than to an outside agency. Outstanding!

    Thanks for the article – this is going to end up in a couple judges’ email boxes…. :-)

Comments are closed.