Meet the Detroit Socialist Running to Rein in the Police
Landis Spencer is running for a seat on Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners (BOPC), a civilian oversight body that has moved away from its original purpose of reining in the Detroit Police Department (DPD) and now has ex-police officers serving on it. Spencer’s platform includes creating a mental health worker emergency response team to replace armed police; banning facial recognition technology; demilitarizing the police (currently the proud possessors of an enormous tank); ending police brutality; and protecting civil liberties. He wants to move public dollars out of the police department, which absorbs a third of the city’s budget, and into services that would improve poor and working-class Detroiters’ daily lives.
Spencer is a member of Metro Detroit Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the former cochair of the chapter’s Black and Brown Alliance. His two-person slate — the other candidate is Denzel McCampbell, running for city clerk — has been endorsed by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and is heavily backed by DSA. Detroit DSA member Courtney Smith recently spoke with Spencer about how he came to democratic socialism and how his campaign is looking to translate the energy from last year’s George Floyd protests into lasting political power.
You came to socialism through the Bernie Sanders campaign. I would love to hear your story.
My Bernie story started in 2015. I was on the Left, but I wasn’t sure who Bernie was. I heard his platform and wasn’t sure it would work: free college sounds interesting, but it costs too much money. Then l started looking into other countries, how they were able to provide health care for their citizens efficiently and how they had better metrics than the United States — better education, better health outcomes, lower child mortality rates.
So that really pushed me to Bernie, because his policies work elsewhere in the world — why wouldn’t they work here? I was a keyboard warrior for the first few years, and it wasn’t until his second run that I started organizing.
I knocked doors for Bernie in a mostly immigrant neighborhood in Dearborn. That was such a transformative experience. I was bitten by the organizing bug, and I took that energy and started organizing with DSA.
Canvassing in Dearborn, we mostly talked to immigrants from the Middle East — some refugees, some people who were noncitizens. Hearing their issues, their worries about immigration, the xenophobia and Islamophobia of the Trump administration, their concerns about Israel/Palestine — that was really transformative, to speak to people that I didn’t come into contact with on a regular basis.
I’ve lived in this region my whole life and yet there’s this diverse community I’d never spoken to. It was such a rewarding experience that I felt I had to do more, I had to work toward the goals that I’d been preaching about for the last six or seven years and get involved with an organization that is long-term and that can house the work I want to do. DSA was that organization for me.
How did you find out about DSA, and what made you become so invested?
I first heard about DSA back in college, but like any student without wealthy parents, I was working so much and had so many classes. At that time I was working thirty to thirty-five hours a week at a coffee shop while also taking a full course load. I went to a couple DSA meetings, but I just could not invest the time.
When I got home, I learned that Detroit DSA was running a candidate for mayor and city council in Ferndale, an inner-ring suburb. I went to this social event where I met a bunch of members and was like, “Wow, these people are so cool, they actually like doing work.”
Then there was a General Motors (GM) strike I attended, and it was good seeing people in solidarity with the GM workers. My mom is a United Auto Workers (UAW) Ford worker, so that strike actually was of consequence for me: if the GM workers got less in their health care bargaining, that would have translated to UAW Ford’s negotiations, and my personal health care would have been affected. It was awesome seeing DSA fight for that, and so I started coming to general meetings.
I remember needing an outlet to organize more, because if you don’t have an outlet to express your anger and frustrations, it’s very hard to hold all that in. Organizing helps alleviate that pain and depression.
Explain Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners: how it got started, what function it serves, and how you see being on the board as moving the needle on the socialist project.
The board’s name is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a civilian oversight body tasked with creating policy for the department. It was created in 1974 in response to widespread police abuse. After the Detroit uprising in 1967, there was a police program created called STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), which basically involved decoy units going into black neighborhoods and trying to cause trouble. They ended up killing twenty-two black men over three and a half years.
There was a very racist police chief, John Nichols, who was in charge at the time. In the 1974 election, he and Coleman Young were both running for mayor, and forming the BOPC was also on the ballot. That election was essentially a referendum on policing in the city. Young won to become the first black mayor of Detroit. The charter establishing the BOPC also passed, and they fired the chief, ended STRESS, and integrated the police department.
So the Board has some powers. In conjunction with the chief of police and the mayor, they could do things like ban facial recognition software and end no-knock warrants.
But they don’t use their powers. They spend a lot of time wishing happy birthday to various cops.
So what else do they actually do now? How do you feel you can change the Board of Police Commissioners and restore it to its original purpose?
Some former cops are on the board right now, and they’re not interested in any kind of police accountability. The chair is an authoritarian who often mutes commissioners who dissent from him, he breaks Robert’s Rules of Order all the time, and he favors the other commissioners that are pro-cop. He’s extremely pro-cop himself and is a former cop; he said “all lives matter” in a meeting.
During the anti–police brutality movement last year, this body was largely silent about the demands of the movement. We saw a very unequal and brutal response to the protests. There were legal observers, medics, and bystanders getting beaten and tear-gassed. The board didn’t do anything and defended the DPD’s actions.
To give you an example of the city’s commitment to going against Black Lives Matter protesters, Mayor [Mike] Duggan’s administration is the only one in the entire country to pursue protesters for violating curfews. The city council approved a $200,000 payment to an external law firm to pursue a lawsuit against protesters for all sorts of frivolous claims, which the court threw out. It shows the vitriol the administration has toward Black Lives Matter activism in the blackest big city in this country.
My thoughts were, how can we use the resources of DSA to help push the issue of police violence in communities of color, and how can we make a long-term campaign that can move people? Because at the time, people were marching in the streets, which was very important, but I wanted to see what this would look like two or three years from now. Can we actually take money out of the police budget? What does a pressure campaign look like?
What are your hopes for joining this board, and where do you think you can take it?
I will be able to highlight issues such as getting rid of the surveillance state. Detroit has facial recognition software and cameras all over the place, Stingray towers where they can track your location based on text messages — all this sci-fi technology even though we’re one of the poorest cities in the country.
There’s one good guy on the board right now, but there really needs to be more of a socialist perspective, to explain that what we are doing is not reducing crime, it’s actually a waste of money and it’s actively harming members of our community. Working in consultation and doing demonstrations with DSA when there are opportunities to move pieces like a facial recognition software ban is crucial.
Can you describe the current political landscape and the obstacles to socialist electoral organizing in Detroit?
When you poll voters, they can be progressive. We have a study where Detroiters said that water should be a human right, and they want internet access and public transit. Detroit has one of the worst transit systems in the country, and it’s a large city. A third of residents don’t have access to a car, and you can’t do anything without a car in the city.
When you get to things like policing it’s a little different. We have a lot of messaging to do on that front. The reason is that for a long time a lot of Detroit neighborhoods have had city services taken away: snow plows haven’t come, trees have been overgrown. The mayor has really neglected many of the neighborhoods that aren’t in the white areas of the city.
That thought process for people translates to policing: we aren’t seeing many cops, so crime is really bad here because this neighborhood has been really neglected, and we want more police because it’s part of the basket of goods.
We have to convince people that more police won’t make us safer and that investing in these other things is the pathway to actual safety.
When we say “defund” we’re not taking away another service, we’re actually providing more services for people so that we can effectively reduce crime. People who don’t have access to basic resources and needs are more likely to commit crime.
The messed up part is that living in Detroit is expensive. We have the largest water bills in the country, we have a 2 percent city income tax rate, and property taxes are among the highest in the country. People are paying a large chunk of their money, because the median income in Detroit for a single person is around $20,000. All of these expenses are coming out of everybody’s check every month, and people are like, “Where is this going?”
Do you have any plans after your run for Board of Police Commissioners? Where do you see yourself five or ten years from now moving the socialist project forward in Detroit?
I didn’t come into this for my own political ambitions, I really wanted to help. I think that I do have the skills to win a seat. And I come to this from a movement perspective — how can we grow DSA, and how can we build a force that can oppose capital in this city and this state? No matter what I do, I’ll be building DSA’s electoral project and the greater movement.
Courtney Smith, a former Bernie 2020 campaign staffer, is a union organizer for Lecturers' Employee Organization at University of Michigan and a Metro Detroit DSA member.