Criminalizing patients could have adverse consequences, experts warn
Criminalizing patients could have adverse consequences, experts warn
By Comrade Dremel
Republished from The Red Clarion.
Fascism is ascendant in the imperial core. The U.S. and its junior partners are waging an increasingly bloody war on all fronts, in an attempt to bolster the decaying husk of capital. The foot soldiers in this war are the police. Armed to the teeth and trained to kill, police are positioned as an occupying force in every locale across the empire. The violence perpetrated by police increases in magnitude with each passing year, with the targets of this violence being overwhelmingly the poor, Black, Indigenous, immigrant, queer, and disabled populations most despised by the empire. Even a cursory glance through the history of law enforcement in the U.S. exposes its role as the assault engine of white supremacy and capitalist hegemony.
Even before the settler-republic declared independence, slave patrols were organized to deal with the ever-growing population of enslaved African labor and the threat of rebellion. Hired guns would patrol the property, investigating and brutally punishing dissent, the possession of weapons, and attempted escapes. As far back as 1643, the English colonies were organizing themselves into confederations, pledging to enforce each others’ “right” to the return of fugitive slaves and indentured servants:
It is also agreed that if any servant run away from his master into any other of these confederated Jurisdictions, that in such case, upon the certificate of one magistrate in the Jurisdiction out of which the said servant fled, or upon other due proof; the said servant shall be delivered, either to his master, or any other that pursues and brings such certificate or proof.
Following the establishment of the United States, plantation owners quickly began entreating state legislatures to form standing patrols, as well as laws that explicitly targeted all Black people — regardless of their legal status. These fugitive slave laws and the patrollers enforcing them curtailed Black freedom of movement and assembly, subjected them to constant questioning, and inflicted unspeakably violent punishments. These practices spread throughout the colonies, and the institution of policing as a means of oppressing Black and Indigenous populations went from ad hoc posses to state machinery.
Following the U.S. civil war, despite the legal end of slavery, slave patrols prowled the countryside. Anti-Black violence, once perpetrated by pre-war slave-catching squads, took on the same form as anti-Indigenous violence: it shifted to the domain of terror groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. These vigilante terror organizations were, in many cases, composed of the elite of Southern and Western U.S. society: plantation owners, former Confederate officers, and ex-slave-catchers. Not only were these men enlisted by the secretive, semi-legal terror societies, but they also joined the rush of explicitly authorized “Indian fighters” – U.S. soldiers and cavalrymen, hired guns, and bounty hunters that poured into the Indigenous lands still left west of the Appalachian chain that the young settler-republic had determined must belong to white men.
To support this new drive, laws were carefully rewritten to empower police to enforce the political and economic repression of non-white people. This fundamental principle of U.S. settler law laid the foundation for the white-supremacist laws of today. The disproportionate impact of law enforcement on racialized populations has been thoroughly examined and excoriated for decades. The verdict is clear: law enforcement is systematically constructed to perpetuate white supremacy.
Since the creation of municipal and regional police in the 19th century, they have not only targeted Black and Indigenous persons. The police were not merely the enforcement arm of the theft of Native land and the suppression of Black labor; they have been the armed fist of capital, serving to break strikes, attack unions, and halt the labor movement in its tracks. Capitalists have consistently called upon police, private security, and the military to break strikes, often with deadly force. Under the guise of “peacekeeping,” cops respond to mass demonstrations by cracking skulls. Since the cold war, the intelligence wing of law enforcement has used the specter of communism to harry and infiltrate militant labor movements. With the blood of thousands of workers on their hands, the presence of police “unions” in labor federations like AFL-CIO is a grotesque mockery. The police are not workers: they are our most violent oppressors.
Cops are not simply hapless mercenaries, selling their labor as cogs in a repressive machine. They are not blameless workers caught up in a Kafkaesque machinery beyond their capacity to change. They are active participants in murder, genocide, labor suppression, and all the heinous acts for which they were created. They are the active agents of colonial and imperialist oppression. Indeed, the nature of policing as a tool of enforcing white supremacy and capital hegemony makes it especially appealing to a particular class of ideological actors. Police forces are staffed by the most motivated white supremacists. Fascist militias are largely populated by cops (active and retired), military veterans, and small business owners, as well as those with aspirations to law enforcement. They dedicate huge amounts of time, money, and labor to organizations designed to enforce white supremacy – all while comfortably employed in service of an empire built on those ideals. Many such groups paint themselves as “anti-government,” because they believe the U.S. government is holding them back from their fascist aims. That is, they resent the fact that the state has itself attempted to regulate white supremacist violence into a form it can control; they long for the early settler-republic, when any white man could wreak his will with a riding crop, a fist, or a Colt and no one would gainsay him.
State-sanctioned violence and extrajudicial fascist terrorism cannot be so identified as pointing out a badge. In a recent database leak, exposing membership lists of the fascist Oathkeepers, numerous high ranking officers and sheriffs were identified among the hundreds of law enforcement officers on the books. One such lieutenant — who signed up for the Oathkeepers with the promise to use his position to recruit for the organization — was transferred to administrative duties upon knowledge of his involvement. Months later, he was back to his normal duties, as if nothing had happened. The police are police whether they wear their badges or not.
Law enforcement often dedicates some labor toward monitoring white supremacist extremism, although this is vastly overshadowed by its investment in tracking and attempting to entrap leftist organizations. Undercover agents and confidential informants insinuated into fascist groups often fail to report vital information, use their position to testify in defense of these groups, or are simply ignored by their handlers. The FBI, generally tasked with handling these investigations, are simply uninterested in the incrimination of fascists, instead instructing their informants to gather intelligence on the opponents of fascism. Law enforcement is deeply invested in the project of maintaining a white supremacist status quo. It has a long history of surveilling and violently repressing those who seek liberation, while giving unending leeway to those who attempt to heighten that oppression.
The overlap between fascist groups and law enforcement is sporadically reported on by bourgeois institutions, including media exposes, academic reviews, and even intelligence reports. Like all liberal exposes, however, these serve a dual purpose; by presenting the information, they defang it. The framework of these reports usually presents the presence of “bad apples” and promises that the issue merely needs some pressing reform. Thus, these liberal bourgeois reports disguise the fundamental nature of the white supremacist violence that pervades settler society. Through the lens of liberal “analysis,” all social ills are the result of scoundrels sullying otherwise valorous institutions. However, this misunderstands not just the material base out of which these very institutions were crafted in the first place, but also the insidious ways in which they get continuously reproduced, refined, and made more suitable to their primary purpose: maintaining the particular property relations of capitalism.
Policing presents its semi-legitimate face as “protecting the people,” originally with an explicitly racialized definition of “the people,” then retreating into implications and dog whistles. To bolster the white supremacist mythos that paints racialized populations as the source of civil strife, the ruling class has spent centuries pumping money into bad studies and employing racist professors to espouse the theory that certain populations are inherently “criminal.” Every new measure passed to empower the police has come with corresponding narratives stoking the fascist flames: “superpredators,” “crack epidemic,” “migrant caravans”. This has served to simultaneously drive recruitment and political support for the police from among the beneficiaries of white supremacy. The attractiveness of law enforcement to today’s fascists is unsurprising, given this historical context.
Law enforcement itself serves as a crucible of fascism, concentrating the most destructive aspects of the ideology into a superheated core. Its role as the violent arm of the state provides fertile soil for recruiting, training, and organizing nascent white supremacists into capable, radicalized cadres, indoctrinated with fascist ideology and inoculated against empathy. Combined with the tendencies of groups toward polarization (a meta-analysis of which can be found here), the overtly oppressive role of law enforcement creates an environment that drags its members toward fascist radicalization. This radicalization happens in much the same way that all institutions (fascist or not) mature into hegemonic forms, through the mutually-reinforcing processes of selection and intensification.
Selection is the process of sorting masses of individuals based on their demonstrated values and selecting the “best” — i.e. most well-suited to the group’s aims — for promotion, deeper into the institution. Although this can be a rigidly-defined process, as in the case of deliberately constructed organizations (such as workplaces), selection also takes place constantly throughout social life. Friend groups, community associations, activist circles, and more are constantly going through a loose process of selection; those who best fit in with the group and its purpose tend to find themselves more deeply involved in it, encouraged by those already integrated within it. The values being selected for vary from group to group, and can cover an immense range of criteria: specific skillsets, existing social ties, resources, even fashion sense or humor. The most common value being heuristically screened for, across all social structures, is how well an individual “clicks” with the existing group: like selects like. “Promotion,” of course, can also be a spectrum: anywhere from simply spending more time with like-minded individuals to actively being given more responsibilities and privileges within an organized structure. As specific traits get selected for, the individuals exhibiting those traits become better positioned to do the selecting, bringing in other individuals who share those same traits that brought them through the process themselves.
Intensification is the deepening of existing values, making individuals that move through an institution become more suited to the institution’s purpose. Again, this process can be explicit or informal, depending on the specific context. Individuals can be formally trained in specific skills, subjected to exercises designed to impart values and lessons through experience, go through rituals to promote group cohesion, or simply be subtly influenced by existing members of the group in a passive process of socialization. The more formally-organized a group is, the more explicit the programs of intensification that tend to be employed, but the social aspect is always present, and is often of the most relevance. As social creatures, humans are primed to modify our own behaviors and ideals to best integrate into our particular social environments. Over time, whether through passive or active means, groups tend to engender in their members deeper commitment and competence. Whether as education, radicalization, or collegiality, intensification works to define the character of both a group and the individuals within it.
These two processes act in concert, at all levels of institutions, playing into each other to best adapt a group to its niche. Selection elevates those individuals best adapted to modulate the intensification of others: the most charismatic speakers, the most skilled leaders, the most committed to the cause, inevitably find themselves brought up into a position to bring up their like-minded compatriots. Intensification serves as an indicator for selection, with those for whom the process yields the most favorable results increasingly demonstrating their fitness. Those who fail or refuse are seen as poorly-suited to the group and become ever-more estranged, if not outright ejected from the group. As an institution takes shape, these processes can cause it to calcify and regiment its process. Selection becomes increasingly based on set criteria, with explicitly delineated measures of promotion. Intensification practices become standardized trainings and rituals aimed at achieving specific results. But even in the absence of formal protocols, the social structure itself continues to set the pace of its own development, through the placement and shaping of its members.
Nowhere is this more typified than in the crucible of fascism. A new recruit on the force has already gone through several steps of selection and intensification that are adapted to the niche fascism aims to occupy. To even want to join, an individual must already believe in the myth of police as “peacekeepers.” They must ignore the blatant violent excesses of the institution. They already have an instinct toward protecting capitalist, white supremacy hegemony — whether they fully realize it or not. In other words, the police recruitment process itself has already selected for people who tend toward violence, chauvinism, ego, and myopia in service of capital (even if these traits are not always fully-formed in the novice). These traits are intensified during training, where recruits are taught laws, practice with firearms and other weapons, learn interrogation tactics, go through drills on handling “hostiles,” and more. Every step of the training serves to viscerally engrain in these recruits that they are the last line of defense for society against a violent, degenerate, implacable enemy, that their fellow brethren are comrades-in-arms, that the mission of the police is pure and righteous, worth laying down their very lives. They are taught that violent confrontation is not only inevitable, but righteous. In short, by the time they even become a full member of the force, people who were already filtered for traits suitable to fascism have already begun being radicalized into an ideological resentment toward the communities they police.
And then the process really gets started.
When that recruit walks into headquarters, he is entering a building absolutely packed with people who were just like him when they were recruits. Some were simply idealistic and justice-minded, without much regard for the obvious systemic horrors of the institution. Some were white supremacists from the beginning, and saw those horrors as noble. All of them went through a refinement process, and all have been modified by it in some way. They may have nervously laughed off bigoted comments, or they may have made some themselves to fit in. They may have seen squadmates commit acts of brutality, and thought to submit an official complaint — provoking the ire of their compatriots — or they may have eagerly joined in. They have spent every working day being exposed to propaganda, both informal and officially-sanctioned, about crime rates and the dangers of their profession and the fundamental threat posed by “certain communities.” They are promoted officially based on their arrests, tickets, experience, and the approval of higher ranking officers. They are promoted socially based on their cohesiveness within a group that has gone through these same radicalizing processes.
Those who couldn’t cut it — those who were too turned off by the systemic abuse, casual chauvinism, and blatant lies — are not in the room when that recruit walks in. Those who have best embraced that regressive atmosphere are introduced to him as mentors. In a radicalizing environment, the least radical have the least influence and the most radical dominate. In the case of police specifically, fascists find themselves easily making friends, enforcing “law and order,” and rising through the ranks, both institutionally and socially. They find themselves in positions of influence, and continue to shape the process that helped shape them. This attracts more of their ilk to the force, further impacting its development — and theirs. The state gains ever-more violent and rabid enforcers, while the fascists gain ever-more combat experience, fresh recruits, and institutional backing.
Whatever the particular proclivities of that recruit, he will find himself either becoming more immersed in the fascist milieu, more aligned with their ideals, tactics, and even extrajudicial organizations — or he will find himself ostracized, friendless, demoted, fired. The more the members of fascist militias integrate themselves into the (already fascistic) institution, the less common that latter outcome occurs. The initial selection process becomes implicitly more discerning, with potential recruits needing to meet a higher and higher threshold for what level of brutality they think is justified. The training and propaganda become more intense, directed as they are by those already selected for fascist allegiance. The distinction between state-sanctioned violence and paramilitary formations becomes more and more irrelevant.
This is the real reason all cops are bastards: all cops are subjected to a potent, omnipresent bastardization apparatus. They are recruited by fascists, trained by fascists, mentored by fascists, promoted by fascists. If they happen to join another fascist organization, that’s simply them branching out. And when they do, they bring with them tactical training, weapons proficiency, social prestige, state support, and an intensified clarity of purpose. The enemy of the working class is an active army: well-armed, well-resourced, well-organized, and highly motivated. They can be met with nothing less.
Comrade Dremel is a member of the Unity-Struggle-Unity Staff, an experienced educator, organizer, and scientist based in Maryland. Their organizing work has largely centered around labor agitation and fostering scientific literacy, with an emphasis on climate change and pandemic preparedness.
Police in riot gear gather during a demonstration after the fatal shooting by a police officer of Patrick Lyoya in Grand Rapids, Michigan, April 16, 2022. (Mustafa Hussain / AFP via Getty Images)
In 2020, the mass demonstrations that exploded across the country over the police murder of George Floyd spurred a nationwide reckoning on race and an outpouring of promises from politicians to enact policing reform. In the intervening years, however, little in the way of policing in the United States appears to have changed. Last year, for instance, over 1,100 people were killed by police.
In his new book, After Black Lives Matter: Policing and Anti-Capitalist Struggle, political scientist Cedric Johnson explores the origins and consequences of what he calls stress policing, or the style of law enforcement that emerged out of “broken windows” initiatives in the carceral expansion of the 1980s. Johnson argues that, contrary to popular conceptions, policing in the United States is not primarily an expression of antiblackness or white supremacy, but rather functions to secure the conditions for perpetual capital accumulation, in large part by managing a surplus population that is increasingly multiracial. “Police violence,” he writes, “is not meted out against the black population en masse but is trained on the most dispossessed segments of the working class across metropolitan, small town and rural geographies.”
And while “Black Lives Matter” has been a powerful rallying cry in the streets, Johnson further demonstrates that the focus on racial disparities among victims of police violence tends to detract from the creation of the kind of majoritarian political coalition that will ultimately be necessary to roll back the carceral state. In an interview with Jacobin, he discusses his new book and offers a perspective on how working people — and the labor movement in particular — can collectively contest police violence.
In 2020, a lot of leftists were hopeful that the George Floyd protests would be a transformative moment for the country. Unfortunately, since then, police violence in the United States doesn’t seem to have abated at all.
You’ve long argued that while Black Lives Matter is, in many ways, an understandable response to the phenomenon of stress policing, it’s also inherited many of the limitations of postwar racial liberalism. What are some of these limitations, and how should we understand police violence today?
A blind spot of Black Lives Matter and adjacent notions like the New Jim Crow is the tendency to view police violence as an exclusively black problem, and a problem that universally threatens black people.
The response I’ve given repeatedly is that policing is not primarily about “controlling black bodies.” What we are witnessing is a problem that’s actually much bigger and more daunting: We have a problem of a society that’s by and large abandoned welfare provision and has instead decided to address the desperately poor and the dispossessed through policing. As a society, we’ve come to manage surplus population through punishment rather than benevolence.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on my own experiences and the journey of how this book came to be. I’ve thought about this subject matter since I was a teenager, having grown up in Louisiana amid the carceral expansion, and then protesting capital punishment as a freshman in college. As a nineteen-year-old, I was already taking younger black males to visit one of Louisiana’s prisons, where we talked to wardens and inmates and former gang members.
So I’ve been thinking about this subject for a long time, and as I’ve been listening to the Black Lives Matter rhetoric and engaging with peers and participating in demonstrations, a lot of the rhetoric seemed off the mark. There’s been a lot of hyperbole regarding who the main victims of police violence are; who’s most affected by it. On the one hand, the Black Lives Matter rhetoric motivates people to get into the streets and has helped force the issue into public conversation. But it also distracts from the fundamental motive of policing.
When we take a serious look at the victims of that violence — when we look closely at who they are and what their lives are like — a different set of conclusions emerges or should emerge for us.
Whenever there’s a violent incident involving a black civilian, on one side, you’ve got the Fraternal Order of Police and Blue Lives Matter types who try to demonize the victim: they pull out whatever bad things they can find about the person or bring up their criminal record and so forth. On the other side, activists try to suppress that information in order to humanize the victim, and instead talk about the great things the person did, whether he was a parent, an honor roll student, a devoted friend, and so on; details that allow us to see them as a whole person, not just a victim.
And both sides are actually right, but for the wrong reasons. We should be able to say, “These human beings did not deserve what happened to them; it was unjust.” But we should also be clear that many of them were involved in survival crimes and criminalized forms of work, or maybe just lived in places where those were the dominant aspects of the economy.
So I think there’s a way to avoid both the right-wing response and the liberal response. We need a genuine left analysis of society as it exists. We have to identify the common hardships that many people are facing, the circumstances that force people to engage in activities that are targeted aggressively by police and our courts system. Black Lives Matter opens the door to important public debate, but it also points us in the wrong direction.
I think we have to ask what’s to be gained by ignoring the fact of common conditions facing the most suppressed elements of the working class of all colors.
I think there are a number of leftists who would agree that policing is about controlling a surplus population, but might then say that a racial framing is still necessary for understanding the problem, because the surplus population is racialized, or is disproportionately black and brown. Is this a useful way of resolving some of the tensions between the so-called race analysis and the class analysis?
Going back again to my own experiences, when I was a teenager during the Reagan-Bush years, it was black civil rights organizations, black ministers, and black students who were some of the first people to contest the carceral expansion of the 1980s and ’90s, even though we weren’t calling it mass incarceration at that moment. Hip-hop artists too — think back to all the various protest anthems that came out of the ’80s. This formative framing of the policing problem as one of enduring racism really shaped how we thought about the problem and has at times constrained us.
I think it was Milton Friedman who once said that whenever there’s a crisis, people reach for the ideas that are lying around. That was certainly true of the carceral expansion in the ’80s and early ’90s, and with cases like Rodney King. It looked like racism, it sounded like racism, and it acted like racism, so that’s what it was. But at the same time, that interpretation emerged primarily from the urban theater and was trained on a particular set of experiences and incidents within cities.
But right now, as [the political scientist] Marie Gottschalk and others have pointed out, with the opioid crisis, we’ve seen that demography shift, and many popular analyses of policing and incarceration haven’t really kept up with those changes. There have been reductions in the numbers of black men who have been incarcerated, and at the same time, increases in the numbers of working-class whites.
This actually contradicts a quip I hear repeated over and over, which holds that the crack-cocaine crisis was met with aggressive policing, but we’ve treated the opioid crisis as a public health crisis. That pop narrative is usually offered as evidence of a racial double standard, but in the process, it gets both historical crises and their pernicious effects on the working class dreadfully wrong. The numbers Gottschalk cites suggest that both periods have been defined by punishment more than state benevolence. So we’re at a point now where we have to think beyond the urban theater.
We live in a different ‘postindustrial’ moment now, where the police are there to manage and contain the surplus population.
I get a version of this question at every talk that I give on this. Somebody always gets up at the end and says, “I understand what you’re saying about class. But what about race?” And this is sometimes tough for people to appreciate, but the reality is that throughout American history, the vast majority of people who are poor in this country have always been white. At the height of AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] payments, the majority of recipients were white (though the popular image of the welfare recipient was a black person, thanks to Ronald Reagan and others). And even if we’re talking about blacks and Latinos as a plurality of people within a surplus population, those people are still different from the rest of African Americans who have jobs, bank accounts, credit cards, mortgages, and possibly savings; people who are somewhat upwardly mobile in the economy. I think we have to ask what’s to be gained by ignoring the fact of common conditions facing the most oppressed elements of the working class of all colors.
It’s not only important on an intellectual level to get this story right. It’s also important politically if we’re trying to build a left majority. If we’re concerned about inequality and the damage that capital does to society — to our lives and our neighborhoods and communities — then we should be looking at what’s happening to everybody, not just the people who live in our immediate vicinity, or what correct political line might be popular at one particular moment.
In your book you also unpack the function of the police. You’re clear that you view the role of the police in capitalism as defending private property and upholding the existing class structure. But at the same time, you also reject simplistic sloganeering that says that the police are only the enemies of workers. Why should we think about the police not just as a repressive apparatus, but also as a very specific type of workforce?
The ACAB slogan is great when you’re at the barricades, but I don’t see it as my role to just follow whatever’s happening in the streets. The way I try to describe the police — and I already can hear the jeers and boos from certain corners — is as a type of alienated worker. I’m not suggesting that the police are productive workers in the traditional sense; I’m saying that they’re reproductive. Their labor is necessary insofar as it secures the conditions for capital accumulation to take place.
But even that role changes in quality and form over time. During the period of industrialization, the function of the police was, on one side, to crush labor insurgencies, and then also to do things like round up drunks and allow them to dry out so they could make it to work the next morning. We live in a different “postindustrial” moment now, where the police are there to manage and contain the surplus population, and to shore up [conditions] for all sorts of urban real estate speculation and development, and the expansion of tourism and entertainment in cities.
People forget that James Baldwin offered a depiction of the police in Harlem as actual human beings, who struggled to reconcile their prescribed task and the humanity of those blacks they confronted everyday.
We should also remember that the police are often people who are conscripted by class — that is, people who end up pursuing that particular occupation because they don’t have a whole lot of other options. The same is true for people in the military. I don’t mention this in the book, but in the community where I grew up in South Louisiana, it was mandatory for everyone in my high school to take the ASVAB [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] test — we didn’t have a choice. When I tell that story to people from other parts of the country, they’re like, “What? We never had to do anything like that!” And it’s because you weren’t from one of the poorest places in the entire United States!
I’ve had classmates, friends and family members, and other people I’ve known throughout the years who’ve worked in law enforcement, and I know that their route to that occupation is often more complicated, and their occupation doesn’t necessarily determine who they are, how they see the world, how they move about in the world, or even how they occupy that particular job. So I tried to offer a more nuanced interpretation of the police, while still thinking about them as fulfilling a repressive role.
I was inspired by both James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon in writing that chapter. A lot of people love Baldwin, but they forget that he offered a depiction of the police in Harlem as actual human beings cast in an impossible role as managers of the black ghetto, who struggled to reconcile their prescribed task and the humanity of those blacks they confronted everyday. The same is true for Fanon: in Wretched of the Earth he opens with a chapter on emancipatory violence but concludes the book with a more nuanced treatment of the role of the colonizer and the damage that occupation does to the French soldiers and police who have to manage the colony.
I think as I get older, I’m less patient with empty posturing and hand-me-down slogans that don’t give us either the political vision we need or the view of social reality that we should have. If we’re sincere about trying to build a left-wing opposition, I think we have to account for the fact that there have been moments within American history where some elements of the police have realized the problems in their role and have instead sided with working-class people.
On that note, you also talk about the role that organized labor can play in fighting police violence. In 2020 I saw a few calls for workers to go on strike to protest police violence and calls for parent unions to kick out police unions. But in your book, you discuss an approach from inside the labor movement that’s actually very different.
You mean the discussion of [United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America president] Carl Rosen? Right. He gave a speech that I thought was great because he was, again, thinking about actually existing conditions. So, in a place like Chicago, you’ve got police officers who are connected to all sorts of other public employees, as spouses, as friends, as people who belong to the same neighborhoods, social networks and communities.
This is very counterintuitive in this world of callouts and cancellations, but Rosen suggested that because of those connections, there could be a way for local labor unions to push for greater police accountability by engaging directly with the police unions. He was saying, we know these people; they’re part of our central labor councils, and we talk to them on a regular basis. There’s a way that we can try to address these problems that involves engaging with them — not the most right-wing or fanatical Fraternal Order shills — but the rank-and-file folks who work in these departments, who are also concerned about their reputations and concerned about public perceptions of the police.
I’ve been a part of a couple of different unions and some local labor council committees, and the work that happens in those spaces is just completely different from what happens on social media and within some sectarian subcultures. It’s about building bonds of trust and working in good faith with other people, who may be very different from you. You always have to be mindful that those relationships are fragile, and remind yourself of the actual common interest that you have, and not violate those delicate and hard-fought linkages with irresponsible speech.
It’s reasonable to think that the police also have an interest in changing the conditions that they work under. We know that policing is not the most dangerous occupation out there — the last time I checked, it wasn’t even in the top ten — but for the police and other first responders, mental health is an occupational safety issue. There’s been a quiet epidemic of police suicides and untreated mental health crises that need to be addressed. So officers themselves should be concerned about improving conditions and improving policing practices and finding a way to achieve public safety not through expanded and more militarized policing, but through economic security for the greatest number of people. I do think there’s an opportunity there for us, as unionists, to insist on better policing and better practices.
We’ve also seen moments where some form of policing has been necessary to advance social justice, especially in regard to African Americans. There’s no Reconstruction after the Civil War without federal occupation of the Deep South.
I want to ask you about the calls from leftists to abolish the police. I think that most people who identify as abolitionists would probably agree that this is not something that can happen tomorrow, just as we can’t overturn capitalism tomorrow. But people argue that even if we can’t abolish the police overnight, it should still be a long-term goal or a horizon. Is that a useful way to think about the problem of policing?
There are some great things about abolitionist arguments; I share some ground with them. I agree that we should shrink or rightsize police departments in certain places where they’re too large and overblown. We should rethink the kinds of crises and problems that police regularly respond to, and whether those problems can be addressed instead by unarmed nonpolice units.
I also like the redistributive arguments that have been made by defund proponents, though I think some of those proposals don’t go far enough, in the sense that it shouldn’t just be police budgets that we’re thinking about recuperating. We should be thinking about the massive tax giveaways, land grants, and infrastructure upgrades doled out to corporations and private developers that happen in cities every day. That should also be the focus of any genuine urban left politics.
But all that said, I think it’s naive at best to think that we can have a postpolice society. Especially at this moment, when there are so many mass shootings, reactionary militia, and other emergencies, just saying “abolish the police” is not a useful way to talk about things. It doesn’t win any converts from people who either live in communities that suffer from violence, or Americans who have experienced these more sporadic incidents of mass violence.
I don’t think we can have the kind of complex urban society that we do without state force. I don’t think we can have governance, and for that matter, social justice, without the monopoly of violence. The problem for us right now is that the police uphold a highly unjust and terrible capitalist order. But at various points in American history, we’ve also seen moments where some form of policing has been necessary to advance social justice, especially in regard to African Americans. I think that’s something that’s missing from a lot of abolitionist talk. There’s no Reconstruction after the Civil War without federal occupation of the Deep South — I’m sorry, it just doesn’t happen. And the very moment that federal troops are withdrawn after the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, the Reconstruction process slowly collapses.
Another example of where we’ve seen police playing a role in advancing social justice is the civil rights movement. We of course know that there was repressive policing at the local level — segregationist police departments who repressed nonviolent protesters — and then throughout the 1960s, ramped-up FBI surveillance and then COINTELPRO repression of black activists and organizations. But at the same time, there were also progressive state interventions such as the deployments of federal marshals and the National Guard. Force was necessary to break open the whites-only ballot box, to allow black kids to attend schools in New Orleans and other places. We should be aware of those historical instances and think about these contradictions in a way that’s serious and takes historical materialism with a sense of sincerity and integrity.
I want to end on a quote from your most recent Catalyst piece. You say that we’re actually “at a time when real, effective majority coalitions in local and national contexts are more possible than at any time since the Great Depression and more likely to produce genuine societal transformation.” That line stuck out to me because it seemed very optimistic for you. Can you elaborate on why you think the conditions right now are actually pretty good, all things considered, for building this kind of coalition?
You have to celebrate good things when you can. I do think there are signs of change in the country. Having lived in Chicago for over a decade, and now spending time in Los Angeles, I’ve noticed a real step forward in the way that people are talking about issues like gentrification, the unhoused, unionization, and so forth. Of course, these discussions can sometimes still be vapid or superficial — for example, when gentrification is understood primarily as a cultural thing. But there’s a growing awareness that society isn’t working for so many people.
Many people are feeling these problems — whether it’s the inadequacy of the health care system, whether it’s the difficulty in attaining a college education due to the exorbitant and rising costs, whether it’s homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, or crime and a lack of safety in big cities. People are now talking about these things in ways that we didn’t talk about them in the ’90s. I think there’s now a consciousness of the limitations of our society that weren’t there before.
And you can look at various social struggles — not just Black Lives Matter, but also teachers’ strikes that aren’t only about wages and benefits of staff and teachers, but are also broader fights over what public education should look like. When the Los Angeles Unified School District staff went on strike last month, their demands spoke to the broader cost of living in an unlivable and unaffordable city, hardships experienced throughout Los Angeles county and beyond.
Or take the recent election of Brandon Johnson in Chicago, which was a reflection of growing social forces on the ground that represent a more critical view of the kind of market-centric urbanism we’ve been stuck with for so long. There’s an understanding that the for-profit city doesn’t serve us — in Chicago or anywhere else — and that we need something different, more genuinely democratic and socially just.
It seems to me that we’re at a moment that has some real possibilities. I’m a true Generation X-er, but these recent developments make a lot of the cynicism that I grew up with untenable. I think there are reasons to be optimistic.
As the Miami Herald reported, DeSantis’ plan for the Florida State Guard has grown from 200 volunteers and a $5 million budget to 1,500 members and a nearly $100 million budget. The Florida legislature seems ready to appease him.
DeSantis told lawmakers he wanted $98 million for the program but didn’t offer many details. Republican leaders in the House proposed more than $89 million in their budget, including six boats and tow vehicles, $49.5 million for planes and helicopters, $22.7 million to store those vehicles and $10 million for a new headquarters.
They also want another $750,000 to contract with the Israeli company Cellebrite to create a “Digital Forensic Center of Excellence” that would help the State Guard target human trafficking and drug and child exploitation crimes, including on farms. Cellebrite is often hired by police departments because of its ability to break into iPhones.
While almost half the states have similar volunteer forces, they typically help the national guard with logistics, such as driving forklifts or delivering food during emergencies, the Herald noted.
So, what the heck does DeSantis plan to do with all that new power? The possibilities are terrifying.
In Atlanta, a judge has denied bond for 8 of the people indiscriminately arrested at a music festival against the proposed “Cop City” police training facility in the Weelaunee Forest. Jailed since March 5, they are charged with domestic terrorism based on scant evidence like muddy clothes or simply being in the area at the time of the festival. We’re joined by Micah Herskind…
Donald Trump told an audience of MAGA supporters in Iowa, that if he’s elected again he will send federal troops into blue state cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago to fight crime.
Continuing his regurgitated war on crime meme, Trump bragged about Republican governors.
“You look at any democrat-run state, and it’s just not the same. It does not work,” Trump said. “You look at these cities, our great cities. New York City is a crime den. Chicago is a crime den. You look at these great cities, Los Angeles, San Francisco you look at what’s happening to our country.”
“We cannot let it happen any longer, and one of the other things I will do because you know you’re not supposed to be involved in that. You have to be asked by the governor or the mayor to come in,” Trump said. “The next time, I am not waiting.”
“One of the things I did was, let them run it, and we’re gonna show how bad a job they do,” he said.
“Well, we did that. We don’t have to wait any longer. We gotta get crime out of our cities,” he said.
Trump can’t “let” a city run itself.
The cockwobbler plans to occupy the city of Los Angeles (3.849 million people) with troops?
Joe Biden speaking in Lanham, Maryland on February 15, 2023. (Maryland GovPics / Flickr)
Historically, it’s never been a good sign when Joe Biden’s decided to get “tough on crime.” The former Delaware senator’s decades-long crusade against crime led him to become one of the leading architects of mass incarceration — a set of policies that he was, in part, elected president to fix.
So it’s an ominous development that just as he prepares to officially announce his reelection bid, and with Republicans controlling the House for the foreseeable future, Biden has abruptly folded to GOP pressure over the issue. This most recent controversy relates to the president’s flip-flop over a Republican push in Congress to overturn the District of Columbia’s recent rewrite of its criminal code: Biden first opposed the GOP bill, now he says he’d sign it into law.
The reason for the backpedal is that the Right has successfully cast the DC bill as a soft-on-crime giveaway to offenders. With West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) signing onto the Right’s effort and numerous Democrats in conservative districts voting for the bill, Biden abruptly turned around and vowed to go along with it, reportedly in part thanks to the recent drubbing taken by outgoing Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Biden, with an eye on reelection, chose political expediency and to cover his right flank, drawing ire from several quarters in the process. One is DC home rule supporters, since signing the Republican bill into law would be only the fourth time Congress has ever nullified laws passed by the DC Council. The last instance was thirty-two years ago.
The other is congressional Democrats, who are especially up in arms about the lack of communication around the move. The entire Democratic Party is being dragged along with the president, with several high-profile Democrats now wavering on the bill or outright switching to supporting it. In fact, according to NBC News, the administration and the rash of consultants attached to the party are actively celebrating Biden’s shift as smart strategy, with the White House “planning a full-throated effort to present him as tough on crime to try to chip away at any Republican advantage on an issue that has put many Democrats on the defensive.”
Biden and the Democrats’ rightward shift on crime is an exhaustion of political imagination and psychic defeat.
“If Republicans thought President Biden would hand them a wedge issue for 2024, they thought wrong,” gushed Lis Smith, the Democratic strategist best known for bringing us Pete Buttigieg and smearing the women Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed.
But nearly everything you’ve just read sits on top of a pyramid of faulty assumptions.
Let’s start with the DC bill itself, which does not remotely resemble Republicans’ and Fox News’ portrayal.
As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern has detailed, the bill, the Revised Criminal Code Act (RCCA), is less a decarceral effort, like ones passed in states like New York or even by Donald Trump, and more a years-in-the-making attempt to clarify and rationalize the District’s outdated criminal code. First written in 1901 with sporadic updates since, the code is full of confusions and imprecision, prompting this current effort to rewrite it, done in large part through input from prosecutors’ offices.
The RCCA does lower maximum sentences for crimes like carjackings, burglaries, and robberies, and abolishes most mandatory minimum sentences. But that’s because the sentences on the books right now don’t make a lot of sense, like the whopping forty-year maximum sentence for carjackings. At the same time, by splitting crimes like robbery into different categories and tiers of severity — instead of the blanket fifteen-year maximum sentence that currently exists for all robberies, whether a snatch-and-grab mugging or an armed holdup — the bill lowers sentences for some crimes, but also raises them for a bunch of others.
To put it plainly: the Right is brazenly lying about what this bill actually is, and Biden and the Democrats don’t care enough to do anything but meekly and preemptively roll over.
Second, the idea that crime is the make-or-break issue of the foreseeable future is dubious. For both Republicans and Democrats, crime ranks low in Gallup’s polling of what Americans see as the country’s most pressing problem, far below issues like inflation, the economy, and the government and poor leadership.
Crime likewise ranks far lower than inflation and the economy in the most recent Associated Press-National Opinion Research Center Center for Public Affairs Research poll, where it’s also singled out as a priority by respondents less than climate change, immigration, gun issues, health care, and even education and student debt. It doesn’t even register as a priority among Texans in the latest University of Texas/Texas Politics Project survey. The one major poll it does rank highly on is Pew’s February results, though even there it’s on par with cutting the deficit — and well below issues like strengthening the economy, lowering health care costs, and reducing the influence of money in politics.
You don’t need polling to understand this. The country just went through a midterm election where the Right tried to make crime the issue; the results were distinctly underwhelming for Republicans. In fact, beyond Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, progressive prosecutors, progressives who have fought police excesses, and even actual prison abolitionists were swept into power all over the country, from Iowa, Dallas, and San Antonio, to Pennsylvania, Minneapolis, and Oklahoma City. They did this despite a tidal wave of right-wing fearmongering around crime, and despite, like all of the victorious socialist candidates and officials like Bernie Sanders ally Keith Ellison (who won reelection as Minnesota’s attorney general), taking stances that the likes of Fox, Lis Smith, and James Carville would caricature as being “soft on crime.”
Lori Lightfoot was a heavy hand on crime, and yet she failed miserably at the ballot box.
The idea that Lori Lightfoot’s humiliating recent third-place finish in Chicago is some kind of referendum on crime and crime alone is being pushed by the liberal establishment, but its grounding in reality is questionable. Lightfoot loudly and consistently positioned herself against the “defund the police” demand that Democrats have taken to blaming for their failures, punted on the police reform she’d been voted in to enact, took extreme measures against George Floyd protesters that even police balked at, and attacked her most prominent left-wing challenger, Brandon Johnson, as an anti-police radical who would make the city more dangerous — before losing to him by nearly five points.
Lightfoot was a heavy hand on crime, yet she failed miserably at the ballot box — a fact that should serve as a wake-up call to Biden and other Democrats who view posturing on the issue as their ticket to victory.
None of this means that crime is entirely irrelevant, or that voters’ concerns about it can simply be hand-waved away. But this attempt to brand concerns over crime as an electoral be-all and end-all and progressive approaches to crime as a political liability doesn’t square with the real world.
Far from some savvy, hard-headed piece of political strategy, Biden and the Democrats’ rightward shift on crime represents an exhaustion of political imagination and psychic defeat.
The once-ambitious Biden agenda is dead, with GOP control of the House forestalling its future revival. Any progressive attempt to deal with inflation is similarly blocked, with the Fed’s recession-baiting strategy now the sole option on the table. Having refused to abolish the debt ceiling when Democrats controlled Congress, the president is now poised for a series of bruising fiscal hostage scenarios that will likely see him forced to accept unpopular spending cuts.
The temporary, pandemic-driven expansion of the welfare state is steadily shrinking as his administration winds down COVID emergency measures. Executive action faces the brick wall of a hard-right Supreme Court that Biden has no appetite for challenging. And potential international crises over Iran and China are piling up, while the Ukraine war has collapsed in terms of US public salience.
In the face of all this, it’s not surprising the president and his party would revert to the position they’re most comfortable in: the classic Democratic strategy of emphasizing how scary their opposition is, to keep as many independents and disaffected progressives in the fold while trying to poach conservative issues from the Right. This may well explain not just this latest move on crime, but the White House’s recent weighing of harsh immigration measures, including policies put in place under Trump.
As the midterm results showed, that strategy could even at this late stage still have enough juice to carry Biden to another term. But it’s less promising as a recipe for making the urgent, transformational change this moment demands. In the meantime, it leaves the president’s left flank wide open to a serious primary challenge.
“A massive victory,” is how one participant, “Jean,” who spoke to It’s Going Down in a recent interview, described this weekend’s mobilization against “Cop City” in Atlanta. The movement is currently at a high-point, following an outpouring of support and rage over the brutal murder of Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, an anarchist and forest defender, who was shot and killed by law enforcement during a raid on tree-sits and protest encampments on January 18th. Statements of solidarity and support have come in from across the Left and the environmental movement, spanning from the Sierra Club and 350.org, to grassroots collectives and organizations all over the US and the world.
Welcome to day two of the Defend the Forest Week of Action. There’s a new edition to the space by the festival grounds on the RC Field tarmac.
An excited group of festival goers jumped in as soon as set up completed. pic.twitter.com/dUpq2qm9fi
— Atlanta Community Press Collective (@atlanta_press) March 5, 2023
This weekend also shows that the movement has staying power. For over two years, the autonomous and decentralized struggle to defend the Weelaunee forest has fought to oppose the construction of a massive corporate backed, 85 acre police counter-insurgency training facility, as well as a contested land grab by Ryan Milsap of Blackhall Studios, the company behind such films as Venom and the Jumanji reboots. Groups such as Community Movement Builders, which organizes in “working-class and poor Black communities” and local environmental coalitions have been at the the forefront of this battle, which has been marked by everything from marches organized by local school children to targeted property destruction claimed via anonymous communiques on websites like Scenes from the Atlanta Forest.
As one forest defender described on a recent podcast:
People used to like to use this term: diversity of tactics, and we’ve gone a step further, we’ve created something that actually mimics the forest itself, this is an ecosystem of tactics. So it’s not a bunch of things working against or in-spite of each other, its several tactics working in conjunction and in relation to each other. Everything from the Muskogee stomp dance to marches of preschoolers to leafleting the community old-school style, to windows being smashed, to people building tree-houses in the forest and refusing to move. [It’s] punk shows and dance parties and religious services and garden planting…and a lot of these things are difficult for some people to understand why they matter; why they’re connected to each other, but its important to understand that we have to reach every aspect of human society.
According to folks on the ground, over 1,000 people answered the call to take part in the most recent “week of action” which kicked off this Saturday, marking the largest number of supporters which has ever mobilized, as things began in the early morning on Saturday, March 4th. Around 10: 30 AM, protesters gathered at Gresham Park, listening to various speakers, ranging from local organizers with Community Movement Builders to clergy, before marching nearly two miles through the forest to Weelaunee People’s Park, the site of some of the movement’s first public gatherings, and the remnants of a gazebo and paved trails which were destroyed by workers, hired by Ryan Milsap.
After arriving at Weelaunee People’s Park, the crowd then began setting up tents to camp in, communal kitchens, and a sound-stage for a two-day music festival featuring a plethora of musical acts spanning a wide variety of genres. Over 1,000 people soon filled the space, enjoying literature tables and food, while volunteers, forest defenders, and festival participants worked to cook, set up sanitation, and created all sorts of communal infrastructure. “It was an incredible project of social reproduction,” Jean stated, complete with “full kitchens, hand washing, bathrooms, food, and multiple kitchen stations.”
South River Music Festival
under the nearly-full moon
and the cool breeze of some trees pic.twitter.com/n4cYNoYPsi
— Defend the Atlanta Forest (@defendATLforest) March 5, 2023
The Atlanta Community Press Collective describes here the initial mobilization which began on Saturday morning:
By 10:30am on Saturday, the beginning of the week of action, about 50 activists arrived [and] began gathering near the playground at Gresham Park. The mood was festive. Families arrived with children running straight for the playground…By 11:00am, the scheduled start time, the crowd grew to over 200. Passenger vans shuttled participants from a nearby church to alleviate parking concerns of previous weeks of action.
At 11:30am a powder-paint covered Matthew Johnson, Interim Executive Director of Beloved Commune formally kicked the the rally off acknowledging the variety of individuals, tactics, and beliefs of those gathered. “There are many things we do not agree on,” Johnson began, “but we all came here to what?” he continued. “TO STOP COP CITY,” the crowd yelled in response.
After about an hour of speeches, one last group chant, “we have nothing to lose but our chains” announced the start of the march to from Gresham Park to Weelaunee People’s Park. Over the course of the two-mile walk, the group’s energy remained charged. The diverse crowd chanted slogans like, “if you build it, we will burn it” in unison as drummers kept up a relentless beat, pushing the march forward.
With no police in sight, the group finally arrived in the parking lot of Weelaunee People’s Park, and the jubilant mood returned in earnest. The group gathered one final time around a speaker who led all those gathered in a combination chant and promise, “I will defend this land.”
After spending the night in the forest, on the second day the music festival continued, while an autonomous group of around 200 forest defenders converged on where the construction site for “Cop City” was based. There, marchers according to Unicorn Riot:
[A] march of several hundred opponents of the project (generally known as ‘forest defenders’) took over a police surveillance outpost along a power line clearing near Intrenchment Creek. The crowd set off fireworks and threw other projectiles over the barbed wire fence of the outpost, causing the police to retreat.
Barricades of tires and other debris were set up at the outpost entrance and two UTVs, a Front End Loader, office trailer, and mobile surveillance tower were destroyed and set on fire. Several port-a-potties were tipped and barbed wire fences bent, twisted and rendered insecure.
Police have made repeated statements to the press about the throwing of “Molotov cocktails,” in an effort to paint a picture of human life being threatened, however the only violence against human beings reported was later in the evening at the hands of the police. In fact, as the New York Times reporter on the ground at the demonstration wrote of the targeted property destruction, “As vehicles were set ablaze, law enforcement officers looked on and initially did not intervene.”
The #CopCity site pic.twitter.com/zFmNJ1mXcZ
— Sean Keenan (@ThatSeanKeenan) March 5, 2023
These actions destroyed recent progress made on the Cop City project and its infrastructure, setting back development which has already been marked by construction delays, lawsuits, protests, and companies dropping out.
Additional “Cop City” construction defense infrastructure appears to have been destroyed by fire as forest defenders overrun the outpost. pic.twitter.com/O3huFUWxK7
— UNICORN RIOT 🦄 mastodon.social/@UnicornRiot 👈 (@UR_Ninja) March 5, 2023
After the Cop City construction site was damaged and set on fire, the group of protesters left the area, while law enforcement then slowly began to amass at Welaunee People’s Park where the music festival was taking place, over a mile away. “Tina,” who was at the music festival throughout the day spoke to It’s Going Down in a recent interview, stating that hundreds of people were at the music festival, largely from the local Atlanta area. “It was going really well, [then ] cops lined up on the road, they came in opposite of the music festival. They would bring in a couple cars; this lasted a few hours.”
cops chasing down protesters at peaceful South River Festival. MAJOR police presence on surrounding roads. get out of there if you can #StopCopCity @defendATLforest pic.twitter.com/j8SNQV2vmn
— madi (@madibskatin) March 6, 2023
In video coverage from Unicorn Riot, police can be seen walking into the festival-area with high powered automatic weapons and in videos posted to Twitter, people at the music festival, some with dogs and small children, are seen running from the police. “Cops were picking off random music festival attendees,” reported Jean, who also stated police were heard screaming, “We’re gonna fucking kill you motherfucker.”
“They came out in full force, [but] the crowd stayed together,” Jean stated, as police deployed pepper-balls and tasers on concert goers and rolled out a Bearcat unit along with an LRAD, a machine which uses a painful sound cannon against large crowds.
In the face of this violence, according to Tina, the several hundred people still at the festival self-organized to get people rides out of the park and shuttle them to safety. When police threatened mass arrest, people locked arms and chanted that they had children there and demanded to be released, to which police finally relented, allowing people to leave the area in groups. According to the Atlanta Community Press Collective, at least 35 people were arrested late Sunday.
Jean was quick to note that the main force on the ground was the Georgia State Patrol (GSP), the same agency which is behind the murder of Tortuguita, is locally referred to as “cowboys,” and is known for being largely white. Last year, Georgia “agreed to pay a $4.8 million legal settlement to the family of a Black man who was fatally shot by a state trooper trying to pull him over for a broken tail light.”
Music, munchies, booze, camaraderie at the #StopCopCity protest pic.twitter.com/Iwiuh3hS7H
— Sean Keenan (@ThatSeanKeenan) March 5, 2023
Ironically, a police statement released late Sunday claimed (correctly) that those at the music festival were, “peaceful,” yet this did not stop them from brutalizing a crowd filled with families and even young children. The statement read, “A group of violent agitators used the cover of a peaceful protest of the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center to conduct a coordinated attack on construction equipment…” If this is so, then why did police knowingly threaten hundreds of “peaceful” people with arrest and even possible violent death?
Where does the movement go from here?
Already, like clockwork Marjorie Taylor Greene, fresh from CPAC, where speakers called for the literal “eradication” of transgender people, is tweeting about “ANTIFA” and “Communists,” while the police are again trotting out civil-rights era tropes of “outside agitators.” But people like Jean don’t buy that these attacks will stick like perhaps they once did. “The amount of solidarity is incredible here, the outside agitator tropes are not flying in the forest struggle. From church groups to pre-schools to HBCUs, everyone is enthusiastically embracing that this is not a “local struggle” and are asking people around the country to contribute,” Jean stated. “Along with the action [in Downtown Atlanta] on January 21st, this is a show of emergent movement strength: the numbers, people showing up from around the country, the strong local showing of Atlantans, the ability of a group to cohere and take action…”
It’s sadly no surprise that police would arbitrarily attack and arrest Cop City festival-goers at random tonight. They have a history of using unconstitutional force and collective punishment against opponents of their proposed training facility. [thread]
— Atlanta Solidarity Fund (@ATLSolFund) March 6, 2023
What happens next in the forest remains to be seen. When emerging movements are attacked by police they often grow, as they did when cops in New York mass arrested Occupy Wall Street protesters on a bridge in Brooklyn or attempted to brutalize Water Protectors at Standing Rock with attack dogs. As Jean argued, “The sort of absolute lack of disciple on the state’s side is horrible for us, but also incredibly advantageous in the long run.”
Activists arrive at Weelaunee people’s park and chant, “I will defend this land” pic.twitter.com/LBz7hxX2f9
— Atlanta Community Press Collective (@atlanta_press) March 4, 2023
Staring at the photos of smoke billowing from the husks of burned out police cars in the Atlanta forest, its hard not to compare them to the images of youth standing triumphantly in front of the burning third precinct in Minneapolis back in 2020, only days after George Floyd’s murder. While it is unclear where things will go from here, if the state was planning on isolating forest defenders and attempting to scare the wider public from getting involved by slapping people with trumped up charges, then perhaps they should consider defunding their “training” facility and re-investing in a new PR firm, because the fight to stop Cop City isn’t going anywhere.
cover photo: Unicorn Riot and Atlanta Community Press Collective
What are the police and what does it mean to live in a society that requires them? Since the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, there has been a lot of interest in the role of policing in contemporary society. With this in mind, we can conceive police power in two ways: 1) as the totality of disciplinary practices implemented through a range of civil society institutions (schools, workplaces, households, and more), along with the everyday self-regulative practices of the members of civil society; and 2) as armed forces of state repression with the right to use force in the name of the state’s and society’s self-preservation. These forces include the military, courts, prison and border guards, and police officers. As expressed through everyday disciplinary practices, police power is the essence of civil society, and armed forces are its immediate form of appearance. Policing is not simply the protection of an already-existing public. It is productive and reproductive, law-making and law-preserving. If police power is constitutive of the society that we live in, then abolishing the police means social revolution.
The justification of the police offered by the state rests upon a specific understanding of freedom, right, and safety. According to this logic, to be free means to be in possession of one’s own life and in a position to exercise one’s will as one pleases. But with the capacity for self-mastery comes the threat of mastery or arbitrary rule over others, the subjection of a person or group to another person’s will. For this reason, the division of power and the consent of the governed are core values of modern democratic constitutions (monarchical or republican). By restraining the threat of arbitrary rule, the principles of voluntary consent and contractual obligation aim to establish the common ground where citizens can meet one another as self-possessed equals.
Within this framework, in which today’s liberal states are rooted, each citizen has the natural right to pursue their own self-preservation and defend themselves against threats to their liberty. In cases of broken contractual obligation or violation of property rights (especially the right to self-ownership), one has the right to seek justice proportionate to what was lost. The violation of right warrants the intervention of public authority (the state), which possesses the right to use force, within reason, to administer justice. The purpose of the state, in this view, is to provide universally binding rules of public conduct, defend the rights of citizens, and administer justice when said rights are violated. While citizens relinquish this right to force by voluntary submission, the state retains this right on their behalf, and will administer justice and defend the body politic from threats.
If the state can administer justice with violence, then part of honouring our contractual obligations means internalizing the threat of violence. This means regulating our habits and behaviours in a manner consistent with the law. In other words, it means policing one’s own conduct and that of other people. Thus the liberal idea of citizenship requires a form of self-regulation or self-policing; it involves training oneself to be the kind of person who is voluntarily responsible. Those who do not demonstrate the capacity for self-regulation are subject to the state’s self-preserving power because the lawlessness of their will presents a permanent threat to the peace and security of civil society.
When the rationale for the use of force is self-preservation (as opposed to, say, discipline), lawmakers declare arbitrary power to be lawful because society has to defend itself from those who do not voluntarily submit. Those who do not (or cannot) exercise self-restraint are to be restrained by force. When force is used in the name of society’s self-preservation, conventional limits placed upon the use of force do not apply, because the preservation of the polity is the administration of justice. Generally speaking, police do not go to jail for murder when they claim they were under attack and simply defending themselves (and “all of us”). The same logic holds in cases of civilian self-deputization, such as the infamous murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman or the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
Contrary to the liberal narrative above, the imperative of self-preservation is not an eternal law of society. It is a principle belonging to a specific form of social life, one that demands a legal structure adequate to its fundamental relations: slavery, colonialism, and capitalist exploitation. The birth of modern police power announces a new epoch in world history.
The demand to abolish the police has a long history. In The Civil War in France, his commentary on the Paris Commune, Karl Marx proposed the replacement of the repressive arms of the state (its standing army and police force) with a popular militia. Similarly, Lenin’s April Theses, written before the October revolution of 1917 in Russia, called for the abolition of “the police, military, and bureaucracy.” In both examples, dismantling the repressive arms of the state and replacing them with new socialized defence forces (“the arming of the whole people”) was seen as a crucial component of the creation of a new kind of society.
Contemporary struggles draw inspiration from the long history of Black rebellions against police power throughout the western hemisphere, from slave revolts to prison insurrections and urban uprisings. The 1971 Attica uprising, where prisoners held in Attica Correctional Facility revolted against their poor living conditions and abject political status, is especially significant. It marks the beginning of a post-civil rights era of police power – and resistance to it – characterized by the expansion of carceral institutions (prisons, jails, detention centres) and the expansion of police forces in response to the long-term crisis in the capitalist world-system that began in the early 1970s.
A major repercussion of this long-term political-economic crisis has been the state’s systematic withdrawal of social services, leaving public welfare up to private initiative and the whims of the market. There is an inverse correlation between the removal (often via privatization) of social supports and the expansion of police funding: when access to healthcare, housing, and education go down, police budgets go up. The connection between austerity and policing plays out locally and globally. In Winnipeg, where I live, the police budget is significantly larger than that of much-needed social services. Looking abroad, we can see examples of this pattern in Nigeria, with its Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and their practice of everyday terror; in the military occupation of favelas in Brazil; and in countless other expressions of combined state terror and material deprivation around the world. The hollowing-out of public infrastructure has also reinforced reactionary sentiment amongst a portion of the population, eager to defend what remains of their own status against perceived threats to their property and person. The result has been an unmistakable alliance between the police and reactionary far-right movements throughout the world, but especially in the Global North.
The paradigm of militarized austerity politics provides the global context in which the events of summer 2020 took place, and from which the popular demands “Abolish the police!” and “Defund the police!” emerged. Contrary to some reformist perspectives, which aim to achieve a statistical reduction of the amount of police violence by changing police training protocols, the demands announced in the police and prison resource #8toAbolition pursue reforms (defund police, demilitarize communities, socialize housing) that reduce police power instead of finding novel ways of building it. Simply stated: “We believe in a world where there are zero police murders because there are zero police.”
I can see how defunding the police and funding healthcare, housing, and other social programs can reduce the scope and scale of everyday police work, as many of the problems cops have been tasked with solving (such as mental health crises) could be better handled by communities and individuals with specific training. Some challenges begin to appear when we ask what it means to reduce the authority and legitimacy of the police, an aim set forth in #8toAbolition. The authors suggest that this might be achieved by slashing police budgets until they hit zero while disarming the police through legislation. The general idea is that we can wear down the power and authority of the police while building community-based, non-carceral alternatives that create public safety and provide care.
If the police can be fully defunded and disarmed through legislation, this would mean that police power is, at least in theory, subject to a higher form of authority, namely that of the state. But if the police are one of the repressive arms of the state, then the authority of the police is bound up with the authority of the very same state that would be disarming them. This is an instance where the nature of the police (i.e. the fact that they are an integral part of civil society and its reproduction) places constraints upon what can be done to them in the absence of control over the state itself.
We are left with a situation that goes something like this: on one hand, it is unlikely that the state would pass legislation that aims to eliminate its means of implementing its authority. On the other hand, even if the state managed to pass reforms that sought to reduce police power, the police have a degree of relative autonomy from the commanding heights of the state apparatus, granting them the capacity to resist opposition even if it comes from within the state itself. Former US president Barack Obama, for example, claimed to be unable to federalize the police after the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. More recently, we might look at the way police support for the so-called Freedom Convoy, which occupied the Canadian capital in winter 2022 to demand an end to legally mandated COVID protections, played a significant role in defending that movement against the federal government’s opposition. Armed, organized, and viewed by many as an ineradicable part of a functioning society, the police show themselves to be able to evade executive control – whether that evasion takes the form of resisting federalization or openly aligning with “protests” funded by far-right organizations.
The strength of police power means that the movement to abolish them, from either above or below, must be prepared for confrontation. It is important for those committed to the cause of abolition to think seriously about the threat of counterinsurgency and terroristic violence, especially in the face of self-deputized citizens who take the work of policing into their own hands in the face of real or imagined opposition. If #8toAbolition and other resources like it propose to shift authority from the police to other institutions through legislation, then this presents the state as a site of contestation that can be gradually moved towards abolishing the police. But given the magnitude of police power, the popular support that accompanies it, and the essential function of the police within the modern state, any struggle against them is a struggle regarding state power in general. Because the demand to abolish the police implicitly rejects their authority to use force, it challenges the legitimacy of the existing constitutional order. In my view, this conflict will likely escalate into a civil war in the most basic sense of the term: an organized contest concerning authority, legitimacy, and the fundamental principles that determine the administration of society.
The practical dilemma that we face at this moment is how to respond to the ongoing crises of housing, healthcare, and other social supports while also building and maintaining the power to withstand violent opposition. This could involve using a range of strategies and tactics, from agitating for social provisions and reduced police presence – for example, striking down plans to add police officers to schools – to building new political organizations and networks to assume control over aspects of social reproduction, to organizing self-defence and effective counter-terrorism. If we want to look at what failed counter-terrorism looks like, we would do well to recall the defeat of Reconstruction after the American Civil War, in which the attempt to implement what W.E.B. Du Bois called abolition-democracy was defeated by the mob violence and guerrilla tactics of the Ku Klux Klan. We must be clear about what is at stake, and understand that the question of the hour is how to defend against the threat of counterinsurgency from above (the police) and below (Kyle Rittenhouse).
Tapji Garba is a writer and academic currently living in Winnipeg. You can find them on twitter @tapji.
The post What are the Police? What is Abolition? appeared first on Midnight Sun.
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