The police represent a contradiction of modern life. Politicians, the media and the cops themselves claim that they are the “thin blue line” that protects us from crime and from descent into chaos and barbarism.
But all over the world, police forces are regularly implicated in corruption and human rights abuses. In South Africa, a recent Afrobarometer survey showed that most citizens believe the police are untrustworthy and incapable of preventing crime.
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THE POLICE IS NOT “POLITICALLY NEUTRAL
Rather than protecting society, the police focus on enforcing social hierarchies and inequalities, evicting the poor from their homes, harassing street traders, extorting bribes and shooting people. protesters with life-threatening rubber bullets. As two new books argue, this abuse is not only a global phenomenon, it is also intrinsic to the nature of the police as an institution.
Violent order: Essays on the nature of the font (Haymarket Books, 2021), edited by David Correia and Tyler Wall and A world without police: How Strong Communities Make Police Obsolete (Verso, 2021) by Geo Maher examines the grim reality of police and state power.
Released a year after the protests against the police murder of George Floyd rocked the United States, the two books reflect the growing movement to abolish the police, which calls for emancipatory alternatives to public safety. Abolitionists believe that authoritarian state violence makes society both undemocratic and dangerous. They call for alternative methods to deal with the problems of crime and violence.
Violent order is the successor to the previous collaboration of Correia and Wall Police: A field guide (Verso, 2018). This book has deconstructed what they call “police language”, showing how euphemisms such as “security” and “order” are in practice used to legitimize abusive and sinister tactics of domination.
The essays collected in this book broaden their analysis, with contributors addressing topics ranging from police dogs to the ways in which the police are involved in corporate destruction of the environment.
In their introductory article, Correia and Wall argue that the history of modern policing shows that security institutions are not primarily concerned with fighting crime, but rather with the more nebulous goal of enforcing “l ‘order’.
From 18th century slave patrols to today’s hyper-militarized forces, this is an order based on class, racial and gender injustice. They argue that the police use daily violence to “fabricate the bourgeois order” – or an order where people are turned into submissive consumer-subjects and nature is turned into a commodity to be exploited.
The chapters in the book use both historical and contemporary examples to show that policing is not a politically neutral social service. Instead, it is an institution whose main objective is to control the working and impoverished class, and to suppress political dissent.
Rather than focusing on pragmatic crime prevention, the police are based on a Manichean morality, where the world is divided into good police and a wicked, unruly population that must be kept on a leash.
As Phillip V McHarris argues in his chapter, this actually makes us less sure:
âThe emphasis on good versus evil, the latter being attributed to an inherent culture or ontological disposition, creates boundaries for ending violence within communities, including patriarchal violence. Abolitionists present visions of safe and responsible communities that do not exacerbate existing harms along the way. “
The theme of abolition is at the center of Geo Maher’s book A world without police. Writing from the dual perspectives of an academic and activist, Maher explores how abolition is not a call for a nihilistic world without laws, but is rather based on a vision of justice that cannot be achieved in the framework of the existing criminal justice system.
The book begins with a historical study of policing and the ways in which it has been used to uphold the authoritarian institutions of slavery and colonialism. Never making a decisive break with this sordid past, modern cops carry on this tradition in new forms.
For Maher, the police are not designed to serve the general public. Instead, its primary role is to maintain dominant political and economic power structures – often at the expense of real security. For example, the police are often called in to resolve social conflicts arising from poverty and mental illness. But instead of defusing these situations, the violent force often used by the police actively aggravates them.
He says: âIf someone robs your house or assaults you, the truth is that the vast police apparatus did nothing to prevent this from happening. But in a bizarre sleight of hand, the police continue to cite their own dismal failures as proof of its indispensable character. “
Rather, it describes a long history of community self-defense, where people have organized themselves democratically to provide security without the state. During the Seattle General Strike of 1919, workers created community militias “to preserve law and order without resorting to force.”
During the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, activists faced terror from groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which the racist police force tacitly tolerated. This inspired the creation of armed self-defense groups and “rifle clubs”.
Maher focuses particularly on Latin America. As in South Africa today, states engaged in neoliberal austerity have abandoned many impoverished communities, leaving people to self-organize to survive in desperate circumstances.
This inspired a remarkable wave of democratically organized public security mechanisms. In Mexico City, where residents are plagued by both police corruption and criminal violence, activists have taken over unused land to create La Polvorilla, a safe area full of community gardens, where checkpoints are manned by women.
This has created an “oasis in the middle of a desert of poverty and gray houses”, which offers a space of dignity and peace to the poor.
While exploring a range of alternatives for community safety, Maher also discusses the dangers of self-defense and mob justice. These are very real risks, but he makes a compelling case that direct democracy and community oversight can help prevent the rise of toxic popular violence.
Even in the midst of terrible poverty and alluring violence, communities have created non-authoritarian models of security, which address both social violence and its root causes.
These two books combine political theory and history with accessible writing. Read together, they argue that the police are an archaic, undemocratic, and, as Maher puts it, “unnecessary” institution that exists to preserve the wealth and power of the rich.
In a world of state, economic and environmental collapse, the police offer most of us no security. In fact, they are essential to maintaining the disorder of late capitalism.
At the same time, the left must respond to people’s legitimate fears of being the victims of crime. This work shows that there are already democratic and egalitarian alternatives.
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