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Understanding the Role of Police Towards Abolitionism: On Black Death as an American Necessity, Abolition, Non-Violence, and Whiteness

{Photo credit: Ashley Landis/AP}

By Joshua Briond

In Blood In My Eye, the late great George Jackson writes: “the purpose of the chief repressive institutions within the totalitarian capitalist state is clearly to discourage and prohibit certain activity, and the prohibitions are aimed at very distinctly defined sectors of the class—and race— sensitized society. The ultimate expression of law is not order—it’s prison. There are hundreds upon thousands of laws, yet there is no social order, no social peace. Anglo-Saxon bourgeois law is tied firmly into economics[…]Bourgeois law protects property relations and not social relationships.”  And while thousands across the country take to the streets to protest state violence, in the aftermath of the public lynching of George Floyd, we have been seeing the structural reality the likes of George Jackson (amongst other Black political prisoners and revolutionaries) brilliantly and elegantly theorized on and experienced, once again holds true.

In this moment, it is crucial to understand the role of the police at their core, as merely a hyper-militarized bottom of the barrel armed force of the ruling class. Our ruling class owned media tries to portray both state and federal level police as neutral actors enforcing public safety—when in fact their role has always served to disrupt (radical) political activity by any means necessary. The past few days have sprung speculation regarding the police and media conspiring and exporting counterinsurgency—which is clearly happening. But what if, instead, we saw policing under white supremacist capitalism as inherently and in a constant state of counterinsurgency—because such an act is how empire sustains itself—especially if we know that, historically, police have surveilled, repressed and infiltrated individuals, organizations, and political parties that they have deemed ideological enemies because their interests represent a legitimate threat to the capitalist white supremacist status quo.

“Power responds to all threats. The response is repression. If the threat is a small one, the fascist tactic is to laugh it off, ignore it, isolate it with greater the corresponding violence from power. The only effective challenge to power is one that is broad enough to make isolation impossible, and intensive enough to cause repression to affect the normal lifestyle of as many members of the society as possible[…] Nothing can bend consciousness more effectively than a false arrest, a no-knock invasion, careless, panic-stricken gunfire.”

—George Jackson (Blood In My Eye)

The issue is not simply “police brutality.” But, the mere existence and functionality of the inherently anti-black, subservient to capital institution of polic[e/ing]. “Police brutality” like many liberalized frameworks, individualizes structural oppression and power. Such framing leaves space for reformism, as if there’s only certain aspects of policing that needs to be readdressed. It’s an undeniable fact that technically “not all cops kill” but instead of moral posturing, we can focus on the political and ideological functioning of policing in service of whiteness, capital(ism), and settler-colonialism, as being in direct contradiction of the lives and well-being of racialized, colonized, and working-class people. Focusing the problem on the mere existence of polic[e/ing], as an institutionalized direct descendant of chattel slavery previously branded ‘slave patrolling,’ we’re able to discuss the inherent (racialized & class-based) violences within the institution at-large. And it allows us to reckon with the entire institution instead of individual actors, their political or moral standing, as well as individualized notions of “justice” in the face of terror, violence, and death at the hands of the police. “Justice” under this racial capitalism, is an impossibility—an ideological liberal mystification. The scarcity in the realm of political imagination that [neo]liberalism champions leads to a reality in which many people’s analysis and understanding of “justice” is merely individualized imprisonment and tepid-at-best liberal reforms. Advancing our collective understanding beyond the individual “bad” or killer cop toward an understanding of structural violence, is crucial to building an abolitionist politic grounded in empathy and community.

We have been bombarded with dozens of videos and photos of cops kneeling, crying, giving impassioned speeches, and public displays of some of the most shallowest forms of performative solidarity—an age-old tactic wielded to “humanize” officers and neutralize the perceived threat in the protesters, while also attempting to control the media narrative —only for these same cops to turn around and within minutes unleash terror on the self-proclaimed “peaceful” protesters as they chant and march in-advocacy for the ending of Black terror and death at the hands of the police. If the mere pleading for the ruling class and its on-the-ground agents to stop massacring Black people with impunity is enough of a crime to be met with chemical warfare, “rubber” bullets, harassment, beatings, and mass imprisonment—what does that say about the functionality of these institutions?

When we see agents of the ruling class in militarized “riot” gear, oftentimes comment sections filled with disapproval, American liberals claiming “they look like they’re in war,” and viral tweets from imperialist veterans not-so-subtly declaring that type of militancy should be preserved for Black and brown people and countries abroad—and not home. We must counter these liberal narratives by highlighting that there is no significant political, ideological, or moral difference between domestic police and the military. Both serve the same class and ideological apparatus and represent an occupying force wherever they’re stationed. The military predominantly operates as the global police of the world, or as George Jackson would call it the “international wing of repressive institutions.” But, when the domestic police are overwhelmed, they call in their big brother (US military) to help fight their battle—hand-and-hand as enemies of the people—in a mission to terrorize and politically repress racialized, colonized, and working class people. So when Trump says “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” and grants the military immunity to terrorize and shoot protesters that is nothing more than the head of empire simply carrying on the legacy of terrorists-in-chief before him, reaffirming the purpose of the mere existence of the military, as fascist enforcers of capitalist, colonial, and imperialist violence and their right to do what they already do to colonized and oppressed people in third world and global south countries.

We must realize that we mustn’t give cops, in all forms, the benefit of the doubt or go out of our way to plead to their conscience—in which most, if not all of them lack—because their articulation of the situation at hand, as evidenced by their preparedness and tactics, is that of war. And in all of its possibly well-meaning glory, going into battle with the mindset of pleading to their (lack of) conscience or going out of your way to prove you’re one of the “good” and “peaceful” protesters—through chants and other means—won’t stop the terror of chemical warfare that will transpire when the political performance ends. The police are uncompromising in their belief in the current oppressive social order, they have legally, morally, and politically pledged their lives to it, and we must be uncompromising in our fight towards tearing it down and building anew. There’s a reason cops show up to even the most “peaceful” of protests with militarized riot gear prepared at any moment to immobilize activists, organizers, and journalists while conspiring with the media apparatus to demonize protests and all of its participants.

 “The political act is defined as criminal in order to discredit radical and revolutionary movements. A political event is reduced to a criminal event in order to affirm the absolute invulnerability of the existing order.”

 —Angela Davis (If They Come in the Morning)

The nearly non-materially existing dichotomy between “good protester” and “bad protester” or “non-violent” and “violent” are not only useless identifiers, but an unfortunate fundamental misunderstanding of the structural powers that be, at-large. The ideology of Black liberation is inherently violent to the forces of capital and white supremacy. We must move beyond the media fueled tropes rooted in colonial moral posturing, that serves no one but our ruling elites. History has shown us, it does not matter whether or not you’re a “good protester” or “bad protester,” “non-violent” or “violent,” and/or “innocent” or “guilty.” If you are for liberation for Black people, you are a threat to the interests of capitalism and white supremacy, and must be systemically repressed, by any means. To fight for the liberation of Black people, especially but not limited to the skin that has historically marked criminality, makes you an enemy of said nation who’s global economy is predicated on the terror and death of the colonial, namely Black, subject. Liberation, and the pursuit of it becomes a racialized affair under a system of colonial and imperialist domination in-which whiteness—a system of racial othering—is exclusively depicted as proximity to power and capital, which Black and other subjects of said domination have neither. It is crucial for the sustainment of this moment that we, first of all, not allow media political discourse to divide and conquer the wide variety of effective tactics that have been wielded by activists and organizers since the beginning of time; while also collectively understand the functionality of police and prisons as they are: inherently anti-Black politicized tools of the ruling elite to maintain their hegemony.

“The legal apparatus designates the Black liberation fighter a criminal, prompting Nixon, Agnew, Reagan et al. to proceed to mystify with their demagogy millions of Americans whose senses have been dulled and whose critical powers have been eroded by the continual onslaught of racist ideology. As the Black Liberation Movement and other progressive struggles increase in magnitude and intensity, the judicial system and its extension, the penal system, consequently become key weapons in the state’s fight to preserve the existing conditions of class domination, therefore racism, poverty and war.”

—Angela Davis (If They Come in the Morning)

Our understanding of non-violence should be that of an organized and meticulous tactical approach exercised by the oppressed, as opposed to a moral philosophy, endorsed and preferred by the ruling class and its agents. We never hear the ruling class, advocate for non-violence with their singular approach when they are hegemonizing and tyrannizing oppressed peoples across the globe, while being cheered on and thanked by many of its citizens. Non-violence, as a moral philosophy, in a society where violence against the marginalized is the norm—where millions are incarcerated, houseless, subjected to state sanctioned violence, and live in poverty—is, in and of itself just another form of colonial physical and ideological subjugation and therefore, violence. But, so much of non-violence is predicated on the premise of legality—despite its social and political limitations. Laws are only laws because we, whether knowingly or not, coercively consent to them. At any given time our government can utilize and maneuver the boundaries of legality and illegality as applicable to the material interests of the ruling class. What we’re seeing on live display is the state and all of its willing agents and participants are very much willing to terrorize and self-detonate than grant Black people even the slightest bit of freedom; and history has shown us it is not only appropriate but necessary to meet them with the only language that they understand.

As Kwame Ture has noted, public pleas and non-violence only works when your opponent has a conscience, and the United States of America has none. Therefore, we must move beyond public outcries for vague calls for “love,” “unity,” and “peace,” waxing poetic, and pleading for our oppressors to somehow manage to adopt a conscience and do what goes against the very ideological and economic foundation of all their colonial institutions: stop terrorizing and killing us. We must move beyond the cycle of inaction and emotional appeals, through stagnantly and continuously debating the semantics of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and other moral and political posturing, when the reality of our situation is clear: Black lives can never truly matter under captivity of white supremacist capitalism and colonial patriarchy that directly and consequently begets Black oppression. How can it, when Black death is a necessity of racial capitalism and the institutions (such as policing and prisons) that exist to uphold it? So instead of public appeals to the ruling class and its agents to recognize the “humanity” in those relegated to slave; we recognized the reality in which racialized terror and violence is quite literally the point—as the mere existence of Black lives are in direct and inherent contradiction with the forces of capital—and a necessity for the continued maintenance of the current white supremacist capitalist, imperialist, (settler-)colonial order. It is crucial for us to remember that these institutions, namely policing and prisons, that continue to so violently persist, are merely an extension of European colonialism and slavery.

“…with each reform, revolution became more remote[…]But if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define [fascism] in a word simple enough for all to understand, that word would be ‘reform.’”

—George Jackson (Blood In My Eye)

The only realistic solution to a reality in which anti-Black terror, violence, and death is an inevitability to the functionality of a system, is abolition. Yet, ironically enough, the lack of political imagination, beyond the electoral strategy and reformism, and the inability to envision a world, or even country, devoid of police and prisons is rooted in (anti-Black), racialized colonial logics of the biologically determined criminal, slave, and savage. The notion that an (uncivilized) people must to be, at all times, patrolled and policed, or else chaos and violence would reign, has been used as a justification for countless structural violences on the part of European peoples since the origins of colonialism. If we know criminality is inherently racialized, one must ask themselves: when you envision the criminal and/or “evildoer,” what do you see? What do they look like? More than likely it is someone who is non-white and/or poor. This is something we have to seriously grapple with, even amongst abolitionist circles. The vast majority of people who, for whatever reason, are incapable of envisioning a world without police and prisons, are simply unwilling to interrogate the dominant ideological apparatus that we have all, in one way or another, internalized.

Emphasizing the largely classed and gendered based nature of crime, is of the utmost importance. Crime is not an “inevitable” aspect of society, but an inevitable reaction to socio-economic and political structural forces at-large; specifically poverty being an inevitability of capitalism while sexual, gendered, and domestic violences are an inevitability of colonial patriarchy. If we combat the systems, we combat the social reactions.

Another thing we’re witnessing is white people moralizing the looting, destruction of, and “violence” towards inanimate objects (despite the fact that white history is that of constant looting, destruction, and violence) as result of their moral, spiritual, and political ties to land, property, monuments, and capital built on genocide and slavery. Whiteness being so inextricable to the foundations of capital(ism) and ultimately property, inhibits white people’s ability to extend such an empathy to the lives of Black people. Property and capital, being so inextricable to the foundations of whiteness and the construction of race, as a whole, ushers in the reality in which they become God-like figures. White people’s existence on this planet and their understanding of the world makes so much more sense once you realize that, white people, globally, are the police. Whiteness allows and entails them the “monopoly on morality” to be such a thing. Whether it’s with foreign affairs, and their paternalistic analysis of non-white countries, which ultimately leads to the justifying the actions of their imperialist government—even from “socially conscious” white folks. Or, in the case of how they overwhelmingly believe they maintain the prerogative to dictate the ways subjects of white oppression retaliate against said oppression (though, to be fair, they technically do). But, the point is: the entire logic of whiteness, as a deliberately political and social invention, makes it such a construct that’s—under white supremacy—inseparable from the role of the state. therefore, white people assume these roles as agents of the state globally—whether subconsciously or not.

And, of course, this is why we have been subjected to countless imagery on social media of white people (and those aspiring to be white by-way-of proximity to capital, power, and “respectability”) putting their bodies and lives on the line to protect capital (and physical embodiments of it) and private property—in a way that they would never sacrifice their bodies or even time for Black lives and liberation. Such an imagery should serve as a spit in the face to not just Black people, but all persons concerned with our liberation from the chains of capital. If persons of the white race are willing to put their lives on the line for their god: property and capital, but wouldn’t bother doing such a thing for Black people: what does that say about how they see us? We’re beneath inanimate objects on the hierarchy of things worthy of protection. But, it also just goes to show that as much as the white American is willing to die for property relations and capital—by any means necessary—we must be willing to live and die for our collective liberation. Let this be a moment in which we’re reminded that if there’s ever scenario in which our ruling elites are ever in-need of more armed protectors of the white supremacist status quo there will be countless ordinary white people, at the front of the line, fully prepared to live out their white vigilante idealizations and sacrifice their lives and bodies to save settler capitalism.