At the South Minneapolis protests, May 28, 2020. Photo credit: AndrewStecker / Shutterstock.com.
I’m writing as the nation ignites with protests against police brutality — again. This time, the loss is a Minnesota man named George Floyd. As I join in the protests of Floyd’s tragic death, I dare to hope that this time, they might spark real and meaningful change. My research and writing on the myths that sustain policing have convinced me that in order for this to happen we need to shift our focal point. We must focus on the relationship between police and state violence. We must understand that they are one and the same, distinguished only by levels of scale.
Police are the arm of the state that realizes the core principle of state power: the ability to distribute legitimate violence. That is, the state can make exceptions to certain truths we claim to hold to be self-evident, such as the fact that all men are created equal and that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, including the right to life. The police are the people who inflict the state of exception on those whom it deems unworthy of those rights. As things now stand in America, they get the deadly last word.
What that means is that in order to be effective, the demands protestors make need to move towards a world without police. Demands must be part of a simple, stepwise process that can destabilize and undermine racial capitalism and the state form it requires. It’s easy to distinguish reforms that legitimate police from reforms that undermine them.
What follows is my personal checklist, evaluating a variety of possible policy changes people are now widely discussing. I want to show systematically why reforms are not the answer.
Civilian review boards: No. Oversight systems are nothing new and don’t work. Various forms of these bodies have existed across the United States since the civil rights movement began demanding them in the 1950s. They have little real power, move notoriously slowly, are never granted enough resources, and police departments routinely ignore their recommendations, as the Minneapolis Civilian Review Authority did for years. Revamping the process, renaming the body, and reconstituting its members and procedures solved nothing. What citizen oversight accomplishes is a re-legitimization of police violence and a distracting, endless, trivial process of tinkering with the details of reform.
Community Policing: No. This idea has a history not unlike that of citizen review boards in that it was created as a response to protest and has existed now for decades. It hasn’t done what protestors hoped, and it has strengthened police legitimacy. People love the idea of “community,” a word for a utopian idea of togetherness — the exact opposite of the essential police function of extracting individuals deemed expendable from the social body. “Community policing” is, therefore, an oxymoron. What this benign-sounding euphemism actually does is draw resources away from social service programs that help people and legitimate the work police do overall. It neither reduces crime nor makes communities safer. As Philip V. McHarris puts it, “Time has shown that community policing is merely an expensive attempt at public relations, after a long history of racialized police violence and injustice, and does little to reduce crime or police violence.”
Police accountability: No. This usually means prosecuting police officers who offend community mores. Putting them in jail. It does feel good to think about those evil men suffering as so many of our friends and neighbors have suffered, but it won’t prevent abuse in the future, in part because it will, once again, legitimate the system by suggesting justice was actually “done” in one case. Advocating for police prosecution results from a poverty of imagination — a situation in which prison is assumed to be the only option for punishment or consequence. But we won’t solve police abuse by strengthening mass incarceration. They are two branches of the same machine: state violence. The racist criminal legal system is not the answer to racist policing.
“No Justice, No Peace; Prosecute Police” hopes for too little. The chant focuses on a few exceptional police in the criminal legal system that is itself a critical support of police labor. It strengthens the criminal legal system by legitimizing it as the solution to the problem it has helped create. Even “No Justice, No Peace” by itself implies that prosecuting George Floyd’s killers might constitute “justice.” Protestors in the Bronx refuse this chant, with inspiring abolitionist spirit:
Police bodycams: No. Many observers hope that finally being faced with indisputable evidence of racist police brutality will move people and systems to make real change. But bystanders’ videos of Floyd’s murder made no difference to George Floyd. Over the eight excruciating minutes it took Chauvin to choke Floyd to death, none of the documentarians or other witnesses were able to intervene. As WeActRadio tweeted after George Floyd’s murder, regarding the tendency to document, the journalistic ethic of neutrality is bullshit: “[I]f you see the cops with a knee on my neck, at least push them off and run. Don’t just film my death. Throw a brick, a bottle. Bust a window in the cop car.”
Videos provoke protest, yes. They also, however, reinforce a visual field already saturated with Black death. Should we feed the hunger for titillating scenes of spectacular violence against Black bodies? There is nothing new in this dynamic. From Aunt Hester to George Floyd, white U.S. audiences have eaten this stuff up. As the cops taunt, knowing their work is to feed the hunger for such spectacle: “Nothing to see, folks; nothing to see.”
Making Black death visible is not the solution. It’s part of the problem, as our friend Rasul Mowatt has pointed out for years now. These unedited realist takes are snuff films, he has argued, an apt legacy to the images of lynchings that circulated as postcards, as if a souvenir of a lovely holiday, pleasurable proof of white solidarity and power. When there is no video of a police-caused death, Mowatt notes, outrage is muted. When death appears on screen, everybody wants to watch.
If independent footage is unproductive, how much less so is material from police body cameras? Critics have pointed out problem after problem with this material, from the low quality of its product to the ways the frame often decenters or excludes what is important, the impossibility of storing it, the ways the legally required anonymization practices render the videos unwatchable, barriers to review by external agents, and finally, simply, cops’ easy ability to turn the cameras off. Yet in Indianapolis, where I was marching, comrades chanted their hope for this strategy. We listened with dismay and didn’t join in.
Police demilitarization: No. I’ve argued this over and over again elsewhere: The notion that police are civilians while soldiers are military creates an artificial line between two kinds of violence which are actually one and the same. Police cross all the lines we expect the civilian/military distinction to contain. They fight wars, use war machinery, traverse borders, work alongside soldiers abroad and at home. They are not less lethal than the military, proper. When we say “demilitarization,” we posit a sort of pure civilian origin point for the police, as if we could go back in time to the moment when police were not violently, murderously racist. History, friends.
Disarm the police: Yes. This is what we mean when we say demilitarization, I suspect — but asking for disarmament rather than demilitarization keeps us from reinforcing the notion that police are civilian. Fewer weapons mean less police violence. Police without guns would not have saved George Floyd, but they might have helped the other person whose name has been on protestors’ lips this past week, Breonna Taylor, and many others. Police without tanks, helicopters, tear gas, stun grenades — yes indeed, that would be a positive step.
Defund the police: Yes. Less money in police budgets means fewer weapons, fewer police, less propaganda, and more for care work: health care, education, income support. Demand that PDs be defunded so as to support coronavirus patients and people affected economically by the pandemic quarantine. The Minneapolis City Council’s recent resolution to dismantle the MPD is striking. Even if some of the institutions we fund are themselves avenues of social control, this is a positive step. Divert!
Diminish the police: Yes. Shrink PDs back to the size they were before the 1960s, when the federal government, responding to fears of communism and Black protest, created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration to fund state-level policing. Or before. The closer we get to zero, the more we will create other ways of solving social harm.
We have a matchless opportunity right now.
Something about this moment (precarity, pandemic, racist terror, and economic re-opening) has meant that people are once again fighting back against what has been a steady drumbeat of racial violence throughout American history. Not accidental then that these upsurges take the form of circulation struggles (blockades and riots). These are reasonable responses for people who have been marginalized; reasonable ways to claim circulatory or commercial space, to make room to mourn and manifest. Reasonable to loot the behemoth Minneapolis Target. Reasonable to set the streets ablaze.
The most fertile experiments are occurring at the intersections of building and fighting, in a patient abolitionist procedure also referred to as destitution by Giorgio Agamben. The stepwise process we are undertaking must not only shrink police departments, but also expand communal capacities to heal trauma and provide for shared needs, thus eliminating dependencies on racial capitalism and the violent organs of its state.
Inside Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, demonstrators are not just holding off police, they are experimenting with popular assemblies, collective forms of care, and imaginative ways to prevent social harm. Community gardens are sprouting up precisely in those south Minneapolis neighborhoods which saw the strongest revolts. History must guide these innovations, including the base-line recognition that state violence requires genocide, often at the hands of the police. We cannot allow ourselves to be surprised. We must build, build, build — tend our gardens, children, chicks — the better to defeat the structures that destroy us and to work, instead, towards creating the world we want.
Micol Seigel is professor of history and American studies at Indiana University Bloomington.
Author acknowledgement: Micol wishes to thank Hugh Farrell for spark, content, and process.