The police cannot be reformed. At the very height of nationwide police protests, in full awareness that their actions were being documented in the glare of social media accounts and the national press, they brazenly assaulted protestors, ran them over, teargassed, beat up, and arrested journalists, and declared “war” on elected political leaders. In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a broader public was introduced to what was until then an elementary truth among radical thinkers and activists: the very function of the police consists in the reproduction of a capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal, and heteronormative order.
If the revolutionary left, then, has been in broad agreement that the police should be abolished, the harder question has revolved around what strategies radical movements ought to adopt toward that end. Two ideas have received the most press: the first, one that has succeeded in catching the popular imagination, is defunding the police. The second is advocacy for community control of the police. Both of these ideas have much about them that is persuasive not only to the left but also, crucially, to a wider public. But what is immediately striking about these ideas is how inadequately they confront what looms as the most definitive feature of the police—namely, its role as a counterinsurgency force; and, following from that, what strategies social movements ought to pursue given that realization.
To describe the police as a counter-insurgent force means two things at least. First, that the police, as constituted within the United States polity, function outside of democratic control. In jurisdictions across the United States, for example, the police are protected by judicial regimes, rafts of laws, and contracts that essentially place them above the law. These judicial regimes, fiercely backed by police unions, functionally render the powers of the police rank and file beyond the reach of their politically-appointed superiors, let alone of politicians. “In many places,” the New York Times reports, “the [police] union contract became the ultimate word. The contract overrode the city charter in Detroit. The contract can beat state law in Illinois. The contract, for years, has stalled a federal consent decree in Seattle.”
The very reasons for the emergence of strong police unions, and the slew of contracts and laws that give them carte blanche to murder and maim with impunity, also illuminate a second reason why the police are best seen as a counterinsurgency institution. The power of police unions and the contracts that shield them from democratic accountability emerged as a counterrevolutionary response to the Black freedom rights movement of the 1960s. The point, then, is that police do not only operate outside democratic control, but are an institution precisely aimed at countering and destroying democratic social movements. Of course, such an acknowledgment should call to mind the deeper historical roots of the police. This is so, whether one looks to the Eastern cities of the United States, where police forces were created to protect businessmen’s property and to subjugate labor, to the South, where policing emerged to terrorize the enslaved, capture runaways and prevent revolts, or to the West, where policing organizations such as the Texas Rangers brutally extended and consolidated the frontiers of empire through the racial extermination of indigenous peoples.
A recognition of the police as counter-insurgent institution necessarily calls into question the strategic and tactical proposals, like the ones named above, advanced by the left for its abolition. Some of the most prominent advocates for defunding the police, to take the first, place much of their hopes on electoral changes that will lead to this outcome. But such a faith fails to reckon with how the police function to subvert such electoral outcomes and, in the remote possibility that they near realization, overthrow elected governments outright. U.S. police history, after all, is a fearsome array of tactics aimed at preventing, and when necessary, overruling, any and all forms of oversight. In few occasions has this been clearer than in the September 16, 1992 police riot in New York City. Reacting to Mayor David N. Dinkins’s proposals for an independent civilian agency that would examine police misconduct and investigate corruption, ten thousand police officers went on a rampage. They occupied City Hall, blockaded traffic, chanted racist slurs, and harassed and abused Black motorists. Dinkins would go on to lose the mayoral election held the following year.
To be clear, not all advocates of defunding the police have pinned their strategy on electoral changes. Social justice movements are often coalitions promoting medleys of strategies and tactics. For example, the Minneapolis-based Reclaim the Block, which has focused much of its energies in pressuring elected officials to divest from the police department and reinvest this money in public housing and schooling, draws much of its membership and inspiration from groups like Black Visions, a Black-led, queer and trans-focused movement that organizes around a broad array of commitments and goals, from wellness to environmental injustice. A thriving left, of course, ought to encourage and experiment with a multitude of strategies and tactics. And yet a close scrutiny of the strategies adopted by Reclaim the Block and Black Visions may helpfully illuminate both the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal to defund the police. On the one hand, these organizations’ capacious visions for political change are not tethered to the vicissitudes of electoral cycles. Rather, theirs has been the slow, hard work of municipal budget town halls, consciousness raising workshops on policy, and raucous PTA meetings. On the other hand, their tactics and language are still largely that of petitioners. Black Visions does put pressure on politicians, but the pressure such as it is involves asking them to make pledges and promises. The language that forms their political imagination is the language of the “demand,” which speaks to a residual faith in a representational politics.
Though not as well-known as demands to defund the police, proposals for community control of the police have increasingly drawn attention within mainstream audiences. Max Rameau, an activist in the grassroots group, Pan-African Community Action (PACA), argues that community control of the police envisions a radical shift in power from the existing structure to a system in which every district controls its police force. This would be brought about by placing the police in each district under the direct control of a civilian police control board. However, unlike civilian oversight panels, community-controlled boards would have the power to hire and fire police officers, establish policing priorities, and determine budgets. In addition, to prevent the capture of these community boards by elite and corporate boards, their composition would be determined by sortition (random selection).
Considered in the abstract, such a proposal offers a significant improvement to the status quo. The problem, of course, is that its implementation would take place in the heart of the settler empire that we know as the United States of America. Indeed, what is immediately striking about the proposal for community control is the silence of its advocates on the specific strategies that would lead to the formation of policing districts. By far the bulk of their attention has been dedicated to detailed accounts of what Civilian Police Control Boards will be empowered to do in the event of the plan’s realization. Their close attention to the whys and wherefores of community control in the event of its successful adoption is all the more jarring in light of their relative inattention to a robust account of how we get there. Precisely against a romantic utopianism, serious proposals must articulate an open-eyed cognizance of the bloody and chaotic interregnum of police counterinsurgency as radical projects gain viability.
In his defense of community control of the police, the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò pushes back against the critique that because they will not fundamentally transform the white supremacist core of policing, such community-controlled boards amount to merely cosmetic reforms. Táíwò thinks such a charge is incoherent. The very government that abolitionists are petitioning to transform the police, he argues, is just as white supremacist as the police. “In the absence of community control,” Taiwo writes, “the demand to abolish police is functionally a request for the state to reorganize itself and reshuffle its resources.”
Taiwo’s positing of a binary choice between community control or feeble appeals to the state is deeply puzzling in light of political history. Leftist political practice is replete with historical and actually existing forms of political struggle that have nothing to do with entreating the government for redress—from sabotage to marronage, direct action to dual power, riots to revolution.
Táíwò bolsters the case for community-controlled boards by invoking its illustrious genealogy in the freedom dreams of the Black Panther Party. Through the early 1970s, the radical insurgent party advanced a proposal to have voters decide initiatives to bring the police under democratic rule. It is not despite, but rather precisely because these ballot initiatives failed that they stand to offer insight into leftist strategy in our moment. Curiously, advocates for community control have offered little indication of what lessons the left should glean from the defeat of movements that sought democratic control of the police.
Indeed, the very history of the Black Panther Party here is deeply instructive. As is well known, its destruction was brought about by a relentless counter-insurgency war that the state waged on its cadres and infrastructure. The perennial raids on the party’s chapter offices, violent attacks on its coalition allies (such as the firebombing of the offices of the Young Lords Party when they began to organize for community control of the police), incarceration on trumped-up charges, and assassination of its leaders and members are not relics of a distant past. They are precisely what the police in a settler colony are designed to do. One should no more seek control of such an institution than one should want to control the U.S. military and its arsenal of nuclear and biological weapons. The very point is to abolish it, and in the event of defeat, to implacably, indefatigably, refuse surrender.
But even from within the very terms of community control, its premises appear dubious. For instance, the proposal indulges a common myth of “localism” that the very nature of the police belies and that, besides, has never been true of how the U.S. polity functions. By “localism,” I mean the fantasy that local jurisdictions can carve out entirely exceptional or unique forms of self-government that cut against the grain of larger entities (the state and the federal government). To the extent that “localism” has prevailed in something other than myth in the United States, this has largely been toward the end of re-entrenching the deep vectors constitutive of the U.S. polity: capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, hegemonic Christianism, and so on. One does not have to imagine, given numerous examples, what would happen should a particular district seek to abolish the police. The city, state, and federal governments would not only starve that district of funding, but its agencies, claiming overlapping jurisdiction over those districts, would subject its political leaders and residents to savage reprisals. This, moreover, does not even touch on the historical ontology of the police, which is at once a sprawling network in the U.S. criminal justice system (judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, lawyers, and first responders); a spectral force that deputizes neighbors, teachers, social workers, and citizens to inhabit and enforce white supremacy; and a lethal instrument for projecting force, pacifying insurgencies, and enforcing U.S. hegemony in the Global South.
The hard task of the left is to make sense of the world as it is so as to remake that world. Fortunately, such work has long been ongoing. Already, in many parts of the United States and elsewhere, activists have been intent in creating alternative responses to conflict and abuse that are anti-carceral—for example, shelters and support networks that provide refuge for survivors of partner and intimate relations violence, mental health response groups, and safe spaces for impoverished teens. Such work has necessarily gone hand in hand with attempts to forge different systems for engaging conflict and redress, from restorative to restructural modalities of justice, as well as “survival programs” and mutual aid communities.
If that is one form of response, the task of confronting the police is just as critical. The symbolic realm is not exactly low-hanging fruit—under capitalism, nothing is—but it should at least be the bare minimum. An uncompromising delegitimation of the criminal justice system is a start, one that talk of community control of the police has unfortunately muddied. Stuart Schrader helpfully reminds us of what form this can take. In the 1960s, radical left militants turned the tables on the police by making “Wanted” posters with the faces of killer cops. Such creative forms of delegitimation offer useful pointers for those who would intervene in the criticism of a culture industry awash in “copaganda.”
Such efforts at delegitimation dovetail with broad-based efforts to divest from the police. The police have an often predatory, in some cases symbiotic, relationship with institutions in civil society such as schools, labor unions, businesses, religious organizations, sports, and service clubs. Among organizations with members disproportionately at the receiving end of police violence—particularly certain labor unions, queer and women’s organizations, and minoritized religious organizations—such forms of divestment are an ongoing site of struggle. In organizing and publicizing divestment actions, radical social movements do the important work of laying bare the structural antagonism between the police and organized labor, racialized minorities, and women, queers, and poor people. That said, social movements and community organizers have not stopped there. Pressure campaigns—all the more effective when driven by activists working within civil institutions—are pushing for financial and social divestment campaigns from the police. To be sure, by and large, activists cannot be under any illusion that such efforts would lead to complete divestment. The police—both as an institution and an imaginary—is tightly woven into the fabric of civil society. Rather, such campaigns would function to politicize and radicalize civil and social relationships.
Other, riskier, strategies are available to the left. In an electrifying interview, Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, a veteran organizer, former Black Panther, and political prisoner, puts it succinctly: “We as activists, as organizers, have to make ourselves and our communities ungovernable.” It is a combustible idea, one impossible to evaluate a priori, other than in the fog of struggle and its aftermath. In South Africa, the strategy of rendering black communities ungovernable involved relentless protests, sabotage, riots, and violence carried out by poor black communities in virtually every sphere that they could breach—from residential areas to schools, urban public spaces to the workplace. If in many ways this insurrection made it clear to the white-minority government that indefinite control of the country was not sustainable, it is also true that the violence of the period took a life of its own in ways not envisioned by various leaders opposed to apartheid. The evaluative upshot is impossible to judge in the abstract, especially in light of the vastly different political terrain in the United States and the cautionary tales emergent from frontal attacks on the state.
To be sure, ungovernability is a spectrum, not a binary. In many parts of the United States, massive refusal to cooperate with the police and its juridical apparatuses is one of the forms it takes. Nor ought this be seen as solely a negative or reactive posture. Ungovernability has historically involved inhabiting and imagining radically oppositional social constellations. These have run the gamut from political and social forms of organizing in horrifically tyrannized institutions such as the prison, as shown, for example, in Garrett Felber’s highly illuminating excavation of how Black Muslims fought back against state torture in prisons, to sisterhoods of Black female homesteaders in inner cities and countryside farms.
To succeed, radically oppositional social formations cannot afford to see themselves as ranged only against an external enemy. For starters, it is an elementary lesson from defeats suffered in the past that social movements have to face up to the infiltration of their ranks by agents of the state. The very viability of radical projects, then, demands organizing with full awareness that agents provocateurs, saboteurs, and informers will most likely be in attendance. But, and here the Black Panther Party will prove to be instructive as well, it is too simple to attribute all defeats and failures to exogenous factors. Social movements must also contend with what it means to be radically democratic in practice, with inevitable internal conflicts about the meanings of justice and the good life that will erupt in and through living and working together.
Alas, these conflicts will be riven and exacerbated by deeply sedimented habits of ableism, homophobia, racism, sexism, status and class cleavages within their membership. It is precisely in the texture of practice that social movements founder. For example, faced with sexual assault, abuse, and harassment perpetrated by powerful insiders—and contending with merciless attacks from police—it is all too tempting for paranoia and persecution complexes to take hold. Moreover, it is here that vocabularies and theories about “restorative justice” that circulate within the left lend themselves to abuse and distortion. Without robust egalitarian and democratic structures that offer countervailing force to powerful factions, restorative justice can end up revictimizing the vulnerable. The point here is two-fold. Radical movements ought to see internal democratic practice as integral to the struggle against societal oppression. And, consequently, they ought to approach emancipatory struggles open-eyed about the contradictions that will inevitably bedevil their chosen strategies. Such acknowledgements, however, should sharpen, rather than blunt, commitments to democratic practice and justice internal to radical organizing.
The commitment to democratic practice would seem to be of particular importance to advocates of community control in view of the program that they envision. A central plank of their proposal is that through sortition, ordinary citizens would sit on community boards which would then determine the priorities and budgets of the police force. Max Rameau argues that “the job of ‘qualifying’ community members for board service will fall to social justice organizations…. The person with the deciding vote on the priorities of the police might be the undereducated high school dropout who hangs out near the corner store most of the day. In order to get justice, we would have to politically educate and organize our entire community.” Rameau makes the important point that political education ought to form a vital part of any abolitionist future. And yet his phrasing risks implying that education is a one-way transmission from leaders to ordinary people. The history of radical political struggle shows that movements can only flourish when they practice reciprocal and collective forms of learning and teaching. Indeed, this history reveals that the very process of struggle itself is perhaps the greatest teacher.
There is, moreover, a deeper lesson in Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin’s account of ungovernability. It awakens us to the notion that just as the character of police oppression and violence is international in scope, so resistance and organizing must be a planetary undertaking. The U.S. police, it must not be forgotten, are an indispensable linchpin of a global empire. Internationally-linked social movements can coordinate to widen the terrain of resistance by resolutely seeking to disrupt its hegemony over imperialized countries. Among other forms of freedom struggles, these planetary social movements can frustrate the police’s intelligence gathering, uncover and challenge its role in the training and weapons supply to neo-colonized countries, and offer aid and refuge to perceived and actual opponents targeted for assassination or disappearance. Perhaps more crucially, these international struggles can build lines of solidarity and coordination across shared ecological, political, ethical, and intellectual interests.
“If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be,” Karl Marx wrote in a letter that takes aim at the utopian idealism of political philosophy, adding: “We shall not say: Abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us provide you with true campaign-slogans.” Leftist organizing, precisely against the fruitless future-mongering of political blueprints and the wish-fulfilment of utopian comity, must be a strenuously chronotopian praxis—that is, resolutely dedicated in thought and practice to contending with the enemy as it is, not as we fantasize it to be.