The Radical Practicality of Community Control Over Policing
A Reply to Our Critics
February 18, 2021
In response to the persistent problem of state-sponsored violence against working class Black communities and the futility of police reforms, the contemporary calls for community control over police (CCOP) have garnered significant attention and support in Black communities. Consequently, the growing grassroots support for the concept of Black communities controlling their own security and safety has come under fire by a number of individuals and organizations advocating for the defunding and abolishing of police.
Pan-African Community Action (PACA), an organization operating in the DC-Maryland-Virginia metropolitan area, supports CCOP, as does the National Alliance Against Racists & Political Repression (NAARPR) and a number of other organizations. PACA’s formation in November 2015 was in response to the killing of DC resident and educator Alonzo Smith at the hands of “special police.” Among PACA’s demands for the #Justice4Zo campaign has been a call for CCOP. The call for CCOP was first made by the Black Panther Party in 1969, and some have consistently advocated for it since, though it is only now getting the attention it deserves.
PACA believes in the positive role of good faith argument in movement-building, and we write this article to participate in this process. Moreover, criticisms of CCOP have highlighted potential dangers in our approach at this crucial political moment.
That said, a number of the arguments against CCOP involved significant mischaracterizations of our position. The core mischaracterization of our positions across most of the responses is that CCOP somehow competes with demands to defund and abolish police. These mischaracterizations tend to describe our goal as the takeover of current police departments through the installation of community control at the top, while preserving the structure, goals, personnel, and priorities of police departments in their current form.
This is wholly incorrect, both as a description of our goals and the actual campaigns for CCOP. Historically, Chicago coalitions have pushed a vision of CCOP that Black history scholar Simon Balto explains is something we would “today identify as defunding the police.” That coalition continues today, led by groups like the Chicago Alliance Against Racist Police Repression and Black Lives Matter Chicago. In Minneapolis, organizations pushed for CCOP alongside Defund after the defund demand alone was met with political sleight of hand by policymakers. Organizers in Seattle won not just a $30 million budget cut to the police department but public control of it through participatory budgeting: this is, simultaneously, a major victory from a defund the police perspective and a community control perspective, in contrast to the cuts to the police budgets in other cities that keep the reins of control firmly in the hands of politicians.
PACA’s own tools of analysis assert that Black communities are a domestic colony in the US and the police service as the occupying army. Further, in multiple position papers, as well as in an upcoming book on the subject, PACA explicitly states that we do not want to take over the occupying army and our proposal for CCOP calls for the creation of new departments, on the District level, that are entirely distinct from the existing police and controlled by the community. PACA has never called for control over an existing police department.
“So let me get this straight: you are telling me I can vote out the police?” A Restatement of PACA’s Position
“The fight for Community Control Over Police has the potential to remove us from the indignity of having to manage the public relations aspects of colonial occupation. A Community Police Control Board holds the potential to not only shift power into the hands of the Black community, but to transform the very definition of power…Once we are able to secure Community Control over Police and ensure that entire communities are empowered to exercise such control, we will be free to re-imagine and re-envision the very nature of policing itself.”
PACA works towards “community control over police.” The term “police,” however, has been central to the many mischaracterizations of our position. For some, the word is inextricably linked not only to the particular history of American police departments but to the current people, unions, culture, and politics around it. They remind us, correctly, that “the police do not keep us safe.” But we will need the power and resources to not only figure out what does keep us safe, but to make it happen in our communities.
Even if we got rid of the departments known by the name “police” tomorrow, we would still have all of the social problems that police departments currently claim to address, prevent, or constrain. This includes social problems that are poorly addressed by armed responders: those related to substance addiction, untreated mental health issues, and poverty, which should be the basis of our long-term thinking about community safety. But it also includes social problems in the short term that may require armed community self-defense: violence between community residents, violence imported by (often reactionary) underworld organizations and predatory right-wing fascist groups. Community self-defense requires the capacity to respond to all and any of these, which requires the resources now gobbled up by police departments.
What we mean is clear: the budget and responsibilities that are now granted to police departments should be surrendered to communities. This would allow us to restructure around public safety as we define it, not as the colonial, capitalist power structures do. We need control over the resources: not “civilian oversight” or “community policing” public relations strategies, which keep control in the hands of the current structure. We believe this goal should be achieved by organizing communities rather than by petition to city councils or mayors, and so we aim to use the ballot initiative process to advance this.
PACA’s preferred version of CCOP is explained in our position paper: a civilian control board chosen by sortition (random selection) and supported with professional staff. But this is just one way to put these commitments into practice; there are of course other models, and Seattle shows another way forward.
CCOP is not an alternative to abolition. Abolition requires community control: the power to implement or enact the abolishment of anything – that is, unless we trust the very same institutions that our critics claim will inevitably subvert CCOP with the task of police abolition.
At this point, it might be useful to distinguish between what might be called police and policing. The police are a modern social institution of the state whose officers wear badges and uniforms. Many are aware that the precursor to the police were the slave patrols that rode through the US South in search of Black people escaping bondage. We have visceral reactions to the term “police” because of the way we have experienced them in our lifetimes.
But if the police began after 1865, how did the Roman Empire collect taxes in the year 100? How did China’s Song Dynasty ensure a transfer of power in the 900s? How were English serfs kept under control in the 1100s? How did the French quell insurrectionists in the 1700s? How did Queen Nzinga prevent the Portuguese from enslaving the Ndongo in southern Africa in the 1600s? How did the mocambos of Brazil prevent the recapture of Africans who escaped from slavery there in the 1700s?
Even when there were no police as we know them today, anytime there are social classes there must be policing to enforce the dominance of one class over the other. While we affirm that the modern police protect the rich and attack Black people, many continental Africans employed policing before they knew what white people even were. When the Black Panther Party protected residents of Oakland from state violence, they were not the police, but they were policing the police.
Today, many protests and marches feature marshalls to keep the crowd safe. Marshalls are not the police, but they do engage in policing that benefits and protects the participants from the police, as well as right-wing agitators. PACA does not want to control the police, but we assert the right of every community to self-defense, which is often a form of policing.
Reply to Our Critics
Now that we’re clear on what CCOP is and isn’t, we answer our critics.
Hood Communist has featured a number of articles addressing CCOP, including an article by Dubian Ade entitled “The Argument Against Community Control of the Police” and another by Nnennaya Amuchie called “Community Control of Police v Defunding Police: Addressing the Patriarchal Roots of Policing.” Both give well thought out critiques in the spirit of serious debate.
Ade says, accurately, that proponents of community control over police (CCOP) “do not understand their position as inherently against the projects of defunding or abolition.” But Ade nevertheless suggests that CCOP activists “tend to pit their position against calls for defunding, often linking them to corporate opportunism, non-profit schemes, and Black Lives Matter.”
But in Chicago, as we mentioned before, movements pushed both defund and CCOP together. In Minneapolis, the movement added CCOP to Defund after the defund demand. For the record, PACA has never accused Defund advocates of corporate opportunism or non-profit schemes. There are important differences in emphasis and tactics between CCOP and Defund, but we can, and do, defend them on their merits – not on baseless accusations about other organizations.
In the second critique, Amuchie argues against CCOP by saying “policing is inherently violent and always patriarchal,” adding later that this is so “even if the people who make up the policing or accountability board represent marginalized genders.” In the same essay, Amuchie writes, “I believe in revolutionary violence…We must build a mass movement and organizations to see the success of revolutionary violence.” Amuchie then asserts, “we should push towards community self-determination and defense, particularly for those along the margins of the Black community. Our communities need skills and resources to prevent, intervene, and heal from violence. The more skills, resources, and relationships we have, the more Black communities will divest from policing and invest in community networks of care.”
Yet Amuchie simultaneously argues against CCOP because it is violent and patriarchal (even when it is representative) – before proceeding to offer an alternative that is violent and must be representative. Amuchie also argues that given skills and resources, Black communities will redefine policing itself, which is precisely PACA’s central point. Amuchie argues against Community Control Over Police by arguing forcefully for what one might call Community Control Over Violent Defense, all while deploying the language and imagery of CCOP.
Ade makes two similar charges as well: first, that “the function of property protection by law enforcement since its inception has always been a classed and racialized antagonism. It is not merely property police are tasked to protect, but white property”; and second, that “[c]ommunity control proponents make a strange assumption that the police can be made accountable to Black people, can serve Black people, and somehow cede control to Black people. Yet police fail the Black community everyday.”
PACA contends that who is in control of policing determines the behavior of the police. We agree with Ade and Amuchie that this system is working as designed to protect who and what it was designed to protect. But that is a function of who is in control. As Ade puts it: “The white settler exercises control over police.” Unless and until actions to secure public safety are guided by our goals and definitions of it, rather than the white settler state’s command structure, this will continue to be the reality.
Another criticism by Ricardo Levins Morales, Zola Richardson, Jonathan Stegall, and Woods Ervin ran in Forge Organizing entitled “The Fantasy of Community Control Of The Police.” Their essay begins with a litany of accusations, ranging from the view that community control is “ahistorical” and premised on a “misunderstanding of the structure and nature of modern policing” to the accusation that CCOP is “bureaucratic.”
The authors claim that “instead of struggling to take over and redirect the master’s tool, we call for investing the resources now poured into policing directly into community initiatives whose core missions are about helping, healing, and sustaining people, not controlling them.” The authors have resisted the “fantasy” of CCOP by adopting it! We invite readers to simply compare this claim to the previous section of this article, which is just an elaboration CCOP’s program: a community initiative whose mission is about helping, healing, and empowering Black people. The progress made in Seattle shows us a model for pursuing CCOP goals in concert with Defund goals.
While rejecting CCOP, the authors claim major victories for efforts to defund the police, such as cuts to police budgets in multiple cities. Upon closer examination, however, the celebration appears misplaced. The defunding of the $559 million budget for the Washington, DC Metro Police Department was “accomplished” by transferring the public school security contract from the DC police to the DC Public School System police, with zero dollars reprogrammed for social services. We strongly suspect similar schemes were used in most, if not all, of the examples lauded as successful Defund campaigns. To reiterate: defunding the police will only move those in power to change the definition of, or privatize, the police.
The mischaracterizations in the article continue. First, “[s]upporters of community control expect these elected (or selected) bodies to be inherently progressive, a questionable assumption.” But it is no assumption at all. Our position paper explains that this would have to be an achievement of the organizing in which community control is embedded rather than some preordained result. To quote our own proposal:
Equally as important, the job of “qualifying” community members for board service will fall to social justice organizations. Building robust and wide reaching political education and leadership development programs will make community organizing relevant like never before as we attempt to reach the next board member before their appointment. 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.
By contrast, the authors highlighted their own successful efforts in Minneapolis in spearheading a “People’s Budget, calling for investments in housing, public health, mutual aid groups, and harm reduction,” which was the result of the work of over 80 community groups. Interestingly, the authors declined to share how they ensured the participants of the budgetary process would be “inherently progressive,” though we suspect they utilized one of two organizing options: either they employed the same methods of political education and leadership development that we propose, or else the participants were carefully selected based on their pre-existing “progressive” political positions. Of course, if participation in the process was limited to a few hand-selected organizations, and the endorsement or “sign-on” option was only available after the budget was drafted, then the process was not democratic, and it was not a “People’s Budget” in any meaningful sense.
To be perfectly clear, we fully support the development of a People’s Budget because that process should be identical to that of instituting Community Control. We are, however, somewhat confused by the notion that a mere change in terminology qualifies as a difference of underlying democratic principles.
We maintain that there is no route to addressing the roots of violence in our communities – whether CCOP, defund, or abolish – that does not require us to take addressing the material and cultural roots of harm in our communities seriously. This focus is something the Defund and Abolish movements have gotten right, given the imprint of transformative justice and restorative justice in those sections of the movement.
However, what is inherently more progressive than the politicians who otherwise are expected to defund and abolish the police they support are the Black and Brown low-income working-class communities organized into People’s Assemblies and community councils making decisions for themselves. This is part of the fuller vision for Community Control beyond boards that has dominated the debate about CCOP.
As Amuchie rightly warns us, “Suppose people are not educated about their current conditions and don’t have political alignment around what we are trying to build. In that case, this leaves room for repression, co-optation, and demobilization of the masses.” Mass community political education around the Black Radical Tradition, including education pushing back against patriarchy, transphobia, and other reactionary forms of oppression is a necessary part of any confrontation with the colonial power structure with any hope of success at resisting oppression rather than reorganizing it. We unite with any effort to enhance this aspect of empowering the people.
Both the criticisms in Hood Communist and Forge Organizing raise practical obstacles to destroying the current structure of policing through CCOP. Ade reminds us that “community review boards” – which, we remind you, are not at all what CCOP proposes – “can be ignored, worked around, and generally rendered useless through individual officers, police chiefs, and police unions.” The authors at Forge Organizing remind us that, if you are taking over an existing institution, “you can’t just fire its entire workforce without cause.” We remind you, CCOP does not seek to take over an existing institution, and we do not want their workforce.
Finally, Omedi Ochieng in Spectre reminds us of the ways that national and state level government can discipline local movements, writing, “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.”
These are all practical implications that any movement against police must grapple with seriously. But they are the practical implications of trying to remove the entrenched and resisting institution of colonial police from power for whatever purpose and to whatever practical end. That means that these are problems that will also plague Defund and Abolition, for identical reasons.
Bringing these complications up as reasons to prefer Defund or Abolition is, then, politically incoherent. If it’s supposedly impossible to either suddenly or gradually remove police officers and departments trained by and working for the colonial state, and the barriers to challenging such entrenched powers are insurmountable, then how are defunding demands made at city councils transitional demands towards abolition? If it is possible to remove these officers, then why do our critics prefer the version of this where community members are less empowered in the process of doing so? Why do our critics trust a version of these processes entirely controlled by elected officials (and their corporate backers) more than they trust the possibility of building with and appealing to their neighbors? Why is it the demand for community control that encourages the sudden seriousness of the same “practicalities” that liberals use to dismiss Defund and Abolition demands entirely, in favor of more practically “sensible” demands like police reform?
Omedi Ochieng’s ”Defeat the Police” article includes a useful global radical history of challenges to the police and community self-defense, including examples taken from the South African anti-apartheid movement. Ochieng invokes the history of extreme state repression against the Black Panther Party and Young Lords in response to CCOP – though, since his essay stops short of endorsing a particular approach that goes “beyond” defund or community control, it is unclear what he wants us to take from this history.
The lessons he does draw from these stories, it seems to us, are the wrong ones. He points out that “[t]he 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) “are precisely what the police in a settler colony are designed to do.” We agree: they are designed to protect settler interests as such, and the violence of the state response demonstrates the existential danger to those interests posed by the kind of demand we are making.
Ochieng argues that we have failed to learn from history, that “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.” But it is precisely because they lost by ballot initiative that we are advocating for the idea. The idea is very simple: it is a contest of votes, and we need to win more of them than the Panthers and Young Lords did. This is the most ordinary stuff of democracy.
Ochieng insists that we should “no more seek control of such an institution than one should want to control the U.S. military.” But this argument simply repeats the base mischaracterization of most of our critics. It portrays our demand as perpetuating the reactionary actions taken by these institutions rather than relcaiming control of the resources they have taken from us. Shutting down AFRICOM and redirecting the resources of a “national defense” budget of world conquest proportions towards reparations and community-controlled projects would be the actual military analogue of CCOP.
Is that a frightening vision of the world? Because to us, helping to set the stage for African liberation and self-determination sounds like a plan.
Pan-African Community Action also believes that we need to build organization and power, but we understand the difference between power and influence. Our position paper includes measures directed at exactly this nexus. Our approach involves using the ballot initiative process to force the state to recognize formal community power over an institution rather than persuading or influencing state bureaucrats to vote against their own interests.
Alongside this political contest to build dual power inside of contested and liberated zones, PACA proposes a rigorous political education program designed to convince our neighbors on the ground – not the political elites on the other side of the negotiating table or a “shaming” campaign – of the merits of community control over policing, of the merits of fighting for power. Alongside those first 2 must run a rigorous leadership development program designed to prepare our neighbors to wield their newfound power justly and wisely.
Community Control Over Police as a framing demand keeps our eyes on the ball whether or not it is achieved in the immediate future: power over our lives, not cuddlier treatment from those who jealously hoard that power. Our goal is “community control,” whether over public safety, land, budgets, or housing. Our goal is to have power and wield it justly ourselves, not to demand that the boot on our neck be swapped out for slippers instead.
Even a long-term, negotiation-focused approach would be better with a clear overall goal that correctly articulates the real political problem. Key to preventing our campaigns from diluting political consciousness is preventing confusion about what we’re fighting for: this is why it is important to differentiate between “reformist reforms” from radical ones. Community control over police is a principled commitment to a part of what liberation would look like, what tomorrow’s struggle should be trying to use today’s possibilities to achieve. Why do our critics oppose communities deciding for themselves what crucial aspects of their lives are going to be like: if that isn’t self-determination, then what is? And if self-determination is not what we want, then what is?