My suggestion that we abolish the police — following the shooting deaths of two black men and five Latinos last week, and then the retaliatory killing of five police officers in Dallas on Thursday — has sparked a debate with friends and commenters on social media. The proposal isn’t mine, of course. Mychal Denzel Smith placed the demand right in the title of his piece for the Nation last spring, and was seconded by Venezuela scholar George Ciccariello-Maher on Salon. Most objections to this admittedly radical idea center on the need for police as essential guardians of public safety. One friend wonders who would “enforce the laws of the land,” while another wants to know if I truly believe the elimination of police departments as we know them would cut the number of murders in the country’s inner cities.
To address their concerns in reverse order, absolutely. More than 570 people have lost their lives at the hands of police officers in this year alone — so far. That’s more than the 468 murders committed in Chicago in 2015, and again, we’re only halfway through the year, which means we can expect U.S. police departments to unleash two Chiraqs on the American public by New Year’s Eve. Whether having no police would decrease the number of murders in place like Chicago, I’ll address in a bit.
Coming to the first concern secondly, I’d argue that police officers don’t enforce the laws of the land so much as enforce the order of the land. In a piece published by TeleSur English last year, Yesenia Barragan describes how the U.S. police state began with slave patrols designed to enforce white supremacy:
“Armed with whips, chains, and horses, the slave patrol became the white paramilitary force of the slave system whose profession was to terrorize the enslaved labor force of the Carolinas. In fact, the patrols played an incredibly important historic role in fortifying the institution of white supremacy in the South, given that many non-slaveholding poor whites and yeoman farmers were among their ranks, whose supremacy became validated and reinforced through their service in the patrol. Riding on horseback on groups of four or five, the duty of the slave patrol was to uphold the slave codes (first passed in 1691), which included breaking up assemblies of slaves and blacks, catching runaway slaves, searching through slave quarters randomly, or monitoring the pass system to keep slaves and free blacks off roadways. By 1837, the Charleston Police Department had 100 police officers whose primary function was slave patrol.
“The slave patrols were not disbanded after the abolition of slavery in 1865. During Reconstruction, the period immediately after the Civil War, several groups merged with former slave patrols to manage the newly free black population of the South. Throughout, the state militia, federal military, and Ku Klux Klan took over what had previously been the responsibilities of the slave patrols. Together, the police force continued to maintain the rule of white supremacy up through Jim Crow to Walter Scott’s lifeless body on the grassy lot in early April 2015.”
If we admit that the United Sates is not only a racist society but contains white supremacy in its actual foundations, then we’re forced to admit as well that, instead of protecting and serving everyday citizens, the primary role of law enforcement officers is to protect and serve the racist system, and that white supremacy is an inescapable facet of law and order in the United States (and much of the West). To be a person of color is to understand this precept instinctively.
Growing up in a heavily segregated suburb of Chicago — where all the poor people of color and immigrants lived on one side of town, while the well-off white people lived on the other side — my friends and I knew never to call the police, even in times of need. I vividly recall arguing with two girls from the other side of town when they suggested I call the police to report a crime committed against me. As much as I wanted justice, I feared the cops more, and knew without pause that the police would treat me as the other criminal in the case. There are no police for blacks and Latinos, especially boys. The police belong to other people. I realize plenty of white readers won’t understand this point, and they’re lucky they don’t.
Abolishing the police is only a crazy idea to those people fortunate enough to never have been threatened by a police officer. To them the police are as benign and necessary as postal workers and garbagemen. They’ve never been stopped by a cop for jogging at night (I have). They’ve never been harassed by a mustachioed sergeant while at a public park and forced to blow into a breathalyzer (I was 16 and completely sober). They’ve never been charged with underaged drinking after reporting an attempted rape (as a friend of mine was). They’ve never been mean-mugged and followed by an officer for the very serious crime of being behind the wheel of a luxury car while black (I have). They’ve never been arrested for fighting a drunk frat boy repeatedly calling them a “nigger” on the street, and then facing battery charges against the same person who wasn’t charged with anything (I have, though the case was dismissed when the guy didn’t show up in court). They’ve never had their hands cuffed behind their backs and then thrown into a sliding glass door and beaten with a trash can (as my friend was, in front of at least a dozen witnesses, including me). I’d venture to assume most white readers have never had anything even remotely like what I’ve just described happen to them or anyone they know, which is why abolishing the police sounds too radical to be taken seriously. Again, they’re lucky. They also don’t know the country they live in.
In an especially poignant paragraph, Smith underscores the dichotomy between how police are viewed in white America and how they’re viewed in the rest of America:
“When I say, ‘abolish the police,’ I’m usually asked what I would have us replace them with. My answer is always full social, economic, and political equality, but that’s not what’s actually being asked. What people mean is ‘who is going to protect us?’ Who protects us now? If you’re white and well-off, perhaps the police protect you. The rest of us, not so much. What use do I have for an institution that routinely kills people who look like me, and make it so I’m afraid to walk out of my home?”
Imagining society without police is hard even for most Latinos, but our willingness and ability to build the kind of society in which we’d like to live mustn’t be limited by our weak imaginations. Just as a spiderweb doesn’t simply pop into existence, our society as it exists today was designed and constructed, brick by racist brick, and is the product of centuries of decisions made at all levels. Likewise police have not always been seen as an essential part of society. The first modern police department began with London’s Metropolitan Police Service as recently as 1829 — the blink of an eye, historically speaking — and the New York City Police Department wasn’t founded until 1845. “Police as we know them are an experiment, not an unquestionable fact of civilization,” writes Tom Swiss for Patheos, citing the U.K.’s version of Homeland Security:
“London’s ‘Peelers’ were issued a set of general instructions, which are often referred to as the ‘Peelean Principles’ though Sir Robert Peel probably did not write them. They include the duty ‘[t]o maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.'”
The Peelean Principles are nowhere to be seen today, especially not in Chicago, Ferguson, Los Angeles, and countless other communities big and small. Now the state establishes police departments to enforce its order rather than to ensure public safety. The Chicago Police Department, for instance, is exclusively at the service of Mayor Emanuel and City Hall, instead of being at the service of the residents of Pilsen, Lawndale or Humboldt Park. Police officers have become what U.S. soldiers are throughout much of the world — an occupying security force — another point made by Swiss:
“The problem with a standing police force is much the same as the problem with a standing army: once the state has all these armed and trained people on its payroll and has granted them special powers and privileges such as qualified immunity, it has a strong inclination to do something with them. With a standing army there is a temptation to wars of aggression and imperialist expansion ….
“With a standing police force there is a temptation to invasive and authoritarian laws such as Prohibition, the War on Drugs, and the War on Guns; and the carceral state and the sort of criminalization of poverty that have recently come to light in places like Ferguson. If a sheriff had to raise up a posse to chase after every pot smoker or prostitute or unlicensed poker game, laws against ‘consensual crimes’ would never have come about. (Or at least would never be enforced.)”
But what is done can be undone, and what is isn’t what must be. Imagining a society without police officers requires imagining a different society — a better society — than the one to which we’re currently resigned. Only then would the utter uselessness of police departments be apparent to all, as Smith argues:
“Until we invest in full employment, universal healthcare that includes mental health services, free education at every level, comprehensive sex education that teaches about consent and bodily autonomy, the decriminalization of drugs and erasure of the stigma around drug use, affordable and adequate housing, eliminating homophobia and transphobia — things that actually reduce the amount of violence we witness — I don’t want to hear about how necessary the police are. They are only necessary because we are all too willing to hide behind our cowardice and not actually put forth the effort to create a better world. It’s too extreme.”
It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine what policing might look like in a better society. Officers wouldn’t be marauding the streets as they do now, for one. But more important, a society in which police officers have no more rights and privileges than the average citizen would be a much more democratic society, one “consistent with the root of democracy and the 14th Amendment’s requirement of equal protection,” to quote Smith. In a real democracy, every person is equal before the law, from the president to the ex-con, from the cop to me. Badges don’t make police officers a special kind of citizen, merely a different kind. When a cop uses any amount of force against another person, whether it be Stop and Frisk, an arrest, or actually shooting someone, that officer must be brought before the law and made to account for his or her actions just as any other citizen would be.
It is in this sense that “abolish the police” isn’t a call to rid society of any and all forms of policing. (A similar error is made whenever anarchy is discussed, with the average person believing anarchy to be the absence of order and government. In fact — indeed — anarchy means the exact opposite.) Abolishing the police simply demands that we eliminate police departments as they exist today and replace them with more community-based policing, in which police are answerable to the people they serve and not the bureaucrats who sign their paychecks. Each neighborhood might have its own force whose members are selected or otherwise supervised by residents through a representative organization. Such an arrangement would be very different than the one we have now, but again I stress that something being “different” has no bearing on its feasibility or rightness. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things,” President Kennedy famously pitched, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
If the people of the United States were willing “to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” in order to inhabit the moon, I don’t see why we can’t do the same to make our own society more habitable for all who live here. “It’s time to choose once and for all,” Ciccariello-Maher writes, “between democracy and the police.” If that’s the choice we’re forced to make — and it is — then I say chuck the police.
Featured image: Scott L/Flickr