The Latest Analysis & Creative Expression from ARA-LA/PART
POLICING THE PLANET
Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter
Edited by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton
Published by Verso, London/New York, 2016. $19.95. versobooks.com
Reviewed by Michael Novick, Anti-Racist Action-Los Angeles/People Against Racist Terror (ARA-LA/PART)
This is a vitally important, useful, and sometimes frustrating collection of essays, interviews with many significant on-the-ground activists and organizers, and academic analyses of the nature of policing under globalized racial capitalism and of the growing resistance to it. It is must reading, but you need to read critically and reflect on the contradictions in political viewpoints and strategic orientations among and between the various pieces in the collection. These range widely, from abolition of the police and the need to overthrow capitalism and decolonize the land and people, to much more narrowly focused efforts for reforming police strategies, tactics and policies, and demands for accountability or justice.
The editors say, “Policing the Planet traces the exportation of the broken windows model as [NY and LA police chief] Bratton …became a … security consultant for …governments worldwide….In turn it highlights how this new urban security regime has given rise to dramatic and increasingly internationalized social movements confronting racist and uneven capitalist developments…” (p.6)
However, although it speaks at moments to the planetary integration of policing, the military and the national security surveillance state apparatus, the authors and interviewees are mainly from the US, and most of the focus is on the US and a few closely connected colonies and neo-colonies, such as Puerto Rico and El Salvador.
A good summary of the contradictions faced by these movements, and embodied within the expressions in the book itself, comes from Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore, in their piece “Beyond Bratton.” They state:
Sparked by police murder, in the context of racial capitalism’s neo-liberal turn, the post-Ferguson movement may therefore be understood as protests against profound austerity and the iron fist necessary to impose it. The movement’s central challenge is to prevent the work from facilitating another transition in regimes of racist policing and incarceration, displacement and disinvestment through formal but not transformative reforms. James Kilgore… recently warned how the “bi-partisan consensus on criminal justice reform” is actually a move towards what he, following Tariq Ali, calls the “extreme center.” (p. 198)
Their insights into the role of Connie Rice, a former civil rights litigator who came to work closely with and for the LAPD under Bratton are especially important in understanding how “reform” can strengthen the grip of the police state.
Two of the stronger pieces in the book, that directly take up the central challenge posed by the Gilmores are the interviews by Christina Heatherton with Patrisse Cullors(-Khan), a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and with The Red Nation, a Native-led council of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people committed to the liberation of Indigenous people and the overthrow of colonialism and capitalism, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Cullors says “Often… in our …work, we don’t actually have a conversation about abolition. In the current #BlackLivesMatter movement, we are seeing some of the most vibrant, creative responses to state violence. We’re also hearing some of the oldest arguments, like the call for special prosecutors or indictments…These… actually reify the state rather than insisting that the state should not be part of this process.” (p. 35) She continues, “When our …activism isn’t rooted in a theory about transforming the world, it becomes narrow …We have to deal with the current crisis in the short term…and we have to allow people to decide what those solutions are. We also have to create a vision that’s much bigger than the one we have now.” (p. 37) “It’s … necessary that, as Black people in the US, we do not center the struggle around a domestic fight for our ‘civil rights.’ Rather, this is a broader fight for the Black diaspora, both on the continent and across the globe.” (p. 38).
In their interview, The Red Nation activists explain the group “was partially formed out of the anti-police brutality movement…For Native people in Albuquerque, forms of everyday police brutality are largely about the policing of Indigenous bodies in a space…The police…manage the crises of colonialism, colonization and occupation through the constant criminalization of Indigenous …homeless and poor people.” (p. 109) They go on, “Capital is reproduced through colonial violence. If you center the life of a Native trans sex worker … that person will have a subject position that has been reproduced through colonial violence.” (p. 115) Their ten-point program, which begins by calling for the reinstatement of treaty rights, ends with the declaration that, “For Native peoples to live, capitalism and colonialism must die.”
Native people demand justice for slain Dine mother Loreal Tsingine, killed by Winslow AZ cops.
Another important, though insufficiently developed theme touched on in the book is the increasing convergence between low-intensity warfare and high-intensity policing. This is noted particularly in periodic connections drawn by Cullors and others, to the role of Israeli “Defense” Forces in policing Palestinians, and the role Israeli training and consultants have played with US and other police forces. There are also important contributions in the interviews with Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, and Becky Dennison and Pete White of the LA Community Action Network (LA CAN), and with Breanna Champion, Page May and Asha Rosa Ransby-Sporn of “We Charge Genocide” from Chicago.
Other pieces in the book, however, are much less clear about the irreconcilable contradiction between the very survival of colonized and exploited people and the system of capitalism and colonialism that the police are designed to enforce. Several of the more academic pieces, and even some of the activist contributions seem to focus more on tactics, strategies and policies, on “broken windows” policing and neo-liberalism, as if they could be reversed, transformed or ameliorated without a fundamental transformation of the underlying system of exploitation and oppression. One particular area where there are widely divergent views within the book is on the question of “community policing.” Though the Gilmores see it as a form of public relations pacification, other pieces seem more interested in it as a remedy, or are suspicious of it but in a not well-defined way. The understanding that police theorists have expressed, that community oriented policing is the domestic equivalent of psychological operations (PsyOps) in the military, is never drawn out. In a sense, this accurately reflects struggles and differences within the movement, and perhaps the editors chose to simply reflect this contradiction within the pages of the collection.
However, there are some troubling omissions that reflect the weakness of our movements historically and to the present day to learn from past errors and to build on past revolutionary breakthroughs. The question of self-defense, armed or otherwise, is barely touched on in this collection. The link between targeted repression of activists and political formations and the broader repression of whole communities and people is not well developed (as for instance the relationship between COINTELPRO, the murders, exile and incarceration of members of the Black Panthers, American Indian Movement, Chicano-Mexicano struggle and Puerto Rican independence movement, and the mass incarceration and austerity described in the book). There is no reference to the important document excerpted in Turning The Tide a few issues back, “Policing Terrorism in the US: The LAPD’s Convergence Strategy,” by Michael P. Downing, LAPD Deputy Chief, of the Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau, which spells out how police see themselves as embedded in global counter-insurgency strategy.
The insights developed, particularly by the Puerto Rican and Mexicano liberation struggles in the 70s and 80s about the genocidal decisions of the empire to stamp out the so-called “excess of democracy” diagnosed by Samuel Huntington and others at the Trilateral Commission through “spatial de-concentration” of Black and other oppressed people (today referred to as gentrification and displacement) are never referred to. Neither are the views of the New Afrikan independence movement about the roots of racist murders by police (as well as vigilantes, prison guards and private security) in the “disposability” of colonized New Afrikan people after the intentional de-industrialization of the US. These are critical insights and anti-colonial, anti-capitalist formulations and understandings that both explain the history of the past several decades and provide guidance for the directions our movements must take to successfully take a strategic offensive in the coming period.
Read and discuss this book, which has a lot to offer, but understand it is a contribution to a much more incisive and wide-ranging process of political analysis, struggle and strategizing that must take place, which must deeply engage and internalize anti-colonial and anti-capitalist perspectives (both those contained within book and others not so featured). I should also mention one significant, irritating weakness — the book does not provide contact information for any of the activists, organizations or scholars who contributed, so that such a necessary dialogue and debate could go forward. Correcting that oversight partially here, you can reach LA’s Stop LAPD Spying Coalition at email@example.com, The Red Nation at firstname.lastname@example.org, and co-editor Jordan Camp at email@example.com.