2. 22. 2023

What are the Police?
What is Abolition?

Tapji Garba

What are the police and what does it mean to live in a society that requires them? Since the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, there has been a lot of interest in the role of policing in contemporary society. With this in mind, we can conceive police power in two ways: 1) as the totality of disciplinary practices implemented through a range of civil society institutions (schools, workplaces, households, and more), along with the everyday self-regulative practices of the members of civil society; and 2) as armed forces of state repression with the right to use force in the name of the state’s and society’s self-preservation. These forces include the military, courts, prison and border guards, and police officers. As expressed through everyday disciplinary practices, police power is the essence of civil society, and armed forces are its immediate form of appearance. Policing is not simply the protection of an already-existing public. It is productive and reproductive, law-making and law-preserving. If police power is constitutive of the society that we live in, then abolishing the police means social revolution.


What are the police?

The justification of the police offered by the state rests upon a specific understanding of freedom, right, and safety. According to this logic, to be free means to be in possession of one’s own life and in a position to exercise one’s will as one pleases. But with the capacity for self-mastery comes the threat of mastery or arbitrary rule over others, the subjection of a person or group to another person’s will. For this reason, the division of power and the consent of the governed are core values of modern democratic constitutions (monarchical or republican). By restraining the threat of arbitrary rule, the principles of voluntary consent and contractual obligation aim to establish the common ground where citizens can meet one another as self-possessed equals.

Within this framework, in which today’s liberal states are rooted, each citizen has the natural right to pursue their own self-preservation and defend themselves against threats to their liberty. In cases of broken contractual obligation or violation of property rights (especially the right to self-ownership), one has the right to seek justice proportionate to what was lost. The violation of right warrants the intervention of public authority (the state), which possesses the right to use force, within reason, to administer justice. The purpose of the state, in this view, is to provide universally binding rules of public conduct, defend the rights of citizens, and administer justice when said rights are violated. While citizens relinquish this right to force by voluntary submission, the state retains this right on their behalf, and will administer justice and defend the body politic from threats. 

If the state can administer justice with violence, then part of honouring our contractual obligations means internalizing the threat of violence. This means regulating our habits and behaviours in a manner consistent with the law. In other words, it means policing one’s own conduct and that of other people. Thus the liberal idea of citizenship requires a form of self-regulation or self-policing; it involves training oneself to be the kind of person who is voluntarily responsible. Those who do not demonstrate the capacity for self-regulation are subject to the state’s self-preserving power because the lawlessness of their will presents a permanent threat to the peace and security of  civil society. 

When the rationale for the use of force is self-preservation (as opposed to, say, discipline), lawmakers declare arbitrary power to be lawful because society has to defend itself from those who do not voluntarily submit. Those who do not (or cannot) exercise self-restraint are to be restrained by force. When force is used in the name of society’s self-preservation, conventional limits placed upon the use of force do not apply, because the preservation of the polity is the administration of justice. Generally speaking, police do not go to jail for murder when they claim they were under attack and simply defending themselves (and “all of us”). The same logic holds in cases of civilian self-deputization, such as the infamous murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman or the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

Contrary to the liberal narrative above, the imperative of self-preservation is not an eternal law of society. It is a principle belonging to a specific form of social life, one that demands a legal structure adequate to its fundamental relations: slavery, colonialism, and capitalist exploitation. The birth of modern police power announces a new epoch in world history.


What is abolition? 

The demand to abolish the police has a long history. In The Civil War in France, his commentary on the Paris Commune, Karl Marx proposed the replacement of the repressive arms of the state (its standing army and police force) with a popular militia. Similarly, Lenin’s April Theses, written before the October revolution of 1917 in Russia, called for the abolition of “the police, military, and bureaucracy.” In both examples, dismantling the repressive arms of the state and replacing them with new socialized defence forces (“the arming of the whole people”) was seen as a crucial component of the creation of a new kind of society. 

Contemporary struggles draw inspiration from the long history of Black rebellions against police power throughout the western hemisphere, from slave revolts to prison insurrections and urban uprisings. The 1971 Attica uprising, where prisoners held in Attica Correctional Facility revolted against their poor living conditions and abject political status, is especially significant. It marks the beginning of a post-civil rights era of police power – and resistance to it – characterized by the expansion of carceral institutions (prisons, jails, detention centres) and the expansion of police forces in response to the long-term crisis in the capitalist world-system that began in the early 1970s. 

A major repercussion of this long-term political-economic crisis has been the state’s systematic withdrawal of social services, leaving public welfare up to private initiative and the whims of the market. There is an inverse correlation between the removal (often via privatization) of social supports and the expansion of police funding: when access to healthcare, housing, and education go down, police budgets go up. The connection between austerity and policing plays out locally and globally. In Winnipeg, where I live, the police budget is significantly larger than that of much-needed social services. Looking abroad, we can see examples of this pattern in Nigeria, with its Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and their practice of everyday terror; in the military occupation of favelas in Brazil; and in countless other expressions of combined state terror and material deprivation around the world. The hollowing-out of public infrastructure has also reinforced reactionary sentiment amongst a portion of the population, eager to defend what remains of their own status against perceived threats to their property and person. The result has been an unmistakable alliance between the police and reactionary far-right movements throughout the world, but especially in the Global North.

The paradigm of militarized austerity politics provides the global context in which the events of summer 2020 took place, and from which the popular demands “Abolish the police!” and “Defund the police!” emerged. Contrary to some reformist perspectives, which aim to achieve a statistical reduction of the amount of police violence by changing police training protocols, the demands announced in the police and prison resource #8toAbolition pursue reforms (defund police, demilitarize communities, socialize housing) that reduce police power instead of finding novel ways of building it. Simply stated: “We believe in a world where there are zero police murders because there are zero police.” 

I can see how defunding the police and funding healthcare, housing, and other social programs can reduce the scope and scale of everyday police work, as many of the problems cops have been tasked with solving (such as mental health crises) could be better handled by communities and individuals with specific training. Some challenges begin to appear when we ask what it means to reduce the authority and legitimacy of the police, an aim set forth in #8toAbolition. The authors suggest that this might be achieved by slashing police budgets until they hit zero while disarming the police through legislation. The general idea is that we can wear down the power and authority of the police while building community-based, non-carceral alternatives that create public safety and provide care.

If the police can be fully defunded and disarmed through legislation, this would mean that police power is, at least in theory, subject to a higher form of authority, namely that of the state. But if the police are one of the repressive arms of the state, then the authority of the police is bound up with the authority of the very same state that would be disarming them. This is an instance where the nature of the police (i.e. the fact that they are an integral part of civil society and its reproduction) places constraints upon what can be done to them in the absence of control over the state itself. 

We are left with a situation that goes something like this: on one hand, it is unlikely that the state would pass legislation that aims to eliminate its means of implementing its authority. On the other hand, even if the state managed to pass reforms that sought to reduce police power, the police have a degree of relative autonomy from the commanding heights of the state apparatus, granting them the capacity to resist opposition even if it comes from within the state itself. Former US president Barack Obama, for example, claimed to be unable to federalize the police after the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. More recently, we might look at the way police support for the so-called Freedom Convoy, which occupied the Canadian capital in winter 2022 to demand an end to legally mandated COVID protections, played a significant role in defending that movement against the federal government’s opposition. Armed, organized, and viewed by many as an ineradicable part of a functioning society, the police show themselves to be able to evade executive control – whether that evasion takes the form of resisting federalization or openly aligning with “protests” funded by far-right organizations.

The strength of police power means that the movement to abolish them, from either above or below, must be prepared for confrontation. It is important for those committed to the cause of abolition to think seriously about the threat of counterinsurgency and terroristic violence, especially in the face of self-deputized citizens who take the work of policing into their own hands in the face of real or imagined opposition. If #8toAbolition and other resources like it propose to shift authority from the police to other institutions through legislation, then this presents the state as a site of contestation that can be gradually moved towards abolishing the police. But given the magnitude of police power, the popular support that accompanies it, and the essential function of the police within the modern state, any struggle against them is a struggle regarding state power in general. Because the demand to abolish the police implicitly rejects their authority to use force, it challenges the legitimacy of the existing constitutional order. In my view, this conflict will likely escalate into a civil war in the most basic sense of the term: an organized contest concerning authority, legitimacy, and the fundamental principles that determine the administration of society.

The practical dilemma that we face at this moment is how to respond to the ongoing crises of housing, healthcare, and other social supports while also building and maintaining the power to withstand violent opposition. This could involve using a range of strategies and tactics, from agitating for social provisions and reduced police presence – for example, striking down plans to add police officers to schools – to building new political organizations and networks to assume control over aspects of social reproduction, to organizing self-defence and effective counter-terrorism. If we want to look at what failed counter-terrorism looks like, we would do well to recall the defeat of Reconstruction after the American Civil War, in which the attempt to implement what W.E.B. Du Bois called abolition-democracy was defeated by the mob violence and guerrilla tactics of the Ku Klux Klan. We must be clear about what is at stake, and understand that the question of the hour is how to defend against the threat of counterinsurgency from above (the police) and below (Kyle Rittenhouse).

Tapji Garba is a writer and academic currently living in Winnipeg. You can find them on twitter @tapji.