By Ray Acheson
As protests erupted across the United States in response to the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, heavily militarised police forces cracked down violently against everyone in the streets. As one commentator noted on Saturday, 30 May, “The police are rioting across America tonight—shooting and mowing down protestors, assaulting journalists, terrorising neighbourhoods, gleefully brutalising and arresting civilians en masse.” Another highlighted that “police all over the country teargassed protestors, drove vehicles through crowds, opened fire with non-lethal rounds on journalists or people on their own property, and in at least one instance, pushed over an elderly man who was walking away with a cane.” The violence moved Amnesty International to declare, “The U.S. police across the country are failing their obligations under international law to respect and facilitate the right to peaceful protest, exacerbating a tense situation and endangering the lives of protesters.”
The show of overwhelming and violent force from police, backed by the National Guard and threats by the US President to deploy the military and shoot protestors, must also be considered in the broader context of governmental and institutional failure to address repeated and ongoing racist police brutality. It is also taking place against the backdrop of the federal government’s abysmal floundering in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already cost more than 103,000 lives across the country—disproportionately Black, Latinx, and Indigenous lives—and spun millions of people into unemployment, precarity, houselessness, and health crises.
For all the talk about COVID-19 being an “enemy” against which we must “wage war,” it is civilians in the streets of the USA that are being treated as the enemy by agents of state. The police literally cracking down on protestors on the streets shows in living colour—in bruises and blood—what happens when governments invest in militarism over human well-being. It also shows the legacy of white supremacy embedded within institutions of coercive state power designed and funded to “maintain order” through violent repression of the people.
Structural racism in policing
“We are still working with a model of policing in this country that was born out of slavery in this country, that was born out of a white supremacy in this country,” said Neill Franklin, a retired police major and the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership in an interview with The Intercept. From slavery to the curtailment of Black rights and mobility after the Civil War to lynchings, to bondage and incarceration, to crack downs against the civil rights movements and Black Lives Matter, to “broken window” and stop-and-frisk policies, to the killings of countless Black people—structural racism is inherent to US policing. (It is, however, not unique to US policing—anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, and anti-immigrant violence is endemic to police forces around the world. But for the purposes of this blog, US policing is the focus.)
As Black feminists note, police violence is also gendered. “Black men have historically been and continue to be cast as dangerous, threatening, and inclined to violent behavior,” writes Adia Harvey Wingfield. “This stereotype has its roots in the post-slavery era when such ‘violence’ was used as a justification for lynching black men.” Most of the high-profile cases of police brutality since protests over the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014 have centred on violence against Black men, but Black women are also subject to these atrocities. Gendered Black criminality, Wingfield argues, means that Black women victims are easily overlooked, that many forms of resistance and community-building led by Black women are ignored, and that Black women are unable to utilise law enforcement for domestic violence. Furthermore, the historic hierarchisation of race and gender has devalued Black women and normalised violence against them, which “can operate to inform police abuse of black women.” Black transgender people also experience police violence and harassment at higher rates than white transgender people. Just last week, police in Florida fatally shot a Black trans man.
Investing in violence
The investments in state-sanctioned violence against its own people are vast. The US spends about $100 billion annually on policing and an additional $80 billion on incarceration, according to a recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy. In some cities, policing takes up between 30–60 per cent of the entire annual budget.
In the midst of COVID-19, cities across the country are facing big budget cuts. In New York City, for example, officials are projecting a $7.4 billion drop in tax revenue next year. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed budget cuts for 2021 mounting to $3.4 billion. The proposed budget slashes funding for various services, in particular education—which faces a $641.8 million cut—while the police department (which currently has a $6 billion budget) is only looking at a $23.8 million cut. That means education is facing a cut about 27 times greater than the proposed cut from the police department.
These cuts will have a twin effect on Black lives in particular: Investing in police at the cost of health care, education, and social support has a disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx communities, which are already suffering the most from COVID-19. These same communities are also most impacted by over-policing, including during the pandemic. Police have been harassing, beating, and arresting Black citizens for being outside, while handing out masks to white citizens in parks.
Investing in policing while slashing the budgets of health care, housing, education, poverty reduction, and other essential services and programming in cities across the United States only serves to maintain social stratification and economic privilege. In the face of uprisings against white supremacy, police brutality and impunity, and rising inequality, investments in the tools of repression and domination are expanding, not least through the militarisation of police.
Every year since the 1990s, billions of dollars of military equipment has been transferred from the federal government to state and local police departments. This equipment includes assault weapons, ammunition, armoured vehicles, helicopters, battle armour, night-vision equipment, and more. Some police departments use grants to purchase the equipment; others use the federal military “surplus” 1033 Program. Either way, city and federal budgets are such that US police have access to advanced military equipment, while in the middle of the pandemic health care workers do not have access to proper protective equipment. Or as one writer put it, “every cop is outfitted like an Avenger but health care professionals are out there fighting COVID wearing barrels on suspenders.”
The equipment isn’t just for show. “Departments use these wartime weapons in everyday policing, especially to fight the wasteful and failed drug war, which has unfairly targeted people of color,” notes the American Civil Liberties Union. The deployment of heavily armed SWAT teams rose from about 3000 times a year in the 1980s to more than 50,000 times in 2015. With no sense of irony, over the past several years military equipment has been used extensively by police to suppress protests against police brutality. In Ferguson, Missouri, where protests erupted over the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, people on the streets “were met with armored vehicles, noise-based crowd-control devices, shotguns, M4 rifles like those used by forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, rubber-coated pellets and tear gas.”
In the wake of the national debate sparked by police brutality during the Ferguson protests, President Obama imposed restrictions on the military surplus programme. But in 2017, the Trump administration overturned these limitations in order to “restore law and order and support our police all across America.” Police forces once again have unrestricted access to military weapons and equipment.
A report released in 2018 found that police militarisation “neither reduces rates of violent crime nor changes the number of officers assaulted or killed.” Instead, as other studies have found, the transfer of military equipment to police increases not just the material militarisation of police departments but also militarises their cultural, organisational, and operational practices and leads to more violent behaviour. Militarism celebrates, promotes, and facilities a culture of violence. The weapons and strategies deployed to oppress and kill abroad, which are being integrated into domestic policing, inevitably carry that violence them.
Militarisation of the police only leads to one thing: violence. There is no room for militarisation to lead to de-escalation of conflict or resolution of grievances. When governments and police forces decide to go down this road, they take an active stance for violence.
The digital panopticon and autonomous racism
Critical race scholars and Black rights advocates have long characterised police militarisation as yet another means by which the state enhances its control over Black and other people of colour, including through expansion of surveillance. Fanna Gamal has highlighted the ways in which police militarisation allows the state to construct two groups: “those who will be marginalized through heightened surveillance and control and those who will be advantaged by their access to state protection.” While the Federal Bureau of Investigation spends vast resources surveilling Black activists and Muslim Americans, for example, its investigations into attacks by white supremacists languish.
The rising use of surveillance and tracking technology being deployed by governments during the COVID-19 pandemic illuminates the dystopian possibilities for our future under a digital panopticon. And given that surveillance has long been intimately tied to institutional racism, the use of these technologies will amplify racism, police brutality, and incarceration of people of colour. Doorbell cameras, video surveillance systems, and crime-reporting platforms “are playing a role in people of color being reported as ‘suspicious’ while they are simply going about their daily lives.” The algorithms used in facial recognition software have consistently been shown to be racist, resulting in must higher rates of false positives for Black, Asian, and Indigenous faces than for whites. The systems worst failings were with African-American women.
Not only is the origin of facial recognition racist itself, but this technology—and other surveillance and “predictive policing” tools—are leading to further incarceration, harassment, and battery of Black people and other people of colour. The expanding use of surveillance planes and drones over US cities during the protests—including the same Customs and Border Patrol drones that are deployed at the US-Mexican border and that were deployed at the Standing Rock protests in 2016—also show another tactic for police to monitor and enact violence against anyone they consider a threat, be they immigrants, Indigenous Water Protectors, or Black rights activists.
This must serve as a warning as to what is most likely to happen with the development of autonomous weapon systems—their reliance on sensors and software to determine “targets” without meaningful human control will inevitably reflect the innate bias and racism within the system that produces them. International discussions on these weapons have predominantly focused on the challenges they will pose in war. But, especially in countries that have a military-to-police pipeline for equipment, such weapons are likely to also be deployed in policing situations. As ethicist Peter Asaro notes, “it would be easy to intentionally design a robocop to be racist, and quite difficult to design one that is not, given the existing standards, norms, and policing strategies.”
Defund, demilitarise, and abolish police
As COVID-19 has exposed, there needs to be a fundamental shift in our thinking about security. There have been attempts to change the norms and strategies of policing as a response to protests over racist brutality. Some police departments undertook “bias training” and other moderate reforms to reign in the violence. But it is clear that these efforts have been insufficient to credibly deal with the threat that police in the United States pose to Black lives in particular. Minneapolis, as The Intercept reports, was one of the pilot cities for the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, which was the Obama administration’s response to the national call for police accountability. “What does it say about the limits of reform that the city of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis police department could be part of a multi-year, multimillion-dollar national project to enhance police community relations, and after all of that, here we are?” asked sociology professor Nancy Heitzeg.
In his book The End of Policing, Alex S. Vitale argues that police reforms implemented in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson in 2014—from diversity initiatives to community policing to body cameras—“fail to acknowledge that policing as an institution reinforces race and class inequalities by design.” Individual accountability of officers, when it comes, likewise feeds into the idea that there are just some “bad seeds” at work and they are not representative of policing as a whole.
It is becoming increasingly clear that as long as policing exists within its current structures and approach, reforms are futile. The current police force, tainted with institutionalised racism and a demonstrated inability to deal with it appropriately, is beyond the possibility of reforming through trainings or box-ticking exercises. Thus, demands for the abolition of police and the creation of new forms of community-based security and safety mechanisms and tools, rooted in the pursuit of equitable human security, is the only chance for real change.
Kandace Montgomery, director of Black Visions Collective, a Minnesota-based racial justice group, argues that defunding the police is an imperative. “For too long we have invested a massive amount of money in an institution that continues to prove itself to be failing and to be inadequate to address the safety needs of our community,” she notes. “Defunding is about allocating the abundance of resources we do have to things that have been proven to work,” such as investments in housing, health, and education.
The call to defund the police has experienced a significant uptick during the George Floyd protests and the police crackdowns against them, but it is not a new idea. Groups like Critical Resistance and Incite! have long been advocating for the abolition of prisons and the establishment of alternative systems of care and community well-being. The prison abolition movement informs demands to abolish the police, understanding that both institutions are based on the idea that human beings need to be controlled, punished, beaten, and locked away in order to maintain an inequitable social and economic order built on white supremacy and capitalism. The outcome of this is stark: a few weeks ago, alt right white supremacists stormed a state capitol with automatic weapons, threatening the governor and intentionally coughing in the faces of police officers, yet faced no arrests. Over this past weekend across the country, unarmed Black and allied protestors, as well as journalists and passers-by, were subject to extreme police violence, intimidation, arrest, and incarceration.
Even amongst those who can see this double standard, one of the main impediments to police abolition is the conditioning we all receive that the police and prisons are necessary to “protect” society from criminals. Recognising that the police have been designed to, and are consistently deployed to reinforce an oppressive, racist order is imperative to overcoming this impediment. The abolition of police and prisons is about changing the way societies care for their citizens: it is about building safe, equitable, promiscuous care for all so that the root causes of crime are reduced, instead of building institutions that violently repress and incarcerate people.
When injustices have remained without redress, acknowledgement, or atonement for centuries, conflicts can seem intractable and solutions unreachable. A process to reflect what has been learnt from the resolution of armed conflicts, genocide, and grave violations of human rights can be helpful in this context.
To this end, both immediate and long-term actions are necessary. The violence on the streets right now needs to stop. The police need to be withdrawn and disarmed in order to de-escalate tensions. A meaningful platform should be established to hear the demands and grievances of the protesters, and to ensure material and psychosocial support for those who have been harmed by the recent police violence.
Beyond this, community, city, and national discussions as to what must be part of a new social contract, with equitable human security at is core, are necessary. Any such process must centre, listen to, and learn from the demands, calls, and perspectives of Black activists, including Black feminists. Groups like Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, Critical Resistance, Incite!, and countless other local and national organisations that have long worked for racial justice and an end to police brutality and incarceration, are vital to this work. So are Indigenous organisations working for decolonisation, such The Red Nation. White allies must check their own racial privilege, educate themselves and each other, and work actively to confront white supremacy within communities and institutions.
Based on experiences in other countries, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission could be a viable mechanism to address slavery and the genocide and dispossession of Indigenous populations in the United States, and to address the structural racism embedded within US institutions and resulting human rights violations that have occurred throughout the country’s history, including racist police brutality.
In the meantime, efforts to disarm and demilitarise the police, including by ending the supply of military equipment and training to police departments, must be undertaken. Demilitarisation also means addressing the culture of policing, which in the United States and many other countries is about enforcing order through violence rather than protecting communities through relationships and care. Prohibiting the use of surveillance technology by police, including facial recognition, drones and other surveillance planes, data gathering and tracking, etc, will be a necessary part of demilitarising police forces. Preventing the development of autonomous weapon systems will also be important. Groups like the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and the Tech Workers Coalition can be sources of information and action.
As noted earlier, defunding police and investing instead in education, housing, youth programmes, health care including mental health care, and restorative justice mechanisms, are also imperative to disarming and demilitarising the police. Police and prison abolition movements seek to address and mitigate the root causes of crime and to address crime through alternative means, such as community-based mediation, restitution, and reconciliation initiatives. BIPOC feminists have led the way in much of this organising and lessons must be learned from their work.
This is not a comprehensive set of actions, but ideas based on years of organising and protest by Black activists. The time for inaction or appeals for calm are long over. We must dismantle structural racism now; we must deal with police brutality through defunding, disarming, and demilitarising police forces now. Alternatives are possible if we can work together to build them.