Art by Hannah Rouland, @hannah.tor.art
“This is what the police try to do every day. They naturalize their existence. They did not always exist.
And yet we act as if this is an eternal force. We really need to begin to denaturalize the police.”
— Geo Maher “A World Without Police” (Verso Books – 2021)
Geo Maher first got involved with the police abolition movement after 22-year-old Oscar Grant was killed in Oakland by BART police on New Year’s Day, 2009. Now a political theorist, Maher is a Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at Vassar College in New York where he teaches a course called “Global Policing, Prisons and Abolition.” His latest book “A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete” was recently released by Verso Books. He writes that, “The police are only serving the interests of the select few, the whitest and the wealthiest.” Geo Maher spoke to The Sentinel from his home in Philadelphia. This interview was originally broadcast on Transformation Highway with John Malkin on KZSC 88.1 FM on October 6, 2021.
ABOLITION IS A PRESENCE
JM: “One general theme stringing through your book is that we need alternatives to police. You write in the beginning of the book that abolition is not simply an against, it is also a for. You don’t mention Gandhi in your book at all, but this reminds me of Gandhi. I often think of Gandhi’s program of obstruction and construction and how he said it’s important to obstruct injustice, but maybe even more important to put our attention towards constructing the systems that we want to have, and let the old systems fall away and become obsolete. Would you start there, with the importance of obstruction and construction and what the new systems look like, and what we can draw on to create them?”
Geo Maher: “Certainly. I’m not someone who’s wedded to nonviolence as an approach. But I think this often-overlooked core of what Gandhi means by the withdrawal from oppressive systems, I think is really important. The idea fundamentally being that if we withdraw our support and build our own structures, at some point the colonizers and imperialists and those dominating our society will be left without a function. Without a role in that space. Because we’ve reconstructed it in a fundamentally different kind of way. And that’s absolutely what we’re talking about.
We use the name abolition, which can be misleading. Because it sounds as if what we’re talking about is solely the question of dismantling and destroying institutions. But as you know, all the great abolitionists, writers, scholars and activists of today remind us – because there is this growing and essential literature on abolition – as Ruth Wilson Gilmore has put it, “Abolition is not an absence, it’s a presence.” It’s a question of building alternatives and turning those alternatives into something that could become the new structure of a society that doesn’t need police, that doesn’t need prisons.
Now, this is all built in a lot of ways on the legacy of what were the failures of the first wave of abolition. In a strict sense, slavery was mostly abolished. It was not, of course, abolished for convicts. And that’s become a huge point of contention. But the bigger question, in many ways, is that the alternatives – in other words, the broad heading of Reconstruction – was destroyed. It was beaten back by white terrorism and violence, abandoned by many of those who had supported abolition. So, the broader task of rebuilding society never took place. So, what happens when you free former slaves but they’re left to the whims of the market? Or the whims of the landowners and sharecropping? Or they’re incarcerated and then leased out under systems of neo-slavery, like convict leasing? This is the trajectory of continuity that leads us to the present in which we have never reconstructed the society that was built around slavery. We simply rebuilt different institutions that perform the function of containments in labor exploitation that the slave system did. Under new names.”
JM: “You write that the abolition of slavery after the Civil War was incomplete, that it failed to create the kind of world necessary for slavery to truly cease to exist. Instead of abolition, we got the police. Would you say a little more about the connection of slavery and anti-democratic culture to policing?”
Geo Maher: “Absolutely, these questions are linked, fundamentally, from the very beginning. We should be clear however we’re not simply talking about the kind of limited democracy that we inhabit today; the participation in elections every four years and little else. We’re talking about attempts under Reconstruction to build a more radical form of democracy that included everyone on an equal footing, transformed for a brief period, how it is that we understood democracy and what it was for.
This is why the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of former slaves under Reconstruction also meant the enfranchisement of many poor whites who had been excluded by property restrictions, poll taxes and literacy tests. So, more people were getting involved and they were turning their efforts and their energies toward what was really an unprecedented effort to build a greater system of social welfare for everyone. Education, schools, greater rights for women and children and a system that was tendentially more equal than ever before in the United States.
What happens was that this Reconstruction was destroyed. In other words, the alliance of poor Southern whites with their class enemies – the great plantocracy leaders and landowners – was one of the greatest betrayals of the potential for working class struggles in American history. These are the people that become the foot soldiers of the Klan. From the very beginning, this is the same thing as policing. Policing emerges from the fact that white, poor Southerners were deputized. Every white person was deputized to hunt slaves to catch them to seek a reward. Many were paid to do so. Many joined slave patrols and city guards and this was their role.
Now, it doesn’t take a lot of math to realize that we end up in a very similar situation today. But the point of the question of democracy is to say; this was an attack on democracy as well. It wasn’t simply the question of who could participate in democracy. It was an attack on the ambitious form of democracy that W.E.B Du Bois called “abolition democracy.” That is still the project for today. Which is why it’s no mistake that the police and the so-called police unions and associations lobby for legislation that makes our society less democratic, that disenfranchises people. Whether they’re felons, or whether there are increasing restrictions placed on the vote in different localities. This is an anti-democratic pressure. It’s no surprise that the police are members very often of overtly anti-democratic and white supremacist organizations. And the fact that they themselves consistently fight back against any kind of democratic oversight.
The police want absolute impunity. They want no civilian oversight. They want to be able to get what they want out of local leaders and local elected officials. And if they don’t get what they want, they bully those leaders. They often threaten them. There are cities where city council members have been pushing to limit the police budget or rollback salaries, and they’ve been threatened. They’ve been bullied, they’ve had their tires slashed. They’ve been told that if they didn’t behave and toe the line of the police society, that they themselves would suffer the consequences. We saw the police attempt to bully Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York on multiple occasions because he simply raised the question of police reform in a very moderate way. So, the police are a fundamentally anti-democratic and tangentially fascist force. Pushing back on them is a requirement then, not only of those of us who want a fundamental transformation of society, but even the preservation of what little democracy we have.”
“The police are seen as the solution to every problem. And yet, they’re armed with one tool and one
tool only; violence.” — Geo Maher “A World Without Police” (Verso Books – 2021)
TECHNICIANS OF VIOLENCE
JM: “Yes. That kind of police intimidation even happens here in Santa Cruz, California, which is often thought of as a sort of hippie, Leftist enclave. About five years ago a friend of mine was on the city council, Micah Posner, and he was beginning discussions around whether or not we wanted to allow the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) to use automatic license plate readers. A police officer who eventually became the Deputy Chief of Police met with this city council person at a coffee shop. The city councilperson was saying we should be having this discussion publicly around license plate readers and this police officer, who also was heavily involved with the so-called police union and was the public spokesperson for SCPD, said to the city council person, “If you keep pushing to try to have this be a public discussion, I’m going get you. And you won’t know that it was me that was trying to get you. I’ll do it through a third party.” That kind of behavior is sort of typical. In a way, it’s not surprising because, as you put it very succinctly in your book; “Police are technicians of violence. They’re armed specialists in the state’s monopoly of force.”
Geo Maher: “Absolutely, this is what they’re trained to do. This raises a whole bunch of other questions. But one fundamental one is at the heart of what I call the world of police that we live in today. Namely, the fact that the police are seen as the solution to every problem. And yet, they’re armed with one tool and one tool only; violence. That is either the enactment of violence and force, or the threat of that violence, force, incarceration and everything that goes along with it. This is what they do. And yet we insist that they be called for a mental health crisis and to manage young people who have no after-school activities or sporting activities because there’s no funding for public pools and recreation centers. They don’t provide any solution to these problems. The only solutions we’ve seen is a cycle of violence that the police do not improve upon, or reduce, but actually encourage and deepen. They’re tearing apart communities, because they’re sending people away. Because when those people come back from prison, when they’re on probation or parole, they’re not prepared in any way to reintegrate themselves into a healthy community. And because the police themselves continue to attack those communities. So, we’ve got this situation where, ironically, we are calling on technicians of violence to solve problems that have nothing to do with what their skill set is.”
DENATURALIZE THE POLICE
JM: “I want to return to abolition of slavery and the ongoing prison abolition movement and the system of reward and punishment generally, with policing being a part of that. I’ve been wondering if there are lessons that the current police defund / abolition movement can learn from the slavery abolition movement? We’ve been taught that police protect and serve and keep us safe and that just like our democratic society that has some problems that need to be fixed, policing is also beneficial but just needs to be improved. We’re told that some police are bad apples, which is a theory that seems to me was invented by the police. And that occasionally, like the U.S. military, individuals act outside of the law and do things like torture or harm or kill the wrong people. It seems that in the mid-1800’s many people in the U.S. were saying, “When you talk about abolishing slavery, you can’t really mean completely abolish slavery.” And now there’s a similar response to the vision of abolishing police and prisons.”
Geo Maher: “Certainly. I think you’ve really put your finger on it, that there are lots of lessons to be to be learned. Not only negative lessons, but also positive lessons that point to dramatic opportunity. An important part of the prison abolitionist movement is the recognition that first of all, for many people, slavery marked an unquestionable horizon. Even people who opposed it couldn’t necessarily imagine life without it. Because that institution was embedded within social life. It seemed natural because it made itself natural. This is what the police try to do every day. They naturalize their existence. They did not always exist. And yet we act as if this is an eternal force. We really need to begin to denaturalize the police. This can be seen even in the dramatic expansion of the world of police. It was not natural, and it was not common, to have police in schools until fifty or sixty years ago. That is a new phenomenon. To have police in public transits, to have police occupying greater spaces, public libraries; this is a new phenomenon.
But with every sort of turn of the screw, there’s this naturalization that happens where we assume; that’s how things have always been. The number of police and the budgets of police have expanded dramatically; tripling in some cities. So, we need to push back on that and realize that there’s a different kind of horizon available other than the horizon that the police and their associations offer ideologically for us. Here, again, the abolition of slavery is a great lesson because the idea of abolishing slavery went from being a fringe idea of wild-eyed abolitionists to being common sense. Within a few short years. It was very, very quick, historically speaking. And it took dramatic action. It took attacks by slaves and rebellions and revolts. It took abolitionist organizing and speaking. It took John Brown and others engaging in direct, provocative attacks on the system of slavery. And what that communicates very clearly is not only optimism and possibility for those resisting the institution from within, but it also makes it clear to everyone that this was a crisis.
By the late 1850s, into the 1860s, everyone knew that the crisis was coming because of the organizing that was being done by radical abolitionists. So, it really points to the possibility of small numbers of militant organizers pushing and pushing and pushing in fundamental and even sort of fanatical ways to insist that you do not negotiate with systems of oppression. You don’t reform them. You don’t try to make them slightly better. You don’t try to find a sort of golden mean, somewhere between evil and good. No, you fight evil. You destroy it. And in the process of that, you unleash this sort of long historical process that points ultimately toward liberation.
The lessons of abolition should also be borne in mind as a caution toward what I might see as sort of bending the stick too far in the opposite direction. Because if the point is that we can’t simply tear down institutions without building alternatives, it’s also true that it’s not simply enough to build alternatives. We also need to fight against the institutions and tear them down. Abolitionists need to keep our eyes trained on both pieces at once. It’s not simply building community alternatives. It’s fighting in the streets. It’s fighting in spaces of political power, to weaken the police, to break their chokehold that they have on society. And to begin to imagine alternatives. The abolitionists of course knew this, and we do ourselves a favor by remembering that the battle against slavery was an incredibly bloody and violent one. It was one in which people were fighting on all levels to destroy these institutions. And while we always need to remember the need to replace them, simultaneously the fight against those institutions – the fight for example that’s going on right now to dismantle the police in Minneapolis – is one that is essential as well.”
NEW VISION OF PUBLIC SAFETY
JM: “Would you say a little more about Minneapolis? The police killing of George Floyd really intensified this call to change or dismantle policing. And a lot of cities including Santa Cruz started talking about maybe doing something different and there were conference calls with people from CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, which is a non-armed Crisis Response Unit that goes to 20% of calls instead of police, which I think is a great idea. And for a little while, Minneapolis was held up as a model in that they were going to dismantle their police department and do something completely different. What has happened?”
Geo Maher: “Firstly, just to say that CAHOOTS is an amazing group. They’ve done great work and dramatically reduced violent police encounters where they operate, and they’ve done so on a shoestring budget. What would be possible if we took the millions of dollars dedicated to the police and invested in early intervention against violence in communities, in mental health crises? And really deal with those things rather than sending in violence workers.
Minneapolis, in the heat of this mass rebellion, as many people probably know, the majority of the City Council came out said, “Listen, we’re going to dismantle the Minneapolis police.” This was not something that the City Council came to voluntarily. They were forced into this position by pressure from the streets on the one hand, and by the intransigence of the police department on the other. This was a city that had done all of the reforms. Obama was praising Minneapolis. Derek Chauvin was well trained and he still did what police do, which is to be users and deployers of violence against people of color and poor people, in particular.
The Minneapolis City Council had tried to push back on the police. Even the mayor had tried to push back and when they even dared to shift small amounts of funding toward community programs, they were met with absolute blackmail and bullying. People would call 911 and the police would say, “Don’t call us. Call your city officials because they’re trying to cut our funding.” This is the blackmail. This is the kind of protection racket that the police operate. And they do it everywhere.
And what your friend experienced in Santa Cruz is absolutely the norm. It’s not an exception. The open threats, the subtle threats, they’re all part of how police behave. So, Minneapolis City Council said, “Well, we’re going to dismantle the police.” I don’t think many community activists were necessarily certain as to how strong their will was to do this, but they had been pushed into this position by consistent organizing in the streets. What happened immediately was that, as is so often the case with the police, the police have really wormed their way into the heart of our society and built defenses for themselves. To prevent defunding, to prevent dismantling. To make themselves seem essential and institutionally something that can’t be touched. And in this case of Minneapolis, it’s written into the Charter of the City of Minneapolis that they’re required to have a certain number of police per capita. That’s in the basic institutional structure of the city. So, even if the City Council wanted to dismantle the police, they tried to get a ballot measure for late 2020. But this was effectively killed by the Charter Commission, which is an unelected body overseeing the charter. It’s incredibly bizarre. So, this was stalled for many months. Now this has been reformulated as a charter initiative and it will be on the ballot. Hopefully people will come out and vote to dismantle the police and replace it with a new vision of public safety. This is the wording of the proposal.
It’s going to be incredibly difficult. Firstly, because there’s been this counter-attack on the idea of police abolition over the past year. There’s a new panic over violent crime and the perennial insistence that the police are the only solution for that crime. In Philadelphia, where I live for example, there is a very real increase in violent crime. It has nothing to do with police defunding. It has everything to do with COVID and lack of economic and other opportunities. But it’s being leveraged in favor of the police, which is sort of doubly ironic because the police do not prevent crime. They do not prevent violence or help our society become any less violent at all.
So, they’ll need to win that at the ballot. But that’s one of the real difficulties and when the real work emerges. Because the last thing we want is for the Minneapolis police to be dismantled and replaced with new police, with a new force that does exactly the same thing. This is the real difficulty of abolition; as we build abolition in a society that is still racked by white supremacy, racial and economic inequality, is that there will always be someone there to police those inequalities if they exist. Where people are vulnerable – women, children, homeless people and others – there will always be forces to take advantage of those vulnerabilities. The real difficulty is going to be making sure that what replaces the Minneapolis police is not simply another version of the same.”
MAGIC OF POLICE RHETORIC
JM: “Yes. When I spoke with Gina Dent, an abolitionist activist professor here at the University of California in Santa Cruz, she’s reminding me to pay attention to the difference that can be hard to see sometimes between a reform and a non-reform reform. And she pointed out that Michel Foucault had identified the fact that prisons were themselves a reform, which is a little mind blowing. Prisons and police are themselves a reform.”
Geo Maher: “Yes, just like the prison, so too, with the police. The very idea of the penitentiary was seen as this, in some ways, gentler form of isolation that American religious fanatics thought would be helpful to individuals. And we know it’s utterly devastating and destructive psychologically. The police are synonymous with reform; they emerged as a reform. The constant waves of reforms often tried to propose the same things. They call it professionalization but it looks like militarization. They’ve been increasingly structured along the lines of colonial occupying forces elsewhere. And the police argument is always, “We just need more reform and then we’ll be able to finally deliver on what we promised, which is public safety.” Which is never delivered. The magic of police rhetoric is that they can point toward violence, which in theory should be understood as a failure of policing. And they use that to say, “We need more police.” It’s really an astonishing bit of magic. But that doesn’t get us out of the question of how to engage with actual concrete changes and proposals for change in the present. Which is why people are consistently struggling to distinguish between good reforms and bad reforms. And whether we call them reforms is not really the question because they’re transformations, they’re changes. The question is, which of these changes help to strengthen policing in the long run, and which help to weaken them?
The fundamental distinction – there are different people who have put out lists and Mariame Kaba has a great one and Ruth Wilson Gilmore has also talked about these reformist and non-reformist reforms. Or potentially abolitionist reforms. And the question is; do they reduce encounters between people and the police? In other words, do they withdraw the police from communities? And do they reduce the power of the police? These are the real essential parameters. And through that you can distinguish between these reforms. More training means more money in the pocket of the police; it doesn’t help. Body cameras means bigger budgets, more and more millions dedicated to police, even in this case by Obama and the federal government who buy body cameras for the police that don’t help. They do not reduce force and, in some cases, they increase the use of force by police. And there’s so-called community policing. These are all ways that the police leverage reform to get bigger budgets for themselves without actually changing what they do
Things like withdrawing funding from the police – defunding – is a hugely important possibility when it comes to thinking about a change that weakens the power of the police, that withdraws funding from them. At the same time there’s a redeployment of those funds to community organizations like CAHOOTS and others to reduce the basis for police. In other words, they prevent violence and conflicts within communities from becoming violent in a way that would involve the police. Those are absolutely reforms and transformations that we should support, that we need to deepen, because you can also point to those changes and say, “Look, we’ve reduced the police budget by $10 million and guess what? Your life has not gotten worse. It’s gotten better.” You’re building a sense of community. The people intervening in your community to help prevent violence are your neighbors, your community members, and you’re building a fabric. That means that when you run into problems, conflicts or disagreements on the block you don’t need to bring the police in to mediate those. Doing so is a very dangerous phenomenon.”
SELF-DETERMINATION AND POWER
JM: “Would you expand on that a little bit? One of the last chapters in the book is exactly about building communities without police. I read that for a while you were traveling back and forth from Venezuela to Oakland, checking out similarities and differences in how mutual aid community projects work in these different places, how people are dealing with violence. You also mention really great examples of self-created community groups for education, safety, welfare and healthcare like the American Indian Movement, the no-cops-zones in Philadelphia, Copwatch, indigenous restorative justice groups and the Zapatistas. And the Black Panthers are a great example that occurred right here.”
Geo Maher: “Yes, that’s absolutely true. For me, the way I tell it in the book is that I was living in Oakland and doing research and working with movements in Venezuelan grassroots movements. Essentially when the state abandoned them and failed to provide them anything under neoliberal structural adjustment in the 1980s and ‘90s they took matters into their own hands. They were seeing violence, particularly around the drug trade in their communities, in poor neighborhoods in barrios. And they were seeing that the police were not helping. In fact, the police were part of the problem, which is also true here. The police are embedded in organized crime and organized violence. Even when that’s not doing just their regular job of organized violence.
So, people got together with neighbors and chased out the drug dealers and they chased out the police and they started governing themselves. And there are communities that have been self-governed in that way now for thirty or forty years. It was really inspiring for me to see. At the same time, I would then go back to Oakland and realize that the idea that this is a separate and different struggle from what people are undertaking in the United States is kind of absurd. And yet, we don’t think of these things in conjunction with each other. But worldwide, people are fighting for community, self-determination and power. And community self-determination and power are synonymous with a community that does not require the police. One that does not need to call on outside forces – professionals armed – into their community to solve problems. They can do it themselves. There are lots of examples of this.
And here we’re treading on what is admittedly very complex territory, right? Because we’re talking about communities being able to defend themselves. But this is precisely why self-defense is an essential part of anti-colonial struggles, an essential part of Black and Brown struggles in the United States, whether it’s the Brown Berets or the Young Lords or the Black Panther Party, this was a party for self-defense that simultaneously armed itself to resist white supremacist violence by the police and vigilantes, but also the violence within communities. They had a program to walk elders to the bus to make sure they got there safely, so that there was no violence that they were going to undergo in the course of their day. Part of what I want to do in the book is to really, again, foreground the fact that self-defense remains an essential part of abolition because it’s one of the pieces that we don’t talk about that much. We need to be able to defend communities if we’re going to strengthen those communities and build them in a way that doesn’t require the intervention of the police.
I looked at examples in Mexico and Venezuela and street committees and the history of the struggle in South Africa against apartheid. Struggles in Puerto Rico, Northern Ireland. And in all these struggles you see the struggle for self-determination as absolutely bound up with the question of replacing these oppressive outsider police with something different within the community. In the best of cases, it looks democratic. It looks egalitarian and does not reinforce economic, racial, gendered hierarchies, but dismantles them.”
POLICE UPHOLD CAPITALISM
JM: “I’d love to hear more about what brought you to focusing on ending policing. I also wonder about the relationship of U.S. policing to U.S. military interventions internationally. We all wanted the United States to stop bombing children in Afghanistan after twenty years. And last month we watched these terrible images of the authoritarian regime, the Taliban, take over the country. They’re even driving around in U.S. equipment that was left behind. And the people the United States promised, “Hey, if you help us, we’ll sure take care of you.” Many of them were left behind with their families. What I’m thinking about relating to policing is; If the men with guns leave a community and the place falls apart, there was not safety there.”
Geo Maher: “Yes, absolutely. That’s a great question. I’ll answer that piece first. I think you again put your finger on the essential point, which is the fact that there was no safety there. There’s a lot of devastation being unleashed in Afghanistan, but I think it’s essential to remember that the past twenty years have been nothing but devastation for Afghanistan, as well. This liberal narrative that the crisis now begins is absurd, in light of the ongoing grinding crisis, that U.S. imperialism unleashed decades ago; we need to keep that piece at the front of our minds. In part because just like the police, U.S. imperialism does not build community, does not make communities safer, does not help to reinforce those structures that would allow communities to be strong.
This is really an essential part of why I insist in the book on understanding policing as a global phenomenon. It’s deeply embedded within U.S. imperialism. U.S. imperialism and colonialism as a broader global structure are forms of policing. And policing has been designed precisely on the prototype of colonial policing and imperial power. The things that the CIA would develop overseas in terms of counterinsurgency methods were, of course, deployed on radicals in the United States, and vice versa. The technologies have been circulating globally from the very beginning. And there’s no separation really, between domestic policing and foreign policing. And the reason I bring it up is because part of what U.S. policing does is direct imperial intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The other part is the reinforcement and support of domestic police forces. When the U.S. government sends foreign aid somewhere, it insists that the aid be used for policing. Why? Because policing is a form of counterinsurgency that prevents disruptions that would affect U.S. interests. It’s a form of outsourcing; the U.S. Army doesn’t need to be there if it can just plow money into domestic policing that will prevent resistance movements from developing and prevent poor and colonized people from expressing outrage at the conditions they’re suffering.
So, policing is an essential part of this. A good and striking example for me has been the Palestinian police. Palestine is in constant anti-colonial resistance against Israeli settler colonialism and yet, beginning with the Oslo Accords and the development of the Palestine police, the function of the Palestinian police governed by the Palestinian Authority, has been to break up and weaken internal resistance against Israeli settler colonialism. This is what the domestic police piece does. It’s an attack on community, on the ability of those communities to stand unified and strong in the conditions that they are in.
As to the question of where this book came from and how I came to these questions; This book is in some ways late in coming. I’ve been doing anti-police organizing for a long time, for fifteen years at least. A lot of what I say in the book are ideas I’ve thought about for a long time or worked on for a long time or seen tested and practiced through a lot of organizing. And that organizing started around the murder of Oscar Grant. (Jan. 1, 2009 – killed by BART Police) And the mass rebellions that were unleashed in the streets of Oakland as a result, which really set the stage for this escalating cycle of resistance that we are living in today.
I was in an organization called Bring the Ruckus at the time and this is an organization that saw policing as the central key to upholding white supremacy in the United States, and sees white supremacy as the fundamental linchpin to dividing the working class and upholding U.S. capitalism. So, not only is it the case that policing is a monstrous sort of abomination, which it is, but that it plays a fundamental role as the sort of white supremacist glue holding together U.S. capitalist society. And that points to the question of what it is that we do about it.
There’s a kind of optimism I try to maintain toward the end of the book, which is that it seems incredibly daunting that we can’t fight the police without fighting white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy and all these forces at once. It seems like an impossibly large task. But the reality is when you start to push on the police, you’re pushing on the very heart of what upholds those structures in American society. And that’s why you get the reaction. That’s why you get the sort of panic over defunding of police. That’s why you get the sort of howling of police representatives and Fraternal Order of Police leaders on Fox News, because they know the position that they occupy has to be the most absolutely, unquestioned position or this whole apparatus will come falling down. They know that they have these weaknesses. And it is precisely by pushing at the heart of this vast complex that I think we can start to unleash broader chain reactions.
JM: “I wanted to ask you about the word pig. I just don’t use that word for police. So, then I was wondering, “Why don’t I?” Partly, it feels like a word from another time. It’s not a word in the past thirty years I’ve used in my activism, and that I’ve heard very much. I also try to avoid name-calling in general. The title of one chapter in your book is “The Pig Majority” and you quote from a 2015 book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me.” Coates writes, “To challenge the police is to challenge the American people. And the problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs, but that we are majoritarian pigs.” You write, “Police are only serving the interests of the select few, the whitest and wealthiest.” Tell me more about racism in policing and your choice to use the word pig.”
Geo Maher: “I think Coates is using the term to evoke a long history in which the word was given a great symbolic charge, most straightforwardly by the Black Panther Party who thought, “This is like all other political symbols.” The symbol of the police as pig is one that brought an immediate reaction, right? An immediate charge that mobilized a thousand micro-sentiments and feelings about the way that people were living and who was treating them in the way they were being treated.
Part of the question is retaining that charge, that resistance. But also, as you raised, the point of what Coates is saying is that we’re actually just not talking about the police as an institution, we’re talking about the broader structure of policing. We’re talking about the fact that policing and whiteness from the very beginning were almost the same exact thing. They’re basically synonymous. And we’re also talking about the fact that the vast world of police – and that pig majority that I talk about in the book – extends far beyond even white people at this point. It includes and it conscripts Black community leaders and district attorneys, Black police and judges into the process of policing and mass incarceration.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has drawn great and necessary attention to the fact that the mass rebellion in Ferguson was a rebellion against old-style Jim Crow policing of a white city, a white political apparatus; policing and extracting wealth from a Black community. The rebellion in Baltimore was not this. In many ways, it was the opposite. It was a city that’s been Black-governed for a long time, in which multiracial but majority-Black police, district attorneys, city leaders and mayors played a role – and continue to play a role – in this pig majority. This repressive policing apparatus. We need to be able to understand both of those things at once.
None of this is to say by any means that policing is detached from whiteness. What’s happened is that you have many people doing the work of white supremacy. And we know this perfectly well in terms of simply just how the institution of policing works. Despite the fact that every reform proposal argues for diversifying recruitment of police, we know with a level of statistical certainty, that diversifying the police does not help. It doesn’t change how police operate and if anything, officers of color and women also, are pressured to be more violent, aggressive and repressive. Because their function hasn’t changed. They’re out in the streets to do something, which is to protect whiteness and property. And no matter who’s doing that work, it’s the work of that job. So, diversifying the police does not help at all. That’s a microcosm of the broader question; policing is still to this day about upholding whiteness. To this day, about upholding property and wealth. And it doesn’t matter if most of the cops are Black or Brown. The fact is that that is the job description. And that’s what police are doing.”
POLICE DON’T PREVENT CRIME
JM: “I wonder about people who think, “Well, I’ve had an experience where something was taken from me, or I was about to be harmed, and the police came and they found that thing that was stolen, or they stopped temporarily that violence.” I’m also thinking about twenty years ago when we did a series of workshops in Santa Cruz around creating systems for community safety that don’t involve the police. We thought maybe we could set up pagers or an emergency phone number. Or what if there was someone self-designated in every neighborhood that is a point person who has some skills? Or a group of people, some with martial arts skills or more importantly, communication skills. We didn’t get very far. But there were a lot of conversations. And to my first point, one thing that happened during these conversations was around a question that came up; “Would you give up calling the police no matter what’s going on?” And one of the people involved in these conversations said, “I will never call the police. Ever.” And I swear, five years later I ran into them and they happened to be mentioning that their motorcycle was stolen. And they’d called the police. They reasoned, “Well, the police are the people who have the data to find something like a stolen motorcycle.” What do you say to people who say, “The police helped me once?”
Geo Maher: “I think the first thing to say is that that’s an incredibly rare situation. Because I think the vast majority of people you asked, “What is your interaction with the police?” is that, “I was burglarized or I was robbed and I called them and I didn’t get my stuff back.” Because they don’t really do that. And it’s very unlikely that they’ll help. Alex Vitale is very, very good at making this point, the author of “The End of Policing.” When people say, “Why do you need the police?” They say, “I was robbed or I was attacked.” And the first question should always be, “Did the police prevent that from happening?” Because they didn’t. The fact that it happened shows that they didn’t prevent it from happening! So, what is the logic that then allows us to think that in the next instance, the existence of the police will prevent that from happening?
This is built into that broader question of the police simply don’t prevent crime. Statistically speaking, they don’t prevent crime. Statistically speaking, they don’t make society safer. When they went on strike in New York as a sort of ham-fisted protest against the mayor, crime went down. Complaints about violent crime went down because police don’t make any measurable contribution to improving those things.
On the other hand, I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of adopting a sort of moralistic posture; “I will never call the police.” There are structural reasons that people do call the police, sort of in the vein of what you mentioned. If your car gets stolen, your insurance company is going to require some kind of police report. Some things that you can do, for example though, are go into the police station to file the report. Don’t call the police to come into your neighborhood. Don’t invite them into your neighborhood to sort of chase and racially profile people to try to find your car, that they probably won’t find anyway. So, there’s some considerations to bear in mind.
But the bigger question is; we do not have alternatives for people. So, at the same time it’s important to remind people that police do not help the vulnerable. They do not help women. They inflict far more violence on women than they prevent. They engage in far more domestic abuse than any other occupation. They systematically target women on the job in ways that are violent and sexually violent.
It’s worth reminding people that, at the same time, we know that people are going to call the police in a society that’s built on policing. In a society in which we have no other options. But always keeping the reminder out there that maybe it’s not the best option. This points toward the really broader task; what kind of neighborhood structure is best? And you pointed to a good one. It’s what I would call a Rapid Response Network. What would it take for you to build that on your block? So that if something happens, if the police show up, you can let other neighbors know so they keep their eye on them more. So they can make sure they’re safe.
Or more fundamentally and more ambitiously; what would it take to use that structure in a case where there was a domestic dispute? Or in a case where there was a potentially violent disagreement and conflict on the block? So that others can be called. People show up, intervene, and de-escalate the conflict. Because it’s people that you live with. And it’s your community members that understand that everyone’s part of that community. It’s not the police who show up who don’t care whose nephew, son or niece this is, and drag them off to jail. It’s neighbors who understand the importance of engaging people as valuable members of society. That’s the kind of society we need to build.”
ENVISION, IMAGINE & BUILD
JM: “This movement has exploded these last two years worldwide. I’ve never heard so many people all over the world saying, “We need to end policing as it is and create real community safety.” You mentioned earlier that you have an optimism that you present in the book. And I really appreciate that. You quote Ruth Wilson Gilmore and she says, “Abolition requires that we change one thing; everything.” And you say, “A world without police is not a utopia. It is real. And in some sense, it already exists in our families, in our community organizations, in various experiments globally.” So, we already have an instinct towards freedom and mutual aid and caring for ourselves without people aiming guns at us.”
Geo Maher: “Absolutely. And part of the problem is that we’ve been told that a better world, an egalitarian world – a world without police and world without prisons – we’ve been told that’s impossible so many times that it seems unthinkable. But again, these things are only unthinkable until you start to think them. Start to envision them, start to imagine them. And then start to build them.”
JM: “We’ve been convinced from a variety of angles, including psychology and sociology, that people only change their behavior if they’re punished. So that’s the world we live in. And we have developed these systems, really gangs, who inflict that punishment. We just hope we aren’t the ones on the receiving end. So, all of that needs to shift and be dismantled. I appreciate your work and appreciate you making time to speak with me.”
Geo Maher: “You’re welcome. Thanks for your work, too.”
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