Transcribed from the 23 August 2021 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
Abolition and reconstruction must always go hand in hand. There always needs to be something else being built as the old institutions are being torn down.
Chuck Mertz: Police defend laws that enforce injustice and impose growing inequality and poverty, leaving the citizenry with no platform to redress their grievances other than taking their movement to the streets. Law enforcement and supposed law and order politics cause chaos, disorder, violence, and death in defense of the wealthy at everyone else’s expense.
Here to help us understand why police abolition is necessary, Geo Maher returns to This is Hell!. He is the author of the book A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete.
Welcome back to This is Hell!, Geo.
Geo Maher: Hey Chuck, so glad to be back on.
CM: You describe the burning of Minneapolis’s third police precinct on May 28, 2020 by citizens protesting the police killing of George Floyd. You write of this kind of response by the public: “To burn a building or a car is, like the riot itself, a form of communication. Too often, however, the enemy is out of reach so fires are lit for attention, to grab the headlines, or quite simply because nothing else has worked; a desperate bid to puncture the barrier between those who are and are not heard; those who matter and those who don’t.”
You say it’s a form of communication, but the media, the police, and the government will all call this violence, not communication. Why, in your opinion, is the burning of the third precinct better understood as a form of communication rather than an act of violence?
GM: We need to understand the function of riotous street protests and rebellion in not only US history but global history. This is one of the most important forms of resistance, and yet it’s one that is systematically dismissed as somehow irrational and destructive. The whole thing is really absurd—what else do we know about the burning of the third precinct? The majority of Americans polled in the aftermath supported the act. They said it was a reasonable response. Why? Because it was a direct and mechanical response to the murder of George Floyd. That made something very clear, despite the ideological obfuscations of the media, despite the fact that all we hear when there’s mass resistance in the streets is that it is irrational, it doesn’t accomplish anything, and instead we should do more “productive” things like appealing to the conscience of political leaders, asking nicely for change and equality, for an end to police brutality and police murder of Black and Brown people—which of course accomplishes nothing.
Despite the fact that the media and political talking heads insist that rebelling in the streets is irrational, it’s proven to be one of the most rational forms of resistance. It’s not the end-all be-all of social change, but it’s almost always the very first step.
CM: If the burning was because nothing else had worked, to what extent was the destruction of the third precinct due to a failure of democracy, that the people were not given an avenue to redress their grievances?
GM: This is a systematic phenomenon. Very few of us think we live in a democracy where the will of the people is directly reflected in political leadership, and there are moments when this becomes so gallingly and insultingly clear that people realize that something else needs to be done. That’s exactly what happened on that night.
Again, US history is punctuated with this because we live in a deeply white supremacist society that has always proclaimed equality and yet is built on not only labor extraction from poor people of color in particular, but also on the systematic dispossession of Indigenous people and continued and ongoing brutality. When we’re talking about abolition, we’re talking about a reference point in the abolition of slavery. Abolition and reconstruction must always go hand in hand. There always needs to be something else being built as the old institutions are being torn down.
After the civil war, that kind of building was blocked by white supremacist violence, by the Klan. Instead we see the replacement of old institutions with the expansion of racialization of crime and mass incarceration—giving us the society we have today. Instead of real abolition and real reconstruction we got police and prison, which is why abolitionists continue to fight today.
CM: Why is it that protesting the police leads to so many places that can share common ground?
GM: What is it the police do? Here we need to be very careful, because the liberal story is what many of us were taught: that the police protect and serve, that they exist to uphold law and order, that they produce something called “public safety.” Not only is that a lie in practice, but it’s a lie in the origins of police and their function, what they were actually designed to do.
Once we reorient our understanding and grasp the fact that the police were established to uphold the power of wealth and whiteness, then we can begin to look a little differently on those claims and what we’re doing to resist them. Throughout history this has been the case. Many people have probably heard the origin story of US police being in slave patrols, informal committees established to capture escaped slaves and, in the aftermath of slavery, to police Black people and freed formerly enslaved people.
Alongside that we have the function of police in the north—and this is more of a global story as well—to protect wealth. When there are wealthy people, and when there are vast wealth inequalities, there are going to be scared rich people and there will be poor people who are willing to engage in criminal activity to get a piece of that—especially when they’re starving, especially when they’re systematically dispossessed.
This is what the police do: they police the boundaries of wealth; they protect the wealthy. And they protect those who claim the privilege attributed to whiteness. As long as we’ve got that society, that’s what they do. That’s why protests that have broken out against the police have taken so many different forms, now and historically. Because the police are strikebreakers. They destroy workers’ movements. They destroy any effort by the poor to build a different kind of society. They destroy leftwing movements, socialist movements, communist movements, anarchist movements, and they systematically destroy any attempt by communities of color and colonized populations, whether in the US or abroad, to get together, build power, and make substantive demands on the system.
That’s why struggles against police are so unifying. There are many different reasons people plug into these struggles, because of what the police do and how central their role is to modern society.
We need to take seriously the question of so-called police unions, because they are are the spearhead of police power. They need to be dismantled, resisted, abolished, destroyed, annihilated. These organizations represent the most fascistic element of US society.
CM: Why do the police oppose unions? After all, with fraternal orders of police—that’s where all their political power is, within their own labor organizing. So why do the police oppose unions if they understand that their power is within their own union?
GM: We need to turn that inside out. This conversation is very important; it’s a debate that needs to be had on the left. There are differing opinions on these questions, and we need to be absolutely clear that the police are against unions, and that their so-called unions are nothing of the sort. These are organizations of strikebreakers whose mission and interests lay in destroying working class movements and movements of poor communities of color. That is not compatible with union solidarity. That is not compatible with a strong, global, multiracial working class.
We need to be clear about that right out of the gate. There are a lot of people who say if we justify attacks on police unions we justify attacks on teachers unions and other public sector unions. This is absurd. These are not the same thing. They are not the same thing in their history, during which police organizations traded the right to strike for a stable position upholding the status quo. They don’t oppose the status quo in favor of a more egalitarian society. They gave up that right in order to play a role in upholding and stabilizing the status quo and preventing the kind of change that other workers are demanding.
As a result of this, so-called police unions, often called “benevolent societies” or “fraternal orders,” are uniformly rightwing. They are uniformly conservative. They point toward a political horizon that is one of enforced hierarchy, enforced inequality, and obedience to the law, even though they break it all the time.
CM: How far would abolishing police unions go towards reforming the police to a point where we don’t have to have police abolition?
GM: If we’re thinking about the two parts of abolition—namely, dismantling the police as an institution and building a different kind of society—the hinge of that is attacking the root of police power, breaking that power. This is why we need to take seriously the question of so-called police unions, because they are are the spearhead of police power. They need to be dismantled, resisted, abolished, destroyed, annihilated. These organizations represent the most fascistic element of US society.
Police power is not a static thing. It’s not stable throughout history. It is an expanding force. Policing does not simply reflect the society but reshapes it. Police unions play a huge role in this. They are the spearhead of pushing police power further. In practice, this means enforcing impunity: making it almost impossible to hold police accountable for the violence they inflict on society. They do this through local negotiations with city administrations, binding arbitration; they do it on the state level by forcing what they call “law enforcement officer bills of rights” which are special rights.
As a society that believes in one person one vote, equal rights, due process, why are we giving police special rights to not be held to the same standards of other people in society? You’d think it would be the opposite. These are people walking around with guns, legally allowed to use violence—they should be held to a higher standard. Instead they have a special layer of protection that prevents them from being held accountable.
On a federal level they are trying to do the same—and they’re pushing the broader narrative of the far right. This is why police unions (and also the ICE union, and the border patrol union) endorsed Trump the first time around, and have re-upped that support enthusiastically. And they demanded that Trump engage in a whole range of policy transformations that have nothing to do with policing. The police unions were demanding tightening the blockade on Cuba. Why? Because they are rightwingers. They are fascists, and this is the kind of world that they want to build.
Destroying police unions is absolutely essential. It is not the end of the road. Because once we’ve broken that power, we need to continue to struggle to establish a new form of existence—which is precisely what we’re talking about when we’re talking about abolition.
CM: Do you think police unions pushed the Trump administration farther to the right?
GM: They were one of his most loyal bases of support. They reflect the far right of the far right. We can see this in their policy platforms; we can see it in the demands that they make. That’s why it’s doubly galling that mainstream labor unions bend over backwards to keep them in the federations: they push the entire labor movement to the right. They are a rightwing force within the labor movement, a sort of fifth column of fascism in labor.
They need to be expelled from these federations, but part of the reason that unions resist this is that they don’t want to lose any more power, they’re already losing so much. Absolutely true. That’s understandable on a certain level. But how many communities of color, workers of color, low income workers are being chased away by the fact that their union has loud voices for so-called law and order and for policing? Re-envisioning and aggressively pursuing a multiracial global labor movement—we’re talking about a vast majority of poor workers of color—would mean getting rid of police unions and charting a progressive course that would welcome in millions more workers.
CM: You remind us that George Floyd was hardly the first Black person killed recently by Minneapolis police. You write, “It still came as a shock when city council president Lisa Bender tweeted dramatically on June 4: ‘We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis police department and replace it with a transformative new model of public safety.’ Flanked by councilors Jeremiah Ellison and Alondra Cano, Bender soon unveiled a veto-proof majority promising to make good on the plan. Cano had seen police reform in practice, had heard the department lauded by Obama’s police reform czars—and it still came to this: Minneapolis police department officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck.”
To you, what explains why the MPD was being lauded by Obama’s police reform czars yet post-reform there are still police killings like those of George Floyd, Philando Castile, and back in 2015, when Obama was still in office, the police killing of Jamar Clark? How can these “reformed” police departments be lauded and still violent, even deadly?
The police are not mental health first responders. They should not be. They are not equipped to deal with these kinds of crises, and they bring one tool to the job, which is violence.
GM: Because reform is a joke. I would say police reform is meaningless, but unfortunately that’s not even true. It has an incredibly significant meaning. Police reform is the fundamental way that the police cleanse their image, justify their role, and claim to be getting better at what they do, when we know that’s not true.
Police reform is as old as the police. Immediately on the establishment of the police they were already being reformed. Why? Because they were corrupt. They were violent. They were engaging in torture already (which we know they still do, in Chicago in particular). Nothing has changed really, fundamentally, though there have been these waves of reform—the 1920s and 30s, the 1960s. Every time there are movements in the streets demanding better, there is the same menu of useless reforms, and they accomplish nothing.
At worst, reforms are absolutely counterproductive. So-called “community policing” is the infiltration of communities by police and the destruction of those communities, the weakening of their power. There are technological reforms such as “less lethal” weapons, which we know are incredibly lethal. In the the present there are body cameras, which do not prevent police violence—they do not even decrease police violence. There are statistical analyses showing an increase in police use of force because they’re pretty sure that the camera pointing out of their chest will give them an alibi in court and prevent them from being held accountable.
These reforms change nothing. It’s the systematic way that the police and their political patrons justify what they do. They say, “This time the reform is going to work.” If we’re talking about rationality versus irrationality, what could be more irrational than systematically doing something that has always failed? Supporting policing when we know policing doesn’t work, when we know it doesn’t make communities safer? Promising, every time that reform is on the table, that this time it’ll be different?
CM: You write, “As rolling protests continued across Minneapolis last year, an evacuated 136-room Sheraton hotel was quickly commandeered by organizers and transformed into a sort of self-managed commune staffed by volunteers to house local homeless residents. The Share-A-Ton was but one part of a broader ecosystem of mutual aid that sprang up across Minneapolis during the George Floyd rebellions, providing a glimpse of the new forms of life that could be possible, will be possible, once the old are obsolete.”
The media focus was on vandalism they called violence and looting, as well as the violence between protesters and police. What do we miss in the debate over police abolition and alternatives to policing when we are not aware of what you call a broader ecosystem of mutual aid that sprang up across Minneapolis? Because those were not the reports that they were showing on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, or any of the major networks.
GM: I like to say that we all know what a world without police looks like. When we have a conflict with our neighbors, or a conflict with family members, our first resort is not to call the police to stop the problem. We talk. We talk it out, we hash it out, we deescalate conflict before it becomes violent, we engage in a whole range of behaviors that somehow don’t apply when we’re thinking on a macro scale, when we’re thinking of cities. Especially for white rural residents who are scared of cities: they couldn’t possibly imagine that something like what they themselves practice every day could apply to these dangerous places known as cities.
We don’t know, on top of that, that this entire ecosystem has existed for decades (and of course longer in many cases). There have been a whole range of crisis intervention organizations: organizations like rape crisis centers that prevent and protect women from assault, organizations that seek to provide youth with alternatives, and just community centers as we know them. On top of that, there is a whole range of organizations that have directly sought to push back on mass incarceration and the criminalization of youth of color, and to create alternatives to incarceration. All of these have existed. Particularly in the aftermath of the George Floyd rebellions, which have put abolition onto an unprecedented public pedestal for consideration, what we need to do is stitch this all together.
At the local level, this means getting together with your neighbors, establishing a communication network so that if the police enter the community you can make sure that people have their eyes on them to make sure there’s no police violence, harassment, and brutality in your community—and also so if there’s an intra-community conflict between neighbors, between family members, this doesn’t escalate to the level at which police are brought in.
Shortly after George Floyd was killed, in the midst of the rebellions, just down the block from where I live, Walter Wallace, a young man who was having a mental health crisis, was shot and killed by Philadelphia police. This is not anything new, at all. But it was a striking example: yes, he was having a mental health crisis; no, the police are not mental health first responders. They should not be. They are not equipped to deal with these kinds of crises, and they bring one tool to the job, which is violence. His neighbors may have been worried. His mother was there trying to deescalate the situation. But no one wanted the police there to intervene and use lethal force, which is what they eventually did.
We know how to build this world. It’s a question of will; it’s a question of building on the experiments that already exist.
CM: You write, “White supremacy never goes quietly. However, the brutal repression and militarized force that police unleashed on protests nationwide only seemed to confirm what their critics had been saying all along. And the uptick in attacks by armed vigilantes only drove home the complicity between institutionalized policing and extra-institutional white supremacist terror.”
Does this mean police violence will continue to increase as the police abolition movement moves forward? Is worse police violence inevitable as white supremacy continues to be increasingly challenged? And what happens when the police are abolished? What happens when that force of people who have all of this training and know how to use weapons—what happens when they are abolished?
GM: Those are great questions. Looking at the entire constellation, unfortunately I think it’s likely that this sort of flailing police violence will continue. This is the way things often play out. There is, on the one hand, some level of political will to at least conceal police violence, to reduce the most overt manifestations of it. But this produces in police forces a kind of resentment, a defensiveness, which we see playing out in incredibly violent ways. It reinforces the bond between policing and the far right, which has already been a historic and a systematic bond. And police are becoming more aggressively rightwing and racist, to the point where political leaders can’t even keep up with it. Not that they’re trying very hard—but in Philadelphia there was a wave of firings of police officers who had posted racist, white supremacist things online, and that’s going to continue. Those relationships will only become deeper.
The hope is that as we push for police abolition, the countervailing tendency will kick in: the police become more worried and more subject to whatever oversight we can enforce on them. But again, this is all transitional towards the moment we can really dismantle policing.
When other countries have tried to purge their police forces of the worst and most violent actors, they go on to integrate themselves directly into organized violence of a different kind: organized crime and other types of activities. That’s something we need to be incredibly aware of.
Again, what does that mean? The phrase “defunding,” although it’s been used in misleading ways by city officials in particular, is a way to talk about withdrawing millions in funding from what the police do every day that does not make us safer—take those millions of dollars and put them into alternatives. This is where people have a hard time grasping defunding, and certainly abolition. The idea is that there’s nothing to substitute the police.
There’s always something. People, despite everything, have been building alternatives every single day in their communities, because police don’t work, and government intervention has not helped on that level, and something else needs to happen. What happens when you take those millions of dollars and build community alternatives, and establish community networks and community intervention teams that prevent violence before it happens? This is what we’re talking about.
Your last question, though, is a difficult one that we need to grapple with. In the book, I take a global perspective. When we look at places in Latin America, for example, where there has been counterinsurgency warfare, or in Mexico where there has been mass narco-warfare, we’re left with an entire population of people who are trained to use violence for their own gain. That’s what the police are in the United States as well. The danger exists—and we’ve seen this elsewhere—of decommissioned police. When other countries have tried to purge their police forces of the worst and most violent actors, they go on to integrate themselves directly into organized violence of a different kind: organized crime and other types of activities. That’s something we need to be incredibly aware of.
It’s going to take a great deal of struggle, of organizing, of the development of alternatives, to deprogram people who have otherwise been programmed to engage in violence.
CM: You point out that “Police are more than just a gang, however: policing is a racket. It’s not merely a metaphor. The sociologist Charles Tilly famously argued that warmaking and statemaking can be viewed as protection rackets that meet all the criteria of organized crime. A racketeer offers protection from violence which they themselves threaten to unleash if their victims do not pay up; Tilly argues that governments do much the same. The only difference, Tilly concludes, is that governments do so under the cover of the law.”
Are police, then, and the state, an accurate reflection of what the government truly is? A legal racket of intimidation and violence? And how do we better understand our relationship with the police and the state when they are just a legal racket of intimidation and violence?
GM: I hope people don’t take this as a metaphor. It’s quite literally not a metaphor. Police union leaders will say this straightforwardly: “You want to defund the police? Just wait until you need them. Just wait until you see what happens to you.” They threaten that violence will come down on you and they won’t be there to help. This is literally what a racket does, especially when they themselves are engaged in that violence. I wish this were a metaphor. But we have so many examples nationwide of when city officials or the people begin to criticize the police, and we see what happens.
In Minneapolis just a few years ago, prior to George Floyd, there was talk of clipping the police’s wings just a little bit, really small modifications of funding. And when business owners called the police, they were told, “Don’t talk to us about it if you need help, talk to city leaders.” This is exactly what a racket does. This is exactly what a strong-arming campaign does. What policing does in general is a macro version of this. They say, “Just give us this many more millions of dollars for weaponry, and we will finally fulfill the promise of making you safe,” when we know that not to be the case at all.
Yes, the police do reflect the broader parameters of society in that sense. But we do need to understand that they represent a specifically fascistic and concentrated element of that. They are not just the guardians of the state, they’re the spearhead of a new kind of society that they’re constantly trying to build, which is a society that veers toward the right, a society of blind respect for authority, a society of white supremacy and economic inequality—what we could call a corporatist society, where the police violently mediate (and make sure no one questions) these inequalities.
The police do reflect all of the pro-capitalist, white supremacist foundations of the government, but they also often enter into conflict with local political leaders because what they’re demanding is more radical still.
CM: You ask, “What explains such close collaboration, even complicity, between law enforcement and the far right, especially white supremacists? The assumption is often that white supremacists have infiltrated police departments. While this is certainly true on some level, it neglects the historical functioning of policing and the ideology it produces. According to the Center for the Analysis of the Radical Right, the presence of white supremacists in law enforcement has reached epidemic levels, but not due to infiltration from the outside. Instead, as we’ve seen, ‘Links between the police and organized racism are as old as the institutions themselves, and police forces have been breeding grounds for far right ideology for decades.’”
We spoke with former undercover FBI agent Mike German about how he infiltrated white supremacist groups and saw so many police involved. Have the police not been infiltrated by white supremacist organizations, but are white supremacist organizations that foster and protect white supremacy? Does policing attract white supremacists, or does it make white supremacists?
GM: It does both of those things. It should be no surprise that it’s able to do both. It you’re a white supremacist bully and you need a job, what else is better suited to your concerns? Every element of policing produces this. It produces a bully-ish authority. Police are trained to save their own lives and take no risks, despite what they say about protecting and serving. They are protecting themselves. And every time there is criticism of police power, it creates a resentment that fuels the far right.
Of course police develop deeply racist views through their training, through their acculturation, and through their street practice, because they are sent into communities to oppress poor communities of color. It’s a big machine for producing white supremacy. If we look at an even longer historical perspective, there’s never really any separation between police and lynch mobs. It’s very difficult to determine what the difference was. One might have worn a badge, but all the off duty cops were at the lynch mob anyway. The complicity historically has always been there.
CM: You write, “A world without police is not a utopia. It is real. In some sense it already exists. It is all around us, from our families, blocks, and community organizations to broader experiments across the globe and the powerful wave of abolitionist struggle that surged forward to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, a real lasting justice in which we keep us safe.”
How is a family a world without police? And how can we take the existence of that familial world, our unpoliced family life, to the world writ large?
GM: We should be real about the fact that it’s not all families. It’s a metaphor, thinking about how we deal with people we love and trust, who we feel that we’re in community with—the question of family is often much larger than simply biological, or “nuclear.”
The world of police is a world in which we confront and respond to every problem and every conflict with police. The police are handed to us as the single instrument for solving social problems—social inequality, a lack of mental healthcare, a lack of after school activities and sports activities for youth. And the police will actually tell you this. They’ll say, “Listen, they put us out on the streets to solve problems that are not of our own making.” Now, they don’t say so in a sympathetic way, but they’re speaking a truth when they say that. Policing is seen as the one-size-fits-all response to social conflicts and inequalities.
The way I understand it, family is much different than that. When you have a problem, you talk about it. You work it out, you intervene. That might make it sound a little too Pollyanna, but there are organizations on the ground, like MASK [Mothers Against Senseless Killings] in Chicago, that are regularly intervening in conflict before it happens. That is an incredibly dangerous job, and there are people who suffer the consequences of trying to do that work. But community members, after all, are not the Clintonite myth of the super-predator, they are people’s nephews and nieces and children and cousins, they are people who are part of communities, who in the best of cases are able to be fully integrated into the nonviolent functioning of those communities if given the opportunity.
It’s a question of giving those opportunities. On the one hand it’s building a different kind of society by funding alternatives, but it’s also allowing communities themselves to intervene in trying to cut off conflict at the knees before it becomes violent. This is incredibly effective. It’s been proven effective. It’s one of the many effective strategies that we see developing today. It’s something that simply needs to be expanded.
At the same time there are mayors like Lori Lightfoot in Chicago saying they’re going to do something about the police, and then they give community organizations like MASK a tiny fraction, one one-hundredth, at best, of what the police are given. The question of defunding is how to flip that equation. How can we give early intervention and crisis intervention organizations more funding than the police and see what they can do with it? The police are squandering that money and making us less safe in the process.
CM: Thank you so much for being back on our show.
GM: Thanks so much, Chuck, it’s great to be on.
Featured image: MPD being MPD, violently failing to evict a well-defended homeless encampment in March 2021. Source: MNUPRISING (Twitter) via Daily Dot