Police killings have reached a shameful apex this week, the highest number in one week in an already-murderous year. How can we begin to comprehend a world where Americans will apparently express more disgust towards Colin Kaepernick than the police who shot Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, or even the system that enables those officer to escape without impunity?
I grabbed Policing the Planet during a recent Verso ebook sale, along with about 10 others. Just having finished it, however, I’ve been kicking myself for not having read it before. Not since Audrey Farrel’s Crime, Class and Corruption, have I had the chance to read something that is so incisive in exposing the brittle, crumbly core of policing. Whilst not surprising, it appears that much of the strength of the politics is rooted in the fact that the principal contributors are themselves active members of struggles against police violence, whether in Ferguson, LA, Albuquerque or New York.
A collection of essays and interviews, centred around charting the changes to policing tactics under neoliberalism, Policing the Planet is remarkably successful in connecting the specific to the general. Where reading about the application of Gramscian ideas of good and common sense, in relation to indigenous campaigning against the effects of US colonialism, sits comfortably, and in complement to, an analysis of the contradictory role played by queer gentrification in Manhattan.
Broken windows policing, an almost pop-psychology theory that relies heavily on de-contextualised understandings of crime as cultural expression, is torn apart. Which is itself important, because the theory has purchase, enabled by an abstraction of what it is from what it means, but also due to the fact that the principal victims of the kind of crime Broken Windows focuses on are people of colour in working class neighbourhoods. (It really goes without saying that white collar crimes, embezzlement, fraud and environmental catastrophe, are not the focus of Broken Windows policing.) But then there is no utopianism about any potential style of policing, community or otherwise. By tracing the role and origin of broken windows policing, the authors and contributors are able to attack something far more intrinsic to neoliberal common sense: the basis for policing in the first place.
The collection encourages us not just to realise the flaws of a goal like police wearing body cameras, but to explore the reasons why such inadequate goals are considered legitimate debate. Why does neoliberal ‘good sense’ invite us to accept and excuse racialized killings? This becomes pertinent to debates in the UK when we ask, why is the response to activists who, rightly, challenge police violence a variation on “but we’re so much better than the US”? And why does our disavowal of violence have to begin when lives are lost, when those deaths are overwhelmingly the final chapter of a lifetime of daily violence from the state?
Neoliberalism, which one contributor dubs the statist anti-statism, is clearly characterised by its expansion of police militarisation, funding and staffing. The reply to that, from a British perspective, may be to highlight police cuts, especially under May’s term as home secretary. Doesn’t this demonstrate the possibility of a kinder, gentler policing, even under neoliberalism? Yet, this is where the other, complementary, trend in policing is equally relevant – the expansion of policing into other sectors of the state, education, healthcare, social work, and obviously migration. The incorporation of teachers, doctors, opticians, into the security state, achieved primarily through the Prevent agenda, is a kind of weaponization of daily life.
What Policing the Planet leaves you with is the distinct impression that, across different struggles, a new ‘good sense’ is evolving. One that has bypassed liberalism, and which seeks the kind of justice that can only be achieved beyond capitalism. The crisis in policing, it seems, is an embedded crisis of neoliberal social reproduction. In a world where the law is being increasingly fashioned towards punishing people for poverty, and where an expanding, precarious working class is ever-more racialized, policing can have little function other than to perpetuate those injustices.