Possible Worlds

A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete BY Geo Maher. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 288 pages. $27.
Geo Maher. Photo: Verso

Seventeen months after George Floyd was executed by cops in Minneapolis, sparking the most potent Black liberation uprisings in this country in decades, the city held a vote on the future of its police. Minneapolitans were asked to vote on an amendment that would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety focused on public health solutions. The amendment lost; 56 percent of voters rejected it. All too triumphant headlines followed: this was, we were to understand, a full rebuke of that silly idea that people would want to get rid of the police.

Was it though? The amendment itself was far from a full abolitionist proposal, but it is of note that a staggering 44 percent of voters in a major US city—these were largely young people from Minneapolis’s multiracial neighborhoods—voted against the police. And this was after a full year of procedural delays and continuous media counterinsurgency against the very idea of seeing the police force replaced. The 2020 uprisings may have been crushed and defanged, but the desires of those rebels who brought the streets to life have not been so quickly extinguished.

While a liberal and conservative commentariat has given its all to demonize the idea of defunding the police, calls for a more profound abolition of policing have not been silenced. Political theorist and organizer Geo Maher this year offered an important addition to the growing body of abolitionist literature with A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete. Maher, whose previous work has focused on anticolonial movements and revolutionary change, insists that we understand the violence of US police within the global context of policing, under the shadow of empire. To add an internationalist lens to the already extraordinary task of police abolition in this country may seem daunting; Maher clarifies why such a framework opens the very possibility of a world without police.

NATASHA LENNARD: Can you tell me a little bit about your making of this book? How did it come about and what was the impetus? This is happily not the only recent text calling for police abolition. What do you hope this book can bring to the growing body of literature, which challenges police existence?

GEO MAHER: For me, this book—or at least a book on police abolition—has been a long time coming. I’ve been doing anti-police organizing for almost fifteen years now, but really cut my teeth in the mass rebellions that broke out in Oakland after the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant by Johannes Mehserle. From the very beginning, we understood that the police are not simply bad apples—racist thugs or misogynist bullies—although many certainly are. We saw how they play a central role in patrolling, upholding, and indeed recreating what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “color line” every day. And since race functions as a sort of linchpin holding together capitalist power in the US—preventing unified struggles by the poorest and most dispossessed—we can understand the police as the linchpin of the linchpin.

What this has meant and what it means today is that fighting the police, pushing back their power, is one of the best ways to attack white supremacy and capitalism at the same time, striking at the heart of that broad complex we often call “racial capitalism.” I saw this clearly on the streets of Oakland, when an entire community rose up in struggle and won major victories—not Mehserle’s paltry sentence, although he never would have been arrested or charged without the riots. The real victory was the collective power sharpened in the struggle and the emerging understanding of the police as an adversary.

The hot sparks that Oakland tossed off nationwide influenced later student struggles, inspired Occupy Wall Street, and ensured that Occupy Oakland would be the most pugnacious of the bunch. All of which prefigured the kind of resistance we have seen since in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Minneapolis. So it was in the course of this collective struggle and organizing that the ideas, arguments, and strategies underlying A World Without Police were developed. Since then, we have seen these lessons confirmed and reconfirmed: that abolition is a mass struggle, that attacking the police unleashes far broader struggles, and that as I have put it many times, “riots work.”

While I was writing about these struggles throughout, my earlier books dealt more with Venezuelan grassroots movements, struggles for grassroots power, and the broader dialectics of revolutionary change. At every moment, though, I was constantly thinking about these questions through the lens of my organizing in the US, thinking for example about the resonances between the Black Panther Party in Oakland and armed self-defense militias in Caracas—the two cities I was splitting time between. These resonances are visible in A World Without Police, which views policing as a global structure and understands that poor communities worldwide are organizing to demand the same thing: community power and self-determination.

But if a book about police abolition was inevitable, this particular book could only have been written amid and in the wake of the George Floyd rebellions, as an expression of the escalating cycle of revolt that we have been inhabiting for more than a decade now. It is only as a result of the militant resistance unleashed in the street of Minneapolis and beyond that we are even talking about defunding today, much less the prospect of dismantling the police entirely. The task of any revolutionary text is to try to keep pace with what Marx called the “real movement that abolishes the present state of things,” and to press that abolitionist impulse as far as possible toward the future. I sincerely hope A World Without Police contributes to this most urgent of tasks.

I love the line "if whiteness were a job, it would be the police." Can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by that, and why it's important to understand policing in this way, and indeed whiteness in this way? I think that sentence, and your elaboration of it in the text, gets to the heart of a sticking point in so many bad defenses of policing: (a) the old "but what about more cops of color?" argument; and (b) understanding the historic operation of policing as the (violent) work of labor segmentinga method of capital!

So as usual, it’s back to Du Bois, and to Black Reconstruction in particular. The police—in the broadest sense of the term—are the embodiment of one of the greatest betrayals of American history. After the Civil War, poor southern whites could have sided with their class, building solidarity with formerly enslaved Black people, but instead they chose their race, building an alliance with their class enemies. Thus Radical Reconstruction, which meant greater social equality and for everyone, and even more access to the franchise for poor whites, was destroyed and ex-slaves were driven by force, as Du Bois put it, “back toward slavery.”

This betrayal, for Du Bois, was the supreme tragedy of American history, and the name for that betrayal was the police. Instead of joining Black people in a common struggle against the rich, poor whites chose to police them as Klan members and uniformed police (and often as both), as they previously had done through slave patrols. And in fact, in Du Bois’s analysis, all white people in the South were essentially deputized slavecatchers/police.

Little has changed. Today as then, the police don’t exist to protect and serve all citizens, or even a majority. They exist to uphold economic and racial inequalities. And today as then, the equation whiteness equals policing extends far beyond the institution. Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t killed by the police. Renisha McBride wasn’t killed by the police. Trayvon Martin wasn’t killed by the police. Jordan Davis wasn’t killed by the police. But they were all being overseen and policed when they were killed.

These may seem to be exceptional cases, but every time a white person calls the cops—as in the case of John Crawford III, shot dead while holding a BB gun in an Ohio Walmart—violence is on the agenda. And the same goes for cop-calling gentrifiers and self-deputized neighborhood watch volunteers everywhere. They are deputizing themselves, and they are all at different moments adjuncts and proxies for the police. What all this means is that the problem with the police isn’t the fact that many happen to be white, although this is certainly no accident. It’s that they work to uphold white supremacy and the rule of the rich, and that they do so because it’s what they are hired to do.

Every major police reform proposal of the past century has advocated diversifying police forces, but this flies in the face of both this structural reality and overwhelming statistical evidence that even, and especially, officers of color and women need to be extra racist and extra brutal to prove their ability to do what is an essentially violent job. You can’t diversify this problem away, just as the phenomenon that Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has described as “Black faces in high places” hasn’t even begun to address the broader problems of our white supremacist, capitalist society.

And to follow up on the above, you focus significant attention on the power of police unions and the need to dismantle them. During Occupy, I remember many of us having to deal with people arguing that “the cops are workers, too, part of the 99 percent”! You argue that they are not workers. In what sense do you mean that and why does it matter? I also agree that a lot of people, even those who see the racist violence of policing, don't have a sense of the major role their unions play, and that this fact is useful! It gives us a key part of the institution to take aim at!

The Achilles’ heel of the Occupy movement was always this kind of faux universalism, which claimed to be radically inclusive (inviting even racists and nativists to join the 99 percent) while excluding in practice the most radical demands of poor communities of color (by regularly labeling discussion of race as too “divisive”). In Philadelphia, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey even felt comfortable enough to visit the Occupy encampment for a photo-op. But we shouldn’t forget that Occupy Wall Street was also radicalized precisely in response to the police repression meted out to marchers demanding justice for Troy Davis, executed by the state of Georgia in September 2011, and Occupy Oakland set the pace for other encampments by refusing to allow police to enter at all.

But let’s get to the point: cops aren’t workers. They are agents of repression, uniformed strikebreakers, what George Orwell called the “natural enemy” of the working class. The police were quite literally born from the betrayal of class interests, and so it’s really no surprise that this betrayal has continued and is an essential part of their function. Wherever workers have fought for equality and built solidarity—especially solidarity across racial lines—police have sold them out, attacked them, and leveraged the threat of workers’ movements and white fear to establish a privileged pedestal within the ruling apparatus for themselves.

If police aren’t workers, their so-called unions aren’t unions at all, but glorified Klaverns. In fact, if more people knew what it is that police associations do every day, we would be absolutely outraged. They negotiate binding contracts with local officials that make it almost impossible to hold abusive cops accountable or even rein in police salaries. On the state level they drive through legislation—called Law Enforcement Officers’ Bills of Rights—that further shields cops from the consequences of their actions by granting special privileges not enjoyed by the rest of the public. They enjoy far higher salaries than other public-sector workers, they are exempted from most austerity measures, and crucially, when wages hikes aren’t on the table, they are happy to accept greater impunity in exchange. And nationally, police associations—alongside Border Patrol and ICE—supported Trump wholeheartedly and even pushed him enthusiastically to the right.

Police have no place within a labor movement that is increasingly poor and non-white—the precise demographic targeted by police for abuse—and yet so-called police unions remain a part of most large labor federations. Mike Brown’s mother and his murderer, Darren Wilson, were both union members at the time of his death, leading AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka to say: “Our brother killed our sister’s son.” No other sector of the working class negotiates the right to kill other workers with impunity, but this is exactly what police, and their fake “unions” do every single day.

The legacy of US policing in slave patrols is often, rightly, cited. You also raise the colonial legacy of (international) and US police forces. What is lost if our abolitionism fails to reckon with policing as a colonialist practice, with an ongoing logic of coloniality?

American police, particularly in the South, grew directly out of slave patrols and a broader structure that made all white people slave hunters. This is true, but there are other crucial pieces to the puzzle as well. Many historians point to the simultaneous influence of the so-called London model of modern policing spearheaded by Robert Peel in the early nineteenth century, and while this was crucial, it wasn’t always in the way many assume. As it turns out, Peel built his model of modern policing on the British colonial regiments acting to quash unrest in Ireland. This was no exception, either. Some of the most important figures in US policing did the same, developing a vision for militarized police forces on the model of colonial and imperialist occupations of the Philippines, Haiti, Nicaragua, and elsewhere.

Even today, US imperialist interventions are best understood as a form of policing, and have had a dramatic impact in turn on how insurgent populations within the US are policed in turn. And a central strategy for American intervention abroad consists of subcontracting that policing to domestic police forces whose function is to disarm resistance movements across the Global South before they become a problem for empire. Policing is a deeply colonial phenomenon, and if we neglect this piece, we risk losing sight of the global policing apparatus we confront today, but also—and more importantly—the global scope and breadth of anticolonial resistance to the global police state.

Like Robin D. G. Kelley, you draw attention to the distinction between the police and the broader apparatus of policing (of which the police are "an anchor")and the need to have a world without both. Why does this distinction matter, and why must those involved in the immediate and seemingly Sisyphean task of undoing the modern institution of the police keep it in mind?

Yes, both this distinction and the unity of its two parts are essential for understanding and fighting policing and the police today. What do I mean by that? I mean that we need to both recognize that policing is a broader apparatus that goes far beyond uniformed cops, but also that this apparatus is anchored in the police as a formal institution. It is only by balancing the two pieces that we can grasp the full parameters of the beast we are confronting, training our sights on all aspects of the apparatus while taking special aim at the police as a specific institution.

In practice, this question came to the fore when the strategy of defunding the police hit the mainstream in the wake of the George Floyd rebellions. Many well-meaning critics said, “Yes, let’s defund the police and give that money to social workers and schools.” But the problem is that many social workers and schools have already become functional parts of a broader carceral structure—when it comes to poor communities of color, social workers look more like the police and school look more like prisons every day. So the task, as abolitionist scholars like Dorothy Roberts have argued, isn’t simply to hand police budgets over to heavily policed schools and child protective services, it’s to transform those institutions to make them less carceral in the process.

A world without police and policing means a world without racial capitalism and the nation-state borders that serve it. This appears, of course, as an intimidatingly tall order! And yet you point out the hopeful aperture here: on a global scale, as you write, “resistance to the global police state has always existed, and there have always been more of us than them,” echoing Du Bois’s description of a “dark proletariat.” Yours, then, is a rightful call for capacious, internationalist abolitionism. And we do see those expressions of solidarity, from say, Palestinians holding signs in support of the George Floyd rebellions. How can these affinities further develop, especially given the cruel strictures of border regimes? Where have you been inspired by examples of this?

Abolition can only be, must be, a global struggle. Today, we need to do everything possible to stitch together solidarities across borders, connecting what can sometimes be a US-centric abolitionist framework—grounded in the specificity of chattel slavery and its afterlives—with broader struggles against colonialism, US imperialism, and global white supremacy. We have already seen the way that the George Floyd rebellions sparked movements worldwide that began to topple statues of slavers and colonizers. And we have seen this emerging global majority in the solidarity expressed between Black Lives Matter organizers, Palestinians, Indigenous struggles like #NoDAPL, and the unification of calls to abolish the police with calls to abolish the border.

Here, the border deserves special attention, as the threshold between the US and the world. But this has been a threshold that has been in constant motion historically, and whose motion is also synonymous with the police. It was white supremacist, colonial policing that pushed the border westward and toward the south, dispossessing Indigenous populations as white settler-police (later formalized as the Texas Rangers) invaded Texas and provoked a war of annexation that stole northern Mexico and forced Tejanos off their land.

You mentioned labor segmentation, and just as racism functions to divide the working class domestically—a sort of internal border—the physical border does the same today externally, driving down wages and strengthening the hand of the bosses to the detriment of all workers, Black, Brown, and white. In the past, abolitionists had to combat the myth that free slaves would be competition for white workers when it was the system of slavery that most harmed all workers by driving wages through the floor. This was a myth, of course, that the rich are happy to perpetuate, and the same goes for the border today. Trump, Bannon and others insist that the border protects American workers from global competition, but that simply isn’t what borders do.

Borders chop the working class into ever smaller pieces and border enforcement gives the bosses the leverage necessary to intimidate migrant workers into settling for less. Which is why we can’t talk about abolishing the police without abolishing border policing—ICE and Border Patrol—and about abolishing the border itself.

Natasha Lennard is the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life (Verso, 2019).