Permanent War

Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter edited by Christina Heatherton and Jordan T. Camp. Verso. 320 pages. $19.
Cover of Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter

The protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder displaced Israel’s war on Gaza in the twenty-four-hour news cycle. It wasn’t Brown’s death that was deemed newsworthy but the “riots” that followed. And it wasn’t the mere existence of protesters that made Ferguson an international story; it was the fact that the people who took to the streets faced down police with riot gear, rubber bullets, armored personnel carriers, semiautomatic weapons, and a dehumanizing policy designed to contain and silence. To the world at large, Ferguson looked like a war zone because the police looked like the military. For Black residents of Ferguson and St. Louis proper, as well as ghetto communities across the country, it was already a war zone—hence Mike Brown’s and Dorian Johnson’s initial trepidation in the face of police officers. Suddenly critics and pundits who had little to say about the killing of Black and Brown people by the police were indignant about the hardware, the AR-15s, the armored personnel carriers, the helmets and flak jackets.

Activists wasted no time in drawing the obvious connections between Israeli state violence in the name of security and US state violence, from drone strikes abroad to domestic police killings. They exposed the role that Israeli companies and security forces have played in arming and training US police departments and issued solidarity statements, including advice on how best to deal with tear gas, regarding the protesters in Ferguson and in New York City following the NYPD killing of Eric Garner. By recognizing the US and Israeli security states not as exceptional but as part of a global, neoliberal racial regime firmly rooted in the history of settler colonialism, we see some revealing parallels and relationships. Like Operation Ghetto Storm, or Brazil’s Pacifying Police Units waging war on poor Black favela residents, the consequences for the ruled ought not to be measured merely by the destructive force of American-made F-15s, cluster bombs, and white phosphorous, but also by the everyday routine of occupation: unemployment, poverty, insecurity, precarity, illegal settlements, state-sanctioned theft of water and land, destruction of local economies and agriculture, a racially defined security regime, the effects of permanent refugee existence.

Our militarized culture places cops and soldiers on pedestals and frames their actions as “security” or as acts of self-defense. Police are in the streets to protect “citizens” from out-of control (Black and Brown) criminals. This is why in virtually every case involving an unarmed person shot by police, the victim is depicted as an assailant. Living under occupation means enduring a permanent war in which virtually all civilians are deemed combatants and collective punishment is the fabric of everyday life. In Mike Brown’s hometown, this takes the form of routine stops and fines for noise ordinance violations (e.g., playing loud music), fare-hopping on St. Louis’s light rail system, uncut grass or unkempt property, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” an expired driver’s license or registration, “disturbing the peace,” or merely walking in the middle of the street. Unpaid fines or tickets often result in jail time, having to pay inordinate sums to bail bondsmen, losing one’s car or other pieces of property, and losing one’s children to social services.

The point here is not just to punish Black communities but to mark them, to create a record of “criminal behavior,” to transform them from citizens to thugs. As soon as protesters gathered on Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, to demand answers, reactionary bloggers, police officers, and even mainstream media were quick to label Michael Brown a “thug.” When the Ferguson Police Department decided to release footage of Brown wrestling a store clerk over a pack of cigarillos, it only confirmed his criminality.

Criminalization is to be subjected to regulation, containment, surveillance, and punishment, but deemed unworthy of protection. Those targeted by the state are not rights-bearing individuals to be protected but criminals poised to violate the law who thus require vigilant watch—not unlike prisoners. In lieu of habeas corpus, terms like “thug” and “hoodlum” are used to differentiate the criminal element from the good Negroes, thus closing off the possibility of empathy with those who may have broken the law. Decriminalizing Blackness, in other words, occurs not in the court of law but in the court of public opinion. It requires proving that one is not a thug—that is, by portraying the Mike Browns and Trayvon Martins of the world as the undeserving dead, rendering them good kids, college-bound, honor students, sweet, as if their character is the only possible evidence that exists of their innocence.

“Thug” works to both criminalize and dehumanize the dispossessed while masking the violent operations of the state and capital: criminal neglect by landlords and city officials; rampant fraud (from mortgage brokers and loan companies to insurance firms and bail bondsmen); unwarranted price hikes for commodities, rent, and services; and the daily violation of human rights—in short, the actual source of thuggery. President Obama dismissed the uprising in Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death as the handiwork of “thugs and criminals.” Of course, in times of civil unrest, distinguishing thugs from the “community” is an old tactic that serves to delegitimize grievances expressed by those whom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the unheard.” Once expressions of anger, pain, even euphoria, become criminal acts, the citizen becomes the perpetrator. And the perpetrator’s intentions are always self-evident. Following the April 1968 riots in Baltimore, the Maryland Crime Investigation Committee report observed, “Many hoodlums, who neither knew nor cared about Dr. Martin Luther King, or have interest in the fate of an opposed minority, concealed their criminal acts during the holocaust under the guise of protest against injustices.”

Black people are also made to pay for the very system that renders them non-persons. As we learned long before the Justice Department issued its report on Ferguson, summons and warrants are used as a kind of racial tax, a direct extraction of surplus by the state that produces nothing but discipline and terror and the reproduction of the state—in other words, revenue by primitive accumulation. In 2013, Ferguson’s municipal court issued nearly 33,000 arrest warrants to a population of just over 21,000, generating about $2.6 million dollars in income for the municipality. That same year, the St. Louis county and city municipal courts acquired more than $61 million in fines and fees, accounting for almost half of all fines and fees collected by the municipal courts throughout the state. The top twenty-one “collectors” were municipalities that generated at least one-third of their revenue from court fines and fees, where, on average, 62 percent of the residents were Black and 22 percent lived below the poverty line.

Yet talk of “Black-on-Black” homicides, sagging pants, and teen pregnancies almost always dislodges the focus from state violence. This classic bait and switch forecloses a deeper interrogation of the ways that state violence manifests in neoliberal policies (for example, in the erosion of the public safety net and the privatization of necessary services such as health care and transportation—that is to say, policies rendered logical under a racist security regime and that produce scarcity, environmental and health hazards, poverty, and alternative economies rooted in violence and subjugation). The prime target of neoliberal violence has been our youth, our children. Let’s not forget that Kalief Browder, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Ayana Stanley-Jones, and others were children when the bullet, the jail, or the prison took their lives.

We see the consequences of neoliberalism in the laws that make it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults, in the deluge of zero-tolerance policies that mandate unconditional expulsion of students for possession of any weapons or drugs or other violations on or around school grounds, in the startling rise of expulsions and suspensions. Problems that were once handled by teachers, principals, and parents are now remanded to juvenile and criminal courts and the police. Crisis, moral panics, neoliberal policies, and racism fuel an expansive system of human management based on incarceration, surveillance, containment, pacification, lethal occupation, and gross misrepresentation. The toxic mix of privatization, free-market ideology, and a “punitive state” come together in our schools. Those who survive the school of “discipline and punish” and high stakes testing are faced with increasingly narrow opportunities for higher learning and social advancement. Mike Brown is a perfect example. He was, after all, “college-bound,” a fact cited as evidence that his death was unwarranted and that he was a victim of misrecognition. But what did “college-bound” mean for Brown?

He graduated from a high school in the Normandy school district, one of the poorest, most racially segregated districts in the state that had ranked last in overall academic performance and had just lost its accreditation. He planned to attend Vatterott College, a chain of for-profit trade schools that have come under investigation for charging exorbitant tuitions, saddling students with debt, and failing to deliver the promised skills that could ensure secure employment. A congressional report documented numerous student complaints at the Missouri campus, ranging from poor teaching and ill-equipped labs to an exceedingly high instructor turnover rate. In 2009, Vatterott’s profits exceeded $26 million, while a year earlier over 26 percent of the students had defaulted on their loans.

The proliferation of for-profit “colleges” and the dismantling and shrinking of public community colleges is a consequence of the neoliberal state’s expansion. What appears as a “free market” solution to replace a bloated state is actually a partnership: the federal government underwrites these privatized, virtually unregulated institutions, which in turn buttresses US militarism. In 2010, 88.1 percent of Vatterott’s total revenue came from the federal government: 86.9 percent from Title IV federal financial aid and the rest from Department of Defense Tuition Assistance and post-9/11 GI Bill funds. While educating veterans is an important and noble goal, Vatterott’s website boasts that the school is “military friendly” and “ranks nationally in the top 15% of all schools providing military educational services.” In other words, Vatterott targets veterans, redirects their meager benefits into its own coffers, and promotes US militarism in the process.

Yet veterans are not their main targets. Vatterott recruiters are instructed to pursue students like Mike Brown—Black and Brown, poor and vulnerable. According to internal documents, recruiters are told that promising enrollees are convicted felons, people in drug rehab, “Welfare Mom w/ Kids … [and] Pregnant Ladies,” people whose “decision to start, stay in school or quit school is based more on emotion than logic … Pain is the greater motivator in the short run.”

Brown’s life was cut short, but had he lived he would have faced the prospect of a slow death, of bearing enormous debt without the prospect of a fulfilling livelihood while continuing to navigate a world of constant surveillance and harassment.

“Pain is the greater motivator in the short run” is the perfect mantra for neoliberal logic. That is to say, pain and profit. Pain, or bearing witness to pain, is also a motivator “in the short run” for ending the thuggery of the state. For every young person we bury, there are ten more driven to act against state violence, criminalization, and immiseration. We see them in Ferguson and St. Louis, Missouri, in organizations such as Hands Up United, Lost Voices, Organization for Black Struggle, Don’t Shoot Coalition, and Millennial Activists United; we see them erupt phoenix-like in Florida with the Dream Defenders, in Chicago with We Charge Genocide and the Black Youth Project 100, in Los Angeles with the Community Rights Campaign, all over the country behind the banner #BlackLivesMatter.

We see them in the form of Dreamers and 67 Suenos (the 67 percent of undocumented youth who are not college-bound and thus excluded from the Dream Act’s provisions), taking new “freedom rides” on the Undocubus under a banner reading “No Papers, No Fear,” fighting SB 1070 in Arizona and defending ethnic studies, taking on NYPD “stop and frisk” practices and the exportation of broken windows theory around the country, and everywhere backing people around the world who remain subject to US warfare and violence unleashed by late imperial policies, to water privatization and enclosure, to occupation and ongoing settler colonialism, to the poverty, low wages, and modes of neoliberal governance that have stripped most of the planet of any semblance of democracy.

These activists and revolutionaries are our children. They are on the front lines resisting their own criminalization, fighting to demilitarize schools and streets, and taking on the state directly. Pain may be the motivator in the short run, but love is their long-term motivation. They are trying not only to stop state thuggery, but also to create a new community dedicated to a post racist, post-sexist, post-homophobic, and post-colonial world.

Excerpted from Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, edited by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton, published in 2016 by Verso. © 2016 Robin D. G. Kelley.

Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair of US History at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009) and most recently Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Harvard University Press, 2012).