In this episode we take a critical look at the liberal discourse of police reform, which has increasingly gained prominence amidst the ever-recurring specter of racist police violence, and especially in the wake of black rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the intensification of North American Black liberation struggles these rebellions galvanized.
Alex Vitale, Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, speaks about the ways liberalism works to shore up the violence of policing through cosmetic, technocratic reforms, while failing to interrogate the origins and nature of police as a coercive instrument of state power, wielded to reproduce the social inequalities inherent to racial capitalism. We also speak with Charlene Carruthers, national director of Black Youth Project 100 and board member for the women of color reproductive justice collective SisterSong, on organizing through a Black queer feminist lens and pushing towards a society that’s organized around community, rather than punishment.
Image excerpted from La Llorona’s Sacred Waters, by muralist Juana Alicia.
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a Maria: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, I’m a Maria, here with co-producer Alejo Stark. In this episode, Beyond Policing, we take a critical look at the liberal discourse of police reform, which has increasingly gained prominence amidst the ever-recurring specter of racist police violence, and especially in the wake of black rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the intensification of North American Black liberation struggles these rebellions galvanized.
Alejo Stark: We speak first with Alex Vitale, Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, about the ways liberalism works to shore up the violence of policing through cosmetic, technocratic reforms, while ultimately failing to interrogate the origins and nature of police as a coercive instrument of state power, wielded to reproduce the social inequalities inherent to racial capitalism. We also speak with Charlene Carruthers, national director for Black Youth Project 100 and board member of the women of color reproductive justice collective SisterSong, on organizing through a Black queer feminist lens and pushing towards a society that’s organized around community, rather than punishment.
But first, here’s Andrés with some news you may have missed.
On October 1st, thousands of black women marched on Washington DC protesting racial injustice and patriarchy. The march was sponsored by the Black Women’s Blueprint, Trans Sisters of Color Project, and Black Youth Project 100. Protesters marched to the Justice Department and then over to the National Mall, calling attention to conditions faced by black women in the US — such as systemic racism, police violence, and sexual assault. 15 other related marches took place concurrently all across the country.
On September 9th, Kansas Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood put out a statement saying that outside protests are fueling “unrest” among inmates after an uprising the previous Tuesday at Norton Correctional Facility in northwestern Kansas. Inmates set small fires, smashed windows, threw rocks, and tried to run over a captain with a cart in what Norwood referred to as a “spontaneous” riot. Norwood claimed that outside demonstrators have been inspiring inmates to engage in mass demonstration to air grievances, paying no attention to the repressive and abusive conditions inmates face on a daily basis within the Norton facility and other correctional facilities in Kansas. There have been multiple uprisings in Kansas prisons this year.
This episode is being released on the morbid settler colonial holiday, Columbus Day, which celebrates and normalizes the ongoing genocide and dispossession of indigenous peoples on Turtle Island by Amerikan state power. The expansion of the settler state, enabled by the wanton cruelty performed by the Texas Rangers during the establishment of a militarized border, served as a central prong in the historical development of today’s carceral state. Amid the momentum to replace this holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the Indigenous Action Media Collective & friends remind us that – quote -“Rectification with colonialism can only be achieved through decolonization. Rectification with racism can only be achieved through the abolishment of white supremacy as a structuring institution and social system, not only as a practice of individual bigotry. Rectification with heteropatriarchy can only be achieved through abolition.”
See the episode transcript at rustbeltradio.org for more on these news items
a Maria: I’m here with Alejo Stark and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan.
Alejo Stark: We begin with a conversation between co-producer David Langstaff and Alex Vitale –Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and author of the recently released book The End of Policing— on how meaningfully addressing the so-called crisis of policing is going to require a deep and far-reaching strategy for social transformation.
Alex Vitale: My name is Alex Vitale, I’m a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. And I run the policing and social justice project there. I’ve been writing about police, organizing, and studying policing over the last 25 plus years. And this new book is the product of several years of research and thinking about how to approach problems with policing, and conceptualized actually before Ferguson, before Eric Garner, and kinda put it on hold for a while. And instead, engaged in a lot of essay writing and op-ed writing, trying to get some of these views out there, experiment with them. And that has all fed into the production of this new book.
David Langstaff: Given how thoroughly naturalized policing is in mainstream discourse, how police power is often talked about as if it exists outside of history, could you begin by talking about the origins of modern policing in racial capitalism, slavery, and colonialism? What has been and is the function of police in our society?
Alex Vitale: Yeah, there’s a lot of mystifying about police and a lot of forgetting about history and origins, and functions of police. And policing is actually a fairly new function of the state. A lot of its functions were previously handled in private ways, in communal ways. But in the early 19th century, as industrialization increases and new forms of international capital emerge, there’s a need to create new forms of state coercive power. And really that’s what we should think of the police as, it’s the institution of state coercive power. And this power becomes especially necessary in relationship to three primary modes of capital accumulation occurring in the 19th century. These are slavery, colonialism, and a modern industrial workforce. And so, we often here from proponents of a kind of simplistic liberal understanding of policing that well, the London Metropolitan Police are created in 1829 as a civilian force that are less oppressive than the use of the militia or the military in managing uprisings. And there’s a policing by consent kind of model, but what rarely gets discussed in all of that is that the origins of that model come from Sir Robert Peele. And prior to being co-secretary and inventing the London Metropolitan Police, he was in charge of the British colonial occupation of Ireland. And he develops the basic forms of modern policing as part of his effort to manage uprisings in the Irish countryside. And the first version of this is the Police Protection Force, that is designed to insinuate itself in local communities in the guise of not being the military, of being civilians. But their primary function is intelligence gathering and the suppression of social movements. This model then gets applied to the management of the new industrial working class that is exploding in London during this period, and this occurs in the wake of widespread strife, the Peterloo Massacre, Chardis Movement, etc. And the state needs a new tool for managing these workers rebellions. Similarly we can see in colonialism the dynamic where colonial powers initially use military force to conquer territories. But they quickly want to replace that very expensive military force with a more domestic, civilian seeming force. And they would often use local peoples, under the command of colonists, to serve as local police forces. Not to engage in crime control, but in the suppression of social movements. In the US, this kind of colonial policing could be most clearly seen in the form of the Texas Rangers, who were created as a part of the effort to occupy what had been indigenous and then spanish territory. They were involved in mass killings, arbitrary confiscation of property, driving people south of the border, etc. And then finally, we know that in many parts of the world that policing was directly tied to the control of slaves. Here in the US my research focused on urban areas, where slavery took a form very different from what we typically think of as slavery. In that, slaves worked outside of the household of their owners, on wharves, in warehouses, in factories. And they needed to be able to pass freely through the street, and what happened was slave patrols basically morphed into police departments to manage that mobile slave population. So when we think about policing, what we need to keep front in mind is that it is an incredibly coercive force, whose origins are in the manufacturing and maintenance of profound inequalities. Usually organized by race and working status.
David Langstaff: So in the wake of black rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore, and in the wake of complex resurgence of black activism and organizing that’s often subsumed under the heading of the Movement for Black Lives Matter Movement, police reform has reemerged as a central political discourse. Can you talk about exactly when, and how, and why the discourse of police reform has become so prominent in recent years?
Alex Vitale: Right. Well we’re in an interesting moment right now, where in the wake of Ferguson etc, there was a rise of a kind of liberal discourse around policing that often dominated these conversations. While popular movements were focused more on bringing these abuses to light and calling for certain kinds of police accountability, what’s happening right now is that the Trump administration is closing the door even on these very minimal liberal reforms, at least at the national level. Leaving many to think that the battle is to fight for the kinds of reforms the Obama administration put forward. But this is profoundly misguided, because there’s no reason to think that these reforms are gonna have any truly substantial impact on the abuses of policing and the negative impacts of policing, especially on poor people and communities of color. So a lot of this is because of a kind of liberal fallacy about the nature of power and the nature of race relations in this country. So they fail to apprehend the ways in which even the completely neutral, lawful enforcement of the law reproduces racial and class inequalities. And so they instead of directly addressing the legacies and ongoing reproduction of racial inequality for instance, will say “Let’s just make everything neutral, color blind, and professional, and that will make everything ok”. But as Naomi Murakawa points out in her book The First Civil Right, it was exactly this attitude in the 50s and 60s that led to the expansion of the death penalty, the expansion of police military hardware, etc. All in the name of professionalism and seeming neutral application of the law, and there’s a real risk of the same thing happening here. When people talk about things like procedural justice, like community policing, they’re attempting to restore community faith in an institution that does not serve their interest. And within power with even more resources and more legitimacy, may become an even more invasive force in these communities.
David Langstaff: So your book, The End of Policing, deals heavily with the ways in which conceptualizing the problem of policing in terms of insufficient training or professionalization fails to address the ways in which violence and control are rooted in the very nature of policing under racial capitalism. I wonder of you could speak specifically to the question of so called community policing, which both police forces and many of their liberal critics, celebrate as a reform strategy that supposedly moves towards democratization and increased accountability. Is community policing yet another political sleight of hand, that has more to do with obscuring the problem than actually addressing it?
Alex Vitale: Absolutely. So there are a couple of really fatal flaws in community policing. One is that it has an incredibly degraded notion of what constitutes community. It accepts that community are those people who will engage with the police department in a community building process. But the police do an excellent job in capturing these police-community relationships. The police set the agenda, the police run the meetings, the police frame the problems. And basically the community becomes those people who will work cooperatively with the police in a framework that is established by the police. And so that’s one of the big fallacies, is who is the community? It tends to be property owners, business owners, landlords, religious leaders, people who are well established in the community. It does not include youth, immigrants, homeless people, formerly incarcerated people, these people tend to be excluded from these conversations about what the community needs. The second fallacy is that when you have that kind of representation of the community, the community’s problems tend to be framed in terms of a lot of quality of life, order maintenance concerns. And so what tends to happen is that the community says “Our problems are aggressive panhandlers, and squeegee men, kids hanging out on the corner, too much noise in the park” and that sort of thing. Which then just empowers the kind of zero tolerance, broken windows oriented, constant harassment of the more marginal populations in the community. Like homeless people, youth, and immigrants, etc. The final problem and maybe the worst problem, is that community policing, the only real tool of government that’s made available in a community problem solving process involving the police is the powers of policing. Which are threats, arrests, summonses, tickets, etc. And so what it does is it turns every community problem into a problem to be solved through coercive police action. So that if a community really needs afterschool programs, if it needs better employment prospects, safer more affordable housing, the police can’t deliver any of that. What they can do is use force to drive young people off the street corner, use threats to get rid of mentally ill people, make arrests, etc. So it automatically validates the use of coercive and punitive state action as the only valid tool for solving community problems. And it gets community leaders to internalize that and build that perspective, and that then undercuts all these calls for more radical economic and political empowerment in these communities.
David Langstaff: Expanding a little bit on the last point that you’re making about more radical political and economic empowerment, if efforts to reform the police have time and again failed to in any way reduce the violence that’s bound up with policing, to what extent is the framework of reform itself a problem? And to what extent do we need to think about what it means to struggle against police violence in fundamentally different ways?
Alex Vitale: So as an activist on the ground, there’s a dilemma. Because the police are here, they’re a powerful force that people have to deal with on a daily basis often. So while we may have an analysis that says that the ultimate solutions to these problems are certain kinds of economic and political and social transformations, the empowerment of communities, the welfare of individuals, we also have to deal with the institution that already exists now. So the approach I take is to interrogate the forms that are being proposed, to see whether or not they empower police, or they move us in the direction of reducing police power and creating alternatives. Whether it’s affordable housing, or adequate mental healthcare, we need to make that the center of any police reform agenda. In groups like BYP 100, and the Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles, are doing just that. They are saying let’s redirect resources from policing, from courts, from prisons, into the kinds of social programs and economic transformations that will reduce the need for coercive state action.
David Langstaff: Thank you so much for joining us on the show Alex.
Alex Vitale: My pleasure.
a Maria: We speak now with Charlene Carruthers, a community organizer and writer who recently co-organized the March for Black Women in Washington D.C. The national coordinator for Black Youth Project 100, a leading organization in today’s movement for Black liberation, Charlene explains how BYP100 advances abolitionist demands though a Black, queer feminist framework –and commits to naming that work– in Black organizing specifically – and in Leftist organizing as a whole.
Charlene Carruthers: My name is Charlene Carruthers, I’m the national director of BYP 100. We are a national organization of young black activists between the ages of 18 and 35, and we finally have 8 chapters across the country, and hundreds of members. For me, I come to this work as the daughter of two people whose parents migrated from the South. They were a part of the Great Migration. I came into activism and later organizing as a student on my college campus. Like many predominantly white institutions, any institution really where black people go to school, there are structural issues when it relates to access to resources, the type of curriculum we receive, and overall campus discrimination for people who come from marginalized groups. And so I got involved pretty early on in campus activism, and that was in 2003. And I’ve been working in racial, economic, gender, and more broadly the black liberation struggle since then.
David Langstaff: So Black Youth Project 100 is an explicitly abolitionist organization and also committed to a black queer feminist orientation and praxis. For listeners who may not be familiar with BYP100’s work, can you sketch a broad picture of the organization, and perhaps speak to the relationship between BYP100’s black queer feminist orientation and your commitment to abolition?
Charlene Carruthers: Absolutely. So sometimes there are really, really broad ideas that are both complex and difficult for folks to grasp, and see, and taste, and feel. And abolition is one of those things. So as an organization, I would say our political commitment to abolitionist practices and a politic really have been an evolution of learning. An evolution of seeing what’s happening in the world and knowing that we can’t just make band aid reforms to address the issues that impact our communities. There are demands that come in the shape of reform that are actually get us closer to transformative change, like the reparations ordinance won by survivors and the family members of people who were tortured by Jon Burge in Chicago. That campaign that they ran addressed structural issues both in the community and education in Chicago. And at the same time, I believe the folks who led that campaign are clear that we have so much more to do, and that you can advance abolitionist changes or demands that get us closer. So the type of world we want to live in where conflict and harm are dealt with in radically different ways, and where restorative justice is the norm. And so black queer feminism, and organizing through a black queer feminist lense specifically, arrives from the legacy of black feminist, queer, LGBT, overall organizing that has happened in this country and in the world. And so we’re not the first people to ever think about organizing in this way. Our organization is committed to naming that work, and doing the practice and the thinking that’s required to make this land a reality, and really use it as an intervention. And so one very simple way to understand organizing through a black queer feminist lense is through the words of Fannie Lou Hamer when she said that “Nobody is free until everybody is free”. And so our work, much like what we’ve learned from black feminism, is about moving people from the margins to the center. And it’s a process, and it’s a struggle. It doesn’t happen overnight. And along the way we make plenty of missteps, and moments where we have to recalibrate and move into things differently. At the same time, along the way, we have many victories. And so that shows us in our vision and our agenda for the world, so when we wrote Agenda to Build Black Futures, we have two sections that focus on gender justice. One, on valuing the work of women’s work. And then two, actually creating both access to healthcare and economic justice for transgender people. And so there’s two separate sections in our overall agenda, because we felt they were important enough to have prominent place and space on what our vision was for economic justice for black people in our lifetime. Organizing through a black queer feminist lense impacts how we look at issues. If we’re gonna talk about mass incarceration, that means we have to tell the stories of black women like TJ McDonald and Marissa Alexander. If we’re gonna talk about policing, we have to talk about the killing of Rekia Boyd and Trayvon Martin, at the same time. Both of those are stories that are crucial to us understanding the conditions of black people and where we must go.
David Langstaff: So staying with some of the economic questions you just raised, you’ve drawn attention to the fact that Chicago Police Department takes up about 40% of the public service project budget of the city. In essence, a huge portion of public financial resources are being funneled directly into terrorizing black communities and other communities who are the primary targets of police violence. How does BYP100’s call to defund the police, and more broadly the Agenda to Build Black Futures, work towards the abolition of police and racial capitalism, and gesture toward a vision of a more livable world?
Charlene Carruthers: So our work’s beginnings are found in 2013. It’s really been about looking at the world that we live in and helping our folks understand it, and be able to articulate what’s not working for us, and to articulate what would work for us and what we want. And so the amount of investment that this country makes in policing and the overall criminal legal system, or in the prison industrial complex, is violently disproportionate to the amount of investment that are made in our community’s education. Access to full spectrum health care, prime mental health care, access to reproductive health for abortion, birth control, and even the resources that go into our communities for people who do foster parent. Far too many of our children and our families are criminalized and funneled through the foster care system. So all those things are connected. So why are we spending $4 million dollars a day on policing in Chicago, where actually the amount of money you spend in Chicago policing is on par with Los Angeles, and second to New York City. So the three largest police departments in the country are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on policing, and at the same time our schools are being closed. People are experiencing cyclical poverty, and the violence that actually happens within our communities, the root causes of them are never addressed. Because politicians and policymakers want to use them as a catchphrase or a hook in media, as opposed to actually listening to the people who say “Hey, this is what we need to actually transform our community”.
David Langstaff: So in recent years, arguably in response to the power of Black resistance, we’ve heard more and more calls for police reforms. Often framed narrowly in terms of implementing officer body cameras, or a more racially representative police force, or better training in sensitivity, and so forth, as if these were themselves solutions to racist police violence. And yet as you’ve pointed out with respect to the example of body cameras, the murder of Laquan Mcdonald was recorded by Chicago Police Department cameras. So then how do you distinguish between police reforms and police abolition? Are there some reforms that are worth fighting for, that perhaps create a path toward abolition, and others that merely serve to re-legitimize and even strengthen racist police power?
Charlene Carruthers: So the demands to get rid of policing in and of itself will not end policing automatically, and that is the goal. However, it can transform power relationships and put resources to actually address and improve the material conditions of our people. And so that type of reform can be thought of as a non-reformist reform, or one that gets us closer to abolition, in and of itself will not create abolition. And at the same time, can move resources and redistribute resources to the places that it needs to be. It gives people an opportunity to feel and taste what it can look like, to have a society that’s organized not around punishment. A society that’s organized community. And so I believe that there are things that we can advocate for, and we can organize around, that get us closer to where we want to be. And the things that don’t, things that put more money into policing, the things that give the police more power, things that take away power and decision making from people. Those are the things we don’t need, those are the things that we should not organize around. The things that take away power and resources from policing, those are the things that can help us get closer to where we want to be.
David Langstaff: So, staying with this question of how to move closer to the kind of world we want. We’ve seen time and time again that police officers who commit racist murders are rarely charged, let alone convicted, a fact which is yet one more illustration of how antiblackness and white supremacy structure this country’s conceptions and practices of law and justice. And understandably, many of us who are trying to resist racist police violence end up calling for throwing killer cops in prison, as a way of moving toward what is imagined as a more meaningful form of justice. As an organization committed to abolition, how does BYP100 grapple with these kinds of questions?
Charlene Carruthers: So historically we’ve not advanced demands to put police officers in prison after they’ve killed a person. What we have moved demands around are structural changes, that allow and encourage police officers to act with impunity. We also, as black people, regard the rights for black families to make different demands. We don’t all have to make the same demands. A family demanding that a police officer go to prison, that’s not our role to tell them they shouldn’t do that. That’s not our function. Our function, as a movement organization, is to drive demands that make structural changes. And so I believe that can be done with respect to family members, respect to survivors,and for them to have their own autonomy. We’re doing our work right, so things will change, not people who will actually have more exposure to additional ways to react when someone we love is killed by a police officer.
David Langstaff: Well thank you so much for speaking with us today and for all the important and inspiring work that you and BYP100 are engaged in.
Charlene Carruthers: Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to join and contribute to the show.
Alejo Stark: As abolitionists, we work to pose difficult questions about some of the most normalized facets of our everyday lives. The discourse propagated by the carceral state would have us regard the police as our protectors, as guardians of the hallowed institutions of liberal democracy and justice, as those who valiantly defend good citizens from the base passions and depredations of society’s criminal elements. Challenging this ideological narrative, this episode proposed that the police have their origins in the conjunction of modern colonialism, transatlantic slavery, and contemporary racial capitalism. That is, the police have always been a coercive force wielded in the service of domination and exploitation.
a Maria: As we struggle against the most blatant manifestations of police violence, we must pay careful attention to whether our tactics and strategies play into liberal attempts to recuperate and strengthen policing, or in fact move us closer towards a world beyond police and prisons and the socio-ecological disaster that is racial capitalism.
Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. Check out our website at http://www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: Andres, a Maria, David Langstaff, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.