"Original, Absolute, Indefeasible": Or, What We Talk about When We Talk about Police Power.

AuthorNeocleous, Mark

Order! was Guizot's war-cry. Order! shouted Sebastiani, the Guizotist, when Warsaw became Russian. Order! shouts Cavaignac, the brutal echo of the French National Assembly and of the republican bourgeoisie. Order! thundered [the] grape-shot as it tore into the body of the proletariat.

--Karl Marx, "The June Revolution" (1848)

"They bombing on us now," a local musician shouts. "They bombing on us now. And they got us blocked in from the other side. Are they shooting?" "Not quite," another person explains: "It's tear gasf". The place is Ferguson, Missouri, August 2014, and the context is the confrontation between the police and those protesting against the police killing of Michael Brown. This brief exchange was reported in the Washington Post on the 14th of that month but the refrain "it's tear gas!" has in recent years become a familiar theme in reports of policing. (1) Tear gas has been used against pro-democracy campaigners in Bahrain and in Egypt's Tahrir Square; Occupy protesters in Istanbul, Hong Kong, and various American cities; those fighting for electoral reform in Uganda; students campaigning for educational reform in Santiago; anti-austerity protestors in Rio de Janeiro; schoolchildren in Nairobi protesting against the destruction of a playground; fuel subsidy campaigners in Nigeria; Buddhist monks in Thailand; Palestinians in the territories occupied and controlled by the Israeli Defense Force; Kashmir students in Srinagar; farmers protesting during the Tour de France; and prisoners in large numbers in US jails. This list could be much longer, but tear gas is clearly a popular weapon of choice for the state.

What is tear gas? The question is political, not technical. How do we make sense politically of the state's use of tear gas against its own citizens? The standard answer to such a question is the one found in the previously mentioned Washington Post report and goes something like this: the fact that a chemical agent once used in warfare is being used by domestic police forces shows that policing has become focused less and less on the needs of the community and more and more on the execution of militarized violence against the state's own citizens. In this vein, tear gas is invariably connected to the use of a whole range of other technologies of violence about which exactly the same claim is made, from water cannons to drones, stun grenades to tanks, body armor to armored vehicles. All these technologies have led journalists, academics, and activists to insist that we are witnessing cops acting like soldiers or armies in blue, or, in other formulations, the militarization of policing, a new military urbanism, the development of a paramilitary policing juggernaut, the militarization of law enforcement, or the normalization of paramilitary policing.

This police militarization thesis usually focuses on a technology in order to make a point about a shift; discussions of paramilitary policing are therefore almost always discussions of its rise, just as the militarization thesis implies that policing is in the process of becoming militarized and suggests a break with a past when police and military powers were more clearly defined and categorically distinct. As well as suggesting a historical break, the police militarization thesis also contains an ethical and political claim, namely that the police power should have no connection to the war power and that when a form of technology that appears to be more appropriate for war zones is used by police forces, something has happened and normal policing has been surpassed as the police become something else: not quite fully military perhaps, but paramilitary. Implicit in the idea of paramilitary policing is the assumption that normal--that is, non-para policing--is not about violence, but about something else, usually security, law and order, peace and tranquility, the good of the community, policing by consent rather than through coercion.

The police militarization thesis thereby perpetuates the beautiful myth that the police power and the war power are two distinct forces embedded in very distinct institutions that can and should be kept apart. In perpetuating this myth, the thesis panders to a central feature of liberal ideology: that police power deals with crime whereas the war power fights wars; that the police power keeps the internal peace whereas the war power defends the nation from external threats; that the police power manages civilians whereas the war power confronts combatants; that the police power concerns situations of law and (dis)order whereas the war power confronts an international enemy. In perpetuating such a myth, the police militarization thesis acts as a blockage for critical thinking about the police power.

Even a cursory knowledge of the history of policing reveals just how close key institutions of the police power and the war power have been. The technologies listed above were each born into the world of police power. As soon as tear gas was invented, for example, it was used by French police against Parisian gangs and by a range of states in the police wars in their colonies. This technology was so police oriented that in 1935 the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology felt comfortable publishing an article by an instructor of police science (who, conveniently enough, was also Technical Director of the Lake Erie Chemical Company, which manufactured the gas) announcing that tear gas was an effective weapon in the class war (Wiard 1935). The fact that tear gas has been a police technology since its inception should be no surprise because, like all the other technologies in paramilitary policing, it was invented as a technology of state violence and the state has never cared that much whether it should use a particular technology for only certain types of people or certain types of problems. The shock, amazement, and horror that tends to accompany revelations of technology being used in this way lacks critical awareness because the technologies in question are born into the police power and are invented by the state and its corporate clients for that very reason. They reveal, more than anything, that the police power is always already at war.

This war is evident in the "prose of police power," to use Brendan McQuade's term (this volume), a prose found everywhere in police treatises, police science texts, media statements by senior officers, and ethnographic work among rank and file police, all of which time and again reveal the constant police wars being fought against the disorderly, unruly, criminal, indecent, disobedient, disloyal, and lawless. The most obvious of these wars is the war on crime, but there is also the war on drugs, the war on gangs, the war on vagrancy, the war on poverty and the war on disorder, aU merging most recently (though to varying degrees) with the war on terror, and together forming a plethora of overlapping, interlinked, and permanent campaigns, which explains why so many oppressed groups refer to the police institution as an occupying army. The police power has always seen itself as involved in warfighting, which is precisely why police officers time and again refer to themselves as the "thin blue line" or "on the frontline" against "armies" of various types. Open any police text and one is almost guaranteed to find this kind of claim. A.E. Costello (1885, 140), for example, wrote in Our Police Protectors that the police are "considered as an army for preserving domestic order in time of peace," and the police machine is expected to "keep in subjection the army of criminals whose energy is untiring ... and who are a constant menace to society and good government." As a second example, note Christopher Tiedeman's (1886) observations in his Treatise on the Limitations of the Police Power in the United States of the "army of discontents" in the citizenry, most notably those members of the laboring class engaged in industrial warfare. A more recent example is the policing of the Ferguson protests, when internal mission briefings produced by the Missouri National Guard (and obtained by CNN in April 2015 under a Freedom of Information Act request) revealed that the National Guard was expected to treat protestors as "enemy forces" (US Department of Justice 2015). This was later changed to "criminal elements" in order to avoid the negative connotations associated with the language of the enemy, but the change is itself quite revealing, for two reasons: first, because the idea of the criminal as the enemy of society has been a foundational claim made in bourgeois political thought since its inception, but also, second, because the US Department of Justice's (2015) Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department found that in 2014 over 16,000 people in Ferguson had outstanding arrest warrants, which was nearly the whole population. In other words, almost the whole population of Ferguson was likely regarded by the police as a member of the enemy forces.

Perhaps the best use of this language comes from the former head of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Daryl Gates, which he offered on March 4, 1991. The date is significant because it was on the previous day that officers in the LAPD carried out the infamous beating of Rodney King, who was shocked with a 50,000-volt Taser and then beaten so badly that his skull was fractured and his brain and kidney were damaged, his ankle and cheekbone were broken, and his teeth were knocked out. On March 4, however, the video footage of the incident had not yet been released, and so instead of having to deal with the fallout from the beating of King, Gates attended a summit on crime and law enforcement organized by the attorney general. In a panel discussion Gates spelled out for the general public what he regarded as a key proposal for police work, one he also discussed in his autobiography published a year later...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT