Police Power in the Aftermath of Black Lives Matter.

AuthorKurd, Zhandarka

For two decades, Mark Neocleous's work on police power has challenged scholars to engage with the role that police have played in the formation, maintenance, and reproduction of the working class under capitalism. Yet outside a small but growing collective of scholars influenced by his work, the analytic of police power has not received the extensive engagement that it deserves. In his introduction to The Fabrication of Social Order, first published in 2000 and now reissued as A Critical Theory of State Power, Neocleous (2000,xv; 2021, 51) sought to inspire scholars and activists to "continue the critique of (police) power and administration, on the basis of which something other than 'reform' might take place." In the past few years, an anti-capitalist critique of police and prisons has become mainstream, a development few of us could have predicted. For instance, articles covering abolitionist perspectives on policing and prisons have appeared in progressive magazines such as Jacobin, The Nation, Rolling Stone, the Guardian and even mainstream outlets such as Bloomberg News. Besides these, a series of op-eds have highlighted critical voices on policing and prisons from the likes of Michelle Alexander and Derecka Purnell, and the New York Times has also featured a lengthy profile of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who has long articulated an anti-capitalist vision of abolition. Taking advantage of this political moment, Verso, one of the largest independent and left publishing houses, has released three books on policing, as well as a new expanded edition of Neocleous's book, all of which examine policing from an anti-capitalist perspective. These developments demonstrate just how favorable the political terrain is to left ideas. However, it is class struggle that is the key missing ingredient in making an anti-capitalist vision a reality. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge the self-activity of millions of people coming together under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement to protest state-sanctioned violence. In the course of a few years, the movement shifted from demanding more liberal police reforms to embracing abolition. The George Floyd Rebellion in particular gave us a small glimpse into what it means to reject the hellish capitalist social order that has such blatant disregard for human life (Shanahan & Kurti 2020).

The interest in police and prison abolition among a younger generation of activists has its roots in the political transformations of the last few years. In 2014, Black Lives Matter emerged as a social media hashtag that functioned as a banner for the various protests against state and police violence that emerged in the wake of the Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown murders. Although many of its participants were drawn into protest movements for the first time, others had been politically active during the Katrina disaster in New Orleans and in the Occupy protests, the Wisconsin protests, the Jena 6 mobilizations, and anti-police brutality protests in New York and Oakland. Yet, we cannot deny that Black Lives Matter transformed the American political landscape and shaped the terrain of consequent protests and struggles, including, among others, #NODAPL, #MeToo, the Virginia wildcat strike, and the removal of Confederate symbols and monuments. Black Lives Matter most importantly exposed the contradictions of so-called post-racial liberal democracy by highlighting that racialized police violence under America's first Black president was not exceptional but routine. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2019) reminds us, the movement "pushed mainstream politics to the left." Simultaneously, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement created a backlash from police unions, a moral panic about a war on cops fueled by right-wing foundations and media, and a Blue Lives Matter bill that enhanced penalties for those committing offenses against police officers and made visible a growing right-wing white nationalism. For example, in court, Dylan Roof, the white supremacist responsible for mass murder at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, confessed that it was the shooting of Trayvon Martin that "truly awakened" him to alleged Black violence against whites and spurred him to "take action" in the hopes of sparking a race war. Roof's murderous rampage inspired many online right-wingers to take their ideas to the wider public. In 2017, alongside other supporters, they gathered under the banner of Unite the Right and marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. Yet, despite this conservative backlash, the disappearance of Black Lives Matter from the public in the wake of Trump's election, and the renewed political support for law and order, police violence and police reform, and hence even police abolition, continue to be debated. More to the point, these debates coincide with the slow delegitimization of neoliberalism, "a dominant but dead" political project (Smith 2008). Globally, austerity is being challenged by populisms of both right and left, which is setting the terrain for a potential three-way fight between these forces and the neoliberal wing of capital.

In the United States, these contradictions are creating an opportunity for a critique of the role that police and prisons have played in managing growing social, economic, and racial inequalities that the American state has otherwise refused to address (Davis 2003, Camp & Heatherton 2016, Gilmore 2007a,b, Vitale 2017). Scholars and activists argue that the rise of the penal state is the direct result of the underdevelopment of the social welfare state (Gilmore 2007a, Gilmore OCGilmore 2016,Usmani 2017). The abolitionist response has been to demand a series of non-reformist reforms that include but are not limited to reducing the size and budget of police. Although these can have some significant short-term effects on marginalized communities, they do not address the role of the police power in maintaining order in the face of the global restructuring of capital and labor (Kurti 2018; Neocleous 2000, 2021; Shanahan & Kurti 2020). Therefore, bringing together the focus on police power as elaborated by Neocleous and the Anti-security Collective (Neocleous ocRigakos 2011, Neocleous et al. 2013) with the scholarship on policing, race, and capitalism that emerged as a response to and engagement with Black Lives Matter can allow us to connect the struggles against police violence to those demanding housing, healthcare, transportation, and other public goods .Linking together struggles that affect working class people is at the heart of the anti-capitalist abolitionist vision because it can help concretize community, an otherwise amorphous term shaped by identity politics around a set of concrete political demands that can build political power and challenge the very ills that police power manages. Otherwise, abolition will simply be a rhetorical politics, a fad among the most woke elements of the academic left, or worse, a liberal pathway into building a more efficient and brutal social order.

Black Lives Matter, Racist Police Violence, and Pacification

In 2014, reacting to the death of Ferguson teenager Mike Brown, Black Lives Matter quickly took the center stage of American political life. The death of Eric Garner in New York and of Freddy Gray in Baltimore triggered new rounds of protest and massive unrest. In both Ferguson and Baltimore, thousands took to the streets, defied local political leadership, rioted, looted, and blockaded streets, burned down stores, occupied buildings, marched...

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