The United States is a project of both anti-Blackness and racial-colonial power. From the founding of this white supremacist settler-colonial state, Black people have endured 250 years of slavery, ninety years of Jim Crow, sixty years of “separate but equal” legal doctrine, and thirty-five years of explicitly anti-Black housing laws among other insidious forms of de jure and de facto racial discrimination. The racial capitalist state and its policing functionaries employ state violence as a means of containing and controlling the working-class, especially racialized and colonized domestic peripheries. The late political prisoner and revolutionary ancestor George Jackson (1971, p. 99) writes the following:
The purpose of the chief repressive institutions within the totalitarian capitalist state is clearly to discourage and prohibit certain activity, and the prohibitions are aimed at very distinctly defined sectors of the class- and race-sensitized society. The ultimate expression of law is not order—it’s prison. There are hundreds upon hundreds of prisons, thousands upon thousands of laws, yet there is no social order, no social peace. …Bourgeois law protects property relations and not social relationships.
The United States is a punitive carceral state with 25 percent of the world’s population behind bars despite comprising only 5 percent of the world’s population (Collier, 2014, p. 56; Hayes, 2017, p. 17). The American criminal so-called “justice” system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile prisons, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. settler-colonies (Sawyer & Wagner, 2020). U.S. incarceration is disproportionately racialized, targeting Black and brown people who represent 60 percent of the incarcerated (Marable, 2015). If Black and Latino people were incarcerated at the same rate as whites, their imprisoned and jailed populations would decline by almost 40 percent (NAACP, 2019). The problems are not rooted in crime but policing itself which constructs, (re)produces, and institutes white supremacy and anti-Blackness through racial capitalism. The police have been waging asymmetric domestic warfare on Black people, encircling, and capturing their prospects for self-determination and self-actualization. From the Greensboro Massacre of 1979 to the murder of Marcus Deon Smith of 2018 to the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the only solution for Black liberation is abolishing the police and freeing what is essentially a semi-colony of peripheral peoples.
This essay has five sections. This first section discusses the problems of policing. The second section explains the history of U.S. policing and its development. The third section lays out the failure of liberal reforms to grapple with policing as an institution. The fourth section argues the case for police abolition. The last section concludes.
The History of U.S. Policing
The earliest origins of policing in the United States evolved from direct slavery, settler-colonialism, and brutal control of an emergent industrial working-class (Vitale, 2017, p. 34). The organization of police forces within the United States was modeled after that of England. In the early colonial forms, policing was informal and communal, which is referred to as the “Watch” or private-for-profit policing, also known as the “Big Stick.” These policing models had little with fighting crime and more to do with “managing disorder and protecting the propertied classes from the rabble” (Vitale, 2017, p. 35). Strike-breaking and labor surveillance were among the most important services provided by private-for-profit policing, the Pinkerton’s were among the more notable agencies (Spitzer, 1979, p. 195). The “Big Stick” dissolved when 1) company towns declined, 2) labor costs grew more socialized, 3) organized labor grew in its militancy and strength, and 4) major changes happened in U.S. socio-economic infrastructure (1979, p. 195).
The watch system was not particularly effective at halting crime as watchmen were often drunk or asleep on duty (Potter, 2013, p. 2). As a method of process improvement came the implementation of a system of constables—official law enforcement officers—who were normally paid according to the warrants they served (2013, p. 2). Informal policing models persisted until 1838 when Boston implemented a centralized municipal police force based on the London Metropolitan Police force and New York followed suit in 1845 (Vitale, 2017, p. 36). The main functions of the London Metropolitan Police Force were to “protect property, quell riots, put down strikes and other industrial actions, and produce a disciplined industrial workforce” (Vitale, 2017, p. 36).
In Southern states, the modern U.S. policing developed from the “Slave Patrol” (Potter, 2013, p. 3; Vitale, 2017, p. 46). Slave patrols were tasked with developing terroristic infrastructure designed to prevent slave revolts (Hadden, 2001, p. 20; Vitale, 2017, p. 46; NAACP, 2019). They were vested with the power to “ride from plantation to plantation, and into any plantation” taking up slaves who did not have a ticket from their masters (2001, p. 20). The slave patrols could forcibly enter any private property[ii] solely on the suspicions of harboring runaway slaves (Vitale, 2017, p. 46; NAACP, 2019). The slave patrols had three primary functions: 1) chase, apprehend, and return runaway slaves to their owners; 2) organize terror squads to deter slave rebellions, and; 3) maintain legal and extralegal disciplinary measures for slaves who violated plantation rules to produce desired behavior (Potter, 2013, p. 3; NAACP, 2019).
White people had “tremendous social anxiety” about large groups of unaccompanied slaves and free Blacks intermingling. The police responded by regulating their behavior through the “constant monitoring and inspection of the [B]lack population” (Vitale, 2017, p. 47). After the Civil War, slave patrols were replaced by modern Southern police departments who controlled freed slaves who were now entering the primarily agricultural workforce (Potter, 2013, p. 3). The work of the modern police force included enforcing Jim Crow segregation laws and denying Black people equality de jure and de facto (2013, p. 3). The primary concern during this period was forcing Black people into sociopolitical docility (Vitale, 2017, p. 47). More than a response to crime, the police are for instituting a social order that is safe for capital penetration for the sake of capital accumulation, especially from the Black masses (Marable, 2015, p. 94). Capital accumulation requires a stable and orderly workforce for a predictable order of business (Potter, 2013, p. 4). The racial capitalist state, therefore, absorbs the costs of the private sector, protecting its enterprises. The environment must be made safe for capital through an organized system of social control (Potter, 2013, p. 4; Vitale, 2017, p. 34; Marable, 2015, p. 95). Under a system of racial capitalism[i], Black people are among the most brutalized by the carceral state.
The Failure of Liberal Reforms of Policing
Liberal efforts at reforming the police have largely been abject failures mostly because liberals misunderstand the role of the police. They ignore that policing itself is an inherently anti-Black institution that is premised on the repression of the domestic Black periphery for capital penetration for capital accumulation. The role of the police has served to protect white supremacy and wealth creation for white people while denying Black people essential human rights (Vitale, 2017, p. 33). In the face of 400 years of anti-Black policing institutions that have, through every evolution, maintained a systemic logic of settler-colonialism that relegates the Black masses to a semi-colony within white America, liberals have proposed more training, more diversity, and community policing (Vitale, 2017, p. 33; Samudzi & Anderson, 2018, p. 13; Rodríguez, 2021, p. 45).
The push for more police training is well-intentioned but it misses the point. Whenever a Black person is killed by police, a common refrain from liberal reformers is “improve use-of-force training.” If these same reformers were around during slavery, there is no doubt they would have called for slave masters to employ more ethical whip deployment techniques. Despite the racial bias training that many officers have undergone, researchers have found that outcomes remain unchanged with respect to racial disparities in traffic stops and marijuana arrests (Vitale, 2017, p. 8). Racist policing is not merely a matter of individual bigotry but institutionalized racism. Asking for increased training of police so police learn “restraint” ignores how the police already exercise restraint against populations that are not marginalized and not targeted. The Capitol Hill riots were illustrative of the police’s ability to show remarkable restraint. The mostly white rioters were not subjected to nearly as much force as Black protestors are for nominally peaceful protests (Henderson & Alexander, 2021). Any training that justifies the institution of policing will only strengthen its white supremacist and anti-Black logics, even if there is a rhetorical shift from “Warrior mentality” to “Guardian mentality.”
Another common liberal reform to policing involves diversity hires, in hopes this will result in communities of color being treated with “greater dignity, respect, and fairness” (Vitale, 2017, p. 11). There is no evidence that diversifying police forces affects, much less reduces, their use of force (Friedrich, 1977; Garner, Schade, Hepburn, & Buchanan, 1995; Brown & Frank, 2006; Lawton, 2007). This tactic of reform is even more insidious because it is a method of counterinsurgency through promiscuous inclusion (Rodríguez, 2021, p. 45). Through political warfare against the domestic Black periphery, the racial capitalist state seeks to (neo)colonize its colonized subjects within their own communities.
Diversity is a tool for manufacturing credibility, increasing external institutional legitimacy without dramatically changing internal institutional formations or technologies of repression (2021, p. 45). Diversity changes the presentation of the white supremacist order, but it does not change its outcome: domestic warfare (Samudzi & Anderson, 2018, p. 13; Rodríguez, 2021, p. 51). White supremacy is a multicultural enterprise: just because the beneficiaries of the racial-colonial order are primarily white does not preclude the use of semi-colonized peoples to accomplish white supremacist ends. Diversity hires will not solve the problems of policing, but they will ensure the white supremacy runs through a sepia filter.
Liberal reformers may present “community policing” as possible reform and prima facie, it sounds reasonable. Who would not want neighborhood persons, known and respected by the communities they live, as officers? The answer to that question may be someone who understands the role and the institution of policing. Police are tasked with criminalizing disorderly conduct, using up to and including lethal force, and responding to populist resistance with state-sanctioned assertiveness. This is well illustrated in the city of Greensboro, North Carolina by its City Council. At a Greensboro City Council meeting from July 31, 2020, the members of the City Council spoke favorably of community policing. Councilwoman Marikay Abuzaiter is on record saying, “[I]f we ever did consider incentivizing [police officers to live in the neighborhoods they work]. I would think the Chief would need a big raise in his police budget because you are looking at money there.” In the same session, Councilwoman Sharon Hightower said:
In reading articles about ‘community policing,’ it never emphasizes resident, it always talked about relationships. And we can start to build relationships, so we can eradicate this distrust in my community because right now, a lot of people I talk to in my community see a police car and their hair stands up on their neck. So, let’s start to work on that. Build that trust, and if somebody moves in the neighborhood? Great, that’s fantastic. …Let’s spend our resources where we get the most bang for our buck. As community talks about more investment in community problems, let’s do that.
It was certainly admirable that Councilwoman Sharon Hightower wanted to “eradicate distrust” and “build relationships,” but the solutions to the problems for the domestic Black periphery of Greensboro are rooted in anti-Black racism and racial capitalism more broadly, not a lack of police presence. What tools do the police possess for “community”? Punitive enforcement actions such as arrests and ticketing (Vitale, 2017, p. 16). Community policing is only possible as a solution if the police do not have police powers. Attempts at community policing, as demonstrated by the Greensboro City Council members, prioritizes giving more resources to the police to live in neighborhoods than giving resources directly to the marginalized members of the communities. Community policing does not empower the domestic Black periphery, but it strengthens the tools of repression and suppression on the part of the police by increasing their proximity to the territories they occupy.
Recently, the #8CantWait campaign has gathered significant support from liberal reformers who wish to address “police brutality.” It is a set of ideas from the nonprofit Campaign Zero, with policy proposals such as ban chokeholds, change reporting standards for use of force incidents, require police officers to warn before they shoot, and more (Murray, 2020). The #8CantWait campaign is not trying to solve racist policing, it is trying to reduce police killings by 72 percent (2020). Mayor Nancy Vaughan endorsed the #8CantWait proposals (Greensboro City Council, 2020):
I have been looking at some resolutions, I have been looking at one from the city of Memphis who is codifying the #8CantWait, we are looking at making it for the City of Greensboro. It has not been finalized but I would like the City Council to look at, once we get it all written up for the City of Greensboro, passing a resolution for the #8CantWait. I don’t want to wait until [the] next meeting because it’s quite a ways [sic] out, so maybe we could have a meeting and a work session because our next meeting is quite a ways away and the #8CantWait and I don’t think we should wait.
Mayor of Greensboro Nancy Vaughan
After a similar comment from Councilwoman Sharon Hightower, Greensboro Police Chief Brian L. James responded, “In reference to the #8CantWait and looking at that, we are almost there with some of the things that I have recently [done] and some of the things that I did previously as well as our regular policies and there’s one on the #8CantWait that I would like to have some conversation with y’all around the specific wording…” This underscores not only the uselessness of the #8CantWait campaign but the overall failure of liberal reforms to produce meaningful structural change.
The concrete historicity of the United States’ state-imposed, state-promoted, and state-tolerated anti-Black racial-colonial violence and white supremacist domination has perpetuated a consistent and persistent situation of Black devalorization, disinvestment, devastation, destruction, and dislocation. White supremacy articulates and structures the American polity; race as a social construct articulates and structures every social relation and institution. This reality produces a domestic Black periphery, an underclass—a subproletariat—that exists as mere residents of a settler-colony (Samudzi & Anderson, 2018, p. 6). The Black community itself exists as semi-colony within the United States wherein the police are an occupying army (Allen, 1969).
The police have consistently represented (and erected) institutional barriers to Black agency, equality, self-determination, and political expression. That is because policing within the United States is inherently white supremacist and extends the logics of racial-capitalism and anti-Blackness throughout the political economy. With the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery was only abolished as “except as punishment for crime [emphasis added]” (Gilmore, 2020). Black people have been subjected to targeted police surveillance, coercion, force, and incarceration. Slavery was never abolished, it was reformed.
For the domestic Black periphery, the American carceral state and its functionaries have always been in a state of permanent asymmetrical warfare against them (Vitale, 2017, p. 27; Burden-Stelly, 2020, p. 8; Rodríguez, 2021, p. 42). James Baldwin compared policing Black communities to settler-colonial occupation (Baldwin, 1966):
And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty. … Occupied territory is occupied territory, even though it be found in that New World which the Europeans conquered, and it is axiomatic, in occupied territory, that any act of resistance, even though it be executed by a child, be answered at once, and with the full weight of the occupying forces.
Black people are not citizens, we are residents of settler-colonial occupation. Black lives do not matter under a regime of racial capitalism and ironically enough, Black people were at our most valuable (i.e. most insulated from public executions and imprisonment) when we were legal chattel. In that sense, doing irreparable damage to property-in-chattel was bad for business and few slave patrollers wanted to foot the bill (Marable, 2015, p. 97). A citizen would have a Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial, but the residents of the domestic Black periphery can be legally and extralegally murdered by police with impunity (Samudzi & Anderson, 2018, p. 14; Briond, 2020).
The regime of racial capitalism has at its heart, private property ownership, an institution fiercely protected by the carceral state and its settler-colonial agents in policing. Racial capitalism reproduces and buttresses itself and the white supremacist order through a series of supposedly race-neutral policies (Stein, 2019, p. 44). Race-neutral policies themselves have been used to both “discredit and rationalized practices that perpetuate racial stratification” (Siegel, 2000, p. 106). Hence why white supremacy and the anti-Black order it entails can “coexist happily with formal commitments to objectivity, neutrality, and colorblindness” (Harris, 1994, p. 759). The earliest origins of property rights are rooted in racial domination and the interactions between race and private property have played a critical role in subordinating the domestic Black periphery within the American political economy (Harris C. , 1993, p. 1714). Whiteness itself, as a historized social and legal construct, marks power and domination over non-white others (Mumm, 2017, p. 103). Whiteness is valorized and private property ownership is an expression of whiteness; thus, property ownership is conflated with (white) personhood under racial capitalism (Safransky, 2014, p. 238; Bhandar & Toscano, 2015, p. 8). That is why in American society it is perfectly acceptable for white people to kill Black people in defense of private property; however, the domestic Black periphery can never destroy private property in response to the murder of a Black person. Blackness itself represents powerlessness, enslavement, and dispossession (Burden-Stelly, 2020).
The domestic Black periphery exists at the nexus of indispensability and disposability (Burden-Stelly, 2020), subhumanity and superhumanity. The technologies of white supremacy and their accompanying legal strictures and structures reify white supremacist ideologies into the carceral state. Black people represent 28 percent of all people killed by police in 2020 despite being 13 percent of the United States population (Sinyangwe, 2021). Black people are three times more likely to be killed by the police than white people are, and Black people are 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed as well (2021). This demonstrates that “[a]t any given time our government can utilize and maneuver the boundaries of legality and illegality as applicable to the material interests of the ruling class” (Briond, 2020).
Freedom for the domestic Black periphery poses an existential threat to white supremacy as a political economy within the United States because “free[ing] Black people necessitates a complete transformation and destruction of this settler state” (Samudzi & Anderson, 2018, p. 13). The United States cannot exist without the predominant systems of domination and oppression of Black people; it cannot exist without the hyper-policing and hyper-regulation of Blackness. For an internal semi-colony to be free across a geospatial territory, it must be decolonized. For an enslaved people to be free, they must not reform slavery’s conditions but abolish it in its totality. Police abolition is but one step, but a necessary step, in the Black liberation struggle.
The domestic Black periphery can never know freedom so long as policing exists within this settler-colonial state. So long as the Black masses exist as mere residents, citizens in name only, as a semi-colony of white America, constantly surveilled and brutalized by arms of the state, the United States will exist. The United States as a carceral nation begets anti-Black oppressive systems and institutions and that is best exemplified through the police, who act as an occupying army in Black territories, rather than guardians within Black communities. The ideological resistance to police abolition within Greensboro is in part informed by the “racialized colonial logics of the biologically determined criminal, slave, and savage” (Briond, 2020).
There is a Hobbesian assumption that the domestic Black periphery will descend into “the state of nature” unless they are constantly patrolled, surveilled, and policed according to the logics of settler-colonial occupation. The underlying fear has been a constant feature of white supremacist anxieties, a justification for ceaseless instances of anti-Black violence by police who see Blackness as a synthesis of subhumanity and superhumanity incarnate. The amazing feat of political economy has been the militarization of police, the multiculturalism of white supremacy via diversifying the police force, and the escalation of wanton violence against semi-colonized subjects. The central contradiction of the United States is settler-colonialism, the structural location of the domestic Black periphery as simultaneous indispensable and disposable. If Black masses are semi-colonized, the solution is decolonization. If slavery was merely reformed, slavery must be abolished in all its iterations. The U.S. police are the representation and manifestation of modern-day slave patrols. For these reasons and others, the police must be abolished in their entirety and other carceral institutions as well.
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[i] Racial capitalism does not describe a distinct permutation of capitalism or imply there exists a non-racial capitalism, but rather emphasizes that, in the words of Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines.” As a system of political economy, it depends on racist practices and racial hierarchies because it is a direct descendent of settler-colonialism. It is a translation of the “racial, tribal, linguistic, and regional” antagonisms of European feudal society, reconstituted for the American context. It profits off the differentiated derivations of human values, non-white people are especially devalorized and their exploitation is a justifiable and profitable enterprise (see Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The making of the Black radical tradition. University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
[ii] Private property is not the same as personal property, which is almost exclusively wielded for its use value, it is not a personal possession, it is social relation of excludability. It is the ownership of capital as mediated by private power ownership that removes legal obstacles for one’s existence and provides an unalloyed right to violence. It is “the legally-sanctioned power to dispose” of the factors of production and “thus dispose of [labor-power]: property as synonymous with capital.” Toscano, Alberto, and Brenna Bhandar. “Race, real estate and real abstraction.” Radical Philosophy 194 (2015): 8–17.