Arresting Justice: Victimizing the Victimizers Won’t End the Policing Crisis

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

In the wake of the brutal slayings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Tony McDade in Tallahassee, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, demonstrators nationwide and throughout the world have trained their anger on racialized police brutality and state violence, more broadly. While many have expressed support for decarceration, abolition, and cuts to police budgets, some of these same activists and commentators have petitioned for the arrest and prosecution of those responsible. After Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison filed charges Wednesday against all of the officers implicated in Floyd’s death — and upgraded Derek Chauvin’s murder charge from third-degree to second-degree murder — many protesters rejoiced. In the downtown Minneapolis neighborhood in which Floyd took his last breaths, demonstrators chanted, “We got all four! We got all four!”

While the anger directed at Chauvin and the three other Minneapolis officers is completely understandable, those advocating for their incarceration may very well be empowering the same systems of policing, prosecution, and imprisonment that ensnared and ultimately killed George Floyd. Seeking redress through arrest and incarceration can gloss the violence that inheres within these systems. (American studies scholar Micol Seigel uses the term “violence work” to describe policing.) Petitioning for anyone’s criminalization and incarceration — instead of pursuing other avenues for accountability and justice, outside the purview of the police state — only reinforces the presumed need for law enforcement, jails, and prisons in lieu of other, non-punitive state and community programming.


The Minneapolis protests that eventually spurred demonstrations nationwide and across the globe explicitly called for the arrest of Chauvin and the other officers involved in Floyd’s killing. Activist groups in Tallahassee have similarly advocated for the arrest of the officer who shot Tony McDade. Upon first blush, these demands seem sensible, especially given the frequency and impunity with which US law enforcement officials murder civilians. Just over one thousand civilians were fatally shot by police in the United States last year. Others, of course, were killed by other means — as Floyd was. All told, some “one-third of all Americans killed by strangers are killed by police.” And as the organization Mapping Police Violence has shown, the offending officer faces criminal charges in just 1.7 percent of such cases.

Pursuing a retributive model of criminal justice has profound costs, however. This approach enacts its own violence and (however unwittingly) emboldens ostensibly “good” or “better” cops and “good” or “better” prosecutors to crack down on “bad” cops and “bad” prosecutors who supposedly refuse to enforce the law as it should be enforced.

Retribution also relies upon jails and prisons, unspeakably violent institutions predicated on dehumanization, domination, and incapacitation — all mutually reinforcing forms of state violence buttressed by populist “law and order” messaging. The vast, daunting machinery of mass incarceration — which includes not just brick-and-mortar jails and prisons but also technologies of surveillance, probation/parole, registration, community notification, and “e-carceration” — directly harms millions of Americans while also burdening untold numbers of “secondary victims,” the family members and friends of those locked up or otherwise caught within the carceral net. Subjecting anybody — no matter how loathsome — to this sort of punishment only justifies the use of carceral and police power, even if activists couple such punitive actions with calls to scale back policing and shutter jails and prisons.

Activists should thus aim to eliminate police power and state violence in all its permutations. If the state retains the ability to harm and incapacitate the “worst of the worst” — such as Chauvin, for instance — it stands to reason that it can also deploy that profound yet protean power toward other ends, like criminalizing poverty.


The reigning neoliberal social and political order — with its reliance on liberal law, private property, empire, and the conflation of market and state — has already dramatically increased police power, vesting law enforcement with the capacity and license to inflict tremendous harm in the name of protecting the most privileged racial-capitalist subjects.

The late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century scourge of mass incarceration grew from the idea of “governing through crime” — that is, using arrest and caging to address virtually every imaginable social ill, from domestic violence to child support delinquency. Amidst widespread economic uncertainty and political upheaval, US police forces helped facilitate neoliberal austerity in an attempt to secure a pliant, precarious workforce. These efforts, of course, primarily targeted poor and working-class communities — largely of color.

As Joe Soss, Richard Fording, and Sanford Schram wrote in their landmark 2011 book Disciplining the Poor, “penal and welfare institutions were converging” throughout the US in the late twentieth century, constituting (in Loïc Wacquant’s words) “two components of a single apparatus for the management of poverty.” In that same vein, “crime logic” (as Donna Coker calls it) resonates with prevailing neoliberal logics of “personal responsibility” to individualize “criminality” and circumscribe movements for social democracy and police and prison abolition.

The core features of Coker’s “crime logic” are: “(1) a focus on individual culpability rather than on collective accountability; (2) a disdain for policy attention to social determinants of behavior; (3) a preference for narratives that center on bad actors and innocent victims; and (4) a preference for removing individuals who have harmed others as though excising an invasive cancer from the body politic.”

If activists seeking justice for George Floyd and other victims of hyperpolicing and mass incarceration refuse to challenge each component of “crime logic” — particularly numbers three and four — they will leave intact the foundation for our present regime of policing, caging, and resource hoarding. In the service of a more equitable economic and political order, then, activists should seek the total and unequivocal abolition of jails, prisons, and the police and the transfer of resources from carceral to non-carceral, community-centered institutions that directly remedy the issues of poverty, hunger, houselessness, mental illness, and addiction.

Difficult as it may be to admit, extracting Derek Chauvin; the Louisville police officer(s) who shot Breonna Taylor; or Michael Slager, Walter Scott’s killer, from civil society will only reinforce the punitive, retributive economic and crime logics that have built the interconnected systems of hyperpolicing, mass incarceration, and economic apartheid. Those enraged by the impunity and ease with which white police officers kill African American people should resist the urge to arrest, prosecute, and warehouse those who apparently abuse police power — by somehow crossing the accepted boundaries of the state’s monopoly on violence. This retaliatory impulse will only reify the existing paradigm of policing and punishment, which forecloses more radical, more humane visions of justice, such as restorative and transformative justice. Only through the complete demolition of the American carceral project — and the violence at its heart — can such justice take root.

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Paul M. Renfro is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida State University and the author of Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State (Oxford University Press, 2020).  

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