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The Triple Antagonist of the Police, Policing, and Policy

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In 1967, Chester Himes wrote, “Police brutality toward black people in the United States is of such common usage and longstanding to have attained acceptance as proper behavior.” On the one hand, not much has changed. Every day we see the virulent and repressive state violence against Black Lives Matter protestors marching, occupying space, and demanding change in the name of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among countless others. While the tactics may have shifted, the overall strategy of anti-blackness and settler-colonial repression remains the same (consider the actions against protestors at Standing Rock, which Adrienne Keene claims served as “training” for future state violence, such as that against protestors in Portland, OR). The police serve to protect and uphold whiteness and the system of racial capitalism. This imbrication of police, policing, and policy (both economic and political) can be understood as what Achille Mbembe calls necropolitical power, which names “contemporary forms of subjugating life to the power of death.”

On the other hand, Black Lives Matter, social media dissemination, and the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic have generated substantive demands for change by millions of Americans, which has been increasingly reflected in the mainstream media and by politicians. More and more we’ve seen calls to defund the police and to abolish the police. Within the last two years, writing by activist-scholars, including Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, has appeared in mainstream liberal publications such as The New York Times and The New Yorker. Although many on the right and left remain either anxious or overtly resistant to abolitionist projects, these discourses—which reflect various, loosely-connected positions—have nonetheless entered the mainstream. #AbolishICE, #AbolishDHS, and calls to abolish the police abound on Twitter and other social media sites. Such abolitionist work aims to annul the necropolitical reduction of people to states of precarity.

Despite these calls, what has been accomplished so far has been in the nature of insufficient reform. While Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered on 25 May 2020, completed its first step toward abolishing the police, significant obstacles remain. In the meantime, Minnesota has banned chokeholds and aggressive training tactics. These steps emphasize the entanglement of the police and policy, as the police are a symptom of the broader problem of policy-making and policing. Indeed, the police and policy have historically worked to shore each other up.

Rather than merely reform the police through new policies, we need to abolish not only the police but also policing, which, Jacques Rancière argues, works to produce and reinforce a consensus order of society “that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of seeing.” Against the liberal tradition, Rancière rereads what typically goes by the name politics as the police: “the set of procedures whereby aggregation and consent of collectivities is achieved, the organization of powers, the distribution of places and roles, and the systems for legitimizing this distribution.” The line often used by the police, “There’s nothing to see here,” can be read as a figure for the consensus of society, which asks us to ignore its necropolitical iniquities.

This generalized notion of the police is helpful because it emphasizes that policing is not merely—or not even—about police force or state repression but about the productive and regulative organization of space and time. That is, the police determine what or who can appear and how such appearing occurs. To take one example: capitalist consensus, for Rancière, offers a “reality of stolen time” that subtracts “the time for living.” Some have had more time stolen than others. This is not only the case for workers who sell their labor-power to survive, but also for those who have been excluded from work entirely. Historically, for instance, Black workers have had greater unemployment rates than white workers, conditions only intensified by the pandemic. Because of the increasing precarity of the United States population, a precarity only exacerbated by escalating unemployment during the ongoing pandemic, any “free time” today quickly gets absorbed by our gig and service economy. Necropolitics ensures that some lives are valued more than others.

With this generalized notion of necropolitical policing, we can see that even ostensibly liberal institutions work to “police” bodies and produce subjects for society. For example, the university system conceptualizes the student as consumer and future producer within our global capitalist economy, and citizenship reifies nationalist ideology and its often violent fixation on borders. Yet as Black Lives Matter affirms, “citizen” does not count for much if that citizen-subject is Black. Politics proper, for Rancière and in contrast to this notion of the police and policing, assumes equality and seeks to interrupt the functioning of inequality in society. Black Lives Matter is exemplary as a political movement, then, for it points to a wrong that structures society, namely, that Black lives do not matter to the white supremacist capitalist order except as material to be used.

The current occupation of Portland, along with other cities across the United States, brings into sharp relief that many Americans have always lived in an occupied territory. To draw on my own local context, one need only compare the differences in policing in Roxbury, MA (a majority Black and Hispanic neighborhood within Boston) to that in Acton, MA (an affluent and majority white suburb of Boston) to see the different logics at work in police operations when linked to diametrically opposed economic and racial demographics. In Roxbury, police operate as antagonists; in Acton, police work with the community to “protect and serve.” And in Massachusetts, as in many other states, incarcerated Blacks, Latinos, and American Indians are overrepresented compared to white prisoners.

The violence currently committed by the United States in the form of mobilizing the police, paramilitary, and military against its subjects is therefore simply the most obvious manifestation of necropolitics. The occupation of cities stresses that some lives are valued, while others are both expendable and disposable. As Angela Davis has argued, the technologies of incarceration extend far beyond the prison’s walls.

So the police is, again, merely a symptom of necropolitical policing and policy-making that maintain anti-Black violence and racism, economic inequalities, gender and sexuality discrimination, demands of ableism, and so on. The neoliberal economization of life further emphasizes how life itself is policed. Americans are told again and again that we need to go back to work, back to “normal,” in order to restart the economy. Or Americans are told that only political partisanship prevents society from reopening. In the case of reopening schools, for instance, Trump insists that politics, rather than COVID-19, operates as the main obstacle, and his rejection of CDC guidelines for school reopening stems from a claim that they are “very tough and expensive.” In other words, the preservation of life and health of communities is always quantified, and such preservation only takes priority if it is cost-effective. “Normal” refers, then, to the usual calculus of necropolitics. As Dionne Brand recently pointed out in The Star, “normal” indeed works in insidious ways. In pre-pandemic times, she asks, “Was the violence against women normal? Was the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism normal? Was the homelessness growing on the streets normal? Were homophobia and transphobia normal? Were pervasive surveillance and policing of Black and Indigenous and people of colour normal? Yes. I suppose all of that was normal.”

This brutal calculus of “returning to normal”—laid bare by the constructed distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” work/worker—obscures the costs of this economic imperative. Essential workers are dying at horrifying rates. Such positions are more likely to be held by Black workers, so Black and poor life is being sacrificed in the name of profit and the comfort of more affluent Americans. In the United States, even with the recent outbreak across the Sun Belt and more rural areas, people of color remain at greater risk of dying from COVID-19.

Donald Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric and his insistence on prioritizing the economy for some rather than others makes explicit the necropolitical production of mass death. Necropolitics registers an intensification of a feature present in racial capitalism from its inception. “Capital,” Marx noted, “takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so.” Citing this passage, Gabriel Rockhill puts it even more bluntly: “Long-term consequences, like ecocide or the destruction of human life, are of no importance to the imperative of making as much as possible, as quickly as possible.” Capitalist accumulation maintains an essential relation to the accumulation of death.

Critiques of protesters—claims that they are destroying private and public property, that they are disturbing the smooth functioning of society—work to reify and justify the police order of racial capitalism, thereby preserving the status quo. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, has labeled the protestors in Portland “extremists” and “violent anarchists.” In this logic, guarding monuments and memorials takes precedence over addressing concerns of structural inequalities that affect millions of lives. These rhetorical positionings and the actions of protestors, however innocuous, justify the brutal and unconstitutional occupation currently ongoing in Portland and other cities.

As Assata Shakur makes explicit, no one “has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” Protests ought to be disruptive. They ought to make explicit that American hegemony values property over life, that we need new modes of perceiving to interrupt the violence of anti-blackness and racism, that Trump’s administration only cares about profit and power, and that Trump himself seems to suffer from pathological narcissism in which his self-image trumps all other interests. Necropolitics helps explain why some of Trump’s actions, such as his virulently anti-immigration policies, in fact conflict with other ostensible aims, such as economic growth. The lawsuit brought against the Trump administration by the United States Chamber of Commerce reveals that when pushed to its extreme, the necropolitical production of death undermines even the neoliberal capitalism it otherwise serves. We need to expunge the contagion of necropolitics, and we need to sever the tie that binds politics as policing to economics.

This economization informs even well-intentioned efforts by Democrats, who can only conceptualize change in terms of “investment” in communities of color. Such reformist policies risk fetishizing a fantasy of progress at the expense of substantive change. Abolition politics demands not merely an end to the police but an end to the subjugation of life to death, to the police and death-driven policing. It calls for a fundamental reordering of life that breaks from the neoliberal consensus described by Michel Foucault, in which the human subject comes to be nothing other than an entrepreneur of himself. Abolition politics demands, that is, a new politics of the human that refuses to reduce humanity to the brutal economic terms that policing regulates, circumscribes, and, when useful, extinguishes.

Matthew Scully teaches at Emerson College in the Department of Writing, Literature & Publishing & Institute of Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies. He can be reached at matthew_scully[at]emerson.edu.

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