Saturday, June 13, 2020

3381. To Do Away With the Police, We Must Do Away With Locks

By Kamran Nayeri, June 13, 2020

Why is there locks?
In the fall of 1969, as a freshman in physics at the University of Texas at Austin recently arrived from Iran I lived at the University House. A small business owned and operated by an older white Texan couple with help from three black women and a black man it provided room and board at $100 a month for a very modest double occupancy rooms with southern-style breakfast and dinner.  As there was no room to study at the dormitory, I studied until the closing time at mifgnight at the Academic Center, the library, and then walked the empty streets west of the campus to the Methodist Study Room which was an unstaffed room with several tables and desk lamps to study until 4 a.m. before that too closed.  I would then go to my dorm nearby to get some sleep, eat my breakfast and attend classes.

In my four years in Austin, Texas, I never felt the need to lock my room’s door in the dorm or later my apartment door. When I bought a used Opel Kadet and parked it on the street, I never locked it. 

Nothing ever went wrong. 

I knew this was not the case elsewhere in the United States by the experiences of living in big cities like Chicago and New York. In the summer of 1969, I went to work in Chicago and everybody locked everything and it was consider unsafe to walk the streets of the city at night.  

Living in New York, in the late 1970s and later 1980s and 1990s, I learned the need to use multiple locks on the apartment’s door.  I was targeted for mugging three times.  Each time, the muggers had knives. When I bought a small used car to drive to St. John’s University in Queens to teach a night course, it was broken into the first night even though I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which was considered a “safe neighborhood.” They took its dingy radio. I learned to leave the car doors open with sign for the potential thieves: “Doors are open. There is nothing of value inside.” This was supposed to deter the thieves from breaking into the car by smashing a window. 

Social alienation and State formation
In due time and with some help from Karl Marx, I realized locks are symbolic of our alienated social relations. Locks arose in socially stratified early states where the elite extracted wealth from nature by exploiting working people, most of whom held in bondage, at the dawn of civilization.  These are topics that Frederick Engels addressed in his Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), an extended commentary on Ancient Society (1877 ), by the American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan.  The State arose as part of the same process of social alienation and class exploitation. As Engels notes:
“How the state developed, how the organs of the gentile constitution were partly transformed in this development, partly pushed aside by the introduction of new organs, and at last superseded entirely by real state authorities, while the true ‘people in arms,’ organized for its self-defense in its gentes, phratries, and tribes, was replaced by an armed ‘public force’ in the service of these state authorities and therefore at their command for use also against the people – this process, at least in its first stages, can be followed nowhere better than in ancient Athens. The changes in form have been outlined by Morgan, but their economic content and cause must largely be added by myself.” (Engels, 1884)
The petty thieves I encountered were entirely unsympathetic toward me even though I too was a simple, low-income young working person like they were. But I looked different and they figured I had some material things they wished to take for themselves. 

The social function of the police
These forms of inner-conflict among alienated working people helps to confuse the actual role of the police.  As Engels explains, the State of which the police is a part arose historically to serve the ruling classes. Its primary role is to ensure that the generation of wealth for the elite through expropriation of nature by exploitation of working people proceed smoothly.  That is the primary purpose of “law and order” in a capitalist society. It is masked or otherwise justified by law. The pillars of the U.S Constitution are  the sanctity of private property and commerce.  That is private ownership of social means of production and freedom of the capitalist firm in pursuit of profit that are protected by the police.  We can see this in every labor strike and every social protest against the capitalist class and its state institutions. The police’s function is to contain and when necessary suppress the working people and protect the ruling capitalist class and its institutions. 

But as Engels reminds his readers before the rise of the State in history, self-organized and self-mobilized “bodies of armed people” carried out the tasks of public safety.

Closely tied to the capitalist function of the police is the criminal justice system and prisons.  Thus, there is close cooperation between the police and these institutions.

Of course, like the State itself, the police and the criminal justice system as institutions, are historically formed in each country.  In the United States, the formation of capitalist institutions, in particular, the collection of repressive agencies on the local, regional, state and Federal level have been heavily influenced by its origin as a colonial-settler State in which the European white minority initially wiped out much of the indigenous native population through systematic genocide and by viruses they brought with them from Europe for which the native population had no immunity. In due time, the white settlers established slave-plantations in the South as part of the transatlantic slave trade. Thus, the U.S. capitalist state has been racist by design since its inception.  There has been much written about the causes and consequences of the Civil War. But one thing is clear: it was essentially an inner capitalist struggle in which the industrial North needed freed black wage workers and the Southern plantation owners wanted to continue to profit from slavery.  Isn’t this odd that a century and half after the end of the civil war there are still statues of Souther Army generals standing across the cities and even on college campuses in the U.S. (many have been brought down in the last few years due to mass protests) and military bases are still named after these generals who were traitors to the Union? In fact, the two-party system of the American capitalism has never disagreed on the question of human rights of the African slaves. The recent change of heart by the mostly socially liberal politicians is partly due to the mass protests and partly because holding on to the legacy of slavery is now counter-productive to the interests of U.S. capitalist rulers.  

As Mariame Kaba (June 12, 2020) points out in her opinion essay in The New York Times, 
“Policing in the South emerged from the slave patrols in the 1700s and 1800s that caught and returned runaway slaves. In the North, the first municipal police departments in the mid-1800s helped quash labor strikes and riots against the rich. Everywhere, they have suppressed marginalized populations to protect the status quo.” 
Capitalist crisis and the police
Since the 1970s, industrialized capitalist economies including the U.S. have entered a long cycle of stagnation caused by the falling average rate of profit. The capitalist response has been “neoliberalism,” that is, an ideological offensive coupled with a series of policies to increasing commodify, monetize, and otherwise expand the realm of profit making operations of the capitalist class that coincides with systemic and unceasing assault against the standard of living and institutional forms of working people’s power including an assault on the Bill of Rights. 

An early vicious attack was the initiation of the War on Drugs which President Richard Nixon declared in a press conference on June 18, 1971.  While the War on Drugs engulfed the American continent for decades, in the U.S. it systematically targeted African-Americans and Latios who have been increasingly arrested and sentenced to long terms for alleged often minor violations charges.  Later, aides to Richard Nixon admitted that the policy decision was racially motivated.  The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast. In 2012, for example, there were 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession, according to F.B.I. figures, compared with 256,000 for cocaine, heroin and their derivatives used mostly by the well to do Whites. Black men were targeted. 

As the legal scholars Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread explain in their authoritative history, The Marihuana Conviction (1974), the drug’s popularity among minorities and other groups practically ensured that it would be classified as a “narcotic,” attributed with addictive qualities it did not have, and set alongside dangerous drugs like heroin and morphine. By the early 1930s, more than 30 states had prohibited the use of marijuana for non-medical purposes. Cannabis was officially outlawed for any use (medical included) with the passage of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

As a result, the United States has now the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita prisoner population. In 2018 in the US, there were 698 people incarcerated per 100,000 Americans.  The demographic of the prison population show the racist character of this policy. In 2017, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners. And while Latios represented 16% of the adult population, they accounted for 23% of inmates.

The militarization of the police
SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team is a law enforcement unit which uses specialized or military equipment and tactics. Introduced in the 1960s to contain civil protests and suppress riot in communities of the minorities or violent confrontations with criminals, the number and usage of SWAT teams increased in the 1980s and 1990s during the War on Drugs and later in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. As of 2005, SWAT teams were deployed 50,000 times every year, almost 80% of the time to serve search warrants, most often for narcotics. SWAT teams are increasingly equipped with military-type hardware and trained to deploy against threats deemed “high-risk" for ordinary police force.  The militarization of the police is responsible for even more police brutality even though that has been with us for centuries.  The Lexow Committee that undertook the first major investigation into police misconduct in New York City in 1894 found that the most common complaint against the police was about “clubbing” — “the routine bludgeoning of citizens by patrolmen armed with nightsticks or blackjacks,” as the historian Marilynn Johnson has written. (cited in Kaba, June 12, 2020)

The response to the police murder of George Floyd 
Broadly speaking, there has been two types of responses to the George Floy murder by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis protected by his fellow police officers while passerby civilians looked in horror.  One is a call for police reform. There is nothing new in the idea of reforming the police. This includes new codes of conduct for the police, more training for the police, and sometimes even more funds for the police. None of these has ever worked as Kaba points out.  

There is a second more perceptive point of view: police cannot be reformed it must be abolished.  Kaba, an activist and organizer against criminalization, is an eloquent voice.  In her opinion piece she writes:
“When people, especially white people, consider a world without the police, they envision a society as violent as our current one, merely without law enforcement — and they shudder. As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm.”
Her response is:
“People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.”
Thus, she envisions the solution in a society in which cooperation instead of individualism, and mutual aid instead of self-preservation are valued.  

However, to envision such a society is one thing to understand the root cause of the problem we wish to solve is another. As I have explained the racist police and the racist State arose as part of the constitution and development of the United States capitalism. 

Anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization
In his Origins of Family, Private Property, and the State in which Engels underscores the institutional roots of the rise of the State, including the police, he follows Morgan's theory of the three stages of human progress, from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization.  Morgan himself was influenced by the Enlightenment ideas of progress and its four stages theory defined as hunting, pasturage, agriculture, and commerce.  Morgan divided each of his own three stages of human progress into three “lower,” “intermediate,” and “upper” stages. He considered his own era, capitalism, as the “modern” stage of civilization. 

The rise of the state coincides with the rise of civilization roughly 5,000 years ago. Before that the bulk of humanity lived as small hunter-gatherers bands which Morgan and Engels referred to as “primitive communism.” They were egalitarian and relatively peaceful. Recent scholarship has also confirmed that they were “contrary to earlier assumptions, … nothing like the famine-stricken, one-day-away-from-starvation desperados of folklore.  Hunters and gathers, in fact, never looked so good—in terms of diet, their health, and their leisure.” (Scott, 2017, pp. 9-10)

On the other hand, the march of civilization, has brought humanity to the brink of extinction. Today humanity faces three existential crises: catastrophic climate change, the Sixth Extinction, and nuclear holocaust. To these, Covid-19 pandemic adds a new threat to civilization which has especially impacted the most vulnerable sections of human society. In this U.S., it has especially impacted the African-American community.  

Thus, it must be clear that the problem of the police in the U.S., and elsewhere in the world as solidarity demonstrations in Europe and elsewhere remind us, is a systemic problem of what I have called the ecologial-social crisis of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization (Nayeri, 2020; Nayeri, 2018). In my view, ecological and social crises are part and parcel of the crisis of civilization. 

If this is true, then the police cannot be reformed to rid it of racism and brutality. Kaba cogently argues that past reforms have been ineffective. But it also means that we cannot simply do away with the police by envisioning a society based on “cooperation” and “mutual aid” as she proposes. What is needed a a massive strauggle to transcend the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization based on institutions like the capitalist market and the State in the direction of an Ecocentric Socialist future when there will be no market and no State. 

Ecocentric socialism
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in relative harmony among themselves and with the rest of nature.  With the rise of farming which required domestication of plants and animals, hence domination and control of nature, anthropocentrism arose. Anthropocentrism is alienation from nature as it is the ideology of human-centrism, human superiority, over the rest of nature.  With the rise of a sustainable economic surplus by early agricultural societies, social alienation also arose and with it social differentiation, social strata and social classes.  Power relations that originally arose in farmers relation with the rest of nature—to domesticate some species and to eradicate wild species which continues to this day—new power relations emerged in human society to serve the exploiting ruling classes. 

Human salvation, let alone human emancipation, depends on whether billions of working people would be convinced to begin the long process of undoing all these power relations between humanity and the rest of nature and in human society.  

Given that the market and, the State, which includes the police, are key enabling institutions of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization, we must immediately begin undoing them.  To do away we the police, we must begin the work to undo the capitalist economy and the capitalist state by working our way to Ecocentric Socialism, a short hand for a much smaller society of humans that live by a culture of being instead of a culture of having who live in harmony amongst ourselves and with the rest of nature. That is a long porcess of dealienation from nature and in society. The progress in this process of dealienation will be marked with withering away of all power relations. 

To use my youthful symbolism for an alienated society, to do away with the police, we must do away with locks.

Dedication: To George Floyd and untold number of other victims of racist police brutality. 

Bonnie, Richard J. and Charles H. Whitebread II. The Marihuana Conviction: A History of Marihuana Prohibition in the United States. 1974. 
Kaba, Mariame. “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.” The New York Times. June 12, 2020. 
Nayeri, Kamran. “The Crisis of Civilization and How to Resolve It: An Introduction to Ecocentric Socialism.” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. October 15, 2018. 
————————. “The Coronavirus Pandemic as the Crisis of Civilization.” Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. March 19, 2020. 
Scott, James C. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. 2017.


Unknown said...

Kamran, thanks for writing and sharing this piece which is contextually rich and exhaustive.

In solidarity, tony

Cynthia Burke said...

Fine analysis and ideas explained clearly and readably.