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Geo Maher, the author of the just-released book, A World Without Police, talks about why the police are actually designed not to do what we think they are supposed to do, to “serve and protect” the general public, but actually serve and protect property owners and more generally those who benefit from racism and inequality. He goes on to outline what a world without police could look like.
Welcome to theAnalysis.news. I’m Greg Wilpert. Today I’ll be talking to Geo Maher, author of the just-released book, A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete, published by Verso Books.
With the coronavirus pandemic in the middle of its second year now, there are increasing signs that people are thinking about how we ought to reorganize social institutions once we get out of this mess. One of the many movements that are formulating demands in this regard is the movement against the police. This movement, which gained momentum last year in the wake of the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, has been expressed in the slogan of ‘Defund the Police’. Another slogan that is gradually gaining ground is ‘Police Abolition’.
The call for police abolition is taken up in Geo Maher’s new book, A World Without Police. The book outlines the pivotal role that the police play in U.S. society in maintaining the existing order of capitalism, inequality, and white supremacy. It goes on to point out how we might overcome our perceived need for the police. Geo Maher is a professor of political science at Vassar College and the author of several other books, including We Created Chavez, Decolonizing Dialectics, and Building the Commune.
Thanks for joining me today, Geo.
I’m so glad to be here, Greg.
So in my intro, I argue that many are currently thinking about how we might build a better world given the upheaval that the pandemic has caused. So let’s start there. Why did you decide to write this book now?
So for more than a decade now, I’ve been involved in community organizing from the Bay Area to Philadelphia and nationwide around police violence, police brutality. So it’s been a question that I’ve been working on for a long time. Yet over the past few years, what we’ve seen is that these questions have really lept into mainstream consciousness. I argue that the reason that we’re talking about these things has everything to do with movements in the streets. This is why the narrative has shifted so dramatically in recent years around the police.
It’s been not people asking nicely, asking the police to change themselves, asking them to behave better, but it’s been people taking to the streets in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and more recently in Minneapolis and really demanding that. Really insisting that they’re not going anywhere until something is done with the police.
Now, I want to go through your book more or less systematically, and one of the first chapters basically talks about how the police are really basically taking something that we take for granted. I just wanted to — let’s focus on that first. What is it exactly that we’re taking for granted and why? In terms of the police, why do we need the police, or do we think we need the police?
So, a fundamental starting point when it comes to thinking about all social and political institutions is the fact that these are not eternal. They were created at a certain moment in time, and this applies perfectly well to the police. Police have not always existed, and one of the questions that we need to grapple with is why is it that not only the police were created, invented, what is the origin story of those police, but what is the society that we live in, in relation to how the police function?
When we look at the origins of the police, first of all, we see that globally as well as in the United States, you have a combination of policing as a mechanism for, on the one hand, upholding wealth and upholding capital accumulation in the capitalist mode of production. On the other hand, policing so-called dangerous populations, usually racialized populations, people of color, and colonized people across the world. In the United States, in particular, slaves, and then later former slaves. This is what the police do from the very beginning, particularly in the United States, is to police wealth, and to police whiteness.
Once we understand that, we begin to understand in a much clearer way, why it is that the police continue to do the same things today. Otherwise, this seems inexplicable to a lot of people. Why are the police so violent? Why do they systematically brutalize certain communities when they’re here to keep us safe. So, in the mainstream narrative, it really takes realizing that has never been the function of the police. The police were not invented and created to keep people safe. They were not invented and created for public safety in any sense of the word. They were created to uphold certain rights, certain freedoms, and the wealth and privileges of certain populations. This is where the police come from. What happens over time, and I think this is an increasingly important piece of the equation, is that not only did the police continue to do the same thing throughout history, in other words, in the United States for the past 150 years, but they do more than that, they recreate society. They reshape society in their image. So what I argue in the book is that we need to understand this political function as the police, as actively recreating American society—making it more of what I call a world with police, a world of police.
What does that mean every day? It means that increasingly, our society is one in which we’re taught that the police are the solution to every problem. Whether it’s social welfare, poverty, poor housing, lack of opportunities, lack of schools, lack of after-school activities, you send the police. Mental health crises, send the police. This is how our society has been built. We live in a society that’s increasingly built on this assumption that the police are the only solution. Part of what that means for the task of police evolution is to really rethink what a new society would look like and here, borrowing, of course, the phrase from Angela Davis, who speaks of prisons becoming obsolete; we’re talking about what kind of a society would be required for the police to be obsolete. Once we think about it that way, we begin to understand that what does the police uphold? Again whiteness, wealth, privileges, inequalities whether racial, gendered, economic. A world in which those inequalities were not so prevalent and did not exist would be a world that would not require the police in the same way. It would be a world in which the police would literally serve no function whatsoever.
So, this is the horizon of thinking beyond the police. It means thinking about, on a micro-level, who it is that we can call to negotiate conflicts within a community instead of the police. Who can we call when a neighbor or a family member finds themselves in a mental health crisis? The police are, of course, not mental health professionals of any kind; they’re violence professionals. So why would we be calling them to deal with this question? It’s building outward, from this sort of micro-level in thinking about confronting and breaking, as I argue, police power, the power of police unions that we can begin to envision a new kind of horizon, a different kind of society.
Now, the point that you make about how police as an institution recreate society, I think, is a really important point. I mean, that’s one of the things as a sociologist that we learn in sociology. Essentially, that most of the institutions, if not all of them, basically recreate the institutions and the society on a daily level. So, by pointing out the institution of the police as being part of that, is to point out something that we tend to overlook, I would say because we think that it’s so necessary because we kind of grow up in this for granted takingness of the police.
Now you use a term actually in the first chapter of the Pig Majority, in which you mean the police, in a sense, constitute a majority. Can you explain a little bit more as to how you mean that? I mean, in what sense do the police, or does support for the police constitute the majority? What does that mean?
I think we need to understand, on the one hand, that policing is far beyond the police themselves, and that’s what I tried to argue in that chapter. This is, on some levels, very obvious. Technically speaking, Trayvon Martin was not killed by the police. Ahmaud Arbery, who was hunted and lynched in Georgia last year, was not killed by the police. You can think of many cases in which people were killed by white vigilantes in which white bystanders or those fearful called 911, resulting in someone’s death.
You can think of the judicial apparatus. You can think of district attorneys or judges. You can think of juries and grand juries who refuse to charge Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown, for example. When we start to understand this, we begin to realize that the pig majority is far bigger than the police themselves as an institution.
Now, the institution of the police plays a crucial role in upholding and expanding police power, but it’s also supported by this far broader policing structure that is in many ways coterminous with whiteness. This is what W.E.B. Du Bois recognized, nearly 100 years ago, when he was writing about the reconstruction era. He said police and white vigilantes have been almost the same thing from day one. Policing and lynch mobs have been almost the same thing, and the historical complicity of the two is really undeniable. What we’ve got today is this broad policing apparatus, which is anchored in upholding wealth and whiteness, as I said, and then also even expands beyond that.
So, I also talk about the ways in which, and we know this story very well, in which many black elected politicians and political leaders were conscripted into this policing structure, into supporting it, into the war on drugs, into harsher sentencing measures in the 1990s. This is a global phenomenon as well. We’re talking about policing as firmly interlocked with U.S. imperialism abroad, with global wars, whether it’s supporting local police in Mexico or the actual counterinsurgency warfare that is being brought on a worldwide scale. This is part of a broader policing structure, and so we need to understand this in its broadest terms before we can really confront it and push back on it.
Now that actually also leads to the next chapter, really in the sense that the question of what do the police actually do? You make the connection, I think — which is also very interesting and very important for people to understand — this historical connection to the policing, and this was before there was the police, but the policing of slavery, essentially, and this kind of continuity, but nowadays everybody takes for granted that they’re supposed to ‘protect and serve’. Now, outline a little bit as to what extent do they or don’t they actually do that.
It’s really ironic, especially in light of what I’ve just said about this vast policing apparatus, the vast structure, and the vast sector of the population in the United States in particular that supports, upholds, participates and is complicit in policing on a daily basis as well as the fact that the police protect very few people. Despite the claims to protect and serve, this has always been a very selective process of protecting. The question of who do they serve is a good one. I think, as we know, the police are most likely to protect and systematically do most to protect those who are already protected. They protect the whitest, the wealthiest, or those with the privileges that need to be defended. Whether they’re racial privilege or whether they’re economic privileges. When you begin to do a sort of deductive process of taking away those who are systematically left unprotected by the police, you’re actually left with very few people.
The police are not particularly good at protecting or serving people of color. We know the rates of police murder against people of color vastly outstrip the rates in which this violence is inflicted on the white population. Women are subject to more violence from the police than the police actually prevent. These are statistically, really incontrovertible things. Police violence against women, whether it’s sex workers, women of color, whether it’s their own partners in the home, vastly outstrips the tiny minuscule fraction of, for example, sexual assaults that the police actually prosecute. That’s based on the assumption that the prosecution somehow makes people safe, for which it does not either. When you’re adding to the fact people who are homeless, people having mental health crises, all of these people are at a systematically higher rate of police violence or police murder. They’re much more likely to be killed, much more likely to be brutalized, and when you add up all those populations, you’re really not left with many. Even when you take the most privileged populations, white rich men, how many of them have children who are, for example, queer or trans, people who may be homeless for a period of their lives, who may have a mental health crisis? You realize that policing really doesn’t offer protection. It simply doesn’t.
Again, these are facts. They’ve been born out by statistics. These are things that the police don’t want to talk about, and it’s sort of the dirty secret of policing. There’s really no statistical reason to believe that policing makes us any safer. What it does is it soaks up huge amounts of resources. We’re talking in the billions, many billions of dollars annually that could be dedicated to actually making our society safer. If anything policing by seizing people out of communities, tearing communities and families apart, locking them up, and making it impossible for people to reintegrate in a healthy way into society, makes societies and communities far more dangerous. It creates the sort of situation that we live in today.
What the police do through their unions, through their political lobbying capacity, is extort more money. Every time the police fail to make us safer, they tell us they just need more money. They just need more funding. They need more technology, and then maybe they’ll be able to make us safer, but the reality is that doesn’t happen. The answer we get from the Right and the sort of boogie-man of Chicago, is this incredibly dangerous place. What would you do without police in Chicago? Chicago is the most over-policed city in the country, and yet the police have not made that city any safer. What does that tell us about what we’re told about policing and the reality of it?
Now, of course, one of the things that come up over and over again is that every time there’s an abusive police power, which happens all the time, is that well we just need to reform the police, we need to somehow fix it, or we still need it. I mean, this taken-for-granted notion that the police are absolutely essential cannot be touched basically. So, the only solution then would seem to be police reform. Now, you argue in the book that police reform is basically useless; why is that?
I mean, the simple fact is that the police have been reformed ever since they were founded. It’s been one constant, never-ending process of reform that creates this sort of loop where there’s this promise that the police will get better, more effective, more professional, less violent, less racist, all of these things. So you’re talking about waves of reform from the 1880-1890s to the 1920-30s to the 1960s. After the mass rebellions demanding civil rights, black power, you see these waves of demands for reform. The menu of reforms offered is always the same. When you break those down, whether it’s so-called community policing, which destroys communities rather than strengthens them. Whether it’s a technological fix or it’s a new kind of chokehold that is allegedly safer but soon find out later is killing people. Whether it’s new kinds of weaponry, all of these reforms end up feeding into the same system, and the whole loop provides cover for the fact that we’re attempting to fix problems that are systemic. We’re attempting to reform away problems that cannot be reformed away because they’re baked into the structure of what the police do.
Again, if your starting assumption is that the police are there to protect and serve, why are they not doing it correctly? Let’s see if we can reform in a way that will allow them to perform that function; you’ve misunderstood the problem from the beginning. Once you understand that the police exist to protect certain privileges, then you wouldn’t even be asking the question, well, why are they violent, in particular, towards poor people of color? It’s built right into what the police do in American society and on a global scale.
You mentioned earlier that the police unions, or as one should say, probably, so-called unions — because I think you make a very crucial point in your book, that they’re not really unions. These are being used to maintain police power, and that we basically need to break those unions down. Now, there are two questions I have about this. First of all, I guess we need to explain exactly why they’re not unions and how do they function? The other point I want to ask about is, you also make the argument that while most unions have gotten weaker over the years, which is no doubt true, if you look at unionization rates across the United States, they’ve been going down, but police unions have actually only gotten stronger over the years. So the other question is, well, why is that? So first, what is it about police unions that makes them not really unions? How are they different, in other words, and secondly, how do they get stronger?
I think this is a really important question. It’s important in part because the base on the Left has not been clear enough about this question of these so-called police unions and what to do with them. The fundamental concern is if we adopt a position that weakens any public-sector union, meaning the police or, for example, I.C.E. [the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], and Border Patrol, these unions we’re providing leverage to, is then used against other unions. This is the concern, and we should admit, it’s a real concern.
The problem is that there are several problems. One is that, as you mentioned, these are not unions in the sense that they don’t actually and can’t be understood as actually representing workers against bosses and against capital. This is played out precisely in the history of these unions. They developed along a different trajectory from other unions. They developed in a situation in which, at that moment, police began to unionize and began to organize. They immediately replaced and moved beyond other unions; as I put in the book, they sort of leapfrogged them into gaining privileges and demanding special privileges. They did so, primarily, by making deals with their apparent bosses.
Technically, these are not unions because they’re associations or, whatever, benevolent associations. This question has everything to do with the substantive point because these are so-called unions that gave up the right to strike in order to be stable partners in the governing process with city officials, with the powers born of white supremacy and capitalism. They do not protect workers. They do not support workers. Instead, systematically they oppress and brutalize the poorest, the most unprotected workers. Again on the economic side, you can say that from the very beginning, when you look at the role of police strikebreakers in the most important waves of union activity and economic strikes in the country. At the same time, this dovetails with their role as upholders of white supremacy, destroying black movements, destroying movements of people of color, and insurgent movements in the United States. When you look at the actual process of the consolidation of police power through these so-called unions, you realize that they do it through-provoking panic towards communities of color. In New York, a very famous riot undertaken by the police, a white supremacist riot against a black Mayor, is an example of what propels the police union into a position of authority and power. It is by leveraging the fear of workers, on the one hand, and the fear of people of color, black people, in particular, these unions begin to consolidate their power.
Now, what do you see today? So-called police unions are the political spearhead of police power. On the local level, they negotiate these binding contracts, which are absolutely ludicrous. If most people knew how these contracts worked, they would be scandalized because it is on this level of local contracts that it becomes nearly impossible to even question, discipline, or file charges against a police officer accused of misconduct. Whether it’s the limitations or the fact that charges and grievances have to be filed immediately, but even with that, within a few months to a couple of years after complaints are filed, they are scrubbed from their records entirely. This is why we see abusive cops moving from different agencies to others, with no one realizing they have a systematic history of abuse.
On the local level, they negotiate. On the state level, they push what is called the Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights, which are special rights for police. Not just rights like everyone else, special rights that make it again harder for police to be held accountable. When you realize that the fundamental question in all of this, in the negotiations of so-called police unions is not the — for example, the economic stability or solidarity of police as workers with other workers, but its special privileges economically and its impunity on a political level. That is the fundamental demand, and the police, more often than not, are willing to forego their wages and their wage increases if it means that there will be less accountability for when they inflict violence onto other workers, which is what they do every day. There’s simply no way to deal with the police without confronting or destroying police unions.
I would love to hear a suggestion from the Left on how to actually confront police power without dismantling the spearhead of police, what I argued to be a fascistic police power. Still, there’s simply no way to do it because they are the fundamental mechanism for not only upholding but expanding police power today.
I think that’s also a really important insight, and I guess the question, though, is why it is? I’m not sure, I think you partially answered that question, but I want to get a little bit deeper as to why it is that at a time when unions have gotten weaker, why is it that the police unions or the benevolent associations have actually gotten stronger? I want to throw out one hypothesis; maybe could it have something to do with the fact that they have the weapons?
Yes. No, certainly. The phrase that’s often used for this is the carve-out. When political leaders are attacking union protections, weakening unions, breaking their political power, and basically scrapping whatever agreement they have with them, the police get a carve-out. They’re exempted. This is what happened in Wisconsin with Scott Walker. You’ve got the police essentially claiming a privileged position that prevents them from being treated like workers. So, on the one hand, they want to say, yes, these are unions, yes, we are workers. On the other hand, whenever the anti-union train comes through town, they want to be exempted. They want special protections, and they demand those protections. Again, they traded away their right to strike. They don’t really strike, but they engage in a whole other range of political lobbying, protests, and outright sabotage in cities across the country of political leaders if they feel like those privileges are threatened. Police do not show union solidarity with workers. We know this. This is 100% true.
You even have a case in Texas recently where public safety workers, meaning police and firefighters, were trying to equalize their wages, and the police said no, we don’t want to even have the firefighters on our level. We want to be the most privileged sector, and we want to claim these privileges for ourselves. That’s not a worker’s movement. That’s not a solidarity movement. That’s a movement for the privileges of a certain sector and precisely because it’s a sector that the state needs to function and is willing to die off and make into a mechanism and a weapon to use against reform.
Now, we spent a fair amount of time talking about what’s wrong with the police and how they maintain their power. Of course, this leads to the big question as to, well, what would happen if we just got rid of the police? How would we maintain public safety, for example, which is, after all, supposedly the main function of the police? They obviously do much more than that and don’t even do that as you’ve outlined, but still, the question of public safety remains. So, what’s the alternative?
Absolutely, and again you’re right. The fundamental starting point has to be recognition that the police do not provide public safety. If we don’t understand that, accept it as the basis for our analysis, then we’ve started on the wrong foot in terms of even grasping what is next because otherwise, the conversations are the conversations we’re having today. In light of an increase in the murder rate in certain places, I don’t want to overstate what’s happening today, but an increase in certain kinds of violent crimes in Philadelphia, homicide is increasing. Then the question is, well, how could we defund the police at this point when homicides are increasing? The fundamental assumption of the question is that the police prevent homicides from happening when we know that’s not true.
Now, the more important question is, what is this alternative world that we’re trying to build? Police abolition draws upon a tradition of abolitionist organizing that goes back decades to the origins of the prison abolition movement, but it goes back even further, of course, to the fundamental reference point of abolition, which is the abolition of slavery, the first wave of abolition. In all of these cases, what’s really important to understand is that despite the name of abolition, this is not simply about dismantling political institutions; it’s about creating alternatives and one of the main failings of the first wave, the abolition of slavery, was precisely that, while slavery was abolished, nothing was created in its place.
You had experiments with the Freedman’s Bureau at the age of reconstruction. There were experiments in building a different kind of society, a different kind of economy, making sure that former slaves had the social fabric to exist on the same level and on a footing of equality, but that was destroyed systematically by white terror, by the Ku Klux Klan. So, what we got instead was the police. Instead, we got the racialization of crime and mass incarceration, and that’s the reality that abolitionists are confronting today, but mainly from the same position. Again, you abolish institutions in part, at least by rendering those institutions obsolete. In part by making and creating a kind of society that doesn’t require police and that doesn’t require prisons.
Now, the two pieces, the destroying and the dismantling of the existing world and the creation of the new world, don’t always go and move at the same pace. Last year, the rebellions and resistance in Minneapolis and worldwide, sparked by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, created a situation in which there was active talk for the first time of dismantling the Minneapolis police. Now that experiment has stalled, but the bottom-up experiment of creating alternatives, which was happening on the ground in Minneapolis through local committees for safety in the protest park area of Minneapolis, is one that we’ve also seen nationwide. An entire fabric of grassroots abolitionists’ organizing exists across the country and across the world, and that’s part of what I try to draw out in the book.
There are antiviolence organizations. There are organizations that exist in almost every city to intervene in community conflict before the police get involved and prevent the police from getting involved. There are efforts to divert 911 calls, particularly for mental health emergencies, to non-police actors. That’s a crucial one because it takes hundreds of thousands of people out of that interaction, daily, with the police, which is a deadly interaction. You’ve got community organizations attempting to build local police-free zones where the neighbors help resolve conflicts in conversation with one another.
What I like to point out in the book is that we all know what this looks like. It seems like such a distant world, but we don’t always call the police when we have a conflict with family members. We don’t always call the police when there’s a conflict on our block that requires neighbors to get together, come to some kind of decision, manage that conflict, diffuse it and create a nonviolent outcome for that situation. We know what that looks like. It’s a question of scaling that up and doing so with the existing organizations that again, exist in almost any city. These experiments have been growing, developing, and deepening for decades. No one has really been paying much attention to them. Yet, they all contribute to building this world without police, which already exists, which is growing, which exist alongside the world of police, and increasingly in conflict with it.
This is — to people who aren’t familiar with the idea of police abolitionists, this still can sound kind of very difficult to achieve. At the very least, even though what you’re saying, I think, is a very important point. I liked, especially this one quote that you had, I’m just going to paraphrase it right now, but somebody says that an organizer says, well, we would never call the police anyway, since we know we can’t rely on them. I think that’s a crucial point, but on the other hand, there’s also the issue perhaps that community organizations, and I think you briefly address this in your book as well, but still, community organizations can sometimes actually serve to reproduce existing inequalities and inequities. How do we make sure that doesn’t happen? Couldn’t we just perhaps be getting rid of the police in favor of some other institution that perhaps doesn’t function as violent but still in some way maintains inequality?
Absolutely. This is a danger that there’s no foolproof way to prevent this from happening, but it’s certainly something that we need to be alert to. We need to prevent community organizations for safety, security, and local self-control from devolving into what we know as neighborhood watch. Of course, the difference is that these sort of quasi-policing organizations, including things like the Guardian Angels and other things like that, exist to uphold the inequalities of society. What does the neighborhood watch do? It keeps an eye out, in a generally more affluent neighborhood, for anyone who looks as if they don’t belong.
Our community organizations cannot reproduce that logic of ostracizing, identifying those who don’t belong, identifying outsiders, and pushing them further out. Instead, they need to operate based on understanding how a community involves and includes those people. Those who are maybe involved in a dangerous activity, criminal activity, or violence are often relatives to members of that community. Still, we’ve been told for decades that they’re super predators. We’ve been indoctrinating this idea that they need to be systematically excluded, thrown in prison, locked up, warehoused away, outside of and away from society, instead of realizing that they are people’s children. They are people’s nephews and nieces. They are involved in communities and need to be treated as such. It’s a difficult task, but it also points toward the fact that, again, this is a long-term horizon that requires the construction of a new kind of society. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to identify and ostracize the poor if people are not living on the street, if people are not poor, if we have a society of equals, and if we begin to build that kind of society. This is where the question of defunding is really essential because, of course, defunding is not abolition but defunding. If done correctly and not simply symbolically, it is a mechanism for beginning to expand a society without the police.
What does it mean? It means taking resources away from the police in the millions of dollars, if not billions, nationwide and dedicating those resources toward building really and truly safe communities.
How do you build safe communities? Again, it’s not by creating a different kind of police force; it’s by building a society of equals. It’s by overcoming the economic inequalities that rack our communities, the racial inequalities of pervasive white supremacy, the gendered inequalities that make certain people targets in communities for violence. This is the kind of society that needs to be built, and of course, until that begins to expand in a systematic way, there’s always going to be a heightened risk that anything we do risks reproducing the logic of the police.
Now, towards the end of the book, you get into the international dimension and talk specifically about the role of borders and of border protection. Talk a little bit about how the issue of borders and border protection and, of course, of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. How is that related to police abolition?
Yeah. This is a piece that I think needs to be more front and center of many abolitionist movements, namely the fact that policing is a global apparatus. It’s an apparatus that is indistinguishable in many ways from U.S. imperialism, global empire, global capitalism as a broader structure, and again from that militarized armed force that upholds global inequalities.
Again, domestically we call that the police; internationally, we call it military and imperialism, but they often do the same kind of work. It’s the same kind of upholding of whiteness and the same kind of upholding of economic privilege. This is why it should be no surprise to us. For example, when we find out that police in Ferguson were being trained in settler-colonial Israel or when we see that U.S. interventions abroad like the Vietnam War are called police actions or peacekeeping missions. It’s the same logic, and it’s all built on that underlying colonial logic, which says that poor communities of color on the global scale are incapable of taking care of themselves. What we mean by that is that they’re not happy with their inequality; they’re not happy with the condition that global imperialism has left them in.
A great deal of scholarship and organizing has increasingly recognized this tight intertwining of imperialism with policing, and that’s something that our movements need to reflect. Now, the border sits in many ways right at the intersection of the tube. It’s no surprise that I.C.E., that Border Patrol and police unions, the paternal order of the police, have exactly the same fascistic political outlook. They all wholeheartedly endorse Donald Trump for the presidency and reelection. They all have a uniformly right-wing and fascistic political perspective because they are effectively the same kind of force.
Here we see very clearly the ways in which policing, on the one hand, and imperialism on the other, are bound up together, and it’s that the U.S. border has been, itself, an expanding force. Manifest destiny, the moving of the U.S. border through the imperial control, in the seizure of Native territory, Indigenous genocide, seizure of Mexican territory, is all part of a global policing paramilitary structure that we see expanding even further today. The good thing about this, it’s incredibly daunting to think about all these things together. Still, the good thing about adopting a kind of global framework is the realization that on a global level, we can talk about the broad vast global majority that can be involved in this struggle against policing, against global imperialism, against white supremacy as a structured premise of global order. This is a global majority for the world without police, and it’s very different from the pig majority.
One of the points that you make, I think, is absolutely crucial in the book. The counter-argument to the mainstream argument is that migrants in the United States have lower wages and compete for U.S. wages. That’s one of the main arguments in favor of border patrol and the policing of the border, but you completely debunk that. Describe exactly how it is that migration does not contribute to lower wages. If anything, it’s actually the other way around, that it’s the policing of the borders that does that.
No, there’s this argument that’s been weaponized by the Right, weaponized by Trump and Trump advisors, and even taken up by sectors of the so-called Left, that claims that open borders are not a progressive policy proposal. That claims that open borders hurt workers. That workers find their wages to be driven down by migration. It’s a systematic lie. It’s a lie that’s very easily debunked, but like all lies, it’s the kind of thing that’s repeated so often that people don’t question it. What drives down wages is not migration. What drives down wages is the border itself.
What drives down wages is the fact that capitalists can leverage what are called differentials within the working class to weaken certain sectors toward the privilege or the benefit of others. If you eliminated the border, wages would increase. It’s precisely the fact that many migrants arrive in the United States without protection, without papers, without benefits, without health insurance, often paying into these things regardless of the fact that they can actually benefit from them, that creates a situation in which they are able to be paid less.
It’s the existence of the border that allows undocumented people to be not only paid less but politically docile. To be forced to behave, to be unwilling to resist the boss, to be unwilling to claim the wages that they are owed, this is to the detriment of all workers and drives down wages systematically across the board.
What’s really interesting and unsurprising when you think about it, again, and shows the deep similarities between black and brown struggles when it comes to policing, border policing, the internal U.S. policing, is the fact that this is exactly the same kind of lie that was told about slavery. Workers in the north were told that if slavery were abolished, they would be suddenly competing with a bunch of free slaves, and their wages would go down. The reality is that what hurt the wages of northern workers was, above all, the system of slavery. In other words, the legal structure that prevented owners of slaves in the south from having to pay their workers anything at all sucked all wages to the lowest possible level. They were against, and they should have been against, the system of slavery as opposed to the individual slaves that they saw as competition. Same thing today. The system of border policing is what lowers wages, is what hurts all workers. Workers themselves should be opposed to that system instead of seeing those migrants as competitors, as somehow harming their economic condition.
Last year I interviewed William Robinson about his book The Global Police State. He refers to the idea that capitalist development is constantly creating ever greater inequalities and that these can only be maintained with global police. That’s why his book is called The Global Police State. Now, to me, it seems like this is. I don’t know if there’s something you want to add up to that in terms of what the connection is between the existence of the U.S. police and this global police state? I mean, it seems to me that the idea that the police and the military serve a very similar function. You mentioned that before already that they serve a very similar function in maintaining the system that we have. Therefore, they become a sort of pivot, so to speak, for a transition to a different system. That is an absolutely crucial one that it seems hasn’t been paid enough attention to. I mean, when I look for example, at the activism going on in the United States, it happens on all kinds of different issues, but there’s relatively little and not to diminish the activism for peace and for international solidarity, but it’s relatively small compared to all the other activism that’s going on. You’d think if it’s so central, that is the police violence, and the military violence around the world is so central to maintaining the system, shouldn’t that be a little bit more central to the building of a different world?
Absolutely. It needs to be, and movements need to take this kind of global vision and understand these solidarities as being far broader than we’re often told. Of course, what the U.S. political culture does is attempt to isolate these things. We know even in the United States, the attempts to distinguish Black Lives Matter from movements around socio-economic inequality or other questions — as though these were not all very much tied up with each other. As if we couldn’t build solidarity around migrant movement and policing when these are very much the same thing.
At the same time that Bill Clinton is signing NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement], militarizing the southern U.S. border, and signing repressive border legislation like the IRA IRA [Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act], he’s also signing a brutal omnibus crime bill which criminalizes and leads to massive incarcerations of hundreds of thousands of people. It’s the same move. It’s the same thing happening to largely black residents of cities. It’s the same thing that’s happening on the border. It’s the same thing that’s happening to Mexican and Central American migrants, and it’s absolutely true. When your global policy is to extract wealth from other countries, which involves extracting the labor and the resources of some of the poorest people in the world, people will resist that.
What we’ve seen in a global wave of struggles over the past 30 or 40 years now, all across the global south, are attempts of struggle against U.S. imperialism, against interventions, and the economic basis for those interventions. That’s the same process that we’re seeing in the U.S. when we’re talking about austerity and budget cuts. When we’re talking about right-wing movements to uphold white supremacy and white privilege in the present, the police play a central role in that. It’s no accident that the United States, while it’s trying to sort of like, jockey for control over somewhere like Mexico, insists that a certain amount of this foreign aid be dedicated to domestic policing operations because they have an economic interest as well in making sure that the most oppressed don’t have the space to actually build resistance movements against them.
That’s why the same exact people who support wars abroad, who support the police and so-called Blue Lives Matter domestically, are also the same ones who are so frightened of any examples of solidarity abroad, whether it’s the Pink Tide in Latin America, resistance movements in Bolivia, Venezuela and elsewhere, or the waves of migrants being displaced by U.S. policy. Suppose you look at the so-called border crisis of today. In that case, it’s easily traceable to U.S. policy, whether it’s the creation of the Mara [Salvatrucha], the MS13 organization, through the deportation machinery of the United States under Clinton, or whether it’s the U.S. support under Obama and Hillary Clinton of a coup in Honduras that led to the proliferation of death squads driving many people out of that country, we’re looking at a globally interlocked, not only police state, but a network of resistance against that apparatus. That’s something we need to, as U.S. organizers, in particular, always be conscious of.
Okay, well, on that note, we’re going to have to leave it there. I was speaking to Geo Maher, author of the book A World Without Police, published by Verso Books. I highly recommend this book, especially for people who aren’t as familiar with the police abolition movement, but I think everybody can learn something from it, so I really recommend it. Thanks again, Geo, for having joined me today.
Thank you so much, Greg. It was great to have a conversation with you today.
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Afghanistan Police Action was a great device for training future policeman to be perfectly inhuman. Many policemen are ex-military and so perfect training for the time when the rulers decide they need to get rid of the 50% of the poor by using the other 50%. Thanks to improvements in military equipment now they only need 5% or 10% to kill off the unnecessary balance.
Thank you for doing all this work Geo. You are right that the only way to fix this is to abolish and replace. I just hope I live long enough to see it happen. Capitalists have never had so much money, and so much political and speech power. I would love to know what the plan is to make this necessary change in how our society is structured.