The Crisis of Policing in America


An interview with Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton, editors of Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. Now available as a FREE ebook here.

This interview first appeared on “A Public Affair” with Allen Ruff, WORT 89.9 FM, June 4, 2020.

Allen Ruff: How do we get a handle on the seemingly perpetual, all too often fatal, police violence perpetrated on Black and Brown bodies across America? Is it just coincidental that a disproportionate number of people of color die at the hands of the police? Is it the result of random encounters with individual "bad apples" or rogue cops, that breed that will someday vanish following the best practices application of the right kind of "progressive police reform"? Or, can we attribute such ceaseless violence to something more, something systemic, structural and institutional, rooted at the heart of our social system, and the result of today's policing strategies? With us today to provide some needed perspective on the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and its aftermath are Christina Heatherton and Jordan T. Camp. They are co-editors of the important collection Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (Verso, 2016). This wave of protests has swept the country since kicking off in Minneapolis just over a week ago after the death of George Floyd. Help us understand what has occurred.   

Heatherton: The knife has struck bone. We are only in the sixth month of 2020, and it feels like it's already been a decade. People are responding to an accumulation of rage, insults, frustrations, and murders by police and racist vigilantes, disproportionately of Black people, resulting from a long history of violence. Millions watched the video of George Floyd  being murdered by a police officer, Minneapolis, MN. The first official medical report concluded that he had died of underlying conditions. In other words, that he killed himself.    

In Louisville, KY, Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who worked as an EMT, an essential worker, was basically killed while sleeping. Plainclothes officers, not in uniform, who did not announce themselves as police, tried to enter her house. Breonna’s partner who had a legal permit to carry a gun, was rightfully afraid and shot towards them. The police responded with a hail of bullets, killing Breonna and then arresting her partner. The message was that these victims of police violence had brought it on themselves. Of course, there are many others. Ahmaud Arbery, was killed while jogging in Georgia. His neighbors, just like Trayvon Martin’s neighbor, appointed themselves Arbery’s judge, jury, and executioner. These vigilantes killed him because they thought he looked suspicious, because he was running. When no charges were filed against the men, the message was that Arbery had also brought it on himself. We can't forget Tony McDade, a  Black trans man who was killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida. Prompted by these and so many other murders, there are now protests in all 50 states in the country. They represent a denunciation of an entire system.      

There is a quote attributed to Tony Morrison going around that I think has it right, it says: "What struck me most about those who rioted was how long they waited, the restraint they showed. Not the spontaneity, the restraint. They waited and waited for justice, and it didn't come. No one talks about that." There is no accountability. There have been no apologies. And consistently there has been a tactic victim blaming. In this time of mass unemployment and mass death from COVID the state has nothing to offer but violence and death. These uprisings represent a renunciation of this entire system.      

Ruff: You mentioned the coronavirus pandemic, the recession, and deep unemployment. The underlying conditions that have been made worse by the economic and social impacts of the pandemic have remained in place during the lockdown. But large swaths of the population has already been locked in “iron cages" to use Ronald Takaki's marvelous phrase.  Let's talk about this historic conjuncture that is occurring right before our eyes.      

Camp:  When white police officer Derek Chauvin, brutally murdered George Floyd, an unemployed Black worker in Minneapolis while he said: "I can't breathe, please stop," as three other cops stood by in complicity and watched, this was viewed as symptomatic of policing in U.S. cities. After all, the Minneapolis community was still reeling from the brutal murder of Philando Castile at the hands of police officer Jeronimo Yanez, following a traffic stop in 2016.

Yanez had been trained in a kind of "warrior-cop" style course. These courses teach cops to gear themselves as troops and imagine they are engaged in a war on the streets. The maneuver that Chauvin employed in killing Floyd had also been taught in a similarly inspired warrior-style training program, at Hennepin Technical College until 2016, a program that trained about half the Minneapolis police department. While the mayor banned officers from taking this course in 2019, Minneapolis police union head Bob Kroll, and supporter of Trump.  In a letter that he wrote in response to protests, Kroll depicted Floyd as a "violent criminal," and the protestors as engaged in what he described as a "terrorist movement." He has railed against mayor Frey and governor Tim Waltz for their failure to crush the movement.  

These words and actions are not unrelated to what effectively has become a police riot amidst the worst economic crisis at least since the Great Depression, and likely, in the history of capitalism. This context is very important to understanding George Floyd's death at the hands of police. He had just lost his job as a bouncer, making him one of the 40 million who had joined the ranks of the unemployed since March 2020 alone. The economic crisis has, hit Black workers, Latino workers, and Native people particularly hard, with Black workers experiencing an unemployed rate at twice the rate of white workers.      

All of this cannot be thought of outside of the context of the global pandemic, with over 100,000 deaths as of last week. This is an acute crisis in Minnesota where Black people represent 16 percent of the total cases, despite the fact that they're only 7% percent of the state's population. We need to look at the state's policing and military response to the protests in the context of this crisis of capitalism, and of this failure of the Trump administration to address the crisis.       

Ruff: Let's go back to your book of 2016, Policing the Planet. Give us a sense of the central concerns of the book.

Heatherton: We start that book with the story of Eric Garner who was murdered by the NYPD, as he plead with cops saying, “I can’t breathe.” The book is not just about how Eric Garner died, but the conditions under which he was forced to live. It is a dialogue between organizers, journalists, lawyers, scholars, artists, poets, people trying to make sense of those conditions.

Throughout the book we question of how many resources disproportionately go to policing, prisons, corrections, and criminal justice. In many cities, like Oakland, policing alone constitutes half of the municipal budget. In Los Angeles, policing is $3 billion of the $10 billion dollar general budget. In New York, the $5 billion for policing is more than the funds devoted to housing, youth, homelessness, and health services combined. According to a Bureau of Justice report, criminal justice spending on police, courts, and corrections constitute half of the public spending of local governments.      

With Policing the Planet we wanted to show that people with political differences, coming from different places around the country, were all calling attention to the same questions: why are a disproportionate number of resources is going towards policing? When we ask, why have the police become the solution to every social problem? Well, we’ve defunded everything else! If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Police violence is rampant because so much of our public money, the majority of our tax dollars, go to policing and militarism. That is part of what we were trying to argue in Policing the Planet.      

Thanks to the tireless work of organizers on the ground, something that was edgy a few years ago is now totally commonplace. SO, who's making this argument now? The New York Times editorial board recently wrote an op-ed titled, "No More Money for Police." The Los Angeles Times editorial board’s opinion was "Stop Focusing on Looting in Minneapolis, Be Outraged that the Police Keep Killing Black Men." Outlets like GQ have done popularly circulating pieces about the amount cities are spending on police over everything else. Corporations like Ben & Jerry's have released statements calling attention to these same dynamics. What used to be radical and cutting-edge has now been quickly incorporated. All of these public figures and corporations are making public declarations that they would never have dreamed of making up until now.   

If those proclamations were enough, the protests would have stopped. But talk is cheap. And the protests haven’t stopped. We're seeing a total renunciation of this whole settlement. People are starving. In cities like Los Angeles, the official unemployment rate in 55 percent - meaning it's a lot higher than that. People are starving, they are dying from the coronavirus, and they cannot pay rent. When you see an uprising of people around the country that are having to cover their faces with rags, while they are confronted with armed police officers who are driving armored vehicles, armed with an embarrassment of weapons and supplies, this is a confrontation between the sectors that are stuffed and the people who are staved of state resources.      

Derecka Purnell, an exceptional lawyer, journalist, and activist, recently put a question up on social media: "What would you rather fund, if not the police?" She got a ton of responses. People said: Why don't we have youth employment programs? Better healthcare? Better food distribution? Education? A whole list of things. Now, here’s the question: if we want those things, who do we want to run them? Do you want a youth employment program that Donald Trump runs? Or an education program that Betsy Devos runs? Would you want healthcare run by Joe Biden, who thinks we all love our health insurance companies? No.      

These protests are not just about reshuffling municipal financing, these protests are about reshaping how society is organized, what its priorities are, how it's run, and how the logic of capital and capital accumulation organizes the levers of the state through racism, and state violence. People have had enough. They are saying, no more.      

Camp: Another thing has changed since the publication of Policing the Planet in 2016. As we saw uprisings rock the U.S. from Ferguson, to Baltimore, to New York, and beyond, we suggested that broken windows had taken shape as a political response to the social and economic crises of the late twentieth century. We argued that it had become the dominant model of community policing alongside the consolidation of the U.S. as a carceral state, and the neoliberal transformation of cities. We demonstrated that broken windows was the political expression of neoliberal capitalism at the urban scale, that it led to increasing unemployment, poverty, and homelessness, and that policing was deployed to contain those problems within particular geographical boundaries.      

These conditions have now become generalized. The protests reveal that we're living through a major turning point from which there’ll be no turning back. These protests are targeting symbols of state power, like the White House. In Birmingham, protestors toppled a brass sculpture of Confederate captain Charles Linn. In Philadelphia, a twelve-foot statue of Frank Rizzo, the infamous racist police commissioner that terrorized the Black working class community there, was also targeted and removed. A Newsweek poll showed that over half of Americans thought it was justified to burn down the Minneapolis police precinct in response to the murder of George Floyd.   

Protestors are connecting the dots between policing, state power, and Trump, not only as president but also as a symbol for finance capital and real estate. The political formation he represents is an alliance between billionaires and a largely white reactionary lower-middle class consolidated around a nationalist, xenophobic, racist, misogynist agenda. What they're trying to do is replace liberal democracy with a centralized repressive apparatus in order to secure the conditions for capital to survive.       

Ruff: You know Jordan, we can use the f-word, that is fascism. I want to go back because I think it's important for us to understand broken windows policing. Can you explain?       

Camp: Broken windows is basically is a policing philosophy that came into vogue in the 1980s that targeted so-called "crimes," of "disorder," like jay-walking, loitering, or trespassing. In Skid Row, Los Angeles people can be cited for ashing their cigarette on the ground. The theory of broken windows suggests that you prevent large-scale violence by targeting these minor issues. Without any evidence at all, police departments in cities around the country have taken this up under the tutelage of the libertarian think-tank The Manhattan Institute. It has been propagated by William Bratton, former police commissioner here in New York City, who was also police chief in Los Angeles, and has subsequently been a security advisor for governments around the world.      

We traced the emergence of a kind of "broken windows" governance that bloats police departments' budgets at the expense of other things like housing, education, and healthcare  –all the things that could have built up our capacity to address this pandemic. These policing models change names. Now they don't call it broken windows so much as "community policing," or "neighborhood policing." But these are all just public relations changes designed to win consent to a kind of changing same.      

Heatherton: Broken windows policing, broadly speaking, is a policing philosophy that was designed by Manhattan Institute affiliated intellectuals George Kelling and James Q. Wilson. The name comes from the idea that if a window in a neighborhood is broken, and it goes unfixed, it encourages other crimes, like littering, which then might lead to loitering, which then leads to trespassing, and then murder, destruction, anarchy, the whole kit and caboodle. This potent imaginary leads us to believe that if you target small-scale infractions, meaning, if you heavily police everyday behavior, you’ll be preventing bigger crimes from occurring.     

The theory is key to facilitating the economic and spatial transformations of cities. The key propagators of this theory, people like William Bratton, are heavily entangled with local urban capitalist development. As Fred Moten poignantly says: broken windows are not repaired, they are replaced. In all the places where you've seen the institution of this policing theory, you've seen mass displacement, mass arrest, mass disappearance of people into jails, prisons, and detention centers, mass deportation and mass dispossession. We were calling attention to those dynamics, because this is what people were protesting throughout the U.S., and this was also what was getting exported around the world.      

Ruff: Lots of liberals and lots of reformists of various stripes talk about reforming the police.  But you say that policing is not broken and in need of repair, it's actually quite efficient in fulfilling its functions. You just gave a summary of the broken windows strategy, but talk about the key functions of policing in the neoliberal city.    

Camp: One of the key functions of policing is to operate as an urban strategy employed by elites to enable the gentrification of cities. This is a class project that has displaced the urban multi-racial working class worldwide. Its essential function is to consolidate real estate and finance capital in the restructuring of urban space. This has led to dramatically increasing inequality. Cops are deployed to protect private property. Whether it's called zero tolerance policing or broken windows policing, people have to be able to develop protest strategies that actually get to its root. In these moments of crisis we’ll see a lot of misdirection. Reformers will ask for things like expanded de-escalation training for cops, or for hiring more diverse police officers, or enhanced sensitivity training. But none of this, we argue, changes the structure of policing. Rather it is a cover to enable the redirection of federal funds into local police departments.      

Heatherton: The Minneapolis police department was actually widely praised for all of its progressive measures.  They had implicit bias training, they had done a lot of work to diversify their force, they had incorporated non-lethal de-escalation measures. None of those things changed the combustible conditions in Minneapolis. Those reforms do not fundamentally change the central function of policing itself. The protests are a clear renunciation of reforms like sensitivity training or diversification. The fundamental problem is policing itself.      

Policing provides different functions to different political economies. What do I mean by that? James Baldwin said, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” In Ferguson, protestors called attention to the police violence and to the fact that basically broken windows policing was used to fill municipal coffers. People were being stopped, arrested, ticketed, and cited for the smallest infractions, traffic infractions, or having the lid of their trashcan not on completely. Ridiculous things. Around 20 percent of the revenue of the city was based on the fees and fines that came from these minor infractions. This produced direct relation of predation by the local police.      

This relation is different in different places. In Skid Row Los Angeles the primary function of police, doesn't have the same direct predatory relation. Instead the police are disproportionately protecting a key sector of the LA economy which is real estate. When you think about the function of police in different places, it’s important to identify the dominant sectors of different regional economies and to think about how police help to reinforce that economic settlement.      

Ruff: Our engineer informs me that we have callers that want to get in with a comment or question. Let's go to Mark. Hi, Mark, you're on the air. Mark: Who has political power over the police, who can direct them to do whatever?          

Heatherton: We have power over the police. The police work for us. The police are employed by our tax dollars. We are the boss of the police. This is a really hard argument to wrap our headz around, especially if you’ve just seen a flood of videos of the police assaulting people, pointing weapons in people's faces, and doing anything but respect the people that they are supposed to serve. These protests reassert that we are the bosses of the police, we pay their salary, and we, the majority of people in this country, do not want them to operate with racist violent impunity, the ways that they have been.      

Ruff: You talked about taxing poor people to fill coffers that have been emptied out by neoliberal austerity. What I want to get to is the criminalization of poverty - that the racialized poor primarily are seen as a source of disorder and ultimately viewed as enemy combatants.      

Camp: Yes, the criminalization of the poor and the dispossessed, of Black people, Indigenous people, and of LGBTQ communities, all treated as enemies, we need to understand this as a manifestation of a counter-insurgency paradigm used to fight purported enemies of the U.S. state around the world. There is no point in us trying to separate the rest of the world from the U.S. because the cops don't see that way. They see you as an enemy.      

This has been true for a long time. We could talk about the Watts uprising of 1965, which was also sparked by the brutal beating of an unemployed Black motorist, or Detroit in 1967, when a major uprising occurred in response to a raid on a party for returning Vietnam soldiers. One thing that all the participants in these uprisings have had in common is that they're the poor, they're working class, or they're part of the surplus population. In Watts, the unemployment rate among mostly Black workers there was 34 percent. This was the rate the entire the working class experienced at the height of the Great Depression.     

We’re in a worse mess now with 40 million people added to the ranks of the unemployed since March. According to the International Labor Organization, almost half the labor force globally could lose their livelihood as a result of the economic crisis, a total collapse of the political economy. The function of the criminalization of poverty is to distract us, to say: the source of your problems as a working class person in this country is somehow “crime in the streets,” or immigration, or Muslims, or terrorists, or whatever. This is Trump's desperate attempt to redirect our attention from more fundamental transformations in the political economy of capitalism. It has reached a dead end.

Heatherton: Otis Madison famously said, "The purpose of racism is to control the behavior of white people, not Black people. For Black people, guns and tanks are sufficient." What did he mean by this? Many theorists, like Cedric Robinson, have talked about racial regimes, ways that the social order is made to appear natural through racial narratives. The police are primary agents responsible for naturalizing this social order. People in the future will weep for us. They’ll look at the income inequality, the vast polarization of wealth, the way poor people basically were robbed and the rich got richer and they'll ask, "What took you so long to rise up against this?" Part of the answer is racism.      

What is difficult about this situation is that most people don't experience mass unemployment, mass inequality, or mass incarceration as the outcome of an unequal society where most people are very poor and just a very small group of people are very rich. Instead, there is a racist rationale for why people are poor, criminalized and incarcerated. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, "Capitalism requires inequality. Racism enshrines it." We have to understand how policing functions to uphold that order.      

Ruff: I want to get to have a discussion of language. Lots of folks are outraged by violence, violence that has come off of massive peaceful protests and demonstrations, some of it by opportunistic folks, some of it reportedly carried out by provocateurs and right-wingers and so on. But there is little talk about the meanings of violence, especially the institutionalized and routinized violence of the prevailing order, as if it isn't violent.       

Heatherton: We have to take this apart really carefully. We have to start by recognizing that these protests have enormous moral authority. People who have in the past been the quickest defenders of police and police violence, people like Rush Limbaugh or like George W. Bush, have actually fallen silent; they cannot defend the police violence that protesters are rising up against. The protesters are mostly young people who are willing to risk everything: arrest, bodily harm, exposure to the coronavirus, illness, and even death. And they're doing it because they have nothing to lose. They have no future that they can see before them. It's really hard to argue with.   

There are a number of political forces really eager to make the protests about anything but their moral authority, to make them about violence rather than about a crisis of the state. There is a long history of these kind of diversions. The book I'm writing, Making Internationalism, talks about how this is a historically racist and condescending tactic, where any kind of protests are assumed to have been organized by "outside agitators," because people are believe to be too stupid or naive to understand the situation and advocate for themselves. It’s assumed that they must be ventriloquizing, that somebody else must be putting ideas in their head. This was what they said when people protested at Haymarket, or throughout labor protests throughout the early twentieth century, unemployed demonstrations in the Great Depression, or anti-war protests, or Black freedom movements and their links with decolonization, this has been a constant line.      

There is evidence that there has been far-right nationalists and neo-fascists who have come into the protests and done a lot of property damage. They want to intensify the contradictions and bring down the hammer of the state so that as some believe, they can spark a race war. In cities like Philadelphia and Albuquerque there is evidence of these white nationalists collaborating with the police as provocateurs, as outside agitators. But you know, when Trump and William Barr talk about outside agitators, they're not talking about these outside agitators, they're not talking about white nationalists or neo-fascists. They're talking about the radical left, Antifa, which should be clear, is not an organization but globally the moniker people use to identify themselves as anti-fascists. The kind of question we have to ask is this: If you call anti-fascists terrorists, if you're against anti-fascism, what does that make you?      

Camp: In the late 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King was pressed amidst the urban uprisings to denounce the violence. What he said was instructive: "A riot is the language of the unheard." He refused to denounce the violence of the oppressed without first speaking clearly to what he described as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world," and that's U.S. empire. These protests now can be compared to the ones that rocked the United States after King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968 while fighting with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.     

William Barr and Donald Trump are cynically exploiting panics about order and security. On Monday, June 1st, Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, which would justify the deployment of federal troops in U.S. cities. We're seeing an effort to win consent to a rapid military escalation, a type that needs to be understood as neo-fascism in the White House. But neo-fascism belongs to the imperialist stage. We should recall that Dr. King was talking about United States as the largest imperialist state in the planet. Trump has overseen the largest increase in military budget since the 1940s. We have ongoing U.S. hybrid and low-intensity wars from Iran to Venezuela and beyond. People can’t speak about violence without talking about the conditions that led to that violence.     

Of course, this empire does cynically promote agent provocateurs. Consider Brandon Darby, a blogger with the neo-fascist Breitbart News in Texas. Not too long ago, he was known as an anarchist in Austin, Texas. He had gone to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to help start something called "Common Ground" which coordinated volunteer activism after the storm rocked that city in 2005.  By 2008 it became known that he worked with the FBI as an infiltrator in protest movements at the 2008 Republican National Convention, which took place in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He was employing militant rhetoric and encouraging people to engage in dramatic confrontations. Then he testified against the people that he had whipped up and led them to be charged with domestic terrorism. After that, he went and worked with the far-right Steve Bannon, co-founder of Breitbart News, who orchestrated the victory of Trump and has been a major architect of neo-fascism.     

We need to be mindful about the source of violence: the imperialists and the far-right.

Ruff: When talking about language, there is another word, that is internalized, commonly used all the time, but never really examined, and that is "riots." It denotes the mindless mob psychology, or people out of control. How do you use the term, what other terms can we use?      

Camp: "Riot" is part of a narrative of counter-insurgency. It's language deployed by the state to deny the historical consciousness that informs the massive movement that's rocking this country. Protestors are very conscious of a history of slavery, of imperialism, of war. They understand that when those helicopters fly over, or when those rubber bullets are deployed, or when they're targeted with tear gas, that this is all part of the violence required of capitalism in order to survive. When protesters target symbols of state power, they show that these so-called “riots” might more productively be understood as rebellions or uprisings. Those words shows the kind of advanced subjectivity and consciousness that we see on the streets.      

Heatherton: There is another word that we have to reclaim and that is "looting." Money was made available at the beginning of this crisis, $2.2 trillion dollars in the Congressional Rescue Package. Did that go to help people struggling with bills, to pay rent, to cover medical care, did it go to feed people? We have unprecedented levels of hunger in modern history now, but did the money go to food? No, the majority of this money went to the direct purchase of corporate debt.      

Billionaires got bailed out with money that was meant for us. Billionaires got $434 billion dollar richer in the pandemic. What did they do with that money? They took food out of the mouths of our kids, they took medicine and protective gear out of our nurses’ hands, and they put it into offshore tax havens with the rest of their untaxed wealth. In April venture capitalist, Chamath Palihapitiya went on CNNBC and said speculators take on risk. They gambled and they failed. Let them fail. They chose to buy unsecure tranches of debt. Why does their loss mean that our children have to starve?

These uprisings show that we won't sacrifice our lives for their accumulation.  We have to take back that word "looting." Looting is not the small-scale activity that police are cracking down on. Looting is what the capitalist class is doing to us.  

Jordan T. Camp is Director of Research at The People’s Forum, Visiting Scholar in the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the CUNY Graduate Center, Co-Director of the Racial Capitalism Working Group in the Center for the Study of Social Difference, Columbia University; and is a founding editor of Pluto Press book series, Red Letter. His books include Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State (University of California Press, 2016), Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (co-editor with Christina Heatherton, Verso, 2016), and most recently, Futures Held Hostage: Confronting U.S. Hybrid Wars and Sanctions in Venezuela (co-editor with Manu Karuka, Pluto Press, forthcoming).       

Christina Heatherton is an Assistant Professor at Barnard College, currently completing Making Internationalism: The Color Line, the Class Struggle, and the Mexican Revolution (University of California Press) and previously co-edited Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (Verso) with Jordan T. Camp. Presently she co-directs the Racial Capitalism Working Group through Columbia University's Center for the Study of Social Difference and is a founding editor of Red Letter, a new publishing series with Pluto Press. 


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