5 Book Plan: Breaking Police Power
It’s impossible to choose only five books on policing today, and this is a good thing indeed. The post-Ferguson world has given us an embarrassment of riches when it comes to critical analyses of policing and abolitionist alternatives, essential texts by Mariame Kaba, Alex Vitale, David Correia and Tyler Wall, and Jordan Camp and Christina Heatherton, as well as forthcoming books by Derecka Purnell and others. If you don’t have these books yet, you should find them and you should read them.
But in the meantime, here are five books that have each played a crucial role in shaping my own understanding of the history, function, and innate brutality of the police—and of the imperative, and the means necessary, to abolish them.
Geo Maher's A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete is out now and 40% off as part of our Student Reading Sale.
W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1935; The Free Press, 1999)
Policing wealth and whiteness. I first encountered W.E.B. Du Bois’ political masterwork not in the classroom but as a young organizer, in an intensive course on dialectics. And indeed, Black Reconstruction is no book of mere history or theory. Du Bois tells the story of the Civil War, abolition, and radical reconstruction through the lens of Black slaves themselves, whose self-activity determined the course, the meaning, and the outcome of the war. While slavery was nominally defeated—except, as the 13th Amendment stipulates, for convicts—the ambitious project to rebuild southern society along egalitarian lines was ultimately beaten back by the white terror of the Klan. Most poor whites betrayed class solidarity in favor of racial hierarchy, and the ultimate name for this betrayal was the police. From slave patrols to uniformed police, Du Bois shows us how policing and whiteness have always been synonymous, and by underlining the failure of reconstruction’s positive project, he prefigured the abolitionist maxim that, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it, “abolition is not absence, it is presence.”
Kristian Williams, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America (Soft Skull Press, 2004; South End Press, 2007; AK Press, 2015)
The classic account of police power in the United States. Building on this Du Boisian foundation, Our Enemies in Blue remains to this day arguably the best single text on the history and function of American police and has rightly become a staple of radical study groups nationwide. Combining meticulous research with a movement organizer’s eye to the dynamics of political power, Williams provides an unparalleled account of the colonial and racial origins and contemporary function of American police, of the expansion and fascistic power of so-called police “unions,” and of the longstanding complicity of uniformed police with their white supremacist brothers-in-arms. What’s more, Williams lays out an abolitionist vision of what it would mean to make policing obsolete—all this in a text originally published more than fifteen years ago.
Mark Neocleous, A Critical Theory of Police Power (Pluto Press, 2000; Verso Books, 2021)
The police don’t simply reflect the world, they shape it. Policing goes far beyond the police, Neocleous teaches, and that broader policing apparatus plays a key role in transforming our world in their own image. Long before the modern police, policing referred to a broader concept of social order, part of a broader vision of social security developed by a besieged feudal order. Hegel certainly viewed the police in this broad sense, and as Marx later showed, the violent policing of the population rendered surplus by the great enclosures played a key role in speeding the pace and scope of early capitalism. By recovering this broad concept of the police, Neocleous helps us grasp both the expansive power of the police institution today—which invades new spheres of society as it ravenously demands total impunity and limitless resources. But he also reminds us that policing goes much further than the institution, setting the stage for today’s abolitionist critiques of schools, the welfare system, and child protective services, just to name a few.
Stuart Schrader, Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing (University of California Press, 2019)
Policing has always been global. When tanks rolled through the streets of Ferguson in 2014, many rightly decried what was seen as the militarization of domestic policing. By occupying Ferguson and treating its residents as insurgents, police crossed the inviolable line between foreign wars and domestic law and order—treating us like them. But there have always been plenty of domestic populations and “internal colonies” who have been subjected to the brutest military force who have accordingly viewed the police as an occupying army. As Schrader shows, this line between domestic and foreign policing has always been a myth, and the relationship between global counterinsurgency war and the police has always been one of close complicity: “Across the globe,” he writes, “counterinsurgency was policing. At home, policing was counterinsurgency.” By meticulously excavating this complicity, moreover, he helps pave the way for a global struggle against the police, in which abolition is a necessarily internationalist project.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2nd expanded edition, 2021)
Abolition starts in the streets. “Power concedes nothing without a demand”—so goes Frederick Douglass’ well-known phrase. But too often we forget what Douglass had said just before—that “if there is no struggle there is no progress”—making Douglass sound more like a liberal speaking truth to power than an ardent abolitionist, a comrade of Harriet Tubman and John Brown, who was actively fighting to build a new world. The centrality of struggle for the abolitionist project is the essence of Taylor’s book. Reading history through an organizer’s lens, she shows how it was only when radical demands were backed by strong movements in the streets that U.S. racial capitalism was forced to cede to Black freedom dreams. And as she has argued more recently, while making demands is crucial, “someone has got to fight to make them a reality… Without a social movement on the ground to create the muscle necessary to coerce the political establishment… how would any of it become achievable?” This book is a gift to us all, and I teach and recommend it every chance I get.