A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete by Geo Maher is an impassioned call for the ashes of the policing and carceral system to be rebuilt into a society centering justice and liberation. By dissecting the history and theory of abolition, Maher's book provides a key contribution to the conversation last year's summer of rebellion (and ongoing responses to police violence) so stunningly expanded. As Maher writes, "abolition implies a plurality of approaches, many cooks in the kitchen, but this is not a book of recipes for the future. It's about what's cooking."
This vast and expanding policing archipelago, and the pig majority underpinning it, stretches far beyond the police as an institution, beyond the bounds of whiteness, and even beyond national borders. This, too, Du Bois knew. When the Confederate States seceded, he reminds us, they did so with an internationalist vision: the dream of building a “great slave empire in the Caribbean.” If the South lost this battle, once again it won the longer, global war. While formal slavery was defeated, the fall of Reconstruction cleared the way for white supremacist rule both at home and abroad. “The United States was turned into a reactionary force,” Du Bois wrote. “It became the cornerstone of that new imperialism which is subjecting the labor of yellow, brown and black peoples to the dictation of capitalism organized on a world basis.”
Long before the Global War on Terror and even the Vietnam War—described by its perpetrators as a “police action”— American policing went global in a series of Marine landings in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Chile, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere. In Badges without Borders, Stuart Schrader shows how policing in the United States has always been a global affair bound up with imperial power. Long before New York police commissioner Bill Bratton pioneered “broken windows” or proactive policing— targeting small quality-of-life issues to deter more serious offenses—counterinsurgency, or “small wars,” was framed as “a police-led, less-lethal, preemptive, and anticipatory approach." Bratton himself would later play a major role in exporting broken windows across the globe—quite literally “policing the planet,” in Christina Heatherton and Jordan Camp’s apropos phrase. “Across the globe,” Schrader writes, “counterinsurgency was policing. At home, policing was counterinsurgency.”
Over time, these global counterinsurgency methods came home to roost, most recently in the deployment of overwhelming military force against protesters on the streets of Ferguson in 2014, and against the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters two years later. While these events rightly shocked many, however, they were really nothing new. People of color have long been defined as an insurgent class and treated like a dangerous fifth column. For instance, under Commissioner Bull Connor, police in Birmingham, Alabama, bought two armored personnel carriers to confront the early 1960s civil rights movement. Partly in response to such treatment, Black and Brown radicals have long described their communities as internal colonies that are, in James Baldwin’s haunting phrase, “policed like occupied territory.” As hellfire rains down on Black and Brown people abroad, the same occurs at home under the perverse veil of “law and order.” Today, in Baltimore as in the neo-colonies, those doing the policing often look just like the “insurgents” they are tasked with containing, and from Plan Colombia to the Mérida Initiative in Mexico, the language of fighting crime has provided cover for bloody counterinsurgent war and the projection of US power.
If policing is bigger than the police, imperialism is bigger than the military. The proliferation of privatized police domestically coincides with the emergence of a vast and expanding mercenary apparatus masquerading under the sanitized name of “private contractors.” Of these, Blackwater is of course the most notorious (which is precisely why it has changed its name repeatedly, first to Xe Services, and today, Academi). During the Iraq War, Blackwater was implicated in multiple massacres, and even the US Congress had difficulty investigating. Despite being plagued by the same kinds of accountability problems as private police everywhere, the contracting of mercenaries has exploded since Afghanistan and Iraq. The ratio of private contractors to troops tripled under Obama—between 2007 and 2012 alone, the Pentagon spent $160 billion on private security contractors, and by 2017 there were nearly three contractors for every US troop stationed in war zones. Moreover, as governments and private corporations covertly turn to mercenaries worldwide, there is no way to estimate the true scope or cost of this expanding mercenary apparatus.
What happens abroad doesn’t stay abroad, however. Just as countries like Colombia and Mexico, where decades of civil war and drug violence have created a surplus of unemployed violence workers, so too are US mercenaries returning home and infiltrating an already-violent society. Many join the police or work in private security, while others offer their skills to organized crime, or even join right-wing militias in their spare time. The result has been predictable: attacks on protesters, mass shootings, and domestic violence have proliferated. America is not only a police nation, but a counterinsurgent nation as well. Inversely, moreover, the domestic vigilante can easily become the international mercenary, sanctioned or not, as the botched coup attempt against Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro in May 2020 makes clear.
Under the self-important name of Operation Gideon, mercenary startup Silvercorp recruited Venezuelans for a doomed mission to kidnap Maduro. Founded by Canadian-born US Special Forces veteran Jordan Goudreau, Silvercorp, which had provided security for Trump rallies, sought support from the US government and right-wing Venezuelan leaders before launching the harebrained assault. Unsurprisingly, the operation was fully infiltrated by the Venezuelan government from the start, and as failure became inevitable, Goudreau desperately tweeted at Donald Trump directly in a vain attempt to gain official backing. The mercenary equivalent of a wannabe Instagram influencer, Goudreau’s previous hustle had sought to embed armed agents in schools disguised as teachers, purportedly to prevent school shootings.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s provocation that “to challenge the police is to challenge the American people” is at once undeniable and insufficient. To speak of the police is to describe both a discrete institution and something far broader, at the expansive overlap of whiteness, capitalist greed, and global imperialism. None of this is to suggest that the police as an institution are any less important, however—far from it. If policing is a broad practice that functions as the linchpin of US capitalism, buying off poor whites with the wages of whiteness and destabilizing class solidarity, then uniformed police represent the glue binding policing together today.
Through the everyday street discretion police exercise from their brick-and-mortar precincts, they make and remake the color line in all its classed dimensions. They provide self- deputized white vigilantes with a legal backdrop and a model to emulate. They claim to provide security from the ravages of capitalist inequality, while in reality they only reinforce and deepen these inequalities. They incorporate a multiracial cohort of recruits into the broader white supremacist project—providing it with a powerful alibi. And if the policing of imperial power has developed in conjunction with the domestic policing of colonized and formerly enslaved populations, the police today stand as a concrete interface point with settler colonial projects like Israel and counterinsurgency efforts worldwide, policing the boundaries of wealth and whiteness on a global scale.
This pig majority can appear so overwhelming and the global policing apparatus so sprawling that even the idea of resistance may seem daunting. To abolish the police means abolishing capitalism and white supremacy as well, to which Schrader adds, “To dismantle the carceral state, the national security state will also have to be dismantled.” Taken as a whole, this is a tall order indeed. But understanding the police in their international context also turns the balance of forces upside down. America’s pig majority is, in fact, a global minority, and the constituency for abolition far broader than we might first assume. It encompasses what Du Bois described as a vast, “dark proletariat . . . that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black,” but it exceeds it as well. Resistance to the global police state has always existed, and there have always been more of us than them.
Black movements have long diagnosed the historic complicity between police and white supremacists, rallying behind the slogan “Cops and Klan, hand in hand.” But so too have Latinx migrant organizers emphasized a similarly tautological equation: “La migra, la policía, la misma porquería” (Border patrol, the police, the same bullshit). Between and at the intersection of Black and Brown movements today, the constituency for abolition is a global majority, and the history and contemporary practice of global struggles against capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy offer a vision of a different kind of world entirely.[book-strip index="1" style="display"]