Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review: Policing the Planet


[Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton, editors. Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. London UK and New York NY: Version, 2016]

Smarter people than me have observed since last Saturday's Women's March -- in which millions came together to oppose the intensified harm to ordinary people that the incoming Trump administration has quite openly promised -- that mass mobilizations are complicated. They are always full of contradictions and imperfections and really great things as well as troubling things. They are politically messy, always and inevitably. For some people, situated in some ways, the cost of having to wade through oppressive nonsense at such an event outweighs the benefits of participating, despite holding broadly shared goals, and can end up taking away from whatever important work that they are already doing to win justice for their communities. But for many of us, those contradictions and imperfections -- and that nonsense -- should be taken as a reason to engage with even greater vigour.

Take, for instance, the issue of policing. From the ways in which local Women's March organizers in some locations framed and implemented their events, to lots of the social media conversation about how it all went after the fact, it's pretty clear that this is a site of sharp and troubling political disconnection among those who oppose the agenda of the new administration in the US. This isn't the only way that it breaks down, but I'm thinking specifically of how the broader tendency among many white people of liberal, progressive, and left inclination to refuse to really grapple with the reality of police and other state violence, particularly against Black and Indigenous people, has been no less present in this context than it is in general. This is not a slam against the Women's March in particular, but it is a call for those of us who are ourselves white and who have a more critical understanding of policing and of state violence to figure out how we're going to engage with that political disconnect.

It seems to me there are two broad areas in which we really need to be asking questions about how our politics must change if we (as people not directly affected) are to take seriously the ways in which policing is experienced by Black and Indigenous communities. One is around the practical doing of grassroots politics. What demands and goals would follow from a solid understanding of the role of policing under patriarchal white supremacist settler colonial capitalism? How would existing demands change? What implications would that underestanding have for how we organize our actions? For how our actions relate to the police? For who we invite to speak? For how we understand the differences in police conduct and media coverage with respect to different grassroots actions? It's not that the answers to these questions are simple or singular; there is not just one right way to do things. It's just that not enough of us who are not ourselves directly targeted by police in our everyday lives are asking them.

The other area is more theoretical. It's about those of us who aren't targeted going from the experience of, for instance, seeing lots of reports of police killing of Black people and recognizing that it's an important issue, to actually doing the work to start figuring out what's going on beyond what the media shows us, and how it relates to all of the other important issues and struggles going on in the world. How do these horrific high-profile cases relate to more mundane and everyday experiences of policing by Black and Indigenous people? Of homeless people, of trans people? How are they a product of the historical origins of policing and of the ways that policing is currently socially organized? How do the bits and pieces of racist police violence that become visible to those of us who don't experience it relate to histories of white supremacy and settler colonialism? What about to histories of capitalism, and to the development of neoliberalism? And what about militarist and imperial violence that the US and Canadian settler states are involved in -- how does policing connect with that?

I think for anybody wishing to think through those kinds of questions, and wishing more generally to develop a critical analysis of policing today, Policing the Planet is a good resource. Now, it's important to keep in mind that some, perhaps most, of the refual to deal seriously with all of this on the part of a lot of people who aren't harmed by the current order of policing is not really about "not knowing" in any simple sense -- it's about not wanting to know, about a refusal to know. A book, on its own, will do little to change that. But what a book can do, and what I think this one does, is help equip those of us who already want to wrestle with these questions (and of course those who have no choice but to do so) with better tools for doing it.

Policing the Planet is a collection of short pieces by different people about policing and about popular struggles responding to policing in the era of Black Lives Matter. It is particularly concerned with what gets called "broken windows policing," which emphasizes punitive police responses to small infractions and even to non-illegal phenomena that get understood as "disorder." It is the dominant mode of policing in the United States and is very common globally as well. The book also has some sharp things to say about other approaches to policing which sometimes get posed as alternatives to "broken windows" but which are not, in fact, much different in their end result -- things like "community policing." Under all of these approaches, policing is about maintaining order and the (oppressive) status quo. Blackness, indigeneity, visible poverty, homelessness, and gender non-conformance, among other things, are framed in our society, in different ways and to different degrees, as inherent markers of threat and disorder. This is true regardless of how people who bear those markers behave, and as a result they are disproportionately targeted for police harassment and violence.

I particularly like the mix of pieces in the book. I mean, none address the Canadian context, and it would've been nice to see at least one do that. But I really like how seriously the editors took their mandate to ground the book in movements. Often, when it comes to collections like this, the topic emerges from a movement of some kind, but the logic governing the writing and the selection of pieces feels like it is more about scholars getting a chance to publish things of interest primarily to other scholars. This is very much not like that. The authored pieces seem largely to be by people who are pretty grounded in movements themselves, whether or not they also work in universities -- both people with familiar names, like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Vijay Prasad, Robin D.G. Kelley, Rachel Herzing, and others, as well as people I hadn't heard of. And it combines these with short, punchy interviews, mostly with organizers who are doing this work on the ground, and not just a token one or two such interviews but around ten of them.

The book certainly doesn't do everything, and for those of us trying to educate ourselves around this stuff there is lots more to learn, but I think it does a pretty solid job of starting to answer some of the questions I posed above, or at least giving us the raw materials to answer them for ourselves. It explores how policing works today, and where that came from. It connects that to how racism has shifted in the last few decades, and how capitalism has shifted in that time, and so on. I think that, in particular, it is important for white leftists to understand how austerity and increasingly repressive policing, with its disproportionate targeting of Black and Indigenous people and its enmeshment with white supremacy and settler colonialism, are tightly bound together. As well, the book gives multiple, easily accessible windows into how people are engaging in collective struggles to try and change things. As a result it will, I think, be a useful resource.

Moreover, for those of us who are not directly harmed or even benefit from the current order of policing but who clearly see its injustice, I think the book presents us with resources that we can use to inform our conversations as we engage with other people like us in our organizations, communities, and mass mobilizations about the oppressive realities of policing.

[For a listing of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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