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GRIID Class – The Function of Policing in the US and how we can work towards a world Without Police: Part III

February 3, 2022

For week 3 of the class on Policing in the US, we read and discussed three separate articles, two of which were from the book, Violent Order: Essays on the Nature of Police. 

We read and discussed the introduction from Violent Order, which is entitled, On the Nature of Police. This introductory piece is important, since he provides a larger framework for how we need to think about the function of policing. 

In the introduction, the authors challenge us to come to terms with how we have been socialized into think that police departments are necessary for a civilized society. To counter this socialization, the authors argue that the real function of policing is to maintain order, particularly to maintain the order of capital accumulation for the dominant class of society. With this notion of maintaining order, the police also make sure that we see nature as commodities within the economic system and that when people question or disrupt this order they are savages, animals or heathens. The police will intervene around issues of theft and assault, since those disrupt order, but they do nothing to confront structural violence, such as low wages, high rent or the corporate assault on the environment. In fact, the police will protect those forms of structural violence, since they are the result of capital accumulation.

The second piece we read from the book Violent Order, was entitled, Disrupt Order: Race, Class and the Roots of Policing. Here, the author argues that there are three ways to approach policing – to reform it, to expand it or to abolish it. There is a brief overview of the historical function of policing in the US, which then shifts to a look at how it has evolved. The author presents information on how US policing has adopted numerous tactics from the US military, which were learned during imperial occupations, such as in the Philippines during the end of the 19th century through the early part of the 20th century. The author further presents information on how the US military began to provide weaponry for police departments after the urban uprisings of the 1960s, through programs initiated by the Johnson Administration, which also included law enforcement grant programs after the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. (See Elizabeth Hinton’s book, America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.)

In addition, the reading discusses the increased use of police repression, such as the COINTELPRO by the FBI, often in cooperation with local law enforcement agencies. The use of such programs was a domestic application of the US military’s use of counterinsurgency to fight against anti-colonial forces. Applied domestically by police department, insurgent were Black, Indigenous and other groups resisting the social order and the counterinsurgency became part of the so-called “community policing” model adopted by police departments across the country. 

This chapter ends with a look at some efforts to move beyond reform, such as the #8toAbolition campaign, which was a direct response to the more reform minded campaign known as #8CantWait. One addition abolitionist effort that was discussed was the Movement for Black Lives vision platform, which lead to developing policies such as the BREATHE Act.

The third piece we read and discussed was from Kristian Williams, which provided further analysis of how US police agencies adopted a counter-insurgency model used by the US State Department and applied it to insurgent movements in the US. In the counterinsurgency strategies used by police departments, the tactics used are heavy surveillance of insurgent groups – often social movements – working with non-profits and churches to gather intelligence and to get residents to be informants for the police. 

Another approach is “carrots and sticks”, often referred to as winning hearts and minds. Some examples in Grand Rapids would be the GRPD youth programs, which are essentially designed to present themselves as the good guy to marginalized youth, with the hope that these youth will see cops as necessary or even as a desirable profession. The other program, which is more recent, is called Clergy on Patrol, where the GRPD encourages faith leaders to work directly with them, take them out on patrol, with the underlying goal to bring clergy into their camp instead of working in opposition to the police.

In week four, we will be reading a number of essays from the book, Abolition for the People, and discussing an abolitionist vision of a world without police. 

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