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A field guide is a relational text that helps you understand the world around you, whether distinguishing between similar looking objects, learning which species share a phylum, or determining who left that mark. So, would Police: A Field Guide live up to its claim to that genre?
I took the guide to my field to help identify the phenomena I find there – a traffic stop, for instance. We know they are racialized, but the authors provide numbers—nationally 12 percent of drivers are stopped per year, but among racial minorities the rate is twice as high—contextualized in broader studies of mobility:
“The traffic stop belongs to a broader logic of policing: the interruption of motion, mobility, and circulation” (73).
The writing is evocative throughout, and particularly poignant at times:
“As a mode of suspension of the freedom of movement, the traffic stop is by definition a routine loss of liberty at the level of the body, woven into the circuits and rhythms of everyday life” (74).
The guide gave insight into the local ‘Officer Friendly,’ too, who, write Correia and Wall, is an “agent of pacification… a strategic ploy to pacify you” (141). Like a true field guide, this entry is full of jumping off points. Through text and bold red formatting, Officer Friendly’s relation to the more clearly sinister side of policing is revealed. He is the “central trope of community policing”, designed to downplay the image of more aggressive forms, which means you can jump directly from Officer Friendly to SWAT teams (149). Doing so provides a visceral connection that simply reading about their relationship does not.
Thus, the guide proves valuable in a fieldsite, but Correia and Wall remind us that our world is structured by police and the threat of police violence—as we move through streets, universities, even conferences where we might confront security guards but not ‘police’. True to the genre this guide helps distinguish between objects that appear different but are members of the same genus. Rather than questioning the blurred divide between public and private that rent-a-cops present us with, “we might consider the possibility that for police there is no distinction” (157) and has never been; the origins of ‘public’ police were to serve private interests, and both continue to ‘fabricate an order that is for sale’ (158). Thus, police presence, private, public or indistinguishable, is so prevalent as to have become banal. In this way, the book also makes visible what banality has obscured, and proves useful in everyday life.
Unlike most field guides, this one has main arguments: police are inherently problematic and have been since their inception, which can be traced to slave patrols and settler colonialism. Many phenomena which appear different—nightsticks and flashlights, public and private cops, community police and swat teams—are imbricated and symbiotic. No amount of reform will fix the police, because reforms funnel more resources to PDs, and—crucially—because the very institution of police is designed to preserve the status quo and serve white supremacist capitalist interests. Thus, we must stretch our imaginations to envision a world without police. Would these arguments come through if perused as a field guide? Even without reading the explicit argument that “the everyday terror of police violence is no aberration[,]So, ‘fuck the police’”(278), the book consistently shows us the insidious roots of policing as well as the impossibility of a non-violent or even non-racist police force. It would be difficult to follow any path through the book and emerge with your understanding of police unchanged.
Yet despite the book’s thorough unpacking of taken-for-granted practices and language, the treatment of gender, sexuality, and sexual identity is incomplete. It excels in identifying historical roots of contemporary police but is silent on the routine policing of queerness. In an entry on vagrancy, the authors note that in the 1950s, the label was used to “intervene” in the lives of “civil rights or anti-war activists, working-class queers, and immigrants.” (203). But the anti-gay legal system of that era, and policing of gay men, surely deserves at least its own sentence.
Likewise, the only reference to gender non-conforming people (GNCP) is in another list of those classified as threats to the public order: ‘panhandlers, sex workers, Native homeless trans women, Poor people, the jobless, the homeless, and a multitude of racial others’ (263). Each could be expanded on, but consider the relationship between GNCP and police, who construct GNCP not only as a threat to the public order, but a threat to police. For instance, police shot and killed Mya Hall, a black trans-woman, for accidentally driving onto NSA property in Baltimore. Ritchie (2015) calls her murder “a casualty of the presumption that transgender people of color are inherently violent and their lives inherently not valuable - and of the structural transphobic discrimination, violence and exclusion that ultimately placed Hall in police crosshairs.” Not only are trans-women uniquely targeted, but their deaths are invisibilized; though the killing was weeks before Freddie Gray’s, Hall was not centered in the ensuing Baltimore uprising. Trans lives are rendered, as Butler (2004) might claim, lives not worth mourning, and apparently, not worth mentioning in this book.
Sex and gender identity are also key players in what the authors powerfully term “state rape”—the counter term to “body cavity search.” It is, by definition, always violent and humiliating. But that violence and the context its experienced in is uneven across the bodies of cisgendered men, women, and GNCP, particularly when “officers conduct unlawful ‘gender searches’ to humiliate or assign gender to transgender and gender-nonconforming people based on anatomy” (Ritchie 2015).
And what about the many police killings of black women, both cis and transgendered, whose names never make the news? We cannot understand police if we ignore such intersectional violence. Ritchie (2015) situates these killings as “a product of the policing practices that landed them in police custody in the first place: racial profiling, policing of poverty, and police responses… that frame Black women as deserving of punishment rather than protection.” The wider context also includes a history of violent state control over black women’s bodies—from, robbed reproductive rights to the racist origins of the welfare system (Roberts 1997) to its catastrophic overhaul (Kaufman and Nelson 2013), to punitive conditional cash transfers incentivizing ‘good’ motherhood. If these killings are part of a larger context and occur much more often than we hear about, how many more black women must police kill to garner scholarly attention? What would it take to make the pages of this book?
Women, people of color, and queer and trans people are underrepresented as cited scholars too. The book is light on citations in general, as per the genre, which makes for a more readable, portable volume. But since each entry has several footnotes, there is a politics to who fills them. Mott and Cockayne argue that being cited impacts hiring, promotion, tenure, inclusion in intellectual conversations and “the reproduction of geographical knowledge itself” (2017: 2). Correia and Wall draw heavily from Neocleous, but make policing’s imbrication with racial capitalism a key argument without citing Robinson or Cox. They write about PredPol, Compstat, and the NYPD citing only one co-authored piece by Jordan Jefferson. Then there’s this line, “As feminist scholars point out, sexual violence against women is often committed by those who women turn to for protection from sexual violence” (43). Here is a prime opportunity to cite those scholars. Some suggestions: Cuomo addresses that paradox in her work on police response to domestic violence, which, often reproduces the very same coercive dynamics inherent in abusive relationships” (2017: 3). Zylan (2011) notes that the law’s objective facade is seductive and thus we desire its discipline. Ritchie, whose article the authors cite once, elsewhere, has a wealth of relevant work.
These omissions do not prevent the book from serving its purpose: “to challenge the world of copspeak” (274). But in succeeding so completely at deconstructing the hegemonic discourse of copspeak, they may have constructed another monster. That is, just as Gibson-Graham critique the debilitating construction of Capitalism as unitary, singular, and total, in Police: A Field Guide, police become that same subsuming entity. The comparison between the specter of Capitalism and this construction of Police is made easier by the authors’ own insistence on the imbrication of the two. For Police, like Capitalism, all its composite parts “lose their contradictory capability to be read as conditions of its nonexistence” (Gibson-Graham 2006: 258); if either “functions as a unity, it cannot be partially or locally replaced.”
However, while the construction of Police is debilitatingly total, the very structure of the book challenges that unity, just as Gibson-Graham (2006: 264) “create the discursive conditions” under which alternative construction “becomes a ‘realistic’ present activity rather than a ludicrous or utopian future goal.” To achieve this, Gibson-Graham write, we “must smash Capitalism and see it in a thousand pieces” (2006: 264). Correia and Wall facilitate this smashing in their description of 22 key weapons, 16 copspeak terms, 21 ways to police order, and 14 organizing logics, thus theorizing Police as “fragmented and diverse collections of practices and institutions” (Gibson-Graham 2006: 258). And while I initially questioned Correia and Wall’s insistence that there are 14 unique values at policing’s ‘core,’ this discursive multiplicity might invite dismantling. For when you challenge any one value, is the institution of police not shaken ‘to the core’?
Thus, the book depicts Police both as debilitatingly total and as fragmented. The solution the authors advocate, however, is a total abolition of the force, which for them includes community police, swat teams, military, and private security guards. This could be a dangerous moment to call for anything less, because those solutions are coopted into the endless cycle of reform that only furthers police power. As Correia and Wall write, “Without reform there is no police.” There must be a powerful, accessible guide to walk our imaginations and desires through the everyday multifarious violence of capitalism and the police that animate it. And if abolition offers no “definitive end, because police and prisons lie at the heart of the capitalist state, which is always evolving” (278) there is an intrinsic value in pushing an unthinkable politics (Cacho 2012). In short, we need this book.
But for those who cannot hold out for the unthinkable, we should hold space for solutions that are fragmented, local, and partial. The authors give us “non-reformist reforms”; Gilmore’s consist of “systemic changes that do not extend the life or breadth of deadly forces such as prisons” (Kaba’s “strip power from police and refuse reforms that seek only to make police into a more acceptable force” (170). But when Correia and Wall write that even these “put a lid on any abolitionist dreams of a world without police,” the authors put a lid on their emancipatory potential.
If we heed the book’s call to look beyond copspeak towards abolition, we need to rethink our own responsibilities for those who call on police for protection. Beyond appearing at an anti-police protest, how will we show up to prevent domestic violence? Let’s conceive of alternatives to the total abolition they propose not as less-than, but as pushing our imaginations further, past one totalizing view of abolition-in-the-future, to a multiplicity of local, partial abolitions here, and now.