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orreia and Wall’s book deconstructs the language of policing—what they call cop-speak, or “a language that limits our ability to understand police as anything other than essential, anything other than the guarantor of civilization and the last line of defense against what police call savagery” (2018: 2). As an example: “body cavity search” becomes “state rape” (p.7). The authors further reveal a violent continuum of rape by cop that goes back to slavery, where black women and children were frequently subjected to sexualized violence.
“The police rape of black and brown women today not only belongs to this history, but is directly structured by it, as their bodies are essentially rendered property for the state when in police custody” (p.48).
This example, and many like it, disrupts the presumed morality of policing—the idea that it is a “good” institution waging war on social “evil.” A multitude of moral faultlines are exploded and undone across the book. This deconstruction is so important. Police and policing still hold cherished places in mainstream “common sense.” A vital target of this book is thus undoing the insidious, taken-for-granted nature of policing.
The 278-page book is structured by close to 100 different entries—from handcuffs to chokeholds to militarization. Unpicking cop-speak is vital for unpicking cop-worlds. Thread by thread the hold that police has over our imaginations unravels. Words disclose worlds. Words of inclusion and exclusion. Justice and injustice.
The dictionary-style layout means that the book can be read in any particular order, and this is aided by their excellent writing. The reader never feels lost. Indeed, this book is a pleasure to read precisely because so much care has been poured into its composition. I was reading the text with an academic set of eyes, yet never once felt like anything was “missed” due to its orientation to a more popular audience. Indeed, despite its choppy structure, there certainly is an overarching narrative (partly setup at beginning) that is threaded throughout the entries. I thought that organizing by words would stymie depth—but quite the opposite was the case. A story does bubble to the surface—of police brutality, capitalist enclosure, and white supremacy. The reader leaves the book with a profound sense of injustice at the heart of past and present American policing. Its history is disclosed as a series of examples within a violent shock doctrine: slave patrols, indigenous dispossession, and capitalist enclosure. As I will soon explore, the book sticks closely to a Marxist explanation of policing:
“The peasant became a proletarian at the end of a night stick. The role of police powers in limiting the prospects for the poor was as true in England in the late fifteenth century as it was in Baldwin’s Harlem in 1966, and as it is in Ferguson, Missouri, today” (p.5).
I began reading Police: A Field Guide with a question about who the book is aimed toward. Police brutality is no secret—its excesses and violences are plain to see. Yet its histories and geographies are masked and distorted. And so, I think this book is a vital teaching aid: a learning tool for activists, students, and teachers. The structure absolutely lends itself to student activities in and beyond the classroom. I can quite easily see lessons (or discussion groups) planned around a handful of key entries. For example, students could be assigned the entry “Taser” and uncover a whole world of injustice and brutality.
A big success of the book is to shift our conceptions of police violence from direct violence (an embodied, physical act between persons), to policing as a more diffuse and oppressive structural violence. You can’t come away from the book thinking there are just a few “rotten apples”—both David and Tyler argue that the whole damn tree is rotten. The importance of this book is thus challenging the common sense of policing. Term by term, the authors unpick the entrenched common-sense of policing. The authors write that their field guide “exposes and demystifies a world that is hidden in plain view” (p.9). Policing is concept, practice, and also a culture. I do think there is a clear link to Antonio Gramsci’s work on cultural hegemony and common-sense, although he is not cited. Common-sense values prop up and maintain the status quo—the capitalist order of things. Its power is how it legitimizes acts of violence. This is an important, if underdeveloped thread in the book. Beyond cop-speak what about cop-culture. Policing holds a big sway over popular culture and imaginaries. It is celebrated and ideologically entrained. Often, “cop shows” seek to humanize police but rarely the people they arrest. I wonder how different the book would have looked if its parameters encompassed these cultural spaces.
Underpinning the book’s intellectual enterprise is, broadly speaking, a neo-Marxist understanding of policing. Correia and Wall do draw on a narrow set of theorists, from the classic texts of Karl Marx to the more recent scholarship of figures such as Mark Neocleous (2014). Policing is understood as a necessary response to capital’s historic and ongoing war of enclosure. As they write, “When we talk about police, in other words, we’re talking about capitalism” (p.5). Or elsewhere, “In our view, capitalism not only needs cops; cops are the everyday executives that make the liberal capitalist state possible” (p.7). Thus, an overarching narrative animates and excites the book: policing secures a racialized and oppressive form of capitalism. For David and Tyler, police don’t prevent crime: they wage war. They pacify. Police fabricate a civilized order to maintain the hierarchies and structural violence of a racialized capitalism.
Across the book I was struck by the interplay not just of words and worlds, but of objects and worlds. I found it interesting how different police weapons (in the weaponology section) disclosed a particular kind of (violent) world. “Perhaps more than any other weapon, handcuffs evoke the ways that violence is a condition of police work, and that ability to incapacitate bodies is always central to the police project of fabricating order” (p.26). As they add, “Handcuffs exist on a carceral continuum that include the back of the police car, the jail, the courthouse, the prison. But as part of this continuum, the handcuff can easily be taken for granted, rarely recognized for its own role in projects of unfreedom” (p.26). There is, in other words, a wonderfully illuminating object-oriented analysis of police violence. Guns, handcuffs, Tasers, and so on, all reveal a particular practice, behavior, and worldly makeup. Objects perform a social force and police power (Meehan et al., 2013). Here, then, I think there is vital work (and perhaps more to be done) on the links to a broadly defined actor-network theory—exposing the relationships between power, objects, and worlds. And how this shifting material constellation underpins a racialized capitalism.
Additionally, I would like to have read more on the author’s spatial imaginations and constructs. This is underdeveloped in the book. Both Correia and Wall talk of beats, ghettos, and other (police) landscapes. But we are mostly aware of policing as process, or policing as an institution, but rarely as policing as a materialization of a violent world. A world inhabited by people—a world of emotional geographies of trauma, fear, and oppression. In documenting the spectacular acts of violence, what about the banal worldings, spacings, and materializations of living in cop-worlds? I think this is an important question for going beyond cop-speak.
The epilogue to the book riffs on the NWA rap song—the authors challenge us to fuck the police, “an expression that condenses into three words the cruel political economies of racial capitalism, and the radical despair, rage, and insurgency of the oppressed” (p.275). As they immediately add, “To shout fuck the police is to invoke a political vision of a world without cops, a demand for a better future, even if we aren’t exactly sure how that future should look” (p.276). But in saying they are unsure of a police-free future, the authors miss an opportunity to rally their central message. Of course, the authors are well aware of this, and surely made a conscious decision not to discuss worlds beyond policing. Yet as influenced by Marx as they are in their critique of policing, I wonder why Correia and Wall didn’t finish by demanding a world beyond capitalist notions of private property. They are often at the edge of this diagnostic—Police: A Field Guide is acutely aware of the link between the enclosure of land, and the necessity of police power. As the authors argue,
“Private property, established through force, has always transformed the world we live in. And it was and is the job of the police to patrol the landscapes of private property, to enforce these boundaries and barriers, walls and enclosures. Thus property might best be understood as a police category” (82).
Or more simply: “Private property requires violence” (p.82). So, when Correia and Wall say, “The only way to improve the police is to abolish it” (p.278), I agree. But we cannot abolish a symptom of capitalist violence. It will simply metastasize. What lies beyond a police-centric vision of the future—in which pathways forward are not circumscribed by the police—is surely a world beyond capitalism.
Accordingly, I think we require not just worlds without cops, but an imagination of better worlds altogether (i.e. Merrifield 2011). Police: A Field Guide is dark and oppressive. But in baring witness to that darkness, I think we need glimpses of already-existing exits and worlds beyond. What about a section on how to survive and thrive beyond the police? At present the book ends abruptly. Yet, there is no shortage of inspiration from various autonomous movements across the planet, from the Zapatistas in Mexico to urban communing in the U.S. Or consider the work of like J.K. Gibson-Graham (2006) and the construction of more dignified futures and economies. We can’t just fuck the police without fucking police-worlds. We must resource, intellectually and materially, those movements and spaces that are already unplugging from capital, and pre-figuring different worlds. Minority worlds in every sense of the term. The ethical imperative to fuck the police must be accompanied by a rediscovery of love—for each other, and for the world. This takes just as much power and strength as standing up to the police. It asks us to dare to be different—to assemble and demand. And here I think Judith Butler’s (2013) work on assembly is so important, since she explores how the gathering of bodies signifies a demand for different worlds.
Correia and Wall’s excellent book successfully exposes and demystifies a world of violence that is hidden in plain view. But I want to believe, and do believe, that there are other, more just and caring worlds hidden in plain view, too. In and beyond cop-worlds.