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“The truth of police is obscured by the very vocabulary we use to talk about police.” So write David Correia and Tyler Wall in their new book Police: A Field Guide. This impressively wide-ranging and comprehensive guide elaborates core concepts and categories for the study of policing. Entries include concepts like: check point, taser, gun, teargas, K-9, rape, and pacification.
This insurgent field manual is specifically designed to decode what they call, “copspeak” or language that depicts police as a natural and inevitable response to crime, disorder, chaos, and savagery. Copspeak, they argue, appeals to the fears and anxieties of middle and upper class whites rather than the concrete grievances of Black, Brown, Native, and working class communities most impacted by police violence. This effort at decoding is particularly essential since copspeak is widely treated as legitimate by journalists, scholars, and even some activists. Correia and Wall encourage readers to refuse not only copspeak’s ways of seeing the world—but also its authoritarian solutions to crisis.
The language of U.S. policing and confinement have come to be accepted as a natural part of the landscape of late capitalism, what the incarcerated revolutionary intellectual Antonio Gramsci called “common sense.” “When we talk about police,” Correia and Wall write, “we’re talking about capitalism.” Their historical materialist framework enables them to delineate the role of police power in the development of a system of racial and colonial capitalism in “which Black, Brown and Indigenous suffering and death served ruling class interests.”
Police is strikingly attentive to questions of scale and the modalities through which political terror operates. Entries on police sexual violence and rape, for example, offer conceptual clarity about the articulations of race, gender, space, and class power. Following the lead of Andrea Ritchie and others, the authors describe how policing is animated by a “patriarchal logic,” one which naturalizes rape, murder, and the disappearance of Black and Indigenous women. Patriarchy and sexual violence are not simply about the abuse of power, they argue, but intrinsic to the very functioning of police. The guide identifies how violent masculinity informs the routine activities of policing—like wearing a badge, walking with a police dog, or engaging in the patrol of poor, Black, Brown, Native, LGBTQI, and working-class communities. In a standout entry on K-9, based on research for Wall’s forthcoming book, they describe “animalized police terror” as an understudied facet of policing. Correia and Wall locate the geographical origins of this form of terror in New York City, where K-9s have been used since the early twentieth century to protect private property and reproduce the relations of class power. In turn, how these instruments of state terror produce disfiguring damages on its victims, who describe the experience as being “eaten alive.”
Correia and Wall understand these processes as key to the police-led restructuring of urban space and, overall, the production of capitalist space. In entries on violence and war, for example, they describe the spatial concentration of policing of in neighborhoods occupied by the poor, working class women of color, immigrants, Black and Brown youth, the homeless, and the dispossessed as structural features of the political economy rather than inevitable features of the landscape. They describe these relations of policing as the “geographic logic of racial capitalism.” An entry on gentrification takes up and extends the insights of Marxist geography to illuminate the logic of revenge directed against the poor, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ communities animating the class reconquest of the city. Correia and Wall rightly point out how broken windows or zero tolerance policing sustain gentrification and helps capital overcome geographical barriers to accumulation through violence. They suggest that arrest in particular is “one of the most normalized violences of the capitalist state.” Policing, they argue, is the expression of the ruling class’ desire to eliminate access to space that is not in the interest of exchange value and capital accumulation. Practices like stop and frisk, broken windows, zero tolerance, neighborhood, and community policing enable capitalism to survive. The guide therefore encourages historically grounded analyses of the capitalist state so important for Marxist scholarship now, which as geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it, will enable us to understand and distinguish between reformist and non-reformist reforms in struggles to confront the capitalist state.
Correia and Wall render vivid how U.S. policing has been “aimed at the political fires of insurgency and revolution,” and should be understood as part of a long counterinsurgency. In entries on COINTELPRO and officer friendly they demonstrate how the police have been essential to the criminalization of dissent from the Black freedom and anti-Vietnam war protests in the 1960s to global resistance to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. They demonstrate how curfews are deployed as essential counterinsurgent tactics of the police, used to contain and confine rebellions such as Los Angeles in 1992, Cincinnati in 2001, Ferguson in 2014, and Baltimore in 2015. As Correia and Wall demonstrate, curfews are also essential to the production of capitalist space. Following Don Mitchell’s lead, they argue the curfew is a kind of “annihilation of the space by law,” which is also an “annihilation of people.” They extend this argument to the global scales as well. Their entry on pacification describes this police concept as being informed by a security logic that sustains both the dropping of bombs and the building of schools. Pacification, they clarify, produces consent and coercion. It does so through the routine use of chokeholds, handcuffs, and nightsticks as well as through community dialogues and “coffee with a cop.” They demonstrate how CompStat, predictive policing, and police helicopters are all political expressions of the “organized violence that is required for the system of racial capitalism to exist.”
I have found Policing particularly useful for teaching core concepts. I keep my marked-up version close during office hours. I have found myself increasingly turning to their entry on the Red Squads, particularly their intervention that there is no “history of the police without a history of the red squads.” They describe how these countersubversive police units came into being with the explicit purpose of crushing revolutionary movements following the Haymarket massacre of 1886. They demonstrate that policing is not simply a response to crime but rather organized to counter insurgencies against capital and the state, designed and deployed to crush labor and socialist movements. In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, for example, the Red Squads surveilled, arrested, incarcerated, and deported communists and labor radicals. These units served as a precursor to COINTELPRO—the state’s counterinsurgency program that sought to crush the American Indian Movement, Black Panther Party, and Students for a Democratic Society. By the late 1960s and 1970s Red Squad and COINTELPRO tactics had been integrated into the everyday and routine forms of U.S. policing and mass surveillance. In particular, community policing came into vogue amidst the urban insurrections that rocked the U.S. from Watts to Detroit. In response to this crisis cops cynically appealed to a narrative of community, which Correia and Wall observe was part of an effort to justify occupation through an “(iron fist) masquerading as collaboration (the velvet glove).”
The intervention of this book offers an important corrective to the tendency to blame rogue cops. The bad apple thesis leads many liberals and even some purported radicals to assert that the police departments can be reformed simply by making them more racially diverse, multicultural, and gender-responsive. The “police relation,” as the authors’ define it, is fundamentally about containing unprecedented inequality under neoliberal capitalism. Programs like broken windows policing are used to protect propertied interests, and therefore struggles to abolish police represent direct confrontations with the “lifeblood of racial capitalism.” A dedicated reader might wonder whether there could have been an entry on racial capitalism itself, particularly since Correia and Wall so effectively deploy the term throughout the text. There are elements of such a definition and description in the book, particularly the passages throughout referencing Marx’s theses on primitive accumulation, colonialism, slavery, and force. Perhaps this is work that others can take up and elaborate in dialogue with the book as well as the rich and extensive literature on antiracist and Marxist critiques of political economy.
Police has already found an audience amongst militants seeking to abolish police and create alternative futures. It should encourage scholars and journalists us to engage a careful study of class struggles in language, particularly since the book offers some important methodological criteria for reading copspeak against the grain. Achieving the abolitionist dream of a world where policing and prisons are obsolete, as philosopher Angela Y. Davis puts it, means articulating an alternative political and scholarly project. This requires us to better understand the historically and geographically specific articulation of police power. Correia and Wall point out, copspeak is always shifting and absorbing previous critiques to legitimate a new hegemonic policing project. In my view, this book should compel us to engage in a materialist critique of ahistorical understandings of police power. As Davis has argued, trans-historical conceptualization prevents us from developing a vocabulary to attend to the historically specific shape racism has taken in the neoliberal conjuncture. This insight is critical for the project of police abolition that the book demands we take seriously. In doing so, Correia and Wall’s impressive work encourages us to develop a new language “free of copspeak” by “refusing its official language and rejecting the seemingly commonsense vocabulary of the police.” This entails developing “an alternative to the lexicon of copspeak,” and illustrating that “the only way to improve the police is to abolish it.” Nothing less than this should be acceptable.