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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Policing Can’t End Violence in the U.S., But Reparations Might

Because American police have always upheld racial capitalism through violence, anti-racist public safety requires police abolition—and police abolition requires reparations.

As prison abolition enjoys an unexpected surge of popularity, potential comrades are asking abolitionists an all-too-familiar question: “What about murder?” 

While the question is often posed in bad faith, it’s a valid one. There’s no place for violence in a just society. But before the question of an abolitionist response to violence can be addressed in its own right, we need to examine the role that police and prisons play in producing violence, and gun violence in particular. Brutal enforcement of racial capitalism by police strips Black neighborhoods of the self-regulatory mechanisms that prevent many types of harm in affluent communities. Because gun violence is a symptom of police violence, safety requires police abolition. 

But safety is more than the absence of violence, and abolitionists don’t plan to leave communities without means to prevent harm. Abolitionists want to eliminate the political economy enforced by police and prisons and create new healing processes to address the harms that remain. We will almost certainly need reparations to build toward that horizon.

To understand how police violence drives interpersonal violence, we first need to understand why police exist. The institution of policing in America was designed to violently repress collective action that threatens the racial capitalist social order. Racial capitalism, a term coined by political philosopher Cedric Robinson, means that the racial character of capitalism predates capitalism itself, and that capitalism arose within European efforts to differentiate and subjugate racial groups (e.g., the Irish, Jews, Slavs, and Roma). Robinson’s scholarship investigates how European nations enclosed, colonized, and expropriated racial subjects within Europe itself; for instance, Irish people resisted Norman and English colonization over the course of nearly a thousand years, and Roma were literally enslaved in Romania for centuries.  

As the colonizing force of racial capitalism spread throughout Europe, it was exported to other continents and racial subjects. Chattel slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, for example, could be considered a form of racial capitalism (or perhaps racial mercantilism). Colonization and slavery forced Black and indigenous people to become the labor force supporting European imperialist growth. 

The concept of racial capitalism helps clarify the function of American policing. In the North, police forces were created to quash popular uprisings, including “collective bargaining by riot,” where workers would destroy property of employers offering lower wages.  In New York City, the city watch was initially deployed to control the streets and sow division between groups of workers via racially targeted patrols (e.g., targeting Irish or Black residents). When Black people rioted to stop former slaves from being re-enslaved, the city watch responded to each uprising with violence and harsh punishments. The increasing frequency and intensity of riots intimidated city elites, and a municipal police department was created in 1845 to more efficiently defang these uprisings. 

In the South, slave patrols were formed in the early 18th century to crack down on slave insurrections and capture escaped enslaved people. Southern white communities viewed slaves both as a captive labor force that was absolutely essential for economic development as well as a potential threat to the established social order. The earliest forms of policing in the South attempted to intimidate enslaved laborers into submission through violence. This was easier in rural areas, where there wasn’t much time or space for free social relations among workers—enslaved people on plantations lived where they worked and had incredibly demanding work schedules. 

By contrast, many enslaved people in the majority-Black city of Charleston, South Carolina were hired out by their masters to work for local businesses; as a result, some were able to find independent housing, which allowed for more socializing. Whites in the majority-Black city of Charleston, South Carolina, were terrified by the prospect of revolt that they perceived in Black collective gatherings. When Black people formed a suburb of their own in the early 19th century, the city created a more professionalized police force. This unit enforced a curfew and ruthlessly terrorized Black residents. In 1817, white Methodists in Charleston announced their intention to desecrate a Black cemetery. As the police were not remotely interested in protecting the cemetery, more than 4,000 Black residents formed their own church to protect the burial ground. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was a site of slavery abolition organizing, and it remains the oldest church of its denomination in the South. Five years later, Charleston police raided the church, torturing and executing at least thirty of its members that they accused of plotting a slave revolt. Whites later razed the original church building. 

This is the same Emanuel AME where, nearly 200 years later, nine worshippers would be gunned down by white supremacist Dylann Roof. While racial terrorism at the hands of individuals may initially seem divorced from police violence, it isn’t.Long after slave revolts helped abolish slavery, white supremacists conspired with the state’s violent arm to coerce and profit from Black labor through convict leasing and sharecropping. 

Where Black communities succeeded in accumulating wealth on their own terms, like “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, white supremacists resorted to racist terrorism. The city’s police force deputized white lynch mobs to attack Black residents—as in, “Special Deputies” were literally told to “get a gun and get a n*****“—and raze Black businesses that threatened the white community’s control over the region’s capital. 

Many white police officers (often out of uniform) joined the lynch mob. Meanwhile, police discouraged white property owners who tried to keep mobs from burning Black businesses to the ground. After the white rioters destroyed Black Wall Street, Tulsa’s police chief prohibited photographs of the wreckage as “a precaution against the influx here of Negroes and other critics seeking propaganda for their organizations.”

Today, there is ample recent evidence that white nationalists have infiltrated police forces around the country. And of course, policing still serves to repress rebellion and protect racial capitalism. Notably, SWAT teams—the epitome of militarized policing—were initially deployed in response to the Watts rebellion in Los Angeles, which was catalyzed by residential segregation and police violence. The riots caused $40 million in property damage, which helps explain why police were so aggressively deployed—police are primarily concerned with protecting private property. Because the state exists to manage the class conflict that structures human history, racial capitalist police forces are violence workers, not safety workers. This is why police are so ill-suited to address interpersonal violence. 

More than 80 percent of all firearm homicides in the world happen in America. Almost 60 percent of those victims are Black. American gun violence is heavily concentrated in Black neighborhoods that have been systematically exploited by the state and racial capitalism. 

Alongside school segregation, redlining institutionalized segregation and sabotaged Black wealth. In the early 20th century, mortgage lenders and insurers designated Black communities as “hazardous” neighborhoods and effectively barred Black people from homeownership for generations. Because homeownership is an important wealth accumulation vehicle for American families, segregation perpetuates America’s racial wealth gap. Much like the evolution of chattel slavery into convict leasing, redlining and school segregation persist in more subtle and pernicious forms today, including through various forms of financial discrimination that shut out Black communities from financial services

American gun violence primarily affects segregated communities, and segregation illustrates how racial capitalism requires and produces violence. One study, spanning thousands of neighborhoods in 79 U.S. cities, found that “segregation is positively associated with violent crime.” In Louisville, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia, redlined neighborhoods disproportionately suffer from gun violence. States with higher levels of structural racism have greater Black-white disparities among police shooting victims, and gun violence is associated with class hierarchy, reduced economic mobility, and declines in welfare spending.

Segregation could not persist without police violence. Police enforce the boundaries of segregated space through “broken windows” policing, perpetually ushering homeless and otherwise “disorderly” people from one place to another. They do so to maintain property values and protect the profit margins of nearby businesses. When landlords evict tenants, it’s the police who force renters from their homes, yet another avenue by which police can brutalize and kill. Black households pay more rent and are much more likely to be renters compared to whites. In gentrifying neighborhoods, it is not uncommon for white people to use police in an effort to surveil and control their Black and Latino neighbors, often contributing to a cycle that leads to their eventual eviction or coerced departure from the neighborhoods. 

Police have also increasingly been called upon to treat policed communities as a source of tax revenue. Moreover, the use of fines and fees to control policed communities can be considered a technology of segregation. Police partner with courts to extract wealth from Black communities through abusive fines and fees practices, funding municipal and state budgets on the backs of poor Black people when politicians are unable or unwilling to raise taxes on the rich. After Ferguson police murdered Michael Brown in 2014, a federal investigation revealed the municipal government’s funding practices were deeply rooted racism.  

It’s not just a Ferguson problem: hundreds of American municipalities increasingly turned to fines and fees to fund themselves, particularly after the “No New Taxes” movement and fiscal stress caused by the 2008 financial crisis. This form of regressive taxation is again more prevalent in areas where more Black people live. Segregated, policed communities are forced to pay a larger share of the taxes funding their own repression. As criminal legal debts accumulate, the cycle of criminalization intensifies, miring people in poverty traps for decades. In this way, ticketing extends the reach of police power, and revenue-focused traffic enforcement routinely exposes Black motorists to police violence. These practices have been explicitly compared to sharecropping inasmuch as Black people are treated as a revenue source and their mobility is constrained. 

In a recent law review article, law professor and sociologist Monica Bell argues that police reform efforts ignoring segregation are destined to fail. Indeed, efforts to “re-form” policing without addressing police as a manifestation of political economy serve to preserve racial capitalism and the police violence that sustains it.

If you ask someone on the street what they think keeps people from killing each other, they will likely mention deterrence—the threat of punishment, embodied by police, courts, and prisons. This is a liberal myth: deterrence is one of the least important factors in deciding whether to break the law. Most harms are never reported to the state, and when they are, police often fail to respond

Instead, many serious harms are typically prevented by informal social control—the reinforcement of social norms that individuals share within a community. In affluent neighborhoods, dynamics driving collective resolution of conflict are stronger, which partially explains why poverty and violence are inextricably linked. (That said, informal social control only applies where communities agree on what constitutes harmful behavior. Sexual and intimate partner violence, for example, are still prevalent in affluent communities and are often tolerated by powerful community members.) 

Belief in the state’s authority, or the acceptance of “police legitimacy,” is also associated with law-abiding behavior. Setting aside the problems with this liberal conceptual framing, the legitimacy literature shows how interpersonal violence is an extension of police violence. After twenty-six-year-old Frank Jude Jr. was beaten by off-duty officers of the Milwaukee Police Department in 2004, the city saw a wave of violence and “a total net loss of approximately 22,000 calls [to 911].” In other words, one high-profile incident of police violence fueled gun violence in Milwaukee for months (though the authors also noted that “no act of police violence is an isolated incident”). 

The collective feeling of alienation produced by policing is also associated with higher rates of protective firearm ownership, which helps explain how perceptions of police are tied to violence. One study found that “incidents of police misconduct predicted variations in violent crime” in disadvantaged New York City communities—but in affluent communities, no such crime spikes materialized. When people believe, rightfully so, that police don’t exist to protect them from harm, they will take steps to defend themselves. 

Black Americans believe that police treat them worse than white people. There’s good reason for this belief. In the past, when whites lynched Black people, police often tightened cuffs around the wrists of Black victims. Today, police murders of Black people and homicides in general are more prevalent in counties where lynchings were commonplace. Black America’s long memory of racist police violence is reinforced by contemporary carceral coercion, and more mundane forms of violence inflicted by police hinder marginalized communities’ ability to prevent harm. Incarceration has a similarly destabilizing effect: people who have been incarcerated are less confident in the effectiveness of informal social control. Meanwhile, adult children of incarcerated parents are less likely to vote or trust public institutions. Efforts to “restore trust” between police and policed communities as a path to violence reduction will be fruitless if that trust never existed in the first place. 

This hasn’t stopped liberals from trying to reform the police. In 2015, President Obama formed the Task Force on 21st Century Policing to boost police legitimacy with policy tweaks like procedural justice training and body cameras, an approach that emphasizes improving individual perceptions of police interactions through “respect” and “conveying trustworthy motives” without changing police practices themselves (racist stops, searches, arrests, use of force, and so on). Effectively, these kinds of reforms amount to a sort of police public relations campaign where the public is urged to trust police, but the violent and political nature of police work remains untouched. In Minneapolis, the police department implemented every type of police reform that the Obama administration pursued (and more). This didn’t stop Derek Chauvin from kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes, killing him on camera for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. 

A second problem with legitimacy reforms is that they actively detract from calls for more radical interventions. Police reform casts aside questions of political economy as either too irrelevant or impossible to address. This narrow analysis ignores the material causes of violence and centers individual interactions and perceptions—all at the expense of collective politics. In response to this lacking framework, Monica Bell coined a concept she calls “legal estrangement”: Where police legitimacy identifies lawbreaking as a core social problem that can be solved by convincing individuals to trust and obey the law, legal estrangement focuses on collective structural alienation as the more fundamental crisis. In other words, the issue isn’t simply that people who live in heavily policed communities distrust the police and break the law as a result. It’s more accurate to say that policed communities are aware of how the law upholds the violence of racial capitalism—they know that police and prisons brutalize people and exclude them from society.

Fines and fees, for instance, literally disenfranchise Black people. Perhaps the most-publicized example of this is Amendment 4 in Florida, which now requires people with felony convictions to pay off fines and fees before regaining the right to vote. This form of exclusion is everywhere: law professor Beth Colgan found that 48 states and the District of Columbia engage in some form of “wealth-based penal disenfranchisement.” 

Thanks to felony disenfranchisement, one in thirteen Black Americans have lost their voting rights. Indeed, prison gerrymandering quite literally uses the bodies of incarcerated people to undermine representative democracy—prisoners are counted in the voting district where their prison is located, which reduces the power of the communities they come from while increasing the power of districts with prisons. Additionally, criminal convictions permanently brand punished people as deviant and deposit them into a precarious “carceral citizenship,” which defines how they interact with the economy and government. The unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people is over 27 percent. Criminal legal involvement bars formerly incarcerated people from many careers and higher education, forces people towards insecure and low-paying jobs, and reduces the likelihood that they will benefit from collective bargaining or join labor organizations. This is an indirect way in which criminalization reduces the power of working class organizing—for a more direct example, consider how police and military forces have historically been deployed to break strikes and bust unions. 

In the context of racial capitalism, legal estrangement makes American crime far easier to comprehend. Why obey the law when the law legitimizes exclusion, extraction, and brutality? 

If we understand police as foot soldiers deployed to uphold racial capitalism and terrorize anyone who dares to stand against it, prison abolition looks like reparations. Indeed, reparations might be the only proposal sufficient to remedy the centuries of structural exclusion that have harmed Black and other communities in the context of racial capitalism. It’s not a coincidence that calls to defund police departments are always accompanied by calls for reinvestment in Black communities. That reinvestment should be considered part of the process of reparations for the many iterations of American racial capitalism, including but not limited to chattel slavery. 

In her seminal book “Are Prisons Obsolete?”, philosopher and abolitionist activist Angela Y. Davis explains that the American prison “has become a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited.” In its place, Davis advocates for “the creation of new institutions… [that] can eventually start to crowd out the prison.” Geographer and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore frequently emphasizes a similar point: “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It has to be green, and in order to be green, it has to be red (anti-capitalist), and in order to be red, it has to be international.”

It may be useful to imagine manifestations of that “presence” as a form of reparations. Abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba has called for “a million experiments” in order to build a world without police or prisons. prison abolitionists have consistently called on the state to address the material needs of Americans; non-abolitionist Black communities have done the same. But unfortunately, politicians have selectively amplified Black communities’ calls for crime control while ignoring demands that could threaten racial capitalism (full employment, quality education, healthcare, and more).

Many community-led anti-violence efforts are already underway in areas suffering from gun violence. In Baltimore, activists rally against violence six to ten weekends each year. These “ceasefires” have reduced shootings. In New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities, credible messenger programs—where trusted moral authorities, including former gang members, work with youth to stop retaliatory cycles of violence—reduce violence. Public health researchers and practitioners are also hard at work developing trauma-informed responses to violence; meanwhile, crumbling health infrastructure makes shootings more likely to be fatal. Too often, however, these efforts are either unfunded or supported by mere pennies to the police department’s dollar.

In the wake of the protests generated by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, some cities are considering proposals to replace the bulk of police first response work with unarmed mediators and health workers who are qualified to address harm without enacting violence. These interventions deserve support, but they do not go far enough. Abolitionists advocate responding to harm in a broader framework of restorative and transformative justice, and projects that build community capacity for healing harms deserve additional funding and wider implementation outside of the criminal legal system. 

It’s important to understand that not every safety-generating investment is “about crime.” There are other proven ways to prevent interpersonal harm from occurring in the first place: gardens and parks, trees and the shade that they provide, investing in community organizations that address social problems, and push for Medicaid expansions, as well as affordable housing. Economists Darrick Hamilton and Sandy Darity have proposed a federal job guarantee and baby bonds as potential reparatory mechanisms to close the racial wealth gap. Social democratic politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have drummed up public support for Medicare for All, student loan debt cancellation, and the Green New Deal. Proponents of Modern Monetary Theory have stepped up to articulate how these proposals might be funded, and that framework may prove useful to demonstrate the immorality of deficit hawks’ qualms about funding reparations. 

The Green New Deal is particularly interesting for prison abolitionists—geographer Brett Story and epidemiologist Seth Prins argue that a “Green New Deal for Decarceration” could facilitate a transition away from racial capitalism and the carceral control that sustains it. Prisons, after all, are sites of ecological toxicity as well as sources of labor for post-industrial communities (though prisons don’t provide as much local employment as nearby communities might have imagined when they jockeyed for state construction projects). In contrast to the feedback loop of alienation and expropriation sustained by racial capitalism, the locally-determined nature of the Green New Deal’s job guarantee may help empower communities to identify necessary, sustainable projects and work together to complete them instead of merely earning wages in arbitrary roles dictated by the market. 

Beyond these social democratic spending proposals—which are closer to harm reduction than truly radical projects—organizers are hard at work developing structures to supplant and divest from racial capitalism. To undermine the tyranny of landlords, organizers advocate for community land trusts, which disrupt the commodification of land and housing (and the violence of evictions). To subvert the domination of bosses, worker co-ops democratically organize capitalist firms, taking a meaningful step towards worker control over the means of production. To prevent predatory financial institutions from expropriating workers’ wealth in service of capitalist development, socialists and abolitionists have advocated for public banking and radical mutual aid networks. Abolitionist groups have articulated political demands that critically engage and expand upon these imaginative ideas, which are just a few early examples of the “million experiments” that will be required to abolish the prison-industrial complex and destroy racial capitalism. 

The acknowledgment of interdependence intrinsic to abolition is directly contradicted by the hyper-individualism of racial capitalism and crime control. An abolitionist society will not thrive if neighbors are uncomfortable with or uninterested in resolving problems as a community, or if affluent whites are permitted to flee to gated communities and violently deny their own responsibility for racial capitalist expropriation and its symptoms. As sociologist Brendan McQuade writes, “[A]bolition always raises socialist questions: How will we care for each other? How will we share labor to meet our shared needs?” 

And so, abolitionists urge communities to develop healing responses to harm, but in a manner that opens up space for people who cause harm to take accountability for their actions and grow. By contrast, mass punishment within racial capitalism reinforces violence and forecloses accountability with retributive politics. The machine that rapes people is deployed to test rape kits; the machine that terrorizes Black communities is ostensibly deployed to save them from themselves. 

Abolition is an invitation: it is a call to join the conversation and ask hard questions about how serious harms can be addressed more effectively outside of our violent carceral system. Sincere reckoning with the havoc wreaked by American racial capitalism demands both abolition and reparations. 

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