Police in HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ continue to act as a brutal armed gang despite wide-reaching reforms and a new preferred target
We need to talk about state violence.
In most countries, the concept of ‘state violence’ is usually meant to mean targeted assassinations or crackdowns on dissidents. It’s intentional, methodical – systematic. Political opponents might be shot by government agents. Activists might be beaten and shot in the streets. Entire ethnic groups might be targeted for cleansing.
In the United States about a thousand people are killed by the police every year. Unlike those other places where dictators release the hounds on the unruly masses, a disturbing number of individual state agents from local police to federal enforcement agencies kill people without being ordered to do so. The violence, much like America’s mass shootings, is sporadic rather than systematic. The cruelty of the US police forces is sometimes utterly banal, disgustingly so, with cops trained to avoid litigation by saying they feared for their lives.
This is the difference between systematic and systemic violence. Governments seem incapable of wielding the monopoly on violence without abusing it, but in the United States government violence is not so much sanctioned as much as it is tolerated. The murdering agents are allowed to take a vacation or work a desk while local government measures the temperature outside. If the people are getting frisky about yet another police killing, then charges might be pressed. Usually, the cop gets off, even the most horrifyingly blatant attacks on Americans. Why?
The buzzwords right now are ‘qualified immunity’. I’ll quote NPR:
“The doctrine is called “qualified immunity.” Developed in recent decades by the Supreme Court, the doctrine, as applied to police, initially asked two questions: First, did police use excessive force, and if they did, should they have known that their conduct was illegal because it violated a “clearly established” prior court ruling that barred such conduct.”
Here’s the thing: cops don’t really have to know the law all that well to make an arrest. The courts of this country have bent over backward to give cops all the breathing room they need to make mistakes that often cost people’s lives. The reality is that we can’t assume that all these mistakes are mistakes. We give cops so much room to operate without oversight or accountability that many now act with brazen impunity, reacting to the George Floyd protests with brutality not seen since the 60’s and 70’s.
Calls to abolish the police have gained more momentum than they’ve ever had in this country, with the Minneapolis City Council passing a veto-proof measure establishing their intent to disband the Minneapolis Police Department. This has had many fellow-travelers protesting alongside Black Lives Matter do a double-take.
“Abolish the police?” they ask. “Like, all of them? But then who will keep us safe? Sure, there’s a lot of bad apples in the bunch and not a lot of good ones doing anything to fix the problems in the ranks, and we should do something about that. But what about really violent criminals? Or sex offenders? Or mass shooters? Who will stop them?”
It’s a concern that should not be dismissed out of hand. Leftists who wish to abolish the police should confront an uncomfortable truth: they rely, implicitly, on the security services provided by the police to dissuade attacks from the far right.
There are nearly three hundred armed groups affiliated with the nation’s right-wing militia movement. Additionally, there are a number of fascist gangs fixated on terrorist violence, including Atomwaffen Division and The Base. Less radical, but nonetheless dangerous are groups such as the Proud Boys, an aspiring hipster fraternity based around getting into street fights with anti-fascists. The KKK still has dozens of chapters across the country.
They are a legitimate threat to the safety of left-wing activists across the spectrum. Unlike the left, they are enmeshed in the national gun culture and have ties to the militia movement. Any single one of them could easily acquire the means and training to kill dozens of activists, either in a single mass casualty incident or through a series of targeted killings of leaders.
In January, a trio of The Base operatives were kept from murdering a couple they believed to be anti-fascists organizers. They had been infiltrated by the FBI (as every single right wing terrorist group has been) and prevented from carrying out the attack. A National Socialist Movement-affiliated terrorist attempted to carry out a lone-wolf attack on a hospital with a heavy COVID workload. He too was stopped by the FBI, killed in a shootout before executing the plot.
They don’t do it because they would go to prison.
Instead, they are preparing for (and in the case of some groups, actively accelerating) the collapse of this country’s public institutions, including police, to act with impunity against the left, Black Lives Matter, against LGBTQ people, against Jews – etc., you know who they go after.
So let’s say the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder take on a more radical dimension and call for the total abolition of the police across the board. How will the left protect itself when better trained, better armed, and incredibly ruthless right wing death squads take it upon themselves to purge their enemies?
The country and its communities need security. Until now, the responsibility of securing our communities has been placed with police forces who largely do not even live among the people they police, acting as an occupying army descending on urban areas from the suburbs in which they live. Usually it’s federal agencies that thwart terrorist attacks, as local police departments don’t tend to be involved with investigating extremism. Right now, they’re mostly involved with inciting riots against peaceful protesters.
So what’s the alternative? Is the left going to army up into a number of small militias and prepare for shootouts with the far right? When mass shooters do target preschools or black churches, who’s going to stop them? When someone is suffering from domestic violence from an armed perpetrator, who can they call on to protect them when they find the courage to leave?
Turns out, there’s a place where the police were abolished, despite the omnipresent threat of right wing terrorism. In Rojava, an autonomous region in northern Syria, the democratic-confederalist Syrian Democratic Forces took control of territory and began instituting a program of decentralized authority. They did this by militarily defeating ISIS on the ground, largely with all-female revolutionary militias called the YPJ or Women’s Protection Units. Not a token force, the YPJ makes up around one-third of all of the SDF’s combatants.
With the threat of ISIS sleeper-cells lurking constantly in their midst, particularly in territory taken from the retreating Islamists, the many communes affiliated with the SDF created security forces to protect their leaders and communities from terrorists. They also enforce the law; in effect, they are the police. However, their methods of policing are very different from our own.
A post circulating among leftist social media groups comes from Hawzhin Azeez:
“This phenomenon raises the essential question of how a system deeply entrenched in a bloody history founded on white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism ever provide true and meaningful justice? Some call for police reforms. Others have called for redistribution of funds. Some have argued that abolishing the police is the best option. Many, even on the Left cannot imagine such a system ever being viable.
Yet, this system already exists in Rojava, the autonomous self-administrative region of North Syria. In Rojava the combination of Assayish and HPC (Civil Defense Forces) forces work together in a symbiotic relationship to provide safety and security to the community. The Assayish work as traffic controllers, arrest criminals, protect victims of domestic violence, serve as security guards at main governing buildings and control the in-flow of people and goods from one canton to the next. The HPC in contrast, are people in a given neighborhood trained in basic security. They only patrol their own neighborhood unless they protect the people during festivals, martyr’s ceremonies, local events and nightly watches.”
The revolution in Rojava is already far more advanced in their program to decentralize the responsibility of security to the entire population, so that all those who are willing and able to defend their communities are trained in how to do so. In Robert Evans’ podcast The Women’s War a skeptical American interviews members of the Asayish, the Women’s Protection Units, and the Civil Defense Forces on the ground and comes to the conclusion that the people of Rojava are genuinely committed to this project. He found a system of communal councils helping to arbitrate disputes between feuding parties, as well as a robust system of armed defenders tasked with responding to a violent clerical-fascist movement on their border and in their midst.
Here are some ideas based on the Rojava experiment which could be applied to the United States:
- The role of armed police should be diminished solely to responding to violent attacks, such as shootings, including mass shootings, hostage situations, etc. The presence of armed police in other situations escalates tension and leads to confrontations which create criminals.
- Police funding should be diminished and allocated to other areas of urban budgets, including schooling and transportation. Fourth grade test scores are an accurate predictor of how many jails must be built to accommodate future criminals. Better budgeting and managing of urban and rural schools can reduce the number of violent criminals in society.
- Social workers should be given more funding for better training and more personnel to perform welfare checks and provide assistance to the houseless and drug-addicted. Armed police are not necessary to intervene in every situation that makes white and middle class people uncomfortable.
- Petty crimes such as shoplifting and traffic violations do not need to be handled by the police. Instead, community arbiters and civil arbitration councils should be created to handle these minor infractions with the goal of preventing an arrest. Only the failure to reach an arbitration in more serious cases should escalate to the justice system.
- To respond to dangerous domestic violence situations, sexual assaults, and serial rapists, an all-female force should be established which is trained in identifying patterns of patriarchal violence. An all-female unit would be less likely to tolerate domestic violence among the ranks and to dismiss domestic violence and sexual crimes committed by men. After a period where the all-female sex crimes and domestic violence unit had become an established institution, men could be trained to perform their tasks as well.
- All agents of this civil peacekeeping system would be accountable to their communities, answerable to city councils or to the civil arbitration councils mentioned above. Rather than a militarized command of sergeants, captains, etc., these civil agents would be immediately responsible to elected councilmembers and should not be given to the mayor, governor, president, or any other executive.
- Professional armed security could emulate the Rojavan Anti Terror Units and focus on countering violent extremists including right wing terrorists and mass shooters. These security forces should be well trained and well equipped to deal with the heavily armed aspirational insurrectionists throughout the country, particularly in urban areas, and act as a counterbalance to the powers of the National Guard and federal military.
- Following the example of the YPG and YPJ of Rojava, it may be wise to mandate that no less than 40% of the personnel of these agencies be women, and that POC, LGBTQ, and religious minorities are incentivized to join. Woman commanders on the ground in Rojava found that mixed units of men and women were less likely to commit war crimes and abuse civilian populations than all-male units.
- Many of those in the Civil Defense Forces in Rojava are elders in their communities, keeping their neighborhoods safe while the youth combat ISIS in the field. Spreading the responsibility of public safety to the people of the community decentralizes the authority of people with guns. Programs should be created to provide universal defensive, medical, and de-escalative training to anyone who wants them, free of charge, until the need for special bodies of armed agents is no more.
These are not simple fixes. They are also perhaps not as radical as some revolutionary socialists and anarchists may like. However, I think these ideas begin to address the question of alternatives to the police forces in the United States, and how we can answer the question of what happens after we abolish those who, at least ostensibly, are supposed to protect us from violence.
Police have not been effective in doing so. Abolishing them and replacing them with a number of agencies with specialized areas of focus, such as crimes against women/POC/LGBTQ, petty crimes, and yes, violent criminals, would do more to protect us and reduce crime. Ensuring community participation in these programs that goes beyond mere community policing into actual decentralized security will abolish the abusive police while providing us with public servants who actually care about protecting their communities.