Tag Archives: Racism

Categorical and Dialectical Abolitionism

We need to have a difficult conversation about prison abolitionist responses to police violence. Many abolitionists have responded to the Chauvin conviction by opposing any calls to imprison or punish him. This response is something I find politically and ethically unconvincing.

Yes, prisons are a nightmare and the bane of a just society. Yes, they eviscerate social relations and exacerbate structural violence, foreclose futures, and denigrate human dignity, and in the U.S do so in service of a larger system of white supremacy. Yes, retribution is a shallow conception of justice that fails to mend wrongs. And yet, what is to be done — right now — with your Derek Chauvins, your Darren Wilsons, your Daniel Pantaleos?

What could adequate restorative justice even begin to look like for these killer cops, or in response to everyday police violence more generally? You can’t have true restoration where grossly inequitable relations of power and violence persist. We have seen what that looks like, especially when the Restorative Justice Industry becomes an adjunct of policing itself… it becomes a restoration of status quo violence. Most abolitionists would, of course, not be satisfied with this liberal prescription, and instead call for transformative justice, as they should. Transformative approaches to justice would partially resolve the problem by dismantling policing and punishment as we know it, and by building an equitable society free from structural violence in order to eliminate root causes of other social violence. But what do we do in this moment, right now, in response to this agent of the state murdering yet another Black person?

This is speculation on my part, but there seem to be two logics of abolitionism right now: categorical and dialectical. These aren’t substantially oppositional to each other in most regards, but their differences are clearer in cases like Chauvin’s.

For categorical abolitionists, it seems like punishment and the policing and prison systems are first and foremost unjust processes, and these processes must be opposed and interrupted at every step and in every domain in which they spread. The way to oppose them is by ethically rejecting them in categorical terms, and strategically by demanding a different set of processes and conditions that can obviate them and reduce their scope. In their categorical opposition to punishment, policing, and prisons as unjust processes, it makes sense to maintain this even when evaluating responses to police brutality. The logic of prefiguration is important for this approach.

For dialectical abolitionists, it seems like the policing and prison systems are first and foremost forces of domination and control in service of racial and class hierarchies. Opposing these forces can entail prefiguration practices, such as with transformative and restorative justice. But dialectical abolitionists may still support prosecuting and jailing killer cops and do so on abolitionist grounds. Significantly, doing so can function as an expression of collective power from people mobilizing in the streets against the domination and violence exercised through and by the police and prison system. It can show people that they can win, however limited a victory, in the terrain of struggle over white supremacy.

By extension, such pushbacks can serve as platforms to constrain what the police in particular can get away with, shifting political and discursive boundaries. It is only after continuous rioting and organizing throughout 2020 (and years before) that the gratuitousness of the murder of George Floyd resulted in murder convictions instead of involuntary manslaughter, or a promotion. As George Ciccariello-Maher said about this issue, showing up in court to condemn one of their own is the last thing police want to do, and is already a sign of their strategic weakness and defensiveness. Prisons were designed to contain the poor and the marginal, not the police who were designed to do the same. Demanding the imprisonment of police undermines the political functions of both.

The path forward is not a clear one, and there are legitimate worries and criticisms. While condemning Chauvin is a defensive maneuver by police who would normally protect their own at all costs, this can be deployed by police defenders to demonstrate that “the system works” and that policing itself is not problematic. This was the overt argument of the prosecution in Chauvin’s case, that this is about this cop, not all cops. The momentum could be picked up to advance calls to defund the police but could also be derailed into useless or harmful reforms that preserve these systems. Empirically, we do not know how this will bear out, and we should have humility about this.

Ultimately, though, collective efforts to challenge and prosecute the police are putting them on the retreat. They don’t want it. They are losing, lashing out, abandoning the job in droves, feeling the eyes that are on them, and feeling their impunity slip away. The courts are offering the worst ones up in defensive self-preservation, and this is a symptom of the criminal justice system’s weakness, rather than its integrity. While some will condemn the prosecution of killer cops on the grounds of categorical configuration, to me this seems like the time to keep pushing. We’re at a point where we’ll have to make the road by walking, learn, and be willing to adjust course together along the way.

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The Violence of Demanding “Peaceful” Protest

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, dozens of U.S. cities have be rocked with unrest, ranging from small protests to open rebellion and riots. In watching coverage of the protests over the last week, several predictable issues and themes have emerged in how these protests are being framed by city and state leaders, police, and mainstream media outlets. I think that those of us who are committed to anti-racist politics need to directly grapple with some of these frames if we are going to shift how our collective efforts to challenge racism and injustice are understood going forward, for the wider public and for ourselves:

1.) “Outside agitators”
Both the governments and the media are going all in on dividing the good vs bad, legitimate vs illegitimate protesters, in order to control the unrest by turning people’s sympathies against it. They will say they support the cause but not the methods, but these are crocodile tears. They will cite MLK as a weapon against black protest, but it was MLK who said that his biggest enemy was the white moderate who valued order over the struggle for justice. It is these same moderates who condemn rioters rather than blame those in power who make riots inevitable.

The city government leaders are just lying, point blank, saying that the people who are doing anything other than quietly praying in their Sunday best are outside agitators. They have no evidence of this at all, and there is actual evidence from arrest records that most people vigorously protesting enough to be arrested are locals. This is an old tactic, and is used around the world by those in power seeking to discredit energetic social and political movements.

MLK felt compelled to condemn this rhetorical tactic, since it is the same one that was used by Jim Crow mayors and sheriffs against him and other civil rights protesters. The most important of his numerous criticisms here is that *it does not matter* if someone comes from elsewhere to stand with those protesting injustice. Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere: the logic of domination and oppression breeds and spreads, and produces further domination and oppression, while insensitivity to injustice anywhere breeds insensitivity to other injustices. We are all woven into a single garment of destiny, and cannot pretend that any injustice could (or should) stay parochially contained.

2.) Violent vs peaceful protests
Those who condemn property damage during protests should reflect on a few specific points:

First, tactically, riots and the damage they cause raise the economic and political cost of continuing with the everyday violence of business as usual, and have been an integral part of successful struggles for democracy and equality throughout history. This increase in cost can force elites to make concessions, and shift what counts as an acceptable policy bargain to buy peace again. Polite tactics have not worked whatsoever to ease the systemic racial and class inequalities and violence of places like Minneapolis. What else is left, besides people of color opting to die without a fuss?

Second, the human costs of continuing business as usual, from the early deaths and sicknesses imposed by police violence, racism, poverty, lack of healthcare, environmental racism, stress, etc, are incomprehensibly massive. They are far higher than any costs from these riots, at a minimum producing hundreds of thousands of early deaths in the U.S. a year.

This means that if you are opposed to “violence”, then you must prioritize ending these systemic conditions over the flash in the pan of any riot damage. It also means that if you truly oppose violence, then you must consider what given tactics *do* about this systemic and state-enforced violence. If your “peaceful” tactics don’t pose a threat to the continuation of a violent status quo, and even help sustain it by institutionally channeling, containing, and de-fanging challenges to it, then those measures are *more violent* in what they produce than riotous street clashes or mass strikes that compel actual concessions and change.

3.) Property damage as “violence”
Conceptually, calling broken windows, burnt cars and looting “violence” is extremely dubious in it’s implications. It puts unexpected forms of damage to or destruction of things as such in the same moral continuum as human suffering, and conveniently only those things that pose a direct threat to the people who own the world. Legal material destruction, of course — such as through a manufacturer shuttering and offshoring a factory (and with it a community’s ability to thrive), or a developer destroying poor people’s housing to put up empty luxury condos for investment, or a company spilling pollutants into the environment and our bodies — is never really framed as “violent”, even though it is more widespread and destructive.

Calling property damage violence also ignores the violence entailed simply by the state-backed imposition of particular rules and distributions of property. Property isn’t just stuff, it is also the rules for deciding who will be denied the right to use that stuff, and how that denial will be legitimized. If you’re concerned about looting, consider it in light of this.

The current distribution of resources is the result of racist state violence, centuries of openly white supremacist policies, imperialism, and exploitation. No honest person can disagree. It cannot be considered just or moral. Even in market terms, it cannot be considered a result of consent or fair competition. The pitifully low wage exploitation perpetuated by retail outlets in these areas are a product of these violently imposed unjust conditions and systems, and is itself a looting of the time, sweat, and well-being of people who are not truly free to do otherwise.

What, then, justifies condemnation of people’s attempts to grab goods that alleviate conditions of violently imposed and flatly unjust conditions of inequality and poverty? If just distributions are blocked politically, then how can we condemn what essentially amounts to material self defense against illegitimately imposed conditions?

4.) On looting during protests
Charges that people looting are acting opportunistically, or without pure enough motives make the mistake of thinking that pursuing material enhancement amidst unjust conditions is at odds with, rather than a central component of the demand for dismantling systemic racism. This isn’t separate from the fight against police brutality, since policing as such, as well as police brutality in particular are historically and tightly connected to state efforts to maintain racial and class inequalities and property rules under American capitalism. Demanding saintly selflessness from rioters is a dehumanizing double standard, and itself undercuts the legitimacy of demands for material justice and restitution.

Insofar as looting contributes to raising the cost for elites to ignore an unjust status quo, we can consider looting to be a useful element in producing an actually status quo-threatening pressure for concessions and change. Depending on the target (or Target), we may even say that it is ethically obligatory, if we take the struggle against violence seriously.

Ultimately, whenever those in power attempt to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate protesters during times of social unrest, this should be interpreted as nothing more than a classic divide and conquer tool designed to make the unrest more manageable and to divert a fraction of the less demanding participants towards the least costly (to those in power) concessions. It means they are scared. It also means we should investigate what it is that they are truly scared of losing — and what we stand to gain.

The world.

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Filed under Black Lives Matter, Hate crime, MLK, Police, Race, Structural violence, the State, Violence