This article is one in a series of arguments on policing in our summer issue.
The Capitol riot was a watershed moment for the United States. It exposed the extent to which the far right has become inseparable from the GOP and revealed the weaknesses of our electoral process under an undemocratic constitution. The violence at the Capitol also prompted another public reckoning with the purpose and function of policing in our society, which built on and contradicted the critique of policing advanced by the mass protests of 2020.
In the days after January 6, many observed how differently police treated pro-Trump and Black Lives Matter protesters. In response to those asking for more extensive surveillance and policing of white supremacists, abolitionists and other civil libertarians emphasized the limits of such an approach. It’s clear we need political solutions to the conditions that made the Capitol riot possible. But the answer isn’t just electoral reform, or policies to diminish economic and social inequality. We also need to deal with the politics of policing itself.
The journalist Jeff Sharlet has given this politics a name: police nationalism. While Sharlet primarily refers to police nationalism as a right-wing project, rooted in an identity formed around “fantasizing punishment for others,” there is a bipartisan political consensus that sees policing as the means to overcome the problems caused by inequality, reducing them to issues of crime and pathology. People on the left sometimes slip into this language, too, characterizing Capitol rioters, for instance, as criminal deviants who must be punished.
Police nationalism is rooted in conservative ideas of law and order, expressed these days in the rhetoric of Blue Lives Matter, but it has also been sustained by decades of liberal police reform. The right sees the police as the “thin blue line” between order, stability, and security and illegitimate violence, chaos, and anarchy. Liberals instead emphasize the “law” in “law and order,” appealing to proceduralism and increased professionalism as mechanisms of accountability to be strengthened so that police can serve the public good. Liberal police nationalism is inseparable from the right-wing version; the Brooklyn Park police station in Minneapolis, which raised a thin blue line flag after an officer killed Daunte Wright in April, was the same police department that in 2020 was hailed as a model of liberal police reform.
Looking at police nationalism help us understand the series of right-wing mobilizations that culminated in the Capitol riot. First were the anti-lockdown protests earlier in 2020; then came the counterprotests and violence aimed at Black Lives Matter protesters; finally, interwoven with both, were Trump and GOP election rallies. In all these mobilizations, we could see a politics that contrasted the corruption of legal institutions with the simple justice of an order rooted in armed patriots—whether police or private citizens. These events were supported by right-wing donor networks. Violence against protesters on the left was encouraged at a high level, including legislative efforts to protect motorists who run over Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
Some have pointed to the hypocrisy of pro-police rhetoric among people who violate pandemic lockdowns, or who confronted and injured police at the Capitol. It’s more useful to look at how those moments are rationalized as an effort to “make policing great again,” by discarding a liberal political elite who don’t allow police to do their jobs and go after the real criminals. Once politicians—who are captured by a liberal elite—are no longer able to tell police what to do, they argue, we will no longer need to fight them. Right-wing police nationalists do not understand the police as a civilian force, accountable to a democratically elected government, but as a political force accountable to the vocal base of one party under a conservative and racist conception of law and order.
Following the Capitol riot, hundreds of people were arrested and now face serious criminal charges. This effort seems to have had only a modest effect on Trump’s popularity within the GOP. Is this surprising? Confronting the rioters with legal retribution does nothing to challenge the ideological hold of white supremacy on the party. Meanwhile, around the country, Republicans have passed anti-protest bills, which are clearly aimed primarily at stifling the political action of BIPOC communities and the left.
The Democratic Party’s response to the riot is best exemplified by Joe Biden’s inauguration. Washington, D.C. was turned into a militarized zone, while Black police officers were honored. Around the country, police departments and the FBI did what they “should’ve done” on January 6: they coordinated, shared intelligence, and showed force at sites of protest. This all had the short-term effect of demobilizing the right. The swift arrests and the heavy policing may have prevented another insurrection (though it’s also significant that the GOP was no longer funding and mobilizing the protests). We should entertain the possibility that liberal police reform could result in meaningful efforts to go after violent forces and root out far-right sympathizers from the police ranks—for example, a number of police officers involved in the Capitol riot have, rightfully, lost their jobs.
But if our arguments about what’s wrong with the police focus on the racist double standard of police enforcement and the ineffectiveness of police for ensuring public safety, then we will remain stuck within the logic of police nationalism, which will only encourage more violence in the name of “law and order.” Abolitionism can help suggest an alternative path. The problems revealed on January 6 need to be challenged with a coherent political vision. That means understanding the police as an institution with a significant, and contradictory, place in American political culture. The ubiquity of police nationalism shapes the conditions of possibility for radical and egalitarian political projects. Our concepts of the deserving and undeserving, safety, taxation, and the role of the public sector are all constrained and warped by the bipartisan consensus on policing. We should follow the lead of abolitionists working to end our reliance on police and prisons not just because these institutions are cruel, discriminatory, and ineffective, but because they are at the heart of the most disastrous political projects of our time.
Jasson Perez is a member of DSA’s Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus.