Power Over the Police

Power Over the Police

State violence has no opposition party. Communities that want to dismantle police departments will need the power to do that work themselves.

Protesters in Orlando, Florida, on June 6, 2020 (RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images)

The clashes between police and protesters in response to the recent police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and others throughout the country expose the violence inherent to the U.S. system of policing. Social media has been inundated with hundreds of videos chronicling police aggression and brutality. Cities nationwide, particularly in the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., have faced unprecedented militarization of their streets. Police have wielded weapons typically used only by special forces in overseas military campaigns, even going as far as to use a Lakota helicopter with Red Cross markings in a show of force against protesters (in violation of the Geneva Convention).

A number of attempts to give political expression to the energy in the streets have emerged in recent days. Some have emphasized the symbolic. Not a month after proposing a budget to increase the local police budget by some $45 million, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser commissioned artists to paint “Black Lives Matter” on the streets near the White House where clashes between protesters and armed state security still continue, prompting immediate and sharp rebuke from Black Lives Matter DC. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden cobbled together legislation calling for reforms that include creating a national database of civilian complaints against police and banning chokeholds and no-knock raids—a tepid defense of the status quo wrapped in kente cloth.

Others have emphasized surgical reforms. Campaign Zero’s “8 Can’t Wait” lists eight potential reforms to laws and rules regulating police conduct. These run the gamut from banning specific uses of force (including chokeholds and strangleholds) to “requiring warning before shooting.”

But more radical proposals are also circulating, particularly on social media. Many now demand that we defund police departments. This is a particularly pressing project in Los Angeles, where the LAPD leviathan consumes some 53 percent of the city’s discretionary funds. The activists of the People’s Budget, a coalition convened by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, have responded by advocating a budget with a completely revamped schedule of spending priorities that would shrink the LAPD budget to a paltry 5.7 percent of unrestricted revenues.

Another radical call is under consideration: abolishing the police. Police and prison abolitionists imagine a different way of responding to harm and maintaining entirely, including a direct answer to #8Can’tWait in #8ToAbolition. In their vision of the world, police and prisons are active impediments to justice and safety. #8Can’tWait focuses on regulating police activity—for instance, one provision requires fellow officers to intervene if they believe an officer is using excessive force, in order to puncture the blue wall of silence that shields violent officers from accountability. #8toAbolition takes a wider view, including investing in care (like food banks and child care) and housing, taking aim at the social insecurity that abolitionists take to be the fundamental sources of social harm.

Fulfilling the demands of either of these campaigns would surely improve our political situation to some degree. But there is another approach to consider—one not yet a prominent part of the national conversation—that was built into the Movement for Black Lives policy platform. It has the support of the Twin City Coalition for Justice for Jamar, a coalition of Minneapolis activists formed in the 2015 uprising after the police murdered Jamar Clark. It has been explained at length and in detail by co-authors M Adams, a Black, queer, and gender-nonconforming community organizer and movement scientist based in Madison, Wisconsin, and Max Rameau, a Haitian-born Pan-African theorist, campaign strategist, organizer, and author. I believe Adams and Rameau are right, and that the most promising path forward—on the way to a fuller reorganization of society around human needs instead of profit and domination—is community control over the police.


The U.S. system of policing evolved to maintain exploitative economic systems and maintain oppressive social hierarchies. In the South, the organizational predecessor to modern police departments were the slave patrols; the private property of interest were the enslaved Africans themselves, and slave patrols hunted fugitives and used campaigns of terror to deter fleeing and other forms of resistance. In the North, the primary spurs for police department development were union busting and strike breaking. The end of the nineteenth century saw an incredible amount of labor militancy: in the period from 1880 to 1900, New York City alone had over 5,000 strikes and Chicago almost 2,000. Police departments were tasked with surveillance of immigrants and newly freed Black Americans, and businessmen were given keys to special alarm boxes that would alert the police at the first sight of visible worker unrest. In both the South and North, the purpose of the police department was fundamentally the same: to secure, within the settled frontier, the social order on which elites’ profit-making activities and social prestige depended.

Today, the colonial system that subsequently militarized the police and set incarceration running at warp speed is maintained by a dizzying array of wildly perverse incentives, meticulously mapped by co-authors Chris Surprenant and Jason Brennan in Injustice for All. Policing and incarceration are big business, shaped by the direct influence and lobbying activity of corporations and investment groups for which there is not even the pretense of public accountability. This business is aided and abetted by the formal political system: police militarization and mass incarceration policies are managed across red, blue, and purple states by actors from both parties at all levels of government. State violence has no opposition party. 

Thus, communities will have to dismantle the prison-industrial complex themselves—brick by brick. The financial and political relationships that sustain it are much larger than police departments themselves, much less their budgets. To make headway, we have to pick our spots, and insert community power in between police departments and the wider, tangled mess that fuels their operation.

Defunding police, by itself, will make the problem smaller. This is, in a sense, progress. But it leaves the basic political structure intact: it does not necessarily change how police evaluate themselves, which means that they will continue to target the people that their human or algorithmic supervisors identify as fair game. It will not change the revenue structure of the cities that fund themselves with fines and forfeiture; police will still get directives from on high to engage in piracy, incentivizing interactions that prove tragic for the plundered.

The core problem with policing and incarceration is the same problem that plagues our whole political system: elite capture. The laws, the regulations, the bailouts, and the wonks who write and evaluate all of the above are all powerfully influenced—if not functionally controlled—by elite political and corporate interests. We cannot put our faith in elected representatives and merely vote our way out of this problem: elections are more dominated by dollars than ever, and grassroots energy around political figures is increasingly shaped by identity politics, which faces its own elite capture problem.

Instead, we need to give power back to the people—directly. Under one specific proposal, offered by the Washington, D.C.area group Pan-African Community Action (of which I’m a member), communities would be divided into districts, each of which would be empowered to self-determine how to maintain public order. Each district would hold a plebiscite to decide what to do with its current police department, immediately giving the community the direct voting power to abolish, restructure, downsize, or otherwise reconstruct their departments.

Whichever police departments survive the vote would be directly controlled—not overseen, not solicited for advice, not merely “participating” in decision-making—by a pair of civilian control boards. To prevent the corporate capture of elections through lobbying and advertising that plagues the rest of our political system, these boards would be staffed by sortition (random selection of the population, in the way juries are composed) rather than elections. The random selection severs the links between police departments and the wider web of prosecutor, corporate, state, and federal incentives that now govern their behavior.

The boards would have direct control over hiring and firing, the prerogative to set and enforce community priorities and objectives for harm response, and to set relationships with other communities (for example, merging departments with a neighboring district). They would rotate membership, with community tenure lasting anywhere from three months to a year, depending on the complexity of the issues at a given point in time. A variety of methods could help ensure that members have the time and energy to devote to their tasks, including provision of child care, paid leave (or direct compensation, for the retired and unemployed), weekend scheduling (as Ireland’s recent Citizens Assembly used), and other forms of support to the citizens acting as officials of the community.

In the best case, community control over police would come packaged with a broader commitment to sortition, in which case the budget the civilian board managed would be the outcome of a similar process arranging the local budget as a whole. Even in a less than ideal scenario, community control over police would be a marked improvement over the current system. It would be within the boards’ power to run the operation at any scale below the upper bound of their budget allocation. An abolitionist civilian board could, then, effectively nullify even a pro-police militarization budget from an ideologically opposed city council.

Under the current system, police interact with Black people as if they are helpless subjects. They know, for a fact, that the current power structure allows them to beat, torture, and imprison them with little oversight and accountability. Under community control of the police, community police interacting with Black residents would be interacting with their bosses.

All of the other demands under discussion—from Campaign Zero’s eight regulations on police conduct, to defunding the police, to partial or full abolition of police departments—are achievable from this starting point. Community control over the police is compatible with each of seasoned abolitionist activist Mariame Kaba’s seven guidelines for proposals to support on the way to abolishing the police. But the control part is key, which is what separates this proposal from the “community policing” Kaba rightly criticizes. “Community policing” is essentially a public relations campaign that aims to put a friendly face on state control of violent force in Black and brown neighborhoods. It is state-run and state-directed, and controlled by the push and pull of the same elite forces that plunder the rest of our economy and social lives. Community control over police—putting the public in charge—is as far from this as possible. A community in control of how order is maintained does not have to grin and bear the decisions of its police. It has the power to hire officers, fire them, fund department initiatives, or abolish policing altogether. This would not require another dollar to go toward police funding.

Moreover, community control over police is the best position from which to reach these other laudable goals. Instead of asking the elite funders of the police to give them less funding this fiscal year—a process reversible during next year’s budget negotiations, when attention will likely have diminished—we should demand to be the funders of the police, to permanently and directly determine which dollars go where. Instead of asking those who set police departments’ rules of engagement and goals to make them in a more community-minded fashion, we should demand to be the agenda setters.

From the bedrock of community control, further goals to defund, abolish, or differently regulate police are no longer requests made to the state, which is full of actors whose incentives are irretrievably aligned with maintaining the general features of the current system. If and where we want to abolish the police, we can use community control over hiring and firing to simply fire departments out of existence. If we seek to defund police (in the sense of redirecting resources to other aspects of community life), we can use community oversight over personnel, priorities, and budgets to shrink departments to the precise size and shape that we want.

The essence of this demand could be materialized in different ways; the rationale of the core demand for community control does not stand or fall with the particular details of any one model. But providing specifics helps keep the conversation rooted in material reality and constructive proposals about what we want the world to look like. This is in keeping with the maturation of a movement from pure opposition to injustice—allowing the current power structure to decide what our rage should mean, institutionally speaking—to the advancement of justice.

Undoubtedly, this proposal would incur many practical challenges. It would likely work out unevenly in different districts. It would mean a direct and immediate increase in power for predominantly Black communities, and where abolitionist ideology wins out, communities can vote to take steps to abolish or restructure their police departments without the intervention of lobbyists and careerists. But conservative and/or majority-white policing districts may well vote to retain police departments above the protestations of their Black or POC neighbors. Moreover, within a district, people will disagree bitterly about the priorities that govern how harm is prevented and responded to, whether the community has a police department or not.

Across districts that retain police, we can also expect deep differences. Communities will need to negotiate terms between them—processes we can expect to be fraught and conflict-ridden. Likely, state law will need to adapt to regulate inter-community relationships and resolve inter-community questions of jurisdiction and harm response.

No proposed reform, or proffered institution, could possibly avoid the problems that stem from differences in political opinion—particularly those that stem from differences in education and socialization—and only a deeply authoritarian political project would even try. But could two different, democratically organized communities possibly have a less bridgeable political divide than the one that currently separates the interests of incarcerated, harassed, and brutalized people from the interests of elites who profit financially or politically from their incarceration, harassment, and brutalization?

While we cannot prevent the existence or political salience of ideological differences, we can change the balance of power between competing political views. The ruling elite is not some bastion of progressivism standing between us and the naked bigotry of the unwashed masses. In fact, complex codes of etiquette that pretend otherwise and sanitize oppression are part and parcel of the history of racial domination (and other forms of oppression), in this country and many others. Under the current setup, the tiny minority of decision makers that vote in GEO Group board meetings and backdoor political party gatherings have their bigotry magnified and are functionally unchecked by the vast majority of people, who have no choice but to put up with the structural outcome of elite racial animus, apathy, pure opportunism, or combinations thereof.

Under the Adams-Rameau proposal, the overt white supremacists and misogynists within the ruling elite are diminished to exactly as much influence as the rest of us have: one person, one ballot. We should greatly prefer our chances of successfully confronting harmful ideology through intra- and intercommunity dialogues to confronting the same bigotry in corporations like CoreCivic and Raytheon or the “public” judicial institutions that force toddlers to mount their own legal defense in deportation hearings.

Nevertheless, the observation that communities will differ in what they choose to do about policing helps explain why the strategic stance of community control over police flows out of a philosophical commitment to abolitionism rather than in opposition to it. Many organizers have done more than imagine alternatives to police and prisons; they have begun building their cultural, communal, and structural foundations. As scholar and veteran abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore points out, our relationship to policing is inseparable from the “entirety of human-environmental relations”: it concerns our most basic relationships to the value of life and the structures we build in response. The task of abolition, then, is much broader than the restructuring or elimination of any one institution. Though police departments and prisons often house the most violent and spectacular abusers and abuses, other social institutions have also colluded in the broader project of punitive social control and surveillance, particularly of working-class Black people, most notably our schools and welfare programs.

Thus, the cultural work of abolition is absolutely indispensable. Without political education, intracommunal struggle, and a deep reckoning with our fundamental social and political values, we cannot possibly prevent control over police from converting us into agents of our own destruction. For years, practitioners of transformative and restorative justice have modeled the work that communities will need to engage in to counter prevailing cultures of disposability, trans-antagonism, patriarchy, and violence. It is no surprise, then, that feminist, queer- and trans-centered, and/or working-class organizations like Critical Resistance and INCITE have been at the forefront of this work. Without it, we would not be in a position to advance the demand for community control, a demand that owes its plausibility to the historically unprecedented mobilization of mass opposition to anti-Black racism and police brutality that the work of abolitionists and Black Lives Matter helped create.

We should be encouraged by the results from Ireland’s own experiment with sortition and direct democracy: its Citizens’ Assembly brought 100 randomly selected members of society to discuss and decide weighty social matters. The results included a string of progressive victories on some of the most politically contentious issues of the day, including on marriage equality, abortion, and climate change.

The problem with policing is power, not prejudice. All of the possibilities for real, lasting, and meaningful change are downstream of community power. Until we demand and organize for power itself—rather than pleading for those who have it to take the actions we’d like—we will never get it. And until we get it, we will always be at the mercy of those who have it. They have shown us over the decades whose side they are on: the side of profit, racial hierarchy, and colonial domination and control. It’s time we chose ours.

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, where he focuses on social/political philosophy and ethics. He is also a member of Pan-African Community Action and an organizer of the Undercommons.

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