Dusting Off Police Racism: Some Thoughts
I’ve been watching closely the events of the past week regarding the brutal murder of George Floyd. And like every other case we hear of this, whether in the States, here or elsewhere, it’s hard not to feel sick to your stomach. At the violence. At the sheer disregard for life. At the audacity. At the impunity. At the unrelenting suffocation.
It’s hard also to not feel despondent. Not again. How many murders must we witness before things change? How many more times must police violence and racism be explained? How many times do we need to argue about what constitutes appropriate resistance?
There’s been a variety of responses to this latest episode. Notably, it’s been promising to see an increased consciousness on this topic generally, and particularly a move away from stymieing debates about how to abstractly perfect resistance before embodying it, towards a more organic approach of making the most out of inherently messy circumstances. Seeing tips make the rounds on how to appropriately prepare for a protest – or worse – is refreshing.
These responses, from the posts and speeches to the protests and riots, are all important in their own right and I don’t wish to downplay their importance. I do however want to make a modest contribution to how we can use this momentum to continue the battle against police violence after the immediate response; what do we do once the dust settles?
Shouting Fuck The Police is good catharsis. Sharing quotes by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. is a good reminder. Highlighting previous examples of police brutality is a good resource. Sharing tactics for how to avoid arrest while protesting is good progress.
But these must be part of a broader commitment of fighting police racism and violence and not a series of isolated reactions. We mustn’t be drawn into a cycle of violence-reaction-resignation… We know that those who wish us harm are not resting. They’re busy plotting. We know this from the number of out-and-out white supremacists we see in the police force. We know this from the numerous links we find between authorities and white supremacist organisations. We know this from how quickly these groups are able to mobilise onsite to disrupt, derail and sabotage movements committed to justice.
We need to be similarly organised so that we too can mobilise on demand when the call to act is made. We need to be trained, disciplined and skilled so that we are not simply reacting to injustice after it occurs, but actively building a just society where this sort of injustice becomes an aberration rather than an inevitable outcome. Importantly, we need to give serious thought to what end we’re working towards, navigating the traps of replicating our oppressor’s violence in our resistance, as well as understanding the fact that justice is a pursuit in its own right and is not, as Judith Shklar eloquently put it, merely the absence of injustice.
Part of this work begins with educating ourselves and others on the links between the multiple structures that uphold this racist system and which in turn the policing system upholds, including the economic, political, legal and social. To this end, those who preach the liberal gospel of tolerance and rights whilst simultaneously opposing police violence serve simply as enablers and apologists of this violent order, including its racist policing apparatus.
They are at best confused; more often in my experience invested in their own sustained ignorance.
More specifically for the communities that I belong to, in addition to working directly with those already taking up this fight, there is much work we can undertake to undo the years of police collaboration and apologia prevalent within our own circles; alliances that have wrought havoc on our people specifically, while also being used as a platform to target other marginalised communities by extension. Fighting police violence is work that needs to be carried out on all fronts, and being in the crosshairs of police interventions places us in a unique position to be able to carry our contribution to that fight.
Over the past two decades in particular, there has been a steady and vastly successful infiltration of policing into the most intimate parts of Muslim communities. Whilst we are all familiar with the overt policing and profiling that manifests as police raids, arrests and show trials, it is the more mundane and underhanded policing that has more sinister effects of legitimising police as a force for good generally, and specifically as a force that builds rather than breaks communities. This legitimation is part of a broader policing strategy to pacify resistance towards more overt measures such as raids and repressive laws, which are then also applied to govern and suppress other communities deemed undesirable. When we contribute to this legitimation of police we are implicit in the violence that’s carried out against ourselves and others.
What forms does this underhanded policing take? Let me list only the ones I’m personally familiar with to serve as an example of just how innocuous and successful these are.
We need to start on the understanding that police (broadly defined, including VicPol, AFP and ASIO) are no fools. They know which people to target and have a long list of tactics to break them open. Those who are already pro-police or neutral may simply be offered funding for events such as conferences, networking dinners and the like, with a historically-informed expectation that the right things will be said, and photos and reports to prove it. They’ll also be promoted and rewarded whenever opportunities arise, including in media and through community grant applications. But they’re the easy targets and have long ago been exposed.
The more difficult targets, those who actively speak against police and government both online and on the minbar, require a bit more massaging. Here police will play the long game, funding ‘innocent’ projects such as building Quran reading stands, funding soccer tournaments, iftars, conferences and publications, most times without asking for anything in return. The aim is to build trust and rapport over years and to break down the antagonism and suspicion, and soon enough these mosques, centres and individuals begin to tone down their criticism and eventually do away with it entirely. Some go the full extent and become converted supporters.
After all, it’s very difficult to criticise the hand that feeds you.
In more worrying instances there are cases of secret and very problematic deradicalization programs being carried out in prisons in collusion with key bodies and imams, as well as an Islamic knowledge database particularly focused on redefining the notion of Jihad and other topics the State finds controversial. I have personally witnessed multiple organisations go from scathing criticism of government and police to, at best, silence, and in some instances explicit support. In one case I witnessed a sheikh who had previously worked with Abdallah Azzam and the Taliban begin to regularly host ASIO for breakfast at his house and have uniformed officers present at conferences… all under the guise that he was “playing them.”
None of this is an accident.
Policing strategy moved towards softer policing methods in the 90s as a way to exert greater control, increase power and influence and minimise resistance. Think Neighbourhood Watch and Community Liaison type programs. And it’s very effective. It’s much harder to condemn a ‘Community Liaison Officer’ who looks like us and smiles as he kicks a soccer ball with young boys than it is to condemn the white, gun-toting, smirking officer we often see in the news. It’s harder to find fault with a chatty, supportive officer breaking bread at a community iftar than it is with the one who kicks your door down in a pre-dawn raid.
Part of the work of justice is being aware of our circumstances, and in this case understanding that for all their outward differences, they are all doing the same work. The distinction between the community liaison officer who shakes our hand and the traffic cop who beats our kids in the back of the divvy van is not one of good or bad character, but one of strategic deployment. They are simply different cogs of the same machine. They are all carrying out the same function of policing, all working towards the same end. And that end is not our liberation or the protection of our rights. That end is our control and domination. That end is ensuring that we acknowledge and accept our designated position within the social hierarchy, a position of inferiority and docility.
Contrary to common teachings, the policing model as we understand it today is not about preserving justice or the protection of rights, least of all the rights of minorities. This model of policing was established primarily to protect private property rights, and given its historical formation as protecting wealth stolen from predominantly non-white populations, it’s little wonder that its founding racist disease continues to decay the system as a whole. Akala quotes Sir John Woodlock, former HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary in 1992, stating this in no uncertain terms: “What is happening to the police is that a nineteenth-century institution is being dragged into the twenty-first century… the police never were the police of the whole people but a mechanism set up to protect the affluent from what the Victorians described as the dangerous classes.”
There has never been a deliberate campaign to expunge this virus of racism, and injecting coloured bodies into the uniform does not do away with the virus so much as it simply increases the number of those infected.
The problem of policing today is therefore not one of corruption, bad apples or misapplication. The police force is doing what it was designed to do, to protect the state and its interests, and much as we might detest it, we are not part of the state’s interests. We are not the ones being protected. Policing is a matter of maintaining order, not justice. And the order that it currently maintains is one that renders the majority of the planet enslaved to the greedy dictates of an elite few whose thirst for power and wealth are insatiable. This is who our organisations and people in leadership positions ultimately serve when they support, enable and give a free pass to police. The fact that it’s often unwitting doesn’t change the reality that they essentially help police dust off their bad image and perpetually recast themselves in a positive light.
In an era where performing radicality is not only expected but rewarded, we therefore need to be vigilant in understanding who’s committed to justice and who’s jumping on the bandwagon of resistance until this latest episode passes, only to return to explicitly or implicitly supporting the status quo.
Continuing this work after the dust settles means holding these bodies to account. Uncovering and fighting the close collaboration on deradicalization and counter-terrorism projects, in prisons, in schools, in mosques and organisations. Making it untenable for mosques and organisations to host racist politicians or police for something as serious as a panel presentation or as simple as an Eid message. Researching and exposing which community events are genuinely held by and for the community against those funded by policing bodies for ulterior motives. Short-circuiting the normalisation of the police presence in our circles, be it in the form of photo opportunities, event attendance and participation or collaborative policing projects. Raising the stakes for those caught informing on our communities or generally supporting the police’s version of events against our own.
This applies to more than just our places of worship. We must fight the legitimation of police as a force for good on all fronts: in our schools, our offices, our media, our homes and in our families. Likewise, we need to expand our definition of what constitutes a racist cop to incorporate those who are racist or violent against anybody, not just our own.
Our commitment to justice obliges us to not only support those directly in the line of fire, but also to work within our spheres of influence to eradicate the problem wherever we find it. This can be our unique contribution to a larger struggle.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently described American racism as akin to “dust in the air.” Anger at violent incidents such as the murder of George Floyd is both healthy and necessary, as is mourning. But fulfilling our obligations towards justice also means committing to the more boring, longer-term work, that thankless and sacrificial work of shining the light on that dust, troubling it, tampering with it, always … so that the dust never does truly settle.