In The New Inquiry, Alex S. Vitale argues that the liberal view of police reform fundamentally mistakes the structural role of policing. Without understanding this role, writes Vitale, "reforms" run the risk of making police even more powerful and unaccountable. Read an excerpt from the piece below, or the full text here.
In her book The First Civil Right, political scientist Naomi Murakawa points out that it is this liberal misconception of the nature of policing that has led to the inadequate police reforms of the past and present. Reformers have focused on improving the “professionalism” of police in an effort to reduce bias and unlawful behavior rather than questioning the justness of what police are asked to do. Why are the police waging a War on Drugs, War on Crime, War on Disorder, and War on Terror? Are they really the best, most just way for the state to address these issues? As part of their uncritical understanding of state power, liberals tend to ignore or downplay these questions as well as the profound legacy and continued active production of state-backed racial exploitation and domination. Rather than admit the central role of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and over-policing in producing wealth for white people and denying basic life opportunities for black people, they prefer to focus on a few remedial programs backed up by a robust and “legitimate” criminal justice system to transform black attitudes so that they are better able to compete in the labor market. As a result, black people always start from a diminished position that makes them both more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system and be treated more harshly by it.
The reality is that the police have always been at the root of a system for managing and producing inequality. This is accomplished by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and nonwhite people in ways that benefit those already in positions of economic and political power. Police have always functioned as a force for controlling those on the losing end of these economic and political arrangements, quelling social upheavals that could no longer be managed by existing private, communal, and informal processes. This can be seen in the earliest origins of policing, which were tied to three basic social arrangements of inequality in the 18th century: slavery, colonialism, and the control of an industrial working class. This created what Allan Silver called a “policed society,” in which state power was significantly expanded to face down the demands for justice from those subject to these systems of domination and exploitation. As Kristian Williams points out, “the police represent the point of contact between the coercive apparatus of the state and the lives of its citizens.”
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