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Book Reviews

Abolitionist Activist Imagines 'A World Without Police' Met By Community Building

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<em>A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete,</em> by Geo Maher
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A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete, by Geo Maher

For many, the story of Kyle Rittenhouse seemed like an exceptionally sordid and violent tale in the racial conflict of 2020.

Rittenhouse stands charged with the murders of two protesters and the attempted murder of another who was severely wounded in Kenosha, Wisconsin, at a protest two days after Jacob Blake, who was Black, was shot seven times from behind by a police officer. Rittenhouse was 17 at the time.

When protests erupted in Kenosha, a former city alderman started a militia called the Kenosha Guard, and posted a call on Facebook for "Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property." According to widespread reporting, Rittenhouse drove from Illinois to a car dealership where he met with some police officers affiliated with the Kenosha Guard. After he shot demonstrators trying to apprehend him, he allegedly approached a police officer, who told him to leave the scene. That evening, clips of Rittenhouse shooting the demonstrators and being tossed water from police officers, went viral. Ever since, his case has become a cause célèbre for conservatives and supporters of vigilante action against "antifa." Rittenhouse's trial this November stands to be a high-profile affair — he is expected to say the shootings were in self-defense — one that Paige Williams at The New Yorker argues "has been framed as the broadest possible interpretation of the Second Amendment."

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But for Geo Maher, an abolitionist activist, historian and author of the new book, A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete, nothing about Rittenhouse's case is exceptional. In the very first chapter of the book, Maher establishes the police as a fundamentally rotten institution that is rarely distinguishable from the white mob or vigilante killers; instead, he writes, "self-deputized defenders of property and whiteness have almost always served as a brutal adjunct to the police." The line between them is almost nonexistent throughout American history, Maher contends. The police, as with the Rittenhouse case, have always been complicit, Maher argues; from vigilantism on the southern border, to lynch mobs, and modern militias.

Details that have come into focus after the attack on Capitol Hill on January 6 have made clear, Maher writes, just how the police and the violent far-right of this country blur together. Neither Ahmaud Arbery nor Trayvon Martin, among countless others, were killed by active police officers, but they were nonetheless killed by what Maher calls the "pig majority" — which includes not just police but their "volunteer deputies...the judges, the courts, the juries, and the grand juries... the mayors and the district attorneys who demand 'law and order'... the racist media apparatus that bends over backwards to turn victims into aggressors." As Tupac Shakur famously put it, the police is "the biggest gang in America," Maher contends.

This all may seem ripped from an overly broad, unrigorous, and dogmatic polemic, but Maher's book is nothing if not exhaustive. From transit police to the police unions under the Fraternal Order of the Police to a complicit Black elite, Maher implicates the police and its allies in the history of American violence writ large. "Police embodied the division of the poor," he writes about the days of slave patrols, "and in their practical function they uphold that division every day, patrolling the boundaries of property and that most peculiar form of property that is whiteness." In that context, Kyle Rittenhouse's story is not surprising, because his victims were people the police institution was never meant to serve or protect.

This may be more visibly obvious today — but that's because of how grand the police as an institution has become in terms of sheer scale and power in past decades. There are many times more police officers on streets today as compared to decades ago — and state and local spending on police has increased as well, as Maher details. This despite the fact that, as political scientist David Bayley puts it in the book: "one of the best kept secrets of modern life" is that "police do not prevent crime." Maher uses data do support this claim. Meanwhile, there is scant evidence that "police reform," the usual answer to problems with policing, has actually made anything safer: If anything, from bodycams to chokeholds to more diverse police departments, the evidence — impressively detailed by Maher — suggests that each has actually exacerbated the problems it was meant to fix; while making perpetration of crime by police more likely.

Gallingly, according to several federal court rulings, police often are not legally required to serve and protect communities. One particularly shocking case that Maher points to is the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, during which the armed sheriff's deputy hid in the school. A federal court ruled that the sheriff's office had no duty to protect the students. This joined a spate of federal and SCOTUS rulings, detailed by Maher, that concluded, in cases from child abuse to domestic violence, the police have no legal duty to protect the public from private, third-party actors.

Maher joins contemporary scholars and organizers including Beth Richie, Michelle Alexander, Ruth Wilson Gilmore who have made sense of the American carceral state through a variety of terms — Prison Nation, The New Jim Crow, organized abandonment. They conjoin with a tradition of Black Marxist scholars like W.E.B DuBois, Angela Davis, Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, Robin D. G. Kelley in the broad indictment of capitalism and colonialism as active producers of "modern" policing. A recent turn in popular discourse also seemingly breaks from the Marxist tradition in seeing through the lens of both race and class — neither subservient to the other — as the forces that stratify American society. It should not be surprising then that abolitionism — of the carceral state writ large, not merely of police as the demand to defund the police might suggest — is ambitious. As the organizer Mariame Kaba has noted, "We are not abandoning our communities to violence. We don't want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete."

A World Without Police is of a piece with the current vein of abolitionism espoused by Kaba, Yamahtta-Taylor and others. Indeed, published the same year as Kaba's We Do This 'Til We Free Us, Maher's book, occasionally redundant but mostly complementary, is an indicator of the growing popularity of the radical abolitionist framework. But the title of Maher's book suggests that it serves to answer the "what now?" question that is often asked by critics who find abolitionism to be a grandiloquent suggestion of utopianism, with reform its "pragmatic" counterpart. While the question clearly provides no response to Maher's hefty critique, the title A World Without Police is still a bit of an albatross.

What does Maher think the world without police looks like? It's unclear — but not from lack of trying on his part. After all, nobody ever argued that remaking society was supposed to be easy. Maher details the lessons from both failed and tentatively successful grassroots efforts across the country, experiments in restorative justice within city and neighborhood campaigns to "free not only from the police but also from all forms of intra-community violence." He gives the demand to abolish ICE impressive space, connecting immigration and American complicity in the state of Central and Latin American societies with the goal for the global abolition of police. The insistence on "breathing room for over-policed communities to regenerate a lost social fabric and to build real alternatives" and global solidarity is predictable — but it tapers off into a haze hard that's to fault Maher for. Abolitionism requires not just the end of the police and prisons but global capitalism: Seeing the world beyond that is famously hard.

"Deep down, we all know what a world without police looks like," Maher claims. A community, maybe. But the world? — not so much. Perhaps this is because of a problem with Maher's "global" argument. Under the shadow of empire, including American military interventionism in the present, "the policing of imperial power has developed in conjunction with the domestic policing of colonized and formerly enslaved populations." Global policing binds the specific history of the U.S. to the world writ large, because empire truly was and is global. But a crucial piece of the puzzle seems to be missing. Is the legacy of Western empire sufficient to explain the ubiquity of police in societies across the world?

How did the police even originate? Mileage varies. Maher, like many, argues that the police are an invention meant to protect racial capitalism, and subjugate the working class. The historian Jill Lepore, more reformist than radical thinker, ascribes its origins to slavery. Both seem to be explaining the uniquely powerful iteration of modern police, but militias, torture, vigilantism, and mechanisms of controlling society are all mythological. Every major religion and ancient civilization has its version of a policed society. Is policing as a mechanism of power a feature of human history?

The world beyond police is hard to imagine. But making it easy to want is enough of a feat. Geo Maher's vision may not get readers to see past the horizon into a world without police — but it is as convincing as any book can be that we must at least try.

Kamil Ahsan is a biologist, historian and writer based in New Haven. He is an editor at Barrelhouse and his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The American Prospect, Salon and Chicago Review.

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