Who Is the Man With the Gun?

“We intend to march on the police machine everywhere. We intend to destroy the police machine and all its records. We intend to destroy all dogmatic verbal systems. The family unit and its cancerous expansion into tribes, countries, nations we will eradicate at its vegetable roots. We don’t want to hear any more family talk, mother talk, father talk, cop talk, priest talk, country talk or party talk. To put it country simple we have heard enough bullshit.” – The Wild Boys, William Burroughs

According to the New York City police, recently forced to release records about shootings by a lawsuit, 2010 was a record low year for police shootings: twenty-four. On average, according to the official numbers, someone was shot almost every two weeks by the NYPD, in a good year. At least four police officers (Kenneth Moreno, Franklin Mata, Michael Pena, Tommy Johnson) and the Police Commissioner’s son, Greg Kelly, have been accused of rape just in the last few years, according to the media. We all know that the NYPD operates with quotas to stop-and-frisk people, i.e. illegally harass and search them, and hand out summonses. We also know that these stop-and-frisk incidents disproportionately target the poor and people of color, and often lead to the use of physical force or the victim being thrown in a cage, or both. NYPD have been spying on Muslims all over the city and even outside of it, and have ruthlessly cracked down on political speech and protest in the city, especially the Occupy movement, which has repeatedly seen its activists spied on, beaten, pepper-sprayed, and locked in jail.

But I don’t want to engage in a litany of NYPD outrages; that would take up far too much space. The more interesting exercise is to look at these “abuses” and ask ourselves: Are they really “abuses”? Many progressives, rightly scandalized by these practices, will plead with us to find ways to curb these “excesses,” to sign petitions and write to our congresspeople, pass new laws, provide police with “better training,” form citizen review boards, etc.

Anarchists take a very different point of view, and argue that these “abuses” are no abuses at all, but the inevitable product of who and what the police are; anarchists therefore work for the abolition of the institution of the police, which is harmful to society in every way and provides absolutely no benefit (except for the privileged classes, as we shall see).

The state is the organized monopoly of “legitimate” violence, an old sociologist once said. Not “objectively” legitimate, of course, but most of the people, most of the time, seem to be intimidated into treating this violence as though it were legitimate. In today’s society, where patriarchy is mainly reproduced through the mass media’s worship of arbitrary aggression, we even have “cop shows” to imprint the idea that a sadist in a uniform, ordering us around, is the figure we should love, fear, and respect the most. A father to grovel before and please, or else. New York Magazine, a rag for the hoity-toity classes of wealth of the City, recently ran an article that was half hagiography of the tyrannical Ray Kelly, half sob story for the rank-and-file pigs who are “forced” to write too many tickets.

Most people, thankfully, have shed the childish belief in this fairy tale of “legitimacy.” It’s easy to see that the NYPD, for example, are just a gang of armed thugs, who happen to have enough weapons to keep the people in submission. Police are essentially aggressors, violent vehicles of the state, who have nothing “legitimate” about them, because the state itself is illegitimate. The state is a set of institutions and individuals that exists to reinforce the system, a system where a small group monopolizes wealth and the means of producing it, and the rest of us are forced to work for them. Those who can’t find work, or work that pays well enough, are condemned to poverty, which is the real cause of the vast majority of crimes. These “criminal” activities are used to justify the existence and repressive measures of the police, and the circle closes in on itself. A system that necessarily generates “crime” (desperate behavior to survive in a society of cruelty, hypocrisy, cowardice and meaninglessness) also provides a violent arm supposedly meant to reduce it. In fact, by maintaining the class system of private property and exploitation, by throwing the poor into an immense prison and judicial system from which there is virtually no escape, the police only serve to increase “crime” all the more.

As the bomb-throwing anarchist Ravachol said in his speech at trial, a society that leaves people in hunger, without dignity, was responsible for his crimes: “which are nothing but the logical consequence of the barbaric state of a society which does nothing but increase the rigor of the laws that go after the effects, without ever touching the causes.” Or as anarchist Alexander Berkman put it, “Is not government itself the greatest injustice and crime? . . . Government and law can only punish the criminal. They neither cure nor prevent crime. The only real cure for crime is to abolish its causes, and this the government can never do because it is there to preserve those very causes.”

The inseparability of the police, violence, illegitimacy, and an exploitative and unequal class system, is becoming more and more clear as the decades pass. The US could hardly be said to have police forces anymore: what we have are paramilitary gangs, with the training, equipment and numbers more appropriate to small armies. The conflicts of the ’60s gave us SWAT teams, now used in the War on Drugs—in reality, a war on the poor and people of color—and all kinds of incidents and “disturbances.” The War on Terror and the fascistic fantasy of “Homeland Security” are giving us “fusion centers” where all manner of spy agencies, military units, and “ordinary” police organizations collaborate, mainly to harass Muslims and political activists. A militaristic ICE has taken up the task of terrorizing immigrant families, attacking, imprisoning and deporting them at an unprecedented rate.

Protestors challenging the capitalist system that the police defend have seen up close how the system depends on forms of violence—i.e. the police—to attempt to crush any dissenting views. The so-called “Miami Model” that was used against the FTAA protest of 2003 still seems to provide the standard, a combination of what Kristian Williams has called “escalated force” and “negotiated management”—a kind of “good cop, bad cop” that results in “strategic incapacitation” of protestors. A whole mix of measures—“less lethal” weaponry, pre-emptive arrests, tight surveillance, collaboration by the mass media, etc.—is used to render protest as non-disruptive as possible.

So we can see that so-called “police brutality” is no accident; the police are brutal by definition, as brutal as the system and the exploiting classes they serve. Anyone from a poor or working-class neighborhood, where police are constantly spying and harassing, could tell us that. But can society do without police, even if it eliminates the inequality that fosters crime? Anarchists firmly believe it can. Popular solutions, such as self-defense committees, created by the people whose interests are involved, will be invented to deal with the few anti-social disturbances of a post-capitalist society. As the anarchist Malatesta once said, “We do not believe in the infallibility, nor even in the general goodness of the masses; on the contrary. But we believe even less in the infallibility and goodness of those who seize power and legislate, who consolidate and perpetuate the ideas and interests which prevail at any given moment. . . . In every respect the injustice, and transitory violence of the people is preferable to the leaden-rule, the legalized State violence of the judiciary and police.”

Political journalist Raúl Zibechi has explained in a recent book that the indigenous Aymara of Bolivia have systems of community “justice,” especially in rural areas, based on reconciliation and consensus, not punishment, that operate outside any concept or reality of the state or law. Conflict resolution does not resort to some external, specialized authority, such as the police; the community itself, and an assortment of decentralized “authorities,” deal with disagreements and inflicted harms based on the local context, not some universal system of law. The system is not perfect, but it is just one example that could be adduced in support of the idea that a society can function adequately, in fact with far less misery and antagonism, without police.

Here in New York City and everywhere, we must begin creating these non-state processes for dealing with each other and for healing the individuals who commit anti-social, hurtful acts, immediately. In the meantime, we will relentlessly harass the powers that be, expose the vulnerabilities of the system, and humiliate the police, who are the immediate and most tangible incarnation and face of our enemy, the state.

—Aqua Regis