The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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JUL-AUG 2020 Issue
Field Notes

For the State, the Best Defense is Sometimes a Deadly Offense

Piotr Szuhalski,
Piotr Szuhalski, "COVID-19: LABOR CAMP REPORT; MAY 209, 2020; BLM"

One of the French public radio stations recently rebroadcast a 1987 interview with James Baldwin, in which he recalled that living in France during the Algerian War led him to discover that racism wasn’t peculiar to North American society. By an irony of history, these words still—33 years later—fit a moment when the US uprising against police violence and the racist nature of society have set off protests in France against the same things. Such mobilizations have recurred in French society for years. The violence exercised repeatedly by police against young French immigrants has come to be dealt out to young ecology activists, young people in general, strikers, and, most recently, the Yellow Vests. The repression of the latter has been particularly brutal, leaving several dead and hundreds seriously wounded. However, the most recent strong demonstrations echoing those in the United States have surprised and disquieted the political class. They are a surprise, coming at a moment when society is still supposed to submit to the measures of confinement imposed in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. But this should not have been a surprise, because the effects of the epidemic and the police pressure enforcing confinement measures has once again underlined social inequality and the repression of lower-class neighborhoods. In France, as everywhere, the poorest sectors of society have suffered most from the epidemic; they have also been the most militarily controlled by the police. As one police official explained: “It’s normal, we’re used to watching them.”

Two aspects of the situation are particularly disquieting to state power. On the one hand, the recent demonstrations against police violence are mobilizing young people in great numbers—young people shocked to realize that the police “do not protect us,” that they will kill to maintain the order of an inegalitarian and destructive system. On the other hand, these demonstrations have been organized outside of the traditional political organizations of the Left, which have less and less influence. The protests are organized over social networks and, most recently, in answer to the calls of a committee organized in response to the death of Adama Traoré, asphyxiated on the ground in a Paris banlieue by three policemen in 2016. This bit of police practice common to both sides of the Atlantic did not pass unnoticed, but woke many young people up to the fact that police barbarism has now become universal. Led by Assa Traoré, Adama’s sister—a strong personality so far independent of and refusing all compromise or negotiation with the authorities—this committee is today the national mouthpiece for innumerable protests and revolts against police repression.

In France police repression goes beyond racism, for it is exercised against all social movements. Even at this moment, the police attack and arrest medical workers demonstrating against the government’s refusal to refund the health sector, which was on the edge of collapse during the COVID-19 epidemic. This happened, for instance, at the huge demonstration of hospital workers and doctors in Paris on June 16. Seeking to defuse the anger—and disquieted by French echoes of the American movement—the political class and the great majority of the media have launched a crude propaganda campaign stressing two themes: that the two societies are different, and that, in France, the police as an institution are not racist, though there may be some rare departures from the norm. But the similarities between the Traoré case and Floyd’s, together with numerous recent cases of death at the hands of the police in France, contradict this discourse. This official campaign has had an unexpected consequence: the police associations, powerful and active extreme right-wing lobbies, consider themselves “insulted” by insinuations of racism and have accused the government of abandoning the police. Cops have demonstrated in the streets. In this way, they have confirmed the importance of the police in the state apparatus and explained their normal impunity in the courts.

Of course, France and the United States do not share the same history but, as James Baldwin pointed out, it is not possible to separate colonialism and its violent end from slavery and its consequences. In addition, the Paris massacre of Algerians in 1961 during the Algerian War—following on the violent repression of a postwar strike wave—is a key date in the history of state violence in France. In spite of the similarities between the way they operate, the police follow different paths in different countries. The various bodies of police in France are extremely centralized in a generally centralized state, unlike in the United States where the police still maintain links to local and state governments. This does not obviate an important convergence: excessive militarization, overt violence, and the usage of more and more lethal methods.

As we said, this violence is not new but, in Europe as in the United States, it has changed in recent years. Since the origin of the political institutions of the bourgeoisies, the principle of a state monopoly of violence has been accompanied by a fear of the “dangerous classes.” And on every occasion when the system of exploitation has revealed its weaknesses, the state has directly repressed these “dangerous classes,” under rule by the police taking over from “soft methods.” The latter approach was founded, in Europe, on consensus between the classes, managed by the state in concert with organizations supposedly representative of the exploited. United States history was marked by the genocide of its indigenous peoples; the slave system, with its atrocities and its heritage; the overt violence of the capitalist class; and the physical extermination of the most advanced elements of the “dangerous classes.” That is, the “soft methods” have played only a minor role in the functioning of North American capitalism. If we look back at the 1960s, it must be said that—despite the reports of specialists on social and racial crises, of which the Kerner Commission was the best known—it was in those years that the construction of the current model of police work actually got going. In this model, every social problem is treated as a policing problem, whether it be matters of mental health, health in general, housing, school, social work, or daily life. Cuts to social welfare budgets are invariably offset by increases in police budgets. After the Ferguson revolt, US society “discovered” that the police dealt with demonstrations as though they were at war, using methods and materials from the wars in Iraq. We are experiencing a similar tendency in France and in Europe generally today, even if it is coming slightly later and with nuances in the kinds of violence employed. Today’s demonstrations and mobilizations express people’s understanding that this devastating evolution towards militarization is universal.

Dear old Karl Marx already observed that the forms of political domination tend to correspond to the forms of the exploitation of labor. The present-day violence of the repressive forces of the state is inseparable from the increasing violence in social relations. The current phase of capitalism is characterized by open social conflicts, where negotiation is no longer in the cards. The deaths of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and Adama Traoré, and the mutilations of the Yellow Vests, are tragic moments in the same development across the world, that of the uberized economy, precarious and speculative, and the development of new technologies at the service of the exploitation of labor, from Amazon to the slaughterhouses of agro-industry. It all goes together. Behind the modernist masks of the old world is barbarism.

The police and their violence—the violence of the state—are today, more than ever, at the center of the social question in a period when the “soft methods” don’t work anymore. Once we recognize this we can understand the revolts underway and their power. Just like the reform of the prison—which has also become a terrifying machine indispensable to preserving social order—the idea of “reforming” the police appears out of the question to a great number of people. Taking into account the power of this institution,1 as well as its barbaric and racist nature, to promote such an idea is an insult to the intelligence. The uprising that followed the death of George Floyd, by its own spontaneous dynamic, and the radical form it took in Minneapolis—the destruction of the precinct house—has led to the emergence of the need to abolish the police and to the idea of cutting local funding, at the city or county level, destined for that institution. Something that was not even imagined earlier suddenly seems the obvious thing to do. As with prisons, the idea of abolition seems reasonable in these unreasonable times. A beautiful, powerful word, charged with history and radical content, taken from the anti-slavery movement, finds a place in the present.

From this point of view, the American uprising has gone farther than the mobilizations in Europe and France, where the dominant idea remains that of “reform” of the police, through greater control by the state. Even if opposition to police repression has gone beyond the classical demand for the prosecution of one or another criminal cop, the punishment of one or another “excess,” even if more and more people understand that the cruelty of the institution is inseparable from the maintenance of the capitalist order, the centralizing, Jacobin principle of the French state remains supreme. It continues to fashion political activity and the “citizen” themself, making it difficult to envisage or even to comprehend the idea of abolition. Of course, in the United States as well, the political class does not embrace the principle of abolition. Political thinking is by nature “realistic;” it does not go beyond the limits of the possible, and we have seen, in Minneapolis, for example, how useless it is to ask “serious” politicians to support a project that risks destabilizing the system. They are comfortable with the idea of “reform,” especially since it is compatible with the need to economize on funds, and even to redirect them towards more socially relevant priorities, while continuing to submit to the dogmas of neoliberal economics. Further, the meaning of such reform is likely to come down to the project of a stronger centralization of the police.

From a European vantage point, it seems that the idea of abolition and the perspectives it opens up will be, from now on, at the heart of the American uprising, and are the key to its future, as well as to its impact on all the movements in Europe and elsewhere. Continuing police brutality only strengthens and legitimates this idea. In a few days, the movement has also succeeded in taking up again the goals of the 1960s: to unite, in the urban fabric and in street protests, the different African American and Latinx communities with high school kids and students of all origins, and the growing mass of “race traitors”—traitors to the privileges and ideology of white supremacy. It has even awakened signs of solidarity among health workers and bus drivers. It is clear that the mass challenge invigorating American society today cannot be understood with the framework of old-fashioned politics. As was said in last month’s Field Notes, we are seeing an unexpected return of history—an extraordinary, unpredicted moment—one of the most intense since the 1960s. This is felt equally strongly on this side of the Atlantic, stimulating the struggles taking place and those to come in response to social and economic crises. European demonstrators have taken over a number of slogans from the American revolt and the presence in Paris demonstrations of young Americans demanding justice for Adama and Floyd has not passed unnoticed.

The question of abolition advanced by the North American uprising is, however, an insoluble one. This goal cannot possibly be achieved in the present state of things. Its radical significance lies in what it implies. The problem is insoluble because there can be no concrete response that does not eventually involve questioning the system as a whole. How could modern society—complex, caught up in deep social contradictions—function and reproduce itself without repressive forces defending inequality? This explains why the establishment has immediately translated the demand for abolition into “police reform.” But the movement, radical and spontaneous, develops faster than the consciousness of those who participate in it; the actions taken in the street demand more than the movement itself can express, more than political leaders are able to understand. To demand the end of the police, even on a local level—even to think this thought for one instant—amounts to posing the question of another organization of society.

It is only by reorganizing social life on new foundations—gropingly, making mistakes but avoiding illusions, confronting new contradictions in human relations—that solutions can be found to the questions addressed today as “police” matters. Concepts like “order,” “legality,” “deviance,” and “delinquency” correspond to historical realities. (Today, for example, the largest sector of “crime” is drug trafficking, which maintains close and complex links with governments and their repressive forces, and with the economy generally.) We know that in historical periods that toppled the “normal” order of things—such as the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Spanish Revolution of 1936, or, more recently, in the wake of the 1994 Zapatista uprising—the question of policing has been confronted, often, unfortunately, by reproducing basic features of the previous system. Today the question has now been posed and the discussion opened up. This social agitation is taking place under particular historical circumstances, those of a deep economic crisis with its attendant miseries and the struggles it will bring. While avoiding a triumphalism that can lead to later paralysis, we should agree on the fact that what is going on in the “Disunited States” is an important aspect of the revolts around the world. The movement is there and it has not yet come up against its limits. Let us find in it the hope that allows us to imagine another world, remembering James Baldwin’s saying, “The impossible is the least that one can demand.”


1. The budget of the New York Police Department is something like six billion dollars, larger than the budget of the World Health Organization.


Charles Reeve

Charles Reeve lives and writes in Paris. He is most recently the author of Le Socialisme Sauvage (Paris: L'échappée, 2018), with translations into German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Portuguese (Brazil).


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

All Issues