Book Review – Violent Order – Essays on the Nature of Police

The book under review is a new publication by Haymarket Books, a radical, independent, non-profit book publisher based in Chicago. Violent Order is a collection of essays edited by David Correia and Tyler Wall and has a diverse range of authors. It is part of a growing body of work that not only seeks to challenge the hegemony of the politics of law-and-order and the expansion of the authoritarian police state, it sets out the resources and theoretical arguments required to build and strengthen the wider abolitionist movement.

This book is a valuable addition to an impressive catalogue of research and analysis that has, over recent years, constructed a significant case for defunding police and using the resources to build stronger communities, able to deal with social problems through mutual aid and social solidarity. The duality of challenging the authoritarian state on one hand and building community resources on the other is key. It has to be acknowledged that the case for defunding the police cannot be made separately from the rebuilding and empowerment of communities, by those who live there. Violent Order is a key resource in this struggle.

Although most of the authors are from the US (there is one chapter by a UK academic), the main themes that underpin the nature of police are almost universal. There is no doubt that there are stark differences between policing in the US and the UK, but with the third reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 being passed in March, there is absolutely nothing for British citizens to be complacent about. Indeed, the relentless expansion of criminalisation and the seemingly unstoppable march of the authoritarian state almost everywhere, makes this book not only a valuable stone on the cairn of academic knowledge, but an important resource for abolitionists and activists.

The Order of Police

The first two chapters of the book set out the general theory of police, arguing that the police demand for order is nothing more than a class order that is racialised and patriarchal. It is an order that is largely misrecognised, on both sides of the Atlantic, as a benign public ‘service’ dedicated to keeping people safe. Authors Tyler Wall and Philip V. McHarris both argue that the police project, in order to fabricate and defend capitalist order, must patrol an imaginary line between nature and society. In the populist tropes deployed by the police themselves, nature represents the ‘inevitable’ and society is ‘a dangerous place’ that citizens need the police to protect them from. The text on the back cover of the book sums up perfectly the connections between police and the defence of racialised capital:

Police don’t just patrol the ghetto or the Indian reservation, the thin blue line doesn’t just refer to a social order, rather police announce a general claim to domination–of labor and of nature.

“If taken seriously, the Thin Blue Line forces us to grapple with just how central police – as a specific typology of threat management via administrative violence – are to bourgeois conceptions of “civilised order ” – Tyler Wall, page 13

The Violence of Police

Julie Sze exposes the extent to which the racist use of police dogs against ethnic and indigenous groups is intimately connected to settler colonialism and is suffused in the extractive landscapes of, what Sze calls ‘Petro-racial capitalism’ itself. In the chapter, White Dogs and Dark Water, Sze outlines how the tribal nations of the Central Valley have continued to resist police violence and displacement, despite the fact that their ancestral home has become a ‘hyper-polluted deathscape’.

David Correia’s chapter Poisoned and Policed to Death, focuses on the connections between widespread lead poisoning of poor children in Baltimore and the policing, often to death, of its marginalised communities. Correia rejects the neurotoxicity hypothesis that falsely attributes lead poisoning in children to criminal behaviour in later life and replaces it with the poison-police hypothesis. This alternative explanation conjoins the ‘slumlords’ responsible for the poisoning of their tenant’s children and the cops who use violence to fabricate order within slum districts. Those who were murdered by the police in Baltimore were both poisoned and policed to death.

“The criminal legal system today is not broken – it is operating exactly as it was designed: a violent tool of race and class control” – Philip V. McHarris, page 38

The Nature of Police

The section loosely concerned with environmental and climate breakdown highlights the fact that the police are not only the dominant mode in the exploitation of surplus and marginalised populations, but that the police are also the dominant mode in the exploitation of nature. In their chapters, Alex Gonzalez and Andrea Miler lay out their robustly argued claims that the police are essential to the production and reproduction of the conditions for the world’s environmental collapse. As the means by which the state violently enforces property claims, the police transform nature by protecting the interests of large corporations. These chapters make the powerful claim that the police, acting as the lifeblood for fossil capital, as well as through the violent policing of the environmental movement, are net contributors to the climate emergency and ecological breakdown.

The Monster of Police

Perhaps the real strength of this book lies in its ability to unmask aspects of policing that are both highly original and extremely topical in the current epoch. In order to understand the nature of police, it is imperative to understand how the police see themselves, how they view their role and the popular tropes they deploy to justify what they do. In a thorough examination of the narrative of the ‘Thin Blue Line’, Tyler Wall, in the first Chapter, exposes the extent to which police power has been normalised through decades of favourable media representation.

Through a kind of discourse analysis, Wall highlights the recurring themes that run through police communications, both internal and external, from their own accounts in press and social media articles as well as TV interviews. One such prevalent theme is that of the jungle, in which the laws of the (urban) jungle require the police to be the alpha predators that catch those who prey on the vulnerable. Another trope is that of the wolf pack, an ambiguous narrative that sometimes has the police as the sheepdogs protecting the flock from the wolves, while in more masculinised accounts founded on paternalised forms of protection, the police officers are themselves the lone wolves, using their own animalistic instincts to hunt and catch the range of ‘lesser animals’ that pray on the innocent.

What emerges is a contradictory set of caricatured accounts that draw on a ‘political bestiary’ in which certain situations evoke specific animalistic tropes. What unites them all is the idea that even in the jungle of competing savage animals, the police see themselves as being a force for good, in the fight against the evils of crime and disorder, in ways that are all too reminiscent of Hollywood blockbusters, Marvel Comics and popular TV shows.

In Chapter Seven, Melanie K. Yazzie draws on an analysis of white settler colonialism and police violence in the Reservations and other areas of relegation. What is remarkable here is the extent to which police uniforms, cars and weaponry are adorned with the Punisher emblem, represented by the depiction of a stylised skull. The Punisher is a long-standing character from Marvel Comics with a show that has streamed on Netflix since 2017.

Yazzie’s analysis draws out the connections between white settler colonialism, neo-Fascist militia – known by the police as ‘armed friendlies’ – and the Indian Wars, and other ‘crusades’ against black and minority groups. The alarming discovery is the extent to which these stigmatised and relegated groups are largely ruled by a police force that worships and emulates a psychologically damaged comic-book character who seeks on-going revenge in the most brutal and destructive ways.

“Taken to their logical conclusion, the fetishization of the Punisher by white settler men and the idea that police lives are sacred, demonstrates how dependent US sovereignty is on authority, discipline, obedience, conformity and a profound hatred and fear of native people.” – Melanie K. Yazzie, page 138

It is this ‘police fantasy’ that has increasingly resulted, as Mark Neocleous shows, in senior police officials in both the US and the UK, openly calling for more protection of police from prosecution when they are ‘required’ to commit crimes when engaged in the imaginary pursuit of ‘crime fighting’. There is no doubt that the concerted efforts of the UK police to argue for more police powers and less accountability have largely been successful. There are currently two pieces of legislation, mentioned above, that are at the last stages of approval, before being rolled out, at least across England and Wales.

Neocleous shows in Chapter Eight, that it is within this simplistic and puerile world of binary categorisations separating the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys’, that police are able to construct a ‘cops and robbers’ duality in which their own criminological practices can be justified, forgiven, and even rewarded.

As Travis Linnemann unveils in Chapter 9, there is ample evidence of a strong vein of infantile narcissism that runs through those who are drawn to police work. This section on the libidinal desire of police to promote publicly, via social media and other digital platforms, the fruits of their ‘crime fighting’ exploits, exposes a contemporary obsession in the Schopenhauerian inspired concept of the ‘will to representation’. This is a world in which the ‘appearance’ of crime fighting is widely promoted to not only give the ‘impression’ of an effective and efficient police, but to obfuscate the criminogenic nature of police itself.

“What should hold us are the curious properties of the distinction uniting the criminal with the policeman, something Nietzsche, for one, made clear when he argued that the police are worse than the criminal because they do the same things, but in the name of the Law” – Travis Linnemann quoting Taussig, page 168

The Plague of Police

The final chapter, written by the editors, Correia and Wall, is aptly entitled the Plague of Police. Drawing on Foucault’s assessment of the ways in which plagues create the perfect conditions for the establishment of a ‘new order’, the authors show the extent to which the policing of the Covid pandemic has brought twin plagues upon our towns and cities. The authors juxtapose the heightened levels of police brutality with the genuine rise in social solidarity throughout the period of the pandemic itself. As the welfare arm of the state was shuttered on both sides of the Atlantic, and the policing and punishing institutions went into overdrive, communities were forced to realise their inherent potential for mutual assistance, many of whom, for the first time in their lives, had a glimpse of the possibilities presented by a world beyond police.

A World Beyond Police

This book serves as an antidote to a range of contemporary tropes that increasingly fetishise forms of punitive-paternalism, evident in the growing popularity of narratives within not only far-right groups in the US and in Europe, but in the political programmes of an increasing number of parties from the social democratic tradition. At the recent Labour Party conference MPs Liz Kendal and Jessica Morden publicly launched a new affiliation called Labour Friends of the Police. In his conference speech, Sir Keir Starmer positioned the Labour party as ‘the’ party of law-and-order. He highlighted the importance of punishing those who break the law and promised to increase resources to improve conviction rates.

The book also serves as a vaccine against the orthodoxy of the law-and-order mythology that has colonised almost all areas of culture and politics across the globe. The abolitionist approach taken by Violent Order, serves as a warning that oppressed and marginalised groups must divest themselves of the liberal myths that underpin the so called ‘criminal justice system’. The language used is important. The book, acknowledging that the term ‘justice’ perpetuates the illusion underpinning a political project that is inherently unjust, uses the term favoured within the abolitionist movement – ‘criminal legal system’. This, although more accurate, still includes the term ‘criminal’; an entirely political category and social construct. Language is important if we are to reframe reality in accordance with our own needs and those of marginalised and oppressed groups. Perhaps then, it is more accurate to call it what it is – the ‘Punishment System’ – but that’s a blog for another time.