Police Killings and the Settler State

In a new article for Freedom written following anti-racist protests which have reverberated around the globe, Peter Gelderloos considers how history acts to inflect today’s racism in the US, UK and settler colonial states worldwide.

As many people have pointed out in the weeks of international revolt that have spread outwards from Minneapolis since the police murder of George Floyd on May 25th, systemic racism requires systemic solutions. While police rally to defend their right to murder and abuse whomever they choose, the myth of the “bad apples” is finally being put to rest, as is the notion that racism is a question of individual prejudice rather than of how society itself is constructed. Understanding and dismantling racism on the society-wide level requires understanding the history of how it was constructed in the first place.

People in the streets have already been pulling at the threads of this history, when they dumped the statue of British slave-trader Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour, or when they set fire to the Daughters of the Confederacy building in Richmond, Virginia.

The Bristol rioters were particularly eloquent in their gesture, because of how lucidly this one act revealed the construction of racism to be an international affair that went hand in hand with colonisation and the expansion of capitalism.

BLM signs near the empty plinth formerly topped by a statue of slaver Edward Colston

The lesson is particularly important, because there is a quiet battle being waged amidst all the solidarity protests, particularly in Europe. In large part, there is a discrepancy between the white voices that have typically controlled progressive and anti-capitalist movements in Europe, who profess support for the victims of barbarous North American racism while paying mere lip service to the fight against racism in Europe; and predominantly racialised activists who want to extend the rebellion, commemorating police victims and targeting racist structures in the very cities where they live.

This discrepancy is significant, because the European mainstream systematically consumes the spectacle of racism in the US in order to reproduce its self-image as a more gentle, progressive, and civilised place. And this self-image has always been at the center of Europe’s racist drive towards colonialism and neocolonialism. It is a handy alibi that covers up a number of shocking realities, like the facts that 21% of black people in Ireland had been assaulted six times or more in the prior five years due to their skin color or immigrant status, that nine out of 10 people in the Czech Republic say they would not want a Romani neighbor, or that half of Germans believe Romani and Sinti people are to blame for the discrimination they face, and an equal number believe there are “too many” Muslims in the country. Across Europe, police kill people of colour at the same or more disproportionate rates than in the US, though the statistics are hard to come by because they often don’t compile information on the victims.

Of course, US police kill many more people every year than the police of any other wealthy country. Is that an effective measure for more racism, meaning other countries are less racist, and therefore the problem is less urgent?

Invade, supplant, exploit

The death tolls inflicted by US police cannot be understood without grasping the history of police in the US, which requires analysing the history of the country itself. Ultimately, three characteristics explain the way the police operate in the US: it is a settler state, with a significant portion of indigenous inhabitants, that historically had an economy based on the enslavement of Africans.

Point by point. A settler state is a type of colonial society in which the so-called mother country or metropole tries to replace the indigenous population with waves of immigrants and genocide, to essentially create a copy of the colonising country on another continent. Settler states are, or aim to be, majority white. Examples include the US, Canada, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand. Chile is an interesting case because the Spanish tried to make it a settler state, but effective armed resistance by the Mapuche kept a huge territory off-limits to them.

Settler states, therefore, are based on a lie; they have to create an alibi for all the white descendants of genocide. The more indigenous survivors there are, the more that alibi gets interrupted.

Finally, while all colonies and really all capitalist societies force people to work one way or another, some colonies relied on the enslavement of Africans to provide their labour force. A couple things are worth pointing out. Though many states throughout history have practiced some form of slavery, the so-called chattel slavery that Europe inflicted on Africa during the Triangular Trade period was the most brutal form to have existed in human history. Furthermore, it was a global system organised by European powers and settler colonies, and ethical responsibility was shared across the entire system, from the plantations where people were forced to work, to the industrial areas that refined the raw materials produced on the plantations, to the financial centers that reaped the benefits of the Triangular Trade.

The colonies that would form Canada did not practice slavery, while many of the 13 colonies that would form the United States did. All of these were colonies of Great Britain, one of the main organisers of the slave trade, they were ethically equivalent, but the northernmost colonies were not suited to plantation economies. The brutality of slavery undoubtedly created intergenerational traumas among those who survived it, and among those who oversaw the practice, a sociopathic lack of empathy that could also leave its mark on future generations. But the bookkeepers and financiers who learned to profit off it without ever seeing its ugliness up close surely also developed their own ensembles of psychological evasion; moreover, these techniques would provide advantages in a capitalist economy in any age.

Without ignoring that white supremacy, historically, has been every bit as present in the London Stock Exchange as on a Louisiana plantation, we can acknowledge the particular effects of its brutality that guide social organisation in a post-slavery settler state. So how do these three characteristics combine to create especially murderous police forces today? It has already been widely mentioned how policing in the US originated out of slave patrols. But this needs to be considered in tandem with another fact: nearly the entirety of territorial expansion, the creation of the United States on lands where hundreds of indigenous nations existed, was accomplished in large part by paramilitary groups of settlers waging terrorist campaigns against “soft targets.”

Furthermore, this is a history that continues into the present. Though settler states maintain the myth that colonisation and land theft were an evil from the distant past, land theft, resource theft, and environmental racism are frequent occurrences that repeat up to the present day in the history of any indigenous nation. Likewise, in every settler state with an economy based on the enslavement of Africans, when slavery was abolished, the state instituted other measures to keep the hierarchy intact. Freed slaves were not allowed to keep the estates they worked with their labour, they were not given reparations, they were not given hundreds of years of back wages. Instead they were terrorised, dispossessed, surveilled, and managed—in a word, policed—so that they would continue playing the same economic functions and occupying the same place at the bottom of the social hierarchy as they had under slavery.

The fundamental role of all coppers

The implications are clear. Policing is fundamental to the existence of US society, and the form that policing takes is completely tied to a necropolitical intervention designed to inflict social death on Black and indigenous people. The daily murders carried out by police are just one of a broader set of violent measures that preserve racist hierarchies that have remained intact since the days of slavery and “Indian Wars”. Other policies that continuously impoverish racialised communities, while preserving white political dominance, include gentrification and redlining, the War on Drugs, and turning indigenous land and black neighborhoods into energy sacrifice zones. The results of all this structural racism has come to the fore amidst the disproportionate death tolls of COVID-19. Simply put, a settler state, created through genocide and enslavement, must be constantly prepared to subject entire sectors of its population to lethal conditions if they do not conform to the ideals of white citizenship (which, by their nature, are exclusive and competitive, and so, by definition, cannot offer protection to everyone).

The killing of Mark Duggan sparked riots in London in 2011

Police in European social democracies also murder, and their targets are also disproportionately people of colour, but the murders happen at a much lower frequency because their particular history of social control points to the possibility of integrating marginalised or exploited populations through bureaucratic dependencies, redistributing a part of the wealth stolen through racist processes in other parts of the world. Europe’s colonies have always been external, kept at a comfortable distance, whereas the US is wholly constituted by the violence of colonialism. This is why one system keeps the peace with healthcare or welfare checks, and the other keeps the peace with bullets.

The racist disproportions in policing and imprisonment are present everywhere, but they occur at a much higher scale and frequency in the US. In the US, black people are 12% of the total population, and 33% of the prison population; in the UK, they are 3% of the total population and 12% of the prison population (disproportions of a factor of 3 and 4, respectively). In Australia, it is even more extreme, with Aboriginal peoples making up 2.4% of the general population and more than 25% of the prison population. As for deaths in police custody, it’s 12 for every 100,000 arrests in the US, five deaths for every 100,000 arrests in Australia, and two for every 100,000 arrests in the UK. It is worth noting that Australia practiced legal slavery through the 1950s, but unlike the US, its population is white by an overwhelming majority, due in large part to extremely racist immigration policies that historically has been designed to only allow the immigration of white people.

In Spain, statistics are notoriously hard to come by, a reflection of official avoidance of the problem. An incomplete survey reveals that nearly all deaths in police custody are people of colour. And one study on police stops in Madrid found that nearly every person of color was stopped on the basis of racial profiling, and 42% reported being subjected to racist insults or physical violence. Practically the only category where the US leads is in the total number of police killings, and not in other measurements of discrimination.

To find a place where the scale of police violence is similar to that of the US, we have to look to another major country that fits all three criteria: a settler state, a significant surviving indigenous population, and an economy historically based on the enslavement of Africans. The main country that fits that bill is Brazil, where police killings certainly rival those in the US. Brazilian cops killed more than 4,000 people in 2016, whereas US cops killed over 1,000, and possibly as many as 1,300. The higher rates in Brazil are likely related to that country’s greater material poverty, as systemic oppressions are intersectional and police are likely to target people for reasons of economic class, immigration status, mental health, and gender identity, as well as race. In any case, the frequency of killings by police in the US and Brazil is on the same order of magnitude, which is not the case for countries like the UK or Australia. And in Brazil, such killings undoubtedly show a racist disproportion: in Rio de Janeiro, whites make up half the total population, and only 12% of police victims.

Understanding the history of police, as well as the direct relation in the US between increasing police funding and decreasing social services, makes it clear that abolishing the police is a more realistic proposal than reform. Body cameras and review boards have not decreased police murders, and it seems that only riots have ever led to police accountability. Meanwhile, the push towards community policing after the last wave of major uprisings in the US only increased the effectiveness and violence of police interventions into racialised communities.

Understanding how the history and the behavior of the police is part and parcel of the history of a country as a whole—in the case of the US a genocidal settler state with an economy historically based on enslavement—favors an anticolonial view in which piecemeal change is impossible. The police do not do what they do by accident. We cannot realistically address their violence without also addressing the ongoing ramifications of colonisation and enslavement, across questions of land, the distribution of wealth and legitimacy, wage labour, health, education, and more.

At the same time, the existence of capitalist states that have been fully complicit in the global structures of white supremacy, yet do not make such an active use of the police in their strategy for social control, should make us suspicious of any proposals for defunding the police that come from the government itself. We need to clearly link the calls for police abolition to an all-encompassing vision of change.

Beyond velvet cuffs

When we struggle effectively, the state will begin to throw reforms our way, and we can certainly accept and appreciate things like healthcare and daycare, or mental health and gender violence first responders who won’t make the situation worse. But we also need to be aware of the ways states can use social services to impose dependency and surveillance, undermining community autonomy.

We can better find our way through this maze of traps and pitfalls with an international network of struggles, each fighting the local manifestations of racism and other oppressions, understanding how those evolved, and how they fit into global structures. By communicating what we learn, we can stay ahead of the curve, knowing what to expect from reforms or repressive strategies that have already been implemented elsewhere, while also sharing the enthusiasm and inspiration of these revolts, pointing out common enemies so that our resistance jumps across the borders they have imposed to contain it.

Racism is every bit as international as the corporations that steal resources and exploit sweatshop labourers in the Global South, or as the networks of educational institutions and media companies that reproduce the myth of Western civilization. It has different aspects in different places, but the fight against racism is and must be global, just as it must be an integral part of the fight against capitalism.

Peter Gelderloos is an anarchist and author of several books, including Anarchy Works, The Failure of Nonviolence, and Worshiping Power: An Anarchist View of Early State Formation. He has lived in Catalunya since 2007.


Main pic: Police show of some of their military-style gear in front of BLM protesters in Seattle, by SounderBruce