The call for us to imagine a society without police has been issued. Although I love a challenge, I have been teaching art for twenty years and I’ve learned that imagination is not the natural, ubiquitous habit of mind it often gets promoted to be. Imagining such a society necessitates some mental raw materials; some context.
The criticism and call for an end to what has become a fixed part of life in society stems from the persistent and widespread abuse of power and largely one-sidedness of death at the hands of police for Black people. Other arguments are the historic roots of the police forces, the over incarceration of black men, and the lack of responsiveness to crime in urban areas.
The police forces hold to their truths and experience in that their jobs are increasingly more complex and difficult than the public can appreciate and understand. They feel unappreciated and under unfair scrutiny. They feel held responsible for every act of every infraction of anyone wearing a badge. There is truth to this that oppositional voices do not want to hear or deal with. We have come to the Rubicon and it must be crossed it seems.
Our very urgent present has us focused sharply on the current situation and trouble while simultaneously jerking around at timelines and webpages and sites to see what the new connections to the conflicts are. Some of us look back and find connections in history to provide deeper context and sharpen the focus on deeper fractures and faults in our society. How far do we have to look back to get context for a time before policing? Where in the world do we see a usable example of a culture or society that doesn’t use policing?
There are of course other models of law enforcement. Are there any for societies this large and heterogeneous?
I can imagine a society starting from scratch without a police force. It would have to start incredibly small. Every new member would have to be vetted and inculcated. Their commitment would gave to be actively engaged, not simply expected. Children would need to be taught and raised in a consistent way. Resources would need to be equitably accessible. Infractions to the community code would need to be dealt with in a formative way, slowly and patiently.
I can’t imagine getting to those goals from where we are now. The suspension of disbelief is too broad a leap. I have to imagine the raw materials of the problem which include all of us along with the police. Human nature still has the variable of selfishness to contend with before we abolish any social construct so deeply engrained. We would have to abolish poverty first or at least reduce it to a negligible factor. It would make sense to commit a concerted effort to protect citizens from the lure and dangers of organized crime; the huge drug cartels are not going to just go away. With a police force diminished or removed altogether what is left to stop organized crime from taking root even more deeply? Let’s imagine that first; a nation committed to protecting citizens from billionaires committing crimes as business.
Now that I can make a mental picture of a society dedicated to stopping large scale crime from setting the example for citizens I can picture a society with a reduced police force handling only what constitutes an emergency or crisis. However, with personal property and social stigmatization of lower class citizens we have an element of society who will always go get the guns and defend their pile of stuff. Principles of competition and social Darwinism are too deeply rooted and inextricably linked into too many citizens. The laws and norms are too easily obfuscated, conflated and simply ignored. We live in an era where even truth is individualized and tied to individual rights. My imagination can’t make the leap past this for us. If we dismantle the current system even slowly we will see the corresponding reaction from those opposed to it. Private armies and militias protecting those with property and privilege. We will see obfuscation at a monumental scale. Set ups, corruption, new laws, economic pressures on the most vulnerable... We who believe in justice do not live in a vacuum. Those who oppose us use tremendous energy and resources to do so. In fact, that is how they obtain and hold those resources, by using some of them to keep us from them.
Having said all of this and thought it all out I wonder, what is this exercise in imagining really about? I earnestly want to know. I know many of my friends are probably of this mindset and I should just play along but I’m not ready for this yet. The very real barrage of reports of black and brown people being murdered simply because they are black and brown and therefore assumed guilty, dangerous and disposable every single day tells me that we will never be safe in this country without a dedicated force to actually serve and protect.
The fact that black and brown people have been strategically earmarked for poverty, forced labor and crime through slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, red lining, incarcerations and over policing means that the police force largely exists to control the black / brown / poor population. Crime takes root in the vacuum left by the removal of history and culture and opportunity.
Once again, we have to solve poverty and the racial hierarchy first or else all the brilliant measures like restorative justice, funding prevention and social services interventions will be as overwhelmed and useless as the current police forces are.