by Corinna, for the PEWG Editorial Committee. Photography by Conor G.
On Wednesday night, one hundred and fifty people gathered at the Cambridge Public Library to hear three speakers make a case for abolishing the police, an event organized by the Prison Abolition Working Group of Boston DSA. Professor and policing historian Alex Vitale spoke alongside two local activists: Fatema Ahmad, deputy director of the Muslim Justice League, and Samantha Calero, an independent consultant, facilitator and writer specializing in violence intervention and community-based trauma response. Fatema and Samantha work together in the activist organization alliance #BosCops, created to track and combat the violent incursions of the Boston police into the city’s communities.
Alex Vitale: The problem is policing itself
Alex set the stage with an exacting analysis of the carceral state, but over the course of the evening his attention, and the audience’s, turned to focus on the two other speakers. If his book is a history lesson—a narrative connecting the dots to make sense of an issue rarely explained in the media—their organizing efforts in Boston are, in his words, “the work of prison abolition.” They show what we can do today, as socialists, to address a problem often referenced but never seriously addressed by our politicians: the violence police perpetrate against the people they are allegedly bound to “serve and protect.” This violence is often blatant and bloody, but it can also be bureaucratic, operating as both institutionally and individually inflicted harm. For this reason, some of the brutal effects of policing are widely known and publicized, but the logic of the whole system—and how specific incidents of violence enact that logic—is invisible and often escapes analysis. All three speakers spoke about language, and the terms used to hide the violent realities of this normalized and celebrated institution, the police, from the public, both populations targeted by it and also those who are meant to be its beneficiaries. All three speakers confronted the liberalism we eat, drink, and breathe in Massachusetts, and the excuses it finds for the oppressive outcomes of punitive approaches to social problems.
Alex’s book, The End of Policing, describes the blunt instrument of policing through many different lenses, with chapters on topics including homelessness, sex work, mental health, the war on drugs, border control, and the school-to-prison pipeline. In different areas of American society, Alex shows how police—always armed, always using the same ugly tactics—are the only agents the capitalist state sends into communities when problems arise. The police are not just a repressive government body, they are a hypothesis: that social problems must be the result of individual and group moral failures. Alex argues that any efforts liberals make to end police violence will fail, because even if they are ready to condemn the grisly outcomes of police violence—killings of young black and brown men, of the mentally ill, of the poor—they accept that same hypothesis. They must accept it because the only alternative explanation is that social problems are in fact the result of market failures—of capitalism.
The liberal response to police violence is always to call for more information: more trainings, more investigations, and more technology (like body cameras) to monitor and correct. Politicians and city councilors stand alongside the victims’ families one day, promising action, and the next go into office and vote for policies that find endless money, endless weaponry, and endless patience for police misconduct. These same politicians point to reformist measures like “implicit bias trainings” to show they are taking action. This comes from a fundamental misreading of politics which believes that the laws that created the police and now regulate their conduct are somehow neutral, and, if enforced and enacted by professionals, will generate outcomes without prejudice. It sees racism as a problem of individual behavior, not a structural feature of a white supremacist state—one enforced and perpetuated by police through violence. This misreading ignores the history of slave patrols that American police emerged from, as well as their historical role as a tool to suppress black radicalism and activism. Rather than being somehow an impartial ingredient of a peaceful society, Alex argues that the terms of policing have always been set by politicians pandering to a white and white-nationalist audience, from Nixon’s racially-coded calls for “law and order,” to “broken window” policing tactics that criminalize poor communities for their poverty.
Fatema Ahmad: This didn’t start with 9/11
After Alex built a case for police abolition, Fatema explained how police abolition already exists for some. The police protect property, and suppress the poor, but first and foremost they are a weapon of white supremacy. White populations can walk down the street and not fear arrest or harassment for their occupation of space. They can exist in American society without provoking suspicion and surveillance. She started from Boston, where the FBI piloted their Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, which rebrands frequently and currently goes by the name “Promoting Engagement, Acceptance and Community Empowerment” (PEACE) in Massachusetts. She began with an exercise, asking audience members to raise their hands if they had ever grown a beard, ever worn cultural or religious clothing, traveled to another country where their religious background was the majority, or protested US wars or Zionism. Nearly the whole room raised their hands for the last question, and there was scattered laughter when she told us the verdict: she should, by State Department guidelines, report us, to recommend therapy of some sort to deal with our radicalization, or after-school programs, or mediation meetings with law enforcement. Quickly, she commented on our laughter—this, of course, was a ridiculous thought, that we would all end up on a list. Only the black and brown people in the room would be targeted by programs like CVE.
This reality, that we are not targeted equally, and not situated equally to experience and understand these kinds of violence, informs Fatema’s work with #BosCops. Working towards police abolition means taking the lead from people who understand the violence of this system from having experienced it. The surveillance and criminalization of Muslims as radical Islamists in America did not start with 9/11, and the criminalization of black youth through discriminatory drug prosecuting is decades old. The infamous COINTELPRO surveillance program was based on a previous program observing “Racial Conditions in America,” which targeted the Nation of Islam and other Muslim groups in the 1930s and 40s. Before Obama‘s policies of deportation and incarceration, Bill Clinton proposed a “National Weed and Seed,” encouraging communities to report and “weed out” problematic youth, while “seeding” these communities with social services. This idea that, in Fatema’s words, black and Muslim communities only “deserve social services because we’re ticking time bombs” gets to the heart of the existing political consensus, which seeks to impose austerity at all costs while beefing up the means to control and suppress the disenfranchised populations austerity creates.
#BosCops is a response to the Boston Police Department, organizing around the violence they perpetrate locally, but their work has national implications. Fatema’s experience with a CVE initiative targeting Somali youth in Boston had directed her attention to the constant, insidious collaboration between local and federal forms of surveillance. Marty Walsh can call Boston a sanctuary city without a single legal result—if someone is booked in the city of Boston today, that person’s fingerprints will still be sent to the FBI and ICE. #BosCops, as a coalition of many activist groups sitting down to talk together, is in a unique position to recognize connections like these, and to fight them. They created a questionnaire for the 2017 state and mayoral elections, demanding answers from politicians about massive overtime budgets for policing, and well-documented incidents of police disproportionately stopping people of color to search and harass. They also created a toolkit to publicize these issues, and raise wider awareness of the tactics police use, and the nature of local-federal collaboration. #BosCops’ focus on the BDP allows it to connect different local struggles—the BPD’s gang database, for instance, connects immediately to the lists created by CVE programs—and unite activists working across different areas.
Samantha Calero: Weaponized systems of care
Not only are police meant to act in lieu of social infrastructure, but existing social services are completely entangled with policing. Samantha’s work at the Youth Advocacy Foundation shows the extent of this collusion. The #BosCops campaign #AllEyesonBPD exposed conditions at East Boston High School, where the school resource officers (SROs)—police officers stationed in public schools to surveil and punish teenagers—colluded with teachers to stalk and observe unaccompanied minor immigrant students. The reports these officers make, highlighting small incidents — talking to a known gang member, for instance — accumulate “points” which eventually add up to “gang affiliated” status for the students under scrutiny. The list these students are added to has no transparency, with no way to find out your own status before you are charged, and served to push many students into ICE custody and out of the country via deportation. The school is now the site of a class-action lawsuit, which Samantha’s work with the Committee for Public Council Services supports. This kind of appropriation of public services for immigration and drug enforcement is common, with professionals like therapists and social workers often serving as the front line of attack for the criminal punishment system. Samantha explained how systems of care can criminalize survivors of violence. For youth who commit acts of violence, that act is never their first encounter with violence. They have always experienced it first from the other side, as a victim or observer. Her work with community-based trauma response begins to imagine an alternative means of responding to violence, outside of police intervention, which seeks to short-circuit these self-perpetuating cycles of neglect, harm, and violence.
The night ended with questions for the speakers, the first of which asked what we can do instead: who we should call when we feel the need to call the cops. Instead of subjecting vulnerable people in our communities to threats of state intervention, we must work to develop alternatives. Who are the people in our communities who have the skills to help us, skills which the police do not and cannot have? Alex offered an existing model for inspiration: in the UK, the National Health Service’s mental health crisis services provide someone else to call, an alternative to inviting a police officer to the scene of a mentally ill person in crisis, and thus endangering that person’s life. Fatema gave some troubling context for this model: NHS mental health services are in fact used as a tool in the Prevent program, an “anti-terrorism” effort established by the UK’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015. Therefore, under this legislation, someone seeking mental health treatment via the NHS could be “screened” for signs of radicalization, and reported at the discretion of the healthcare worker.
As a closing thought, Samantha reiterated a premise of Alex’s book: that we cannot wait for politicians to continue fiddling at the edges of the carceral state with their liberal reforms. Instead we must oppose the police wholly as an institution—one that defends patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism—and fight to overcome it.