The NYPD slowdown is over and I find myself dreaming of a police union general strike. If the NYPD slowdown taught us anything, I think, it is that abolition demands nothing less than the radicalization of the conditions of our collective labor. The organization of the NYPD’s labor power allowed them to instantaneously enact the largest criminal justice reform in over 20 years–despite their intentions.
There is something worth thinking about here. And I think it is something important for all those interested in the project of abolition. Particularly, two things stand out: 1) the labor power behind mass incarceration 2) the relationship between labor and abolition.
The Labor of Mass Incarceration is Surplus Repression
Two NYPD officers were murdered while sitting in their patrol car in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Enraged, Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, blames DeBlasio and city hall for the murders. In response, the NYPD turned its back on the mayor and organized a work slowdown, which amounted to ending broken windows policing. This slowdown forces a few characteristics of police labor to the foreground.
A) The police are an organized productive force of labor. Trying to figure out what the police produce, as a laboring body, is downright difficult. It’s not immediately clear. The ready-to-hand answers are clear: safety, order, peace. But those answers don’t hold, especially in poor black and brown neighborhoods.
Whatever the police produce, it is a different kind of productive force than the labor of the working class. The historical tension between police unions and the labor movement makes that clear. In order to tease out what police labor produces we have to look at its role in a larger political economy (even a political economy of desire). I think Marcuse’s concept of #surplusrepression is helpful in understanding the role of police labor in society. In this light, we can view police labor as the super-structural repression needed to maintain the violent dominance of the current forms of capitalism. Like its Marxist counterpart surplus labor, #surplusrepression denotes the the repression beyond what is required to produce and maintain society. While society may, according to Marcuse, demand a certain level of repression if we are to live together at all–surplus repression produces the necessary forms of discipline to socially reproduce the present forms of capitalism.
B) Police labor is part of a larger political economy of mass incarceration. I am not referring to a political economy of prison labor, non-profits, tickets, or private industries. In other words, in making this claim, I am not referring to the theoretical model of the prison industrial complex. Rather, I intend this claim on two levels.
First, police labor is essential for the criminal justice system and mass incarceration more broadly. Moreover, the labor of mass incarceration relies on a whole network of workers from probationers, to correctional officers, to police, to social workers,to lawyers,to judges,to school cops,to non-profit staff in alternative programming, etc. Here is an excellent resource for thinking about the of labor of Mass Incarceration
Second, in the structure of neo-liberalism, the labor of mass incarceration ensures the warehousing and prison cycling of the surplus population. The police, as some recent literature indicates, are a force of capture and social disorganization in this larger picture. Aggressive policing strategies are targeted, some using the pseudo-science of predictive policing.This plays into the broader strokes of housing and urban planning in the neoliberal city.
Money circulates in the city, carving out neighborhoods and pushing people around. People get swept up in and are swept away by these forces. Homes are created; lives are destroyed. The police play an essential role in this circulation of money, bodies, homes. I think its important that the murder of the two NYPD officers happened in Bed Stuy–a fierce battle ground of gentrification in Brooklyn at the moment. Even Spike Lee was hip to the links between gentrification and police murder in Bed Stuy in Do the Right Thing.
A Horizon of Abolition and the Labor to get there
We should not support police unionism. Police unions across the US are conservative, reactionary, and racist. We will get nowhere supporting them or trying to reform them. Nonetheless, what the slowdown did show was the power of labor in transforming our criminal justice system, a power that will necessarily underlie any concrete movement toward abolition.
What I want to do here is to make a seemingly contradictory claim: Police unions are inherently racist and conservative, but their slowdown demonstrated how necessary labor will be to the project of abolition. Not police unions, but labor itself. Inasmuch we want to radicalize the process of justice in the United States, then so too will we have to radicalize the conditions of labor. Putting the labor of justice into the hands of workers who democratically determine how to align their labor with the project of justice will be the mechanism by which Abolition occurs.
Inadvertently, the misstep of the PBA in New York loosened its grip on poor black and brown people in the New York and another world quickly came into sight, just on the horizon. Granted, this horizon emerged from the PBA’s petulant attempt to show they are the key to safety in New York City. And to some extent it worked, especially when you hear the fear behind the New York Times Op-Eds Here and Here. Nonetheless, compare those racist law and order tantrums, emerging from Midtown, to what it was actually happening in Bed-Stuy where the Marshall Project conducted interviews during the slowdown:
“This is how it’s supposed to be,” he says, referring to the “quiet” he’s been sensing, the “lower volume” of cops he’s been seeing on local corners. “I’m not talking about guys getting away with nothing, I’m talking about feeling safe. The police driving up on us, because of some hearsay, and jumping out, that don’t make us feel safe. The police smelling every drink I drink, looking in my bag every time I come out the store, that don’t make me feel safe.” “This is how it’s supposed to be,” he reiterates. “We feel safe. And for once, we’re not running late – usually we always be running late because of having been hassled”
What would public safety look like if it was collectively determined by those who protect and those who are to be protected? Would it show us that safety might not mean protection? What if that very question upset and disintegrated the distinction between safety/protection, between protector/protected? How would radicalizing the conditions of labor change the nature of surplus repression, and the labor to sustain it? What world would we choose to bring about, if only we organized the labor to do it?
- Labor in the Correctional State, special edition of Labor: Studies in Working Class History in the Americas
- “Good Cop, Bad Cop,” Dissent Magazine
- “The Killing Class,” The New Inquiry
- “Thinking through the End of the Police,” US Prison Culture
- “Applying Broken Window to the Police,” The Atlantic
- “The Thin Blue Lie,” The New Inquiry
- “Blood on their Hands: The Racist History of Modern Police Unions,” In These Times
- “Police Reforms you should Always Oppose,” US Prison Culture
- “The Bad Kind of Unionism,” Jacobin Magazine
- “The Origins of Modern Policing,” Truth-Out
- “Police Reform is Impossible in America,” Gawker