“The liberal identification of security with liberty and property in fact masks an underlying insecurity at the heart of the
bourgeois order—the insecurity of property—which is deeply connected to the question of class…Security is part of the
rationale for the fabrication of order. In terms of the demand for order in civil society, it is under the banner of
‘security’ that police most often marches.” —Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order
“Police function to produce race, a category essential to the workings of the state-market under racial capitalism. Any
analysis of US policing must consider its constitutive relationship to the racialization of Black and brown subjects, not
only theoretically but also in history, with the US police’s structural formation as an antiblack force.” —Micol Seigel,
IN THIS FEATURE !
The modern police force in the US was created to protect capital and the owners of capital. As the coercive
arm of the state, the police are the primary instruments of state violence, particularly racialized state violence.
They function as an occupying force in America’s impoverished ghettoes, barrios, reservations, on the
Southwest border, and in any territory with high concentrations of subjugated communities. Their defense of
corporate property and capitalist extraction was clearly on display during the protests against the Keystone
XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
The Other BLM (Bureau of Land Management) hired armed officers, employed local police forces, and
worked with the FBI to stop what US officials called “domestic terrorism.” At Standing Rock, North Dakota,
the police and private guards used tear gas, batons, attack dogs, water cannons, rubber bullets, bean bag
rounds, and mass arrest to attack Indigenous land defenders and water protectors and their allies—all in the
name of protecting the interests of TC Energy Corporation, Energy Transfer Partners, and their various
CHALLENGING ONE OF THE CORE INSTITUTIONS OF RACIAL CAPITALISM
R O B I N D . G . K E L L E Y ( H T T P S : / / S P E C T R E J O U R N A L . C O M / AU T H O R
/ R O B I N D G K E L L E Y / )
N o v e m b e r 8 , 2 0 2 0
Insecure: Policing Under Racial
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investors. And despite the handwringing and outrage over the Trump administration’s flagrant violation of
the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 limiting the use of the military in domestic matters, the police have long
functioned as an army against dissident social movements.
The police are the first line of defense against strikes and protests by Black, Brown, Indigenous, antiracist,
antifascist, left-wing, queer, and feminist assemblies, while often becoming a cordon to protect Klansman,
Nazis, and the Alt Right. For readers of Spectre this is all common knowledge. The idea that the police were
created to uphold bourgeois class rule and white supremacy has pretty much been accepted wisdom among
various Marxists for at least a century. And yet, abolishing the police has only recently become a chief demand
among broad sectors of the Marxist left—and even now, it is not universally embraced.
Abolishing the police has only recently become a chief demand
among broad sectors of the Marxist left.
We shouldn’t be surprised since the current push to “defund” or abolish the police grew from a decade of
organizing by radical movements that are frequently relegated to the margins of the left or dismissed as
“identity movements”—namely, anticarceral feminists, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous radicals, community and
youth-based mobilizations against police violence. Among them are Black Lives Matter, the Dream
Defenders, Black Youth Project 100, We Charge Genocide, BOLD (Black Organizing for Leadership and
Dignity), Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Dignity and Power Now, Ella’s Daughters, Assata’s
Daughters, Black Feminist Futures Project, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Let Us Breathe Collective, Hands
Up United, Lost Voices, Organization for Black Struggle, Millennial Activists United—organizations that at
some point fell under the umbrella of the Movement for Black Lives.
While the demand for police abolition surfaced in 2014 during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in response
to the killing of Michael Brown, it doesn’t begin there. Critical Resistance issued a statement calling for the
abolition of police as early as 2009. Instead of police, the statement asks “what if we got together with
members of our communities and created systems of support for each other? We are capable of looking after
and caring for one another, providing each other with our basic human needs, creating community self-
determination. Relying on and deploying policing denies our ability to do this, to create real safety in our
Critical Resistance was part of a wave of radical formations in the 1990s that laid the foundations for the
current wave of police and prison abolition: the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Prison Activist Resource
Center, the Prison Moratorium Project, Critical Resistance, Labor/Community Strategy Center, Project South,
POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), Southerners on New Ground (SONG); INCITE:
Women of Color Against Violence, Sista II Sista, the Los Angeles Community Action Network, Black Youth
Coalition Against Civil Injustice, Miami Workers Center, the Praxis Project, FIERCE (Fabulous Independent
Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment), Queers for Economic Justice, the Sylvia Rivera Law
Project (SRLP), to name a few.
That some of these organizations and many of the leading abolitionist thinkers identify as Marxist or Marxist-
oriented—notably, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba, among others—doesn’t seem to
matter. There is a tendency among sectors of the left to treat these movements as narrowly focused on identity,
at best, or “race reductionist,” at worst. According to this logic, the only movements that matter focus on
“universal” issues of class—jobs, healthcare, taxes, and the environment.
The problem with this argument is that it confuses opposition to institutional oppression and marginalization
with “identity politics.” None of these movements are exclusionary. They not only resist racialized and
gendered state violence but capitalism itself. Besides, what is more “universal” than a movement dedicated to
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eradicating all forms of oppression and exploitation; ending state-sanctioned violence; replacing police,
military, and prisons with genuine, humane, noncarceral paths for safety and justice?
This narrow conception of the US left has largely rendered invisible a Black Marxist critique of state violence
and policing within established socialist and communist movements—one exception being the Communist
leader William L. Patterson’s landmark appeal to the United Nations, We Charge Genocide. There has been
surprisingly little discussion of the CPUSA’s National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which
grew out of the campaign to free Angela Davis. Nor has anyone, as far as I know, acknowledged Paul Boutelle
(later known as Kwame Somburu) who called for abolishing the police when he was the Trotskyist Socialist
Workers Party’s (SWP) vice-presidential candidate in 1968.
The Harlem-born Boutelle left school at age sixteen, tired of being indoctrinated with “Christianity,
Capitalism, and Caucasianism.” He drove a taxi for a living and became active in a number of Black nationalist
and anti- imperialist organizations during the early ’60s, including the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and the
Freedom Now Party, an all-Black political party that endorsed African American SWP leader Clifton DeBerry
for president in 1964. That year Boutelle ran unsuccessfully for a New York State Senate seat on the Freedom
Now Party ticket.
He joined Malcolm X’s short-lived Organization of Afro-American Unity and witnessed his assassination in
the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. Boutelle immersed himself in SWP politics, running for
Manhattan Borough president in 1965, state attorney general in 1966, chairing Afro-Americans Against the
War in Vietnam and the Black United Action Front, before his historic vice-presidential bid as Fred Halstead’s
Boutelle’s campaign plank in 1968 could be adopted today. In one of his early stump speeches in Philadelphia,
he called for free college education and medical care for all, a reduced work week with no corresponding
reduction in pay, ending the Vietnam war and reinvesting those resources in “schools and hospitals” and
“decent low-rent homes,” nationalizing banks and major corporations and placing them “under the control of
democratically elected workers committees,” and the “abolition of police.” The latter, it should be noted, was
not part of the SWP’s platform, but Boutelle nevertheless proposed a public safety alternative that would
entail electing representatives from communities to “replace troops and police.”
Following a wave of urban rebellions against police violence during the summer of 1967, Boutelle argued that
the militarization of police mirrored US counterinsurgency measures abroad. “The capitalist class determines
the means of the struggle in this country, and their means is violence. They are ready to do anything at all to
suppress the black movement—helicopters, armored tanks, chemical warfare, even concentration camps.”
In other words, the Black left’s protracted struggle to dismantle the US police state has for too long remained
at the margins of Marxist thought and praxis. The problem was highlighted recently in Spectre by Peter Ikeler
in his excellent response to Dustin Guastella, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) leader who not only
opposes defunding the police but affirms their role in ensuring public safety—particularly the safety of people
of color and the poor.
Ikeler demolishes Guastella’s arguments, point by point, and his fundamental conclusion repeats what police
and prison abolitionists such as Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis and, indirectly at least,
Paul Boutelle (Kwame Somburu) and others have been saying for decades: “To End Police Violence, End
Racial Capitalism.” Ikeler’s piece is compelling and persuasive, but it opens up a larger question: what is the
role of police in reproducing racial capitalism? This article is an attempt to offer some schematic answers to
this question, particularly with respect to the function of police in real estate, finance capital, and technology,
as generators of revenue, and as “labor.”
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Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us that “Capitalism [is] never not racial.” Capitalism emerged in Europe
within a feudal system already built on racial hierarchy. Capitalism was/is “racial” not because of some
conspiracy to divide workers or justify slavery and dispossession, but because racialism had already permeated
Western feudal society. Racial capitalism extracts surplus value and structures exchange value by assigning
differential value to human life and labor: through land enclosure, slavery, dispossession, displacement,
predatory lending, taxation, disfranchisement, and the long history of looting through terror and government
policies that suppressed wages of racialized subjects, relieved them of property, excluded Black people from
better schools and public accommodations, suppressed Black home values, and subsidized white wealth
Racial capitalism is dynamic. The last couple of generations have endured a neoliberal variant of racial
capitalism that dismantled the welfare state; promoted capital flight; privatized public schools, hospitals,
housing, transit, and other public resources; and resulted in the massive growth of police and prisons. These
policies have produced scarcity, poverty, alternative (illicit) economies regulated through violence, and
environmental and health hazards.
Just as capitalism emerged within the feudal order, so did the police. Capitalists may not have invented
police, but they remade police into a tool to secure property, profits, and people who refuse to accept the terms
of exploitation. In North America, the precursors to the police were the slave patrols— citizen militias
deputized by local, state, and federal governments to track down fugitive slaves and put down insurrections—
and militias deployed to suppress Native communities.
However, the slave patrols were not a police force, per se. They were closer to what Friedrich Engels described
as “self-acting armed organizations of the population.” Using Europe as his guide, Engels recognized the
danger that popular militias pose for the state, especially as the class divide sharpens. Fear of armed rebellion
compelled the state to replace popular militias with units of “armed men” employed by the state (police and
standing armies) and backed up with “material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds.”
In settler societies like North America, however, race kept these popular militias loyal to the state and its
colonial projects, even as class antagonisms grew. These units were white for a reason. Before the birth of the
Republic, colonial landholders had to manage kidnapped African labor, unruly indentured white labor, and
relations with what were then sovereign and often powerful Indigenous communities. Unable to stop white
servants and Africans from running away together, finding refuge in swamps, hills, and among Native peoples,
the landowning class decided to free white servants and turn them into small property owners, proletarian
citizens, and/or slave patrollers invested in the white Republic and the dream of attaining wealth and power
An armed white population was not only central to legitimizing antiBlack and anti-Indigenous violence, but it
also shored up white propertyless and working class support for this regime. However, with the growth of
industrial capitalism and the increase in European immigration during the late nineteenth century, the state
and owners of capital could no longer depend on white workers to support the status quo. Professional police
forces replaced citizen militias.
Although by the turn of the twentieth century the state held a monopoly of lethal force and assumed greater
responsibility for maintaining order, upholding the color line, regulating sexuality, and suppressing dissent,
bodies of armed whites continued to exist as adjuncts to racialized state violence. Therefore, it is important to
make a distinction between the police as a formal, modern institution and “policing” as a broader set of
practices and procedures that operate beyond (but sanctioned by) formal state structures. Historian Peter
Linebaugh put it best: “Investigation into the history of police soon finds it to be inseparable from conquest,
slavery, debt, industrial discipline, and social hierarchies. Armed settlers, ‘pioneers,’ militia, army units, slave
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patrollers, Texas rangers, posse comitatus, slave catchers, factory guards, troopers, private security forces,
vigilante groups, MPs, lynch mobs, Ford’s ‘service department,’ death squads, night riders, and the KKK have
all served police functions.”
Let’s take lynch mobs. How do we explain the fact that Congress passed the first antilynching bill in US
history in 2020? (As of this writing, the bill still has not passed the Senate since it is being held up by Senator
Rand Paul of Kentucky. ) Since 1882, the nearly two hundred antilynching bills introduced to the US
Congress were all defeated. We’re inclined to either scratch our heads in befuddlement or blame die-hard
racist Southern Senators, but the fact of the matter is that lynching was a form of policing.
How do we explain the fact that Congress passed the first
antilynching bill in US history in 2020? (As of this writing, the
bill still has not passed the Senate.) Since 1882, the nearly two
hundred antilynching bills introduced to the US Congress were
To call it “illegal” because it violates one’s constitutional right to due process misses the point. Lynch mobs
were white; their targets were primarily—though not exclusively—Black. Lynch mobs were instruments of
state power that performed a key function by punishing those accused of transgressing law or custom, and
disciplining entire Black communities. A charred, mutilated body hanging from a tree served as a visible and
potent reminder of the price of stepping out of line.
Lynching was a form of racial, class, and sexual regulation. Images of predatory Black men circulated widely
in popular culture, and fear of the Black rapist was instilled in white women. Such fear allowed white men to
demand subordination, deference, and loyalty from white women in exchange for their “protection.” Their
duty, after all, was to maintain the purity of the race, so protecting white womanhood also meant protecting
the womb and the bloodline.
In this arrangement, any sexual encounter between Black men and “virtuous” white women was presumed to
be rape. Consensual relationships between Black men and white women were inconceivable. These ideas were
hardly archaic; on the contrary, they were backed by modern science at the time. Daniel G. Brinton,
considered the first professor of Anthropology in the US, wrote in his book Races and Peoples (1890), that
white women “have no more holier duty, no more sacred mission, than that of transmitting in its integrity the
heritage of ethnic endowment gained by the race throughout thousands of generations of struggle…That
philanthropy is false, that religion is rotten, which would sanction a white woman enduring the embrace of a
The problem, of course, is that the science was false and the evidence was not there. Only twenty-nine percent
of African American lynch victims between 1882 and 1930 were even accused of sexual assault of some kind,
and of that figure less than two percent involved a murdered rape victim. Most were lynched for being
“insolent” toward whites, attempting to vote, engaging in self-defense, petty theft, assault, throwing stones,
arson, economic competition, and sedition (political activism). And even cases of alleged rape often masked
consensual relations between Black men and white women.
The failure or refusal of the federal government to protect Black lives and prosecute lynchers proved to be a
source of frustration. African Americans had no faith in local law enforcement agencies because they usually
worked in concert with lynch mobs, or at best were powerless against the crowd. Writer and activist Frances
Ellen Watkins Harper expressed the sentiments of many when, in February 1891, she told members of the
National Council of Women, “A government which has power to tax a man in peace, [and] draft him in war,
should have power to defend his life in the hour of peril.”
Lynch victims tended to be working class; occasionally they were targeted for union activity or “sedition.” But
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white mobs also murdered Black men of means—successful entrepreneurs, landowners, anyone perceived to
pose an economic threat to whites. The intrepid journalist and activist, Ida B. Wells, wrote about one of the
best known cases of this kind. In 1892, three Black Memphis residents, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and
Henry Stewart, opened the People’s Grocery Company directly across the street from a white-owned grocery
store, drawing customers and incurring the wrath of the white store owner.
When a mob attempted to run the three men out of town, they defended their property through force of arms.
Three white men were wounded in the ensuing gun battle, prompting police to arrest Moss, McDowell, and
Stewart. Then on the night of March 9, a mob stormed the jail, seized the three men, dragged them out to the
countryside, and summarily executed them.
The logic of racial capitalism entailed suppressing Black capital accumulation through violence in order to
maintain a white monopoly of capital. The Southern economy under segregation was the antithesis of what
classical economics imagined to be the free market. In cities and towns where African Americans comprised a
large proportion of the population, the system deliberately and methodically suppressed competition and
undercut Black merchants so as to ensure the flow of Black dollars to white coffers without giving Black
consumers equal service or products, or Black workers equal wages.
These “private” white-owned businesses relied on the State to codify and enforce discriminatory practices that
wiped out competition, legalized second-class status, and required inferior service. This was not a free market
but a racially regulated market, backed by the force of the state and fiscal policies that took Black peoples’
money (from consumer compulsion to wage theft), that proved decisive in reproducing racial and class
inequality. When Black people tried to fight back using free market principles of withholding their labor
(strike), migrating elsewhere, exercising the right to dispose of their income as they wished, or withholding
their collective buying power (boycott), they were met with force and violence—sometimes by mobs but
oftentimes by the police.
Today there are still structural barriers to Black wealth accumulation, but the use of state-sanctioned mob
violence targeting wealthy African Americans has all but disappeared. There is no denying that rich Black
people and celebrities are occasionally subject to racial profiling and police harassment (often the result of
mistaken identity), but in our so-called post-racial, post-civil rights, multicultural world where the ruling class
has no problem incorporating Black and Brown faces into the existing state apparatus, where Black
billionaires profit from sweatshop labor and home foreclosures, where a Black president, a Black secretary of
state, and Black national security advisors advance the US war on the planet, rich Black people are no longer
the targets of state violence. The Black entrepreneurs most likely to experience police violence are street
vendors, evidenced by the killing of Eric Garner who was selling loose cigarettes on the streets of Staten
Island, New York, and Alton Sterling, who sold CDs on the streets of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
These are only the more spectacular cases. The disappearance by death or removal of street vendors is not
about eliminating economic competition but adding value to the land and creating optimal conditions for
capital investment. In a word: gentrification. New York City in the 1990s offers a textbook example of the
advanced role of police in facilitating gentrification. On October 17, 1994, the same year Harlem became an
“empowerment zone,” mayor Rudy Giuliani dispatched four hundred officers dressed in riot gear to remove
the street vendors on 125 Street.
These vendors, who had been selling their wares for at least three decades or more, represented a truly
diasporic entrepreneurial class, with merchants hailing from West Africa and the Caribbean operating
alongside native-born African Americans. Although conflict between “legitimate” businesses along 125 and
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the street vendors had been brewing since the 1970s, it is not an accident that the first military operations
against them coincided with initiatives to woo the Gap and Starbucks into opening shop in Harlem.
Giuliani and the police prepared the ground for their new residents by stepping up the “war on drugs.”
Although much of Harlem had been ravaged by the crack epidemic in the 1980s, the number of drug arrests
had increased significantly over the past five years despite a steady decline in drug use and violent crimes.
Undercover officers were everywhere in Harlem, mostly engaged in “buy and bust” operations in which they
randomly sought out dealers, made a purchase, and called their “field team” to execute the arrest. Their job
was to essentially round up all the low level dealers, including lookouts or addicts who earned vials of crack by
simply finding customers.
The war on drugs was part of a general “war on crime” that resulted in an escalation of police activity, arrests,
and harassment during the 1980s and ’90s. The NYPD’s increasingly aggressive policing in Harlem, as well as
the “Blacker” parts of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island, mirrored the prevailing trend during
the 1980s—broken windows policing. First elaborated in a 1982 essay by George L. Kelling and James Q.
Wilson, “broken windows” theory placed the blame for urban decay on the social values and behaviors of poor,
primarily Black people.
As the argument goes, criminals flourish in deteriorating, disorderly neighborhoods, and disrespect for one’s
community leads to disrespect for authority and the law. As long as ghetto residents lacked concern for the
condition of their neighborhoods, crime would run rampant. Small infractions are just a gateway to violent
crime. In short, by completely ignoring the structural factors that suppressed home values, perpetuated health
and environmental catastrophes, divested neighborhoods of essential services, jobs, government programs, as
well as legal protections, the theory can blame culture and immorality for crime, which in turn explains
poverty. All of these initiatives were part of a general clearing of the land.
Meanwhile, upwardly mobile families—many white but also Black and Brown—began buying up inexpensive,
dilapidated Harlem brownstones, and large chains such as the Gap, Starbucks, and H&M began moving onto
the historic 125 Street corridor. These multinationals prepared to take advantage of cheap labor as well as
the burgeoning consumer base. The state directly supported the corporate invasion with a $100 million
empowerment zone grant and $250 million in tax credits, rather than invest in the wellbeing of working
people and the poor in Harlem. Whether intended or not, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone
orientation toward corporate developers and global chains, in combination with rising rents and a decline in
pedestrian traffic due to the removal of vendors on 125 Street, has led to the destruction of local
More recently, the attorneys for Breonna Taylor, the Black woman killed on March 13, 2020, by Louisville
Metro Police (LMPD) officers during a no-knock raid of her home, have uncovered evidence linking her death
to gentrification. Although evidence is still coming to light, here is what we know. The officers who shot Taylor
were part of the Place Based Investigations (PBI) unit. The city established PBI in 2019 reportedly to focus on
“hot spots” with high incidence of crime—part of the trend toward “predictive policing” I discuss below.
But the territories given priority tended to coincide with areas targeted for aggressive redevelopment, such as
the Russell neighborhood, an historic Black community in West Louisville. This included a portion of Elliot
Avenue saddled with a number of abandoned and dilapidated properties. In a three-week span early in 2020,
the city demolished least eight homes on Elliot Avenue. Mayor Greg Fischer’s Vacant and Abandoned
Properties Team and the Office of Community Development worked closely with PBI to step up arrests on
In December 2019, a PBI unit within the LMPD obtained a warrant to arrest Jamarcus Glover on drug
charges at a small house he rented at 2424 Elliot Avenue. Glover, it turns out, was Breonna Taylor’s ex-
boyfriend. The police claim he was receiving packages at Taylor’s apartment on Springfield Drive, some ten
miles south of Glover’s house, but the postal service could not confirm this.
Insecure: Policing Under Racial Capitalism – Spectre Journal …
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