The Police System That Terrorizes the Poor and Minorities Is Rooted in the Colonial Past

Photo by AJ Colores on Unsplash

The Minneapolis City Council’s attempt to defund police may have fizzled out for the moment, but the problem of police violence across the United States is unresolved—and much of it stems from the institution’s colonial, counterinsurgency roots.

Here are seven counterinsurgency features of policing and the inequities in the criminal justice system.

1. Counterinsurgency Tactics Are Everywhere.

In the Canadian province of Ontario, when the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) changed its public transportation fare collection method from tokens to the Presto card, users had a strange experience. Sure, the fare booth was predictably replaced by an inhuman and unforgiving terminal that malfunctions all the time (despite the steep price the province had paid for it). But instead of having less human interaction, TTC passengers found they had more—with fare inspectors who corral passengers into small spaces at stations to test everyone’s cards. In counterinsurgency terms, this is called a cordon-and-search operation.

Another counterinsurgency concept, that of “hearts and minds,” can be seen in a public information campaign to shame fare evasion through posters blanketing subway walls and the sides of buses. Riders were infuriated—not just by the campaign itself but also by abuses and racial discrimination by the fare inspectors. Unsurprisingly, spoofs of the TTC’s messaging followed, as they did in New York City in resistance to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s fare evasion messaging.

There is nothing special about Toronto, New York City, or other transit systems that increasingly use these warlike techniques to police customers; what’s happening with the TTC and MTA is a relatively mild example of what happens when counterinsurgency methods are the first resort for any urban problem that arises.

2. Police Don’t Live in the Communities They Police.

Colonial forces are imposed from outside; this prevents too much natural solidarity between the occupier and the occupied. In the United States, the majority of police don’t live in the communities they serve. One Newark officer from the Fraternal Order of Police put it succinctly: “the community hates the police. And you want to put us right in the middle of that with our families?”

The polling is consistent with the idea that one group of people is policing another. A July 2020 Gallup survey showed that 70 percent of Black Americans support reducing police budgets, while only 41 percent of white Americans do. Out-and-out defunding is more commonly supported by Black Americans (according to FiveThirtyEight’s average of two polls, 45 percent of Black Americans polled support defunding, with 28 percent opposed) and opposed by white Americans (with 61 percent of white Americans opposed to defunding and only 23 percent in support of defunding). The difference in public opinion reflects one group benefiting from police security and another suffering from police violence and surveillance.

As Richard Rothstein showed in his book The Color of Law, the racial segregation of U.S. cities was brought about by methodical legal means, racially explicit zoning, and the destruction of integrated neighborhoods. This segregation, too, has consequences for the police-counterinsurgency alignment.

In author James Ron’s book Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel, he compared the methods of state violence used in a “ghetto,” where a hostile population is meant to be contained by powerful state control but where law and morality still limit its enforcement due to the nature of oppressor and oppressed living side-by-side; and on a “frontier,” where even more devastating warfare is unleashed since state power is more tenuous on targeted populations who don’t live among their oppressors, but the bounds of law and morality are weaker.

In the United States, this theory also has applied throughout its history: domestic ghettos are policed, and frontiers are the sites of total war both at home and abroad. But the more police think of cities as the “frontier,” the more violence they will commit against the policed.

3. Police Get Specialized Counterinsurgency Training.

Police officers are encouraged to take weekend courses in a field called “killology,” developed by retired Army Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman. There, they learn to see themselves as “front-line troops” in a war, presumably on the civilians they are policing.

A critic of killology courses, Seth Stoughton, says they steep police in the worldview that “the officer is the hero, the warrior, the noble figure who steps into dark situations where others fear to tread and brings order to a chaotic world, and who does so by imposing their will on the civilians they deal with.” Another critic, Craig Atkinson, calls the courses “fear porn.” One such training, “The Bulletproof Warrior,” was taken by Philando Castile’s killer.

4. In a Counterinsurgency, Everyone’s a Criminal.

According to defenders of law enforcement, the thinking is: If you don’t want to be policed, don’t commit crimes, right? But the law creates the criminal.

And the number of laws for police to identify those criminals is growing suspiciously. American University professor Emilio Viano notes, quoting the conservative think tank the American Heritage Foundation, that “the ‘number of criminal offenses in the United States Code increased from 3,000 in the early 1980s to 4,000 by 2000 to over 4,450 by 2008.’ From 2000 to 2007 Congress added 56.5 new crimes every year.” The staggering number of laws is incongruous to American society’s actual concerns, as is evidenced by attorney Harvey Silverglate’s book arguing that the average American commits “three felonies a day.”

In this system, the full weight of the law is available to bring down upon anyone at any time.

And once it is brought down on you, you have no meaningful right to a trial.

5. There’s No Right to a Trial in a Counterinsurgency.

In TV cop shows, the police are constrained by clever lawyers and fair-minded judges in the courtroom—but in reality, cases almost never go to trial. As Professor Viano writes:

“In fiscal year 2010, the prevalent mode of conviction in U.S. District Courts of all crimes was by plea of guilty (96.8% of all cases). The percentage ranges from a relative low of 68.2% for murder to a high of 100% for cases of burglary, breaking and entering. With the exception of sex abuse (87.5%), arson (86.7%), civil rights (83.6%) and murder (68.2%), for all other crimes the rate of convictions by plea of guilty is well over 90%. In the… [2012] U.S. Supreme Court decision, Missouri v. Frye, Justice Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, pointed out the statistics that 97% of federal convictions and 94% of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas.”

The fact that 90 percent of cases don’t go to trial is the outcome of two Supreme Court rulings described by Michelle Alexander in a 2012 op-ed in the New York Times:

“The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that threatening someone with life imprisonment for a minor crime in an effort to induce him to forfeit a jury trial did not violate his Sixth Amendment right to trial. Thirteen years later, in Harmelin v. Michigan, the court ruled that life imprisonment for a first-time drug offense did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.”

Regardless of the innocence of the offender or the senseless overzealousness of law writing and enforcement, it is standard operating procedure that the accused do not get their day in court. Instead, prosecutors threaten the accused with shocking sentences, and have them plead guilty to something less to get them into the life-ruining prison system.

Alexander noted that the criminal justice system is unequipped for any other way: “If everyone charged with crimes suddenly exercised his constitutional rights, there would not be enough judges, lawyers or prison cells to deal with the ensuing tsunami of litigation.” The author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness also argued in the New York Times op-ed that “crash[ing] the system just by exercising our rights” could comprise a strategy to combatting the inequities and flaws in the criminal justice system. Blogger Arthur Silber agreed that this strategy could work if done en masse, noting, “[n]othing short of mass non-cooperation has a chance in hell.”

But the price of seeking one’s right to trial is prohibitive. Julian Assange is being publicly tortured right now mainly for doing journalism, but partly also for insisting on his rights to a trial. And Aaron Swartz was hounded to death, driven to suicide by a prosecutor applying the standard operating procedure by threatening Swartz with a 35-year sentence for trying to make scientific publications available to those outside of university paywalls.

In cases relating to the drug war, the goal of police and prosecutors is also to get the accused to turn on one another: in exchange for more lenient punishments, suspects are made to become informants against others—another key element of counterinsurgency and its slow destruction of solidarity in the criminalized, targeted society.

6. U.S. Policing Was Developed in Concert With the U.S. Empire.

Consider one of the founding fathers of American policing, August Vollmer. A U.S. Marine who invaded the Philippines in the Spanish-American War in 1898, he set out to “reform” Berkeley’s police when he became its first chief in 1909. He used the scientific techniques of counterinsurgency developed by the U.S. empire in the Philippines (a system described in Alfred McCoy’s book Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State). Vollmer brought in centralized police records, patrol cars, and lie detectors. Vollmer established a criminal justice program at the University of California, Berkeley in 1916 and wrote books including scientific racist theories of “racial degeneration” and crime. He joined the American Eugenics Society and wondered how to prevent “defectives from producing their kind.”

Smedley Butler provides another example. The military man famously wrote that he had been “a gangster for capitalism,” including that he “helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in.” He had done so by, among other things, establishing Haiti’s first police force when the Marines occupied that country in 1915, as Jeremy Kuzmarov describes in his book Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation-Building in the American Century. When Butler became police chief in Philadelphia in 1924, he too upgraded police technology and militarized its tactics, including military checkpoints and Marine-style uniforms. The mayor fired him after two years, sending him back to the Marines.

7. Counterinsurgencies Use Auxiliaries.

In counterinsurgency campaigns, state armies and police work with paramilitaries, who do dirty work with plausible deniability.

As Alan MacLeod reported on September 28, there were more than 100 vehicle ramming attacks against protesters since the George Floyd protests started in May, many of which “seem to have the tacit approval of local law enforcement,” given the lack of consequences.

Portland activist Mac Smiff told the Brief Podcast, “We call it a shift change. They’re all the same people… there’s the cops, there’s the sheriffs, there’s the marshals, there’s the DHS [Department of Homeland Security], there’s the Proud Boys, there’s the Patriot Prayer, it just goes on and on. They just take turns.”

It is called impunity: the criminal activities of paramilitaries or proxy forces go unpunished, while the full power of the state is brought down upon the intended victims of counterinsurgency.

The default counterinsurgency mode is a consequence of being ruled by an elite that sees the whole population as the enemy. The model for policing isn’t going to be changed even if Trump is replaced by “shoot them in the leg” Biden. The occupied always challenge the legitimacy of their occupiers: the debate about abolition is not going anywhere.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at Globetrotter. You can find him on his website at and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.

Civilizations 20b: India 1857 pt 2 – the Revolution Defeated

India 1857, part 2

The Delhi Liberated Zone under Bahadur Shah Zafar falls; Tatia Tope and others fight on for another two years; the British kill perhaps 10 million Indian people (7% of the population); the 1857 has some victories even in defeat. But what does it all mean? We conclude our discussion with the concept of a point-of-view in history. I identify six different points of view (RSS, Congress, British imperialist, 1857 line, Subaltern Studies, and Marxist) and show how you end up having to pick one, and why I went with the “1857 line” on the event – for which the key source is Amaresh Mishra’s 2000 page book, War of Civilisations.

At the end of the episode, Dave and I discuss a table that I made about the different points of view I was able to identify in historical scholarship of 1857. The table we are looking at is in the Civilizations Resources Page under episode 20b.

I take full responsibility for this table, which I made up. Here is what I’d say is a representative source for each point of view. You may disagree – and I’m declaring my point of view, after reading all these, is with Misra and the 1857 line.

BJP – Savarkar, The Indian War of Independence

1857 line – Amaresh Misra, War of Civilisations

Marxist – Marx, the Indian War of Independence

Subaltern Studies – Guha, Prose of Counterinsurgency

British Imperialist – Kim Wagner, The Great Fear

Congress- Surendranath Sen, 1857

Civilizations 20a: 1857 – India’s War of Independence, pt1

India’s War of Independence – how and why it started

Are we really doing this? One podcaster with Indian roots and another with British roots, trying to do the history of 1857 India? This is the Civilizations podcast, so yes we are! I’m arguing that 1857 is up there with the other great revolutions of this time – 1848 or 1870 in Europe, or Bolivar’s campaigns in Latin America. Part 1 takes you from the antecedents and context through to the Delhi Liberated Zone under Bahadur Shah Zafar.

AEP 70: Reading Chomsky’s statement to the Assange Trial

Chomsky’s statement was entered into the record of the Assange Trial

On the last day of defense evidence in the Assange Trial (September 30/20), a statement from Chomsky was read into the record. This is a solo episode where I go over Chomsky’s succinct, remarkable statement about power, propaganda, and the importance of Assange’s work.

AEP 69: The Methods of Empire, with Isa Blumi

A survey of imperial methods and tools with Isa Blumi

Isa Blumi is a professor at Stockholm University in Sweden and a scholar of the Empire. We talk about a range of imperial methods, including the creation of a ‘traditional-modern’ or ‘backward-forward’ dichotomy; humanitarianism; debt; depopulating villages; recruiting some classes of colonials to administer the imperial project, and survey the bleak landscape for anti-imperialists today.

Civilizations 18: The Mexican-American War 1846-8

The Mexican-American War 1846-8

This episode is about how the US became the territorial empire that it is. We cover the Mexican-American War 1846-8, as well as the repeat performance when France invaded under Louis Napoleon. We end talking about US expansionism and its many 19th century wars with Indigenous nations.

3.1% of Humans on 7% of the Planet – A review of Planet of the Humans

Around the 88th minute of Jeff Gibbs and Ozzie Zehner’s April 2020 film Planet of the Humans, there is a quick cut to footage of Indigenous protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline, showing that the camp was bulldozed by a machine built by one of the corporate sponsors of an Earth Day event – Caterpillar.

If you want to learn about that pipeline, in 2019 Nick Estes, a professor based at the University of New Mexico from the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, published Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. Those protesters who faced the bulldozers in the seconds- long sequence were the Water Protectors based at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, whose incredible movement faced the whole might of US corporate power and colonialism in 2016, inspiring people around the world that year. Estes, who runs a podcast called Red Nation, links the resistance of the #NoDAPL moment to the centuries of Indigenous resistance to colonialism. The Red Nation podcast is a remarkable resource weaving liberatory and anti-imperialist politics from many directions. You won’t find reference to it in Planet of the Humans.

Back to it. Around minute 56, Gibbs, the film’s director and narrator, visits a solid waste incinerator plant in L’Anse Michigan, and talks to local activist Catherine Andrews. Gibbs tells her this isn’t just an ordinary town, and Andrews agrees: “It’s Lake Superior,” she says. “It’s our Lake. A very sacred place to many people.” If you look at the maps produced by Sam Hillard you can see that sacred place was stolen from the Chippewa Anishnaabe, who use the name of the lake (Gichi Gami) in the name for their people (Gichigamiwininiwag). To them, no doubt the lake, and the territory, is sacred. Under the leadership of Chief Buffalo, the Chippewa fought to stay in the region when US president Zachary Taylor, veteran of the invasion and occupation of Mexico from 1846-48, tried to remove them west of the Mississipi in 1850, killing hundreds of Indigenous people through deliberate starvation at Sandy Lake (sanitized in US historical memory as the “Sandy Lake Tragedy”).

Let’s start back at the beginning of the film. The first question Gibbs asks in his people-on-the-street interviews is, “How long do humans have left?” Planet of the Humans is based on an apocalyptic politics, a politics of what one group of leftist writers called Catastrophism in a 2012 book. One of the book’s contributors, Eddie Yuen, points out that the environmental movement does not have adherents proportionate to its apocalyptic predictions – catastrophism, it turns out, is not the most politically compelling stance.

Later on in the film, around minute 46 (a point I’ll return to) one of Gibbs’s (uniformly white, uniformly American) expert interviewees, anthropologist Steven Churchill, spells out what this apocalypse means to the filmmakers: “without seeing some sort of major die off in population,” he says, “there’s no turning back.”

On the topic of apocalyptic die-offs: Spain, Portugal, England, and their settler colonies (notably the United States, where Planet of the Humans is exclusively set) committed a series of genocides killing more than 90% of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Those genocides are what made land available for the filmmaker to experiment with sustainable living on a homestead in Michigan centuries later. Settler-colonialism is why Okhay Owingeh Pueblo science fiction writer Rebecca Roanhorse noted that Indigenous people have “already survived an apocalypse.” The history of that apocalypse is available to anyone willing to read, whether it’s in Gerald Horne’s books the Dawning of the Apocalypse, and Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, David Stannard’s American Holocaust, or Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s Indigenous People’s History of the United States. Indigenous understandings of the world and the land are available from Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done, Winona LaDuke’s All Our Relations, and many others. Perhaps the most urgent imperative is expanding and restoring the Indigenous land base, as outlined by the late Arthur Manuel in the Reconciliation Manifesto. That action – summarized in the slogan “Land Back” – would be the most efficient way to reverse the destructive processes leading to climate change.

You will find no awareness of this history, indeed no knowledge of any Indigenous or Black or non-US writer on any topic, in Planet of the Humans. Which would be fine. But the film was not called “7% of the Planet and 3.1% of the Humans” (the US landmass and the percentage of humans that are the white Americans who are interviewed for the film). It was called Planet of the Humans.

Executive Producer Michael Moore, who traveled to several countries and met and spoke to numerous non-US humans (even communist humans) in Where to Invade Next and Sicko, should have helped expand the range of humans spoken to for the film. Alas.

From minute 45-52, each one of its experts is interviewed introducing a revolting level of Malthusianism into the film’s core. Richard Heinberg says there are “too many human beings using too much too fast.” Steven Churchill, the worst of them, says “as a global community we really need to start dealing with the issue of population… species hit the population wall a lot and then they crash. I mean, that’s a common story in biology…. it’s the natural order of things… a large percentage of that number is supported by industrial agriculture which is heavily subsidized by oil… without seeing some sort of major die off in population, there’s no turning back.” Nina Jablonski says “population growth continues to be the herd of elephants in the room.” Steven Running is asked if humans are “smart enough to regulate our own presence.” Then Gibbs himself takes the microphone and goes solidly into population bomb Malthusianism, talking about the “population explosion” of the 1800s and the “total human impact” having risen by 200 times – as if the impact of an Indigenous person in the forests of India is in any way comparable to the impact of a Jeff Bezos, an Al Gore, or a Vinod Khosla. “We humans,” he continues, “are poised for a fall from an unimaginable height. Not because of one thing, climate change alone, but all the human-caused changes the planet is suffering from.”

The over-reach here is hair-raising. The population “explosion” Gibbs cites began at the peak of colonialism over Asia and Africa and after the aforementioned apocalypse of settler-colonialism first struck the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. A miniature version of that population “explosion” has recently occurred with the displacement of 37 million people due to US terrorist wars in Asia. The most basic, elementary insights in the field of demographics are 1) that war and displacement cause population increases and 2) that female education and empowerment stabilize birth rates at around 1-2 children per woman (as communist jurisdictions like Kerala and Cuba have shown). But you won’t find any of these basics in Planet of the Humans. Instead, the film gives us a series of white Americans sounding off about “overpopulation” as if none of this knowledge exists. As if Betsy Hartmann hadn’t written Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control in 1995. As if Ian Angus and Simon Butler hadn’t written Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis in 2011. This panel of talking heads gives us pure Malthusianism, one of the cruelest ideologies of 19th century colonial England, written to justify the British Empire’s famines in India and Ireland. If not “7% of the planet and 3.1% of the humans”, this film might better be called Planet of the Dehumanized, following reviewers Gert Van Hecken and Vijay Kolinjivadi.

Not every environmental documentary has to do everything, and even in a settler-colonial framework, sincere environmentalists can make some good points. As Max Blumenthal’s investigation at the Greyzone shows, Gibbs and Zehner’s criticisms of the co-optation of the environmental movement by extractive industry and tycoons like Blood, Gore, Branson, Khosla, and Grantham hold up. So, too, do the film’s critiques of the problems with solar and wind energy at scale: intermittency, rare earth mining, the devastation of biofuels, and the destructiveness of corporate infrastructure megaprojects. There is indeed a campaign to corrupt and co-opt the environental movement and it has been successful, including in introducing the very mentality that Gibbs criticizes as “the profit motive”, the “takeover by capitalism” of the movement (mentioned at minute 80).

So yes, as reviewers Van Hecken and Kolinjivadi (and Max Blumenthal) point out, the film was roundly criticized by many environmentalists (including the co-opted) – who argued, mainly, that the intermittency and efficiency problems of green technology were on the way to being solved. But the worst problems with the film are premises shared by the filmmakers and many of their critics.

Talking about “humanity” and its fall from an “unimaginable height”, Gibbs asks: “So why are bankers, industrialists, and environmental leaders only focused on the narrow solution of green technology? Is it the profit motive?”

Whatever the solution is going to be, Gibbs imagines it will come from “bankers, industrialists, and environmental leaders.” Not – notably – from governments. And so, at a stroke, the most powerful tool that could be brought to bear on the problem is excluded. Instead of finding an expert on industrial policy, planning, economic history – someone from any other part of the world where the government plays a different role in planning and directing economic activity – Gibbs talks to a social psychologist named Sheldon Solomon who quotes Camus and suggests that the solution is that we come to “grips with our anxiety about death and life.”

To Gibbs and Zehner, it isn’t a system of rationing, a government-coordinated, egalitarian plan that can get us to environmental stability. It is, at minute 88, “awareness… awareness alone can begin to create the transformation. There is a way out of this… we humans must accept that infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide. We must accept that our human presence is already far beyond sustainability and all that that implies.”

To repeat: after doing an adequate job of showing the destructiveness of capitalist accumulation and philanthropic movement co-optation, the film suggests that the solution is “awareness alone.”

Nonsense. Serious readers can close Youtube at this point and crack open Stan Cox’s Green New Deal and Beyond, and get with a program called “cap and cope.” It goes like this: End subsidies to fossil fuels. Lock companies out of public lands. Ban fracking. Bust pipelines. Stop oil and gas exports. Deprive fossil fuel companies of investment. Put an impervious cap on the total supply of fossil fuel that ratchets down year by year until fossil fuels is zero. Dismantle the US military and its militarized police. Ration the means of survival to ensure everyone gets enough and ensure that the sacrifices that are made are equal. In other words, create a system where human ingenuity is used in the service of the planet and of humans and not in the service of circumventing the weak, industry-compromised regulations of the American oligarchy.

US-centrism means ignoring other examples of epic human effort to overcome seemingly impossible odds. The Soviet Union, after a devastating civil war and several famines, rebuilt its industry and defeated the most formidable military machine ever assembled – that of Nazi Germany – using economic planning. In our time, China has eliminated poverty within its borders by using economic planning. But a US film steeped in settler-colonial premises would not be interested in achievements from those humans on the wrong side of American ideologies.

Fredric Jameson is quoted saying that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Planet of the Humans is a 94 minute unfolding of that idea, a caricature of the failure of imagination.

AEP 68: The Donziger Case and the Assange Trial

The Donziger case and the Assange Trial

Joe Emersberger and I talk about the Steve Donziger case, in which an environmental lawyer who won a landmark settlement against one of the world’s most powerful oil corporations (Chevron) is now disbarred and under house arrest, persecuted by a pro-business judge and the entire US corporate-legal nexus.

In the second half, we talk about the Assange trial, in which the weight of two countries’ judiciaries (the US and UK) are being brought down to try to crush a journalist, for doing journalism, and all the sleazy journalists running for cover claiming that they don’t like his personality.

I referred especially to Debunking All the Assange Smears by Caitlin Johnstone, and Joe’s article Manufacturing Disgrace: Reuters distorts Chevron vs. Donziger.