“Police and law are two different things.” An interview with David Correia

by Stanislav Dodov

In the past couple of weeks Sofia and other major Bulgarian cities are shaken by protests demanding the resignation of the government. These protests – and mostly the way in which they are organized, along with the book Police: A Field Guide led me to conduct this interview with David Correia. He is an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, and an experienced activist and organizer in the struggles for police abolition in the United States.

In Police: A Field Guide Correia and Tyler Wall make “a study of the language of police and policing. It examines the taken-for-granted language of police, a language we are all forced to speak when we talk about police.” This is what they call “copspeak” and by revealing the language of police they suggest a popular, yet in-depth critique of the police as institutional practice and ideology. In the Bulgarian protest context we might give the mythical figure of the “provocateur” as a quick example.

As for the protest itself, if one follows the news and commentaries about them the police looks as if it is playing only the supporting role in a movie that has other, actually far more interesting characters: the protesters versus the government. Police has only an occasional appearance, always seemingly contradictory, morally vague, while the major characters are always either good or bad (depending on who’s suggesting the script).

However, I remember the lynch of the journalist Iva Nikolova at the side entrance of the National Assembly building on the 13th of August 2020. She was shelled with all sorts of foods and called names for working for the explicitly pro-government “PIK” news agency, while at the same time (the exclusively male) cops have received flowers, water bottles or inspirational speeches in the course of the past weeks. As if they don’t officially also work for the government.

I also cannot forget the thrashing of protesters behind the columns of the Council of Ministers. The disciplinary discharges of those four officers are insufficient, the investigation is opaque, and the affected rightfully demand penalties under the Criminal code.

And lately, during the massive protest on the 2nd of September, police officers finally demonstrated that they will not hesitate to break the law (for example, by making random arrests) and that they will not hesitate to use all sorts of crowd control techniques and physical violence. To many people all of this was a shock as it hasn’t happened in many years.

Many put forward a simple, yet compelling argument – that if we had a better government, the police would also have been somewhat better. But is it that simple? The protests made it evident that there is an unvoiced consensus in Bulgaria that we have to talk about the role of police and policing in general –  as an institution and as an ideology. This is what this interview tries to do, as timely as possible, and drawing from the most famous experience globally – that of the U.S. movements.

Stanislav Dodov (SD): I will start our conversation with numbers. The number of “police officers per 100 000 people” is an indicator, often used in Bulgarian public discourse. Every now and then a media or some talking head cite the most recent statistics, conclude that Bulgaria is a “police state” and call for a reform. And indeed, compared according to the latest national data, Bulgaria has 335 police officers per 100 000 people (2016), while the U.S. – “only” 238 (2018). For most people this is an outright evidence that the police is too large and we live in a “police state”. But what do these statistics actually mean?

David Correia (DC): I don’t really think about the police strictly as just uniformed cops at all, or uniformed police as the avatar of all policing. Rather we should see the police as an ensemble of practices and institutions and then trace the networks that these institutions build and develop – how they operate, what their relationship is to the state and capital. Тhat’s what I am more interested in.

Those kinds of rankings usually limit their analysis to what we might call “public police’”, or the officially uniformed police. They don’t count private security which would be hard to count in the U.S., for instance. They also don’t count police informants which are de facto police. For instance facist militias in the U.S. really operate as police, alongside the police, and coordinate with the police. I don’t know if there’s an easy way to make any sort of transnational comparison of the intensity of policing in given societies, but that’s what these rankings are trying to do.

What Tyler and I try to do, and what others have done brilliantly before us, is to point out the role of the police in liberal capitalist democracies as the means by which the state manages the antagonisms and animosities that inevitably erupt in capitalist society. Capital and the State require police to impose order – and this is something we draw from Mark Neocleous, a British scholar of police; the police fabricates social order. Marx writes about this in Capital, Volume I when he writes about primitive accumulation – how does agricultural labor, the serf, become proletarian labor, the wage worker. It is this institution, the police, that manages the mobility of the working poor in order to make them available for wage labor. And then this institutional logic, the logic of the police as the source of order, begins to pervade liberal societies more generally.

SD: In the media it often seems as if if it weren’t for some campaigns against big criminal bosses or networks, or protest situations, or the daily encounters with Traffic police, most police officers really have nothing meaningful to do. There is this very vivid imagery that for the most part policemen are precisely those useless, fat cops who have nothing real to do and the Internet culture loves to mock. 

DC: The focus when confronting the police has to be on actual practices: “What are they really doing?” Let’s find out what they’re doing, let’s see who are they doing it to, and so here in the U.S. we organize with and among the people cops are doing it to. And this seems obvious but the brilliance of democracy is the way it disguises so much of its violence and coercion as something other than violence and coercion, and this of course serves to depict consent as an accomplishment of something other than violence and coercion, and police. This is one reason for the extreme outrage in the U.S. when the police engages in what people consider outrageous and hyper violent acts. It is an outrage based on the absurd notion that police violence is just not supposed to happen in a “free society.”

We cannot only organize around those outrageous examples of police violence, like the pogrom in Bulgaria. [I told David about the case in Gabrovo in the spring of 2019, when police simply observed how Roma houses are being ravaged]. The extraordinary examples of police violence bring people into the streets, and radicalize many people, but we also have to organize around the everyday forms of police violence. This is often hidden from view. 

I am part of a group that goes out onto the street, to talk to people who are daily targets of police, and these are mostly the poor, drug users who live on the street. Many suffer from mental illness. Many in Albuquerque are Native people. And their stories are stories of constant harassment and violence. Yet for most people this is not what the police do. For many people in the U.S., whether conservative or liberal, the police is literally the line between what cops like to call civilization, and savagery. In the U.S. the police call this the “thin blue line”. We spend a lot of time working to undermine that idea, and show that the thin blue line is nothing more than a reactionary ideology. It is reactionary because if cops are the thin blue line between civilization and savagery, then civilization itself is a police accomplishment. Liberals, in particular, subscribe to this notion of the thin blue line. When I talk to liberals about abolishing the police as we know it, their reaction is often “Who do I call?” Our response is usually to ask if they’ve ever called the police for help: “Have you done that before, have you called the police?”, and most reply “Yeah”. “Well, did they help?” we’ll ask. And they’ll usually say “No, they didn’t help.” And yet this doesn’t convince them. Because this idea of the police as the last line against savagery includes within it a mythology of the perfectibility of the police – cops are bad now, liberals will admit, but we’ll fix this and we’ll have this perfect expression of the promise of liberal democratic society. It’s a hard one to get past liberals. One of the ways we do it is by starting with order, instead of law, and then we point out the ways in which the police is a logic of order and that there are institutions that we might understand as policing institutions that aren’t recognizable as policing institutions, but in fact serve a policing function. They fabricate order through coercion or the threat of violence. When we understand the police as being about order, the next question is “In whose interest does this order serve?” Because it is not in everyone’s interest. 

SD: Okay, imagine the following. You come to Sofia, you are a foreigner, you see protests against the government, and they demand resignation and prison (as is the case). And you see these scenes: giving of flowers and water to policemen, speeches, police checking your belongings at the imaginable “entrance” of the protest. What would you think?

DC: Let’s make this simple. If you ever find yourself talking to a cop, you are a police informant; if you find yourself kneeling with the cops at a protest, you are a police reformist; if you find yourself handing flowers to a cop, you are a police supporter. I mean, we are not interested in establishing relations with cops. We are already in a relation and it is one structured by violence and serves the interests of capital and the state. We are not interested in abolishing the rough edges of the police. We are out to bounce the police because police is the linchpin of capitalist relations and all the exploitation that it requires. 

Those who confront the police by seeking friendly relations with police are counterinsurgents. By trying to infect a confrontational, oppositional movement with their liberal bullshit – “Let’s just be nice to these cops!” – that’s a form of counterinsurgency. It undermines the solidarity that anti-police violence movements require. Often these people are confused liberals or free-market libertarians. Sometimes though they know exactly what they are doing, but either way they understand that the order the police imposes serves their interests, and so their opposition is not to the police and policing as an institution, but rather to what they see as the excesses of policing, as if the police isn’t structured by violence. You will never be able to reach those people. Their interests align with the police. The second category is the redeemable category. They may at first share a liberal critique of the police, but they only do so because they don’t yet understand the police, and don’t have the political experience to understand the role of the police in society. They likely have never been targets of police violence, but they protest against the police because they are outraged by the violence they see at a protest, perhaps, and they can’t believe what’s happening. Like many in their position, they think this must be an aberration, and they know only to fix things through liberal politics that require reconciliation. These are the ones who can be radicalized through organizing and education.

SD: Okay, but then how do you organize an effective protest?

DC: There remains a fetish for nonviolence in the U.S. It is largely a liberal fetish. Conservatives condemn violence only when it is used against them. Liberals seem convinced Liberalism somehow magically excised violence from the body politic. It is so profound a notion, and so common in the U.S. that it even exists among more radical lots. But if one takes an honest look at the 1960s era civil rights protests they were anything but nonviolent. Тhe whole point was to provoke cops to behave violently. Тhe idea was to refuse to retaliate, refuse to overtly provoke, and force the world to see how violent the police really are. That’s not a tactic of nonviolence, that’s a tactic to expose violence. The 1960s civil rights movement in the U.S. also included more radical movements organized around self-defense and the use of violence against capital and the state, and it is really only in the wake of the murder of George Floyd that more people on the radical left have returned to this view, have abandoned liberal notions of nonviolence and said “Enough of this fetish! We’re gonna defend ourselves!” Portland, Oregon is the most sustained example of this. Establishment media call this violence but you can even see among them a refusal to just paint it as a violent protest. This is new. And it is not just performative or a tactic of protest. It is clear we have to defend ourselves against the police, and particularly on the streets. Take a look at Belarus –the willingness of the police to use lethal force is unlimited, and it will always happen. We don’t need people to be beaten or killed. This isn’t a public relations campaign. We need to defend ourselves against the police and so now we have to go into these protests prepared for street fighting, against both police and fascists who act with them as de facto police. The benefit of this posture is twofold: first, it establishes the conditions in which young activists can be radicalized. They can see that the police responds with violence even against an explicitly “nonviolent” protest and so we need to defend ourselves; second, it means we are outwardly and openly aggressive toward the police, which requires internal organization and solidarity in order to defend ourselves. This builds solidarity. The first thing we say to young activists is “We’re gonna talk about our own personal security, and then we’re gonna talk about our collective security when we are on the street, and how we’re gonna do it.” And then we organize ourselves in ways that don’t replicate the security state: we are not targeting people, we don’t see every person as a threat or every moment as an emergency as the police do. Rather we see collective solidarity among working people as the source of our safety and security. It is police that is the threat to our communities, and is the police state that is the emergency. And our only defense against this is our collective commitment and internal solidarity to confront it. That is a different posture here in the U.S. than we’ve seen in the recent past. Without this you are not confronting the violence of the police, you are just in a parade, and cops and establishment elites want that parade, they would rather prefer we perform our anger in a parade and then go home. If it is a parade then all we are doing is shoring up the legitimacy of policing and liberal society.

SD: I have to ask you about the current situation with the struggles for police abolition and racial justice in the US. What is happening as of August 2020 and how would you comment on the concrete policy proposals concerning police reform?

There is certainly less attention on the public, collective expressions of outrage following the murder by the Minneapolis police of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many more. There is less coverage but it doesn’t mean it is not sustained.

But we have to talk about the difference between 2014 and 2020. By that brief comparison we could understand a little bit more about the reaction to the protests and the character of the movement here. In the U.S. context I think the first large scale, nation-wide movement that focused very specifically on confronting the police since the 1960s was in 2014 after the police murder of a a Black man named Mike Brown by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri. Тhat outrage was I think something we might call an uprising, and it spread throughout the U.S. But it was a reaction to police violence, and it wasn’t preceded by community organizing, and political organizing around abolitionist politics on police and prisons. Although it existed, there weren’t abolitionist organizations built collectively by activists on the ground all over the U.S. in this sort of wide scale as it is now. Prior to 2014 there were groups like Critical Resistance, activists and scholars like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis and all those who have been working on this for many years. But these movements had not yet reached deeply into local organizing efforts.

Thin Blue Line on September 2nd. 

And so the failures of anti-police violence movements in 2014 to overcome reformist elements on the left was part of why Tyler and I wrote Police: A Field Guide. We watched as police reformists mobilized against more radical elements and quickly co-opted much of the energy of the movement. This has always been the key tactic of police reform: to resolve the crisis of police violence, which they always see as a crisis of police legitimacy, with false promises. And it works. The myth of the thin blue line is compelling and widespread in the U.S. And so instead of confronting the institution of police and policing, reformists demanded better police training, and more oversight of police. It is the “bad apple” narrative that won the day: the problem with police is just a problem of a few “bad apples”. It is a way to avoid the institutional critique.

The difference now is significant. In a lot of cities that erupted in 2014, like Minneapolis, New York, Seattle, and Albuquerque, we have spent years organizing on the ground. Аbolitionist organizers and radical police scholars have been a part of building capacity on the ground to confront both the police and police reformists. And so now we can see networks of abolitionist organizations that build a compelling critique of the institution of policing alongside a real capacity to confront the police in great numbers. None of this was predictable. I was as surprised as anyone at the level of commitment to abolition within movements, how quickly these groups coalesced into a movement that drew in millions of people. In 2014 we were fighting among ourselves and this actually destroyed a lot of the organizations I organized with in Albuquerque. It is difficult work for many reasons but partly because this sort of reformist strain is common even among otherwise committed radical activists and organizers. But this reformist strain is weak in 2020. The calls are not to jail killer cops or reform police, but to defund the police, abolish the police. You will hear enormous crowds chanting “Fuck the police.” We can’t redeem the police or reform it, we have to destroy it. That was not a common position in 2014 like it is today. 

Now this becomes an organizing problem. How do we sustain this? One of the tensions that U.S. anti-police violence movements contend with is the conflict between short-term and long-term goals. The tactics must be different, but it can be difficult to avoid reformist measures. Cops kill, brutalize and harass people on a daily basis. Ours is a movement that seeks the end of policing as we know it, but there is also tomorrow, and the police will kill tomorrow and they will kill the next day. We have to fight for police abolition, but we also need non-reformist reforms that confront the violence today and tomorrow. Non-reformist reform is a silly phrase, but it distinguishes between different kinds of short-term tactics. Reformist reforms such as better police training, or more community oversight, or increased hiring standards do nothing to confront the police as an institution. Non-reformist reforms, on the other hand, rob the police of resources, personnel, and money. We support any proposal that limits the ability of the police to function as it always has. It may not challenge the logic of policing, but it does limit the capacity of police to kill and brutalize and so we support it. The reformist reforms of liberals always expand the scale and scope of the police. The non-reformist reforms abolitionists support the shrinking of the police. So, our short-term goal is shrinking the size, the physical size of the police, the size of their budgets, robbing them of their ability to pervade the lives of the poor. Take police money and use it to build the capacity to replace the police. That is what we are seeing today in 2020 that we didn’t see in 2014. You mentioned Minneapolis, we could also talk about Austin, or we could talk about Seattle or Oakland.

But let’s consider what is happening in Minneapolis and Austin, for example. In these cities, as in New York, there were initial promises by mayors or city councils to cut police budgets. New York claimed it would cut a billion dollars from the police budget. But these claims have been pulled back slowly. What we initially celebrated – the defunding of police budgets in Minneapolis and Austin –now looks more unlikely. There is always a backlash, after all. Minneapolis committed to fully abolishing its police department, which is basically a money question, a fiscal issue: how much of the budget are we gonna pull from it and where are we gonna use it to build alternatives? In other words, what is the alternative to the police? We have to distinguish that from what is happening everywhere else in the country. There are proposals in other cities, including in my own, for alternatives to the police, but they are always housed in the police department. That is not an alternative, that is an expansion, and that is standard reformist stuff designed to ultimately increase the scale of policing. But there are real proposals and commitments by some political leaders working within the system that we can’t ignore. And when we identify these as non-reformist reforms, we must support them. We can’t afford purity politics:  police kill people.

But for the most part there is nothing really concrete yet, and so the protests continue. While Minneapolis voted to defund the department, it is now engaging in a probably year-long planning process which in the U.S. will automatically make room for the kinds of conservative, reactionary, often fascist, forces that will seek to blunt any radical and transformative proposal. So it is hard to predict what Minneapolis will look like, or Austin, which also committed to defunding its police.

But cops are worried about this process. Many cops in the U.S. are quitting policing and departments are having a hard time recruiting cops. It is not an accident that in this moment racist right-wing militia reemerge. Fascists don’t have any clear ideology or thinking. It is a reactionary movement by those who see their interests aligned with police. They live in a world made by the violence of police and they fear it crumbling without police. And so of course they are organizing with the police, defending “property” as the police do. With police under increased scrutiny, militias do the job of police, and now operate as police.

Despite all this, there are real, meaningful political processes unfolding right now that might result in non-reformist reforms, but even accomplishing this small thing requires fighting a really coordinated and growing reactionary backlash fueled by a fascist vigilante groups. They engage in active surveillance, police-like operations. Militias target our organizers and some of our people, often women of color. A fascist militia member shot an anti-police organizer in Albuquerque, and targeted two of our Native organizers [and the recent shooting in Kenosha is also quite telling]. So this is a real, significant part of the backlash today that is different than in the past. We have to fight off the backlash. 

SD: To conclude, what is your take on the following: as radical leftists, why do we have to bother with police abolition at all? Especially for less colonial quarters of the world like Bulgaria this really doesn’t make sense for most people.

The radical left fights on so many fronts, which is one of the things that limit our ability to sustain struggles. We are fighting everywhere all at once, simultaneously. One of the arguments for police abolition at the center of all of these struggles is that there is nothing in liberal democratic capitalist society that isn’t stitched together by policing. If you care about housing, food, if you care about migrants, if you care about… you name it, that fight is a fight against police. And so you can’t say “Well, we gotta stop focusing on police cause we gotta start worrying about people being evicted from their homes.” Well, who’s evicting them? Police are. “We can’t focus on the police because we need a focus on the criminalization of migrants at the border.” Well, who’s arresting them, beating them, criminalizing them? The police. People say “Well, don’t forget prisons, we gotta focus on that.” Who do you think brings people to prison? Cops do. We have to understand the police as the institution that holds together everything that makes capitalism possible. Police as logic and as institution is the central productive fact of capitalist society. They are not a sideshow and they didn’t come after. There is no capitalism without cops.

This interview is also available in the Bulgarian language.

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