For Abolition: Prisons and Police Are More Than Brutality, They're State Terror


Frank Castro I Criminal Justice I Analysis I November 4th, 2016



In his speech "Terrorism: Theirs and Ours," now deceased Professor Eqbal Ahmad elucidated five types of terrorism: state, religious, mafia, pathological, and political terror of the private group. Of these types, the focus in mainstream political discourse and media has almost always centered itself on discussion of just one: "political terror of the private group"-organizations like al-Qaida, the Taliban, and ISIS. But as Ahmad ( and Ben Norton ) pointed out, this is "the least important in terms of cost to human lives and human property." Rarely discussed is state terror, which has the highest cost in terms of human lives and property. According to Norton, Professor Ahmad estimated that the disparity of "people killed by state terror versus those killed by individual acts of terror is, conservatively, 100,000 to one."

Undoubtedly, the professor's observations were meant to provide insight into the material costs of global militarism, where millions, if not billions, have found themselves caught in-between or on the receiving end of state domination. While this may invoke imagery of American drones scalping the Middle East and North Africa for resources, its aircraft carriers patrolling international waters, or even thousands of refugees huddled into camps outside cities under siege, these are only instances of the United States' most visible crimes. They are the sites of its most demonstrative, and yet least diffuse, violence. In the turmoil and spectacle of U.S. foreign policy, often other forms of state terror remain relatively unknown, their intersections with overarching structures of oppression obscured beneath overt cruelty.

But Professor Ahmad's analysis of state violence can be applied directly to operations within state borders as much as it can be applied internationally. Militarism outside America, paired with its domestic institutions of terror, ought to be viewed inseparably as two sides of the same coin. Here, imperial power compliments prisons and policing as institutions for producing obedient, governable subjects, both locally and globally. It does so in a variety of ways: By supplying local police departments with an ever-escalating arsenal of repression, by constantly reconstructing the context for social control, and by extending white supremacy and colonial rule into the 21st century. Combined, governments like the United States' have been responsible for far more terror than any private group, possibly, in history.

Our task is to understand and to decide what we are going to do about it.


Bigger Than Police

Though widely used, "police brutality" is an isolated term. In some ways, and for many people, it obscures the more encompassing descriptor of state terror. Criticizing police is not necessarily an indictment of America's entire patriarchal, white, and capitalist power structure, but rather it pinpoints only that structure's enforcers. It compartmentalizes state violence and creates a focal point that, perhaps, is more comfortable since it feels manageable, more capable of bringing in line with a vision of the world that is not so painful that we can move through it without feeling its weight. On the other hand, "state terror" drafts far more questions into our hearts, the answers to which would indict everything about the world in which we live. And like Pandora's Box, once you see you can never again claim ignorance.

Police are meant to enforce the law. But law in any society reflects the values and prejudices of the empowered class, and therefore provides a measure of control to its benefactors. Crimes in Western society have ranged from atheism to murder, homosexuality to bribery, miscegenation to sedition. The intent of bourgeois law has been to uphold a specific moral code inline with a patriarchal, white, and capitalist status quo. And though criminal acts are committed by all sorts of people, the overwhelming number arrested, convicted, and imprisoned are poor, Black, Brown, Native, and/or LGBTQIA. They are disproportionately imprisoned not because they are "criminal" and white, upper class people are not, but because they have been made "targets of "law enforcement" and are discriminated against by police, by courts, and within prisons."

We have long known that police have been, first and foremost, an institution of terror erected to control the political and economic potential of the labor class in the North and slaves in the South. In the Carolinas in particular, slave patrols modeled the evolution of its police force by providing a form of organized deterrence to potential runaways and slave revolts. Yet a critique of police alone is insufficient if it does not dislodge the entire edifice which mandates its existence. Our analysis must include a broader view of state violence which challenges its moral and ideological underpinnings, and which excavates its techniques of power from the imperial to the interpersonal. After the death of TT Saffore, a Black, trans woman from Chicago, organizers published a statement that captures the scope necessary to reimagine a world without police:

"State violence is more than just police shootings. It is the police and prison systems themselves. It is the criminalizing of sex work, of the survivors of abuse. It is a legal order which treats Black, trans, and cis women who defend their lives as insolent, in need of punishment. It is homelessness. It is the calculated impoverishing of Black communities. It is the closing of public schools and mental health clinics, the slashing of HIV prevention and other healthcare services, while militarization devours the lion's share of public funds. It is gentrification. It is the poisoning of natural resources. It is all the structures-including the police and prison systems-which uphold and depend on violent masculinity, reinforcing the disposability of women and femmes, of trans and [gender nonconforming] communities, of the earth itself."


From Battlefield to Battlefield

War profiteering has a formulaic pattern. No conflict? No problem. The Pentagon will just create one and enrich a tiny minority (remember the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein had " weapons of mass destruction "). The pattern continues by pointing out the devastation of war, then, like a revolving door, it uses the conflict it stirs as justification for more. This is how the United States has been embroiled in the Middle East for the better part of 50 years, how it armed and supported Osama bin Laden as a " freedom fighter " against the Soviets only to later have cultivated the forefathers of al-Qaida and ISIS. Meanwhile, weapons manufacturers have steadily supplied arsenals to the battlefield, and like any capitalist enterprise, it requires new markets-and new battlefields-to survive.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon introduced the ultimate market to arms manufacturers. The "War on Drugs" provided increased federal funding to local police departments. But more importantly, in 1990 Congress enacted the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which enabled the Secretary of Defense to "transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is-(A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense." Section 1208 states further, under the "Conditions for Transfer," that any property transferred must be "drawn from existing stocks," meaning any purchased surplus can be offloaded to local police agencies with little to no obstruction.

The consequences of which have been far reaching. Today, municipal police departments serve as a release valve for the overflow of military grade weapons produced by arms manufacturers. Amended versions of the NDAA have provided local law enforcement agencies with armored personnel vehicles, grenade launchers, high-caliber assault rifles, and an ever-escalating stockpile of combat-ready equipment. It is not just weapons either. Imperial war has imported the ideology of military combat, blurring the distinction between the "Rule of Law" and the "Rules of Engagement," and brought it to bear upon the intimate details of everyday life. We have seen an escalation of military-styled "special ops" teams within police agencies, the dismantling of the 4th amendment, and heightened advocacy for complete submission to the state in the name of national security, no matter how intrusive.

But no matter what manifestation state violence takes, as physician Gabor Maté accurately observed, it is never waged against inanimate objects, it is waged against people. In the case of the "War on Drugs," "we are warring on the most abused and vulnerable segments of the population," an observation that remains true internationally as well. If there were no wars waged against the most vulnerable of the planet, none to constantly supply with arms to subjugate the poor, it stands likely that there would be drastically less weapons to be wielded against the addicted and destitute in our streets.


Expanding State Terror

As New York State prisoner David Gilbert noted, there is simply no way the "War on Drugs" was a "well-intentioned mistake" with Prohibition having proven such an abysmal failure. Rather, he writes, it "was conceived to mobilize the U.S. public behind greatly increased police powers, used to cripple and contain the Black and Latinx communities, and exploited to expand the state's repressive power." Gilbert's poignant observations notwithstanding, the "War on Drugs" did not mark the first time U.S. government used drugs as an instrument to develop state dominance. It has been done many times before. In " Drug Wars," Professor Curtis Marez demonstrates how the United States has historically wielded the drug trade not to end it, but to channel its flow in order to enhance imperial power:

"The use of drug traffic to support the state is evident in a number of ways. First, the United States has supported drug traffic to finance imperial wars. U.S. participation in the cocaine trade as a means for funding rightwing military proxies such as the Contras could be viewed as the refinement and expansion of the strategies first deployed during the Vietnam War, in which the United States promoted heroin trade in order to support anti-communist Hmong forces in Laos. Second, at the same time as it fostered drug traffic internationally, the state used the "drug problem" as an excuse for the criminalization and suppression of domestic dissent… And finally, the United States has indirectly promoted drug consumption as a method for controlling people of color… Drugs have been deployed, in other words, as weapons of counterinsurgency that aimed to dissipate or sedate oppositional energies."

The techniques of wielding the drug trade have roots closer than Vietnam or Central America. They rest in U.S. attempts to disrupt and destroy indigeneity, first with alcohol through the 1800s, but more recently through substances such as peyote. By prohibiting or restricting access to drugs, government creates the pretext for selective enforcement and criminalization, and ultimately generates substantial leverage for social control. Marez reveals the circularity of this process, noting that "criminalization generates the very forms of criminality it is supposedly mean to prevent, which in turn provides new opportunities for further criminalization." In other words, "the law does not work simply through the prohibition of crime" but also through a "production of criminality" placed principally upon minorities.

Political prisoner Leonard Peltier once wrote, "When you grow up Indian, you don't have to become a criminal, you already are a criminal." Through the drug trade, U.S. government has effectively marketed the policing and imprisonment of minorities as the key to public safety, and therefore marked them as targets of state terror. This unearths how Native men can be incarcerated at four times the rate of white men, how Native women can be incarcerated at six times the rate of white women. It demonstrates how the flooding of crack cocaine into Black communities during the '70s correlated with a sharp increase in minimum sentencing laws that helped put 1.7 million Black people under some form of correctional control. It reveals how native Hawaiians, who represent just 20 percent of the state's population, can comprise 40 percent of the its incarcerated.

It also explains, in part, how America's imprisoned population exploded to 2.4 million since the start of Nixon's "War on Drugs"- an increase of 700% . But mass incarceration, like most drug policy, has little to do with safety and everything to do with the maintenance and expansion of state power. With the exception of capital punishment, the ability to revoke a person's freedom, to condemn one to a lifetime in a cage, is the ultimate exercise of state violence. To visit Michel Foucault's seminal text " Discipline and Punish," "There can be no doubt that the exercise of the [state] in the punishment of crime is one of the essential parts of the administration of justice. […] The right to punish… is an aspect of the [state's] right to make war on [its] enemies: to punish belongs to 'that absolute power of life and death.'"

As we have seen, however, when "crime" is engineered around selective enforcement it is constructed to control the political and economic aspirations, and the very bodies, of the oppressed. Indeed, of minorities and the poor it fashions enemies of the state with the intent to exercise terror. From the origins of police, to the school-to-prison-pipeline, to the vast network of U.S. incarceration, this has been the enduring legacy of the American judicial system-not safety, and certainly not justice. For the legal system which reigns over the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised has not been of their own design, but was created entirely by a white, patriarchal upper class that is incapable of expressing anything but malcontent for those whom struggle against it.


Follow the Money

Answering a nation-wide call to stop prison slavery, September 9, 2016 marked the beginning of the largest prison strike in U.S. history. According to Popular Resistance, an estimated "72,000 incarcerated workers in 22 states refused to provide their labor to profit the prison industrial complex." One of the first of its kind, the nationally coordinated effort has targeted combating what many workers identify as slave-like labor conditions. The U.S. Constitution's Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, at least partially, but it left a loophole for people convicted of crimes. This means that prison workers can legally be paid little to nothing for their labor. Prison administrators, in response, have attempted to break the strike by shutting-off access and communication to the outside world.

Private prisons have morphed into a multi-billion dollar industry since the "War on Drug" started. The companies reaping the largest profits from America's prison industry are Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), operating upwards of a 170 incarceration facilities with juvenile and undocumented detention centers included. Earlier this year the Guardian reported that "CCA made revenues of $1.79bn in 2015, up from $1.65bn in 2014," while "Geo Group made revenues of $1.84bn, a 9% increase on the previous year." How the private prison industry continues to increase profits can be explained in one of two ways: Increasing the incarcerated workforce (meaning jail more people) or squeezing existing laborers for more production. For many years it has pursued both.

Of course, it is not just private prisons that incentivize incarceration. There is an entire supporting cast dedicated to its proliferation as well: The aerospace industry and arms manufacturers (which supply drug enforcement planes, helicopters, drones, armored vehicles, weapons, ammunition, and surveillance technology), chemical companies (which produce the poisons often used to sedate and execute prisoners, as well as the tear gas used in prison strikes and protests), the bail bonds industry (which finance the ability or inability for a person to await trial in or out of jail), U.S. banks (which launder billions of dollars for drug cartels and finance the prison industry), and of course numerous politicians (which accept money from these industries in exchange for pushing favorable legislation).

The end result is a sprawling cornucopia of state violence supported at every level of America's social structure-and which relies principally on police for enforcement. After all, we should never forget that every single person convicted for a violent or a non-violent crime, every single person wrongly convicted, every single person corralled for simply being different or standing up for justice, every single person unable to navigate poverty, homelessness, or addiction, who is placed in a cage to work in servitude or slavery, was put there by a cop. It follows that if ever we are to mobilize to dismantle mass incarceration, it must also be a movement to extract the final breath from policing itself, and to abolish for all time every manifestation of state terror.


Towards Abolition

In the struggle for freedom, an abolitionist framework is indispensable. It enables us to identify the correlations between the imperial, the police, and the prison, and to say the name of its intersections aloud. Doing so illuminates how separate deployments of state terror scaffold each other: how, like a relay race that never stops, each cannot begin or end with itself but must always recruit and pass on power. It also teaches us how to better build and sustain the communities necessary to fight back, and how to generate movements that do not create silos of resistance but identify fulcrums to dismantle oppression for the benefit of all. As Dan Berger wrote, abolition "pushes us to think and act better than the systems that confine, cage, and kill," and it "names a past as well as a future: it reminds us… that structures of violence have a beginning and can therefore have an ending."

Because the edifice of state violence rests atop a myriad of oppressions, accepting that any effort to uproot the entanglements of its power centers on confronting dangerously racist, gendered, and classist hierarchies is the first step towards abolition. It recognizes that battles will be waged both within ourselves, as we attempt to deconstruct everything we once believed about policing and incarceration, and in the world around us as we confront state institutions with our minds, our energy, and our bodies. And though our task is enormous, we cannot let the daunting reality of our ambition swallow us. If ever we feel lonely, it is not a testament to our inability to impact the world, it is a testament to the need for connection. The place where we realize our fullest capacity to generate change is in communion with each other.

In 1974, Ursula K. Le Guin reminded us that collective strength is the only path towards freedom: "The individual cannot bargain with the State," she said. "The State recognizes no coinage but power: and it issues the coins itself." When we understand the magnitude of state terror, we must remember that we are not meant to suddenly feel inspired to challenge it alone. There is an unavoidable degree of loneliness and helplessness embedded within its realization. And refusing to confront these feelings is part of how the system functions to subvert resistance, by substituting isolation and alienation for opportunities to collectively learn, live, and fight for freedom in ways we may have never dreamed possible. But we must always reserve room in our hearts to build bridges-too many depend on us for it.

In the words of prisoners themselves:

"We need support from people on the outside. A prison is an easy-lockdown environment, a place of control and confinement where repression is built into every stone wall and chain link, every gesture and routine. When we stand up to these authorities, they come down on us, and the only protection we have is solidarity from the outside. Mass incarceration, whether in private or state-run facilities is a scheme where slave catchers patrol our neighborhoods and monitor our lives. It requires mass criminalization. Our tribulations on the inside are a tool used to control our families and communities on the outside. Certain Americans live every day under not only the threat of extra-judicial execution… but also under the threat of capture, of being thrown into these plantations, shackled and forced to work."

Abolition, then, is the only answer to a system whose currency is terror.