Academic journal article Capital & Class

Pacification and Police: A Critique of the Police Militarization Thesis

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Pacification and Police: A Critique of the Police Militarization Thesis

Article excerpt

Introduction

This article offers a critique of the claim that in recent decades policing in liberal democracies, and particularly in the United States, has become 'militarized'. The argument about militarization postulates an ideal of consensual policing, which has been corrupted into aggressive actions which see the 'boys in blue' at war with the citizens they are supposed to protect. Although the concept of police militarization has been used by scholars from across the political spectrum, some of the most vocal proponents, especially in terms of media coverage, have been right-wing libertarians. As we will argue, this is indicative of the liberal underpinnings of the police militarization concept, which is based upon an ideological distinction between domestic and international conflict, and between the state and capital. By contrast, using the concept of pacification, we argue that the police institution in liberal democracies is an instrument of class rule and social domination which uses subtle forms of social control, in tandem with violence, in the interests of state and capital. This is not to make the crude functionalist argument that the police simply exist because of class repression or to make the uncontroversial claim that the police are a coercive institution, which even liberal thinkers would concede. Rather, we want to argue that focusing on the question of how police are militarized is the wrong question, as it is focused upon establishing categorical distinction between war and policing. By contrast, we argue that police and military distinctions in liberal democracies should be understood as part of a continuum of state power, in which domestic social control and international warfare build and secure capitalist order. Our article unpacks the liberal concepts of war and peace, which under-gird police militarization and then contest this from two angles. First, we explore how police and military power have historically been linked in liberal state power. Second, we will argue that the distinction between police and military power emerges from liberalism's omission of how war is imbricated within the everyday social relations and governance of capital.

The police militarization thesis

The concept of police militarization has gained traction through spectacular acts of violence, such as in the draconian police responses to protests associated with the Occupy movement in 2011 and the 2014 urban revolt sparked by the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Events in Ferguson inspired a wave of media coverage, which claimed that American cities are increasingly being treated as warzones, with accompanying pictures of camouflaged police threatening protesters juxtaposed alongside military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (Mashable 2014). Following the Ferguson rebellion, calls to 'demilitarize' the police by liberal and conservative politicians, journalists, academics, policy analysts, civil liberty groups, and activists gained national attention, with even the US Senate holding hearings on the issue.

A sample of some of the depictions of police militarization gives a sense of the diverse arrays of political perspectives, which have converged on this idea. From voices within the leftist and alternative media, we read about how police departments have used government grants to 'stockpile combat gear' (DemocracyNow 2011), and 'been mobilized into a war' (Bruce 2013) which fails to distinguish between dangerous criminals and the public they are supposed to defend, and the incorporation of technologies designed for overseas combat into 'domestic policing' (Zlutnick 2013). From within mainstream liberalism, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) produced an extensive report called War Comes Home, which concluded with suggestions for more restrained policing honouring the 'mission to protect and serve rather than to wage war' (ACLU 2014: 45). Norm Stamper (2011), the former police chief of Seattle, has expressed regret for overseeing a violent clampdown during the 1999 Anti-World Trade Organization protests by warning of the emergence of an 'abusive, militaristic force--not just during demonstrations but every day, in neighbourhoods across the country'. …

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