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To the 'progressive mainstream', re. the police

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

In this post, I want to address a certain subset of people who have progressive politics of one sort or another, and I want to make one fairly narrow point about the police and affiliated institutions and challenge you to think about what implications it might have.

Before I make that point, I want to stress that I am not making it with reference to any one context or incident. Certainly I have encountered various contexts, local and not, to which this might be relevant, plus endless articles, posts, and analyses found online, and more than a few conversations in a wide range of settings. If you think what I have to say is relevant to some specific context, by all means take it up, apply it to that context, and see if it's useful. But that's not what I'm doing here. Also, I'm specifically addressing progressives, but that's not at all to deny that there's also lots critical that could be said about different ways that (privileged) people with more radical visions for change relate to policing, but that generally plays out a bit differently and I want to stay focused on one key point.

And the point is this: The subset of progressive folks I'm talking to are the many of you who, in your daily lives, experience the police as an institution you mostly don't think about at all, or one that you think about only when something ranging from unfortunate to awful has happened and you want or need their intervention, at which point you feel reasonably confident that they will do things to address whatever your need is. As a middle-class, cis, white guy, this is the experience that I grew up with too. A lot of people, though, don't share that experience of police, courts, and so on. For a lot of people, their experience of police is as a source of potential or actual violence.

I'm raising this because in writing and talking about the world, and in orienting, planning, and executing political interventions in the world, the subset of people with progressive politics whom I'm addressing in this post often treat the former sort of experience as the only one that exists or perhaps the only one that matters, and erase or ignore the latter sort of experience. I want to challenge that subset of progressive folks to stop erasing and ignoring that reality -- the reality that the police are in large part experienced as a source of violence by a lot of people -- and really start to think about what that has to mean for how you think society should respond to various issues, for how people should organize events and actions, and for how people should envision efforts to create social change.

And, really, the rest of this post is just caveats and provisos.

Denying that this point is true is not an acceptable response. Educate yourself. There is endless writing, from first-hand accounts to journalism to scholarly work, that you can use to do this. And if you stick to the "this isn't a real thing" response, you are taking a stand that the experiences of lots of marginalized people really do deserve to be erased and ignored.

Claiming it is because of "a few bad apples" on the police side does not make the issue go away. Certainly, different officers do their work in different ways, and nothing in this post is meant as a comment on the virtues or vices of any individual police officer. As well, there is some variation in organizational culture across different police organizations. But it goes back to "educate yourself" -- this is too widespread and systemic to be dismissed as a few incidents of bad behaviour by a few bad individuals that have been blown out of proportion.

Claiming that to the extent that such violence does happen, it is a result of problems in the communities that are thus marginalized and not anything wrong with the social organization of policing, is taking an awful, victim-blaming stance that should exclude you summarily from any legitimacy in talking about things like "social justice."

Saying, "Well I have this friend X who is part of group Y and s/he has never had any problems with the police" does not make this go away either. Experiences vary, ways of navigating them vary, and that's fine, but it is not reasonable to hold up one person's testimony to dismiss massive evidence of a systemic problem.

And of course exactly how this plays out varies with time and place. For instance, I think it was Bonita Lawrence's book 'Real' Indians and Others that drove home for me that indigenous experiences of racialization in Canada, including experiences of systemic violence from police and the so-called 'justice' system, vary a great deal in different parts of the country. And I don't know as much about it as I should, but it is my sense that struggles by Black communities and allies in Toronto in the '80s and '90s won some reforms that made at least certain kinds of improvements, though not nearly enough, and I believe that at least some of those were wiped out by subsequent governments. And I know that the experience of, say, middle-class white cis gay men with police is, on average, vastly different today than 30 or 40 years ago. So, yes, there is variation, and struggle can accomplish a great deal, but using that to segue into a superficial acknowledgement of the problem followed by "we're working on it" is not an adequate answer either -- diverse indigenous and Black and Latino/a communities across North America, people experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness, and sex workers, among others, have been engaged in related struggles for centuries, and progressive people who do not have this experience of police have been expressing shock and concern and a hope it will all be better soon for just as long, yet it persists. Struggle on these issues is crucial, but it is something that is deeply enough rooted that failure to see it as a fundamental feature of policing is just another form of erasure.

And in presenting this challenge, I'm not saying there is only one answer, and I'm not saying that it's not complicated. Any useful conversation about how exactly to respond to this reality has to be grounded in a real context and has to foreground the voices of those most affected. And it must be a conversation, because people who experience the police to a significant degree as a source of violence have a range of different ways of navigating that at the individual level, and have had a range of different approaches to challenging it collectively. I have my own thoughts on the different impacts that different approaches might make, and in the right contexts I don't shy away from expressing those thoughts, but I also recognize that it's not my place to try and pre-empt on-the-ground decision-making about it or to act like I know more than I do.

And so: Systemic violence from police is a fact of life for many people across North America. It has been for centuries, and it continues to be so today. Yet in lots of progressive contexts, police are treated as mostly or entirely positive -- as an institution that may sometimes be somewhat offputting, but that is a way to address certain kinds of problems and meet certain kinds of needs. Police are physically invited into lots of progressive spaces, and are invited to partner in various sorts of progressive initiatives. Conversations that might touch on policing, either directly or indirectly, are often organized such that there is simply no room for people to share experiences of or analysis based on this reality of ongoing systemic police violence -- or that go beyond "no room" to being actively unsafe. Sometimes, there is a certain recognition of why some people might have misgivings about the police, but that is often kept carefully separate from consideration of the implications of various progressive policy positions and their relationship to policing and broader forms of state violence, of who gets invited into what spaces (and who is thereby excluded), of how organizing happens, and of how conversations about various issues are organized (and, again, what and who is thereby excluded).

I'm not saying never engage with police if it seems like a way to make people's lives more liveable. I'm not saying such choices are obvious or easy or straightforward. But very often, the practices in the paragraph just above end up excluding and silencing. They often reinforce marginalization and even violence. Even if they are (or seem to be) doing good things in other ways.

So at the very least -- and there is lots more to say about what kinds of responses might actually be adequate -- people who are privileged enough in our everyday lives not to relate to the police as being a significant source of violence need to start doing the work to figure out what it really means that lots of people do experience the police that way. Listen carefully. Find things to read and educate ourselves. Be willing to question our existing political assumptions. (For me, things written by radical indigenous women and women of colour who work to hold state violence as central while figuring out how to organize around various other issues as well has been very important to thinking through these things, though I can't lay any claim to how much of that I've really absorbed or how effectively I've translated it into everyday or collective political practices, so you should go directly to the sources and wrestle with what they have to say.)

What should it all mean for movements and organizations, both progressive and radical? What would it mean to refuse to be complicit in reproducing that marginalization, silencing, erasure, and -- yes -- violence?

It's only once we've admitted and begun to internalize its implications that we can start to ask deeper questions that go far beyond this post -- not only dealing with the fact that another core police function is (in some circumstances) using coercion and violence to respond to struggles for social justice, but also things like thinking through the ways in which our everyday experience not only avoids systemic violence from police, courts, and other elements of the Canadian state, but actually depends on others (and Others) being targeted by exactly that violence. But those are topics for another day.

Scott Neigh is a writer, media producer, and activist based in Sudbury, Ontario. He is the producer and host of Talking Radical Radio, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.


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scott.neigh (Scott Neigh)
Sudbury
Member since Septembre 2012

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I am a writer, parent, and activist living in Sudbury, Ontario. For more of my writing, see my personal blog (at http://scottneigh.blogspot.com) and the site devoted to the work I've done focused on the voices of participants in Canadian social movements (at http://talkingradical.ca) which so far has resulted in two books looking at Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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