The Police State Has To Go! : An Interview with Kristian Williams
Humboldt Grassroots member Owl, Interviewed Kristian Williams author and long time member of Rose City Cop Watch. (http://www.kristianwilliams.com/ )10-7-2014
Owl: In your books Hurt and American Methods, you describe how law enforcement tactics are primarily used for intimidation and suppression of dissent, rather than actually preventing crime. How do these methods of control play out in our everyday lives?
In American Methods, and then in the collection Hurt, I focus specifically on torture. Largely I was driven to write on the subject because of the irresponsible way the Abu Ghraib scandal was being reported in the media. When those photos were released and Americans were confronted with this visceral evidence of torture, the dominant narrative treated it as some sort of anomaly –as though this handful of soldiers were somehow just uniquely sadistic. Every effort was made to divorce the abuse captured in those photos from the Bush administration’s policy decisions, and the nature of the invasion and occupation, and the institutional culture of the military. I wanted to push back on that. But I also wanted to push further. I wanted to show how those abuses connected to similar things done domestically, in prisons and at the hands of the police, and to consider what that might tell us about the nature of the state itself. What I found is, not only is torture much more common than we would like to think, but we can also find traces of it — or its threat — in many of the day-to-day operations of coercive institutions. Police make implicit (or sometimes explicit) threats in interrogation, they use “pain compliance” techniques to make people follow orders, they tighten handcuffs too tightly — which can cause a loss of circulation, and even nerve damage — to punish people for mouthing off. And then there’s the use of tasers and pepper spray against people who pose no credible threat, and sometimes people who have already been restrained. None of that is even out of the ordinary. In prisons, the list could be extended almost endlessly — strip searches, sleep deprivation, multi-point restraints, solitary confinement, rape. What I mean is, pain and humiliation are largely how those institutions work. How that affects your everyday life will depend, maybe more than anything else, on how privileged you are. If you’re a well-off white person, you may never even think about it. You surely know that police and prisons exist, and maybe you have some vague idea that they sometimes do bad things; or maybe you think they keep you safe — and yeah, depending on your race and class position, that may even be true. On the other hand, if you’re poor or a person of color — and especially if you’re poor and a person of color — it’s going to be a totally different story. There’s a good chance that you’d experience the criminal legal system as a permanent threat, with a realistic expectation that it doesn’t just promise arrest and imprisonment, but direct physical pain as well. Of course, that’s at the individual level. Socially, these institutions and their tactics help to maintain a system of stratification based on race and class, and that system determines practically everything about our daily lives — where we live, where we travel, who our friends are, what we do for work, our education, the quality of our health care, even our aspirations.
Owl: How do police enforce social hierarchy?
In Our Enemies in Blue, I argued that the main function of the police is to preserve existing inequalities, especially those based on race and class. That’s clear from the history, from use of force statistics, and it’s pretty obvious if you just look at who’s in prison. And that function informs everything they do, at every level — at the level of the officer on the street, at the level of department policy, at the level of the institution’s evolution. So for example, and most obviously, they maintain the hierarchy by enforcing laws that are themselves biased. I mean, it’s hardly a secret that, taken as a whole, the laws have a way of serving the interests of the rich. And then some laws specifically target poor people — laws against panhandling or sleeping on sidewalks, for example. I argue in the book that the whole concept of “public order,” as it’s generally understood, involves a large element of class and race bias, as the standards of order are typically the standards of the white (and historically, Protestant) middle and upper classes, and the job of the police is to impose them on communities that are poorer, Black, immigrant (and historically, Catholic). Then there’s the demonstrable fact that, even if the laws were somehow neutral, the enforcement is anything but. Police pay disproportionate attention to people who are relatively powerless — people of color and the poor especially. They stop them, search them, arrest them, hurt them, and kill them more than you’d expect just looking at the population statistics. That behavior doesn’t necessarily depend on the individual prejudices of the officers. It’s just that if you make trouble for powerful people, they’re likely to give you trouble back; if you make trouble for powerless people, you’re more likely to be rewarded. So the cops try to do their job in a way that maximizes the rewards and minimizes the hassle, which means they focus on powerless people, which in turn helps to keep those people powerless.
Owl: It’s clear that police enforce class and racial hierarchy. How do police enforce gender hierarchy?
They do, but not in the same way. Disproportionately — by a pretty wide margin — the police target men. Men are far more likely than women to be arrested, incarcerated, beaten, or killed by the cops. That’s not to say that women don’t suffer those same abuses; they do, but at lower rates. There are historical reasons for that: women have typically been disciplined more by other institutions, like mental hospitals or the family. Of course the police had a role there, too, facilitating the power of fathers and husbands by ignoring domestic violence. There’s also a patriarchal aspect to the public order question I was talking about a minute ago. The standards of order the police enforce, and the morality underlying those standards, historically entailed very strict gender roles, and to a lesser degree still do. Laws against cross-dressing have mostly fallen out of fashion, but the cops still treat transgender and other queer people as being suspicious as such. Women out alone at night — especially women of color — are pretty likely to be viewed by the cops as prostitutes. And, as far as that goes, the whole definition of prostitution as a police matter comes down to a question of enforcing sexual morality, the burden of which mostly falls on women. In general the history of public order policing was that it greatly limited the space available for women in public life, and left virtually no space for queers at all. That’s on top of the well-understood race and class biases. And then there are the police abuses that primarily affect women — like sexual harassment, inappropriate searches (including strip searches), sexual assault, and even rape. And again, our society being stratified as it is, the cops are far more likely to try that shit against women who are already marginalized in other ways — because of their race, poverty, immigration status, disability, and so on. Finally, there’s the awkward fact that when people offer the criminal justice system as a solution to sexual assault, domestic violence, forced prostitution, and rape, they’re essentially saying that the answer to male violence is more male violence. Violence here becomes a contest between men over the rights of women. Women are cast as passive victims, waiting to be saved — or not.
Owl: Restorative justice and transformative justice are the frameworks proposed to replace the current “injustice system” of police and prisons. What are they and how do they work?
If we’re serious about our anti-police, anti-prison politics, it’s important to come up with something that provides for safety but doesn’t reproduce the state’s punitive logic. So rather than approaching justice as a matter of catching bad guys and making them pay, transformative justice looks to repair harm done (so far as possible), and change the personal and social dynamics producing it. That means working with perpetrators to change their behavior, and working with communities to change the culture. Of course there’s no one correct way to do that. What works, or doesn’t, will depend very much on the context.
Owl: Does the radical movement already have alternatives to calling the police? Of course. Everybody does. In society as a whole, doing nothing is the most common response to crime. Most crime goes unreported. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I think the main one is that people don’t think the cops are going to help. And mostly they’re right. Another very common response to crime is simply more crime — individual acts of retaliation, group vendettas, that kind of thing. I think both the advantages and disadvantages of that approach are pretty clear. More useful, I think, are things like self-defense, or interrupting violence directly (for example, by breaking up a fight) — or better still, mediating conflicts before they escalate to that point. And then there are simple things like checking in with your drunk friends at a party and making sure they get home all right, or letting someone stay at your house if they don’t feel safe with their partner. I think there are two points to be made here. The first is that those are the sorts of things that people do all the time. The second is that the most successful alternatives to policing generally don’t get thought of in those terms because they intervene early enough that things never reach the point that cops would have seemed like a option. It’s much better to prevent a crisis than to respond to one.
Owl: Can a community currently help people with mental illness without using the police or prisons?
Sure, I think that’s mostly a matter of seeing what support people need and helping them get their needs met. That doesn’t just mean finding them counseling or whatever — that may not be what they need or want. It may mean something like offering to babysit their kids, so they can have some time to themselves. It may mean helping them break down a large task that feels overwhelming and seems impossible — like moving, or finding a job — into smaller tasks that feel more manageable. In our society, that sort of support is usually provided by friends and family, which poses all sort of difficulties if those people are also overburdened and there aren’t additional resources. It should also be pointed out, in this context, that most mentally ill people aren’t dangerous, even to themselves. At present, mental illness is seen as a police problem partly because other services have been defunded, and partly because harmless but abnormal behavior is criminalized. In Portland, where I live, there was a case a few years ago where the cops beat and killed a mentally ill man named James Chasse. Chasse wasn’t a criminal; he wasn’t even a suspect, in any real sense. The cops said later that they saw him on the street and thought he was acting “just odd.” So they approached him. He ran, they chased him. And when they caught him they beat him to death. Looking at this situation objectively: James Chasse was no threat to public safety, but the police really were.
Owl: Anarchists believe that community is based on strong relationships rather than a collection of people. What are some good ways of addressing social problems that build a stronger community?
In the long run, it’s the practice of working shit out together, even when it’s hard, even when people disagree — or especially then. I think we have to start by recognizing everyone’s humanity — victims, perpetrators, witnesses, the people who intervene. Literally, everyone. We also have to remember that the community isn’t just the people you happen to like. It’s your cranky neighbor, and the person who delivers the mail, and the people who go to the church down the street, and the kid who stole your bike. Community isn’t just the people you choose to relate to; even more it’s those people you can’t choose not to relate to, at least in some fashion. This is more than just a semantic question. If by “building community” we mean only our narrow friend group, then the anarchist movement will become increasingly isolated from our neighbors, families, co-workers and, in short, the rest of society. We’ll become more and more insular, irrelevant, and vulnerable to attack. Obviously, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t take care of their friends, form stronger ties with people they agree with ideologically, and all that sort of thing. But our political networks need to be rooted in the larger community. We need to look out as well as in. You’re right, of course, that a community is something more than a random assortment of people. It has to be built and sustained. Our society, especially in cities, and maybe even more so in suburbs, tends to be very isolating, very fragmented. The community ties are weak; people feel alone and powerless. Where we build stronger ties, where people know each other and know how to work together, that can change. When we build community, we also build a form of power. The state is very aware of that, and a lot of the practice of counterinsurgency is a matter of deciding which types of community — and therefore also, which types of power — to let develop. “Community policing”, in its fullest sense, is a strategy for fostering the types of community that the cops can control, those that provide them with support, intelligence, and legitimacy; and simultaneously, they try to disrupt those types of community that might form a basis for resistance. Our job, I think, is to do the reverse. As we do so, it will certainly help if we keep anarchist principles in mind: solidarity, mutual aid, reciprocity. Those don’t just characterize the kind of society we’d like to create; they are also the means by which we will build it.
Owl:People protested you at the Law and Disorder Conference because of an article calling out call-out culture and politics of denunciation. Can you tell us why they did that?
Well, the article was called the “Politics of Denunciation,” and you can find it at the Toward Freedom website. The point I was trying to make in it was that the tendency to denounce and exclude people — what’s sometimes broadly termed “call-out” culture — has some troubling political implications and may actually make it harder to address domestic violence, sexual assault, and other very real problems. Clearly there are some people who take issue with my view, or even with my right to have a view. But no one approached me about it before the event, so all I could really offer is my summary of what people said about it on the internet. Probably it’s better not to do that. If you want to know why people are angry with me, you should probably ask them.
Owl: Can you describe call-out culture? What I mean by call-out culture is the attempt to address harm — or sometimes, personal disagreements or ideological disputes — through individual vilification, public shaming, and social ostracism.
Owl: How does it differ from community accountability?
Call-out culture is implicitly punitive and often relies on rituals of humiliation. It generally offers no opportunities for any sort of resolution, or even reparations. I should say that I do think it’s sometimes important to involve the community in addressing a person’s misbehavior, and I think it sometimes makes sense to exclude people from particular places, events, or organizations. But exclusion on its own only solves the immediate problem, or may just re-locate it. It may remove a present danger, but people don’t just stop existing because we throw them out of the infoshop. So a transformative justice approach needs to give them both reasons and tools to change their behavior, while call-outs and ostracism basically just say, “Go be someone else’s problem.” And then there’s the issue of scale. If the only approach we have is denouncing and ostracizing people, what does that suggest about the society we’re trying to build?
Owl: How does a fixed dualism of victim and victimizer weaken a community’s potential to actually transform behavior?
Permanently branding someone as bad may make it hard to encourage personal change. And if the perpetrator starts thinking of himself as “a bad person,” rather than just a person who did some bad things, he may not even think it possible to change — especially if the people around him are telling him that it is impossible. Further, if the community’s response is to exclude people who are so stigmatized, the community effectively forfeits any opportunity to intervene in ways that would help push or support such change. All of that shifts the attention away from bad actions, the consequences, and the causes behind them (both personal and social) — and therefore also away from changes that might prevent future harm or help remedy past harm. Instead the focus becomes the identification and punishment of bad people. Given that we resist the punitive culture in the larger society, I think we shouldn’t reproduce it in the movement.
Owl: How does call-out culture weaken radical movements’ abilities to address violence, abuse and other impacts of patriarchy?
Individual vilification fails to address either the causes or the effects of patriarchy. It often substitutes denunciation of a perpetrator for actual accountability and supporting survivors. Because the focus is on punishing the perpetrator, the needs of the survivor — in terms of actual care work or even just personal safety — may be overlooked. Even if those things are central to the rhetoric, in practice the focus of the call-out is necessarily on the perpetrator. Also, when denunciations, shaming, and social exclusion are presented as the only possible responses, the effect is to treat all harm as the same. That makes it harder to address the underlying causes or the survivor’s individual needs. And it may well discourage some survivors from trying to address abuse if they don’t want to see the person who hurt them humiliated and ostracized. Likewise, public shaming makes it hard for perpetrators to admit that they’ve done something wrong, or try to atone for it. Then there’s the problem that people who work with a perpetrator to hold him accountable and change his behavior are themselves likely to get grief for not denouncing and ostracizing him. So, call-out culture produces all of these perverse incentives that make it harder to achieve justice, or personal transformation, or social change. Besides which, an environment where we believe every bad thing we ever hear about anyone else and automatically ostracize anyone who has done anything wrong creates all kinds of other problems. It practically guarantees that our movements will become more fragmented, more isolated, and more insular. The practices of denunciation and ostracism can be — and I would say, sometimes are being — used to silence questions and stifle political disagreements, making the movement less democratic and less able to improve its practices. And we have to expect that our enemies will notice and exploit these vulnerabilities. Documents from Britain’s GCHQ (their counterpart to the NSA) frankly discuss using fabricated allegations and anonymous blog posts to slander their targets, and leaked NSA documents show their strategists thinking along the same lines to discredit Muslim leaders. There’s no reason to think they wouldn’t do the same to anarchists.
Owl: Do anarchists know who they are and what they want?
Increasingly, no. At present, at least on the West Coast, anarchism exists as a kind of toxic cocktail blending elements of marxism, post-modernism, identity politics, deep ecology, and counter-culture lifestyle choices. As a result, the idea of a free and equal society is giving way to a creeping moralism spiced up with ultra-militant posturing. It’s pretty sad.
Owl:What is anarchism and how do we get there?
I believe anarchism is — or should be — both a philosophy and a movement. It represents an attempt to reorganize society based on the simple notion that decisions should be made by those most affected by them. The implications of that idea are radically egalitarian, require that power be decentralized and coercion minimized, and suggest that freedom must be exercised collectively as well as individually.
How do we get there? The only way is to build a movement capable of destroying the existing order and replacing it with something better. That will require the participation of millions of people, and they won’t all be queer punk vegan bicyclists living in West Coast cities. They won’t even all be people who consider themselves anarchists.
If we want to build a movement and change the world, we have to engage with society as it is, not try to remove ourselves from it. That’s hard, and it’s scary, and there’s no guarantee of success. But it is what we have to do.
Owl: Thank you Kristian, always a pleasure talking with you. Looking forward to seeing you 12/13/14 at the 7th Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair at the Manila Community Center.
We in Humboldt Grassroots agree with your vision of anarchism. Anarchists should be engage with society as a whole to change it, specifically be in those movements with other oppressed people trying to create a better situation. Anarchism will always have a broader influence within communities when Anarchists are fighting along side others in a rainbow of struggles day to day to improve the situation in concrete ways through solidarity and direct action.
Luckily, the sad toxic cocktail you describe is not the whole story. There are also many signs that revolutionary anarchism is growing in depth and strength in this country.
One encouraging development is founding of *Black Rose Anarchist federation in early November 2013, class struggle groups convened for two-days in Chicago to form an anarchist federation within the United States. Some people from the Portland chapter of the BRAF are coming to speak at this years Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair also.
We’re stoked, thanks again for talking with me and for all of your great work.