Policing the Surplus Population

Cedric Johnson



“In his new book, After Black Lives Matter: Policing and Anti-Capitalist Struggle, political scientist Cedric Johnson explores the origins and consequences of what he calls stress policing, or the style of law enforcement that emerged out of “broken windows” initiatives in the carceral expansion of the 1980s”

“policing in the United States is not primarily an expression of antiblackness or white supremacy, but rather functions to secure the conditions for perpetual capital accumulation, in large part by managing a surplus population that is increasingly multiracial”

““Police violence,” he writes, “is not meted out against the black population en masse but is trained on the most dispossessed segments of the working class across metropolitan, small town and rural geographies.””

“A blind spot of Black Lives Matter and adjacent notions like the New Jim Crow is the tendency to view police violence as an exclusively black problem, and a problem that universally threatens black people”

“We have a problem of a society that’s by and large abandoned welfare provision and has instead decided to address the desperately poor and the dispossessed through policing”

“As a society, we’ve come to manage surplus population through punishment rather than benevolence”

“When we take a serious look at the victims of that violence — when we look closely at who they are and what their lives are like — a different set of conclusions emerges or should emerge for us”

“We need a genuine left analysis of society as it exists. We have to identify the common hardships that many people are facing, the circumstances that force people to engage in activities that are targeted aggressively by police and our courts system”

“we have to ask what’s to be gained by ignoring the fact of common conditions facing the most suppressed elements of the working class of all colors”

“this is sometimes tough for people to appreciate, but the reality is that throughout American history, the vast majority of people who are poor in this country have always been white. At the height of AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] payments, the majority of recipients were white (though the popular image of the welfare recipient was a black person, thanks to Ronald Reagan and others)”

“even if we’re talking about blacks and Latinos as a plurality of people within a surplus population, those people are still different from the rest of African Americans who have jobs, bank accounts, credit cards, mortgages, and possibly savings; people who are somewhat upwardly mobile in the economy”

“I think we have to ask what’s to be gained by ignoring the fact of common conditions facing the most oppressed elements of the working class of all colors”

“It’s not only important on an intellectual level to get this story right. It’s also important politically if we’re trying to build a left majority”

“If we’re concerned about inequality and the damage that capital does to society — to our lives and our neighborhoods and communities — then we should be looking at what’s happening to everybody”

“The way I try to describe the police — and I already can hear the jeers and boos from certain corners — is as a type of alienated worker. I’m not suggesting that the police are productive workers in the traditional sense; I’m saying that they’re reproductive. Their labor is necessary insofar as it secures the conditions for capital accumulation to take place”

“that role changes in quality and form over time”

“During the period of industrialization, the function of the police was, on one side, to crush labor insurgencies, and then also to do things like round up drunks and allow them to dry out so they could make it to work the next morning”

“We live in a different “postindustrial” moment now, where the police are there to manage and contain the surplus population, and to shore up [conditions] for all sorts of urban real estate speculation and development, and the expansion of tourism and entertainment in cities”

“We should also remember that the police are often people who are conscripted by class — that is, people who end up pursuing that particular occupation because they don’t have a whole lot of other options”

“The same is true for people in the military. I don’t mention this in the book, but in the community where I grew up in South Louisiana, it was mandatory for everyone in my high school to take the ASVAB [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] test — we didn’t have a choice”

“When I tell that story to people from other parts of the country, they’re like, “What? We never had to do anything like that!” And it’s because you weren’t from one of the poorest places in the entire United States!”

“I tried to offer a more nuanced interpretation of the police, while still thinking about them as fulfilling a repressive role”

“as I get older, I’m less patient with empty posturing and hand-me-down slogans that don’t give us either the political vision we need or the view of social reality that we should have”

“it shouldn’t just be police budgets that we’re thinking about recuperating”

“We should be thinking about the massive tax giveaways, land grants, and infrastructure upgrades doled out to corporations and private developers that happen in cities every day. That should also be the focus of any genuine urban left politics”

“I don’t think we can have the kind of complex urban society that we do without state force. I don’t think we can have governance, and for that matter, social justice, without the monopoly of violence. The problem for us right now is that the police uphold a highly unjust and terrible capitalist order” Note: This is a strong claim, and one that drives at the core of some significant rifts in left politics. Can there be a society, of any form, where the monopoly of violence is not required?

“Force was necessary to break open the whites-only ballot box, to allow black kids to attend schools in New Orleans and other places. We should be aware of those historical instances and think about these contradictions in a way that’s serious and takes historical materialism with a sense of sincerity and integrity”

“there’s now a consciousness of the limitations of our society that weren’t there before”

“There’s an understanding that the for-profit city doesn’t serve us — in Chicago or anywhere else — and that we need something different, more genuinely democratic and socially just”

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