Policing the Crisis, Policing the Planet: an Interview with Christina Heatherton and Jordan T. Camp

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Thirty-eight years ago this month, a group of researchers led by Stuart Hall published their landmark study Policing the Crisis. Though purportedly focused on the moral panic surrounding mugging, the book provides contemporary readers with a prehistory of neoliberalism, charting the unraveling post-war consensus and the displacement of social democratic hegemony. Accompanying these political and economic transformations was a restructuring of the working class itself; the combined effects of accelerating joblessness and deskilling among migrant workers, who retained the black political consciousness of the 1960s, consolidated ethnically distinct class fractions in Britain and resulted in a splintering of struggles. On the one hand, there was a classical series of industrial strikes from a multiracial but predominantly white workforce. On the other, there emerged an oppositional culture of extra-legal hustling and self-help. The authors noted that such distinct modes of resistance could work in tandem: the refusal of work by urban black proletarians could become a refusal to compete with increasingly precarious industrial workers, a refusal to break their strikes. But without an organization that might have coordinated these discrete sectors, it was the “law and order” strategies of the Conservative Party that played the mediating role. A trumped-up media scare around black criminality authorized an increased police presence in inner cities, while tragically disabling the possibility of a revolutionary alliance, even as the racist representation of crime provided the necessary ideological materials to “discipline, restrain, and coerce” the working class in general. Their analysis is a painful reminder that class isn’t just made at the point of production – it’s a consequence of politics, too.1

 Policing the Planet, an important new anthology edited by Christina Heatherton and Jordan T. Camp, invokes this earlier work in more than just name. Across the individual contributions from activists and scholars is a shared attention to the role of broken-windows policing in the remaking of the American and even global working class. Since Occupy, many have puzzled over the tendency of social movements, regardless of their original grievances, to revolve around an antagonism with cops and cages. In charting how a range of ruling class strategies – from urban redevelopment and the disciplining of migrant labor, to imperialist counter-insurgency – pivot on policing, this book helps explain why.

Heatherton and Camp’s volume is also notable for its strong emphasis on a multiracial revolutionary unity. Some contributors make this call quite explicitly, but the case is best made by their simple indexing of the broad range of proletarians targeted by these new repressive techniques. For some readers, this may be hard to square with the tenor of contemporary movement politics. After all, the metaphors which anchor our understanding of the carceral state – Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow, for instance – often point to a specifically anti-black project. The currency of this kind of analysis is a reflection of the uneven character of policing and prisons as well as the genealogy of these institutions’ emergence. Most importantly, the popularity of these metaphors is a testament to political legacies of black liberation, its unrivaled role in American radicalism both past and present. Nevertheless, this book reminds us that policing is not exhausted by the afterlives of slavery. What’s notable about “broken windows” is the remarkable number of avenues that it can intervene in, the tremendous range of its reach. Where the diverse array of forces loosely organized under the banner of Black Lives Matter have re-posed questions of black particularity and universal emancipation, these essays can help us locate those discussions on a global and historical level.

As we take stock of the coordinates of revolutionary strategy today, this collection provides an indispensable resource. We offer this interview as an introduction to the vital inquiries initiated by Policing the Planet and its contributors.

– Ben Mabie 

Interview

Ben Mabie: What are “community” or “broken windows” policing strategies? What makes them novel as a way to discipline, divide, contain, and terrorize the working class?

Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton: Broken windows policing names the practice of aggressively enforcing petty crimes ostensibly in an effort to ward off large-scale “disorder.” The idea, famously described in a 1982 Atlantic article asserts how a broken window in a neighborhood signals neglect and encourages small crimes, which then lead to larger ones. The disorder—the “quality of life” violations—that broken windows policing targets are crimes of poverty, things like loitering, trespassing, having a broken taillight, playing loud music—or to be more specific, behavior that poor and working class people don’t uniquely engage in but are disproportionately targeted for. People can be stopped incessantly, either for small crimes or because they potentially might have warrants which are often unpaid tickets from earlier stops that they couldn’t afford to pay first time around. As we have seen in so many police killings, such as the murder of Philando Castile who was stopped at least 46 times for petty offenses, this intense form of policing makes everyone, especially in Black, Latinx, Native, mostly immigrant, poor, and working class neighborhoods, criminally suspect.

As social movements demand an end to “broken windows policing,” liberal politicians and police officials are proposing “community policing” as an alternative. Asserting that there is a distinction between broken windows and community policing is both dangerous and disingenuous, as we argue in Policing the Planet. Even Bill Bratton, NYPD Police Commissioner and chief proponent of broken windows, recently argued, “broken windows policing is probably the most vivid example of community policing there is.”

Seemingly new proposals to increase community partnerships, diversify police forces, and arm cops with cameras and non-lethal weapons, are culled from a very old script. As Naomi Murakawa points out, the seemingly “new” initiatives proposed by the Obama administration are nearly identical to ones promoted by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration in the 1960s. These proposals arose in response to the long civil rights movement and the urban uprisings in places like Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Harlem during the 1960s. As Jim Crow racial regimes were thrown into a crisis of legitimacy, the capitalist state abandoned straightforward segregation and adopted new forms of racist social control (as Jordan describes in his new book, Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State). Police departments began presenting themselves as being more responsive to the needs of the “community,” more attendant to issues of racial inequality, and more willing to engage in “dialogue” (to use that cipher of good intentions and craven negligence). Then as now, these proposals are more public relations than policy, mandating no actual change in the functioning of policing, but opening up new revenue streams for police departments.

BM: You describe these strategies as both an ideological project and a political response to the crisis of the late 1970s. What precisely in the conjuncture were these strategies responding to?

JC and CH: Broken windows policing was produced as a political response to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression that took hold in the 1970s. We argue that it helped facilitate major shifts in the urban political economy as well as the consolidation of the U.S. carceral state. As Christina Hanhardt describes with regard to the gentrification of Times Square, this policing strategy further exacerbated racist moral panics about gender and sexuality in order to “prime the city for private investment.” We also follow geographer Neil Smith’s lead in suggesting that broken windows was used primarily to render cities more “secure” for neoliberal regimes of capital accumulation.

By neoliberalism, we mean a political and ideological project with long historical and geographic roots that includes features such as: the deliberate shrinkage of the social functioning of the state (and the privatization of many of those functions); deindustrialization and diminishing capacity of U.S. cities to operate as centers of social reproduction for laboring populations; deregulation and the crushing of public sector unions and organized labor; and the expansion of the punitive capacities of the state to manage, warehouse, and discipline surplus populations (the unemployed and underemployed, the homeless, those without proper health or mental health care, etc.). Furthermore, in our book, we interrogate how racial ideologies have been deployed to naturalize these transformations.

Broken windows is an ideological project that justifies and sustains a neoliberal social order. It helps to render people simultaneously less worthy of the state’s shrunken largesse and more deserving of its expanded punitive capacities. Through such policing measures, “people with problems” (lack of housing, job security, food, services, etc.) have been socially constructed “as problems” (i.e. criminals) as George Lipsitz puts it. By entrenching notions of “criminality” it enables the state to manage surplus populations. The global production of surplus populations is a problem for capital. As another contributor to Policing the Planet, geographer Don Mitchell and his colleagues put it, broken windows policing is “one means of management.”

Broken windows builds on and expands already existing race, class, and gendered exclusions, renovates and intensifies them towards new ends. It has emerged as the social regulating mechanism used by cities and local states to discipline surplus populations, refashion public space, and render cities suitable for neoliberal regimes of capital accumulation. In an era of mass incarceration these mechanisms transform the working poor, the homeless, and the dispossessed into walking warrants of the neoliberal city.

BM: Since Occupy, the strongest movements in the United States have been directed against policing and austerity, with each arguably possessing a distinct composition from the other. With varying levels of success, organizers from California to Chicago have tried to articulate these discrete movements into a joint struggle. How do you and your contributors conceptualize the relationship between broken windows policing and austerity? What kind of practices do you think enable lasting encounters between these struggles?

JC and CH: Broken windows policing emerged in wake of the fiscal crisis of the 1970s alongside the coalescence of a, “permanent austerity governance” in New York City, as Alex Vitale and Brian Jordan Jefferson describe. As austerity policies increased poverty, unemployment, and homelessness, politicians clamored for authoritarian solutions. Vitale and Jefferson conclude that, “broken windows policing provided the ideological justification and functional game plan.” The result in New York City and beyond has been the mass criminalization of poor and working class communities, particularly the Black and Latinx poor.

As deindustrialized cities have become landscapes of actual broken windows – full of abandoned homes and factories – police departments and politicians have utilized the logic of broken windows to locate disorder in the behavior of the so-called “underclass.” Many chapters in our book are concerned with such displacements. The defunding of public social goods alongside the extensive funding of policing and prisons has produced morbid encounters. Such funding imbalances have effectively expanded police capacity, enabling them to function in an array of roles, such as mental health facilitators, school disciplinarians, public housing managers, and guards against park trespassing, etc. In some municipalities, the police also aggressively function as surrogate tax collectors or “revenue generators” as the Department of Justice investigation into the Ferguson Police Department recently concluded.

There is a tidy unity to the restructuring of the state form encapsulated by broken windows policing. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore describe in their Policing the Planet chapter, the Black Lives Matter movement’s struggle against police violence and mass incarceration after Ferguson can be described as “protests against profound austerity” as well as struggles against “the iron fist necessary to impose” that austerity. Broken windows policing has normalized a shift in state capacities away from the production of social goods and towards the “security” concerns produced in their absence. In examining its spread throughout the U.S. and around the world, we put Policing the Planet together in order to explore how broken windows policing has become the political expression of neoliberalism at the urban scale.

BM: Your book provides a vivid picture of movements internationally, in Palestine, London, and across Latin America, where racialized, surplus populations are often running up against the Bratton model of policing, exported right out of New York City. What role does the United States play in the circulation of these strategies? Does “broken windows” inform the counter-insurgency efforts of the U.S. armed forces? And what does this tell us about contemporary imperialism?

JC and CH: Seemingly “new” models of counter-terrorism policing were not spun from whole cloth. They fortified already existing forms of counterinsurgency and legitimated the intensified policing of racialized and criminalized segments of the poor and working class in U.S. cities. We argue that the intimate and seemingly micro-scale policing of poor communities of color have become central to understanding the circulation of securitization on a global scale. Poor communities in U.S. cities have become laboratories in which new military and counterinsurgency practices and technologies have been tested.

As organizer Hamid Khan of the Stop LA Spying Coalition explains in, “The New Urban Counterinsurgency,” the application of Bratton-style broken windows policing in U.S. cities has set the stage for counterterrorism policing globally. The deep success of broken windows policing in Los Angeles, for example, enabled the city to be the launching pad of a major post-9/11 counter-terrorism initiative, implemented by the Department of Homeland Security. According to Khan, such measures would not be possible without the already existing surveillance, pre-emptive criminalization, and authorization of force granted by broken windows policing. Other contributors to Policing the Planet, such as Mizue Aizeki of the Immigrant Defense Project, echo this point. In analyzing the current crisis of mass deportation, she traces the “preemptive policing logic” of broken windows to measures that configure immigrants as “perpetual threats to public safety.”

The U.S. has long exported its security expertise and also trained police from foreign governments in counterinsurgency tactics from the Central American wars in the 1980s to the present day “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such circuits of knowledge are, of course, multidirectional. Technologies deployed in wars abroad re-enter U.S. cities in forms such as drones and surveillance technology. Khan notes that police officials from places like Ferguson and LA have travelled to Israel to be trained in counterinsurgency. In doing so, they learned languages critical to the legitimation of policing, prisons, and permanent war and brought those practices and techniques “back” to the U.S.  Bratton has been a key figure in establishing such ties and also in importing technologies and practices used in the occupied Palestinian territories into U.S. cities.

In his contribution to our anthology,  Arun Kundnani adeptly describes the circulation of these securitized logics and practices as “flows.” Such information flows between cities and countries, battlefields and cities, as well as over space and time. Critical to the practice of counterinsurgency by imperial powers like Britain have been collaborations between public social services and the police. Kundnani traces practices of British colonial counterinsurgency campaigns waged in places like Kenya and later Northern Ireland, and describes how they were later imported into cities like London and New York. The present global surveillance infrastructure is a product of such multidirectional flows. We hope that in describing these circulations we might engender more robust theories and practices of solidarity, particularly in the struggle against capitalism. As Kundnani concludes, the expansion of surveillance is key to the reproduction of capitalism at present. Therefore that the struggle against policing, prisons, and state security regimes, he concludes, “cannot avoid confronting capitalism itself.”

BM: There’s a long history of solidarity between black radical movements in the United States and anti-imperialist struggles abroad. The CPUSA  articulated the struggles of black proletarians against the afterlives of slavery as a part of a wider anti-colonial and anti-capitalist politics. Later, the Black Panther Party framed their opposition to local police departments as analogous to the Vietcong’s war for national liberation, as well as the confrontations between anti-war protesters and the national guard. Based on your own research on cross-border and internationalist politics, as well as your close collaboration with activists on the ground, what do you think an anti-imperialist practice might look like today?

JC and CH: Contemporary antiracist social movements against police violence and mass incarceration are the latest phase in a protracted struggle. In each phase of the long Black freedom struggle, global solidarity offered movements in the U.S. new authorization and broader platforms to resist racism, capitalism, and imperialism at different geographical scales. At the same time, Black radical movements also revealed points of contradictions within U.S. empire, troubling the imagined separation between systems of imperialist violence “at home” and “abroad.”

Continuities of these radical traditions exist in the Black Lives Matter movement. In our interview with members of the Chicago-based We Charge Genocide, Asha Rosa, Paige May, and Breanna Champion describe their efforts to internationalize the struggle. Inspired by the Civil Rights Congress’ 1951 petition to the United Nations, they travelled to Geneva to submit a petition before the U.N. to globalize the struggle against racism and state violence in U.S. cities. Likewise, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors emphasizes the need for solidarity with Palestine and invokes the internationalism of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s to make the point. Robin D. G. Kelley places the Black Lives Matter movement in the context of global permanent war, highlighting the continuities between the killing of Michael Brown and the siege Israeli siege of Gaza during the same summer of 2014. In both contexts, he writes, “civilians are deemed combatants and collective punishment is the fabric of everyday life.” In these ways, activists are drawing links between the struggle to overturn police violence and the carceral state with a global struggles for freedom and dignity.

As the late Cedric Robinson described, the Black radical tradition encompasses a broad project of liberation. Accordingly, multiple contributors to Policing the Planet connect the movement against policing to a radical antiracist struggle against imperialism, and, as members of the Red Nation describe, “colonial capitalism.” This Native-led group based in Albuquerque, New Mexico understands the intense deployment of state violence against Native people in the U.S. as an outcome of colonial violence under capitalism. This intervention is the critical basis of solidarity. Organizer Paige Murphy concludes, “Everyone is fighting capitalism in their day-to-day lives whether they want to admit it or not. When you’re struggling to make rent, you’re fighting against capitalism. When you’re looking for a job and you can’t find one, you’re struggling against capitalism. People every day are fighting against capitalism. When we link these struggles, that’s when they’re able to see it.”

Policing the Planet describes how the Left can engage in principled solidarity with Black Lives Matter in a political and ideological struggle against imperialist state violence. We argue thatsuch a fight for redistributive justice and a social wage democratizes social movements in general. This framework should be taken seriously as we debate alternative solutions to the policing crisis, or else, as Vijay Prashad puts it in the book’s conclusion, “the common sense of our times will lead us to a bad end.”  This is a moment not for adapting to neoliberal policies and imperial power, but for firing the political imagination about the possibility of alternative futures.


  1. For more on Stuart Hall’s debates within British Marxism, see Asad Haider’s meticulous reconstruction in “Law and Order: Make Marxism Great Again,” which I borrowed from liberally. 

Authors of the article

is managing editor at Viewpoint.

is an assistant professor of American Studies at Trinity College, co-editor of Policing the The Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (Verso, 2016), and author of The Color Line and the Class Struggle: The Mexican Revolution, Internationalism, and the American Century (University of California Press, forthcoming).

is a postdoctoral fellow in Race and Ethnicity and International and Public Affairs at Brown, author of Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State(University of California Press, 2016); co-editor of Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (Verso, 2016); and co-editor (with Laura Pulido) of the late Clyde Woods’ book, Development Drowned and Reborn: The Blues and Bourbon Restorations in Post-Katrina New Orleans(University of Georgia Press, forthcoming).