Hard Crackers: If I understand correctly the argument you’ve made about the efficacy of riots, it’s that they impose, far more effectively than legal limits, that communities can place new limits on police brutality. That seems quite evident in what’s happening now at the official political/media level. They can’t seem to move fast enough to tear down Confederate statues; and even Frank Rizzo’s statue in Philadelphia is being sent to its eternal resting place.
So, how should we understand the simultaneous expansion of and support for systematic police violence in dealing with militant, or even not so militant, protests?
Kristian Williams: The thing that sets this moment apart from any other I have seen is actually how little the police can count on public, or even institutional, support. Immediately after George Floyd’s death politicians were racing to be seen saying the right things about opposing racial inequality and police violence. A number of schools and universities have cancelled their contracts with police. Private companies have stopped selling them equipment. And even police organizations like the IACP and FOP came forward to advocate police accountability and police reform, in what was surely a bid to exercise some control over the reform agenda. The truth is, they are almost the only people really pushing reform per se, because the movement has jumped straight to talk about abolition. And what is interesting there is that abolition is being discussed in specific strategic terms related to de-funding police departments, disarming the police, decriminalizing certain offenses, and finding other means for ensuring public safety. It’s not just a utopian “after the revolution” kind of thing. In fact, it looks like in Minneapolis it is going to become official policy.
The support that continues to exist for police, and in particular the Trumpian sort of calls for more and greater violence against demonstrators — that’s shocking to the conscience, but not to the intellect. There are a great many people on the right who believe, in effect, that men in uniform can do no wrong because everything they do is necessary to save us from Mad Max savagery. That attitude generally accompanies a racist paranoia about black people asserting their rights in any manner at all. If you recall, they were thrown into absolute hysterics over football players failing to rise for the Star-Spangled Banner.
Hard Crackers: Are riots adequate responses to those forms of police violence?
Kristian Williams: Riots are never going to be sufficient unto themselves. They may sometimes be necessary, and they can accomplish several things at once: mobilizing previously passive people, giving otherwise powerless people a sense of their own power, damaging the actual infrastructure of oppression and redistributing wealth in minor ways. But what I argue in the introduction to Our Enemies in Blue is that one of the things that riots do is serve as a means of communication from the populace to the government. They draw a line that says, “this far and no further.” The very fact of a riot illustrates that the legitimacy of the rulers has slipped so far that their ability to govern is in peril — at least temporarily. And that is a very tricky situation for governments to respond to. It tends to produce an over-reliance on coercion — that is, they respond to violence with greater violence. And that makes sense, in a way, because when legitimacy fails, violence is what remains. But it is also a problem because the violence itself may be de-legitimizing, and the long-term stability of the overall system requires that the authorities re-establish their legitimacy.
For rioting to fulfill its particular role, however, it needs to exist alongside other efforts that can articulate the causes of the unrest and that can consolidate the gains that are won.
Hard Crackers: What are your thoughts about the potentials for building upon the riots to expand the terrain for imaginative, emancipatory politics in the near future? What to do next to avoid, for example, the collapse of the radical left after 1968 or the false start of Occupy?
Kristian Williams: What happens after the riots will be crucial to determining whether this moment marks the turning point in the history of policing and the opposition to policing, or whether it is merely cathartic.
One thing we will crucially need is for the organs of the left to take this opportunity to embrace a fully abolitionist program, and look for ways to enact that in our work. On the radical left, non-collaboration with police has been non-negotiable for a long time, even at the level of things like applying for permits for marches. For the institutional left, things can be trickier, and the change will not always be painless. Thanks to the work of organizations like Incite: Women of Color Against Violence and movement scholars like Andrea Ritchie and Dean Spade, the feminist and LGBTQ+ movements have grappled for a long time with questions about how to respond to sexual assault, domestic violence, and hate crimes without relying on the criminal legal system, though the abolitionist position is still far from dominant. In the labor movement, there is even more to be done. Despite the cops’ long and ongoing history of strike-breaking, unions often view police as workers in need of protection, rather than seeing them (as George Orwell described them) as the natural enemy of the workers. My union, for example, AFSCME, organizes cops, deputies, and prison guards while also looking back proudly on the Memphis sanitation strike and aspiring to become an anti-racist organization. I think we are reaching a point where that contradiction will become untenable. As people of color become increasingly vocal in their demand for an end to white supremacy — and as they carry that demand into the workplace — unions will need to make a clear stand on the question of police and prisons, and divest of law enforcement locals. It is time to stop organizing prison guards and start organizing prisoners.
Those are just a few examples, based on the current state of the left and how I see it needing to change. But the truth is, these moments of insurrection bring a lot of people into the streets who have never engaged in politics before. Some of those people — hopefully, a lot of those people — will stay engaged after the tear gas clears. No doubt new people will bring new ideas into the movement, and so open up possibilities that you and I have not even imagined.
Hard Crackers: What advice would you give to our readers who may find themselves at a protest?
Kristian Williams: My main advice would be to prepare. Go with a buddy or a small group, and discuss ahead of time what risks you can accept, what tactics you may engage, what to do if you get separated. Have some idea of when you expect to leave, and how you will exit the demonstration area safely. Have a designated person not at the protest who you will check in with at the end, and give them instructions for what to do if you are arrested — if they need to call in to your work and what to say, if they need to feed your cat, that sort of thing.
Think carefully about what you are going to bring with you. Cell phones can be good for communication, but they can also be used for surveillance and are a real liability if you are arrested and the police seize them. Likewise, things that would just seem like tools to you and me will be implements of crime or even weapons in the eyes of the district attorney. There are some things you’d definitely want to bring: water, energy bar, face mask, a fresh shirt of a different color than the one you are wearing, a small amount of cash.
During the demonstration itself, stay calm, don’t run, be aware of your surroundings. Keep an eye on the cops, what they are doing and how they are positioning themselves. Try not to get boxed in. There will often be signs that the police are preparing to attack, so notice if they all affix gas masks, if reinforcements are arriving, if the mounted patrol moves to the front. The most important thing in the moment is to keep your wits about you.
Hard Crackers: We are seeing a lot of rumors in the streets about undercover cops being deployed against protestors. How do you spot an undercover cop?
Kristian Williams: The police may place undercover officers in a crowd for any number of reasons. Sometimes they are just there to monitor the mood and give their commanders notice if things seem likely to escalate. Sometimes they identify people for arrest, either in the moment or later. Sometimes they will make arrests themselves. Sometimes they will try to influence the crowd’s behavior in various ways.
The bad news is that our ability to recognize them in a street protest is very limited, and the attempts to do so can bring about a lot of bad effects. For one thing, the suspicion can become a way of enforcing a narrow view of who is in the movement, or what a demonstrator looks like, and it can equally rely on stereotypes about who becomes a cop; that’s a kind of blindness that our adversaries are bound to exploit. Likewise, the attempt to identify police agents by the tactics they advocate quickly degenerates toward the tendency to label everyone you disagree with as an undercover, or to say that they “are as bad as the police,” etc. All sides play that game. The strict non-violence set will denounce militants as agents provocateurs, and the militants will denounce the peaceniks as apologists for police repression. In a given case, one or the other, or both, of those things may even be true. But the point is that the dispute can sometimes be as destructive as the tendencies it is intended to guard against, and in any case the hunt for bad actors distracts from a very important debate about which tactics are suitable for the situation. Indeed, this sort of argument is tempting because it relieves each side of needing to justify their own chosen tactics, relating them to a broader strategy and a theory of social change. And that problem persists because we don’t really have good ways to have those debates or to manage honest disagreement at that level.
That still leaves the very important question of what to do about bad actors, undercover cops included. I think there are three types of answer. The first is that we can make our organizations harder to infiltrate — at least some of our organizations, those that need a higher level of security. Second, recognizing that some kinds of organization need to be fairly open, and even extremely closed organizations may still be penetrated, we need to build movements that are broad and resilient enough that they can withstand the disruption caused by individual people, whether state agents or not. And finally, (and related to the other two), we need to remember that the most devastating blows to our movements in the past couple of decades did not come as the result of infiltration but of sincere activists becoming informers when placed under pressure, usually the threat of prosecution — often years after they became disillusioned or simply aged out of the movement. To prevent that, we need to become better at keeping people engaged through various stages of life, and we need to show that we can support people when the state comes down on them. Maintaining that commitment and demonstrating that care will make it easier for people to resist the attempts to turn them against their former comrades. Ultimately, my advice is to think about security less as a technical exercise and more as a relational practice.
Most importantly, we must remember that the purpose of good security is to preserve our capacity to act. And so security is about managing and mitigating risk, not eliminating it. Resisting power is inherently risky.
Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination, Hurt: Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy, and Fire the Cops! He has written about policing and state violence for Clamor, Counterpunch, New Politics, In These Times and Toward Freedom. He lives in Portland, Oregon. You can check out his writings and more on his website.