A World Without Police
How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete
By Geo Maher
Published by Verso Books
A World Without Police is a fiery torch of pyrotechnic polemics that Maher holds passionately to the foundation of the US racial order: policing. The book is a searing and incisively argued indictment of the edifice of policing and an argument for abolition. The argument proceeds by sharply situating abolition as a revolutionary act (or process) connected to uprooting systems of white supremacy and capitalism, an act that is a requirement to achieve an actually democratic society. A brisk and succinct book, it is engaged and infused with the partisan vitality of the movements on the ground of last year’s antiracist rebellion. It is not political commentary but a political weapon.
Police abolition for Maher is paired with—to paraphrase the book’s subtitle—the task of creating strong communities to make cops obsolete. Through the movements to break police power and create alternatives to policing, including that of community self-defense, Maher envisions a new world that is illuminated by the task of fighting the old. His book raises a number of questions about the relationship between alternatives to the police and police abolition.
There is an oft-articulated framing that in order to abolish the police, alternatives need to be in place first that then render them useless. In this regard, there is much more to be fleshed out about the relationship between the police and the state. The existence of police is not premised on the fact that they fulfill some useful function for working people, and it is not the case that the “reliance” on the police by working-class people or the oppressed is what ensures their existence. Even if they were fully obsolete for working people, the usefulness of the police for the ruling class would still be quite intact on this side of social revolution.
There is a tension here that Maher is aware of and names, though it isn’t fully resolved or answered. In any case, he is crystal clear that reforms aren’t the solution and that a “world without police is a world without capitalism.”1Geo Maher, A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops Obsolete (London: Verso, 2021) 226. A World Without Police overall expertly lays out the tasks ahead.
Trained Violence Workers
Maher’s argument for abolition explodes the sordid mythology that police work is for safety or “protecting and serving.” The danger of the police is most apparent through the core element of anti-Black racism, with Black folks being three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Even this number also varies based on age (Black male youth are twenty-one times more likely to be killed by a cop then their white peers) and geography (Black Chicagoans are killed by police more than white Chicagoans by a ratio of 6.5 to 1).2Maher, World Without Police, 47.
Maher shows how the deadly impact of police has a far wider blast radius than its central racist target with the sole exception of rich white people. He pays special attention to the cases of people who suffer from mental health crises and women who have experienced sexual violence to disprove the often asserted justifications of the police as being necessary to protect these two demographics. Rather, in both these instances, contact with the police almost always increases risk and makes people less safe. And the police, far from being a deterrent to sexual assualt, are quite often the perpetrators, as the prevalence of sexual assualt commited by police (once every five days according to one study), both on- and off-duty are higher than any other profession.3Maher, World Without Police, 57
Indeed, as Maher points out, even the phrase “protect and serve” has cynical origins, as it was coined by LAPD white supremicist police chief William Parker, who explicitly remodeled the LAPD as a paramilitary unit and once famously referred to Black residents of Watts during the 1965 rebellion as “monkeys in a zoo.”
The violence of policing flows, according to Maher, from its functional origin providing “attack dogs of racial capitalism” and is bolstered by a culture and training that upholds the safety of cops with “religious significance” over all things and a paranoid us-against-them worldview. “Cops today,” he writes, “are increasingly, and by design, cowards who never stop talking about how brave they are.”
In the chapter “The Pig Majority,” the immediate violence and terror that the police carry out are situated more broadly as Maher describes how the institution of policing saturates broad strata of society beyond just the “boys in blue.” The vigilante killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin are just the tip of the iceberg. “Policing is a cancer,” Maher writes, “and it is powerfully malignant, metastasizing and spreading uncontrollably through the body politic.”4Maher, World Without Police, 37
The expansion of the police has been enormous: there are five times as many cops overall, doubled per capita, since 1960, and they have proliferated on the beat, in schools, at universities, through mass incarceration and the war on terror, all the while militarization of the police, the border, transit police, etc, has also increased. Maher shows how this quantitative increase in policing has produced a qualitative shift in which society has been “refashioned in the image of the police.”5Maher, World Without Police, 32, 35 He uses the helpful metaphor of imagining how cities built around highways and roads can make it difficult to imagine how to get around by walking or public transit to show how the shaping of society by police can also hinder our ability to envision a different world.6Maher, World Without Police, 10 Leaping from the slave owners’ reaction to radical reconstruction to US imperial “police actions,” to the school to prison pipeline, his shear breadth in this chapter sometimes makes the specificities of the myriad of connections feel only barely traced. However, taken overall, the effect depicts an excellent panned-out perspective of what can only be called a police state in the many senses of the phrase.
Passel Dispersal: Union Busters’ Unions
Special and warranted ire is directed at so-called police unions in the chapter “Breaking Police Power.” Police associations, which represent 80 percent of uniformed cops, make policing the most densely organized sector of the workforce in the United States by far.7Maher, World Without Police, 106 Yet, as Maher outlines, police associations are usually the distillation of the most reactionary politics of policing. He correctly argues that police “unions” need to be excised from the labor movement, as “no other workers bargain for the right to murder other workers without consequence.”
A preponderance of what police associations bargain for include legal protections that exist to shield cops from consequences for their regular, brutal behavior. From qualified immunity to Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, these special protections afforded to police serve to embolden their egregious violence. Police violence, as David Correia and Tyler Wall have noted, is thus a “contractually protected condition of their employment.” For these reasons Maher points to breaking the organized power of the police as a key step toward abolition.8Maher, World Without Police, 126
Reform, Alternatives, Abolition
The two most recent waves of Black-led rebellion against racism and the police in 2014–2015 and in 2020 did great service to bring the ideas of police abolition more into the mainstream. Organizers—many of them Black women like Angela Davis, Rachel Herzing, Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and others—have been campaigning for and theorizing abolitionist politics for decades before the fires consumed the QuickTrip at Florissant and Canfield. From a notion more marginal and considered “too radical” a decade ago, abolition has now been carried into mainstream discussion, held aloft by the thousands who entered the streets a year ago and illuminated by the flames cleansing patrol cars and precincts. “The real education of the masses,” an old Russian once remarked, “can never be separated from their . . . revolutionary struggle.”9V. I. Lenin, “Lecture on the Russian Revolution,” Lenin Collected Works, vol. 23 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964) 236–53.
The context for the demand to “defund the police” that emerged organically from the uprising are lessons learned from years of pursuing the mirage of police reform. Decades of experience have proved that these reforms—the “perennial containment strategy of an imperiled system,” as Maher indicates—do next to nothing to limit police terror. Minneapolis was the model city for the Obama wave of reforms, and still George Floyd gasped for breath. As Dereka Purnell points out: “The George Floyd Act would not have saved George Floyd’s life.”10Quoted in Maher, World Without Police, 91. Despite all this, the delusion of reform insists that, no matter how ineffective it’s proven in the past, “this time it will be different.”
Traditional police reform has not only failed to mitigate Black death, but often has led more resources to be given to police departments. As Maher poignantly writes: “Reform attempts to wash away the sins of the past by rewarding the most ineffective and violent departments with grants, advanced weaponry, and new technological fixes.”11Maher, World Without Police, 89. The only alternative to this vicious, murderous cycle is police abolition.
Here, Maher astutely situates the demand to defund. On the one hand, the defund demand is congruent with the logic of police abolition in that it doesn’t want to “fix” the police but to reduce and starve their resources. On the other hand, “defund” can also—through deceptive police budget shuffles and surface cuts—function as an “alibi for the system” and doesn’t necessarily mean abolition.
The basic arguments that Maher makes around abolition will not be unfamiliar to folks in the movement:
Abolition is about organizing community alternatives to policing and mass incarceration, about using the breathing room afforded by these small victories not to propose a slightly better version of the same, but to shoot for something radically different. 12Maher, World Without Police, 95
This basic framework echoes Angela Davis in her landmark work Are Prisons Obsolete?, where she argues for the “creation of new institutions that lay claim to the space currently occupied by prisons” in order to “crowd out the prison.”13Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York; Seven Stories Press;2003) pg 107-108 Building on Davis’s notion of obsolescence, Maher argues that to “build community is to make the police unnecessary, irrelevant, obsolete.” It is here that Maher’s book intimates bigger political questions that are worthy of sharper elucidation about the concrete relationship between alternatives, the capitalist state, and how abolition is won.
The relationship of alternatives to policing and abolition is that of making practical concrete institutions that can replace the many ways policing, in the US especially, has been the main public “service” provided and the first-line response to a vast array of social ills. Building alternatives would mean having trained mental health responders respond to incidents of mental health crisis, social workers instead of cops in schools, harm-reduction professionals to handle drug addiction, networks of support for responding to domestic violence, and violence interrupters and restorative justice programs to intervene in intra-community violence. The winning of these programs, so the logic goes, will crowd out the police and thus render them obsolete, and voilà!—police abolition.
As essential as fighting for alternatives to replace the police is, Maher correctly problematizes the notion of crowding out, arguing that merely by replacing their functions piece by piece “without confronting deeper structures,” we are only halfway there.14Maher, World Without Police, 154 This analysis cuts against what I would call a liberal abolitionism that, in its aspiration for a world without police, makes an assumption that it is only by replacing their function with different services—many times in the form of NGOs and nonprofits—that reduce the reliance of the community on the police that the latter can be whittled to nothing.
Again, the crowding out conception assumes that the community’s reliance on the police is the reason for their continued existence. While it is certainly true that bloated budgets and obscenely militarized police are routinely thrown at every symptom of the organized abandonment of Black and brown communities in the United States, this doesn’t encapsulate the primary function the cops play.
Rather, the police embody the monopoly of armed force of the state, used in the interest of the capitalist ruling class to violently enforce unequal and racist social relations. This is important because even in the hypothetical and unlikely situation that a parade of alternative programs have made the use of the police “obsolete” for the working class, the utility of the cops will still be far from obsolete for the ruling class and its state.
Maher points to this throughout the book, and his chapter on “Self Defense and Abolition’ is an interesting and important contribution. This chapter is peppered with a variety of far-reaching examples, from the Black Panthers to Free Derry in Northern Ireland, the Zapatistas in Chiapas, comunales of Venezuela, the Oaxaca Commune of 2006, the cantons of Rojava, and the autodefensas of Michoacan. Maher points to many instances of organized communities, often armed, that were able to push out the police, defend themselves from the state, and have some degree of self-management.
The linking of “self-defense” with abolition is important, as Maher argues that “abolition is not a suburb, nor is it an abstract ethical critique of violence, or a purely prefigurative gesture,” but it entails “destroying” the old order and building a new one by fighting the old.15Maher, World Without Police, 179 In this argument lies the radical potency of Maher’s book. When he talks about a world without police being a world without capitalism, he is describing a concrete struggle not just around a slogan but for an abolition that is clear about the kind of struggle that will be required. “No government,” he points out, “willingly abolishes its own enforcement wing.”16Maher, World Without Police, 151
Whether to Wither
Here we come to what I would consider one of few weaknesses of Maher’s overall exceptional book. Throughout, the trajectory of his argument points to the complete destruction of the old and an international “total rebuilding of society from the bottom up.” Yet with the massive scale of that task, and with the connection that is made to the need to overthrow capitalism, the relationship of the police and the capitalist state could use a more robust and clear description and theorization.
There are a few times in the book when he takes this up, but it feels like a passing treatment. In one section, much to my delight, he refers to Lenin’s State and Revolution and quotes Salar Mohandesi in saying that the creation of alternatives “eat away at the state apparatus like termites.”17Maher, World Without Police, 128. From there he says that when the people have collective power, the state will “wither away.”18ibid.
Throughout the book asserts that “community, community, and more community” is the “antidote to the police.”19Maher, World Without Police, 155. This framing, along with the discourse of “obsolescence,” at times underplays the notion that I am sure Maher understands that the strength of the community itself will not render the state’s monopoly on force obsolete for the ruling class. Neither is it the case that the “withering” of the state, or perhaps its collapse due to the termite-burrowing of strong communities, will occur without a pointed contestation with the state itself. In sum, the state as target of police abolition could have been emphasized more.
With the question of the state seemingly secondary, big questions loom about the connection between small-scale alternatives like violence interrupters, the seizing of urban spaces in the height of rebellion, and that of the overthrow of capitalists and their cops worldwide. Elsewhere he writes that “abolition is the laying of a new foundation under, around, and in the cracks of the old world until the old foundation is no more.”20Maher, World Without Police, 11. How to understand the relationship of building a new foundation with the final confrontation with the old foundation in the form of the state? How exactly does a “strong community” take on the state? Maher’s examples and polemics contain some insinuations, but for this critical question more attention seemed to me necessary.
This is partially reflected in his treatment of the police in his concluding chapter, where he outlines how the police function as the antidemocratic bastions of fascism, a self-serving gang, and racketeering ring. While the right-wing political force of the police is a threat not to be ignored, there is a way this can be over-emphasized. For example he argues that the police “don’t work for the people but for their own interests.”21Maher, World Without Police, 214. At times, the way he expresses their role is almost as if they were a rogue force operating in antagonism with the state as opposed to as an organ of the state—of course containing tensions and contradictions—that acts in the interests of the ruling class.
I infer that some of this comes from the influence of the work of Kristian Williams who, in his essential work, Our Enemies in Blue, emphasizes the autonomy of the police as a force of reaction “against” or “to rival the state.”22Kristian Williams, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America (Oakland: AK Press, 2015) see the chapter “Police Autonomy and Blue Power” Without minimizing the noxious stew of far-right politics and documented connections with facist organizations that are dominant in this country’s police departments, this position to me downplays the way policing is not an “exceptional” feature of US liberalism but a key component in its class rule. This is somewhat ironic because Maher deliciously holds no quarter in general with liberal and reformist politics.
Destroy the Old / Build the New
A World Without Policing lays out a withering takedown of the institution of policing with fiery vim and audacious aplomb. Its no-nonsense hatred of the racist institution refreshingly cuts through the pulled punches and NGO-speak of some of the milieu of police reform and liberal distortions of abolitionist politics.
The case it makes for the need to tear up the old system—all of it—and build a new one is brisk, concise, and to the point. Showing no patience for reformism, the immediacy of the book is powerful. Maher’s writing evokes the actuality of abolition, to borrow from Georg Lukács’s description of the politics of Lenin.23Georg Lukács, “Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought.” “Radical alternatives to the world without police,” Maher writes in his conclusion, “today emerge not out of a distant dream or impossibly detached horizon, but as the lived reality of moments of resistance—no matter how small—struggles unfolding in the streets and in communities.”
This excellent book urges us to not just dream of a vision of a world without police, but to fight for it now. It’s right there: you can see it, you can take it.