If you’ve been keeping up to date with the demonstrations in America following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, you’ve probably picked up a familiar refrain: “defund the police.” Or “abolish the police.” Or “ACAB.”
Rallying against police brutality is something we’ve seen before—Lord knows Filipinos have cried power against it too. It’s a problem that this country and the West share, and are finding solidarity in. But some people reading this might balk at the idea of getting rid of the cops entirely. Should we end the police?
Where does one even begin? Consider looking to The End of Policing by sociology professor Alex S. Vitale. Published by Verso Books, The End of Policing aims to debunk the notion that the police protect and serve the public, exposes the inherently violent nature of the police, proposes reform solutions, and broadens our horizons on what it means to uphold justice. The ebook was distributed absolutely free for a time but is currently selling at 70 percent off, £5.10, or just a bit over 300 Philippine pesos. The hardcover is sold out.
The police brutality parallels between the Philippines and U.S. are already stark, but roots apparently run deeper than just drug wars and extrajudicial killings. According to Vitale, when it comes to the evolution of the police, Philippine and American history overlap. “Jesse Garwood, a major figure in the US occupation forces in the Philippines, brought the methods of militarized espionage and political suppression to bear on Pennsylvania miners and factory workers.”
Some context: according to the book, in the late nineteenth century, Pennsylvania was home to many unions and workers movements. The suppression of such movements—which involved strikebreakers and outright killing miners—borrowed techniques that the Philippine Constabulary used to maintain US occupation, in response to anticolonial rebellion.
Vitale continues: “These practices then fed back into domestic American policing. The most important police leader of the twentieth century, August Vollmer, after serving in the Philippines, became chief of police in Berkeley California, and wrote the most influential textbook of modern policing. Vollmer went on to pioneer the use of radio patrol cars, fingerprinting, and other techniques now considered standard practice.”
Already, we see untangleable ties between police violence and colonial violence. The same mechanisms of control and subordination that threatened our independence and sovereignty, are the same mechanisms that threaten the lives of the marginalized both here and abroad, whether we’re talking about Black Lives Matter protesters or the San Roque 21.
Vitale unpacks the violent practices of the police in a multifaceted way, looking at the issue through the lens of poverty and homelessness, sex work, and the war on drugs, to name a few lenses. With poor and homeless people, the police tend to look at them as sources of disorder, criminal elements that should be aggressively apprehended. But that doesn’t address the root problems of poverty. The poor and mentally ill can’t afford mental health services, but modern policing doesn’t give them access to such services, sometimes even dispatching them with lethal means, as shown by the murder of Winston Ragos. As for homeless people on public property, “Police routinely break up encampments”—squatters—”
As one can imagine, women and LGBTQ+ people are hit especially hard by the policing of sex work. Some might say that the goal of criminalizing sex work is to reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted disease, and managing violence between prostitutes, customers, and pimps. When really it’s more about keeping property values high.
And because prostitutes fear prosecution and hate crimes and the hands of police, they don’t go to the police when they need help. “Arrests are made, loiterers dispersed, and radio jobs handled,” the book says. “Does any of this make communities safer or improve the lives of sex workers? Overwhelmingly, the answer is no.” Gay and transgender folk are often also wrongfully assumed to engage in sex work. This is the kind of homophobia that perhaps informs the arrest of the Pride 20.
As for the drug war—whether we’re talking about the American one or the Philippine one—this one passage by Vitale sums things up very precisely. “Many people involved in the drug industry don’t really have a drug problem; they have a job problem. Many others have drug problems that directly stem from the economic conditions they struggle with. There is no way to reduce the widespread use of drugs without dealing with profound economic inequality and a growing sense of hopelessness.”
Of course police problems between here and the US are different in nuanced ways. The US has to reckon with its police problem with the dimension of race, for one thing, and Richard Nixon’s legacy gives their country’s drug war a specifically racist character. Here, we’ve got the Anti-Terror Bill, police holding mañanita, and a whole host of issues that are too much to rattle off even before we consider how the COVID-19 pandemic complicates these problems.
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Still, even though Vitale addresses the problems of the police in a specifically American context, many of the solutions he proposes can apply here, and it takes more than just a budget for body cams and arresting a few bad cops. (Side note: “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis is a perfect companion read to this book, and does with jails what Vitale does with police.) Police reform and abolition are complicated, but we can start with systemically addressing the problems faced by the people that police tend to criminalize. We can protect sex workers, combat poverty, destigmatize drug use. The government can introduce new training methods that do away with the warrior mentality so prevalent among our law enforcers, who often shoot first and ask questions later.
But even with all that said, Vitale invites us to consider that such reforms might not be enough, because the police system is inherently messed up to begin with. Perhaps we should look to our communities—i.e. people who aren’t cops—to make our society more livable, to cultivate a culture where we can all depend on each other, without fear of a carelessly fired bullet.
You can purchase ‘The End of Policing’ as an ebook from Verso Books
Photo by Basilio H. Sepe, ABS-CBN News (left), REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz (right).