Often when people discuss police and prisons, they are referred to as examples of institutionalized racism. How accurately does this coinage by Kwame Ture portray these elements of modern society? Similar language is used in Are Prisons Obsolete, where Angela Davis refers to slavery, lynching, and segregation as “historical expressions of racism” (pg.25). She succinctly describes the enslavement of African people and their subsequent treatment in order to make a connection to prisons. I’d argue that Davis’ summarization of these events as “historical expressions of racism” is euphemistic. According to George Jackson, “any explanation for social phenomenon, past, present or future, must present valid arguments and proof” (pg. 6). It has only been about 132 years since the violent colonial project of slavery ended in the Americas. Furthermore, official slavery lasted for centuries more than the amount of time that has passed since its abolition. The enslavement of Africans by Europeans was a form of colonial exploitation. Police and prisons are tools for carrying out white colonial domination in the present day.
Today’s society is largely a colonial manifestation. Colonialism is the foreign domination of a people by an alien group for the purposes of economic exploitation. The colonizer relies on brute force to loot the colonized of their labor and recourses. Europeans committed genocide against Africans and Indigenous Americans not simply because they were moved by extreme prejudice, but because they were ruthlessly seeking economic gain. The enslaved Africans along with the land acquired from this assault constituted the start-up capital for capitalism itself. When slavery no longer suited the Europeans due to countless brave and viscous revolts, they updated the system of exploitation to meet their economic needs. George taught us in Blood in My Eye,
“We will not succeed until we fully accept the fact that the enemy is aware, determined, disguised, totalitarian, and mercilessly counterrevolutionary. To fight effectively, we must be aware of the fact that the enemy has consolidated through reformist machination the greatest community of self-interest that has ever existed” (pg. 135).
Slavery was colonial violence. The lynching of Africans by ordinary white people was colonial violence. The pipeline of youth from Black communities to prisons is colonial violence. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were instances of colonial violence. Colonialism was the enemy then and is the enemy now.
There have been several outcries to change the way that police and prisons operate. Popular slogans we hear call to “abolish the police”, or “defund the police”. Any conversation concerning police and prisons must reckon with the fact that these institutions are artifacts of colonialism. Although this understanding may not be at the surface of today’s popular thought, it is clear that the people are moving towards this consciousness. In response to the demands to abolish and defund the police, some pigs made a video explaining their belief that they keep people safe. Black people on twitter spliced these videos and edited in their reaction, ranking each pig from 1-10 on their likelihood to kill them in the street. This viral trend shows that the people understand the function of U.S. police departments. As George Jackson put it, “Anyone who can pass the civil service examination today can kill me tomorrow. Anyone who passed the civil service examination yesterday can kill me today with complete immunity.” It is increasingly clear that the role of police is to act as the arm of the state that brings violence into the homes of the colonized. This is the knife that the colonizer has placed in our backs as they steal our labor and occupy our land.
Any solution to police and prisons that does not contend with colonialism has already lost. Abolitionist perspectives on prisons have showed their weakness in this area. In the closing chapter of Are Prisons Obsolete, Davis opens with a quote from Arthur Waskow in which he states
“Second, the only full alternative is building the kind of society that does not need prisons: A decent redistribution of power and income so as to put out the hidden fire of burning envy that now flames up in crimes of property—both burglary by the poor and embezzlement by the affluent.”
Waskow doesn’t seem to have included in his analysis and understanding of why the rich embezzle while the poor steal. Instead, these crimes are grouped together as crimes of property. The true crime of property is that which allowed the slave drivers of yesterday to become the CEO embezzlers of today, while those who were enslaved yesterday get criminalized as we endure neo-slavery. In this same chapter, Davis states: “Alternatives [to incarceration] that fail to address racism, male dominance, homophobia, class bias, and other structures of domination will not, in the final analysis, lead to decarceration and will not advance the goal of abolition” (pg. 108). Racism, patriarchy, and homophobia are all forces that should be contended with. However, it should occur to us that these are European imports. Safiya Bukhari understood this about patriarchy in particular, claiming “I am not a feminist, I am a revolutionary” (pg.58) as well as “we must cast out the oppressor’s culture, including sexism.” (pg. 59). The violence of these “structures of domination” is the violence of colonialism itself.
As for class bias, would it not be a better goal to eliminate class altogether? A proper society should have as its main priority that everyone have access to food, shelter, clothing, and health care. Peace between the poor and the rich can only mean peace for the rich while the poor are told to be satisfied with less. According to the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, the median white family has 41 times more wealth than the median African family. With these statistics, we must understand bourgeois crime to be fundamentally different from crime by the colonized. Resolving class bias sounds like we want African families to be more at peace with having less than a quarter of the wealth of white families. The material reality of our existence as colonized people demands that the contradictions surrounding wage-slavery be dealt with alongside mass incarceration and policing.
People need power in order to act in their own self-interest. Waskow pointed out that there needs to be a redistribution of power and income. The language of “redistributing power” suggests that the bourgeoisie would come to a consensus and give back the power they stole. Another way to think about power is the ability of a people to exercise self-determination. When a people’s self-determination is taken away, it is not up to the bourgeoisie or any colonial force to “redistribute” it back to them. It is up to the people to seize power from the clutches of white power. White people gained their wealth and power by dispossessing the world’s people of their land and resources. We are not moving towards a redistribution of power, but to retribution for all nations.
There have been several historical expressions of Black nationhood even after the dawn of colonization. Peter Tosh sang “as long as you’re a Black man, you’re an African.” Revolutionary hip-hop duo Dead Prez rapped “I’m an African, I’m an African and I know what’s happening.” To be African and know what’s happening means to be aware that within the United States and all colonial entities, being poor and Black is a crime. The state is capable of building and filling up new prisons without having a valid reason. One would think that the increase in the number of prisons and in prison populations is a result of an increase in crime. However, it has been shown that by the time the United States started building new prisons at an exponential rate, crime was already on a downward trend. This in conjunction with “three-strike” laws and indeterminate sentences doom colonized Africans to the often inevitable situation of being imprisoned.
Both revolutionaries and regular African people suffer the fate of colonialism. In Elaine Brown’s book The Condemnation of Little B, we see how “mercilessly counter-revolutionary” the state is. Little B was homeless for two years prior to his imprisonment, but the fascist U.S government uses criminal sentencing as a solution for homeless children. The United States has no intention of fixing her societal ills unless it serves the ruling class. Liberal reforms will never solve the problems of the masses because as Naomi Murakawa put it in The First Civil Right, “the lasting legacy of liberal law-and-order is this: we evaluate the administrative quality by which each individual is searched, arrested, ware-housed, or put to death.” (pg. 18). Even with liberal reforms, the state still intends to kill the colonized. They might just make sure to knock first, or follow whatever protocol there is to carry out killing.
When we shift our thinking from tackling racism to tackling colonialism, it gives us more clarity in the fight. The concept of race denies African people their nationhood. Racism makes colonial-capitalist rule seem like a matter of primitive biological-based prejudice. Examining the police and prisons as colonial objects offers much more clarity as to what we are up against. The plight of colonized people around the world is a matter of material things. Identifying the struggle as one against colonialism allows us to identify that all of the wealth generated by capitalism is wealth that belongs to the world’s people. Europeans seized control of over half the world’s resources. These are resources that belong to Africans, Palestinians, Iraqis, South Americans. Rather than pleading for the ruling class to say our lives matter or redistribute power, the intention should be to take back the power they stole.
Reggae artist Protoje said in his song “Blood Money”, “If you build it ‘pon crime then crime will haffi (have to) find you, and that’s how it’s been always.” I find this to be a great lesson in dialectics. This lyric speaks to the fact that colonial violence can only be countered with revolutionary counter-violence. In order to change the course of history, the enemy for the last half a millennium must be confronted seriously. After examining the nature of the system, we must understand that it cannot be reformed. With the summer of 2020 lingering behind us and not to be forgotten soon, the people have great potential to develop revolutionary consciousness. George stated that “if people are to understand and relate to revolutionary violence, they must first be educated into an acceptance of the fact that there is no alternative, or that the alternative is less inviting than a fight.”(pg. 14). As long as the masses remain disillusioned by liberal counter-revolutionary rhetoric, then their revolutionary potential will be unleashed. Jackson discusses seizing power extensively in Blood in My Eye. He states that “any serious organizing of people must carry with it from the start a potential threat of revolutionary violence.” (pg. 79). Revolution poses death, but “we always have done most of the dying, and still do: dying at the stake, through social neglect, or in U.S. foreign wars. The point is now to construct a situation where someone else will join in the dying. If it fails and we have to do most of the dying anyway, we’re certainly no worse off than before.” (pg. 6). If we must die, let it be as brave men and women in pursuit of liberation. The masses of the people need a tool with which to criticize the unjust ruling class. That tool is a weapon, and that weapon is an organized, relentlessly principled revolution. Elaine Brown sang that we must “seize the time, the time is now.” This is as true today as it was in the sixties. We must seize the time and remember that “as revolutionaries, it is our objective to move ourselves and the people into actions that will culminate in the seizure of state power. Our real purpose is to redeem not merely ourselves but the whole nation and the whole community of nations from colonial-community economic repression.”(pg. 133)
Are Prisons Obsolete, Angela Davis
Blood in My Eye, George L. Jackson
The Condemnation of Little B, Elaine Brown
The First Civil Right, Naomi Murakawa
The War Before, Safiya Bukhari
“The Case for Reparations: from Slavery to George Floyd”,