Police Exist to Manage and Contain the Surplus Population

Cedric Johnson

The 2020 George Floyd protests made millions of Americans aware of the horrors of police violence. But to build a mass movement to end that violence, we must recognize that police control people of all races who are unable to legally make ends meet.

Police in riot gear gather during a demonstration after the fatal shooting by a police officer of Patrick Lyoya in Grand Rapids, Michigan, April 16, 2022. (Mustafa Hussain / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
J. C. Pan

In 2020, the mass demonstrations that exploded across the country over the police murder of George Floyd spurred a nationwide reckoning on race and an outpouring of promises from politicians to enact policing reform. In the intervening years, however, little in the way of policing in the United States appears to have changed. Last year, for instance, over 1,100 people were killed by police.

In his new book, After Black Lives Matter: Policing and Anti-Capitalist Struggle, political scientist Cedric Johnson explores the origins and consequences of what he calls stress policing, or the style of law enforcement that emerged out of “broken windows” initiatives in the carceral expansion of the 1980s. Johnson argues that, contrary to popular conceptions, policing in the United States is not primarily an expression of antiblackness or white supremacy, but rather functions to secure the conditions for perpetual capital accumulation, in large part by managing a surplus population that is increasingly multiracial. “Police violence,” he writes, “is not meted out against the black population en masse but is trained on the most dispossessed segments of the working class across metropolitan, small town and rural geographies.”

And while “Black Lives Matter” has been a powerful rallying cry in the streets, Johnson further demonstrates that the focus on racial disparities among victims of police violence tends to detract from the creation of the kind of majoritarian political coalition that will ultimately be necessary to roll back the carceral state. In an interview with Jacobin, he discusses his new book and offers a perspective on how working people — and the labor movement in particular — can collectively contest police violence.

J. C. Pan

In 2020, a lot of leftists were hopeful that the George Floyd protests would be a transformative moment for the country. Unfortunately, since then, police violence in the United States doesn’t seem to have abated at all.

You’ve long argued that while Black Lives Matter is, in many ways, an understandable response to the phenomenon of stress policing, it’s also inherited many of the limitations of postwar racial liberalism. What are some of these limitations, and how should we understand police violence today?

Cedric Johnson

A blind spot of Black Lives Matter and adjacent notions like the New Jim Crow is the tendency to view police violence as an exclusively black problem, and a problem that universally threatens black people.

The response I’ve given repeatedly is that policing is not primarily about “controlling black bodies.” What we are witnessing is a problem that’s actually much bigger and more daunting: We have a problem of a society that’s by and large abandoned welfare provision and has instead decided to address the desperately poor and the dispossessed through policing. As a society, we’ve come to manage surplus population through punishment rather than benevolence.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on my own experiences and the journey of how this book came to be. I’ve thought about this subject matter since I was a teenager, having grown up in Louisiana amid the carceral expansion, and then protesting capital punishment as a freshman in college. As a nineteen-year-old, I was already taking younger black males to visit one of Louisiana’s prisons, where we talked to wardens and inmates and former gang members.

So I’ve been thinking about this subject for a long time, and as I’ve been listening to the Black Lives Matter rhetoric and engaging with peers and participating in demonstrations, a lot of the rhetoric seemed off the mark. There’s been a lot of hyperbole regarding who the main victims of police violence are; who’s most affected by it. On the one hand, the Black Lives Matter rhetoric motivates people to get into the streets and has helped force the issue into public conversation. But it also distracts from the fundamental motive of policing.

When we take a serious look at the victims of that violence — when we look closely at who they are and what their lives are like — a different set of conclusions emerges or should emerge for us.

Whenever there’s a violent incident involving a black civilian, on one side, you’ve got the Fraternal Order of Police and Blue Lives Matter types who try to demonize the victim: they pull out whatever bad things they can find about the person or bring up their criminal record and so forth. On the other side, activists try to suppress that information in order to humanize the victim, and instead talk about the great things the person did, whether he was a parent, an honor roll student, a devoted friend, and so on; details that allow us to see them as a whole person, not just a victim.

And both sides are actually right, but for the wrong reasons. We should be able to say, “These human beings did not deserve what happened to them; it was unjust.” But we should also be clear that many of them were involved in survival crimes and criminalized forms of work, or maybe just lived in places where those were the dominant aspects of the economy.

So I think there’s a way to avoid both the right-wing response and the liberal response. We need a genuine left analysis of society as it exists. We have to identify the common hardships that many people are facing, the circumstances that force people to engage in activities that are targeted aggressively by police and our courts system. Black Lives Matter opens the door to important public debate, but it also points us in the wrong direction.

J. C. Pan

I think there are a number of leftists who would agree that policing is about controlling a surplus population, but might then say that a racial framing is still necessary for understanding the problem, because the surplus population is racialized, or is disproportionately black and brown. Is this a useful way of resolving some of the tensions between the so-called race analysis and the class analysis?

Cedric Johnson

Going back again to my own experiences, when I was a teenager during the Reagan-Bush years, it was black civil rights organizations, black ministers, and black students who were some of the first people to contest the carceral expansion of the 1980s and ’90s, even though we weren’t calling it mass incarceration at that moment. Hip-hop artists too — think back to all the various protest anthems that came out of the ’80s. This formative framing of the policing problem as one of enduring racism really shaped how we thought about the problem and has at times constrained us.

I think it was Milton Friedman who once said that whenever there’s a crisis, people reach for the ideas that are lying around. That was certainly true of the carceral expansion in the ’80s and early ’90s, and with cases like Rodney King. It looked like racism, it sounded like racism, and it acted like racism, so that’s what it was. But at the same time, that interpretation emerged primarily from the urban theater and was trained on a particular set of experiences and incidents within cities.

But right now, as [the political scientist] Marie Gottschalk and others have pointed out, with the opioid crisis, we’ve seen that demography shift, and many popular analyses of policing and incarceration haven’t really kept up with those changes. There have been reductions in the numbers of black men who have been incarcerated, and at the same time, increases in the numbers of working-class whites.

This actually contradicts a quip I hear repeated over and over, which holds that the crack-cocaine crisis was met with aggressive policing, but we’ve treated the opioid crisis as a public health crisis. That pop narrative is usually offered as evidence of a racial double standard, but in the process, it gets both historical crises and their pernicious effects on the working class dreadfully wrong. The numbers Gottschalk cites suggest that both periods have been defined by punishment more than state benevolence. So we’re at a point now where we have to think beyond the urban theater.

I get a version of this question at every talk that I give on this. Somebody always gets up at the end and says, “I understand what you’re saying about class. But what about race?” And this is sometimes tough for people to appreciate, but the reality is that throughout American history, the vast majority of people who are poor in this country have always been white. At the height of AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] payments, the majority of recipients were white (though the popular image of the welfare recipient was a black person, thanks to Ronald Reagan and others). And even if we’re talking about blacks and Latinos as a plurality of people within a surplus population, those people are still different from the rest of African Americans who have jobs, bank accounts, credit cards, mortgages, and possibly savings; people who are somewhat upwardly mobile in the economy. I think we have to ask what’s to be gained by ignoring the fact of common conditions facing the most oppressed elements of the working class of all colors.

It’s not only important on an intellectual level to get this story right. It’s also important politically if we’re trying to build a left majority. If we’re concerned about inequality and the damage that capital does to society — to our lives and our neighborhoods and communities — then we should be looking at what’s happening to everybody, not just the people who live in our immediate vicinity, or what correct political line might be popular at one particular moment.

J. C. Pan

In your book you also unpack the function of the police. You’re clear that you view the role of the police in capitalism as defending private property and upholding the existing class structure. But at the same time, you also reject simplistic sloganeering that says that the police are only the enemies of workers. Why should we think about the police not just as a repressive apparatus, but also as a very specific type of workforce?

Cedric Johnson

The ACAB slogan is great when you’re at the barricades, but I don’t see it as my role to just follow whatever’s happening in the streets. The way I try to describe the police — and I already can hear the jeers and boos from certain corners — is as a type of alienated worker. I’m not suggesting that the police are productive workers in the traditional sense; I’m saying that they’re reproductive. Their labor is necessary insofar as it secures the conditions for capital accumulation to take place.

But even that role changes in quality and form over time. During the period of industrialization, the function of the police was, on one side, to crush labor insurgencies, and then also to do things like round up drunks and allow them to dry out so they could make it to work the next morning. We live in a different “postindustrial” moment now, where the police are there to manage and contain the surplus population, and to shore up [conditions] for all sorts of urban real estate speculation and development, and the expansion of tourism and entertainment in cities.

We should also remember that the police are often people who are conscripted by class — that is, people who end up pursuing that particular occupation because they don’t have a whole lot of other options. The same is true for people in the military. I don’t mention this in the book, but in the community where I grew up in South Louisiana, it was mandatory for everyone in my high school to take the ASVAB [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] test — we didn’t have a choice. When I tell that story to people from other parts of the country, they’re like, “What? We never had to do anything like that!” And it’s because you weren’t from one of the poorest places in the entire United States!

I’ve had classmates, friends and family members, and other people I’ve known throughout the years who’ve worked in law enforcement, and I know that their route to that occupation is often more complicated, and their occupation doesn’t necessarily determine who they are, how they see the world, how they move about in the world, or even how they occupy that particular job. So I tried to offer a more nuanced interpretation of the police, while still thinking about them as fulfilling a repressive role.

I was inspired by both James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon in writing that chapter. A lot of people love Baldwin, but they forget that he offered a depiction of the police in Harlem as actual human beings cast in an impossible role as managers of the black ghetto, who struggled to reconcile their prescribed task and the humanity of those blacks they confronted everyday. The same is true for Fanon: in Wretched of the Earth he opens with a chapter on emancipatory violence but concludes the book with a more nuanced treatment of the role of the colonizer and the damage that occupation does to the French soldiers and police who have to manage the colony.

I think as I get older, I’m less patient with empty posturing and hand-me-down slogans that don’t give us either the political vision we need or the view of social reality that we should have. If we’re sincere about trying to build a left-wing opposition, I think we have to account for the fact that there have been moments within American history where some elements of the police have realized the problems in their role and have instead sided with working-class people.

J. C. Pan

On that note, you also talk about the role that organized labor can play in fighting police violence. In 2020 I saw a few calls for workers to go on strike to protest police violence and calls for parent unions to kick out police unions. But in your book, you discuss an approach from inside the labor movement that’s actually very different.

Cedric Johnson

You mean the discussion of [United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America president] Carl Rosen? Right. He gave a speech that I thought was great because he was, again, thinking about actually existing conditions. So, in a place like Chicago, you’ve got police officers who are connected to all sorts of other public employees, as spouses, as friends, as people who belong to the same neighborhoods, social networks and communities.

This is very counterintuitive in this world of callouts and cancellations, but Rosen suggested that because of those connections, there could be a way for local labor unions to push for greater police accountability by engaging directly with the police unions. He was saying, we know these people; they’re part of our central labor councils, and we talk to them on a regular basis. There’s a way that we can try to address these problems that involves engaging with them — not the most right-wing or fanatical Fraternal Order shills — but the rank-and-file folks who work in these departments, who are also concerned about their reputations and concerned about public perceptions of the police.

I’ve been a part of a couple of different unions and some local labor council committees, and the work that happens in those spaces is just completely different from what happens on social media and within some sectarian subcultures. It’s about building bonds of trust and working in good faith with other people, who may be very different from you. You always have to be mindful that those relationships are fragile, and remind yourself of the actual common interest that you have, and not violate those delicate and hard-fought linkages with irresponsible speech.

It’s reasonable to think that the police also have an interest in changing the conditions that they work under. We know that policing is not the most dangerous occupation out there — the last time I checked, it wasn’t even in the top ten — but for the police and other first responders, mental health is an occupational safety issue. There’s been a quiet epidemic of police suicides and untreated mental health crises that need to be addressed. So officers themselves should be concerned about improving conditions and improving policing practices and finding a way to achieve public safety not through expanded and more militarized policing, but through economic security for the greatest number of people. I do think there’s an opportunity there for us, as unionists, to insist on better policing and better practices.

J. C. Pan

I want to ask you about the calls from leftists to abolish the police. I think that most people who identify as abolitionists would probably agree that this is not something that can happen tomorrow, just as we can’t overturn capitalism tomorrow. But people argue that even if we can’t abolish the police overnight, it should still be a long-term goal or a horizon. Is that a useful way to think about the problem of policing?

Cedric Johnson

There are some great things about abolitionist arguments; I share some ground with them. I agree that we should shrink or rightsize police departments in certain places where they’re too large and overblown. We should rethink the kinds of crises and problems that police regularly respond to, and whether those problems can be addressed instead by unarmed nonpolice units.

I also like the redistributive arguments that have been made by defund proponents, though I think some of those proposals don’t go far enough, in the sense that it shouldn’t just be police budgets that we’re thinking about recuperating. We should be thinking about the massive tax giveaways, land grants, and infrastructure upgrades doled out to corporations and private developers that happen in cities every day. That should also be the focus of any genuine urban left politics.

But all that said, I think it’s naive at best to think that we can have a postpolice society. Especially at this moment, when there are so many mass shootings, reactionary militia, and other emergencies, just saying “abolish the police” is not a useful way to talk about things. It doesn’t win any converts from people who either live in communities that suffer from violence, or Americans who have experienced these more sporadic incidents of mass violence.

I don’t think we can have the kind of complex urban society that we do without state force. I don’t think we can have governance, and for that matter, social justice, without the monopoly of violence. The problem for us right now is that the police uphold a highly unjust and terrible capitalist order. But at various points in American history, we’ve also seen moments where some form of policing has been necessary to advance social justice, especially in regard to African Americans. I think that’s something that’s missing from a lot of abolitionist talk. There’s no Reconstruction after the Civil War without federal occupation of the Deep South — I’m sorry, it just doesn’t happen. And the very moment that federal troops are withdrawn after the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, the Reconstruction process slowly collapses.

Another example of where we’ve seen police playing a role in advancing social justice is the civil rights movement. We of course know that there was repressive policing at the local level — segregationist police departments who repressed nonviolent protesters — and then throughout the 1960s, ramped-up FBI surveillance and then COINTELPRO repression of black activists and organizations. But at the same time, there were also progressive state interventions such as the deployments of federal marshals and the National Guard. Force was necessary to break open the whites-only ballot box, to allow black kids to attend schools in New Orleans and other places. We should be aware of those historical instances and think about these contradictions in a way that’s serious and takes historical materialism with a sense of sincerity and integrity.

J. C. Pan

I want to end on a quote from your most recent Catalyst piece. You say that we’re actually “at a time when real, effective majority coalitions in local and national contexts are more possible than at any time since the Great Depression and more likely to produce genuine societal transformation.” That line stuck out to me because it seemed very optimistic for you. Can you elaborate on why you think the conditions right now are actually pretty good, all things considered, for building this kind of coalition?

Cedric Johnson

You have to celebrate good things when you can. I do think there are signs of change in the country. Having lived in Chicago for over a decade, and now spending time in Los Angeles, I’ve noticed a real step forward in the way that people are talking about issues like gentrification, the unhoused, unionization, and so forth. Of course, these discussions can sometimes still be vapid or superficial — for example, when gentrification is understood primarily as a cultural thing. But there’s a growing awareness that society isn’t working for so many people.

Many people are feeling these problems — whether it’s the inadequacy of the health care system, whether it’s the difficulty in attaining a college education due to the exorbitant and rising costs, whether it’s homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, or crime and a lack of safety in big cities. People are now talking about these things in ways that we didn’t talk about them in the ’90s. I think there’s now a consciousness of the limitations of our society that weren’t there before.

And you can look at various social struggles — not just Black Lives Matter, but also teachers’ strikes that aren’t only about wages and benefits of staff and teachers, but are also broader fights over what public education should look like. When the Los Angeles Unified School District staff went on strike last month, their demands spoke to the broader cost of living in an unlivable and unaffordable city, hardships experienced throughout Los Angeles county and beyond.

Or take the recent election of Brandon Johnson in Chicago, which was a reflection of growing social forces on the ground that represent a more critical view of the kind of market-centric urbanism we’ve been stuck with for so long. There’s an understanding that the for-profit city doesn’t serve us — in Chicago or anywhere else — and that we need something different, more genuinely democratic and socially just.

It seems to me that we’re at a moment that has some real possibilities. I’m a true Generation X-er, but these recent developments make a lot of the cynicism that I grew up with untenable. I think there are reasons to be optimistic.