The New Police State is a weekly exploration of policing in America. With the country in the midst of an epidemic of police killings and sometimes violent civil unrest in response to them, we’re talking to people about the role of law enforcement in our society. The starting point of this conversation is the hypothetical question: If you could create a new society overnight, what would that society’s police force look like?

Brendan McQuade is against community policing. He just finished up a stretch as visiting assistant professor in international studies at DePaul University, and much of his case against community policing tactics comes from experiences in Chicago. To mainstream liberals, community policing is a catchy new idea that gets the police more involved with the communities they serve, making inroads and gaining familiarity with the residents they’re likely to encounter while on duty. To McQuade community policing is an insidious way for the government to tighten control by parading around as a benevolent police force. His alternative suggestions—which include dismantling the police and focusing on restorative justice—are both thought provoking and radical enough to make most Bernie Sanders supporters pause. We talked over the phone about democratic militias, a world without police, and the great utopian horizon in the sky.

 

If you were drawing up the groundwork for a new society that would take effect overnight, what would the role of law enforcement be in that society?

There’s two qualifications. First, I think the police are an agency that is beyond reform. What we talk about as police reform or police professionalization doesn’t make a kinder, gentler, more just police. It makes a more efficient or more effective police doing the task that police do. But I’m very skeptical of the idea of law enforcement. I do not want to reform law enforcement as it currently exists, I want to transform that institution so radically that, concretely, it would be like disbanding the police and coming up with a new institution to mediate disputes.

If we want to reform police, that conversation can’t go very far unless you’re concerned with meeting people’s basic human needs. Because with the exception of a very few pathological individuals, most of the time crime is a function of poverty, segregation, social isolation. These are very uncontroversial statements that many boring bean-counting criminologists would endorse. So if we want to change policing I would start by meeting people’s basic needs—guaranteed housing, stuff like that. But then if we want to get down to the things that today we associate with the police—like mediating disputes, redressing wrongs, and dealing with people acting violently towards each other or their property—there’s a lot of interesting alternatives. A lot of this stuff is talked about today in terms of restorative justice or transformative justice.

Chicago is notorious for its outsized rate of gun violence. But in Chicago there are four restorative justice houses. There are four different centers in the city where there are peace circles—one is run by a Catholic church, one is run by some activists. They get together to mediate disputes outside of the legal system, so there’s no judicial sanction. But people are brought together by a trusted elder who makes them sit down and work through their shit and come up with a not necessarily a perfect solution, but come up with understanding in order to avoid violence or bloodshed. The principle there is, you ask a person that’s been wronged, “What’s it going to take for you to be restored?” You don’t need to know much about our prison system to know prison isn’t going to help most people that go there. It isn’t going to help their life. I’m not an expert on restorative justice. I think these are examples that should be built upon. It’s a wonderful way of dealing with disputes and providing for the safety of the community.

At the most immediate level, I support civilian police accountability boards. The model in Chicago is an elected board. There’s a proposal in Miami for a civilian board that will be randomly selected like a jury. If you look at police accountability boards, they’re pretty weak. They’re often appointed, and they mostly just have power to make recommendations. But then [those recommendations] have to be approved by the police chief or the commissioner or whoever the chief executive is, so they’re really watered down. If you look at the proposal in Chicago—it’s called C-Pac, Civilian Police accountability Council—they [would] have power. It’s a proposal prepared by a number of organizations that finally got introduced to city council by an alderman. It’s going to take a lot of mobilization to get passed. The legislation is amazing, specifically the civilian council [would have] the power to investigate any shooting, investigate any incident, fire the police chief—they [would] basically [be] an elected board of trustees that have power over the police. So in short term, I support stuff like that.

In the long-term, we need to look at restorative justice practices and build on them to see where they could take us. I kind of hesitate to answer your original question. You have to start with the world we live and work from there, so we can start with restorative justice and build better alternatives, but that’s the best answer I can give.

Do you feel like the proliferation of firearms in the United States plays a role in police violence?

When you’re talking about gun violence in the US, the kind of elephant in the room that nobody really wants to talk about, really you’re talking about, is “What is the way to regulate violence?” And at the end of the day, human societies are violent. When you read the Second Amendment [it grants] the right to bear arms in a well-regulated militia. We lost that second piece of it. So the Second Amendment is saying we need an armed citizenry, but what’s really in between the lines is a statement against having a standing army.

I have kind of a crazy idea, I think that what should be done is not only suspending the professional, uniformed police, but also dismantling the professional uniformed army and returning the powers of violence to the people through a series of elected, grassroots organizations. The best example here is in Rehova in Syrian Kurdistan, where there’s kind of like an anarchist revolution going on that hasn’t gotten too much press. There they have things that look like the police and things that look like militias that are, as much as they can be, democratically run, grassroots institutions. So when it comes to gun violence, I think we need to take the bigger picture and ask questions about the state, about violence, about political authority.

That said, in the immediate terms you make pragmatic compromises. So we’re not gonna transform the United States into a libertarian socialist anti-state. That’s not gonna happen anytime soon. So I probably would support Chicago’s handgun ban. It’s probably good policy for people suffering gun violence in the short term.

What would that long term goal look like on a policy level?

For us to dissolve the U.S. military, the biggest military in the world, and replace it with democratic citizen-controlled militias, for that change to actually happen, it would require such revolutionary changes across all domains of society that [it would be] hard to really anticipate. The militia movement today is super reactionary white supremacists. I don’t want to empower those people.

This is one component of a broader vision, a broader set of proposals. If you’re seriously concerned about gun violence in Chicago, for example, you’re not going to find a technical fix to a social problem. There’s a lot of truth to the right wing claim, “The bad guys are going to get their guns, no matter what.” A lot of the guns in Chicago are bought in Indiana and are illegally being sold. You’re not gonna find a magical policy that fits everything. If you’re really concerned about the problems of gun violence in a city like this you’ve got to deal with the underlying social problems, which are poverty, joblessness, segregation, and social exclusion.

So that’s the best I can say. The road deepens as you walk in. The political struggle is generative. We need a utopian horizon to strive toward, but that horizon will eternally recede as it gets flushed out. It’s not an idea of having some plan that you’re going to bring into being, it’s about a long term struggle to build a more just world. The idea of what that more just world is, is going to change. Say something dramatic politically happens that empowers a lot of silent voices in American society, that’s going to transform our understanding of the direction that we ought to heed. It’s impossible to predict it.

Do you see policies like the Chicago handgun ban as leading to a less nervous, less violent police force?

I think  it runs both ways. Some officers might be less worried about if that guy’s armed, and then maybe less itchy with that trigger finger. But then in some ways it might run the opposite for other cops. One might say, “Well, you know now if a drug dealer is going to get their guns anyway, whether or not they’re banned.”

I would support a handgun ban in Chicago, but I would want to ban the cops keeping guns too. In the UK they don’t have armed police officers and they’re doing okay, society hasn’t collapsed. Actually if you look at it, their cops manage to kill a lot less people, so maybe that’s a little bit better. Again, individual policies have their pluses and minuses, and no individual policy is going to fix the problem. No individual policy is wholly good or wholly bad.

What I’m more concerned with is a broad package of policies that will make meaningful change, make that utopian horizon glimmer for more people. This is where there’s been a tremendous failure of imagination among the critics of the police and the state. A lot of people in Black Lives Matter affiliated organizations call themselves prison and police abolitionists. But that really means nothing. It means they don’t like the cops and they want something different, but they have no vision. Go to any college campus and it won’t take long to find some 20-year-old kid who calls himself a socialist. Ask him what socialism looks like and he’ll be confused. We have a problem of imagination.

In terms of finding new ideas and new solutions to the problem of police violence, do you see the policies coming more from the city and community levels, the state level, the federal level, or all three?

It’s gotta come from the movement. As far as implementation on a policy level, it’s going to involve all three. But as far as the ideas, it’s gotta come from people at a local level who are close to these problems and have the local knowledge. But also [people who] aren’t so embedded in the system that it’s hard for them to think outside of it.

Movements are really important because movements can often introduce new ideas that are outside of the policy consensus. So restorative justice this has now become institutionalized in various ways, but restorative justice was something that came from movements. So I’m interested in ideas that are emerging from existing movements.

In Chicago we have an organization, Mothers Against Senseless Killings, who are basically violence interrupters. They’re not hostile toward the police, but they definitely see the police as part of the problem not part of the solution. [They] kind of do their own thing, and they’ve  done some really amazing work. What we need to do is study these people and give grants to the community to keep organizations like this, and maybe we reduce the police budget. The police in Chicago get 40 percent of the budget. [We should] reduce their budget by $10 to $20 million and start a grant funding program for violence interruption.

The role of the federal government and the role of the state government can be very ambiguous. This is my big criticism of community policing, [it’s] an attempt to re-legitimize police and start to head off more disruptive change. When movements are strong enough, they can force the state to act, and then the federal government has a hugely important role to play in implementing. But I think if we expect President Obama and Scott Thomson, the Camden County Police Chief, to save us, were going to be waiting forever.