Policing Black Freedom

George Floyd Protests, San Francisco, 2020 (Quinn Norton/Flickr)

Black people have always navigated a liminal, non-citizen or contested-citizenship status in the United States. One way to consider this contradiction is by looking at the long history of policing, which offers a frame to explore the complexities that underpin contemporary legacies of Black contested citizenship. Black people continue to be denied full access to the resources and conditions necessary to thrive, including quality health-care, employment, housing, food, and education. Policing has long centered on enforcing white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism — all baked into the very core of the US nation-state and related notions of citizenship.

Historically, a core feature of citizenship in the United States is that it was designed intentionally to foreclose Black freedom. Citizenship is inherently tied to the exclusion of Black people, whether within the US or abroad. This is why even when Black people are legally citizens, it has not translated to freedom, justice, and safety for Black communities in the United States–because it has always been, at best, peripheral or contested citizenship, which is effectively a form of non-citizenship altogether.

Policing is at the forefront of maintaining the conditions that structure the organized abandonment and violence that Black communities continue to contend with–a key marker of legacies of Black non-citizenship.1 Policing in the United States has always been embedded in systems of racial, class, labor and gendered exploitation and domination, dating back to enslavement, where Black people were considered property of white settlers. From the early colonial period, white settlers organized slave patrols to quell rebellion, raid the dwellings of enslaved people, and disrupt Black gatherings, which was seen as a precursor to Black resistance.

Citizenship, at face value, appears to guarantee certain treatment that affirms one’s humanity and “rights”. While specific definitions may vary, at its core, citizenship refers to ‘belonging’ to a particular nation-state, and receiving the full benefits and privileges of said nation-state. In the United States, full citizenship has always been reserved for a narrow population of people: principally those that are white and propertied. The construction and reproduction of the US nation-state has long rested on exclusionary State violence. Police, as well as the military, have long been on the frontlines of maintaining the laws and codes of a society fundamentally shaped by unjust racial, class, and gendered orders.

To many, citizenship can be seen as synonymous with the promise of justice, liberty, and freedom. But from the early period of settler-colonialism in the Americas, Black people–as well as indigenous people–were not seen as citizens. Continued police violence against Black people in the US represents a sharp articulation of how anti-blackness is the bedrock of both the US and current conceptions of citizenship. While some fought for the full inclusion of Black people as American citizens in the late 1800s during reconstruction, the efforts were quickly retrenched by organized white supremacist violence and terror. The culmination of the Long Civil Rights Movement represented the next phase of an ardent attempt, by some, to combat Jim Crow segregation, voter repression, and Black contested citizenship. Police were at the forefront of efforts to violently repress Black political organizing during the Long Civil Rights movement and Black Power Movements.

A significant amount of Black uprisings–whether those of the 1960s or today–have been immediately sparked by police violence. But the rebellions often speak to much more: the inability to access food, meaningful employment, education, healthcare, and so much more. While a number of bills passed as a result of political organizing throughout the mid-1900s–including the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Bill, which seemed to extend particular benefits to Black and other marginalized communities in the US–it did not guarantee full access to the perceived promises and privileges of full citizenship.

Continued State violence illuminates the continuous non-citizen, or contested citizen, status–of Black people in the US. During the mid-20th century when Black communities needed resources–and reparations–American governments at the height of the Civil Rights Movement accelerated the growth of the carceral state by building prisons, expanding policing, and developing technology to establish the mass systems of surveillance, policing, and incarceration seen today.

Acquiring citizenship, and being treated as wholly “American” has at times, appeared as the sole route to full access to social, political, and economic institutions and as a proxy for a semblance of freedom. Black political efforts aimed at securing freedom and justice have at times focused on efforts to end the non-citizenship status of Black people. But the codes, laws, and political organization of the United States–which policing is at the forefront of preserving– are so steeped in anti-Black racism that American citizenship has always failed to be expansive enough to adequately, and fully, hold Black humanity and life. Any approximation to full citizenship has thus remained tentative.

It’s important to note that not all Black leaders and thinkers saw Black citizenship as a central political goal. Throughout history, many Black activists and intellectuals strived for something far more expansive than citizenship as a means to actualize Black freedom. Marcus Garvey began a movement to repatriate to Africa; the Black Panthers created self-sustaining survival programs outside the State, as well as cop-watch patrols to protect Black communities from state violence from the police; and generations of Black people sought self-determination and an identity separate from the US nation-state, including Kwame Toure, W.E.B. Du Bois, and others.

While many still fought to create more breathing room for Black communities even when rejecting the proposition of the possibility of being fully, “American”, there were both ideological and political movements that were aimed at thinking and moving beyond the allure of citizenship and the nation state that often accompanied an internationalist and socialist orientation.

These visions have pushed back against the idea that the modern nation-state is the most appropriate way to organize political life, and presented alternative political-economic arrangements where people across the world are able to share and collaborate around resources to meet basic needs and provide resources outside of, and against, the confines of the nation-state. Black communities’  ability to create a sense of autonomy, or imagined identity, outside of the constructs of the modern nation-state that has been critical for survival.

As it stands, policing and the broader criminal legal system reproduce current relational paradigms centered on containment, punishment, displacement, and disappearance. Insofar as policing is centered on surveilling, disciplining, and punishing non-citizens and contested-citizens, it will require the abolition of policing–and the prison industrial complex more broadly–to achieve new systems of safety, and ways of being, that move beyond citizenship as a marker of freedom.

In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois wrote of an abolition democracy, that dismantles antidemocratic institutions, ends capitalism and the suffering that comes along with it, and transforms social relations to dissolve realities such as the psychological wages of whiteness, which prevented struggling white workers from  building meaningful, potentially mutually beneficial relationships with Black workers. At the same time, the project embraces direct, democratic institutions and an economy centered in socialism.

Angela Davis has expanded on Du Bois’ framework of abolition democracy in Abolition Democracy as it relates to the prison industrial complex and imperialism, and has been a guiding light to contemporary struggles to abolish policing and the prison industrial complex, including the nation-wide calls to defund and abolish policing that sparked the nation in 2020.

As scholar and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore has stated, “Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack.” The creation of life-affirming institutions is central to addressing the underlying causes of violence, harm, and conflict and developing alternative safety interventions and responses to them that do not center policing, prisons, and punishment.

Citizenship is fundamentally built on exclusion and arbitrary borders. The modern nation-state was structured to preserve the plunder of colonialism, slavery, and racial capitalism. Policing provides one lens through which it becomes clear that the non-citizenship of Black people in America requires us to move beyond the limited frame of citizenship altogether as a measure of, and proxy for, Black freedom.

  1. Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. “Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning.” In Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship, edited by Charles Hale, 31–61. Berkeley: University of California, 2008.
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Philip V. McHarris

Dr. Philip V. McHarris is a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University in the Department of African American Studies and the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab. He recently completed his PhD in Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University. Philip’s main areas of research include race and ethnicity, housing, policing, and inequality. His current research focuses on the experiences of residents of a high-rise public housing development in Brooklyn, NY as they navigate concerns surrounding safety, policing, building conditions, and cycles of poverty. Follow him on Twitter @philipvmcharris.