Sentinels of Liberty – Police Power and Capital: An Interview with Dr. Tyler Wall, Part II

Read Part I here.

Nicholas: Do you envision police as having any (redefined) role in serving under the hypothetical scenario where a socialist government held official power (e.g. Syriza in Greece)?

Tyler: [This] question is quite complicated, obviously, and one that I am not prepared to really speak to in any meaningful way. Historical context matters a great deal in these types of questions. This is also to say that anti-security, as stated previously, is an intervention into the relationship between capitalism and the security state, and therefore is itself a project that must be situated within its own historical and geographical context. I am interested in responding to the violence of a capitalist, racist system that ad nauseam positions its violence and cruelty as anything but cruel and violent, but as the highest stage of justice and democracy. Of course, actually existing socialism should be a primary goal of the Left, and thinking through the role of policing in this will be important. I am admittedly less interested in thinking through the police role in a socialist future, although it is an important and extremely complicated question, but more so in thinking about how to get to where we want to go will require confronting just how fundamental police have been and are in the building and maintenance of a racially capitalist order. I think we still need more understanding of how important police is to capital, to accumulation regimes and private property and labor, and how to forge spaces and relations beyond and without police and cops. This is also why I personally find much of the abolitionist politics surrounding prisons and policing so useful and inspiring, and we might even say to be abolitionist is to engage in a sort of anti-security politics, and vice versa, in that this requires a refusal of the capitalist state’s definition of what constitutes (in)security and threats to well-being and social order: the courage to imagine radical alternatives to a world dominated by a racist and racialized politics of security where cops and cages rule the day.

Nicholas: You’ve offered some words of caution to critical academics and activists, specifically in your piece “Ordinary Emergency: Drones, Police, and Geographies of Legal Terror,” as to why we should not fetishize the drone as something novel but instead, view it as part of a historical continuum of state violence. Would you expound upon this need to de-fetishize critics’ and commentator’s focus on the unmanned aerial vehicle?

Tyler: We need to acknowledge the ways the drone ushers in some very real and terrifying capabilities for the security state. I am in no way denying this. I also think there is much to learn by examining specific technologies and weapons in order to draw out more general ideas about the politics of security. So I think the drone is obviously a worthwhile object to dissect and unpack. But I do think we need to be very skeptical of thinking of the drone as some sort of “game changer” that all of a sudden now turns the world, and urban space, into a totally different place. The discourse of the drone as circulated by the security fetishists often posits the technology as an all-powerful weapon, to use a phrase from H. Bruce Franklin’s fabulous book War Stars — the drone becomes a super-weapon. But we need to be careful that our own critiques of the drone don’t mirror that of the security state. It is important to situate technologies of violence, however powerful and new and magical they are or seem to be, as always existing within a context of histories of racialized state violence against the most vulnerable. If not, one thing that seems to happen is all of a sudden the violence of the past is somehow glossed over, erased even, forgotten. I think we have seen this with much of the hysteria around the drone, a sort of process where it is the drone that “now” makes our world terrifying and horrifying, “now” the good liberal state has become a “security state”. This process of course has mirrored or emerged from the exceptionalism of September 11, 2001 as the exact day “we” have entered into new terrain. Again, this isn’t to say the drone, or 9/11, hasn’t exacerbated or intensified the lethality, but to caution against exceptionalizing.

There is one more related thing we could say here that is important: by fetishizing the drone, by making a bit too much of its “newness” of “killing at a distance” or 24/7 surveillance, we can easily partake in a highly problematic moral calculus. The political geographer Derek Gregory has insisted on this point: if one of the central problems of the drone is this socio-technical system’s ability to kill at a distance, then what distance exactly is it morally just and politically justified for agents of the security state to kill from? Of course, all we have to do here to point out the absurdity of this logic is think about aerial bombing more generally and its devastating destruction of entire populations and the cities they inhabit. Yet it sure doesn’t appear to me there has been some great uptick in journalistic, popular or academic writing on aerial bombing from jets and bombers.

Nicholas: In regards to Standing Rock, what I’ve found interesting, in light of leaked situation reports The Intercept published from private security firm TigerSwan, was that this company, which conducted counterinsurgency operations upon water protectors on behalf of Energy Transfer Partners, referred to residents of the Oceti Sakowin, Red Warrior, Sacred Stone and other camps as “insurgents” within their internal memos. From the perspective of the liberal state — which, as Marx wrote and you’ve mentioned, operates with security functioning as the supreme concept — any dissent is effectively rendered an act of “domestic terrorism.” In fact, legislation is currently being drafted in Minnesota, Washington state, Michigan, Iowa and six other states to effectively criminalize civil disobedience which threatens the profitability of these energy companies by stiffening penalties and, in some instances, allow motorists to literally run over peaceful protesters.

My point is that, through this jargon of “insurgents,” “radicalization,” and domestic jihadis, we see the collapse, or “folding over,” of war power and police power as both operate through a “language of pure force” meant to cement capitalist social relations and bourgeois order. What are your thoughts as to how the very language of the security state exposes its increasingly naked violence and highlights the connection between war and police, foreign and domestic as well as exposing how the social war capital is perpetually engaged in, the class war, is always undertaken in the interest, or pretense, of “peace?”

Tyler: When the security state uses the language of naked violence and of war, then we need to take this language seriously and listen closely. Of course, the communities of color in the United States for instance that are talked about as enemies and beasts have long understood that this language is not merely hyperbolic language, or martial metaphor, but precise and accurate descriptions of projects of pacification. They experience police violence and talk about police as an occupying army, as James Baldwin most famously did, as war because it is warfare. Your readers are probably familiar with or will find helpful the edited collection by Joy James called Warfare in the American Homeland. When the police speak of waging a war, which is not merely a new development with the advent of the “war on crime and drugs” in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s and 90s, then I think we can only take them at their word. When the police use military weaponry and tactics, which they long have, then we best recognize this as war in the most literal of ways. When the police call themselves “hunters of men,” then we need to take them at their word and think through what this might tell us about the history, animus, and mandate of police and the capitalist state.

But if the language of naked violence is really taken at its word, then this also begs all sorts of questions about how does the Left, broadly construed, interact or respond to this? Dylan Rodriguez once posed a provocative question that should be seriously grappled with: “if we are to take the state’s own language of domestic warfare seriously, what do we make of the political, ideological, institutional, and financial relationships that progressive movements, campaigns, and organizations are creating in (uneasy) alliance with the state’s vast architectures of war?”

Nicholas: I attended a counter-protest to an anti-Sharia Law rally taking place up the street from the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California where, on December 2, 2015, 14 people were killed and 22 others were seriously injured in a terrorist attack consisting of a mass shooting and the attempted detonation of a bomb. What struck me amidst the assortment of racists, bigots, Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and other proto-fascists antagonizing and threatening peaceful protesters, was that at least one Trump supporter — decked out in military fatigue, no less — was leashing a dog, specifically a German Shepherd (a particularly menacing image that I doubt was lost on many people in attendance, people of color especially).

You’ve written a great deal about the semiotic significance of the police dog as representing the “teeth of the law,” a “dialectical image” that “haunts the scene as both symbol and technology of terror,” unveiling the latent, yet ever-ready violence that secures capitalist order against its internal/external enemies. Of course, attendant to this is a racialized depiction of crime with Blacks historically situated as residing “outside civilization” by way of their constituting “dark figures,” “savages”, and/or “beasts” in the eyes of the state. Would you explicate upon the police dog, or K9, as it’s referred to: its historical use in “manhunting” the surplus populations of this country and elsewhere, how it extends police power, and what this “dialectical image” offers us in terms of understanding the violence that underpins bourgeois society?

Tyler: I am fascinated by the police dog in so many ways. Large dogs have long been used as weapons by ruling classes and their agents. I think the contemporary police K9 is an interesting site to explore relations of power and domination as it recalls histories of violence where dogs were used to hunt down, and terrorize, members of indigenous communities, fugitive slaves, and “criminals.” Today the police K9 is a standard feature of modern police, and they serve a variety of functions such as drug and explosive detection to assisting in patrolling and apprehension as a “psychological deterrent” to chasing down and biting suspects. One thing I find interesting about the police dog is how it is a concrete manifestation of the blurred lines between human and animal, human and beast. Whereas police often refer to their enemies as beasts and savages, the police dog is the cop’s own admission that bestial violence lay at the heart of police in not exceptional, isolated ways, but in the most normalized of ways. And this is also why the police dog has long been controversial, largely linked to but not reducible to the images that circulated during the civil rights movement depicting German Shepherds biting Black activists or bystanders. A sociopolitical order that claims to be so just and humane still licenses large dogs to sink their teeth into the flesh of another human being has to be called into question on its own claims. The police dog bite, what police call “bitework,” is a very common occurrence in North America and I think this sort of violence has a sort of diagnostic role to play in thinking about the relations between police, race, and property within the United States. There is a lot more that could be said about the politics of the police dog, but I suppose this is my entry into thinking about what the police dog might tell us about police and capital. Predatory policing and predatory capital are so horrifyingly visible in the body of the police dog.

Read the full interview in the Anti-Security Issue of The Socialist.




Nicholas Walrath

is an independent researcher who examines issues revolving around policing, police power/war power, security, the political imagination and surveillance.

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