A War for All Seasons:
the return of law and order
excerpted from the book
Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis
by Christian Parenti
Verso Books, 1999
Rising unemployment was a very desirable way of reducing the
strength of the working classes . . . What was engineered - in
Marxist terms-w as a crisis in capitalism which re-created a reserve
army of labor, and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits
Alan Budd, chief economic advisor to Margaret Thatcher
Years ago criminologist Steven Spritzer described the cast-off
populations produced by capitalism as either "social junk"
or "social dynamite."' A rather blunt and painful nomenclature
to be sure, but Spritzer makes useful distinctions. These different
segments of the "surplus population" require uniquely
tailored strategies of social control.
"Social junk" are those whose spirits and minds
are shattered; they are the deinstitutionalized mentally ill,
alcoholics, drug addicts, and cast-off impoverished seniors; the
lonely, beaten drifters with no expectations of a future and little
will to fight. This population - the collateral damage of unchecked
market economics-is managed through spatial and social containment.
They must be driven away from the beaches, malls, and tony shopping
areas of resort towns, financial districts, and the pleasure zones
of theme park cities. They are, as Mathiesen put it, "sand
in the machine." They pose an ontological threat to market
social relations but they rarely coalesce into an organized political
The other segment of the surplus population-"social dynamite"
- are those who pose an actual or potential political challenge.
They are that population which threatens to explode: the impoverished
low-wage working class and unemployed youth who have fallen below
the statistical radar, but whose spirits are not broken and whose
expectations for a decent life and social inclusion are dangerously
alive and well. They are the class that suffers from "relative
deprivation." Their poverty is made all the more unjust because
it is experienced in contrast to the spectacle of opulence and
the myths of social mobility and opportunity. This is the class
from which the Black Panthers and the Young Lords arose in the
sixties and from which sprang the gangs of the 1980s. In the 1930s
this same class provided the brawn for the Communist Party-organized
Unemployed Councils that forcibly stopped evictions in New York's
Lower East Side.
Thus social dynamite is a threat to the class and racial hierarchies
upon which the private enterprise system depends. This group cannot
simply be swept aside. Controlling them requires both a defensive
policy of containment and an aggressive policy of direct attack
and active destabilization. They are contained and crushed, confined
to the ghetto, demoralized and pilloried in warehouse public schools,
demonized by a lurid media, sent to prison, and at times dispatched
by lethal injection or police bullets. This is the class or more
accurately the caste, because they are increasingly people of
color-which must be constantly undermined, divided, intimidated,
attacked, discredited, and ultimately kept in check with what
Fanon called the "language of naked force."
Carrying the big stick: Paramilitary policing
For a sneak preview of a future American police state, travel
south from the comfortable illusions of the San Francisco Bay
Area on Interstate 99 into the dirty air of California's Central
Valley, to Fresno, a sprawling, poorly planned city of 400,000.
Pass the forest of pole-perched McDonald's, Best Western, and
Motel 6 signs and turn off on one of the city's southern exits
into the sprawling ghetto of the southwest side. There, on the
pocked streets, among the stucco bungalows and dying rail yards,
you'll find massive paramilitary police operations underway on
almost any night of the week . . .
It's a cold October evening, a helicopter clatters overhead,
sweeping its lights across the shabby trees and flat homes. Nearby
in the shadows, three squads of ten police officers in combat
boots, black fatigues, and body armor lock and load their Heckler
and Koch (H&K) MP-54 submachine guns (the same weapons used
by the elite Navy SEALs) and fan out through the ghetto. Meet
Fresno's Violent Crime Suppression Unit (VCSU), local law enforcement's
"special forces" and America's most aggressive SWAT
team. Since 1994 these soldier-cops have been conducting the criminal
justice equivalent of search and destroy missions in Fresno's
"gang-ridden" badlands. "It's a war," explains
a police spokesperson. ~
Paramilitary policing-that is, enforcement using the equipment,
training, rhetoric, and group tactics of war-is on the rise nationwide.
Fresno's VCSU is only the most extreme example of America's more
than 30,000 paramilitary Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams.
First developed by a young LAPD commander named Daryl Gates in
1966 (see chapter one), SWAT teams also known as "tactical"
or paramilitary policing units-were conceived as an urban counterinsurgency
bulwark. As one early SWAT officer explained: "Those people
out there - the radicals, the revolutionaries, and the cop haters
- are damned good at using shotguns, bombs or setting ambushes,
so we've got to be better at what we do." Tactical units
still treat policing as war, and that is what makes them fundamentally
dangerous. If police are soldiers instead of civil servants, and
their task is destruction and conquest, then it follows that the
civilian community will be the enemy.
The culture of militarism
In reality, military technology and training do not make people
safer. Military gear brings embedded in it a set of militaristic
social relations. Aggressive group tactics, automatic weapons,
and infrared scopes all displace and preclude the social skills,
forbearance, and individual discretion essential to accountable
and effective civilian policing. The metaphor of war also implies
the possibility of victory in which one side vanquishes another.
Thus one impact of the new paramilitary police technology is a
"culture of militarism" that gestates in the world of
tactical policing. Peter Kraska, the pre-eminent sociologist of
SWAT, argues that young officers find the military regalia of
SWAT "culturally intoxicating." In part this is because
"the elite self perception and status granted these police
units stems from the high status military special operations groups
have in military culture."
But the military world-view is not confined to the ranks of
SWAT. Tactical units, having close relations with the armed forces,
act as ideological transmission-belts between the military and
the regular police. As we saw above, the use of automatic weapons
is already spreading from the military to SWAT teams, and from
there to regular cops. Promulgating the gospel of war and "special
ops" is even written into the mission of many tactical units.
Fresno's VCSU, like the L.A. and Miami SWAT teams, spends much
of its time training regular rank-and-file police in the special
arts of what increasingly looks like low-intensity conflict, or
The culture of militarism is also fostered by the weapons
industry, professional associations of tactical officers (which
are organized at a state, regional, and national level), and a
slew of magazines, books, and videos aimed at cops and gun freaks.
Foremost among these "cultural mediators" is the National
Tactical Officers Association (the largest SWAT officers association)
and its publication Tactical Edge, which is marketed exclusively
to police; civilians are prohibited from subscribing. Tactical
Edge is best described as "news you can use" for SWAT
officers. Articles cover new law enforcement technology (long
exegeses on ammunition testing are common), tactics, conferences,
and the politics of managing SWAT teams in what the authors usually
perceive as a misinformed and hostile political environment. Many
of the writers have impressive backgrounds in policing, spooking,
and law enforcement planning. And most of what appears in Tactical
Edge has a pragmatic, clinical tone. For example:
The sniper team is most often considered to have primary
responsibility for delivering "real time" intelligence
information during the course of an operation. Don't forget, however,
that the officers manning the inner perimeter are in excellent
positions to complement and expand upon a sniper's efforts in
this area. By virtue of their location, inner perimeter team members
are often in better positions to detect both visual and audible
indicators of activity that can be crucial to identifying a suspect's
location and anticipating his actions.
Less secretive and very widely read is the magazine SWAT,
subtitled "Special Weapons and Tactics for the Prepared American."
Published by Larry Flint, of Hustler fame, SWAT's ammunition and
weapons reviews are peppered with lines like "tactical officers
and home owners will be glad to know . . ." These panegyrics
generally read like pornography for gun nuts and over-eager cops.
During penetration, the prestressed Quick Shok projectile
expands rapidly and then splits into three even sections. These
segments or fragments penetrate in separate directions in an ever-widening
pattern inside a soft target. Fragmentation is the main cause
of tissue disruption.
Like Tactical Edge, SWAT is replete with articles analyzing
new hollow-point shells, fragmenting rounds, bean-bag rounds,
H&K weapons, training opportunities, etc. But S WA T also
indulges in easy-reading profiles of tactical squads and special
operations groups from around the world. Dozens of similar cop-oriented
publications and scores of books and videos also promulgate the
paramilitary, technophilic police culture. Woven into this discourse
is a right-wing political world-view in which impending chaos
is held back only by the besieged, misunderstood men and women
of law enforcement who, despite the efforts of pernicious liberals,
endeavor to protect the public and face up to the ever greater
challenge of "better armed criminals . . . bigger and more
violent street gangs . . . increased numbers of extremists [and]
increased violent crime."
Conclusion: The spectacle of terror
If there is a parable to be drawn from the story of paramilitary
policing in the US, it is that the political theatrics of terror
are by no means dead. Physical terror and spectacular displays
of violence are shll central to the state's control of the dangerous
classes. The helicopters, guns, and constantly barking dogs of
the American tactical army are a blunt semaphore to the lumpen
classes and working poor. So too are the frequent gang sweeps,
field interviews, and curfew busts. In all cases the message is
clear: "They wouldn't do this in north Fresno," is the
constant refrain from that city's working class African Americans
and Latinos. 'The VCSU, like many SWAT teams, even brags about
the "deterrent" effect of its high-profile ruthlessness.
The point is that ritualized displays of terror are built into
American policing. Spectacle is a fundamental part of how the
state controls poor people. As one VCSU sergeant put it: "They
see our big gray SWAT bus, and the weapons, and they know we mean
If violent theatrics help insinuate the power of the state
into the everyday life of the ghetto, then Michel Foucault's thesis-that
power is increasingly exercised through relatively invisible,
increasingly medicalized discursive means, such as psychiatry,
psychology, medicine, and social sciences-seems in need of revision.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that the history
of punishment and social control in Europe (or more particularly
France) involves a shift from punishing the body directly to controlling
subjectivity, the soul, or the human interior, thus making bodies
docile and useful. Foucault focuses on the spectacular public
torture rituals of the ancien regime, in which the sovereign re-established
power by taking revenge upon the body of the criminal. Foucault
then traces the ruptures that lead to modern "disciplinary"
forms of control; forms of power that act upon human consciousness
and subjectivity, and thus enlist us in the useful, productive
regulation of ourselves and our bodies. Thus he writes, ''[t]he
soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy: the
soul is the prison of the body."
For Foucault this shift is not a history of improved human
rights or moral progress, but rather one of increasingly effective,
totalizing, and pernicious mechanisms of social regulation. While
public executions may at first glance seem rather a muscular expression
of legal power, they were, as Foucault argues, dangerously inefficient,
wasteful, and almost haphazard affairs. Foremost among public
torture's inefficiencies was the role of the crowd, to which far
too much power was distributed. The spectators, a central part
of the ritual of public torture and execution, sometimes rebelled
and rioted, attacking the scaffold to free or kill the prisoners
and in other ways disrupt the power of the sovereign. As a result
punishment was increasingly hidden and professionalized, its effects
made more constant and continuous. The ancient art of torture
and confession transmogrified into the modern methods of investigation
and interrogation by which judicial truth and the inner workings
of the modern delinquent are known. And thus was born the criminal
subject, with free will, a sense of morality, and a "soul."
This progression, away from sovereign power towards "disciplinary
power" or "bio-power" is, for Foucault, linked
to the development of capitalism and industrial society's need
for more constant and totalizing exploitation of bodies. "Thus
discipline produces subjected and practiced, 'docile' bodies.
Discipline increases the force of the body (in economic terms
of utility) and diminished these same forces of the body (in political
terms of obedience).
From the vantage point of the late sixties, the height of
the therapeutic, rehabilitation era, the age of "full employment"
in many European economies, this argument made sense. The increasing
embourgeoisement of the European and American working classes,
the medicalization of social problems like poverty, and the totalizing
modernist faith in rational and technical solutions to all human
problems, gave resonance to the continued progression of Foucault's
thesis. In the name of science and increased humanity, social
control was achieved less and less through the semiotics of physical
terror and increasingly through scientific explanations and therapeutic
interventions that turned the deviant into his or her own regulator,
thus producing useful and docile bodies.
But as the class terrain of advanced capitalist society began
to bifurcate in response to the profit crisis of the early seventies
and its neoliberal solutions, so too has social control. The middle
classes still immerse themselves in the discursive prisons of
"self-help" and self-actualization; their deviance is
"sickness" (addictions, compulsions, and other maladies);
their cure is an attempt to function better, realize their "full
potential," maximum health, find spiritual "wholeness,"
achieve "proper time management," business success,
etc. But on the other side of the class divide, amidst the social
and economic wreckage of the down-sized American dream, the energy
of bodies and minds is not so needed. Here deviance is no longer
seen as individual sickness, as it was during rehabilitation's
heyday. Rather, the surplus classes are simply bad people made
so by a corrosive "culture of poverty" or, in the Charles
Murray school of thought, by crypto-racist, "genetic"
deficiencies. Thus the "super-predators" - as neoconservative
criminologist Di lulio calls the impoverished pre-teens of America-and
"lost generations" of the ghetto cannot be saved, or
used efficiently. And so we see state power once again manifest
in an increasingly violent, ritualized politics of terror. As
"actuarial" crime control becomes the name of the criminological
game, whole communities become the target of social control.
After all, paramilitary sweeps, like the public executions
of the ancien regime, "make everyone aware, through the body
of the criminal, of the unrestrained presence of the sovereign
[or in this case, the modern state and its police]. The public
execution [like a paramilitary police sweep] did not re-establish
justice: it reactivated power." Nor are SWAT operations in
public space the only site of such ritualized displays: the courts,
the jail house visiting room, the cell block, and the endless
- seemingly looped-real-life action footage of shows like Cops,
LAPD, and True Stories of the Highway Patrol all serve to distribute
terror into the everyday lives of the poor. This class-biased
shift away from reform toward an updated discourse of evil makes
sense: many bodies-particularly those of young working class and
lumpen men of color-are superfluous to capital's valorization.
A growing stratum of "surplus people" is not being efficiently
used by the economy. So instead they must be controlled and contained
and, in a very limited way, rendered economically useful as raw
material for a growing corrections complex.