Illusions of the Police State

In a recent report on the 2020 uprising in Minneapolis, a law enforcement consulting group confirms much of what we already know – the George Floyd uprising marked an immense material and psychological defeat for the police state, which was unprepared for the scale and intensity of social unrest that took place. As the street fighting, looting, and arson generalized throughout the country in late May and early June, police departments in nearly every major city were overwhelmed and paralyzed for days, in Minneapolis for about a week. With the police unable to contain the initial wave of rebellions, 96,000 National Guard troops were deployed to 30 states and the District of Columbia.

The George Floyd uprising was arguably the largest, most destructive movement in American history – a gargantuan leap forward in the development of the class struggle, which will have an impact for decades to come. Yet the authors of the Minneapolis report seem to think that by careful manipulation of policing techniques, they can "prevent violent unrest from occuring again." Whether in Minneapolis or any other city, this is a questionable proposition.

Can revolt be prevented from happening? A major problem in dealing with this question is the method of analysis. The recommendations of the report are largely based on 90 interviews of government officials, first responders, and community residents from Minneapolis. It's unclear what proportion of those interviewed live in the neighborhoods where the uprising actually happened. Still, even if they were able to interview every person who lived in those neighborhoods, the methodological problem remains, which is that the complex relationship between what people think (or what they say they think) and what they do in a moment of revolt – this cannot be neatly recorded in a survey, interview, or focus group. The relationship is full of contradictions and continuously changing. Suppose some researchers had gone door to door in Minneapolis in late April 2020 and conducted a survey among all the residents of the city – the results of the inquiry could be useful for all kinds of reasons, but does anyone seriously think that anything could indicate that a month later Minneapolis would explode? 

Revolt is essentially a surprise event, even for those participating in it, and even when there is advance preparation involved. However, this doesn't mean that revolt is inevitable. It's entirely possible for counterinsurgent forces to prevent a riot from happening in a particular situation. There is a vast assemblage of social control mechanisms in place to manage class tensions and contain the collective volatility of the American proletariat. And yet, despite the machinery of racialized social control, rebellions still happen in the United States.

In response to this potential for revolt, the authors of the Minneapolis report assert a two-fold strategy for riot prevention, the most potentially effective aspect of which is “the need to focus on building a positive police-community relationship.” The authors note that “community residents” requested more community-based policing, but this is actually a marginal part of the overall report. This is odd because community centered policing was a rather effective counterinsurgency strategy during the uprising, in particular during the daytime, when police knelt and marched with protesters in a nauseating display of police-community solidarity. These images circulated far and wide, counterposed to the violent images of the riots and the specter of anarchists, antifa, and police abolition. 

Part of the problem in developing a community-based policing strategy seems to arise from a confusion over what constitutes “the community” in the first place:

“...the extent of protests and subsequent violence and property damage during the May 2020 protests was unprecedented in Minneapolis and traumatized its residents, business owners, employees and elected officials. After more than 18 months, community members are still deeply shaken.” 

Throughout the report, the Minneapolis community is treated as a unilateral subject in which everyone more or less has the same values and experiences and there are no internal differences. To support this simplistic view, the authors note that interviewees believed that “outside agitators were largely responsible for turning the protests into violent riots.” 

We’ve spent some time in Minneapolis and know that there are plenty of people who live there who fought in the revolt and who are not waiting on the police or politicians to save them. At the same time, it’s also possible that there are just as many people in Minneapolis who have faith in the government and the police. Given the difficulty of accurately measuring people’s consciousness, it’s impossible to know for sure, but this much we do know – the sample of the community which this report is based on is by no means universal. When the authors talk about “community members,” they’re referring specifically to those who see the police as their protectors, rather than their tormentors. 

The symbol of the community is perhaps the greatest weapon at the disposal of the American police state. Within its framework, those who riot against the police appear as an external threat from which "the community" needs protection. The proliferation of this narrative was highly effective in isolating the partisans of the uprising from the rest of the population. Whether from the left or the right, both sides of the political spectrum ended up creating a caricature of people and their desires, ignoring the contradictions and complexity of this mythical figure called “the community.” 

But as much as the report pays lip-service to the community, its community relations strategy is informal and barely developed, precisely because it takes the symbolic coherence of the community for granted. Rather than focusing on community-police collaboration, the authors instead focus their attention on developing operational superiority around Incident Command System (ICS) principles, a standardized approach to emergency management:

“Many variables, such as the degree of unrest and the attitude and criminality of some individuals, are significant factors when assessing what operational practices may have been successful. However, the adherence to ICS principles in the management of these incidents is a best practice that the MPD did not, and reportedly does not, follow. Many of the issues that we discovered could have been substantially reduced with the appropriate command structure and associated communication.” 

This preoccupation with “command structure” reflects the overall thrust of the report. Within the ICS framework, an uprising against the police is treated in the same manner as any other emergency situation, whether a sports riot, a terrorist attack, or a natural disaster. According to this logic, if ICS principles had been properly adhered to, if communications among the various segments of the state and society were streamlined and consolidated, then the George Floyd uprising would have either been averted or substantially reduced in its destructiveness.

Unwilling to acknowledge the mass social basis of the 2020 uprisings, the strategists of the police state retreat into several illusions: first, that there exists something coherent enough that we can call *the* community, that participants in the uprising can be outside of; and second, that with greater organization, the police can dampen, or even prevent, the revolts of the future. 

The illusions of the enemy give us some hope, but we don't want to knock down one set of illusions just to prop up another. As popular as the burning of the Minneapolis Third Precinct was, we recognize that the 2020 uprising was a rare experience. But as rare as this moment was, what matters is that tens of thousands of people participated in it, and it is this experience which sets the precedent for how struggles will play out in the years to come.

Nothing can prepare the police state for the disaster that’s coming.

  1. 1. Hillard Heintze, “Protecting What Matters: An After-Action Review of City Agencies’ Responses to Activities Directly Following George Floyd’s Death on May 25, 2020, Conducted on Behalf of the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota,” released on March 7, 2022.
  2. 2. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html
  3. 3. https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-civil-disorders
  4. 4. Hillard Heintze, pg. 5.
  5. 5. Ibid, pg. 7.
  6. 6. Ibid, pg. 11, 80.
  7. 7. Ibid, pg. 5.
  8. 8. Ibid, pg. 79.
  9. 9. While some of the material bases for this attitude relates to homeownership, age, wages, and job security, how one relates to an anti-police uprising cannot be entirely reduced to economic and material circumstances.
  10. 10. Ibid, pg. 49.
  11. 11. Ibid, pgs. 11-12.
  12. 12. https://www.newsweek.com/54-americans-think-burning-down-minneapolis-police-precinct-was-justified-after-george-floyds-1508452