By One Toronto Member, One Hamilton Member, One Former Member
The past year has witnessed the emergence of a popular movement whose scale and intensity has surprised radicals and social conservatives alike, and which has provoked shock waves of reaction in the ranks of police agencies across North America. In the wake of the protests that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, and subsequently spread to dozens of major American cities, there has been a corresponding increase in public awareness of police violence and its relationship to racial dynamics in Canada. Anti-police sentiment is on the rise.
When flagship liberal publications like Rolling Stone are publishing articles envisioning a world without cops, and tens of thousands of first-time demonstrators are taking to the streets across the continent to protest police violence and demand racial equality, something is definitely in the air. These are exciting times for anarchists, and all those who have long viewed the police as the violent goon squad of a white supremacist, capitalist state. But public perceptions are a fickle thing, and mobilizations themselves will not address systemic racism or police violence any more than much larger demonstrations were able to stop the Iraq War. While it is important for anarchists and other anti-authoritarian revolutionaries to actively participate in this developing movement for police accountability, we also need to consistently and emphatically push for a long-term organizing strategy with abolition as its goal.
Significant numbers of anarchists in Canada tend to either pay lip service to community organizing, or else dismiss it as an inherently liberal, reformist, or even authoritarian affair. This latter sentiment often dovetails with a counterposing tendency towards building an insular “anarchist community,” often conceived of as an island of radical politics separate from the rest of the working class. Anarchists such as Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin and Joel Olson have cited similar dynamics in the United States, and have noted that despite anarchists’ ostensible, yet often rhetorical solidarity with racialized victims of police terror, this is a big reason why our ranks tend to be filled with white, middle-class twenty-somethings. This inward focus also reinforces a delusional understanding of our relative significance, both as agents of social ruptures and as primary targets of state repression.
The 2008 Canadian Forces field manual on Counterinsurgency Operations lists five possible forms that an insurgency can take, noting that “[t]he most potentially dangerous… is that of an anarchist group which sets out to eliminate all political structures and the social fabric associated with them.” Yet while it is oddly validating to be appraised in such terms by the military tacticians of the Canadian state, a subsequent comment pointing to anarchism’s current lack of public support should clarify that it is the potential of anarchist ideas, strategies, and tactics becoming the leading force behind a popular uprising that they find threatening. The truth is that despite significant advances made over the past decade, materially and organizationally, anarchists remain a marginal political force in North America, outside of pockets of Québec and Mexico. If we are serious about taking on capitalism and the state, more anarchists need to start seeking out and making strategic alliances with groups and individuals already organizing against their most visible excesses, in order to help push these struggles to their logical conclusions.
Any effective organizing strategy depends on a sober assessment of local material conditions. In Canada, public perceptions about police are heavily influenced by their institutional equivalents in the United States. While there exist numerous social, cultural, economic, and geopolitical similarities between the two countries, and while it could be argued that police forces ultimately fulfill the same role everywhere, understanding national distinctions is nonetheless an important task for revolutionaries here in Canada. Even within the United States itself, militants in Ferguson reacting to the murder of Michael Brown operated within a radically different context than those who took to the streets in New York to protest the murder of Eric Garner; the same could be said, to a lesser extent, about the protesters in Oakland and Los Angeles. These distinctions are based on a host of local factors, such as a specific region’s history, culture, class composition, urban geography, political terrain, and of course, the brutality and tactical competence of its local police force. With this in mind, this article seeks to make a modest contribution to understanding our context here in Canada, particularly in the areas of southern Ontario in which our members live and organize.
I. Understanding the Canadian Context
On November 24, 2014, a grand jury in Ferguson ruled against indicting Darren Wilson, a white police officer, for the murder of Michael Brown, an eighteen year old Black youth. In the weeks and months that followed, a flood of articles were published comparing racial dynamics in the United States and Canada. While many were sanctimonious fluff pieces, mindlessly praising Canada as a bastion of cultural diversity and racial tolerance, a number of more progressive commentators used the opportunity to point to systemic anti-Indigenous racism as a national corollary to anti-Black racism in the United States. Others used the spotlight cast on racial divisions in Missouri to note that Black people are harassed and killed by police at disproportionate rates in Toronto, as well. While these efforts to shed light on the existence of structural inequality and deep-seated racism in Canada were often well-intentioned and factual, they also tended to reinforce the myth of multiculturalism that lies at the heart of the modern Canadian national identity, while obscuring the specific manner in which the Canadian state has been shaped by white supremacy in the interests of its ruling class.
If we conceive of the state, using Max Weber’s popular definition, as a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, then deepening our understanding of the Canadian state means looking at the historical process by which this monopoly was established. Central to this history is, of course, the development of the police as a primary institution endowed with the responsibility for effecting state-consolidating violence. But also of crucial importance is the manner in which this legitimacy was established, and how it’s maintained. With this in mind, we will begin by examining the historical development of the Canadian state, before moving onto a more detailed examination of its police.
Building on Different Foundations: Primitive Accumulation  in the US and Canada
Everywhere that capitalism has developed, it has done so by violently imposing a national system of gendered, class, and race-based social relations, sanctified by a legal regime of private land ownership and property rights. The specific character of these social relationships is dynamic, and shaped by a history of struggle. In the United States, capitalism was built on the stolen labour of millions of enslaved Africans, violently subjugated into the nation’s vast southern plantation system of forced agricultural production. The roots of Canada’s particular brand of resource extraction-based capitalism, on the other hand, are to be found in the transatlantic fur trade, which was based on the mass exploitation of Indigenous knowledge and labour. This Canadian system of primitive accumulation was first instituted in the early seventeenth century by French merchant-traders operating out of early settlements along the St. Lawrence river, in modern-day Québec and New Brunswick. Following the arrival of the British, this trade gradually came to be dominated by the monolithic Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).
Both groups of European settlers were largely dependent on Indigenous trappers and hunters for animal pelts, and so they formed relationships and alliances with various opposing tribes in order to maintain their share of this lucrative market. Each had an interest in limiting the size of their respective settlements, in order to maintain the surrounding territories as a sort of expansive hunting/trapping grounds. This policy caused significant tensions between the European colonial powers and their respective settler populations, particularly the British colonists, who were constantly seeking to expand their settlements, often sparking conflict with surrounding Indigenous nations. In 1676, this tension was a leading cause of Bacon’s Rebellion, an uprising in the Virginia colonies carried out by a combined force of European settlers, indentured servants, and enslaved Africans. In the aftermath of this failed rebellion, slavery was officially codified into a racially-based caste system; from then on, even the poorest European descendents were granted a privileged legal and social status over their African counterparts, in order to help ensure that the two races would never join forces again.
In 1763, following its victory in the globe-spanning Seven Years War, Britain acquired the colonies of New France, in exchange for agreeing to return France’s more lucrative Caribbean colonies, Martinique and Guadeloupe. After this treatise was concluded, England’s King George III issued a Royal Proclamation aimed at consolidating Britain’s North American colonies, and putting a halt on their rapid westward expansion. This proclamation, which recognized Indigenous title over all lands not yet ceded via a formal treaty process, laid the legal basis for future Indigenous land claims in Canada, and set the clock ticking on the American Revolution.
Confederation and its Discontents
The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.
John A. MacDonald (1887)
A century later, alarmed by developments in the American Civil War and repeated incursions into its remaining North American colonies by Irish Republicans, Britain hastily granted Canada its independence through the British North American Act of 1867. The new Canadian state was structured as a federated parliamentary democracy, initially composed of four provinces: Ontario, Québec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. In order to stave off the prospects of annexation by the United States, Canada’s political elite turned their immediate attention to consolidating those North American territories still under the nominal jurisdiction of the British Crown and its commercial agent, the HBC.
However, legal issues soon arose following the establishment of the province of Manitoba in 1870, as it was determined that there was no legal basis for land ownership under existing British common law; in fact, the individual practice of buying or selling land outside of the previously-established colonial borders had been explicitly outlawed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. In an attempt to close this legal loophole, and to facilitate increased European settlement of what is now central and western Canada, the federal government began renewed treaty negotiations with local Indigenous nations, even as it continued to incorporate new provinces, such as British Columbia, into its nationalist project.
The result was eleven numbered treaties, outlining the legal rationale for the territorial integration of the modern Canadian state. Signed over a period of six years, the first seven of these treaties revoked Indigenous title over massive swathes of land in modern-day Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. The remaining four treaties, signed over the years 1899-1921, covered pockets of British Columbia, northern Ontario and Alberta, and the majority of the Yukon and Northwest Territories. These treaties also identify, through their absence, large tracts of land that were never legally ceded by their original inhabitants — including much of modern-day British Columbia.
These numbered treaties, beyond being simple land-grabs, were part of a broader genocidal campaign of assimilation that sought to “civilize” Indigenous populations and transform them into proper British subjects. This practice of forced civilization, officially in place since 1830, was inherited by the federal government at confederation. The 1857 Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in the Province had been an earlier attempt by the colonial government of Upper and Lower Canada to enfranchise Indigenous adults by offering them a Christian, or European name and their own plot of land. To the frustration of colonial administrators and Christian missionaries alike, by 1863 not a single individual had been voluntarily enfranchised under this legislation.
The new Canadian government’s solution to the failed policy of voluntary assimilation was swift and brutal. First came the Indian Act of 1869, which established a national system of Indian Reserves and replaced traditional systems of Indigenous self-governance with an elected Band Council system; second came a campaign of mass starvation, aimed at weakening the wills of those tribes who refused to cede title over their lands and move onto a system of reserves; third came the national Residential Schools system, a horrific institution of mass religious and cultural indoctrination that set out to “kill the Indian in the child.”
The Canadian Residential Schools system operated for over a century, from 1884 until the last school was closed, in 1996. During this period, generations of Indigenous children faced rampant and severe physical, psychological, and sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic and Anglican priests. Thousands of others died, as a result of poor conditions and lack of proper medical attention. The resulting intergenerational trauma has contributed to disproportionate levels of horizontal and domestic violence, increased economic and social marginalization, and significantly higher rates of substance abuse and suicide among Indigenous communities. These factors, in turn, reinforce a racist narrative that places Indigenous lives at increased risk of dehumanizing violence from police, and contributes to a climate of official indifference towards the unresolved murders of Indigenous women.
Racialization of Immigration: Business as Usual
There are continual attempts by undesirables of alien and impoverished nationalities to enter Canada, but these attempts will be checked as much as possible at their source.
Canadian Immigration Official (1923)
In 1971, Pierre Elliot Trudeau announced multiculturalism as an official policy of the Canadian federal government. This decision emerged out of recommendations made by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, a commission tasked with helping to ease tensions between Canada’s “two founding races” (French and British) in the wake of Québec’s Silent Revolution. Trudeau’s decisions to move beyond biculturalism towards an embrace of multiculturalism effectively placed the rights of all Canadians to speak their own language, and to practice religious and cultural customs of their choosing under the paternalistic protection of an officially bilingual, English/French state. This principle was enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ten years later, and further cemented into law by the Multiculturalism Act of 1988.
For decades now, multiculturalism has been both a steadily-increasing demographic reality, and a defining political characteristic of Canada’s national identity. Toronto, Canada’s most populous metropolis, is regularly cited as one of the most multicultural cities in the world. According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, 48.6 per cent of the city’s 2.6 million residents are immigrants (71.7 per cent of whom immigrated from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean ), while Canada’s national figure sits at 22 per cent – the highest among G8 countries. The widely-accepted perception of Canada as a welcoming home for immigrants and refugees is a contributing factor in its own particular brand of nationalism, and a smug, largely unfounded point of distinction from the United States. So-called “Canadian values” rest on a bedrock of progressive secularism, universal health care, and a grossly inflated sense of moral superiority on the world stage. This latter sentiment persists, despite the destructive role that Canadian corporations play in the Global South, the government’s persistent efforts to sabotage international conventions aimed at reducing global carbon emissions, and its traditional position as a junior partner of Anglo-American imperialism – all of which are major factors fueling global patterns of displacement and migration.
Canada’s ostensible celebration of ethnic and cultural diversity also functions as an ideological cover for its long history of exclusionary immigration policies. Understanding the implications of this racist legacy is crucial for understanding the structural operation of white supremacy in contemporary Canadian society, which is intimately linked to notions of citizenship and the more precarious, racialized “Other.”
In the United States, slavery provided the grotesque scaffolding upon which an entire system of racialized class relations was built. The lack of a Canadian equivalent to the southern plantation system doesn’t reflect a more enlightened attitude towards the inherent equality of Europeans and Africans on the part of Canada’s colonial forebearers, so much as it points to different histories of economic and political development. While state-funded television spots proudly play up Canada’s role as the final destination of slaves escaping the United States via the Underground Railroad, there are no similar television spots celebrating the collusion between Canada’s colonial masters and Confederate forces during the American Civil War, the sordid history of racial segregation and neglect experienced by residents of Africville, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, or the disproportionate levels of police violence that continue to afflict Black residents of suburban Toronto neighbourhoods such as Jane and Finch, Malvern, and Jamestown.
The absence of a large population of enslaved Africans meant that the early development of race in Canada, as a social construction based on material power relations, was rooted in other social divisions, such as those found between the country’s Indigenous population and European settlers, French and English colonists, Catholics and Protestants, and “Aryans” and “Asiatics.” As the most heavily racialized ethnic group to settle in Canada in significant numbers prior to the twentieth century, Chinese immigrants were viewed with hostility and suspicion, refused the right to vote, and systematically denied the opportunity for cultural assimilation. Chinese Canadians were forced to live in segregated neighbourhoods and encampments, and ruthlessly exploited by mining and railroad companies, who forced them to do the most dangerous and physically demanding jobs, for the least pay. They also faced racist violence from their white working-class counterparts, who accused them of stealing white jobs and undercutting wages. Following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, in 1885, federal politicians began to curb Chinese immigration through an escalating series of head taxes, before all but banning it through the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923.
It wasn’t until 1967, one hundred years after Confederation, and less than five years before adopting an official policy of multiculturalism, that Canada finally opened its borders to large-scale immigration from the Global South. The so-called “Points System” was motivated by the need to expand Canada’s domestic workforce in the face of a precipitous decline in European immigration. Amidst the changing geopolitical landscape of the 1960s, Canada’s immigration policy had also begun to come under fire from increasing numbers of newly-independent states, many of whose governments had taken power following the success of formal decolonization struggles. Since the establishment of the Points System, immigration from countries in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean has been a leading factor in Canada’s overall population growth. Accordingly, most racialized Canadians are first or second generation immigrants, the vast majority of whom live in the suburbs of Greater Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Racialized, working-class youth from these neighbourhoods are much more likely to live in substandard housing, attend underfunded schools, be discriminated against by prospective landlords and employers, and face the highest rates of horizontal violence—all while being harassed, beaten, murdered, and imprisoned by police at grossly disproportionate rates.
As Canada’s national security interests have become further integrated with those of the United States, both through the increased globalization of capitalism and the broader security framework of the War on Terror, this has led to increased scrutiny and harassment of immigrant communities from regions of the world targeted by western imperialism. Under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, recent years have seen a tightening of Canadian immigration guidelines, a sharp rise in immigrant detention, a militarization of immigration enforcement agents, and sweeping increases to the federal government’s ability to deport permanent residents, and even immigrants with Canadian citizenship. This restructuring of Canada’s immigration regime has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in Temporary Foreign Workers programs, which provide corporations, agribusinesses and individual wealthy households with a seemingly endless pool of hyper-precarious workers, who are required to pay taxes that fund public services that they are not permitted to use.
II. To Serve and Protect Whom?: The Development of the Police
The history of policing, as it exists in its modern institutional form, is intrinsically linked to the development of industrial capitalism and the consolidation of state power that began to occur in the late eighteenth, and early nineteenth century. The spread of capitalist social relations, and the rapid growth of urbanization required that one segment of the working class be tasked with maintaining the compliance of the whole. Just as the development of capitalism faced unique obstacles and local conditions in different parts of the world, so too was the development of police shaped by local conditions.
The job of the police has always been to maintain the “rule of law” through the targeted application of violence. The laws that they are tasked with enforcing are drafted by politicians to secure the political interests of the ruling class, who are able to influence the structural operation of power in society through their financial control over, and direct representation within the political class, and through the skillful manipulation of social divisions to manage public opinion. For years, successive waves of class struggle have dramatically altered the political framework tied to the maintenance of social control. From the city watch and mounted riflemen of yesteryear, to today’s community liaison officers and militarized tactical squads, the police have adapted accordingly.
Slavery and the Genesis of American Policing
If we insist on viewing the police as crime-fighters, profiling can only be seen as a mistake, a persistent disaster. But if we suspend or surrender this noble view of police work, and look instead at the actual consequences of what the cops do, profiling makes a certain kind of sense; it follows a sinister logic. Racial profiling is not about crime at all; it’s about controlling people of colour.
Kristian Williams – Our Enemies in Blue
The history of policing in the United States is one of the assertion and maintenance of a regime of social control anchored in the cross-class alliance of white supremacy. During its early colonial period, the United States inherited an informal system of sheriffs and town watches from England, and within the colonies, this system developed in a manner that was adaptively contextual. In his excellent account of the history of American policing, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, author Kristian Williams argues that the earliest iteration of the police, as an institution characterized by internal cohesion and popular legitimacy, developed in southern states in order to defend slavery. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, slave patrols represented the security arm of property owners and eventually the state, by capturing runaways and preventing gatherings, and revolts by both free and enslaved Blacks.
Increased urbanization in the late eighteenth century presented new challenges for the local political elite, which led to the creation of a more cohesive system of city guards. Unlike individualized watchmen, city guards patrolled as a unit, and were granted increased authority. These measures were aimed both at imposing Protestant moral values on newly proletarianized whites, as well as maintaining control over higher concentrations of slaves and freed Black labourers. In 1785, in Charleston, South Carolina, the longstanding town watch, which had “defended” the town against fires, Indians, Black gatherings, and vagrants, amalgamated with a volunteer slave patrol organized by the local militia, thereby creating the Charleston Guard and Watch. Williams argues that this point represents the first example of a modern police force, which he characterizes as an institution that is publicly controlled, authorized to use force, possesses an internal chain of command, and whose members wear identifiable uniforms.
The suppression and control of Black populations has remained a lodestar of the policing project in the United States ever since. Following the American Civil War, the economic necessity of such a strategy developed more of a political character, as the state sought to control Black communities that, despite being granted formal emancipation, were nonetheless denied equal social and legal standing with their white counterparts. From the post-Civil War Reconstruction period until the political reforms of the Civil Rights era, southern white supremacist militias such as the Ku Klux Klan operated with the passive support, and often active participation, of local and state police. This tidy arrangement represented a continuation of the slave patrol function of policing, and ensured police forces could perform “racially neutral” law enforcement duties, while leaving the more overtly violent terrorism of white supremacy to the Klan.
Police partnerships with extremist white supremacist organizations such as the Klan persevere, but have become intentionally obscured over the years, as overt racism has become less publicly acceptable. The largely cosmetic nature of this shift is most starkly evidenced by the shocking number of Black citizens who continue to be murdered at the hands of white police officers, who then seek to justify their use of lethal force as a necessary and defensive measure, despite its often clearly aggressive and racist character.
Engines of Oppression: The Toronto Police Services
The authority legally invested in these men, their habitual intercourse with the lower classes, the impression that they possess the ear of their employers, the favouritism they may be enabled to suggest, the petty and indirect tyranny they may be permitted to exercise, all combine to degrade a force of this nature into formidable engines of oppression.
United Province of Canada Commission Report (1841)
Canada’s municipal police forces, like their counterparts in the United States, grew out of an informal system of citizen patrols imported from England. These civilian watch services performed basic duties during evening hours, often limited to keeping an eye out for trouble, and informing others of any crimes or attacks that they witnessed taking place.
In 1834, Toronto became the first major city in North America to adopt a modern police force. At its founding, the Toronto Police Services (TPS) was composed of five paid constables, appointed by the city’s mayor and aldermen. For the first decades of its existence, the TPS functioned as a notoriously corrupt appendage of the local political establishment, upon whose patronage they depended for their jobs. Its ranks were largely drawn from the Orange Order, a not-so-secret society of conservative Irish Protestants that made no effort to hide its sectarian rivalry with the city’s Catholic residents. This unapologetic sectarianism was an aggravating factor in the Circus Riots of 1855, in which members of the TPS refused to intervene to break up a massive brawl between a travelling troupe of circus clowns and a local brigade of firefighters and their supporters—many of whom also happened to be Orangemen. The resulting public outcry led the incoming mayor to fire the entire police force and introduce a new regulatory oversight body. After a study of other North American police forces, the Boston Police Department was chosen as the model for implementing a series of structural reforms.
As part of this shake-up, former British Army Captain William Stratton Prince was appointed as Toronto’s new Chief Constable. Prince immediately began to impose a strict military discipline on his men, and sought to stamp out the force’s culture of endemic corruption, which he saw as an undue hindrance to its public legitimacy. Under Prince’s fourteen year tenure as Chief, the TPS became Canada’s first intelligence security agency, operating a network of spies that monitored the activities of Fenian cells operating out of Buffalo, New York City, Detroit, and Chicago.
As the city of Toronto continued to grow over the following decades, so too did the size of its police force, and the scale of their responsibilities. The swelling ranks of the “dangerous classes” necessitated an increased focus on what Helen Boritch has described as “class control” policing. This meant breaking strikes, when necessary, but also a heavy emphasis on offences carried out against the “public order,” such as vagrancy, public drunkenness, and prostitution, which were (and are) almost exclusively committed by poorer sections of the working class. As part of a more expansive understanding of “public order” that foreshadowed later advancements in community policing, during these years the TPS was also tasked with running a variety of social services, such as ambulances, homeless shelters, and even a child protection service, which served as an early forerunner to today’s Children’s Aid Society. The TPS also enforced Sabbath and Public Order Bylaws, and were responsible for regulating a host of small businesses, such as taxi drivers, laundry-operators and street vendors. In order to help ensure their upstanding moral character and loyalty to their bourgeois pay-masters, officers were forbidden from living in working-class neighbourhoods, or consorting with poor people during their off hours.
During the interwar period, fears of anarchist and communist subversion, stoked by the Russian Revolution abroad and increased labour unrest at home, provided the impetus for a renewed focus on domestic intelligence gathering and a more targeted system of political repression. Toronto’s “Red Squads” kept a particularly close watch on organizing efforts taking place within immigrant communities from Central and Eastern Europe, and on well-known anarchists such as Emma Goldman, an intermittent resident of the city from 1927, until her death in 1940.
Successive waves of amalgamation to the city of Toronto have swallowed up other smaller municipal police forces, and today the TPS is the third largest police force in Canada, with 5,800 officers spread across seventeen numbered divisions and a range of specialized departments and task forces. They are supported by 2,500 civilian employees, an untold number of volunteers, and a bloated annual operating budget of over $1 billion.
One of the most enduring Canadian cultural stereotypes is the red-clad, mild-mannered “Mountie,” popularized by fictional characters such as Dudley Do-Right, of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame, and Benton Fraser of Due South. It should come as no surprise that the actual history of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is considerably more brutal than these pop culture depictions might suggest, as it is intimately linked with the colonial expansion of the Canadian state.
The RCMP’s roots lie in the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), a paramilitary police force modelled after the Royal Irish Constabulary, and staffed by horse-mounted riflemen drawn from cavalry divisions of the British Army. The NWMP was created by parliamentary decree in 1873, for the explicit purpose of extending the rule of law to Canada’s restive Northwest Territories (a huge expanse of land that included the northern regions of modern-day Ontario and Québec, as well the entirety of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta), which the federal government had recently purchased from the HBC.
As part of its mandate to tame Canada’s wild west, in 1885 the NWMP assisted in putting down the North-Western Rebellion, launched by a Métis force led by Louis Riel, and a parallel force of insurgent Cree and Assiniboine warriors. The resulting victory paved the way for the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which consolidated Canada’s territorial continuity, linking the country’s eastern and western population centres and facilitating the further settlement of the Prairies. The NWMP was deployed to the Yukon in 1895, to establish order and collect customs duties from prospectors drawn to the region by the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1905 it was granted jurisdiction over the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and in 1912 over the territories annexed into the province of Manitoba.
Though its formative role in Canadian history was its contribution to colonial nation-building, the NWMP also served more traditional policing functions, a notable example being when it was called in to violently suppress the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. In 1920, it was merged with the Dominion Police, a federal agency tasked with maintaining Canada’s earliest forensic and criminal databases, and with protecting sensitive public works, such as government buildings, crucial national infrastructure, and royal navy yards. The result of this merger was the RCMP.
As Canada’s primary federal policing agency, the RCMP is sometimes roughly understood as a national equivalent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States. A more accurate description, however, would be to say that it has served, at various times in its history, as a combination of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Secret Service, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and various state, highway, and local police departments. Today, the RCMP operates a national network of nearly 30,000 officers and civilian employees, and serves as the primary police force for 180 municipalities, 184 Indigenous communities, all three northern territories, and eight of Canada’s ten provinces (with the notable exception of Ontario and Québec).
Rounding things off, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) are the provincial police departments for Ontario and Québec, two provinces that contain a combined 62 per cent of Canada’s total population. Both police forces have jurisdiction over hundreds of small towns and municipalities, and thousands of kilometres of highway. The OPP, through the Aboriginal Policing Bureau, serves as the primary police force in nineteen Indigenous communities, and provides logistical support and training to First Nations Police Services in eleven Indigenous reserves. Both provincial departments are often the first responders to highway blockades, and as such have been responsible for escalating tense standoffs with Mohawk warriors in Oka, Québec, in 1990, and members of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations Confederacy in Caledonia, Ontario in 2006.
The Shift to Counterinsurgency
Counterinsurgency is those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency.
US Army Field Manual – Counterinsurgency Operations (FMI 3-07-21)
Near the end of the 1970s, after a decade of industrial turmoil, capitalism began to restructure itself, both economically and socially. Neoliberalism, with its attendant relocation of formerly high-paying manufacturing jobs to low-wage regions, and steady erosion of social welfare provisions, has severely diminished working-class living standards in North America. As they have retreated from their traditional role as service providers, governments have steadily reoriented their focus towards managing domestic unrest. By trading the carrot for the stick, the social welfare state has redefined itself as the modern security state.
The institution of policing has always been an evolving experiment, and under neoliberalism it has taken on a new dimension. Faced with an influx of popular and often militant social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, western elites began to come up with new strategies aimed at containing political dissent and ensuring sustained social stability. Domestic counterinsurgency models were developed, drawing heavily upon the British Army’s experiences in Northern Ireland, and British, American, and French efforts to quell anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist insurgencies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These new strategies expanded on some of the more covert and intelligence-driven domestic policing methods that had been developed by the now defunct Red Squads in decades prior.
The 1970s were a decade characterized by public distrust in government bodies. This tension was exacerbated by the exposure of the fact that illegal tactics were being routinely employed by state security forces in their efforts to crush dissent. In 1976, the so-called Church Committee, a United States’ Senate review of national intelligence practices, sought to ease public concerns following the release of a leaked dossier related to the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program. The following year In Canada, the McDonald Commission completed a similar investigation into the practices of the RCMP’s counterintelligence agency, after it was determined that they had illegally spied on Québecois separatists, and had gone so far as to burn down a barn intended as a meeting place between members of the Black Panthers and the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). As a result of the commission’s findings, the RCMP’s intelligence wing was disbanded, and restructured into the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). In the years that have followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many of the practices that were once considered illegal, and which when exposed, caused legitimate public outrage, have been formally adopted into the legal framework of policing, in the name of fighting terrorism. Moreover, in the decades since the 1970s a massive shift in the allocation of public resources towards state security, technological advancements and resulting strategic and tactical innovations in counterinsurgency have dramatically refined the face of modern policing.
Bringing the War Home: The Militarization of Police
Responding to the intense social and political upheaval of the 1960s, the Los Angeles Police Department introduced a new, heavily militarized task force known as Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, the first of many subsequent tactical paramilitary police forces, collectively classified as Police Paramilitary Units (PPU). These units blur the lines between policing and traditional warfare, by allowing the state to bring military equipment and tactics to bear on domestic law enforcement situations. The application of paramilitary techniques to situations that have previously been handled by traditional policing practices signifies an important component of the normalization of militarized law enforcement. As one component of a broader counterinsurgency framework, the role of these agencies is to crush armed, or otherwise dangerous combatants through the targeted application of overwhelming force.
Although they are not nearly as normalized into the framework of traditional policing as their American counterparts, most Canadian police forces have developed their own PPUs, and deploy them in response to situations that pose a high risk to officer safety, or when a strong show of force is required to crush a challenge to state authority, or to the smooth functioning of capitalism. These units are embedded within municipal police departments, such as the TPS’s Emergency Task Force (ETF) or the Hamilton Police Service’s Emergency Response Unit (ERU), as as well as in their provincial and federal equivalents such as the OPP and RCMP, which are each outfitted with Emergency Response Teams (ERT). These elite units are composed of small teams of heavily trained officers, comprised of a squad leader, several sharpshooters, and agents trained in a combination of surveillance, hostage negotiation, tactical entry and frontal assault techniques. In October 2013, the RCMP deployed an ERT in a pre-dawn raid aimed at dismantling a Mi’kmaq-led anti-fracking blockade in Elsipogtog First Nation, located near the town of Rexton, New Brunswick. A leaked copy of an RCMP report on the raid indicated that the operation was planned using intelligence gathered through the use of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), equipped with infrared and thermal recognition systems.
Front-line municipal police officers are also finding themselves increasingly equipped with military grade hardware. In 2013, as part of a “pilot project,” three divisions of the TPS were issued C8 carbines, which are compact assault rifles designed for urban combat. These included 51 Division, located in the city’s downtown east, where long-time residents are contending with intense and ongoing gentrification efforts; 43 Division, which covers an area of south-eastern Scarborough associated with several recent high-profile, gang-related shootings; and 31 Division, a notoriously brutal department that occupies the heavily racialized working-class neighbourhood of Jane and Finch. In addition to new guns, municipal police departments are also being equipped with armored military vehicles, either acquired second-hand from the Canadian Forces, or purchased directly from private military contractors. This practice has not yet assumed the scale seen in recent years in the United States, where seemingly every small town police department has acquired its own second-hand armored personnel carrier, left over from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it is a growing trend, with police forces from Vancouver, British Columbia to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia unveiling their own Tactical Armored Vehicles (TAVs) in recent years. Many of them have never been used, and it is uncertain what practical purpose they would even serve, outside the context of a full-fledged civil war.
And military hardware isn’t all that is being imported from the War on Terror. In February 2015, news broke of a warehouse in Chicago’s west side that has been repurposed into a domestic black site, where suspected criminals are denied recourse to legal representation and subjected to “enhanced” interrogation techniques. Unlike a precinct, suspects in this facility aren’t booked, and face a militaristic environment said to house military-style vehicles, interrogation cells, and cages. It can be assumed that sites like these will become a normalized destination for those eventually charged under Illinois’ amped up Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which has been enhanced to give police the legal authority to round up Chicago’s gang members en masse. The principles of the RICO Act, originally implemented in 1970 to help fight organized crime, provide an effective political tool to criminalize and break down any organization or group that poses a serious organized threat to the stability of the state. In Canada, the RCMP enforces regulations that are cumulatively similar to the RICO Act, but which tend to fall under the classification of criminal conspiracy charges.
In January, 2015, following widespread and sustained protests against the police murder of Eric Garner, and the apparent revenge killing of two police officers, New York Police Commissioner William Bratton unveiled a new Strategic Response Group (SRG), a specially-trained unit of officers tasked with counterterrorism and the policing of large-scale protests — a practice he termed “disorder policing.” While Bratton’s casual conflation of anti-police demonstrations with terrorism, and his announcement that these officers would be equipped with automatic weapons represent a particularly chilling development, specialized crowd control units such as this are not uncommon in North America, and this trajectory towards militarization is only poised to continue.
In Canada, the police departments of every sizeable city are equipped with riot gear, and often contain crowd control and public order units with specialized training in crowd psychology, martial arts, pain compliance, and the use of non-lethal weapons. The Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM), Montreal’s municipal police force, has developed, over the years, into a North American leader in protest policing. It has acquired this unique expertise, in part, through its relatively frequent exposure to militant black bloc tactics, and its willingness to experiment with different forms of crowd dispersal and mass arrests. The SPVM has been known to use the city’s annual March 15th protests (held each year on the International Day Against Police Brutality) as an opportunity to train other Canadian municipal police forces in riot suppression tactics.
Community Policing: To Protect and Sever
As we’ve noted, one of the ways that the state maintains its legitimacy is by crushing threats to its rule through the targeted application of overwhelming force. Yet a far more insidious, and arguably more effective application of these principles can be found in the spread of community policing, a complementary strategy focused on developing stronger ties between police and the communities that they occupy. This approach offers a contrast to aggressive paramilitary style policing, yet remains part of the same project.
In Toronto, a focus on “community mobilization” has been a core principle of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) program, unveiled in 2006, after residents of the city were shaken by a spate of gun-related violence that killed fifty-two people over a one year period. This program was expanded, in 2007, into the Provincial Anti-Violence Integration Strategy (PAVIS), which provides provincial funding to seventeen regional community policing initiatives, such as the Addressing Crime Trends In Our Neighbourhoods (ACTION) Team in Hamilton, and the Taking Action on Guns and Gangs (TAGG) project in Greater Sudbury. While these initiatives have often been championed for their success in decreasing rates of violent crime, there is little evidence to back up such claims. What is beyond dispute, is the fact that they represent a new level of police penetration into the everyday lives of racialized youth, specifically, and “priority neighbourhoods” more generally.
Bogus community meetings, citizen surveys, after-school basketball programs for “at-risk” youth, and quaint “Coffee with a Cop” programs designed to portray police as good-natured neighbours make it feasible to gather useful intelligence on a targeted community, while establishing and maintaining relationships with its individual members. Sympathetic citizens and community organizations can then be more relied upon to share information with police, and to turn to them to resolve conflicts. This sophisticated approach to repression enhances police power by allowing them to work through community agencies, as well as over them, with the ultimate aim of maintaining social control.
In a February, 2015 article published in the Intercept, investigative journalists Murtaza Hussain, Coan Courrier, and Jana Winter broke a story on a program being run by the United States National Counterterrorism Centre, which aims to spot early warning signs of youth radicalization. A leaked thirty-six-page report, entitled Countering Violent Extremism: A Guide for Practitioners and Analysts included a survey and accompanying rating system that police, teachers and social workers can use in order to help determine an individual child’s “susceptibility to engage in violent extremism.” The report also included suggested interventions that parents could be encouraged to take in order to halt their children’s path towards further radicalization. In Canada, the state broadcaster CBC has run a number of programs and articles on youth radicalization, citing the spectre of young Muslim men travelling to Syria to fight with the so-called Islamic State as a justification for calls for a more invasive regime of community policing. As with other calls to expand state powers, these appeals are currently aimed at exploiting Canadians’ racist fears of Islamic terrorism. Once adopted, these tactics will be applied to any group of so-called “extremists” that the state deems a threat.
Community policing initiatives often work alongside efforts by municipal politicians and developers to gentrify neighbourhoods, by effectively seizing on fears over crime and safety. In Toronto, Police Community Liaison Committees regularly issue recommendations to evict undesirable tenants, as the “community stakeholders” chosen to sit on these committees are almost exclusively drawn from the ranks of local business and property owners. These committees also regularly champion policing initiatives and community partnerships aimed at cracking down on “quality of life” crimes, such as graffiti, trespassing, vagrancy, prostitution, and drug dealing, which in turn provides a mandate for an increasingly heavy-handed police presence. The Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), which manages the city’s diminishing public housing stock, often works directly with the TPS to evict tenants. In 2005, following a series of raids in the heavily racialized neighbourhood of Jamestown-Rexdale, TCHC punitively evicted the families of many of the arrested youth before their trials even began. While this is a specific example, the process is quite commonplace.
In 2008, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) began assigning full-time, armed police officers, or “school resource officers” as they are euphemistically called, to dozens of Toronto high schools. This initiative was inspired by a report on school violence prepared by Toronto lawyer Julian Falconer, who has since then, ironically, built himself a career representing the families of individuals killed by police. The following year, a sixteen year old student at Northern Secondary School, located in the neighbourhood of Jane and Finch, was approached and questioned by the school resource officer, who had seen him lingering in the hallway and thought that he looked suspicious. The teen responded by mockingly referring to the cop as “Bacon.” The officer then proceeded to physically assault the teen, after his demands for identification went unheeded. To top things off, the student was charged with assaulting a police officer while resisting arrest. Programs similar to this one have been implemented in other major Canadian cities, such as Edmonton, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. While these programs often attempt to justify themselves with rhetoric about crime prevention, and the social worth of building positive relationships between police and at-risk youth, the reality is that they represent yet another violent incursion of the state into racialized working-class communities.
With the rise in already high transit fare prices and a new proof of payment system being rolled out this year, the TPS have restored special constable powers to the enforcement agents of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). TTC Special Constables have more policing authority than regular fare inspection officers, and come equipped with handcuffs, batons, and pepper foam. A rather violent altercation recorded in January of 2015 between a passenger and constable at Union Station, and subsequently uploaded to YouTube, is already under investigation by the TPS, and is sure to be one of many, as simple disputes get blown out of proportion by volatile transit security enforcement agents.
The development of community policing is not confined to the neighbourhood, but has extended throughout the broader economy, as well. According to a 2007 report by economists Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev, a whopping 25 per cent of the American workforce is employed in “guard labor,” meaning that their primary economic function isn’t to produce value, but rather to help protect wealth, manage other workers, or otherwise smooth the process of capital accumulation. When describing exactly what jobs constitute guard labour, Bowles and Jayadev include obvious examples such as police officers, soldiers, prison guards, private security, and court staff, as well as all those employed in other positions within the military and prison-industrial-complexes, secret shoppers, quality assurance monitors, supervisors, and managers. They also include unemployed and imprisoned members of the working class, whose primary economic function, they reason, is to maintain worker discipline by way of offering a negative incentive. When the somewhat dubious inclusion of the latter two categories is factored out, the rate falls from one in four workers to one in five, which is still a staggering figure. Furthermore, this percentage would be significantly increased if the category was expanded to include other workers who may be compelled to work with the police as part of their job description, such as nurses, cab drivers, retail workers, and teachers. While no similar figures exist for Canada, the point remains that under late capitalism, the responsibility for policing the working class is increasingly falling on its own members.
Anticipating Resistance: Intelligence-led Policing
The never-ending crisis of the War on Terror has presented western governments with a self-perpetuating justification for increasing the state’s domestic security capacities. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien passed the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act, which massively expanded the Canadian state’s powers of surveillance and detention and legally sanctified the practice of extraordinary rendition and the use of secret trials. This was followed by a vast overhaul of Canada’s immigration and border security framework, including the creation of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) in 2003.
If anything, the pace of these reforms has only sped up under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. Ever the opportunist, Harper has repeatedly exploited public shock and outrage over terrorist acts to cynically pursue his agenda of speeding along Canada’s transformation into a heavily militarized petro-state. On April 19, 2013, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Conservative lawmakers put forward a motion to fast-track the Combating Terrorism Act, which was then hurriedly approved and passed into law. On October 23, 2014 the day after the murder of Canadian Forces Corporal Nathan Cirillo by a lone gunman in Ottawa, Harper gave a speech pledging to further expand Canadian intelligence agencies’ power of surveillance and detention. In January 2015, he made good on this pledge by introducing the Anti-terrorism Act, more commonly known as Bill C-51. The current vague phrasing of this bill will, if and when it is passed, grant CSIS, Canada’s federal intelligence agency, the legal authority to “enter any place or open or obtain access to any thing… to copy or obtain any document… to install, maintain or remove any thing…. [and] do any other thing that is reasonably necessary to take those measures.” This incredibly broad language essentially gives CSIS agents unlimited legal authority to do anything they want, to any and all individuals who they remotely suspect may cause “interference with the capability of the Government of Canada in relation to…the economic or financial stability of Canada…[or] interference with critical infrastructure.” The language in this proposed bill echoes that found in a RCMP report leaked in February of 2015, warning that “violent anti-petroleum extremists” pose a “criminal threat” to Canada’s national oil and gas sector. It is clear that Bill C-51 is less about protecting Canada from Islamic terrorism than it is about giving the state more power to crush resistance to planned pipeline projects, such as the ecologically disastrous Trans-Pacific Pipeline, which is currently on a collision course with the dug-in Indigenous land defenders of the Unist’ot’en Camp, located on unceded Wet’sewet’en territory, in central British Columbia.
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that signals intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States, and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) in Canada intercept and store absolutely all electronic communications that travel across the Internet and cellphone towers, and that this massive, endlessly growing pile of data is stored and accessible from centralized databases for years after it’s been collected. The implications of this fact are staggering, and frankly, difficult to wrap one’s head around.
And federal agencies are not the only entities collecting intelligence on us. Facebook and Google are both multi-billion dollar companies, precisely because they collect obscene amounts of data from millions of users every day, which they then sell to advertising firms and routinely hand over to law enforcement agencies upon request. A June 2014 transparency report released by telecommunications giant Rogers Canada revealed that during the previous year, approximately 175,000 warrantless requests for customer data had been made by Canadian federal agencies, such as the RCMP, CSIS, and CBSA.
Municipal police forces also readily admit to using publicly available digital data, such as social media activity, and internet traffic, as part of their intelligence gathering efforts. This practice is a small part of a strategy known as “predictive policing,” which has, over the past several years, quietly revolutionized the way that many police departments make strategic decisions, such as planning the allocation and deployment of staff and resources, and drafting neighbourhood-specific crime reduction strategies. Predictive Policing techniques focus on the identification of potential criminal activity, in a practice foreseen by a sadly prescient Philip K Dick, over a half century ago. At the first Predictive Policing Conference, held in Los Angeles in 2009, spokespeople from various private security tech firms preached to assembled representatives of police departments from across North America on the benefits of integrating “business intelligence and business analytics” into their traditional policing framework. Special emphasis was placed on the crime fighting potential of implementing cutting edge practices such as advanced data mining, geospatial prediction and social media analysis. For a price, police departments can purchase a wide variety of software solutions, ranging from basic number crunching and analytics programs, to sophisticated crime forecasting models based on complicated mathematical algorithms that can help organize and interpret intelligence as it’s gathered in real time.
IV. Fighting Back
The state’s capacity to spy on, disrupt, discredit, arrest, and if need be, murder anyone that it wants is absolutely terrifying. If you consider yourself a revolutionary and the police don’t scare you, then you’re either posturing or deluding yourself. We may laugh at the idea of the hapless, bumbling cop, but what many officers lack in critical thought, they more than make up for in discipline. This also happens to be a trait that many anarchists in this part of the world severely lack.
Aside from the vast array of military hardware at their disposal, paid for and supplied by the fruits of our labour, police carry a promise of protection that legitimizes their entire institution, no matter how abusive its individual members may sometimes act. Police promise to protect the working class from itself. To protect those who have little, from those who have even less. And the fact that, sometimes, they do just that, serves as an effective cover for their ultimate political function, which is to protect those who have a lot.
It’s true that the police are incredibly powerful. But our communities are also a great source of power, which when collectively grasped and wielded, can be even stronger than theirs. This power is evidenced by their relentless efforts to harness and redirect it to their own ends. The role of revolutionaries should be to help spread an awareness of the potential of working-class dual power, and to participate in building it. As the military strategists of social peace are well aware, class struggle is not a zero sum game, but a gruelling war of position. Waging this war effectively requires a serious commitment to organizing that strengthens the social fabric of our communities, and which seeks to popularize a reflective, common sense understanding that the police are our enemies.
Counterinsurgency strategies were developed in conflict zones, in which occupying armies were called upon to police a restive, foreign population. During the post-WWII era of formal decolonization, and in the more recent military campaigns of the War on Terror, the practice of counterinsurgency has been premised around imposing and then propping up a government that, while often unpopular, can ultimately be counted on to act in the interests of imperialist, transnational capital. Practically, this means simultaneously helping to establish the popular legitimacy of a client regime, while suppressing armed opposition through the use of overwhelming firepower, and withdrawing military forces as soon as they are no longer needed. History has shown that this process often doesn’t work very well. People generally don’t take kindly to the idea of being ruled by a puppet whose legitimacy stems from the presence of a foreign army that bombs and kills their friends, families and neighbours. The longer an occupation goes on, the more people are willing to drop everything and sacrifice their lives to fight against it.
These troublesome dynamics apply far less to domestic counterinsurgency operations. By and large, police officers are not seen by most people as the footsoldiers of an occupying army, but as fellow community members, and as the real-world versions of characters from their favourite television shows. As representatives of the state, police are imbued with all the legitimacy of a democratically elected government, and a political and cultural tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The truth of the matter, however, is that nations aren’t real, and the cop on your block isn’t McNulty from the Wire, but an armed agent of a class that sees national borders as barriers to investment.
As this article has attempted to demonstrate, contemporary policing is a mutually-reinforcing balance of overwhelming force, on the one hand, and an insidious fostering of misguided community trust, on the other. Decisions on exactly which approach to take in a given situation are informed by intelligence gathered by an invisible, yet omnipresent web of surveillance, with capacities heretofore undreamed of at any other time in human history. This situation is similar to the tried and tested “good cop/bad cop” routine, where agents take turns interrogating a suspect before retreating behind a one-sided mirror to collectively discuss how they want to proceed. Those organizing against police should be aware of this dynamic, and should seek to engage situations strategically.
Community policing is an attempt to build and maintain popular legitimacy. It follows, then, that anti-police organizing should aim to disrupt and discredit community policing efforts, and help reframe police forces as an occupying army, which, particularly in Indigenous and racialized communities, they are. White revolutionaries, in particular, have a responsibility to confront community policing initiatives, as they are often tacitly or explicitly rooted in the unspoken or coded language of white supremacy. A refusal to make strategic use of the unearned privileges and social capital granted by skin colour is not only a squandered opportunity, but a betrayal to one’s class.
Precisely because they hold the advantage of overwhelming force, it is important to avoid giving police the opportunity to use that force without consequence. Militancy is a collective phenomenon, and so while organizing, it’s important to avoid tactics that will unduly injure or alienate large groups of people who might otherwise be supportive of your aims. This is not to say that violence has no role in struggle, or that anarchists should only act in accordance with the moral norms of dominant society, but that there’s a difference between violence that increases collective militancy, and violence that makes it easier for the state to isolate us. An asymmetrical response to state violence, which takes a measured approach to escalation is often the most effective way of increasing the level of militancy of all participants.
Lastly, we should cultivate and spread a collective practice of security culture, not just among insular anarchist circles, but as a part of all our organizing efforts. Mass surveillance is premised on the universal expectation of constant convenience and instant-gratification fostered by living in a touch-button society. It’s unnervingly common for people who consider themselves serious revolutionaries to fall victim to this trap. It’s not that we shouldn’t use facebook, or shouldn’t own cellphones, but that we should at least try to understand how the state gathers intelligence, and attempt to make this process more difficult for them. Despite a vague understanding that the government runs mass surveillance programs, people who openly self-identify as an ideological enemy of that very same government, somehow seem to be constantly unsure as to whether or not they are being surveilled. You are. We all are. The state “taps” our phones, because they “tap” all phones, all the time. Operate under the assumption that every email you send will be read by a signals intelligence analyst at the CSE, or the NSA, or any other number of foreign intelligence services, because if you’re actively involved in organizing, or if you become active at any point in the future, it will be. There is no way to completely avoid the watchful eye of the state and do effective organizing at the same time, but there are certainly practical steps that can be taken to make their job more difficult, and they should be followed in a systematic and disciplined manner by anarchists, integrated into the culture of organizations, and spread throughout the working class more generally.
Organizing Towards Dual Power
Whenever anarchists talk about a world without police, we are immediately and inevitably confronted by questions about how we propose to resolve conflicts without them. These concerns are as prevalent as they are valid. They point to the need to further delegitimize the police as an institution, on the one hand, and empower communities on the other. This is not simply a matter of theory, but of theory being put into practice. The continuing appeal of police, even among the communities that they brutalize, arises from entirely legitimate demands for justice and security. People want to live in communities that aren’t plagued by rampant horizontal violence, with parks that we can let our kids play in without fear of hypodermic needles, and where mutually agreed-upon standards of basic decency are enforced.
It is not enough to simply advocate for the abolition of police and prisons, and then point vaguely to historical examples where cops have been replaced by armed self defense committees. The suggestion that we leave the dispensing of justice to groups of armed individuals is, to put it mildly, not exactly an appealing proposition to people who already deal with the reality of gang warfare in their neighbourhood. Besides, history has shown that when an armed faction of a popular movement, such as the Black Panther Party (BPP) or the Irish Republican Army (IRA), have decided to take it upon themselves to resolve interpersonal conflicts without the broader participation of the community, the results have been disastrous.
More important than stockpiling arms, a strategy of building community-based systems of working-class dual power requires collectively identifying community standards and definitions of justice. This is the guiding principle behind restorative justice, a framework of conflict resolution that focuses on healing and reconciliation between two or more parties through reaching a mutual understanding of what occurred, what contributed to it happening, how the community as a whole is impacted, and how, if necessary, restitution should be allocated.
Restorative justice differs widely from state judicial systems, not only because of its emphasis on collective healing over individual punishment, and restitution over retribution, but also because it seeks to resolve conflicts directly within the communities where they occur. This contrasts to what radical criminologist Nils Christie calls the “theft of conflict” perpetrated by specialists who not only deny the involved parties their right to confront one another directly and, if possible, come to some sort of resolution, but also deny the community a participatory role in deciding what constitutes the “law of the land.” This is something that top-down attempts at implementing restorative justice frameworks in Canada or the United States can never achieve. Whether through the so-called Aboriginal Sentencing provisions established by the R v. Gladue Supreme Court ruling, or the John Howard Society working with juvenile offenders through a diversion program, the state’s primary concern is the management of conflict, not its resolution. Although individual judges may choose to apply “alternative justice” principles into their sentencing provisions, at no point does the state relinquish the authority to define what is just and what is not, what is right and what is wrong.
Despite their broad participatory potential, emphasis on collective healing and utility for defining social norms and values outside an imposed state framework, community defence forces, and restorative justice, as revolutionary alternatives to the police and the court system, are still hamstrung by a number of serious shortcomings in common sense. Three fundamental misconceptions surrounding conflict resolution, which are particularly prevalent among some advocates of restorative justice, are:
- All conflicts can be resolved
- The voluntary, consensual participation of both parties is a must
- Violence, even in extreme situations, is unacceptable
Not all conflicts can be resolved. Some we are forced to live with, and others are dealt with as best as imperfect people in a broken society can manage. The process of healing is solely the right of the victim(s), and should not be conditioned upon the equal participation and continued emotional well-being of perpetrators. Forgive and forget is just as much of a backward Judeo-Christian concept as punishment for the sake of punishment. Likewise, without either an implicit or explicit threat of ostracization or violence, restorative justice simply does not work, because there is nothing to ensure that the transgressor will consent to the process. The vast majority of successful accounts of restorative justice in North America have occurred by way of court-ordered diversion programs, meaning that an assurance of imprisonment was held over the heads of perpetrators if they did not comply. Within a community-led restorative justice framework, some form of coercive mechanism, imbued with the authority of broader community legitimacy, is required.
Autonomous, community-led alternatives to the police and the courts are still a long way off. In order to function with any significant level of social legitimacy, systems of dual power require a degree of social cohesion and a level of popular distrust in official state institutions that is largely foreign to the experiences of those living in modern day Canadian cities. Particularly within an urban context, extra-judicial systems for conflict resolution and community defence have historically tended to grow out of a power vacuum, in which high levels of insecurity exist side-by-side with an absence of state authority. With the possible exception of several remote Indigenous communities, these conditions don’t exist in Canada. On the contrary, the authority of the state is often most keenly felt in the very same neighbourhoods that face the highest levels of horizontal violence.
These are serious problems, and we shouldn’t pretend that we have the answers. Yet it stands to reason that our efforts to evict the cops from our communities will only be successful to the extent that they are accompanied by a competing framework of community self-defence and conflict resolution that regular people choose to participate in. In other words, a prefigurative approach to abolishing the police means that we have to actually start building alternatives.
Building a Culture of Working-class Resistance
Some of the most iconic and inspiring images of popular resistance come from riots and insurrectional moments which, to outside observers, appear on televisions and computer screens as spontaneous reactions to a singularly egregious incident of police brutality. Yet for every anti-police riot that grabs the media’s attention, there are countless daily acts of oppression and defiance that may not make the news, but which all play a contributing role in kicking things off. Rather than morbidly waiting around for the police to kill someone before springing into action, anarchists and anti-authoritarian revolutionaries who want to see more anti-police uprisings should seize every opportunity to exploit the daily social tensions that produce them. This means actively participating in building a culture of opposition and hostility to police that permeates all aspects of working-class life.
Organizing against the police can, and should be incorporated into community struggles around housing, and against the violent gentrification of our neighbourhoods. Police Community Liaison Committees should be systematically infiltrated, and business and property owners who zealously collaborate with police to push out poor and racialized neighbourhood residents should be made to understand that this practice is unacceptable. Community meetings of parents and teachers should be organized, and campaigns should be launched demanding that police be removed from public schools. Building committees and neighbourhood watch programs should be organized, and militants should make the case that neighbours not collaborate with police and immigration enforcement officials. Raising this demand should open space for building a more expansive definition of collaboration that includes any activity that increases social divisions, and allows the police to justify its presence in the community.
Our principled opposition to police should spill into our workplaces, as well. Anarchists should be talking to our co-workers about police on smoke breaks, and in the lunch room. Retail workers should organize with their co-workers to demand that their store enact a “no-chase” policy, or barring that, for an informal agreement among staff that nobody calls security on shoplifters, because nobody should have to bear the responsibility of someone getting arrested and potentially going to jail, just for stealing from the boss.
Finally, anarchists should also actively participate in organizations that focus exclusively on combating police violence in ways that go beyond organizing one-off rallies and demonstrations. In Toronto, a number of anarchists, including several members of Common Cause, are active within the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence (NEPV), an organization that conducts community outreach and education on a variety of topics related to policing, and which provides material support and assistance to grassroots anti-policing initiatives based in the city’s most marginalized neighbourhoods. While its methodology for community organizing, and internal political education program is still a work in progress, NEPV has witnessed significant growth and development over the past year, and its model is one with potential to spread to other cities across southern Ontario, and beyond.
1. Primitive accumulation is a Marxist term that refers to an initial phase of capital accumulation, whereby the conditions are created for the further spread of capitalist social relations. Contemporary Marxist theorist David Harvey (citing Rosa Luxemburg) has argued that this process is not simply a historical transitional stage to capitalism, but remains a vital component of capital accumulation today (notable examples being the privatization of public services and infrastructure, the commodification of natural resources, and the patenting of genes), and that a more descriptive term for the phenomenon is “accumulation by dispossession.”
2. Despite the fact that in Canada, the two concepts often overlap, it is nonetheless important to distinguish between immigration and racialization. In 2011, Toronto had 1,264,395 racialized residents (or “visible minorities”), which works out to approximately 49% of the population. 1,252,210 of its residents were immigrants (or 48.6% of the total population); 897,920 of these immigrants came from Asia, Africa, or the Americas (minus the United States). Using these less-than-ideal categories (given that nationality does not always correspond with race), it could be projected that racialized immigrants comprised approximately 71.7% of total immigrants and 34.8% of the total population. (2011 National Household Survey, Statistics Canada).