The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

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NOV 2021 Issue
Field Notes

Why Are All Cops Bastards?

© D. Sleeter, 2011.
© D. Sleeter, 2011.

From Hong Kong to Buenos Aires, from Egyptian stadiums to French demonstrations, a message sumptuously graffitied on walls in Santiago and on railway cars in Britain, stenciled in Tunis and made on urinals with magic markers, spray-painted in Minneapolis, visible on a Turin crosswalk, and judiciously transformed to spell out words far more popular and universal than any expression of patriotism or any advertising slogan, ACAB is the rallying cry that proclaims, “All cops are bastards.” As a hashtag, it accompanies more than 2.2 million posts on Instagram.

To understand the reasons for its popularity, it might be necessary to spend a little time on the question of translation. Strictly speaking, “All Cops Are Bastards” should be translated into French as “All Cops are Swine” (salopards). It’s a fact that bâtard in popular French usage, like the Italian bastardo or in the English bastard, no longer means that the individual so labeled must be the offspring of an illegitimate union (whatever the legitimacy invoked), but definitely a bastard (salaud) who only deserves contempt and hatred. But to understand the reasons for this slogan’s unrivaled popularity, maybe the translator needs to be more rigorous and delve into the semantic origins of the term “bastard.” If it had a negative connotation from the beginning, it is because in premodern, patriarchal societies, any birth outside an official union introduced a grave disturbance in a fundamental component of the traditional world: “belonging.” From the start, the child could neither belong fully to the world (family, clan, class, caste) of the father nor to that of the mother. Regarding the police, it is therefore their shady character that we must examine.

“All cops are bastards.” Those who are outraged by what they perceive as a hateful comment simply do not understand it. We are all familiar with the refrain: “Of course, there are a few rotten apples in the bunch, but to smear all cops with the faults of a few is unfair.” Against this received and oft-rehashed opinion, let us assert, on the contrary, that the ACAB statement does draw its power from its accuracy and precision, that the truth of the slogan comes precisely from the affirmation of bastardry. It is a fact that, by far, the great majority of police officers come out of the working class. It is another equally indisputable fact that behind their official role of defending the populace, they betray their working-class origins by defending the world order, the economy, the bourgeoisie, the ruling class (however one chooses to describe the forces that daily crush us). All cops are bastards because their function in itself is based on this ambiguity, this hypocrisy: their legitimacy is supposed to come from the people even as they serve power. This affirmation is no more questioned in France, the crème de la crème of republics, than it is in Tunis, Madrid, or São Paulo.

What are police for?

The field of police activities is vast and diverse. Some cops ticket improperly parked vehicles or apprehend thieves; others play cowboy with PepperBall guns or wage war on drugs; a shrewder minority solves murders or monitors the political opposition, while others push back migrants at the border, terrorize demonstrators, protect the presidential palace or close down “free party” gatherings. When you think about it, police are used for just about anything and everything, and that is certainly the reason why France employs more than 250,000 of them.

But what are the police really for? What is the point of all this careful control of the territory, all this surveillance, all this institutionalized brutality? What the police defend with all the means at their disposal is not order and society per se but a certain order and its society. This blackmail of fear and security is not about human freedom, but about the lonely, the dispossessed, and therefore powerless, individuals whom the world economy has produced. What police violence controls and represses are bodies and minds that are alive and therefore dissatisfied. The police are not just the armed force of the State, they are the guarantee that everyone stays in their proper place.

Let’s be magnanimous. If we can say that all cops are semantically bastards, we can also imagine that some cops are not bastards, bullies, or morons. The police themselves must have their outliers: some in the financial squad, some in protecting minors, and—why not?—some in the department of Internal Affairs. Yes, the police are despised, but, as is brought up with some regularity, do they not sometimes perform useful tasks? We can applaud when a politician like Patrick Balkany is arrested for fraud, when Sarkozy’s [former President of France] phone is tapped, when police search the offices of the Minister of Justice or appropriate text messages revealing that the Interior Minister abused his powers to obtain sexual favors. But, even when these lawsuits do not end in disarray as in the last case cited, this furtive satisfaction is soon dislodged by the realization that these kinds of settling of scores within the dominant classes, these conflicts within the ruling institutions, in no way call into question the authority of established powers but, on the contrary, attest to their vitality. If these cases can have unpleasant consequences for some detestable individuals, they can also establish the legitimacy of the even more detestable institutions by showing that they are capable of correcting their dysfunctions.

We may not complain when the police stop a serial killer, a rapist or a pedophile, but here too our relief can only be short-lived since the use of imprisonment and repression as the only answer will never prevent further rapes nor fix the culture that produces them. The global geopolitics and state racism (that the police serve) will continue to create social psychopaths ready to adorn their death drives with religious ornaments. The police are unable to combat systemic insecurity because they are an essential part of it.

Never before have the police been so much at the center of public debate. At every demonstration, social networks are fired up in reaction to the now routine videos of police brutality: nurses molested, eyes gouged out, crowds suffocated by tear gas and beaten with batons. To prevent a few hundred young people in Redon from commemorating the death of Steve Maia Caniço, the prefect of police sent in, among others, the GIGN [the elite police tactical unit of the French National Gendarmerie]. Immediately, images of hooded soldiers attacking musical equipment went viral. A few days earlier, images had appeared of a screaming mother in Saint-Denis trying to find her two-year-old son; she was leaving a wake, which the police saw fit to smother in tear gas. In April, eight young people accused of burning police officers in Viry-Châtillon in 2016 were finally acquitted: the investigators had faked their hearing reports. At the time of this writing, Bagui, brother of Adama Traoré, who died at the hands of police in Persan, has just been acquitted after five years imprisonment. The courts had to admit that he had not participated in the riots following the assassination of his brother. With multiple, recurring corruption scandals, whether on a small scale in police stations, or on a large scale, as in the case of the Marseille BAC [Anti-Crime Brigade] which extorted money from drug dealers, or on an almost unimaginable scale, the Stups [Narcotics Brigade] which involved itself in the organization of worldwide drug trafficking in liaison with the largest international dealers. With all of these ever-evolving tales, the golden legends of the heroic police that old TV shows used to spin are receding in favor of stories of corruption and violence worthy of the most hard-boiled series featured on American TV.

As the term "guardians of the peace" has fallen into disuse, and despite the insistent denials of Macron and his followers, the notion of "police violence" is now firmly installed in media language, introducing the idea that violence is part of police work. The media most inclined to support the status quo are themselves forced to pay some attention to police misconduct. But despite everything, not everyone hates the police—though many protestors have consistently chanted this since the 2016 protests against the El-Khomri labor reform law. Even though a diffuse hatred for the police is spreading, it is only very rarely accompanied by a structural and systemic understanding of what the police are, what they actually stand for, and what purpose they serve, even when they are not committing any abuses. Of course, the first factor in “anti-cop” radicalization is the police themselves; what would have become of the Yellow Vest movement without the electroshock of police brutality? But simply criticizing the excesses, outrages, and famous “blunders” of a police force moreover too inclined to vote for the National Rally (the right-wing party of Marie le Pen) leaves us at a standstill.

In state societies in general and in Western Europe until the end of the classical age, it was understood and commonly accepted that men-at-arms were there above all to enforce the law/will of the strongest, that is to say, the lord or the sovereign. With bourgeois democratic revolutions, the idea began to prevail that “the law is equal for all,” a principle affirmed in texts (and in Italian courtrooms) while almost always denied in practice. From the unobtrusive, unarmed British bobby to the fearsome sbirro of southern Italy, there has been, of course, a whole range of attitudes towards the police, according to a society’s religious ethics, whether Protestant civism or Catholicism (to which the democratic state will remain forever alienated). In short, the cop was more or less respected depending on how close the society felt to the State. But even after bourgeois revolutions, whatever the North-South geographical variations, the class divide remained decisive. The English petite bourgeoisie may have loved its police, but the Cockneys spontaneously hated them. In fact, as long as the working class has been a dangerous class, one certainty has remained firmly anchored in its milieu: the cop is the enemy’s first line of offense on the class struggle front. This healthy conviction began to be diluted as the heirs to Social Democracy and Stalinism sunk themselves into the quest for democratic respectability, while the working class progressively fragmented and its counter culture disappeared, in order to end up in this discourse of love of a democratic police force, now the discourse of all Western democracies. In the largely dominant ideology, hatred of the police is now reserved for the antisocial and the psychopathic.

However, a certain lucidity returns. What is the purpose of a controller in the subway system? Not to keep the wheels moving, but to make sure that the poorest of the poor can’t get around. What good comes out of the thousands of young people ending up in prison every year for trying to make a little money selling hash? Not to maintain a healthy lifestyle for the average citizen, but to impose a constant, disciplinary pressure on the poorest neighborhoods, and to remind the recalcitrant that to make a living you have to be exploited in a factory, a temp agency, or on an Uber app. As for the thousands of corpses that fill the waters of the Mediterranean, tragedies met with almost general indifference, what are they for? To dissuade others by reminding them of the steep price to pay for joining our little Western hell.

The police forces are not about defending widows, orphans, battered women, the weak. Through their brutality, police forces are about defending the economic world and its status quo: the monopolization by a few of the land/territory and labor of all. The people’s need for a police force is a mystification, its existence is a usurpation.

Why the police?

From its cradle, the history of the police in France is quite simple: it is first the history of the State. To produce and ensure its sovereignty, the state first had to find tax collectors and then an armed militia to prevent the poor from rebelling, to secure the flow of goods, and to guarantee the protection of the wealthy and their riches. In no time, the concept of the state and its practical implementation, the police force, made their thunderous entry onto the historical stage. The idea that a small portion of the people should serve to maintain the subjugation of the rest through violence is, in sum, quite recent. Thus, while the police institution may present itself as natural, timeless, and insurmountable, it is only parasitic, evanescent, and living on borrowed time.

What we need to understand today is what the police force is about. How does it manage to live with the hatred it inspires, as well as with its own shame? The answer is cruel. The power of the police on a daily basis, what their power relies on, is not so much their numbers, uniforms, or weaponry, as our own desire for police. If we accept to be brutalized and infantilized, it’s first of all because we have been taught to be fearful.

One of the most powerful myths that justifies this undignified tolerance is that we are dangerous to each other. If we didn’t have the fear of spending our final days in prison, we would kill each other off. You have only to turn on a TV program to see this. Every day, hours and hours of fiction or “news” plunge us into the throes of investigations and other hectic missions: terrorists get shot, killers unmasked, prostitution networks brought down. No matter how infinitesimal the actual part of police work these shows represent, it is necessary to broadcast the idea that the police protect us from each other. Never mind that the real day-to-day police work is about regulating drug trafficking, optimizing the car travel of workers and vacationers, chasing down the little guys who don’t go straight, settling disputes between neighbors, and beating up protesters.

Poverty, sexual violence, loud noises at night, drug use, prostitution, theft, epidemics, drunk driving… The police claim to regulate and repress these behaviors on a daily basis, but they are also the least able to find a solution to them.

The image that the police force has of itself and on which it stands is a mirage. Police enforcement runs like a hamster in a wheel at the speed required by the politics of numbers, all the while knowing that it will have absolutely no effect on the causes of what it claims to be fighting. Police do not fight against delinquency, they make war on the poor and maintain misery.

But who are the police?

Statistical data and sociological studies show the profile of the typical police officer on duty. He is predominantly white, male, and from the working class. Eighty percent of the [French] police force come from rural areas or small and medium-sized provincial towns, and more than sixty percent subscribe to far-right ideas. Therefore, people of color, women, wealthy urbanites or even trade unionists must be in the minority. This is the problem with sociology, it does little to enlighten us beyond our objective observations.

We also learn that police are not doing very well, that they feel despised by passers-by as much as by their superiors, that their working conditions are abominable and their wages humiliating. According to a recent survey conducted by the Mutuelle Générale de la Police, 24 percent of them say they have experienced suicidal thoughts, 6.7 times more than other working people (Le Monde, 6/07/2021). Police officers should thus be the first to want to do away with the police force.

How can we explain such a penchant for death? Public health institutions obviously have their own explanations: the bad ambiance, broken police car air conditioners, unpaid overtime, etc. But we have to face the fact that such poor working conditions are present in almost all the trades, and therefore cannot be considered sufficient factors. We must put forward another hypothesis to try to understand how police officers can hate themselves so much.

As we mentioned at the outset, the worldwide dissemination of the slogan “all cops are bastards” is due to its effectiveness in showing the hypocrisy of the role of the police force: its claim to defend the people, to emanate from them, while it essentially serves only to defend the economy, the State, and related interests. How can we not imagine that such a realization does not also occur to the cop? Is it because his existence is untenable that he is despised and despicable, and knows it? His only social activity is to submerge himself in his uniform. From then on, he has to tell himself stories to imagine being something other than this raggedness.

The policeman is neither a warrior nor a mafioso; he does not profit from the violence that he dispenses on a day-to-day basis, it’s free of charge. If he harasses, extorts, or brutalizes, it is never for his own benefit, it is because he is ordered to do so. The misdeeds that he must daily discharge do not correspond to his own ethics but to empty, remote and abstract ideas: legitimate violence, security, civil peace, the social order. He can use free will, choose his victims according to his personal tastes, be formal or informal with those he controls, but what his uniform covers up is his fundamental irresponsibility. The only importance accessible to him is that of obeying orders; his only freedom is to embody the reason of State on a microscopic and derisory scale.

“But behind the uniform, there is a human being!" No, what we have is a subject irresponsible for his actions, a puppet without ethics, a cold-hearted executor. What makes the life of the police officer so hateful is the banality and emptiness of this evil.

Legitimate violence and police brutality

As the police take up more and more of public and media space, we hear the “left,” or what remains of it, raging about the rise of a police state. If there is no human being behind the uniform, neither is there a noble state institution behind the iniquitous police state. If it is customary to define the state as the institution that holds a monopoly on legitimate public violence, this means that the police and the army are in charge of this violence. Therefore, every state is fundamentally a police state. The only margin left to the state is to mask, more or less effectively, the violence that has always constituted it by creating the democratic fictions that we have come to know. The more these fictions unravel or lose their credibility, the more the repressive apparatus reveals itself.

If we prefer to speak of police brutality rather than violence in this text, it is not just to replace one word with another. In 1977, Jean Genêt wrote a very beautiful preface to his Textes des prisonniers de la “Fraction armée rouge” [Writings of the Prisoners of the “Red Army Faction”] in which he proposed to distinguish between violence and brutality: “If we think about any vital phenomenon, even according to its narrowest meaning, which is biological, we understand that violence and life are pretty much synonymous. The grain of wheat that germinates and splits the frozen earth, the chick’s beak that breaks the shell of the egg, the fertilization of a woman, the birth of a child raise the accusation of violence. And no one blames the child, the woman, the chick, the bud, the grain of wheat.” Brutality, on the other hand, is "the gesture or the theatrical gesticulation that puts an end to freedom, and this for no other reason than the will to deny or interrupt a free accomplishment. The brutal gesture is the gesture that crushes a free act.

Thus, on the one hand, there is vital and spontaneous violence, that of the demonstrators who invade the streets and palaces, shop windows that break, free bodies that collide with government shields. And on the other, there is organized brutality that takes on “the most unexpected forms, not immediately detectable as brutality: the architecture of the HLMs [habitation à loyer modéré, low-income public housing], the bureaucracy, the priority given to speeding traffic over slow pedestrians, the authority of the machine over the human who serves it, the codification of laws over custom, the use of secrecy to prevent any knowledge of the general interest, the uselessness of the slap in police stations, the police familiarity with those of brown skin, the goose-step march, the bombing of Haiphong, the Rolls-Royce of forty million…”

This is where the endless denunciation of police violence can turn out to be a trap. There is of course a certain utility in making visible to as many people as possible what the police force tries to cover up on a daily basis. We immediately think of the valuable work of census and verification carried out during the Yellow Vests movement by the journalist David Dufresne. However, when you watch his documentary Un pays qui se tient sage [A Country that Behaves Itself], you can't help but feel some discomfort. Images and testimonies of brutality follow one another; embarrassed police officers justify themselves as best they can about what we have all seen on the streets or on our cell phones. But the film is haunted by an absence. You do see unbridled brutality on the giant screen, but what you never see is what it's being used against. Not the swollen or mutilated bodies of the demonstrators, they are shown. No, what is missing is the violence, the revolt, the desire for the world to finally change. What the police suppressed in blood and tear gas during the Yellow Vests movement were not the inert bodies of an obedient and docile population, but a people who were rising up. What made it so powerful and propelled it light years from the "social movement," from its exhausted processions with their feverish demands that no one even bothers to listen to anymore, is that in traffic circles, in city centers, and on the Champs-Élysées people wanted to do battle with power once and for all. What creates police and makes them indispensable to any state or government is the risk of an uprising, the potential violence of the people. It is not first the state, then repression, and then the people; it is first the people, then the state and its need for repression. The potential of insurgency is primary: the police are chasing after it. There is the emancipatory violence that creates better worlds, and there is the brutality that does everything possible to prevent them from happening. First there is life, then there is what constrains it, represses it, ruins it.

Covid Police

With the overnight house arrest of half of the world's population, the COVID crisis permitted this: the labor force—with the exception of ”essential” (low-wage) workers still not replaceable by robots—became, as never before, individualized, isolated, bound to its closed place of reproduction, and always more disposable. By reserving the exterior space for capital, for its cameras and forces of order, the utopia of digital capitalism, in the making for several decades, has become blindingly clear: its algorithms busy capturing our attention in order to profit from almost all our waking moments, while waiting to find a way to do the same with our sleep. In short, it was automatically and with the same momentum ensuring the mechanization of humans and the expansion of capitalist reproduction. But while capitalist devices take over our heads, we still have bodies that someone has to take care of, and this is where the police come in.

This is what is being imposed on us: while our heads would belong to GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft), our bodies would be increasingly taken over by medicine and by the police. We have seen with what obtuse brutality (although not devoid of class discrimination): the French police and all the world’s police forces have participated in this program. We have also seen that this was not done without resistance from bodies (or the heads on top of them).

When the COVID epidemic arrived in France, the relationship of trust, touted by pollsters and politicians, between its police and its population was already quite frayed. When millions of people were infected, when hundreds died every day, when everyone had to remain cloistered at home, when the hospital system was close to exhaustion, when health measures such as masks were lacking, what did the police do? Or rather, what did the government decide to do with its hundreds of thousands of flunkies?

Why did the Macron government pass up the opportunity to return to that blessed post-terrorist moment when “hugging a cop” was not just a drunken outburst, but seemed to be a desire shared by a lot of people? Why did it not put police at the service of the population’s basic needs? It would have been enough to call a couple of TV crews embedded in journalism to organize a charming show for the benefit of the whole country showing the police bringing groceries to grandmothers. Instead, a very different direction was chosen. The cops were made to prowl the streets to make sure that no one left their home, to track down the smallest barbecue, to crisscross the forests to chase down mountain bikers, to check all vehicles to ascertain that their trips were justified. If a mask was worn under the nose, an army of cops was ready to issue a fine. The lockdown was the realization of the dream every patrol car carried: domination of the city.

And as the losers who govern us are not without some inventiveness, the lockdown permission form has arrived. In addition to police deployment, each person now had to be self-certified. To go shopping, walk your dog, or meander (but only within a one-kilometer radius and for no longer than one hour), you had to authorize yourself beforehand. Who could have ever imagined such a tautological, infantilizing, and absurd control system? Let’s not forget that thousands of fines were issued to the unfortunate persons who forgot to fill in the magic words or who got the dates wrong. This pastiche of fines may have been mocked or vilified, but people grew accustomed to it and bowed to it. For months, we had to play at monitoring ourselves and, in the wake of self-entrepreneurship, to become self-policing. The rest of the time, in the still-alive Vichy tradition, we could count on the instinct of those for whom self-policing was not enough to become informers.

These bad habits allowed Emmanuel Macron to announce in the summer of 2021 that all trips to public places would now require a Health Pass. If the creation of thousands of small, invisible borders permitting the discrimination of who is following the rules from who is not, if some of the self-proclaimed representatives of the protest against these new measures be vermin of the extreme right or nuts convinced that reptilians want to insert 5G chips into our brains, this is a godsend for the government, which can thus create a diversion and polarize the conflict between the vaccinated and the non-vaccinated. But behind this false alternative, power makes headway.

Even the narrow-minded managers who govern us could see that such maneuvers would only widen the gulf between much of the population and the police. But to understand why these purely repressive practices were immediately imposed, it is necessary to understand them less in terms of rationality than in terms of emotions and passions. The first reason for choosing the baton was that it corresponded, to use a Bourdieusian term, to the habitus of the police. Towards the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, during periods when post-left rulers took over to ensure that French society was brought up to ultra-liberal standards, we saw various simulations of "community policing,” the crazy project to bring working-class neighborhoods and cops closer together. But as early as 2002, under Sarkozy, these humanitarian inclinations were abandoned. Sarkozy, a friend of Bolloré [a corrupt French billionaire] and Gaddafi, with the vulgarity and arrogance that are his trademark, took pains to remind us that cops are not educators. To return to a centuries-old identity, a cop is made to punch. Sarkozy’s program with its scaled-up application had all the more reason to come about since the autonomy of the police force has grown steadily as rulers have had to rely increasingly on it in the face of crises. The last and most serious crisis, the Yellow Vest movement, led to the consecration of the most reactionary police unions as the supervisors of the Ministry of the Interior.

If it was officially about enforcing health measures, which the vast majority widely understood and accepted, the repressive management of the epidemic certainly had a reason for those in power: they saw the shutdown of the economic machine as fraught with danger.

Indeed, there were many sick people, people dying in hospitals, families incarcerated in their small apartments, people losing their minds or their sources of income. There was much telecommuting with zealous emailing from 7 am to 11 pm. There were even the outlines of an imposed capitalist utopia with labor locked up and isolated. But there were also birds singing in the cities, air that was breathable again, employees who were finally able to look after their gardens, friends who invented new ways of meeting. For the first time, much of the planet was able to stop working. Let’s imagine for a second that this global shutdown of the capitalist machine was not accompanied by the enforced isolation of everyone in their homes by the police. Let us imagine that this freedom to be together, this freedom from the alienation of work, could be extended and experienced by the entire population for a period of time that the population would have wanted to prolong… Let’s imagine… How to prevent the imagination from doing its work? How to prevent it from becoming a material force?

These distressing questions for the state sometimes produced alarming answers. In some repressive episodes, such as the search for hikers in the high mountains or the sweep of beaches with the help of drones, one cannot help but observe a strange mixture of obsessive frenzy and counter-insurgency role-playing. The hatred of partying manifested in the insane repression of raves or other spontaneous gatherings, with SWAT teams in masked antiterrorism gear sent to take down loudspeakers: all this has no other rationality than that of fear.

It is true that the best celebrations often end in riots and vice versa. Preventing an epidemic of supermarket lootings was certainly a reason for the police management of Covid. With hundreds of thousands of people crammed into substandard housing, the economy shut down, temporary workers on the sidelines: the government kept a close eye on the suburbs.

If the government deployed hundreds of thousands of police, it may have been mainly for this reason: the fear that an economic shutdown would lead to ungovernable behaviors. Thus it was necessary that confinements and restrictions be experienced principally not as an exercise of self-discipline freely consented to, but as a punitive moment from which it would be a question of emerging as quickly as possible in order to return normality, that is to say, to ordinary alienation. Capitalism doesn’t like joy, it wants resilience.

End the Police

The first trap police set for us is when they treat us as enemies and trigger our mutual resentment. This is why we must immediately take the opposite stance and refuse symmetry. Fighting against the police cannot not be reduced to the scuffles that now accompany demonstrations. Demonstrations are joyful when they let us escape police and union control, when everyone can spread out in the city, occupy places, form links, overthrow symbols, assert anger and joy—and sometimes depressing when they are reduced to tear-gas rituals.

The fight against cops has some chance of success if it plays on their bastard nature, accentuating the disorder that characterizes it, if it presses where it hurts: the contradiction between their working-class roots and their war against the people. Let’s be clear, this will not be done with flowers. On January 5th, 2019, Christophe Dettinger, “the Gypsy of Massy,” moved forward on the Léopold-Sédar-Senghor footbridge and with his bare hands started boxing with the over-equipped gendarmes who had just blocked a crowd of demonstrators and beaten one of them to the ground. The scene was filmed and viewed by millions of French: a star was born. Identified by the police, Dettinger surrendered three days later and was imprisoned. In less than 24 hours, a fundraising drive collected 117,000 euros for him.

This wave of enthusiasm was not the result of strategic thinking, it was an emotion aroused by the beauty of the gesture, by the quiet courage of one individual. Where the police set up a wall, Christophe Dettinger cleared a path. He swept away obstacles and freed the way. If it was necessary to incarcerate him, to drag him through the mud on TV, to stop his support fund and create a competing one supporting the police, it was not only to punish him for having defended himself and his fellow demonstrators, but to destroy his image and the joy that it gave to all those subjected to weeks or years of police omnipotence. The ZAD movement [Zone à défendre: the movement opposing the construction of a new airport in rural Notre-Dame-des-Landes] provides an equally valid example: if the government mobilized such an enormous apparatus to crush the ZAD, it was because it was unacceptable that such a space where the police had become useless could continue to exist in the nation.1

We must follow the path opened by Christophe Dettinger. What hurt the cops much more than his fists was that he showed that the virtues on which they pride themselves were really on his side: courage, composure, the reasoned use of violence to protect the weak. He played on a deep chord in people’s hearts, in the hearts of women and men who, no matter how little they have, will always tightly hold onto, even at the cost of their lives: their dignity.

During the movement against the 2016 El-Khomri law, Eric Hazan published a text in lundimatin entitled, “A Minority Opinion on the Police” [Sur la police, une opinion minoritaire]. In it, he proposed to go and meet the most demoralized police officers to try to rally them to the movement. Although his text received some ridicule from so-called radical circles, it nevertheless touched on an essential point: no victory will be possible until a substantial part of the police force decides to lower its arms. What we disagree on is how to achieve this surrender of the troops. If the Bastille was taken over on July 14, 1789, it was because on the day before 48,000 people formed themselves into militias and looted the arms warehouses. If Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s police forces ended up deserting the streets in 2011, it was because the insurgents ransacked and burned hundreds of police stations and rightly perceived the police as the incarnation of these two dictatorial regimes.

Unlike many other professions, the work of cops prohibits their finding any common ground with us in the performance of their duties that could lead them out of their evil passions. Thanks to the Yellow Vests movement, many of the folks who entered it with well worked out nationalist or conspiracy ideologies, etc., by dint of good encounters, have given them up. Nothing like this is possible with the cops. To our knowledge, the only representative of the forces of order whom we have seen siding with the Yellow Vests and fighting alongside them was a cop who no longer has a future in this profession. To the angry police officers who assaulted the anti-labor law demonstrators in 2016, we had nothing but this to say: don't be bastards anymore.

Or more precisely, don’t be bastard cops anymore. Because it’s time to admit that, in principle, we have nothing against bastards. We too are troubled by our social roles, assuming to be a parent, an artist, a sweeper for society, but much more against it. Rather than claiming an unobtainable purity in front of cops, our strategy must be to show ourselves as even more bastardly by knowing how to play on all fronts. This means, for example, not refusing to fight on the grounds of legal guarantees, while not getting locked into legalism. It is knowing how to apply pressure where it hurts: the dishonor of having chosen such a profession. You feel despicable? That’s because you are! In spite of your wages that are much higher than those of other workers and the incessant flattery of your leaders (who, however, despise you as much as we do), you feel your situation is hard? Well, we will be working to make it even more painful, just as we will work to make desertion even more desirable.

Since the George Floyd movement, a controversy has emerged in the United States over what should be done with the police: abolish it for the most radical, reduce its funding for the more timid, reform it. But these ideological debates seem especially conducive to producing empty posturing. Let’s recall that in France the only mass movement that took the police issue seriously was the Yellow Vests, which a priori had nothing against the police as such, on the contrary. But by confronting the police, by discovering the baseness and cruelty behind their actions, the Vests quickly went from “The police with us” to “Everyone hates the police.” In the momentum of their movement, they no longer wanted to be policed.

Ending the police force means finding the means to remove it and removing it is not to beat it by force or to abolish it in the abstract; it is to render it inoperative.

To solve the police problem is to succeed in clearing a path in the midst of its omnipresence. This means being able to push it back, to evade it, to scatter and disorient its forces—as the thousands of occupied traffic circles have done—to make its existence even more untenable and shameful than it already is, and most of all to make links and worlds within which it will never again have a place.

  1. See “ZAD: The State of Play,” Field Notes, July 2018.


Serge Quadruppani

Serge Quadruppani is a French translator, novelist, and essayist involved in radical movements. He is co-editor of Défaire la police [Defeat the Police] (Paris: Divergences, 2021). In English he has published The Sudden Disappearance of the Worker Bees (Arcade Publishing). His blog can be found at

Janet Koenig

Janet Koenig is a New York City-based artist and writer.

Jérôme Floch

Jérôme Floch is co-editor of Défaire la police [Defeat the Police] (Paris: Divergences, 2021).


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

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