Community Self-Defense: Libertarian Approaches to Crime and Justice

Recent events clearly reveal that not only are police forces better equipped than they’ve ever been, with tanks and tactical gear and new crowd control devices, but that they’re increasingly more aggressive and deadly. From the police killings of unarmed people of color in the United States, to the incarceration of anarchist activists and implementation of repressive laws against public demonstrations in Spain, to the forced removal of indigenous communities in Brazil during the leadup to the World Cup, to the heavy-handed response to the water charges protests in Ireland, police around the globe are as violently protective of the ruling class as they’ve ever been.

Anarchists frequently tend to fall into the trap of presuming (or are expected by other to presume) how every aspect of a post-revolutionary society might function. Not only is this irrational, it’s counter-productive and often results in a rigorous application of ideological purity that seeks to discredit actual libertarian revolutions that have found some level of success. Lacking a revolutionary framework in our own culture, we neglect to apply our theories to the present situation and look for solutions in some hypothetical fantasy world free from the oppressive constraints of our own. Regardless, we do have real-world examples from which to draw guidance, many of them working beneath the surface of our own states.


Groups like Copwatch film police encounters and train people to know their rights when dealing with the police

One of the first questions I get from non-anarchists when they learn my political leanings is: “Well, what about crime? What will we do with all the criminals? It will be chaos! Who will protect us?” These question are loaded with presumptions about life in an anarchist society, as well as our own. They presume that crime would become unmanageable under a non-authoritarian system and the rules need to be enforced by strict rulers for the good of everyone. One only need look at modern states, where there’s an abundance of state control and armed police forces, yet crime continues to persist. The United States manages to incarcerate more of its people than anywhere in the world (with well over 2 million people behind bars on any given day), but crime is still prevalent and the “war on drugs” has been nowhere near successful at achieving its stated goals. Recidivism rates for US prisoners (the rate at which incarcerated people return to jail or prison) consistently register at around 66%.This is hardly a recipe for a functional criminal justice system.

It’s comforting to imagine that the problems of crime, drug addiction, and violence will simply disappear once the state and capitalism wither away. No doubt, social inequality is a major contributor to modern crime; but not all crime is borne out of scarcity or oppressive social conditions. It’s difficult to imagine certain forms of violence, like domestic disputes, certain forms of sexual violence, petty theft, or crimes committed by people dependent on drugs or who suffer from mental illness, will simply disappear in a post-revolutionary society. We know that most of these problems existed long before capitalism and they will very likely persist long after.

So the question becomes: how do we manage these issues in the most humane and effective way possible, not just in the interest of victims, but also in the interest of offenders, without resorting a violent state police force. Very often, the nature of these crimes themselves, and the way in which we respond to them, serve as a mirror of our own social relations and cultural values, and how we deal with them speaks volumes about our culture and our social system. If we’re not able to control problems like crime without resorting to the same brutal methods used by the capitalist ruling class, our post-revolutionary world will serve as nothing more than a framework for those oppressive social conditions to reemerge.

The Justice System Isn’t Broken

The idea that the police exist to protect the general public has become so pervasive in modern society that, until recently, only the most radical elements have question its premise. Even now, allegedly progressive voices consistently defend the police, if not as individuals, as an institution. They’re often the first to call on those taking to the streets to maintain their composure and refrain from violence, while giving tacit approval to the violence used against protesters and the structural violence that makes police killings of certain minority groups possible.

Despite popular misconceptions, the police as they exist today have not always existed and they are not here to protect the working class. In fact, they’re often the first line of attack against the working class by the capitalists. State police are no doubt here to maintain order, but whose order they are here to maintain is very much a question of concern. David Whitehouse does an excellent job chronicling the historical conditions that led to the creation of modern policing and the history of the police as an instrument of the ruling class in his essay “Origins of the Police.”

Blackout Collective taking Direct Action in front of the Oakland Police Department Headquarters

Blackout Collective taking Direct Action in front of the Oakland Police Department Headquarters

Even a cursory examination of modern prison populations reveals who the police, judges, and other institutions of the ruling class are here to protect. In the US, black people make up just 12% of the general population, but constitute 40% of the nation’s prison population.[1] In France, Muslims also make up just 12% of the population, but they constitute 60-70% of the national prison population.[2] That’s a frightening coincidence for two strikingly different cultures, both of which presume to have moved beyond traditional forms of racism and discrimination. When broken out by social class, education level, and age, the numbers reveal a clear pattern: the police are here to protect the privileged classes.[3]

It’s not uncommon to hear critics of this system, who nonetheless have an interest in its continued existence in some form, to frequently complain that the justice system is “broken.” The justice system isn’t broken; it’s working precisely as it was constructed to. When police are caught committing crimes or kill unarmed civilians and get off with a slap on the wrist (if they’re punished at all) and wealthy criminals are only convicted when they make the mistake steal from other capitalists, while millions of poor people waste away in cages for even the most minor infringements, the nature of modern criminal justice is indisputably clear.

Add to this the fact that private prisons, especially immigration detention centers, now create a profit incentive for incarcerating the least privileged in North America and Europe, and it’s little wonder we have more police patrolling our streets and imprisoning more of our neighbors than ever before. There’s an expectation that police ticket and lock up as many of us as possible, even when they don’t want to.

Building Strong Communities: Defending Against Police and Criminals

The social isolation created by modern capitalism not only discourages and prevents us from knowing our neighbors, the institutions of the ruling class encourage us to fear and distrust them. In areas of high crime or gentrification especially, police encourage residents to report “suspicious activity or people” (which is often simply a person of the wrong skin color walking down the street) and police respond to the slightest of reasons. They’re frequently sent to deal with calls by family members to help people suffering from mental illness, often yielding violent and deadly results. It’s estimated more than half of those killed by police each year suffer from some sort of mental illness.[4] Add to that the toxic atmosphere created by the “War on Drugs,” a police force that’s accountable only to itself, and an emphasis on gun control in areas where illegal guns and police violence are rampant, and it’s little wonder many communities are suffering an epidemic of violence at the hands of police..

“But if the police aren’t here to protect us, who will?” There’s a good deal of fear in many communities, much of it legitimate given present social conditions. But if anything, the police, and the justice system especially, create more problems than they eliminate. People who are incarcerated often return to those same communities when they’re released, only now they face more oppressive restrictions (parole, probation, fines, community service) and the stigma of having a criminal record, which eliminates them from consideration for many jobs and schools. With limited options, they’re left few alternatives than to return either to a life of crime or prison.

Police killings of unarmed black Americans has recently gained a media spotlight, but these sort of killings are nothing new. The killings aren’t in the news because the media sees value in covering them, but because of the public response. People are fighting back, sometimes violently, and that’s certainly newsworthy.

Groups like Copwatch have been filming police in an attempt to create some sort of accountability for years, but in the process of fighting back, many communities are forming groups, like Blackout Collective and Disarm NYPD, are focusing on community-driven solutions to the problem of police violence. Many protesters and grassroots organizations are directly confronting the police in the streets, and even at police stations. Disarm NYPD, a grassroots group in New York, is pushing the idea of police-free zones, where they’ve made it known police are not welcome. In their place, they’re creating community-based conflict-resolution bodies that reduce the need to resort to violence or jail and simultaneously seek to make the police obsolete.[5]

The Black Panthers forged a new model from which groups like this are still learning today. They not only fought against racist institutions like the police and schools, they built their own community organizations to replace them. The Panthers’ leadership was highly authoritarian, which made the group an easy target for police and the FBI, but much of their social organizing was autonomous and libertarian. They created social programs, like free breakfast for school children and armed self-defense groups, in urban areas that were historically underserved or abused by the state.

Community self-defense group in Aquila, Mexico

Community self-defense group in Aquila, Mexico

Communities in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil, Colombia, and other Latin American countries have been antagonized or neglected by police for decades. In these countries, groups have formed their own community police forces that are governed from below to fill the void. [6][7] In the Mexican state of Guerrero (where the 43 students of Ayotzinapa were disappeared in late 2014), armed community police forces are directly fighting the drug cartels and succeeding where state police have failed (or more often sided with the cartels). [8]

We can learn from and adapt these models to our present situation. Rather than begging lawmakers and judges to hold police accountable, which we know they’ll never do, we can hold them accountable ourselves. Not only that, we need to create structures within our own communities that can replace the legitimate functions (public safety, for example) those institutions are meant to fulfill and ultimately replace them. If people see they can protect their communities themselves, without the need to resort to violence as the first option, they’re less likely to rely on police and a bureaucratic justice system to solve their problems.

Modern state police often patrol one neighborhood and live elsewhere, sometimes even another city, county, or state. They’re almost never accountable to people in those neighborhoods. Community defense volunteers would not only be residents of the communities they serve, they would be directly accountable to the people they serve. If they they overstep their duties or violate their neighbors’ trust, they could be immediately recalled by the community and help responsible. Their terms of service would likely be limited, limiting any concentration of power they gain given their limited authority.

Community Self-Defense as Dual Power: Eliminating the Need for Police

The idea of building functional organizations to replace the dysfunctional machinery of the state draws heavily on the anarchist idea of dual power. As it stands now, we can’t defeat the police head on in armed combat, nor would that be advisable in any modern industrialized state. They’re much more well-armed, well-organized, and too ready to resort to violence, which would invariably result in countless dead workers and tighter social control. By organizing democratic community self-defense groups, refusing to use and actively discouraging our neighbors from relying on state police, and pushing for police disarmament and removal from our neighborhoods, the state will necessarily be less involved our affairs as we position ourselves to better argue why they’re no longer needed. That doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict, but at least we’ll be in a position to defend ourselves when it arrives.

Organizing community self-defense groups in this way has the added benefit of forcing us to get to know our neighbors. In doing so, we might also move to create community-based alternatives to social welfare programs and other government functions, on which we’re now dependent (such as emergency services, education, or transportation). If these organizations are based on mutual aid and community solidarity, we can eliminate the social conditions that lead to crime, drug addiction, and poverty, in the first place and become less dependent on capitalists and the state to care for us.

All working people have an interest in building stronger communities. Voting every few years won’t advance our interests. Protesting outside government offices will only yield the slightest reforms the state can get by with. Filing lawsuits, while sometimes effective, ultimately won’t topple a system rooted in injustice. Community self-defense groups won’t resolve all our problems, but it’s a solid step in the right direction. Coupled with parallel campaigns to fight our bosses in the workplace, to fight prisons in our communities, and forging new social support and mutual aid organizations that don’t rely on the state, we will build a new system of social relations that replaces and will ultimately supplant the oppressive conditions that exist today. It will require a good amount of work, and none of it will be easy, but when it’s done, we’ll find our lives more manageable, more rewarding, and more just world than the violent capitalist dictatorship under which we now toil and suffer.

Sources and more information:


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