Whose Leash?

Atlanta, 2020

n+1’s zine, Stop Cop City and the Struggles to Come—which includes A. C. Corey’s essay “The Forest and Its Partisans” alongside “Not One Tree,” by Grace Glass with Sasha Tycko—is available as a free download here.

Early on the morning of April 25, students at Emory University established the latest in a wave of encampments on college campuses across the US protesting Israel’s genocide in Gaza. Just hours later, the cops cracked down hard, firing tear gas and riot munitions into the crowd and making dozens of arrests throughout the afternoon. These arrests were unexpectedly brutal. One video circulating on social media shows three officers pinning a black protester to the ground—already cuffed—as one of the three tases him continuously for at least ten seconds, clumsily pressing the device into the protester’s bare thigh, struggling to remain upright as he steals glances at the crowd chanting “Free Palestine” behind him. Legal observers present were allegedly detained first, just before the arrests began, and taken to the dean’s office, where they were told that “the president [that is, Emory’s Gregory L. Fenves] does not want Green Hats on campus.” Noëlle McAfee, chair of Emory’s philosophy department, was among those arrested. An APD goon cuffed her and shoved her off campus, a balaclava over his face and a gas mask dangling off his belt. Many others report protesters choked, tackled, and menaced by several officers at once.

All this fits a pattern emerging at Columbia, UT Austin, and elsewhere: surprisingly rapid resort to “hard” crowd-control tactics; early detention or arrest of legal observers; high numbers of unprovoked arrests on spurious charges; and near-immediate suspensions, evictions, and other disciplinary measures for protesters on the part of university administrators. Many have been puzzled by this. Aren’t the forces of order supposed to be better at this by now? Haven’t we endlessly discussed the subtlety of their abilities to defuse and co-opt, to kill with kindness, to pointedly ignore? Why have they stoked what could’ve been a very familiar type of peaceful demonstration at a single university into a nationwide, high-temperature resurgence of the Palestine solidarity movement?

Everyone knows that the cops are brutal. We’ve now had a half-century of sporadic rioting over that point. But they’re not uniformly brutal. It’s been a while since they’ve been this rough with this many of the children of the comfortable middle classes—not to mention those classes’ professionally established adults. Since the uprisings of 2020, the cops have been image-conscious. This doesn’t mean they’ve been on their best behavior—indeed, over the past four years, rates of fatal police shootings have increased slightly. But when Emory students set up a similar quad encampment around this time last year in support of the Stop Cop City movement, they were allowed to stay most of the night before receiving a relatively subdued dispersal order early in the morning. After some cost-benefit analysis, they complied, and the whole thing ended without arrests or weapons drawn. Penalties from school admin were also light or absent. That was smart. Repression breeds resistance: don’t bring the hammer down unless you have to. So why now?

Another episode from the Stop Cop City saga offers some clues. After March 5 of last year, when a contingent of attendees of the South River Music Festival broke off to engage in some enthusiastic sabotage at the nearby construction site of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center—setting off fireworks, burning and smashing equipment—the police response was staggering. Dozens arrested (all at the nearby festival, none at the construction site). SWAT units deployed, panicked police chasing concertgoers through the dark woods, an LRAD-equipped armored personnel carrier stuck spinning its wheels in the mud while lines of cars snaked around the surrounding blocks waiting to be allowed through police checkpoints. While this response and the criminal cases it generated were egregious, the cops still seemed relatively under control. Spooked, but not especially reckless. Compare this to the home raids they’ve carried out in the weeks and months since: dubious or withheld warrants, gratuitous property destruction, residents cuffed in various states of undress or dragged around by the hair while personal photos are propped up on display for officers to mock as they carry out the search—ugly, retributive stuff.

Now think back to 2020, when at a certain point police everywhere started crossing a line. You may recall veiled police union threats against the children of politicians, or the open targeting of journalists and legal observers, or those blinded by riot munitions shot eye-level or point-blank. That was when the National Guard started to get called in, cops began dancing or kneeling with protesters, white congressional Democrats posed wearing Kente cloth, and things got generally weird. There was a moment where the police briefly slipped the leash. They made rapid leaps from “restoring the peace” to “teaching the lawless rioters a lesson” to, finally, narrow group-identity aggrievement and retaliation. Their commitment to preserving the status quo was briefly suspended. They didn’t want law and order, they wanted revenge. Then, just as quickly, the moment was contained.

Many anarchists hate cops because cops are part of “the state.” True enough, from one angle. But seen from another, it might be more useful to think of them as a political bloc with their own interests, maybe even a “class fraction” or a Weberian status-group. As Stuart Schrader has argued, this is especially true now, after several rounds of neoliberal “police reform” efforts that entrenched police identity and their sense of group interest through “professionalization” and the emergence of entrepreneurialized competition between municipalities for limited state funding. As they became more autonomous, police started looking less like agents of the state and more like a gang or racket.

A similar process has been observed by analysts of the “neoliberal university”: traditional four-year residential colleges have become hedge funds, dominated by trustees and ballooning administrative apparatuses, with an increasingly vestigial faculty and student body hanging on as an inconvenient afterthought. In the ’60s, protesters and militants correctly identified the university system as a vital organ of the US state, the same US state that was slaughtering the Vietnamese people in a doomed, mechanized war of annihilation. This analysis of the role of the university remains true, which is why the demand for divestment from Israel and from the arms manufacturers supplying it is as good a point of leverage as any the Palestine solidarity movement has yet found in this country. Sixties activists similarly identified the police as organs of the same state, linking the destruction of Vietnam with the oppression of “internal colonies” from the ghetto to the reservation. Again, this remains salient, which is why the link between Palestine and the contemporary carceral abolitionist movement is so natural. But the relationship of each of these institutions to the US state has changed, and in parallel ways. They’ve been cut loose to hustle and pursue their self-interest like everyone else. They still have to serve the state, but they’re linked by contract—not by blood. As a result they’ve become more mercenary.

All this points to a hypothesis about what we’ve seen over the last week or so: repression is crude and poorly coordinated—and it is backfiring because no one is steering the ship at the national level. Neither individual university admin nor individual police departments have incentives that would steer them toward the types of repression that would be more effective and cohesive. Administrators and police are reacting reflexively according to the logic of their own institutions’ self-interest, rather than subsuming that interest into the wider strategy and collective priorities and desires of a ruling bloc. To some degree they’re even at odds with each other. See, for example, the NYPD blithely referring to the Columbia protesters as peaceful while national media and Columbia admin clutched their pearls about the students’ “violence” and “hate.” Cops and university admin have again slipped the leash, like the police nationwide in 2020 and the Atlanta PD (to a lesser extent) in the aftermath of March 5, 2023. They’re simply not coordinating at a national level, and even their state-level coordination is weak.

But there are problems with this picture. However much police went rogue in 2020, they were quickly brought back in line. The more subtle forms of restoration that kicked into full gear afterward required and received their active participation. Clearly, then, the forces of order retain some ability to coordinate nationally and think strategically. Moreover, current deployments of state troopers are happening on the orders of state government, not local police departments or university admin alone. The structure of state university systems, of course, raises related issues. At schools public and private, even if admin are acting without direct regard for the strategic preferences of, say, the White House, they’re almost certainly doing their best to satisfy the will of university trustees, donors, and partners in the defense industry. So, while not following the lead of feds in trench coats and sunglasses, local actors may still be acting at the behest of powerful interests elsewhere more than those of their own institutions. This is where partisan politics enters the picture: if the response isn’t being determined by national ruling blocs, maybe it’s being driven by regional blocs of business interests and local politicians, enmeshed in the patronage networks of the Republican and Democratic Parties.

And yet, police and administrators across the country seemed to crack down almost all at once. If this simultaneous escalation requires an explanation beyond the rapid spread of the encampments themselves, maybe we should be thinking about the gray men of the “intelligence community” and national security state after all. Maybe they do have a long game in mind, one somehow served by breaking with the familiar playbook in the short term. Or perhaps we should look to the upcoming party conventions. If, as some suggest, the Democrats want to dump Biden and hold him solely responsible for the US’s active facilitation of a client state’s genocide, this might help. Let the students run amok—and then bring someone else in to broker a ceasefire and squash the protesters with a gentler hand. But these theories, too, are a little too neat. The reality almost certainly involves elements of all the above. The question is: which are the most decisive?

It’s clear something strange is happening here, but we likely won’t know exactly what until long after the fact. In this sketch, I’ve tried to lay out some of the salient questions and alternatives to consider as the situation develops. Those of us fighting for a better world, those of us desperate to stop the unimaginable atrocity being visited on the people of Gaza, can’t afford not to understand the forces arrayed against us. We need to pay as close attention to what holds them together and what might split them apart as they do when they’re looking at us. With the limited information we have, learning as we go, we make our best guesses and act on them. I’ll see you on campus.

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A. C. Corey