For Abolition: Prisons and Police Are More Than Brutality, They're State Terror

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Frank Castro
The Hampton Institute
November 4th, 2016

In his speech "Terrorism: Theirs and Ours," now deceased Professor Eqbal Ahmad elucidated five types of terrorism: state, religious, mafia, pathological, and political terror of the private group. Of these types, the focus in mainstream political discourse and media has almost always centered itself on discussion of just one: "political terror of the private group"-organizations like al-Qaida, the Taliban, and ISIS. But as Ahmad ( and Ben Norton ) pointed out, this is "the least important in terms of cost to human lives and human property." Rarely discussed is state terror, which has the highest cost in terms of human lives and property. According to Norton, Professor Ahmad estimated that the disparity of "people killed by state terror versus those killed by individual acts of terror is, conservatively, 100,000 to one."

Undoubtedly, the professor's observations were meant to provide insight into the material costs of global militarism, where millions, if not billions, have found themselves caught in-between or on the receiving end of state domination. While this may invoke imagery of American drones scalping the Middle East and North Africa for resources, its aircraft carriers patrolling international waters, or even thousands of refugees huddled into camps outside cities under siege, these are only instances of the United States' most visible crimes. They are the sites of its most demonstrative, and yet least diffuse, violence. In the turmoil and spectacle of U.S. foreign policy, often other forms of state terror remain relatively unknown, their intersections with overarching structures of oppression obscured beneath overt cruelty.

But Professor Ahmad's analysis of state violence can be applied directly to operations within state borders as much as it can be applied internationally. Militarism outside America, paired with its domestic institutions of terror, ought to be viewed inseparably as two sides of the same coin. Here, imperial power compliments prisons and policing as institutions for producing obedient, governable subjects, both locally and globally. It does so in a variety of ways: By supplying local police departments with an ever-escalating arsenal of repression, by constantly reconstructing the context for social control, and by extending white supremacy and colonial rule into the 21st century. Combined, governments like the United States' have been responsible for far more terror than any private group, possibly, in history.

Our task is to understand and to decide what we are going to do about it.

Bigger Than Police

Though widely used, "police brutality" is an isolated term. In some ways, and for many people, it obscures the more encompassing descriptor of state terror. Criticizing police is not necessarily an indictment of America's entire patriarchal, white, and capitalist power structure, but rather it pinpoints only that structure's enforcers. It compartmentalizes state violence and creates a focal point that, perhaps, is more comfortable since it feels manageable, more capable of bringing in line with a vision of the world that is not so painful that we can move through it without feeling its weight. On the other hand, "state terror" drafts far more questions into our hearts, the answers to which would indict everything about the world in which we live. And like Pandora's Box, once you see you can never again claim ignorance.

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