The climate movement must recognize that American police exist to serve the same corporate interests that are destroying our environment.
By Richard Raya
Police are a relatively new — and uniquely American — concept in human history. For thousands of years, humans governed themselves with no police at all. As societies grew, what armed forces that did exist were largely intended to combat foreign invading forces, not actually police their own citizenry. Volunteers helped execute arrest warrants, and some wealthy people contracted their own armed guard, but for the most part, no publicly funded (or sanctioned) armed and patrolling force existed.
Our first police force began in Boston. Corporate interests had been pooling funds to hire guards to patrol the docks and protect their shipments, but they soon grew tired of paying for their own protection. They were able to convince the city to pay for their night watch, arguing that ensuring the “flow of commerce” would surely benefit every taxpayer. Thus, police were from their start explicitly created to serve not any amorphous “public good” but instead the real capitalist interests of business owners.
This fledgling force modeled its tactics after the other main sanctioned-and-armed-patrol force in the United States — slave patrols, which had been operating in the South for centuries. They lifted much of the slave-catcher playbook wholesale, down to the guns, dogs, wagons, and ability to search people’s personal property and homes for “fugitives.” Again, police adopted tactics designed not only to protect problematic perceptions of “property,” but tactics rife with subjugation and racial terror.
Since then, the actual goals of police have changed very little. Even our own federal government has admitted, in their own official, published report, that “law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs” in cities like Ferguson, Missouri. That the police and the government are inherently more interested in extracting economic value from Black communities than protecting them.
Americans are born into a colonial legacy that places profit and property over people. An ethos of endless expansion permeates every part of American society. This is America’s original sin, and it continues to infect our political and social decision making. It’s why we are one of the few countries that insists on privatized healthcare, and it’s why we also insist on keeping college expensive: by keeping the ball just out of reach, America propagates a cycle of exclusion and degradation. Disparity becomes a point of pride. We signify value by money, how much we make and how much we waste.
This ethos is the same reason America is so averse to combating climate change. Our deep forests, our vast fields, our churning seas — we choose to see them as extraction points, fountains of oily gold to fuel our perpetual growth machine, instead of as the lungs and lifeblood of our very humanity. Anyone who cares about our climate has long been vaguely aware of this, that our greatest obstacle is not human apathy, but greed and corporate interest. But this capitalistic ethos of disparity and greed also powers America’s virulent racism. The Movement for Black Lives has been drawing this connection for years, as have many Black leaders before them. Capitalistic hunger was what fueled slavery in the past, climate degradation in the modern era, and negative impacts on Black people, Indigenous people and poor people throughout time.
It is time, then, for the climate movement to not only step up for Black lives explicitly, but to recognize that our police inherently serve those corporate interests.
Consider that George Floyd was accosted over forgery worth ten dollars. Consider that Ahmaud Arbery was executed by white vigilantes in the interest of protecting other white people’s property — and that cops and district attorneys didn’t seem to care.¹ Consider that cops left unharmed those shelter-in-place protestors with “Don’t Tread on Me” flags asking that the “flow of commerce” resume, while the National Guard has been called in against those demanding justice for Mr. Floyd. Consider once more that police were explicitly designed to protect property over any other sort of human interest. Consider the economic contexts that contributed directly to the loss of Black life — and then ask yourself why, when faced with the outpouring of grief for that Black life, your mind can even conceive of returning to the effect on commerce once more.
Police are a pollutant. Just like dye in our water or smog in our air, they are a tax that corporate America has tricked us into paying, not to benefit our interests, but their own.
How long will we the people be asked to bear the burden of the ambitions of a greedy few? How long will that burden be borne twice as deeply by the Black community?
The climate movement’s most successful weapons — the radicalizing power of love, the urgency of imagination in envisioning new futures, the relationship building necessary to flood the streets with throngs of people united in song — have been taught to us, over and over, by Black activists, Black abolitionists, Black communities.
We must not replicate the sins of the corporate interests we fight against. We must instead give thanks. We must bear witness. We must honor where we came from, what sustains us, what gives us life. Just as we give thanks to the planet on Earth day for bearing us this far, we must now give thanks to Black people every day for bearing us this far. Black people have led us out of slavery, away from colonialism, and toward radical love. And Black people continue to be executed by the state in the streets.
I do not foreclose on the idea that societies can benefit from some sort of peacekeeping, first-response force to protect communities. But that force does not exist yet. And it will never be the police. We must begin anew. And the poisonous weed must be pulled out at the root.
We can be silent no longer. If the climate movement is to remain a true movement — and not a bumper sticker, and not an aesthetic — then we must fight. Take to the streets, to the legislature, to your pulpit. Save our planet. Stop the killing. Defund the police. Black Lives Matter.
- Consider also that police murdered our own Bay Area neighbor Eric Salgado just this month over an allegedly stolen car. While Eric was not Black, the Black Lives Matter and Police Abolition movements fight for him and all like him who exist under the subjugation of the police.