Prison is the institution that most concretely symbolizes domination. Anarchists wish to create a society that can protect itself and resolve internal problems without police, judges, or prisons; a society that does not view its problems in terms of good and evil, permitted and prohibited, law-abiders and criminals.
Who will protect us without police?
In our society, police benefit from a tremendous amount of hype, whether it’s biased and fear-mongering media coverage of crime or the flood of movies and television shows featuring cops as heroes and protectors. Yet many people’s experiences with police contrast starkly with this heavy-handed propaganda.
In a hierarchical society, whom do police protect? Who has more to fear from crime, and who has more to fear from police? In some communities, the police are like an occupying force; police and crime form the interlocking jaws of a trap that prevents people from escaping oppressive situations or rescuing their communities from violence, poverty, and fragmentation.
Historically, police did not develop out of a social necessity to protect people from rising crime. In the United States, modern police forces arose at a time when crime was already diminishing. Rather, the institution of police emerged as a means to give the ruling class greater control over the population and expand the state’s monopoly on the resolution of social conflict. This was not a response to crime or an attempt to solve it; on the contrary, it coincided with the creation of new forms of crime. At the same time police forces were being expanded and modernized, the ruling class began to criminalize predominantly lower class behaviors that had previously been acceptable such as vagrancy, gambling, and public drunkenness. Those in authority define “criminal activity” according to their own needs, then present their definitions as neutral and timeless. For example, many more people may be killed by pollution and work-related accidents than by drugs, but drug dealers are branded a threat to society, not factory owners. And even when factory owners break the law in a way that kills people, they are not sent to prison.
Today, over two-thirds of prisoners in the US are locked up for nonviolent offenses. It is no surprise that the majority of prisoners are poor people and people of color, given the criminalization of drugs and immigration, the disproportionately harsh penalties for the drugs typically used by poor people, and the greater chance people of color have of being convicted or sentenced more harshly for the same crimes. Likewise, the intense presence of militarized police in ghettos and poor neighborhoods is connected to the fact that crime stays high in those neighborhoods while rates of incarceration increase. The police and prisons are systems of control that preserve social inequalities, spread fear and resentment, exclude and alienate whole communities, and exercise extreme violence against the most oppressed sectors of society.
Those who can organize their own lives within their communities are better equipped to protect themselves. Some societies and communities that have won autonomy from the state organize volunteer patrols to help people in need and discourage aggressions. Unlike the police, these groups generally do not have coercive authority or a closed, bureaucratic structure, and are more likely to be made up of volunteers from within the neighborhood. They focus on protecting people rather than property or privilege, and in the absence of a legal code they respond to people’s needs rather than inflexible protocol. Other societies organize against social harm without setting up specific institutions. Instead they utilize diffuse sanctions — responses and attitudes spread throughout the society and propagated in the culture — to promote a safe environment.
Anarchists take an entirely different view of the problems that authoritarian societies place within the framework of crime and punishment. A crime is the violation of a written law, and laws are imposed by elite bodies. In the final instance, the question is not whether someone is hurting others but whether she is disobeying the orders of the elite. As a response to crime, punishment creates hierarchies of morality and power between the criminal and the dispensers of justice. It denies the criminal the resources he may need to reintegrate into the community and to stop hurting others.
In an empowered society, people do not need written laws; they have the power to determine whether someone is preventing them from fulfilling their needs, and can call on their peers for help resolving conflicts. In this view, the problem is not crime, but social harm — actions such as assault and drunk driving that actually hurt other people. This paradigm does away with the category of victimless crime, and reveals the absurdity of protecting the property rights of privileged people over the survival needs of others. The outrages typical of capitalist justice, such as arresting the hungry for stealing from the wealthy, would not be possible in a needs-based paradigm.
During the February 1919 general strike in Seattle, workers took over the city. Commercially, Seattle was shut down, but the workers did not allow it to fall into disarray. On the contrary, they kept all vital services running, but organized by the workers without the management of the bosses. The workers were the ones running the city every other day of the year, anyway, and during the strike they proved that they knew how to conduct their work without managerial interference. They coordinated citywide organization through the General Strike Committee, made up of rank and file workers from every local union; the structure was similar to, and perhaps inspired by, the Paris Commune. Union locals and specific groups of workers retained autonomy over their jobs without management or interference from the Committee or any other body. Workers were free to take initiative at the local level. Milk wagon drivers, for example, set up a neighborhood milk distribution system the bosses, restricted by profit motives, would never have allowed.
The striking workers collected the garbage, set up public cafeterias, distributed free food, and maintained fire department services. They also provided protection against anti-social behavior — robberies, assaults, murders, rapes: the crime wave authoritarians always forecast. A city guard comprised of unarmed military veterans walked the streets to keep watch and respond to calls for help, though they were authorized to use warnings and persuasion only. Aided by the feelings of solidarity that created a stronger social fabric during the strike, the volunteer guard were able to maintain a peaceful environment, accomplishing what the state itself could not.
This context of solidarity, free food, and empowerment of the common person played a role in drying up crime at its source. Marginalized people gained opportunities for community involvement, decision-making, and social inclusion that were denied to them by the capitalist regime. The absence of the police, whose presence emphasizes class tensions and creates a hostile environment, may have actually decreased lower-class crime. Even the authorities remarked on how organized the city was: Major General John F. Morrison, stationed in Seattle, claimed that he had never seen “a city so quiet and so orderly.” The strike was ultimately shut down by the invasion of thousands of troops and police deputies, coupled with pressure from the union leadership.
In Oaxaca City in 2006, during the five months of autonomy at the height of the revolt, the APPO, the popular assembly organized by the striking teachers and other activists to coordinate their resistance and organize life in Oaxaca City, established a volunteer watch that helped keep things peaceful in especially violent and divisive circumstances. For their part, the police and paramilitaries killed over ten people — this was the only bloodbath in the absence of state power.
The popular movement in Oaxaca was able to maintain relative peace despite all the violence imposed by the state. They accomplished this by modifying an indigenous custom for the new situation: they used topiles, rotating watches that maintain security in indigenous communities. The teacher’s union already used topiles as security volunteers during the encampment, before the APPO was formed, and the APPO quickly extended the practice as part of a security commission to protect the city against police and paramilitaries. A large part of the topiles’ duty included occupying government buildings and defending barricades and occupations. This meant they often had to fight armed police and paramilitaries with nothing but rocks and firecrackers.
Some of the worst attacks happened in front of the occupied buildings. We were guarding the Secretary of the Economy building, when we realized that somewhere inside the building there was a group of people preparing to attack us. We knocked on the door and no one responded. Five minutes later, an armed group drove out from behind the building and started shooting at us. We tried to find cover, but we knew if we backed away, all the people at the barricade in front of the building — there must have been around forty people — would be in serious danger. So we decided to hold our position, and defended ourselves with rocks. They kept firing at us until their bullets ran out and drove away, because they saw that we weren’t going anywhere. Several of us were wounded. One guy took a bullet in his leg and the other got shot in the back. Later, some reinforcements arrived, but the hit men had already retreated.
We didn’t have any guns. At the Office of the Economy, we defended ourselves with stones. As time went on and we found ourselves under attack by gunfire more and more frequently, so we started making things to defend ourselves with: firecrackers, homemade bottle-rocket launchers, molotov cocktails; all of us had something. And if we didn’t have any of those things, we defended people with our bodies or bare hands.
After such attacks, the topiles would help take the wounded to first aid centers.
The security volunteers also responded to common crime. If someone was being robbed or assaulted, the neighbors would raise the alarm and the neighborhood topiles would come; if the assailant was on drugs he would be tied up in the central plaza for the night, and the next day made to pick up garbage or perform another type of community service. Different people had different ideas on what long-term solutions to institute, and as the rebellion in Oaxaca was politically very diverse, not all these ideas were revolutionary; some people wanted to hand robbers or assaulters over to the courts, though it was widely believed that the government released all law-breakers and encouraged them to go back and commit more anti-social crimes.
The history of Exarchia, a neighborhood in central Athens, shows throughout the years that the police do not protect us, they endanger us. For years, Exarchia has been the stronghold of the anarchist movement and the counterculture. The neighborhood has protected itself from gentrification and policing through a variety of means. Luxury cars are regularly burned if they are parked there overnight. After being targeted with property destruction and social pressure, shop and restaurant owners no longer try to remove political posters from their walls, kick out vagrants, or otherwise create a commercial atmosphere in the streets; they have conceded that the streets belong to the people. Undercover cops who enter Exarchia have been brutally beaten on a number of occasions. During the run-up to the Olympics the city tried to renovate Exarchia Square to turn it into a tourist spot rather than a local hangout. The new plan, for example, included a large fountain and no benches. Neighbors began meeting, came up with their own renovation plan, and informed the construction company that they would use the local plan rather than the city government’s plan. Repeated destruction of the construction equipment finally convinced the company who was boss. The renovated park today has more green space, no touristy fountain, and nice, new benches.
Attacks against police in Exarchia are frequent, and armed riot police are always stationed nearby. Over the past years, police have gone back and forth between trying to occupy Exarchia by force, or maintaining a guard around the borders of the neighborhood with armed groups of riot cops constantly ready for an attack. At no point have the police been able to carry out normal policing activities. Police do not patrol the neighborhood on foot, and rarely drive through. When they enter, they come prepared to fight and defend themselves. People spray graffiti and put up posters in broad daylight. It is to a large extent a lawless zone, and people commit crimes with an astonishing frequency and openness. However, it is not a dangerous neighborhood. The crimes of choice are political or at least victimless, like smoking weed. It is safe to walk there alone at night, unless you are a cop, people in the streets are relaxed and friendly, and personal property faces no great threat, with the exception of luxury cars and the like. The police are not welcome here, and they are not needed here.
And it is exactly in this situation that they demonstrate their true character. They are not an institution that responds to crime or social need, they are an institution that asserts social control. In past years, police tried to flood the area, and the anarchist movement in particular, with addictive drugs like heroin, and they have directly encouraged junkies to hang out in Exarchia Square. It was up to anarchists and other neighbors to defend themselves from these forms of police violence and stop the spread of addictive drugs. Unable to break the rebellious spirit of the neighborhood, police have resorted to more aggressive tactics, taking on the characteristics of a military occupation. On December 6, 2008, this approach produced its inevitable conclusion when two cops shot 15-year-old anarchist Alexis Grigoropoulos to death in the middle of Exarchia. Within a few hours, the counterattacks began, and for days the police throughout Greece were pummeled with clubs, rocks, molotov cocktails, and in a couple of incidents, gunfire. The liberated zones of Athens and other Greek cities are expanding, and the police are afraid to evict these new occupations because the people have proven themselves to be stronger. Currently, the media is waging a campaign of fear, increasing coverage of antisocial crime and trying to conflate these crimes with the presence of autonomous areas. Crime is a tool of the state, used to scare people, isolate people, and make government seem necessary. But government is nothing but a protection racket. The state is a mafia that has won control over society, and the law is the codification of everything they have stolen from us.
The Rotuman are a traditionally stateless people who live on the island of Rotuma in the South Pacific, north of Fiji. According to anthropologist Alan Howard, members of this sedentary society are socialized not to be violent. Cultural norms promote respectful and gentle behavior towards children. Physical punishment is extremely rare, and almost never intended to actually hurt the misbehaving child. Instead, Rotuman adults use shame instead of punishment, a strategy that raises children with a high degree of social sensitivity. Adults will especially shame children who act like bullies, and in their own conflicts adults try very hard not to make others angry. From Howard’s perspective as an outsider from the more authoritarian West, children are given “an astonishing degree of autonomy” and the principle of personal autonomy extends throughout the society: “Not only do individuals exercise autonomy within their households and communities, but villages are also autonomous in relation to one another, and districts are essentially autonomous political units.” The Rotuman themselves probably describe their situation with different words, though we could find no insider accounts. Perhaps they might emphasize the horizontal relationships that connect households and villages, but to observers raised in a Euro/American culture and trained in the belief that a society is only held together by authority, what stands out most is the autonomy of the different households and villages.
Though the Rotuman currently exist under an imposed government, they avoid contact with it and dependence on it. It is probably no coincidence that the Rotuman murder rate stands at the low level of 2.02 per 100,000 people per year, three times lower than in the US. Howard describe the Rotuman view of crime as being similar to that of many other stateless peoples: not as the violation of a code or statute, but as something causing harm or hurting social bonds. Accordingly, mediation is important to solving disputes peacefully. Chiefs and sub-chiefs act as mediators, though distinguished elders may intervene in that role as well. Chiefs are not judges, and if they do not appear impartial they will lose their followers, as households are free to switch between groups. The most important conflict resolution mechanism is the public apology. The public apology has great weight attached to it; depending on the seriousness of the offense, it may be accompanied by ritual peace offerings as well. Apologizing properly is honorable, while denying an apology is dishonorable. Members maintain their standing and status in the group by being accountable, being sensitive to group opinion, and resolving conflicts. If some people acted in a way that we might expect in a society based on police and punishment, they would isolate themselves and thus limit their harmful influence.
For two months in 1973, maximum-security prisoners in Massachusetts showed that supposed criminals may be less responsible for the violence in our society than their guards. After the prison massacre at Attica in 1971 focused national attention on the dramatic failure of the prison system to correct or rehabilitate people convicted of crimes, the governor of Massachusetts appointed a reformist commissioner to the Department of Corrections. Meanwhile, the inmates of Walpole state prison had formed a prisoners’ union. Their goals included protecting themselves from the guards, blocking the attempts of prison administrators to institute behavioral modification programs, and organizing prisoners’ programs for education, empowerment, and healing. They sought more visitation rights, work or volunteer assignments outside the prison, and the ability to earn money to send to their families. Ultimately, they hoped to end recidivism — ex-prisoners getting convicted again and returning to prison — and to abolish the prison system itself.
Black prisoners had formed a Black Power education and cultural group to create unity and counter the racism of the white majority, and this proved instrumental in the formation of the union in the face of repression from guards. First of all, they had to end the race war between the prisoners, a war that was encouraged by the guards. Leaders from all groups of prisoners brokered a general truce which they guaranteed with the promise to kill any inmate who broke it. The prison union was supported by an outside group of media-savvy civil rights and religious activists, though communication between the two groups was sometimes hampered by the latter’s service-provider mentality and orthodox commitment to nonviolence. It helped that the Corrections commissioner supported the idea of a prisoners’ union, rather than opposing it outright as most prison administrators would have.
Early on in the life of the Walpole prisoners’ union, the prison superintendent attempted to divide the prisoners by putting the prison under an arbitrary lockdown just as the black prisoners were preparing their Kwanzaa celebration. The white prisoners had already had their Christmas celebrations undisturbed, and the black prisoners had spent all day cooking, eagerly anticipating family visits. In an amazing display of solidarity, all the prisoners went on strike, refusing to work or leave their cells. For three months, they suffered beatings, solitary confinement, starvation, denial of medical care, addiction to tranquilizers handed out by the guards, and disgusting conditions as excrement and refuse piled up in and around their cells. But the prisoners refused to be broken or divided. Eventually the state had to negotiate; they were running out of the license plates Walpole prisoners normally produced and they were getting bad press over the crisis.
The prisoners won their first demand: the prison superintendent was forced to resign. Quickly they won additional demands for expanded visiting rights, furlough, self-organized programs, review and release of those in segregation, and civilian observers inside the prison. In exchange, they cleaned up the prison, and brought what the guards never had: peace.
In protest of their loss of control, the guards walked off the job. They thought this act would prove how necessary they were, but embarrassingly for them, it had the exact opposite effect. For two months, the prisoners ran the prison themselves. For much of that time, the guards were not present within the cell blocks, though state police controlled the prison perimeter to prevent escapes. Civilian observers were inside the prison twenty-four hours a day, but they were trained not to intervene; their role was to document the situation, talk with prisoners, and prevent violence from guards who sometimes entered the prison. One observer recounted:
The atmosphere was so relaxed — not at all what I expected. I find that my own thinking has been so conditioned by society and the media. These men are not animals, they are not dangerous maniacs. I found my own fears were really groundless.
Another observer insisted “It is imperative that none of the personnel formerly in Block 9 [a segregation block] ever return. It’s worth paying them to retire. The guards are the security problem.”
Walpole had been one of the most violent prisons in the country, but while the prisoners were in control, recidivism dropped dramatically and murders and rapes fell to zero. The prisoners had disproved two fundamental myths of the criminal justice system: that people who commit crimes should be isolated, and that they should be recipients of enforced rehabilitation rather than the ones who control their own healing.
The guards were eager to end this embarrassing experiment in prison abolition. The guards’ union was powerful enough to provoke a political crisis, and the Corrections commissioner could not fire any of them, even those who engaged in torture or made racist statements to the press. To keep his job, the commissioner had to bring the guards back into the prison, and he eventually sold out the prisoners. Major elements of the power structure including the police, guards, prosecutors, politicians, and media opposed the prison reforms and made them impossible to achieve within democratic channels. The civilian observers unanimously agreed that the guards brought chaos and violence back to the prison, and that they intentionally disrupted the peaceful results of prisoner self-organization. In the end, to crush the prisoners’ union, the guards staged a riot and the state police were called in, shooting several prisoners and torturing key organizers. The most recognizable leader of the black prisoners only saved his life through armed self-defense.
Many of the civilian observers and the Corrections commissioner, who was soon forced out of his job, ultimately came to favor prison abolition. The prisoners who took over Walpole continued to fight for their freedom and dignity, but the guards’ union ended up with greater power than before, the media ceased talking about prison reform, and as of this writing Walpole prison, now MCI Cedar Junction, still warehouses, tortures, and kills people who deserve to be in their communities, working towards a safer society.