The reign of the police

This so perfect democracy itself constructs its inconceivable enemy, terrorism.  It wants, in effect, to be judged by its enemies rather then by its results.  The history of terrorism is written by the State: it is therefore enlightening.  The spectator populations cannot obviously know everything about terrorism, but they can always know enough to be persuaded that, in relation to terrorism, everything else will appear quite acceptable, in any case more rational and more democratic.

Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle

In the permanent state of exception that reigns in our times, all fictions of a state of law wane, or are simply set aside.  And behind the farce of the law is revealed the violent authority of the police, exemplified increasingly in the heavily armed, helmeted riot cop whose only function seems to be to clear the streets of any conduct that would stem or interrupt capitalist “normality”.  What is however more fundamental, and which is often ignored, is that the police are not only the final executors of the law; they also define it in the field.  That is, as they “apply” the law, they interpret it, write it, in ways that double back on the legislator, such that it is the police who in effect come to legislate.

The examples defy any accounting …

In early June of this year, in spain, with the sanction of the law of citizen security, more commonly known as the “gag law”/”ley mordaza”, police in Gijón fined a CNT activist 302 Euros for calling out, during an unauthorised protest march, “I would be ashamed to be a police officer.”  The law allows for the fining of any act disrespectful of the forces of law and order, while they carry out their function of assuring security.  It is just that no one had yet been fined, since the law went into effect, for words of this kind. (Le Nueva España, 13/06/2017)

On the 1st July, the “ley mordaza” celebrates its second anniversary.  Since its introduction, 285,000 legal penalties have been handed out, amounting to 131 million Euros in fines, 10 million of which for disobedience and resistance to authority. (el salto 30/06/2017)

Some two hundred protesters, arrested at Donald Trump’s inauguration of Januray 20th of this year, face up to 75 years in prison, on felony charges.  …

“Over 200 defendants arrested during Trump’s inauguration are now facing more than 70 years in prison apiece. In the months since their arrests, the prosecution has continued piling blanket felony charges on the defendants. This is punitive charging: the intention is clearly to terrorize the defendants into taking plea deals so that these inflated charges never come to trial.

This is not the first time that conspiracy charges have been used to harass and intimidate dissidents. In 2008, for example, the RNC Welcoming Committee helped to organize massive demonstrations during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. In retaliation, police raided several homes and arrested eight organizers, charging them with “Conspiracy to Riot in Furtherance of Terrorism.” After two years of widely publicized struggle, all charges were dropped against three of the defendants, while the others plead to misdemeanors.

Likewise, prosecutors are using the same strategy to terrorize people arrested defending Standing Rock last year, in hopes of bullying them into accepting guilty pleas. Several hundred defendants are facing these charges.” (Crimethinc, 18/06/2017)

(See also report by Unicorn Riot, “US Attorney Brings Unprecedented Mass Felony Charges” (29/06/2017), posted on  

From sub.Media‘s video series Trouble, the film No Justice … Just Us: Movement Defense Against State Repression …

The struggle for a new, better world is not for the faint of heart. Movements of collective liberation, if they are effective, will inevitably face repression. The institutional pillars of domination and exploitation are well-entrenched in society, well-versed in manipulation, and utterly ruthless in their efforts to crush any and all threats to their legitimacy. At this critical juncture in history, our movements are confronted by incredibly powerful enemies, who use a variety of sophisticated methods to discredit, disrupt and deter resistance. Far-right populist movements, goaded on by corporate fear-mongering and neo-fascist propaganda, are increasingly resorting to violent vigilante attacks against their perceived enemies. And as if this wasn’t enough… standing firmly behind these new reactionary movements lies the naked power of the state – namely its heavily-militarized police, racist legal system and vast network of prisons. Yet despite this terrifying political atmosphere, our movements continue to grow. Our future success and growth demands that we develop the capacity to anticipate the strategies and tactics that the state will use against us, build our own infrastructure to defend against these attacks, and incorporate meaningful solidarity and collective defence into all facets of our organizing. In this month’s episode of Trouble, anarchist media collective subMedia interviews a number of individuals engaged in legal defence and prisoner solidarity, and looks at some of the ways we can begin to build movements that are more resiliant in the face of state repression.

Check out the Tilted Scales collective’s book: The Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant

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As local state laws controlling dissent and protest rain down on north american activists and social movements (e.g., “Since Trump’s Election, 20 States Have Moved to Criminalize Dissent”,, 23/06/2017),  france’s new Macron government is seeking the 6th extension of the country’s state of emergency, with an amendment allowing for the prohibition to enter or pass through a designated geographical or territorial area  of someone declared by a police prefect to be a potential obstacle to the actions of the public authority (known in french as an “interdiction de séjour“).

According to numbers communicated to the newspaper Le Monde by the country’s senate, among the 618 prohibitions decreed since the beginning of the state of emergency, 438 were in response to the protests against the new labour law.  The first home arrests, under the law, were made at the end of 2015, at the time of the Paris climate summit. (Le Monde 29/06/2017)

The state of emergency in france, publicly justified by the supposed need to combat terrorism, quickly turns against those it is supposed to protect.  Or more precisely, under a permanent state of emergency or exception, we all become potential “terrorists”.

The proliferating anti-terrorist legislation and parallel security laws and measures generalise, legally, a global state of exception.  If we do not cite the examples of openly “authoritarian” states, it is because they rarely make any pretentious appeals to the rule of law.  It is in the so-called “democracies” where the issue arises most clearly; but only to teach us that underlying all state authority is the arbitrary violence of police-military sovereignty.

Girogio Agamben’s reflections on the role of the police under the state of exception continues to resonate. …

Sovereign Police

by Giorgio Agamben

One of the least ambiguous lessons learned from the Gulf War is that the concept of sovereignty has been finally introduced into the figure of the police. The nonchalance with which the exercise of a particularly devastating ius belliwas disguised here as a mere “police operation” cannot be considered to be a cynical mystification (as it was indeed considered by some rightly indignant critics). The most spectacular characteristic of this war, perhaps, was that the reasons presented to justify it cannot be put aside as ideological superstructures used to conceal a hidden plan. On the contrary, ideology has in the meantime penetrated so deeply into reality that the declared reasons have to be taken in a rigorously literal sense – particularly those concerning the idea of a new world order. This does not mean, however, that the Gulf War constituted a healthy limitation of state sovereignties because they were forced to serve as policemen for a supranational organism (which is what apologists and extemporaneous jurists tried, in bad faith, to prove.)

The point is that the police – contrary to public opinion – are not merely an administrative function of law enforcement; rather, the police are perhaps the place where the proximity and the almost constitutive exchange between violence and right that characterizes the figure of the sovereign is shown more nakedly and clearly than anywhere else. According to the ancient Roman custom, nobody could for any reason come between the consul, who was endowed with imperium, and the lector closest to him, who carried the sacrificial ax (which was used to perform capital punishment). This contiguity is not coincidental. If the sovereign, in fact, is the one who marks the point of indistinction between violence and right by proclaiming the state of exception and suspending the validity of the law, the police are always operating within a similar state of exception. The rationales of “public order” and “security” on which police have to decide on a case-by-case basis define an area of indistinction between violence and right that is exactly symmetrical to that of sovereignty. Benjamin rightly noted that:

The assertion that the ends of police violence are always identical or even connected to those of general law is entirely untrue. Rather, the “law” of the police really marks the point at which the state, whether from impotence or because of the immanent connections within any legal system, can no longer guarantee through the legal system the empirical ends that it desires at any price to attain.

Hence the display of weapons that characterizes the police in all eras. What is important here is not so much the threat to those who infringe on the right, but rather the display of that sovereign violence to which the bodily proximity between consul and lector was witness. The display, in fact, happens in the most peaceful of public places and, in particular, during official ceremonies.

This embarrassing contiguity between sovereignty and police function is expressed in the intangible sacredness that, according to the ancient codes, the figure of the sovereign and the figure of the executioner have in common. This contiguity has never been so self-evident as it was on the occasion of a fortuitous encounter that took place on July 14, 1418: as we are told by a chronicler, the Duke of Burgundy had just entered Paris as conqueror at the head of his troops when , on the street, he came across the executioner Coqueluche, who had been working very hard for him during those days. According to the story, the executioner, who was covered in blood, approached the sovereign and, while reaching for his hand, shouted: “Mon beau frère!”

The entrance of the concept of sovereignty in the figure of the police, therefore, is not at all reassuring. This is proven by a fact that still surprises historians of the Third Reich, namely, that the extermination of the Jews was conceived from the beginning to the end exclusively as a police operation. It is well known that not a single document has even been found that recognizes the genocide as a decision made by a sovereign organ: the only document we have, in this regard, is the record of the conference that was held on January 20, 1942, at the Grosser Wannsee, and that gathered middle-level and lower-level police officers. Among them, only the name Adolf Eichmann – head of division B-4 of the Fourth Section of the Gestapo – is noticeable. The extermination of the Jews could only be so methodical and deadly because it was conceived and carried out as a police operation; but conversely, it is precisely because the genocide was a “police operation” that today it appears in the eyes of civilized humanity, all the more barbaric and ignominious.

Furthermore, the investiture of the sovereign as policeman has another corollary: it makes it necessary to criminalize the adversary. Schmitt has shown how, according to European public law, the principle par in parem non habet iurisdictionemeliminated the possibility that sovereigns of enemy states could be judged as criminals. The declaration of war did not use to imply the suspension of either this principle or the conventions that guaranteed that a war against an enemy who was granted equal dignity would take place according to precise regulations (one of which was the sharp distinction between the army and civilian population). What we have witnessed with our own eyes from the end of World War I onward is instead a process by which the enemy is first of all excluded from civil humanity and branded as a criminal; only in a second moment does it become possible and licit to eliminate the enemy by a “police operation.” Such an operation is not obliged to respect any juridical rule and can thus make no distinctions between the civilian population and soldiers, as well as between the people and their criminal sovereign, thereby returning to the most archaic conditions of belligerence. Sovereignty’s gradual slide toward the darkest areas of police law, however, has at least one positive aspect that is worthy of mention here. What the heads of state, who rushed to criminalize the enemy with such zeal, have not yet realized is that this criminalization can at any moment be turned against them. There is no head of state on Earth today who, in this sense, is not virtually a criminal. Today, those who would happen to wear the sad redingote of sovereignty know that they may be treated as criminals one day by their colleagues. And certainly we will not be the ones to pity them. The sovereigns who willingly agreed to present themselves as cops or executioners, in fact, not show in the end their original proximity to the criminal.

(Excerpted from Giorgio Agamben, Means without End, (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2000) pp.103-107 and posted on 11/06/2014 at the Brotherwise Dispatch)

To close, Walter Benjamin, from the On the Concept of History

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live
is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will
become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and
our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve.


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3 Responses to The reign of the police

  1. eric d. meyer says:

    There is no question but that, in Western European societies (whether totalitarian or democratic, fascist or communist, leftist or rightist, etc.) during the past several thousand years since Greece and Rome, sovereignty has been defined by the monopoly on violence, exercised under a sovereign rule of law, whether within the strict limits of law, under a social contract or sacred covenant (constitution, commandments, etc.), or in a state of emergency or state of exception, which falsely permits the sovereign to exercise its monopoly on violence outside the strict limits of law, and that in those states of exception or states of emergency the sovereign violence that buttresses the rule of law is exposed in its most horrible form, as basically indistinguishable from terror. The question is whether deliberately provoking or advocating a breakdown of the sovereign rule of law, which brings about the pretext of a state of exception or state of emergency and therefore legitimizes sovereign state terrorism against its own citizens and subjects, is really an effective means of resistance to sovereign violence, or whether, instead, it would be more effective to advocate for the enforcement of the strict limits placed on sovereign violence under the rule of law, especially the strict limits placed upon sovereign state violence in the international sphere (so-called counter-terrorist actions) and upon internal police violence against non-violent protest (so-called security actions). Considering that the sovereign monopoly on violence wielded by the Western European states (esp. the US) is now so enormously disproportional to whatever violence might be wielded against it, it appears self-defeating and futile to advocate violence against the sovereign state, since advocating violence simply legitimates labeling the advocate a public enemy (i.e. terrorist) and justifies his or her extermination by the sovereign state (as the stereotyped example currently being provided by the international police action against ISIS clearly demonstrates). Under these conditions, then, the only effective resistance to the sovereign monopoly on violence is to advocate for stricter limits on the sovereign use of violence, and to demand that those strict limits be enforced by the sovereign itself, while still recognizing that there is currently no sovereign international law capable of enforcement against the war crimes and atrocities committed by the sovereigns, or against internal police actions carried out by the sovereigns against political dissidents or non-violent protesters within their own eminent domain. Which means that civil disobedience against the criminal and immoral actions of the sovereigns is therefore legitimate and acceptable, if not always prudent or effective, for whoever can afford it. But the only thing that will finally stop the criminal and immoral actions of the sovereigns would be a sovereign international rule of law capable of enforcement, by the sovereigns, for the sovereigns, against the sovereigns themselves. If that’s even possible…

  2. Julius Gavroche says:

    Any explicit effort to organise a violent resistance to contemporary state sovereignty is suicidal. And even in the extraordinary event that it is successful, it is by no means clear that what would follow would be preferable.

    However discussions around this issue in the abstract are largely academic, for it will be in the “heat of the moment” where such matters will be decided, rightly or wrongly, and by those involved.

    What is though questionable is the belief that “the only effective resistance to the sovereign monopoly on violence is to advocate for stricter limits on the sovereign use of violence, and to demand that those strict limits be enforced by the sovereign itself”. In other words, to have the sovereign both wield violence and restrain itself in the use of violence is in the very least a paradox. More fundamentally, it is to accept that law finally rests upon violent authority and that we are condemned to its cycles of excess and restraint.

    The critique of sovereignty, anarchist or otherwise, is not an apology for counter-violence, but an effort to think through and live collectively beyond sovereignty.

  3. eric d. meyer says:

    Thank you for your response. Like Agamben, I am well aware of the paradoxes of sovereignty and of the state of exception, and I do not accept that the sovereign rule of law finally (finally…) rests upon violence. But, unlike Agamben, I am also very well aware of the primitive violence of human beings, which is an evolutionary heritage of out distant prehistoric past, and which, I am afraid, will not disappear if the sovereign state or its repressive state apparatuses simply disappear or are overthrown by a superior violence. On the contrary, the overwhelming evidence of those horrible situations where the sovereign state becomes a failed state and the rule of law breaks down, whether from external or internal factors (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen , Congo, Post-WWI Germany and Russia, etc. etc.), or in the situations described by Agamben and others where the sovereign state deliberately creates a zone of anarchy within the sovereign law, under the false pretext of a state of exception or state of exception (the Nazi camps, the Soviet camps, the US Indian reservations, Post-911 America in Guantanamo and elsewhere, colonialist slavery and death camps, etc.), is that, under extreme conditions, primitive human violence becomes unchecked and turns against other human beings (not the sovereign state), and, in those extreme situations, human beings will do basically anything to other human beings to survive. What restrains human violence, or, better, forces human beings to sublimate their primitive violence so they can live together in a semi-civilized community without killing each other, is the sovereign rule of law, and a sovereign monopoly on violence capable of enforcing that law against the challenges to that sovereign law waged by those who recognize neither the sovereign rule of law or the unwritten moral law: criminal drug cartelistas, fascistic right-wing paramilitaries, and, yes, unfortunately, left-wing anarchist revolutionaries (not all of them, of course, but some…), who do not recognize either the sovereign rule of law or the unwritten moral law upon which the sovereign rule of law should (repeat: should) be based, but believe the only rule of law is their own superior violence. I would be extremely glad to believe that contemporary human beings, having sublimated their violent tendencies and internalized the unwritten moral law, were capable of living together in self-governing utopian anarchist communities of blissfully self-conscious, non-violent people, without sovereign state violence or repressive police violence to prevent them from killing each other or otherwise committing crimes and abuses against each other. But when I look around the world, I do not believe that is currently the case. And until the contemporary human species reaches that blissful spiritual state of self-governing utopian self-consciousness, I’m afraid that the survival of the human species upon the planet earth, like the survival of non-violent individuals in a violent world, depends upon the prospective future existence of a sovereign international law capable of enforcement, by the sovereigns themselves (who else?), against the war crimes and atrocities, civil and human rights abuses, and simply stupid random violences, committed both by sovereign states and their repressive apparatuses, and by criminally and immorally violent individuals, against the simple, humble, good people of the earth (few though they may be). And despite the failures on the League of Nations, the United Nations, the World Court, the International Court, and so on, to create that sovereign international law, I sincerely hope that, somehow, against all odds, against all violent human propensities, and, mostly, against all stubborn resistance by the sovereign states and their repressive apparatuses, it will come into existence soon, before another world war begins or ecological disaster strikes. Although I confess, looking around the world today, I am not greatly confident…

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