On the evening of June 3, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) shot tear gas and rubber bullets at hundreds of protesters on the Crescent City Connection Bridge. The protesters were attempting to cross the bridge to enter neighboring Jefferson Parish to demand justice for Modesto Reyes, who was shot and killed by Jefferson Parish sheriff deputies on May 27. The violence on the bridge recalled a similar scene from the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when Jefferson Parish law enforcement blockaded the bridge to keep black hurricane survivors out of the unflooded, majority-white suburb of Gretna. Jefferson Parish officials justified this barricade, which included law enforcement repeatedly firing shots above survivors’ heads, in the name of protecting their residents from the “criminal element” of New Orleans.
We have to bring attention not only to extreme eruptions of state violence, but also the routinized violence of day-to-day policing, which must be undone if we are to build a more livable, just, and free world.
Almost exactly fifteen years stand between these two instances of state violence being used to enforce racial partition. When we compare police violence to repress dissent and police violence to bar people from reaching safe ground, we come to better understand not only how policing itself is in crisis, but also how policing is central to the rolling crises of the racial capitalist state. But these are extreme examples, when the iron fist of the state is revealed starkly. If, in addition, we track the recent expansion of police power in New Orleans during a lauded period of policing reform, we can better recognize and reckon with how police enact state violence through everyday uses of their power, under conditions that rarely elicit mass outrage or media attention. This routinized policing is the linchpin of today’s urban governance regimes. In this current crisis, we have an opportunity to bring attention not only to extreme eruptions of racial state violence, but also these more routinized forms, which must be undone if we are to build a more livable, just, and free world.
The history of post-Katrina New Orleans policing is often told as a narrative of the success of police reforms. During the crisis of Hurricane Katrina, racial criminalization was the city, state, and federal government’s primary response to hurricane survivors: a few notable examples include the national portrayal of desperate New Orleanians as lawless looters as an excuse to delay federal aid; the killings by police (and subsequent elaborate cover-ups) of survivors on the Danziger Bridge; and then mayor Ray Nagin’s directive that the NOPD focus their efforts on arresting people for low-level offenses while 80 percent of the city was still underwater. In the years immediately following Katrina, racial justice community organizers successfully leveraged such egregious state violence to campaign for the creation of an independent police monitor outside the purview of the police or the mayor; to press for the FBI to investigate and charge the NOPD officers who killed and conspired to conceal evidence; and to compel the Department of Justice to investigate the racial, gendered, and sexualized violence endemic to NOPD practices and place the NOPD under one of the most extensive consent decrees in U.S. history.
The significance of these victories against the unbridled discretion of the NOPD are undeniable. At the same time, we cannot ignore that since these reforms were enacted (including the consent decree that is still in place), the city’s law enforcement scope and power has been sustained. Over the last decade, the mayor and city council have consistently allotted the NOPD the largest slice of the city’s budget—approximately 25 percent of its general fund. And as the municipal budget has grown, the NOPD’s budget has increased in lockstep, from $119 million in 2011 to $194 million in 2020. These operating funds are buttressed by investments in capital projects, including the recent opening of a $25 million crime lab that Superintendent Shaun Ferguson stated would position the NOPD to be a “true leader in modern-day policing.” Which is to say, to be more effective and efficient in not only the arrest but prosecution and incarceration of countless New Orleanians.
Even while city officials repeatedly lament the difficulties of growing the NOPD’s ranks (and often use this as a talking point in attempts to lift the consent decree), new methods have been enacted to extend policing power in the Crescent City. As part of the post-Katrina doubling down on the tourism economy, city officials have bolstered the NOPD’s reach through partnerships with state and federal law enforcement. Since 2015 the city has deployed thirty-two Louisiana state police to the French Quarter to enhance the NOPD’s “quality of life” policing and to ensure that the concentration of law enforcement in the city’s tourism epicenter does not deplete the NOPD’s targeted policing of black working-class neighborhoods. At the same time, local law enforcement deepened ties with federal law enforcement, including the Department of Homeland Security, in the name of cracking down on sex trafficking. This has led to a series of raids on strip clubs and gay bars, and attendant spikes in low-level prostitution and drug-related arrests. And as anti-police activists have noted for years, it is not a coincidence that neither state troopers nor federal law enforcement agencies are subject to even the moderate regulations of the consent decree or the oversight of the Independent Police Monitor.
The period during which the NOPD has been heralded as reformed has seen the enhancement of everyday police power. This unrelenting funneling of resources into policing has been accompanied by disinvestments in life-sustaining infrastructure.
Alongside such layered, interagency cooperation, the NOPD’s adoption of criminalizing technologies serves to ensnare even more people in the criminal legal system. Since 2017 hundreds of official NOPD surveillance cameras and dozens of license plate readers have been installed throughout the city. Under the last two mayoral administrations, the NOPD has quietly piloted so-called “predictive” policing programs to identify, and thus target, residents who are deemed to pose a high risk of committing a gun crime. These surveillance programs serve to reinforce law enforcement’s longstanding practice of racially profiling certain people and places as a criminal threat to be contained.
Hence, the very period under which the NOPD has been widely heralded as “reformed” has been accompanied by the legitimization of enhancing everyday police power. This unrelenting funneling of city, state, and federal resources into punitive infrastructures has been accompanied by neoliberal politicians’ disinvestments in life-sustaining infrastructure: for example, city officials have implored New Orleans residents to compensate for austerity measures by “volunteering” to clean out catch basins to prevent flooding during tropical storms. Meanwhile, state actors have given away public goods to the highest bidder, greenlighting the redevelopment of the city’s public Charity Hospital into a tax exempt speculative real estate project.
As the COVID-19 crisis deepens the neoliberal state’s racially uneven investment in life and death, now is the time to be uncompromising in the assertion that directing state resources toward law enforcement in the name of reform cannot undo the structure of racial violence that is policing. Rather, history shows us that it drains our taxpayer budgets from investments in care.
Building a world free from racial state violence demands that we refuse to exceptionalize the problem of policing as rooted in things such as the militarization of police or instances when police depart from official protocol. Instead, we must recognize how policing—no matter how refined with regulations, or data, or “best practices”—is a racial state project premised on the criminality, and thus disposability, of black life. It is for this reason that abolitionists with organizations such as Critical Resistance continually remind us that community oversight boards, or body cameras, or anti-bias training, or charging killer cops—or whatever the reform of the week might be—cannot and will not make us free.
Against too many liberal appeals that we are not yet ready for the abolition of policing and prisons and thus must make do with moderate reforms, organizers everywhere are demonstrating the possibilities of making abolition real in the here and now. As abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore teaches us, freedom-making is fundamentally the work of materializing abolition geographies—the twinned projects of tearing down criminalizing regimes and carceral infrastructures alongside building up new institutions, social practices, and ideologies that transform society so that everyone may live longer and fuller lives. It is in this spirit that the call by the Movement for Black Lives to defund and abolish the police is coupled with calls to “fund Black futures” through investments in education, health care, jobs, housing, and much more. Abolishing the police is the work of reconstructing our cities, suburbs, and rural locales away from the racial capitalist logics of scarcity and devaluation that normalize state violence and toward the creation of new environments built on the realization of our intrinsic interdependence. If we are to weather disasters present and future, from pandemics to climate catastrophes, we require nothing less than abolition.