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Breaking Down the Police State

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

Mariam H. and Tahmina R.

While the conversation on police brutality in the US of A has only recently reached the mainstream, we have yet to acknowledge the role of the police in the violent colonial dispossession of Aboriginal lands, the carrying out of the stolen generation and mass incarceration. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told the Australian public not to “import” the movement and to stay at home. But ignoring something does not make the problem go away. Not only is there a race problem in Australia, but our history has been whitewashed and sanitised beyond recognition that our leaders can deny history without a trace of irony.

The police are not only responsible for law and order, but integral to the formation of the State as it exists today. It is a stabilising power with the purpose of grafting norms and expectations onto the collective psyche. The modern police is a highly networked institution that transcends every social relationship. Which is why, in order to understand the full force and effect of it, if you have not lived or experienced police scrutiny, surveillance or discrimination, it is difficult to conceptualise exactly how invasive and oppressive this display of power can be.

The Legacy of the Police

For many, the police as it exists today is integral to a modern democracy. It is seen as synonymous with the concept of ‘law and order’. The early police arose in Europe at a time when citizens were subjects and people without property were effectively right-less. This institution is far older than any other in our modern democracies (emerging in the 15th century and really getting into the swing of it by the 18th century with the Polizeistaat). At its core, it has always been concerned with the idea of regulating ‘good order’. This original mandate has continued to today. Unlike the ‘law’, the success of the police is not measured by the achievement of justice but rather the strengthening of order and state power.

While order is often understood as ensuring the welfare of society through, for example, the prevention of crime, in its broadest sense it is a normalising power. It is the state’s enforcement of the status quo. This is the legacy of the police. In the 19th century, the police shifted their focus from the prosecution of criminality to an all-encompassing crime prevention. In this more punitive and security mindset, there is much more discretion to decide exactly who and what has the potential to be a threat before it even exists. The target is identified before they even become a target.

So here is where it gets crazy. Michel Foucault, in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, argues that there was a shift from punishment to a system of control and correction to reflect the change in the way governments wanted to govern. Instead of governing people, they sought to govern through people.

The Carceral network

To understand the way the police operate as an institution, it helps to understand their placement within the carceral network. This network is a key component of power in modern society, and through its various disciplinary techniques it allows for the creation of a Norm. Among its most significant roles is that it successfully makes the power to punish, seem not only legitimate but natural. Think of fully armed police in riot gear pepper spraying a group of unarmed teenagers.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that social institutions exercise power and discipline on the bodies and souls of their subjects through ‘le regard’ — the “gaze.” For Foucault, the individual is essentially a product of this monitoring and control. This surveillance produces “docile bodies” which Foucault defines as bodies that can be monitored and psychologically controlled, that are then trained to self-govern. Put simply, we are the sum of what we abstain from doing for fear of being seen, judged, or punished.

Race in the Police State

The interaction between race and the police state is by design. It is a product of our shared colonial history barely in our rearview mirror, and the continuation of a racialised hierarchy that is built on ideas of white supremacy. To deny this is to tell me that a rollercoaster is a slide. In short, it’s delusional and historically inaccurate. At the individual level, this disciplinary power is felt through racial profiling that leads to the incarceration of specific bodies instead of others. Collectively, it is felt through intergenerational family and community trauma caused by hyper-incarceration and over policing. Audre Lorde writes that racial prejudice can “deeply scar the psyche, inscribing into the very bodies of people their understanding of themselves and their place in a racialised hierarchy.” The police are integral to this process.

To understand the relationship between policing and race, we need to look beyond each individual uniformed officer and question how society shapes interactions between different racial and ethnic groups. It is only then that we begin to understand the role of the police. At this stage, in modern history this really shouldn’t be news to anyone, yet popular media persists in its failure to recognise the colonial context within which they are writing. Tune into the interchangeable faces of channel 7, 9 or 10 and hear similar perspectives parroted with minor changes, that just add that little extra garnish of upper class racism wrapped up in concerned paternalism.

A Self-Sustaining System

The majority of Australian news media report in ways that erase or undermine the historic and discursive role of racial and colonial violence that has caused our current problem of mass Aboriginal incarceration. Australian history is, to put in the most genteel way, a tale of brutality and genocide, that every once in a while we redecorate through symbolic gestures like reconciliation. Then we float right on out and eagerly discuss ‘American problems.’

In Australia, the role of the police in the colonial project was to push the ‘frontiers’ and consolidate power over land that was yet to be brought under British rule. In upholding the meta-narrative of law and order to justify over policing, we deem this history and its ongoing consequences acceptable. Dominant criminology that rationalises Aboriginal over incarceration as a product of dysfunction and deviance does not acknowledge the role of the state in constructing these risks in the first place through systematic discrimination and segregation of resources. It is victimisation by the state and re-victimisation by the carceral network. In the 2017 ‘Pathways to Justice’ report, the Australian Law Reform Commission said that adult incarceration cannot be fully addressed without a national review of Aboriginal children in child protection.

When parents are incarcerated their children are put into state care and this has ongoing intergenerational effects for entire communities. Ninety per cent of Aboriginal youth who appear in a children's court go on to appear in an adult court within eight years — with one third going on to receive a prison sentence later in life. Grandmothers Against Removal state, “far more children are being taken today than during the Stolen Generations… Aboriginal children are 28 times more likely to be in prison than non-Aboriginal children.” This is how the penal system becomes a self-sustaining entity, bringing certain populations within its folds and keeping them there.

But ‘Not all Police’ …?

Calls that ‘not all police’ are bad is counterproductive. The problems with modern policing are not with individual officers. The profession is more than the individuals that make it up and must be understood for the role they play in governing society and the systemic choices to over police and over incarcerate vulnerable populations. The carceral network as an institution produces vulnerabilities and legitimises them by producing and reproducing certain discourses as truth.

It is the association of black and coloured bodies with criminality that is being resisted in questioning the legitimacy of the police system. It is the difference in the perception of citizens as objects of administrative control versus seeing them as subjects of the law. Questioning the legitimacy of the police in a police state is an attempt to resist what would otherwise be an affirmation of this history and complicity in the crimes being committed under its protection.

Reference List

Anthony, T 2013, Indigenous People, Crime and Punishment, Routledge New York.

Australian Law Reform Commission 2017, Pathways to Justice—Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, Final Report No 133 <>.

Carrington, K, Hogg, R and Scott, J et al, R 2019, Southern Criminology, Routledge, New York.

Cunneen, C, Baldry, E and Brown, D, et al 2016, Penal Culture and Hyperincarceration, Routledge.

Day, K 2009 ‘Masculinity and Race in Public Space’, in M. Lee and S. Farrall (eds) Fear of Crime: Critical Voices in an Age of Anxiety, Routledge, Oxon. Foucault, M 1986, 'Disciplinary power and subjection', in Steven Lukes (ed.) Power, Oxford: Blackwell.

Foucault, M, 2008 ‘Lecture One: 10th January 1979’ in Michel Senellart (ed), The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-79, Palgrave MacMillan.

Foucault, M 2014, ‘The Carceral’, in James Farganis The Readings in Social Theory: The Classical Tradition to Postmodernism, 7thedn, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Foucault, M 2009, ‘Alternatives to the Prison,’ Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 26, no. 6, pp. 12-24.

Kerr, A and Wright, E 2015, ‘Police State,’ A Dictionary of World History, Oxford University Press.

Mladek, K 2007, Police Forces a Cultural History of An Institution, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Purdy, J 1996 Postcolonialism: The Emperor’s New Clothes, SAGE Publications, UK.

Skolnick, J 1975, Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in Democratic Society, Wiley, New York.

Wright, E 2006, ‘Police State,’ A Dictionary of World History, Oxford University Press.

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