The Case against Police Brutality: Towards Radical Social Transformation

By Yavor Tarinski


[T]he biggest enemy of society’s security is the state and the private organization’s belonging to it.

Selma Irmak, member of the Democratic Society Congress[1] 


Police arbitrariness and impunity are a common trait across the world. In the U.S. the systemic repression, especially on people of color, has provoked the outburst of many grassroots mobilizations: for example, the murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin by the police sparked the Black Lives Matter. In Greece, the killing of politicized youth have led to riots multiple times, the most significant amongst whom – the December 2008 revolt that followed the death of 15 year old Alexandros Grigoropolos by a policeman. More recently, in the city of Athens, the queer activist Zak Koustopoulos was first lynched publicly by a conservative mob, and then brutalized by the police units that arrived afterwards, to die from his injuries later on that day. The call “Stop Police Brutality” has become a rallying cry in cities across the planet. Many have come to demand restrains and reforms, but a deeper analysis shows that this violence has more deep roots, and requires a profound systemic change. In other words, the fight against police impunity is a matter of how power is being distributed in society.

External Policing vs Self-limitation

Every society determines certain mechanisms through which to ensure that its laws and rules will be respected and observed by all its individual members. This assertion holds for the most tyrannical regimes, as well as for the most democratic ones. This does not mean that there is no difference between the various forms of law enforcement. On the contrary, the political structure of one society can be detected to a large degree, from the attitude it’s individual members have towards the dominant institutions and the way they are being made to observe the common rules.

Cornelius Castoriadis calls this enforcement of laws, roles, beliefs, ways of life etc. – that simultaneously determines what should be done – limitation[2]. He distinguishes different types of such prohibition according to the dominant political system. In oligarchic models (like parliamentarism and constitutional monarchies for example), where all the authority is concentrated in the hands of certain elite(s), this limitation and the laws it seeks to enforce, seem external to the populace. People tend to defy it, because of the political alienation on which such oligarchic systems are based, thus potentially forcing the rulers to sometimes resort to more violent means. The fact that there is often talk about police violence in the liberal West signifies the oligarchic traits of the dominant system there, despite the efforts of the latter to disguise itself as “representative democracy” (an oxymoron in terms), where the power supposedly lies in the hands of the people.

In direct democratic societies, on the other hands, one observes what Castoriadis calls self-limitation – a process of conscious and collective creation and enforcement of laws and roles. In such cases all members of society participate, or have the ability to do so, in the social self-instituting and to control the policing and enforcement of the democratically-taken decisions. But despite the general willingness of people to respect such policies and to not overpass them, there still are, and will be, cases of dissent and the self-limitation must still be imposed, otherwise the social integrity will degrade and collapse.

Despite our current epoch where the police comes to impose on us rules that are being forged extra-socially – a police brutality in itself – the history of humanity is filled with practical examples of self-limitation that vary significantly from our common understanding of law enforcement. In fact, the idea of professional police force, whose main task is to suppress mass eruptions of popular anger or efforts at regime change, is relatively new one. There were significant periods of time when the enforcement of common laws and roles was being left to citizens themselves, since their target was not to be imposed by a minority over the majority, but to ensure that the collectively taken decisions are respected by all members of the community. In such concepts the target is not the suppression of mass disobedient but individual or minoritarian acts of disrespect of the direct democratic processes, or attempts of their replacement with oligarchic ones.

Ancient Greek Cities

The political differences between independent cities in Ancient Greece was evident from all spheres of social and individual life, including the way each one enforced its laws and roles. The Athenian polis was the birth place of democracy, where for first time was introduced the notion of the citizen – a political subject that had the right to directly participate in the collective management of his city, alongside (as equal) his fellow citizens. Despite of certain shortcomings, many of whom product of the specific historic context, it allowed hundreds and even thousands of citizens to gather on regular assemblies and collectively deliberate on the self-institution of Athens. Sparta was on the other end of the political spectrum – a centralized militaristic oligarchy, where an elite managed the city, without the consent of the inhabitants.

In the case of ancient Athens, the maintenance of public order was delegated to publicly owned slaves (according to sources – from Scythian origin, and often armed with bows)[3]. They were used to guard public meetings, maintain peace, dealt with people that have committed criminal offences etc. Investigation of crimes was left to the citizens themselves.

The fact that the most disempowered were delegated with this task, as strange as it may occur to most of our contemporaries, can be attributed to the democratic character of ancient Athens. With all citizens participating directly in the forging of the city laws and rules, there was the general idea that everyone could do the job of observing for their implementation. Furthermore, since these slaves were public property, all the citizenry had direct control over their actions and could prevent abuse of power.

It is useful to note here, that one shouldn’t rush into judging too harshly the ancient Athenian polis for such shortcomings (that were undoubtfully wrong) like slavery, or the absence of political rights of women. Firstly, because they existed in almost all parts of the ancient world, while the notion of democracy did not. Secondly, the notion of slavery back then was much different from the forms it undertook in much later historic periods. According to Demostenes, slaves and free citizens were visually indistinguishable from one another, with the former often patronizing and outwitting the latter[4].

On the other hand, in ancient Sparta, the maintenance of public order was among the duties of the Ephors – the highest Spartan decision-making body whose members were elected annually by all adult males[5]. They acted as judges in cases brought before them. The Ephors were also in charge of the Hippeis – 300-member selected royal guard of honor, who had to enforce the law.  Among the other institutions of authority were the royal power and the House of the Elders.

This oligarchic type of social organization placed most of the political power in the hands of a tiny elite, like our current parliamentary system. This explains why the means of coercion were also in the elite’s hands, ensuring its monopoly on power.

Medieval Times

In medieval England the law enforcement was frequently changing its form due to the many military conflicts in which the English were involved during this period. But due to its feudal and monarchic character, it is of little surprise that the means of coercion were under the control of the King or local magistrates. In rural areas and shires, the law enforcement was delegated to the so-called reeves, or sheriffs. They were subordinated to the royal power or local authorities and had as main task to collect taxes, maintain order and perform military service if needed. Local feudals, knights and noblemen also had the role of protecting and policing the lands they ruled over. This pyramidic structure favored tax collection over everything else and allowed to law enforcers to abuse their power at high rates, deepening further the feeling of power inequality in medieval England.

But the political system was not the same around Europe during this time period. Many medieval towns became self-managed shelters for serfs and runaway slaves, that searched independence from feudal landholders and nobles. Such autonomous cities, that reminded of the ancient Athenian polis, emerged in various places, most notably in Italy and France.

In the 11th and 12th century many towns in these countries became communes, based on direct democracy and self-organization[6]. They didn’t have professional police forces or royal guards, but local militias, made up of simple folk and subordinated to town’s meetings and councils, where citizens forged collectively the city’s laws and roles. The high degree of social and political equality made the coexistence in these communes more harmonious and with less need of numerous police forces, pretty much like the experience of ancient Athens.

Shift Towards Crowd Control

The first crowd-controlling police forces appeared in 19th century, in order to serve the politically centralized purposes of the Nation-State and capitalism. The bureaucratization of society was reflected by mass suppression of civil organizing and creativity.

In the city of Paris, France, after a decree in 1829, was created the so called sergents de ville, or “city sergeants”, arguably the first uniformed policemen in the world. Similar formations appeared in England and the United States in only few decades — roughly from 1825 to 1855. These new police formations had nothing to do with supposed increase in individual crime, but with the growing organizational activity among suppressed social circles like the workers strikes, urban riots and slave insurrections[7].

Paris Commune

An exception in this trend emerged from the popular insurrections that encompassed France’s main urban center. The memory of the communes from the past remained alive for many oppressed and it comes as no surprise that when the people of Paris revolted in 1871 and took control over their city, repelling the local authorities, they named the new democratic organizational form the Commune.

With the new self-institution of Parisian society, a radical decentralization of political power took place, reshaping decisively all spheres of public life. With local bureaucrats and police forces gone, the citizens had to create new ways of self-limitation, which to allow their communities to continue functioning. They began electing (and recalling, if needed) their own public safety officers, accountable to the neighborhood assemblies and councils that had elected them[8]. This never became a settled routine because the city was under constant military siege, but the communards did their best to maintain the newly established communal order as democratic as possible.

Total Militarization

Despite such short-lived moments of people power, the shift towards crowd control continued, slowly turning into total militarization of urban space. With military conflicts slowly transferring from international to city level, the images of police forces battering down doors with tanks, armed with assault rifles, drones and helicopters, became a usual thing for large metropolitan areas. Urban security forces have adopted military vocabulary and tactics.

Furthermore, what is to be done with the offenders, which are being persecuted by the police, is being radically altered in this military colonization of urban life. As sociologist Jeffrey Monagham writes, this trend points  towards  a  logic  where  enemies  are  to  be  destroyed  and, when  these  enemies  are  demonized  as  subhuman  or  outside  humanity,  this  destruction  aims  towards  are apparent  endgame:  elimination.[9]

Police and Public Space

The contemporary system of domination uses police to prevent public spaces from becoming truly public. As Jacques Ranciere has putted it[10], the famous phrase “Move along! There is nothing to see here!” indicates that, according to the law there is nothing to do but move along. It asserts that the space of circulating is nothing other than the space of circulation.

Politics, in contrast, consists in transforming this space from transitional, into a space for the appearance of a subject that have the potential to participate in the self-institution of society – the citizens: It consists in refiguring the space, of what there is to do there, what is to be seen or named therein. Thus bureaucracy must be challenged by political means.


The bureaucratic structure of current police forces worldwide and their dependencies on states and private interests creates a permanent precondition for corruption among their ranks. This is evident from the fact that they are placed in the privileged position of being the “hand” of a dominant hierarchical order, which is not subject to citizen control. Thus single units can exploit the law for their personal gains to a large extent. As David Whitehouse suggests[11], the law has many more provisions than [police] actually use, so their enforcement is always selective. That means that they are always profiling what part of the population to target and choosing which kinds of behavior they want to change.

From this follows that, unlike the policing role of publicly owned slaves of Ancient Athens or communal militias, nowadays the position among the police lines creates a caste with common interests, which are tightly related to the maintenance of the current hierarchical order.

In order to put an end to police brutality and impunity, one cannot simply reform the security forces. A radical change must take place on the level of the very foundations of our societies. This includes, first and foremost, the equal distribution of political and economic power among all citizens, so they can be able to directly, without intermediaries, reconfigure the societal organizational basis so as to put an end to ongoing injustices. In this way the police, as extra-social body that serves the interests of national governments and capitalist relations, will be abolished and replaced by conscious citizens that themselves create their laws and enact them.

[1] Network for an Alternative Quest: Challenging Capitalist Modernity II: Dissecting Capitalist Modernity – Building Democratic Confederalism Neuss, International Initiative, 2015. 301-302



[4] Yannis Andricopoulos: The Cultural Challenge: A Trilogy, Exeter, Imprint Academic, 2017






[10] Davide Panagi: The Political Life of Sensation, Durham, Duke University Press, 2009 121


Source: FilmsForAction


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