Policing Survival

The fallout of climate disaster will spawn new forms of environmental injustice—centered around the police state—that climate activists committed to equity need to be prepared for.

Photo by  Jack Finnigan .

Photo by Jack Finnigan.

Imagine: it’s 2035 and massive hurricanes and accompanying storm surges have displaced hundreds of thousands of people from Southern coastal regions—Texas, Louisiana, Florida and the Carolinas. Homeless and without adequate federal or state support, bands of climate refugees roam the interior of the South, establishing semi-permanent camps on the outskirts of cities here and there that are regularly—and violently—broken up by a joint force of municipal police and state troopers. Many groundwater sources have been contaminated even more than they already are due to the leaching of toxins from various petrochemical plants and other industrial factories destroyed in the aforementioned floods. Clean water is a coveted resource and prohibitively expensive in bottled form; break-ins skyrocket as refugees seek to fill battered collections of buckets and bottles with uncontaminated water for their basic needs. Some towns and cities are under a curfew, with violators subject to immediate arrest, in an effort to crack down on those stealing basic necessities. The use of public space is a major flashpoint: libraries have revoked access to their bathrooms and cops often patrol the areas around public fountains to prevent refugees from using them to bathe. 

As we face the prospect of widespread social and political instability as a consequence of climate displacement and economic contraction, it is often easier to imagine a dystopian future than a utopian one. Moreover, the forecasted impacts of climate change will, of course, disproportionately affect low income communities and communities of color—one reason why the NAACP has declared climate change a civil rights issue. “A climate refugee’s pathway to recovery,” wrote Alleen Brown in The Intercept, “is determined by their savings, family wealth, community connections, and credit scores.” According to a study based on 2016 data from the Federal Reserve, the median American household has around $7,000 in savings. This number varies drastically by race, with Black and Hispanic households having median savings of only $1,500 and $1,510, respectively. FEMA only provides up to $33,000 to individuals and households in need of financial assistance. Home insurance, meanwhile, does not typically cover flooding. There are few places in the country where “even a quarter of all homes are covered;” less than 10 percent of homes affected by Hurricane Florence, for example, had flood insurance. 

It is an article of faith in most left-wing circles that environmental justice and racial justice are inextricably linked. We see these connections reflected by the water crisis in Flint, MI; in the petrochemical plants located in historically black communities along the Mississippi; by the violent disregard for human life and well-being displayed in the history of uranium extraction from Navajo lands in northern Arizona in the last century—only one relatively recent chapter of the long, brutal history of resource extraction from indigenous lands, both in this country and in the world more broadly. In imagining an environmentally just future, however, we must be thinking not only about the past and present manifestations of environmental racism, but also about how unjust legal and political structures that might not be obviously related to or impacted by climate change may be weaponized in a future climate-ravaged version of our society. 

The goals of a leftist climate politics and those of police and prison abolitionists are naturally aligned: both seek to realize similar fundamental transformations of our social, political, and economic relations, to move people to reimagine what the structures of our world can be. The systemic underpinnings of climate change are racism, classism, patriarchy and the violent extraction of resources in the interest of wealth accumulation and power. The tendency towards criminalization in the US—the question of who is and who isn’t—falls along the familiar fault lines of our white supremacist and racial capitalist state. Taking the police as a mechanism of social control, we must assume that, as the climate crisis worsens and individual behavior adapts accordingly to survive, our system will default to the patterns of criminalization and violence it has perpetuated for the last four centuries. Whatever the framework for a just transition, it must incorporate the precepts of police and prison abolition into its vision of radical political and economic transformation. 

Thinking about policing in the context of climate change requires thinking about who and what—which people and which behaviors—are most often the targets of state violence and control. In The End of Policing, the sociologist Alex Vitale argues that “as inequality continues to increase, so will homelessness and public disorder, and as long as people continue to embrace the use of police to manage disorder, we will see a continual increase in the scope of police power and authority at the expense of human rights.” This is a simple equation. Policing is not about security—or, at least, it is not about security for all. Policing as it functions in this country is a regime of state-sanctioned violence that exists to maintain the social, political and economic order on its racial capitalist foundations. Its purpose is neither safety nor justice, but rather the management of inequality and the containment of those perceived as socially undesirable. This function is, in turn, closely linked to the maintenance and continuous re-entrenchment of this country’s racial hierarchy. Relevant here, for example, is the history of public vagrancy laws in the U.S., which are descended from Black Codes passed across the South after the Civil War and sought to reimpose control over freed slaves by coating their efforts with a veneer of legality. California’s wildfire-fighting crews of prisoners, too—who earn $1/hour, compared to the $17.70 earned by non-incarcerated firefighters—are a product of the reconstruction of a white supremacist social, economic, and political order by way of Jim Crow and mass incarceration, a genealogy popularized not only by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, but also by Ava DuVernay’s 13th and the work of the Equal Justice Initiative. 

How, then, can police and prison abolition movements be linked to the fight for a just response to the climate crisis? Fundamentally, these issues are about resources and investment. The perpetuation of a punitive response to social issues rooted in a lack of access to resources—laws, for example, against soliciting a ride on the side of a highway or lying down in public areas—creates clear openings for the criminalization of those internally displaced by climate change, as we saw after Katrina. In the absence of a robust framework for mitigating its disproportionate impacts on the most vulnerable, climate change will only intensify currently existing inequalities, particularly in terms of access to basic resources. It is no great leap to imagine that the mandate of policing will expand in scope to criminalize new strategies for survival in a society without safety nets. In addition to joining police and prison abolitionists in advocating for an end to the use of imprisonment as a cure for social ills, climate activists can also, for example, lobby for the redirection of state and federal funds from the construction of jails and prisons to the construction of sustainable public housing, both for those who are currently homeless or housing-insecure and for those whose homes will be lost or whose lands will become uninhabitable. 

A second potential path for joint action could be the demand that state and local governments use their “national preparedness” funding from the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) program, administered through FEMA, to focus on building climate resilience, rather than on militarizing police forces in anticipation of terrorist attacks. Ostensibly, emergency preparation measures designed to respond to terrorism contribute to a city’s capacity to respond to other threats, such as natural disasters. The militarization of police, however,  is not, and never will be, a substitute for emergency preparedness and disaster response measures developed by strong, well-resourced communities. Yet often these disaster preparedness funds are often spent overwhelmingly on militarization and surveillance. For example, of the nearly six million dollars Alameda County received from the program in 2016, 81 percent went not towards investing in sustainable infrastructure or disaster planning, but towards “enhanced homeland security exercise, evaluation, and training”—in particular, the hosting of a law enforcement training conference/weapons expo called Urban Shield. In a victory for local activists who organized against Urban Shield, the county Board of Supervisors decided in March 2018 to “end the program as currently constituted.” Alameda County is not alone in receiving UASI funds; the DHS allotted more than $580 million to the program in FY 2017. Campaigns against such use of federal funds, as Berkeley has demonstrated, can be one common target of both climate activists and those working against the continued militarization of the police. 

There are many more points of intersection than those mentioned here, such as the relationship between immigration policy and border militarization and climate change, or the criminalization of protest and the level of state violence, often in collaboration with private security and energy companies, directed at indigenous activists and others. There are, however, at least two concrete ways in which climate activists might contribute to dismantling our carceral state: one, by advocating for states to decriminalize the everyday, non-violent “lifestyle” offenses associated with poverty and/or homelessness; and two, by fighting decisions to fund investments in a militarized disaster response over investments in the ability of communities—particularly low-income communities and communities of color—to withstand the environmental and economic pressures of climate change. More broadly, however, it is simply necessary that a leftist climate politics be acutely aware not only of the obvious linkages between race, class, and environmental justice, but also of the routine violence of the state that the disproportionate effects of climate change will most certainly exacerbate.

Emma Herman is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where she studied history and philosophy. She is interested in the intersection of racial and environmental justice, with a particular focus on security and urban policy. She tweets @e_lherman.

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