Abolishing the United States’ empire of policing

  • June 9, 2021

Imperialism & Insurgency

US policing has never been limited to the national sphere — when we demand to defund the police, this includes ending the global policing powers of the US.

This is an abridged version of “Dismantling the Imperial Boomerang: A Reckoning with Globalised Police Power” originally published in TNI’s State of Power report 2021.

Photo: US American soldiers during the US-Philippine War, October 2, 1899.

In the early morning of 30 December 2020, joint police-military units embarked on two simultaneous operations in the mountainous regions of Panay Island in the Philippines. Their assignment was to quell the spread of firearms allegedly proliferating across the region’s provinces by capturing 28 supposed members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). What the police described as a “regular law enforcement activity” ended up in the brutal killings of nine Indigenous community leaders.

Council members of the Tumandok tribe were reportedly asleep when they were gunned down in front of their families, yet police claimed that they fought back and resisted arrest. Days later, residents of the town where the killings took place fled their homes in fear of more state violence. The brutality that led to the extrajudicial killings and exodus of the Tumandok people is just one of the latest in a series of high-profile police-military incidents that fuel the debate on the role of counterinsurgency and policing in Philippine public consciousness.

State-sponsored violence in the Philippines is decades old, and crackdowns against suspected subversives have heightened under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. His promise to wage a “war” on narcotics has resulted in thousands of deaths across the country, most of them poor. In his five years in office, Duterte has extended this “war” by mobilizing the government’s coercive apparatus to clamp down on dissent — from critical journalists to environmental defenders. Those on the frontlines in this “war” are the agents of the coercive state — the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Colonial vestiges of the coercive state

The vicious nature of the police and the military, unmasked in violent anti-communist crusades and the extrajudicial killings of marginalized groups, can be traced back to the Philippines’ colonial history. The national police, as it is today, was preceded by the Philippine Constabulary, a US-era colonial military police which, in turn, was modeled after the Philippine regiment of the Spanish Guardia Civil, which was also tasked with cracking down on revolutionary activity in the last decade of Spain’s colonial rule.

In his authoritative work on the history and aftermath of US imperial policing in the Philippines, Alfred McCoy chronicles how the US victory in the Philippine-American War led to the establishment of “the most modern police and intelligence units found anywhere under the US flag,” which crushed Asia’s first anti-colonial movement. McCoy highlights how this construction of imperial surveillance pacified the Philippine Revolution of the late 1890s by annihilating rebel armies and conducting covert operations to corrupt and discredit Filipino revolutionary leaders, crushing the movement from within.

As McCoy writes, imperial practices in the former colony were to prove “an ideal laboratory for innovation,” and even after independence, the Philippine state inherited this coercive apparatus, with the Constabulary working alongside the country’s armed forces and sustaining continued repression against Indigenous peoples’ movements and communist guerrillas across the archipelago.

This heavy reliance on police power characterized the Philippine state’s methods of handling dissent and conducting governance throughout the 20th century. The repercussions on the colonized were evident, but it also left a durable mark on the colonizer as its institutional engineering pushed US colonial policy to its limits, which would then rebound to the heart of empire and eventually construct the world’s first modern surveillance state.

Empire’s reciprocity of repression

In underlining the “mutually transformative” element of the US imperialist experience, McCoy stresses how colonial experiments with imposing hegemonic influence in the Philippines made the metropole “more self-conscious, more calculating in the application of power.” These repressive practices were then imported back to the United States itself — a process Connor Woodman refers to as the ”imperial boomerang effect.” The utilization of colonized territories as “laboratories for methods of counter-insurgency, social control and repression” led to the deployment of these coercive systems against the marginalized and subaltern populations living in the mainland of empire.

The concept of the boomerang effect of empire can be traced back to the writings of several political thinkers, most notably Aimé Césaire, who not only underscored that the imperial project would result in a boomerang effect on the colonizer, but he also especially characterized US domination as the “the only domination from which one never recovers […] unscarred.” This scarring goes both ways for the US and what was once its largest formal colony.

The remnants of US empire in the Philippines led to the institutionalization and legitimization of the coercive aspects of the postcolonial liberal regime in the country as Philippine post-independence leaders sought to mimic imperial language and perpetuate their own version of domination. But it was indeed very much a mutual experience — a “reciprocal process,” according to McCoy, that shaped “state formation in Manila and Washington while moving both nations into a mutually implicated, postcolonial world.”

Red scares and Jim Crow atrocities

As US imperialists succeeded in policing experiments on the other side of the world in the early 20th century, irrational hysteria gripped domestic elites that were threatened by a boiling US labor movement. Their fears of a militant left-wing insurrection were widespread, and in response, they sought support from the coercive state by applying repatriated methods first developed in the Philippines towards its own citizens.

In The End of Policing, Alex Vitale documents how the first US state police agency, the Pennsylvania State Police — modeled on the Philippine Constabulary — was established with the aim of siding with the interests of capital, brutally cracking down on migrant workers and unionists, such as in the Westmoreland County coal strikes that began in 1910, and in the Indiana County coal strikes a decade later during the First Red Scare. But in addition to being an instrument in sustaining social and economic inequality, policing during this period of US history was also used to maintain racist policies of segregation and the criminalization of its African-American population.

Having its origins in the slave-patrol system that was prevalent in US southern states before the formal abolition of slavery, and thus highlighting the pre-existing racialized practices of US law enforcement, these police forces were tasked with the relentless imposition of the Jim Crow laws. African-American historian Rayford Logan regarded these developments as the all-time low of US race relations, marking the late 19th and early 20th century as one of the most racist epochs in US history alongside the antebellum period.

Recognizing the gravity of this historical era requires acknowledging the role of US empire. How the US state responded to domestic unrest is also — and especially — linked to how it practiced its foreign policy: by experimenting with exploitative and repressive policing. The double subjugation against dissidents and minorities in the US as well as against Filipino rebels in the colony would build up to consolidate processes of racialization that were inherent in coercive state practices.

Woodman underlines the notion that this process of constructing race is “embedded within colonial structures and histories.” This construction is not only entangled with imported methods of repression; it is also shaped by it. It is also marked by civilian involvement; what McCoy terms the “state-civilian security nexus” is exemplified by local police joining white supremacists in crushing the “race riots” in urban centers across the US, while state police forces sided with capitalists in quelling organized labor.

There was a paranoia in US society that saw Black Americans’ struggle for racial equality as a Bolshevik-inspired rebellion. The immediate response was counterinsurgency and coercive control; and the US government had a model in the Philippines that would serve as the groundwork for the installation of a violent national security state in the metropole.

The globalization of America’s counterinsurgency crusades

The boomerang would keep rebounding throughout the 20th century, consolidating US ideological hegemony marked by racist domestic policy and imperialist foreign policy. Even after independence, the US elite collaborated with their counterparts in the Philippines to sustain a partnership of developing repressive counterinsurgency strategies against guerrilla movements — methods that would be enacted beyond the Philippines in Southeast Asia, from Africa and the Middle East to Latin America and the Caribbean.

These methods are what Stuart Schrader refers to as “security assistance,” which was an inherent component of US foreign policy during the Cold War. Such security services were a primary function of the country’s self-styled role as the “global policeman,” and they were offered to governments overseas to subdue both criminal and communist activity. Established in 1962 under the Kennedy administration was a program called the Office of Public Safety (OPS), which was part of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID); the “aid” administered had the aim of “professionalizing” policing across the globe through training in countering insurgency, gathering intelligence and strengthening law enforcement.

The OPS did not last long as social movements at that time exposed its repressive elements and the fact that USAID was aiding authoritarian governments from Marcos’s Philippines to Somoza’s Nicaragua. But this did not put an end to the practice; it merely privatized it. As Schrader writes, a public-private security coalition surfaced through commercial contractors offering similar training, even including former OPS trainers. This enabled the practice to bypass certain legal constraints, which continues to make it a successful and profitable enterprise to this day.

Nonetheless, in the early 80s, the Reagan administration revived state involvement in training foreign police by escalating the US War on Drugs domestically and abroad, especially targeting Latin American countries. This time, it involved various federal government agencies that were given new competences in combating narcotics by empowering the military to train foreign police. This militarization of policing abroad was euphemized as “professionalization,” which would become an ever-expanding and perpetual process with no end in sight.

The goal of “professionalization” has been to develop innovative ways of policing abroad that entailed defining the coercive state as the primary protector of a fragile society prone to insurgents — from independence movements to civil rights activists to workers’ unions. And as Atiya Husain points out, “counterinsurgency to anticolonial, antiracist, and anti-capitalist struggles, whether or not they actually hurt or killed people,” would fundamentally shape our modern understanding of the concept of terrorism.

These developments of policing underpin its historically transnational elements. Territorial conquests led to experiments with repression and control in the colonies which then led to the expansion of a security state apparatus in the US. This was repackaged and offered to the world as “aid” by training the world’s soldiers to be cops, and in effect training cops to be soldiers. Indeed, this practice has been like a boomerang that kept on spinning, leading Schrader to call it a ”perpetual motion machine of US empire.’”

It is worth noting, however, that this endless motion machine incorporates a certain multidirectional aspect to the boomerang effect. Concretely, it affirms that pre-existing racialized policing in the US co-existed with its colonial experiments abroad, and that these circumstances would both regenerate violent law enforcement domestically as well as advance repressive counterinsurgency practices overseas, exporting those practices as training and importing the experiences back again.

It is this reconceptualized notion of the boomerang effect that Jeanne Morefield refers to — one that exposes the complex intertwined web of imperialism and racism, and that these entanglements underpin the US forever wars of today. The expansion of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance operations and the unprecedented use of drone strikes — ushered in by the Obama Administration — amplified “the ‘feedback’ between power projection abroad and at home.”

Domesticating the boomerang in the carceral archipelago

In the Philippines, the US empire’s perpetual motion machine left a permanent mark. As McCoy notes, the Philippine postcolonial experience included the collaboration “in the development of new military doctrines to meet a succession of challenges to US global hegemony.” The surveillance regime established in colonial Philippines would see an intensification in the US occupation and war in Vietnam and culminate in the ongoing US War on Terror in Afghanistan, the Middle East and beyond.

The Philippines has always played an essential role in these wars. In Mindanao in particular, the atrocious legacy of US military presence continues to the present day. Not only was America’s first forever war fought there, but shortly after the 9/11 attacks — exactly a century after the Philippine-American War — the Bush Administration would label the region as the “second front” of its War on Terror by deploying hundreds of US soldiers in Zamboanga to train alongside Philippine troops and prepare them for battle against Islamist separatist groups.

The imperial boomerang effect would then generate a modern domestic version in the Philippines, the most pertinent example of which is the ongoing War on Drugs spearheaded by the Duterte Administration. As a presidential candidate, Duterte, who then was mayor of Davao City, promised to apply his model of urban crime control nationwide. And he fulfilled this promise. With his blessing, as soon as he assumed office, police as well as vigilantes engaged in a killing spree that resembled Davao’s notorious “death squads.”

While this gives an impression that the ongoing drug war had roots in Mindanao’s largest city, Anna Warburg and Steffen Jensen highlight how ongoing police repression of suspected criminals in the urban capital are inspired by counterinsurgency operations, usually conducted in Mindanao, against CPP guerrillas and Moro nationalists. This development of the role of policing in one of Manila’s poorest areas strongly suggests that repressive counterinsurgency policing in the southern provinces boomeranged back to the burgeoning metropolis.

Yet, as previously mentioned, the Philippine police has always been a ferocious institution, functioning as the muscle of the coercive state. And Duterte’s anti-narcotics crusade has further empowered law-enforcement institutions to take advantage of the country’s culture of impunity by making use of hit squads and vigilante cops. This outsourcing of engagement in extrajudicial means to tackle the drug war gives a modern depiction of the “state-civilian security nexus” that McCoy describes — which now includes the recruitment of ordinary citizens to actively participate in these extra-legal activities. The well-documented incidents of local residents and officials putting up drug-related hit lists and sending them to the national police as evidence are a case in point.

This is where coercion and consent intersect, and as Warburg and Jensen point out, this nexus is “where civilians are drawn in (and forced) to participate in the war on the side of the state.” At the same time, a climate of distrust creeps in, albeit in paradoxical ways. While recent polls suggest that Duterte’s presidency enjoys steady mass approval, this is accompanied by surveys of Filipinos thinking that it is dangerous to be critical of the current administration’s policies.

Spaces for dissent further diminish as a result, and the carceral state takes advantage of this atmosphere of fear as it steps up the securitization of protest and resistance, resorting to extraordinary repressive means of exhibiting force, either by callously “red-baiting” progressives, or by ruthlessly killing them outright.

On March 7, 2021, just two days after Duterte reaffirmed his directive to execute communist rebels, government forces mounted coordinated raids against activist groups in Manila’s neighboring regions. They succeeded with ruthless efficiency that left nine people dead in what was termed as another “Bloody Sunday” that marked one of the biggest and deadliest police-military offensives against activists under the current regime. This pattern of incidents continues to nakedly expose the ineptitude of state security forces in their inability to distinguish grassroots movement organizers from armed insurgents.

Breaking the boomerang from Manila to Minnesota

From the Trump administration’s deployment of federal agents to violently subdue Black Lives Matter protesters, to Duterte’s ongoing crusade to label all activists as terrorists and silence or assassinate them, state-sponsored violence from the streets of downtown Portland to the highlands of Panay have intensified to facilitate the most callous means of coercive control.

At the same time, these developments have been met with strong defiance. The past decade has seen unprecedented mass political protests and movements proliferate worldwide. The past year alone would lead to the further radicalization of public consciousness on the issue of policing and the coercive state. Among the US population, anti-imperial and anti-racist sentiments have thrived in the previous year in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. We have seen how these movements for Black lives fought back, raising calls to defund the police from Minneapolis and beyond.

But these calls are not enough. Rather, they must be backed by the notion of acknowledging the entanglements of domestic and foreign experiences – a strategy that entails recognizing that US policing has never been limited to the national sphere as one cannot ignore its global extent. As Schrader argues, this is the fundamental link between unchecked aggressive foreign policy and unchecked aggressive domestic law enforcement. Therefore, dismantling the boomerang effect — the perpetual motion machine — through defunding initiatives must be proactive and include cutting back on playing the role of the “global policeman.”

This strategy of breaking the boomerang’s spiraling movement means that domestic demands in the US to reduce police power need to also encompass the calls for a foreign policy that seeks to end the globalization of coercive state practices that is being repackaged as aid or assistance. It calls for the abolition of the empire of policing. Confronting globalized police power is therefore an indispensable part of confronting US foreign policy.

Towards abolitionist futures

This confrontation entails coming to terms with an ambivalence — of maintaining conflicting attitudes towards the coercive state; of both accepting and opposing it simultaneously. Overcoming the contradictions that comes with articulating counter-hegemonic responses requires recognizing how power is won and sustained through consent and coercion.

Thinking in the context of hegemonic relations also helps generate an understanding that such conjunctures can be broken and challenged. Strategies can then be forged on how to successfully confront and reclaim the coercive state, and ultimately subsume it under popular control in the pursuit of radical emancipatory policies. As Janet Newman and Nikita Dhawan argue, “living” with this ambivalence towards the coercive state creates a space for “progressive projects of re-imagining” that involves “a more positive orientation to creating new resources, practices and political formations.”

“Progressive projects of re-imagining” must thus be grounded in radical imaginations, emboldened by the pursuit of human flourishing, which prevail through an abolitionist stance that demands us “to envision an ‘impossible’ future.” Envisaging such alternative futures consequently induces a public consciousness that insists on a more people-centered restructuring of the carceral state — all in an effort to disrupt the very conditions that create and recreate the most brutal modes of repression.

Abolitionist visions thus grapple with the roots of the problem, as opposed to liberal calls for incremental reform that do not tackle systemic foundations of recurring state violence. Without an understanding of how globalized police power is historically linked to imperial domination, moderate reformism can only go so far and may even sustain brutal practices.

Césaire may be right that we cannot recover from imperial dominance unscarred, but this does not mean that recovery is impossible. On the contrary, pursuing a recovery grounded in abolitionist activism is a path full of potential towards a transformative society. This is the kind of radical future for which we should be fighting. A world without the need for policing is a world without the most vicious manifestations of imperial practice — the liberation of humanity from domination.


TNI’s 10th State of Power report explores the history, structures and changing dynamics of the military, policing and homeland security in the world today and outlines emancipatory visions and ideas to end the violence of the state.

Joshua Makalintal

Joshua Makalintal is a Filipino writer, activist, and a graduate student assistant in research and administration at the University of Innsbruck, where he studied political science and is currently pursuing graduate studies in sociology, focusing social and political theory. He has also written extensively about the critical junctures happening in the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, contributing to Al Jazeera, New Mandala and the Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies, among other publications.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/abolish-us-empire-policing/

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