The Good Fight: There’s no climate justice alongside the police

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A man and a child look out from behind the iron gate of a house occupied by squatters for close to a year, before they are evicted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept.15, 2020, amid the new coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Silvia Izquierdo/AP Photo.

“As they got closer to the entrance, the police were confronted by a human wall, arm hooked with arm, row after row, blocking all the space between the river and the ravine… Then, like a wedge aimed at a specific point of the human wall, the squad surged. With the barrier broken, the battle began. Truncheons span and hit, people ran everywhere.” 

This is the firsthand account of Flavia (presented by Rachel Rolnik in her book, “Urban Warfare”), a teenager living in Horto, a poor neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. Horto is one of thousands of “illegal” settlements around the world which are occupied by generations of impoverished families. Their self-built homes and “illegal” land is neglected and starved of investment, until developers decide it’s ripe for speculation. Flavia’s account captures the incendiary moment when the shock troops of financial speculation (the police) met neighborhood resistance. 

In the highly financialized global land market, neglected “slums” and “informal settlements” can quickly become fertile ground for developers to build luxury condos and office towers. Across the world, from Rio to Mumbai to Brooklyn, neighborhoods occupied by poor residents are increasingly targeted for development and gentrification. Rolnik sees this pattern as a natural outgrowth of financialized capitalism, which, from the colonial era to today, has always sought to gobble up new spaces and frontiers for exploitation and profit. 

At the forefront of this frontier expansion is the police, who are almost always responsible for clearing poor people off of desirable land to make way for wealthy enclaves. In Lagos, Nigeria, the police are famous for violently razing slums to clear the way for luxury development. In Rio de Janeiro, much like Flavia’s experience in Horto, the Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora, or Police Pacifying Units, have been instrumental in priming poor favelas for investment and gentrification. In neighborhoods like Flatbush, Brooklyn, luxury development always goes hand in hand with an increased police presence. In gentrifying Oakland, homeless families occupied a vacant home and were subsequently evicted by a SWAT team. 

The pattern I’ve described above is the result of a lifelong marriage between the police and capitalism. Just like industrial capitalism required the police to break strikes, subdue slave revolts and quell working class rebellions, financial capitalism requires the police to violently evict undesirable populations and provide a sense of security for gentrifying residents. The police are and always have been the stewards of exploitation. 

Financial capitalism’s ever-growing lust for exploitable land puts pressure on the global poor from one angle. But there is a new pressure point which is growing stronger everyday: climate change. 

The warming atmosphere creates conditions that are shrinking the amount of livable land on earth. Whole swathes of previously inhabitable land are being turned into deserts, massive food and water shortages are more frequent and unthinkably large storms and wildfires are pushing people from their homes. Every freak accident of nature is becoming much more dangerous and unpredictable as climate change worsens. 

The World Bank (conservatively) estimates that by 2050, 140 million people will be forced to migrate due to climate change. That’s a massive interchange of people, most of whom are poor and marginalized to begin with. Certain areas of the world, like sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, will be hit hardest. Hundreds of millions of indigenous people and subsistence farmers who rely on consistent seasonal patterns are already having their livelihoods disrupted.  

Squatters look from behind the iron gate of a house they occupy, before being evicted amid the new coronavirus pandemic in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. Around 19 families were evicted from the building that they had occupied for close to a year. Photo by Silvia Izquierdo/AP Photo.

Displacement on this scale will create (and in many places has already created) a battle over livable space. It creates new pressure on the global poor to find shelter, food and water. Naturally, migrants flood into livable areas, which become more and more scarce as time goes on.  

This is where the groundwork laid by the natural alliance between police and financial capitalism will pay dividends for the wealthy, and be purely destructive for the poor. The battle over the livable tracts of land will be fought with the police solely on the side of the wealthy, who have “legal” rights to the land and resources which sustain life. The police-led processes of displacement and violent eviction will be replicated over and over as climate change worsens.  

As the world’s ecosystems deteriorate, the police will fortify the last remaining oases. When the water supplies dwindle, they will protect whatever rich a**hole “owns” the right to the water. The border patrol will stand guard, rejecting desperate migrants with guns instead of welcoming them with food and blankets. Simply put, climate change is throwing the world into chaos. The police are responsible for managing this chaos in such a way that property, wealth and white supremacy come out on top.  

The police are the enforcers of climate apartheid. 

Police abolitionists have long recognized that the police are a violently racist arm of the capitalist state. The enforcement of exclusionary property relations is only possible with an armed militia to suppress the masses. As climate change worsens, it’s important to connect the abolitionist struggle to the climate justice struggle. 

And don’t get me wrong: Abolition would be necessary even if climate change wasn’t an issue. If you consider yourself a proponent of climate justice, you should already be supporting the rebellion against the racist police state.  

What I’m arguing here is that climate justice is impossible without abolition. While police are by no means our only obstacle, we can no sooner achieve climate justice alongside the police then mix oil and water. They are fundamentally incompatible. Why? Because climate justice doesn’t just mean reducing our emissions and creating jobs — it’s the process of building a new world on the principles of ecology, equality and solidarity, rather than exploitation. Climate justice is a project of mass liberation. We need to take care of desperate migrants, not violently shut them out. We need to organize the post-climate change world in an egalitarian manner.  

The police stand in the way of this project. There will be no climate justice alongside the capitalist violence of the police. 

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