Wanted: An End to Police Terror

tags: racism, Police, FBI, radicals

Stuart Schrader is Associate Director of the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship and Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing (University of California Press, 2019).

When police kill unarmed Black people, you often hear pleas to lock up the cops in prison. But it rarely happens. Within the space of a couple weeks, however, after the killing of George Floyd and the brutal attempted suppression of rebellion in response, this plea has been accompanied by more radical demands to abolish both police and prisons.1 Popular demands now go beyond and even contradict the traditional calls for indictment, conviction, and incarceration of killer cops. Of course the carceral state of police and prisons has not gone away yet, but the people in the streets are more convinced than ever that it doesn’t need to exist and are more committed than ever to its eradication. Defunding police is on the table, as a step toward the positive project of abolition, by which we mean the active creation of new social forms and institutional pathways outside the capitalist state that make its versions of justice and safety irrelevant and unsustainable.2

How did this shift in sentiment occur so quickly? The contemporary ordering of social life in the United States has been marked by a hypertrophic penal sector that metes out punishment to the most vulnerable but offers impunity for capital. The pursuit of justice has been defined by a rote binary of punished in a cage versus unpunished and free. This situation shapes the demand for traditional, state-sanctioned, prison-based punishment even of killer cops.3 And yet within the language of vengeance or retribution toward police who kill, with the blunt anger and desire to inflict pain that shapes this demand, there is also a hidden desire for another way, for a way out. There is also an acknowledgment of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of convicting white cops under the present system. The rapid and ongoing fluctuations in the tenor of demands, from punishment to its rethinking, therefore, help us to re-examine the plea to punish, and to find immanent within it the seeds of this abolitionist approach. One source is unexpected: the do-it-yourself wanted poster that many militants have carried in the streets after a police murder of a Black person.

The present rebellion compels us to ask how the wanted poster, which is an instrument of the penal sanction and repression so frequently wielded against radicals, also became an instrument and incubator of freedom. If official wanted posters illustrate the edges of state power, necessarily highlighting attempts by revolutionaries, dissidents, and misfits to escape its grasp, unofficial wanted posters from a venerable Black and communist tradition provide a window onto subterranean social struggles to reconfigure the state, making impossible demands upon it. By directing the mechanisms of the state against it, these protest artifacts signal how to transcend the capitalist state.


If the wanted poster is a hieroglyph of state power, of the police capacity for repression and ability to inflict racialized terror, it can also be turned against state power. It turns out right as New Left militants were appearing on FBI Wanted Posters, anti-revisionist and New Communist Movement groups were producing their own do-it-yourself wanted posters, fashioned in protest against state violence. These urgent documents re-theorize state legitimacy, crime, and violence itself, refusing bourgeois conceptions. 

In Harlem, five days of increasingly militant protest followed the killing of a 15-year-old Black boy, James Powell, on July 16, 1964, by an off-duty white police lieutenant, Thomas Gilligan. This episode of unrest inaugurated the decade’s cycle of rebellion across northern cities. Within a day or two of the outbreak of protest, members of Progressive Labor plastered the streets of Harlem with a poster. “WANTED FOR MURDER,” it blared across the top, above a photograph of a white police officer. “GILLIGAN, THE COP,” it read beneath the photo. Which murder he had committed required no explanation. This actually was not the first time Lieutenant Gilligan, a former Marine, had shot someone on the streets of New York City. This killing, however, was the most politically consequential. 

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