They’re doing it again.
In 2015, President Obama used Camden, New Jersey as a prop to announce the findings of the President’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing, a package of procedural reforms to address the post-Ferguson crisis of police legitimacy. In 2012, Camden suffered the highest crime rate in the country and a murder rate 560 times higher than the national average. In 2013, the city disbanded its police force, launched the new Camden County Police Department, and embraced community policing. Violent crime dropped dramatically. As of 2018, it’s down 38 percent from 2013.
Scratch the surface of this feel-good story of crime reduction and community policing, and you’ll find a “surveillance city.” Camden is under constant monitoring: cameras, ShotSpotter gunshot detectors, automated license plate readers, a mobile observation tower. The much-praised police-citizen interactions that make up the work of “community policing” also double as moments of intelligence collection. It’s not just one-off interactions either. Police also develop relationships with neighborhood sentinels — “mothers with children, postal delivery workers, people who are engaged in local groups” — to gather intelligence. They organize residents to monitor their neighbors, report activity to police, and otherwise bolster police programs.
The data streams from these surveillance systems and the “human intelligence” from the “field contact cards” that officers fill out for every civilian encounter all flow back to Camden’s very own “fusion center,” the Real Time Tactical Operations Intelligence Center. There, analysts watch the city in real time and take direct control of a sequence of cameras in “virtual patrols.” Data-crunching algorithms target police deployments and direct analysts to focus on particular cameras.
In Camden, this “counterinsurgency surveillance” was inseparable from the imposition of austerity and the scandalous plunder that passed for urban renewal. Together, they formed a comprehensive pacification project, carried out to benefit business interests.
For exactly this reason, Camden has become the liberal establishment’s answer to the radical demands erupting from the country’s tear gas–choked streets. Ever since the Minneapolis City Council announced they’re disbanding the police department and shifting to community-based strategies, Camden is all over the media. Leading organizations on the ground in Minneapolis like Black Visions, Reclaim the Block, and MPD150 have explicitly rejected the Camden model — and for good reason. The current Camden fetish is an attempt to avoid any real reckoning with the failures of police and capital. It’s an attempt to recalibrate state violence in the guise of progressive reform. Camden is not a model. It’s an obstacle to real change.
The current focus on the Camden model also carries greater historical significance because it represents something much larger than the failures of liberal reform in the face of popular rebellion. Camden is a glimpse of a nightmare future of mass supervision — the next potential mutation of the various “peculiar institutions” of racial control and class domination that have shaped capitalism in the United States.
Slavery, the first and most brutal, was integral to the formation of the capitalist system. Karl Marx called it the “pedestal” upon which “the veiled slavery of wage-earners” rested. W. E. B. Du Bois described it as “the foundation stone not only of Southern social structure but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-scale.” It took waves of slave revolts, a civil war, and a general strike of black workers to end slavery in the United States. The Jim Crow order that eventually emerged from the wreckage — following the counterrevolutionary destruction of Reconstruction — combined formal apartheid with vigilante and police terror. Black workers were prevented from entering high-paying industries and locked into what James Boggs called the “scavenger role,” creating a hyper-exploitable pool of “common labor” that formed “a ceiling for blacks and a floor for whites.”
Decades of civil rights organizing in the United States — overlapping and interacting with anticolonial struggles the world over — climaxed in 1968, with a generalized global revolt. Systems of formal racial domination collapsed. While integration (and decolonization) yielded “black faces in high places,” it failed to undo persistent racial inequalities. Instead, the United States became a global leader in imprisonment, caging the disproportionately (though not exclusively) black and brown surplus workers no longer needed in a lean “information economy.” Though distinct forms of domination and violence, all three of these indelibly shaped the various permutations of American capitalism.
Today, we find ourselves in another singular moment of struggle and change. After decades of organizing against mass incarceration and police violence and years of escalating struggle from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to the resurgence of the Democratic Socialists of America and beyond, the United States, beset by a global pandemic and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, is in revolt. And this revolt, like the earlier struggles that helped bring down the “peculiar institutions” of their times, is abolitionist. They are struggles for the collective freedom to flourish — not just campaigns to end injustices.
Abolition predated and is intertwined with the struggle for socialism because abolition always raises socialist questions: How will we care for each other? How we will share labor to meet our shared needs? Abolition is not a thing that can be won if we use the proper strategies. It is not a political program we can define in the abstract and implement. Abolition — and socialism for that matter — are horizons of struggle. To paraphrase the famous line from Marx, we make our own history, but not as we please; we struggle to change existing circumstances, given and transmitted from the past, and create new ones. In this moment, as with earlier turning points, we have before us exhilarating possibilities to build a new world and real potential for crushing defeat and reversals.
Elites are looking to Camden for a history they can mobilize to quell this radical upsurge, a blueprint for “reform,” a lesson in changing everything so it may all stay the same.
They’re doing it again.
Mass supervision is most visible in Camden because the city suffers certain contradictions in an exaggerated form. Camden never recovered from deindustrialization. In the mid-twentieth century, Camden was home to 365 different industries that employed 51,000 people. By the early 1980s, the city had lost nearly 32,000 jobs, including 28,700 in manufacturing. The population collapsed, dropping 40 percent from its 1950 peak of 125,000. By the 2010 census, this beleaguered city of 77,000 was 48 percent black and 47 percent Hispanic. Over a third of residents lived below the poverty line. If one of the characteristics of the financialized global economy is the mass expulsion of once-included workers from the formal economy and social order more generally, then Camden is ahead of the curve.
Camden is ahead of the curve in other ways, too. Mass incarceration has been unraveling since at least the Great Recession. Nationwide, state and federal prison populations are down 9 percent, from some 1.61 million in 2010 to 1.46 million in 2018. New Jersey is one of the leaders of decarceration: the state prison population has dropped by over a third since its 1999 peak. The growing fiscal costs of mass incarceration, especially after the 2008 crash, and changing drug laws are two of the principal reasons.
Camden sits at the intersection of the fiscal crisis of the state on the one hand, and the violence of the drug economy and the policing of it on the other. For decades, the city has relied on state aid to maintain basic services in the face of long-term economic decline and a dwindling tax base. For just as long, the drug trade has filled the economic vacuum. The drug trade in Camden is estimated at $250 million. According to the state troopers and intelligence analysts I interviewed at the New Jersey State Police’s intelligence center, the city has some of the purest heroin in the Northeast and is the “starting point, or one of the starting points, for the heroin trade.” It’s hard to get a decent job in Camden but, according to police and intelligence analysts, a drug set can make easily $20,000 in a day.
Under these conditions, it is easy to appreciate why Camden is a harbinger for a new peculiar institution: mass supervision. Ubiquitous surveillance and aggressive policing now manage a surplus population that is too costly to cage. But it’s not just these acute social problems that have transformed Camden into an open-air prison. It’s the political situation that produced them. A poor, almost exclusively black and brown, high-crime city is an easy target for victimization and vilification. And that’s exactly what happened.
The Pacification of Camden
Over several years, the New Jersey state government imposed a new social order on Camden. It happened through a corrupt series of devil’s bargains and backroom deals between New Jersey governor Chris Christie (2010–18), South Jersey political boss George Norcross III, Camden mayor Dana Redd (2010–18), and police chief Scott Thompson. The specifics are scandalous but the structural effect is more important than the dirty details of its execution. Camden was pacified. These elites and their corporate allies mobilized the whole government in a proactive, organized, and systematic police war to fabricate a social order conducive to capital accumulation.
The stage was set by crushing austerity. Almost as soon as he became governor, Christie declared that “the taxpayers of New Jersey aren’t going to pay anymore for Camden’s excesses” and slashed $445 million in aid. Christie, Norcross, and Redd worked together to bring economic shock therapy to Camden. They cooperated to delay the long-promised construction of a new school in Lanning, at the site of a decaying nineteenth-century building. Eventually, they developed a plan to build five new charter schools in Camden that will all carry the Norcross name.
In addition to pushing for school privatization, Christie, Norcross, and Redd also worked to bring new investment into the city, doling out $1.6 billion tax breaks. An investigation by WNYC and ProPublica found that “at least $1.1 billion went to Norcross’s own insurance brokerage, his business partnerships and charitable affiliations, and clients of the law and lobbying firms of his brother Philip.”
This plundering of the public coffers took place in a larger context shaped by a terrible spike in violence and the reformation of the police department. After Christie imposed austerity in 2010, Camden laid off 168 of its 368 police officers. The remaining cops responded with sickouts. At times just a dozen officers patrolled the city. Crime surged. By 2012, Camden had the highest murder rate in the country.
But even as Camden bled, the city spent $77,000 on overtime to provide security at the Susquehanna Bank Center, a concert venue and one of the main anchors of the small middle-class enclave between Rutgers-Camden and the waterfront. Scott Thomson, the much–celebrated chief of both the disbanded Camden Police and the reformed Camden County Police, made this “deployment decision” to provide security for large capital investment and those who came to Camden as consumers. Activists and community leaders I interviewed in 2016 suspected these events were intentional acts to trigger a crime spike, grab headlines, and create the conditions to impose further changes in the city.
Regardless of these alleged machinations, the changes came. In May 2013, the city disbanded the municipal police and replaced them with the reformed Camden County Police. Everything about the move was an affront to democracy. Camden residents petitioned to have a ballot initiative to stop the dissolution of the police department, but Mayor Redd successfully sued to block her own constituents from voting on the decision. Even though the new department carries the name Camden County, the force only has jurisdiction over the city — and the Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders, not the Camden City Council, has authority over it.
When the dust settled, the new Camden County Police was better funded and staffed by more officers, both younger and whiter, than the disbanded police department. They came out in force. Aggressive enforcement of minor infractions lurked beneath media-friendly optics of community policing. Use of force complaints skyrocketed. The situation reached its breaking point in the summer of 2014, after a series of police encounters inflamed the city, including the arrest of Xavier Ingraham, in which police broke Ingraham’s neck and left him paralyzed (predictably, the police contest the twenty-year-old’s account). Under pressure from the community and, especially, the local NAACP chapter, the Camden County Police instituted a now highly regarded de-escalation training program.
The situation settled. Excessive force complaints have nose-dived 95 percent since 2014. Crime dropped, too, and everyone — local media, national media, President Obama — attributed it to police practice, even though, as Rutgers-Camden professor Stephen Danley notes, the crime spike and decrease was mirrored in other New Jersey cities that also suffered through Christie’s austerity.
The economy also finally started to pick up. In October 2018, the unemployment rate had declined to 6.8 percent, the lowest since 1990 (although it did increase to 8 percent in subsequent months). The recovering job market has not translated, however, into rising living standards. As of July 2019, the Census Bureau estimates that 37 percent of the city still lives in poverty. But the continuing immiseration of Camden is beside the point for those controlling the city’s fate. From their perspective, the Camden model worked.
It worked for them personally. Police chief Scott Thompson, for example, rode his newfound celebrity to professional success and personal profit. From 2015 to 2019, he served as president of the Police Executive Research Forum, a powerful police professional association dedicated to “police professionalization.” In October 2019, he retired and became the executive director for global security for Holtec International, an energy company that counts George Norcross III among its board of directors and that, in 2014, received a $260 million tax break, the second-largest in the state’s history, to open a “Technology Center” in Camden.
The Camden model also worked for reasons beyond the transparent corruption of South Jersey’s venal elite. Camden is now thoroughly pacified and, as such, open for business. Violent crime, while still high by national standards, is in check. The city is stable enough to garner large capital investments. The community policing measures have won the police some legitimacy. Although the protests sweeping the nation have made their way to Camden, they have not been very large or disruptive. Instead, the police marched with protesters, leading local and international media to highlight Camden as proof that community policing can facilitate peaceful protest. No wonder that the Camden model is attracting so much attention.
No wonder that they’re doing it again.
Mass Supervision or Abolition?
The Camden model may well be the most dangerous idea circulating in liberal elite circles at the moment. Camden did not “abolish” or even “reimagine” policing. Camden reformed policing, which is to say it gave its cops more technology, training, and hires in the aftermath of a crisis. Minneapolis will likely do something similar, absent sustained popular pressure in support of a real alternative.
The Minneapolis case represents perhaps the first critical fight, but there are others and will be more. Decarceration will continue. The Trump administration’s law-and-order politics haven’t put a brake on the drop in state and federal prison populations. What’s more, the pandemic has made the epidemiological risks of incarceration plain, increasing the pace of decarceration and adoption of electronic monitoring or e-carceration. The pandemic is also opening up new opportunities for surveillance schemes in the name of public health, contact tracing, and potentially, a system of immunity passports. Add an unfolding depression and the austerity that is already straining fiscal budgets, and there is no going back. These developments will likely further accelerate the end of mass incarceration and hasten the recalibration of the administrative violence of state power around a new logic: mass supervision.
In this context, it does not seem alarmist to worry that the righteous calls to defund the police will be rolled into a larger set of austerity measures, that demands for structural change will be narrowed down to procedural reforms, that the Camden model will be generalized, and that mass supervision will become the fourth peculiar institution.
But there are also reasons for hope — and reasons to fight. The George Floyd rebellion is shaking the country to its core. The breakthrough of abolitionist thought is expanding our ideas of what’s possible — and doing so in ways that are aligned with the struggle to transcend capitalism. As Angela Davis recently declared, “abolitionist strategies are antiracist, anticapitalist, feminist, internationalist.” The challenge for us is to ensure that the horizons called forth by the rebellion and related demands to defund and disband the police aren’t overtaken by the Camden model and used to pacify us.
They may be doing it again, but there’s no guarantee it will work.