Cedric Johnson

After Black Lives Matter: Policing and Anti-Capitalist Struggle

Verso Books Press, 2023

416 pages


Reviewed by Etyelle Pinheiro de Araujo

In May 2020, the world watched a video in which George Floyd, an African American man, said his last words, “I can’t breathe,” while being pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Since this episode, protests demanding justice for George Floyd have taken place throughout the US and the world. Within those protests, many Americans adopted the main proposition of Black Lives Matter’s activists, that is, that the US prison system mainly targets the Black population and that the police often act more violently towards Black people. Cedric Johnson’s book After Black Lives Matter: Policing and Anti-Capitalist Struggle calls into question the thesis defended by many BLM participants that mass incarceration is rooted in racism. Cedric Johnson bases the origins and dynamics of the contemporary prison regime on the social contradictions of capitalism.

Johnson sets the notion of socioeconomic class at the center of the debate. Johnson says that police brutality and mass incarceration need to be conceived as a matter of management of surplus populations and as a means to ensure private property and the conditions for capital accumulation of the “post-industrial” era. To Johnson, “the power of the Black Lives Matter slogan lies in how well it reasserts racial injustice as a central contradiction, but its popularity among the powerful is also evidence of its limits in terms of forming a genuine opposition to the capitalist social order.” Throughout six chapters, the author highlights how capital protection and class conflict in a post-World War II and post-Cold War era influenced the industrial development of North American cities and used police violence to control surplus populations (including poor white and Black people). Although bringing socioeconomic class to the center of this debate might be important to understand the problem as a whole, modern societies were developed through slavery, and this has a great impact on the way capitalism developed on Western societies.

In Chapter One, Johnson makes a historical materialist analysis of prison expansion. The author criticizes the New Jim Crow—which started as a slogan against a process of neoliberal regression that surrounded the achievements of the civil rights movement. The term became popular with Michelle Alexander’s book of the same title (2018), which proposes an analysis of the origins and motivations of mass incarceration through a Jim Crow analogy. To Johnson, Alexander shows how mass incarceration created second-class citizenship. However, the author sees as problematic the excessive focus given to the thesis that the war on drugs is more intense toward the Black population without considering factors such as how cities’ majority-black governing coalitions and popular constituencies implement solutions to contain the violence and the drug issues, which also impact mass incarceration. Debating mass incarceration sets important contradictions as the examples Johnson gives, however an extremely important point is missing in this debate: using the year of 2019 as a reference, although African Americans made up about 13% of the US population, they represented nearly one-third of the country’s incarcerated population. Therefore, race cannot be out of this equation.

In Chapter Two, Johnson pinpoints the issues of police brutality and mass incarceration to the changes in class relations due to the Cold War and American capitalism. The post-war period produced both a middle-class consumer citizen and a number of unemployed individuals, constituted mostly by Black and brown people and urban residents. Such contradictions enhanced a social disparity: being associated with the middle-class meant being successful, while those who were not part of that group became the so-called underclass, needing the assistance of government social programs to survive. In that sense, police’s role began heading toward the protection of a consumerist lifestyle.

In Chapter Three, the author introduces what he sees as the contradictions of the Black Lives Matter movement, conceived as militant racial liberalism. To Johnson, the movement was born out of the limits of the Second Reconstruction—judicial decisions that restored citizenship rights of the Black community and directed federal investments towards urban revitalization. Johnson argues that the most recent fights against police brutality derive from the persistent problems of urban poverty and unemployment. Those problems were not solved by the 1960s civil rights reforms and only grew under capitalist globalization and the collapse of the New Deal’s welfare state. Furthermore, Johnson highlights that state investment, along a Black/activist professional-managerial class, created a liberal anti-racist idea that connects the poverty of the Black population to the capitalist economy.

In Chapter Four, Johnson presents a sort of “case study” that illustrates the thesis that he defends throughout the book. He introduces the case of Freddie Gray, a young Black man who lived in Baltimore and died after being arrested by the police, which led to a series of tense protests. The chapter provides more details about Baltimore, an inner city that represents the American industrial cities due to its Fordist growth, followed by a time of closed factories, and investments redirected to the financial, tourism, and media sectors. This created new patterns of segregation and increased violence. With its contradictions, the Obama administration’s neoliberal approach justified the problem by blaming the poor and their presumed cultural deficiency for the inequalities that persist. This idea indicates interracial support for neoliberal policies, which are a root cause of worsening conditions for Black and brown inner-city residents whose livelihoods have been negatively affected by the roll-back of public employment.

In Chapter Five, Johnson reflects on the protests and practices of resistance of anti-police groups in response to the death of young Laquan McDonald in Chicago in 2015. The protests broke out in the city’s main tourist area on Black Friday, preventing many consumers from accessing stores on what usually is the most profitable day of the year. To Johnson, those protests brought out the main contradictions of both the crises of police brutality and the neoliberal city. Moreover, the chapter discusses the notions of “right to the city”—a notion developed by David Harvey that doesn’t mean merely the individual right to access urban resources, but rather “a right to change ourselves by changing the city,” which depends upon the exercise of collective power to reshape the urbanization. Johnson also presents the limits of what was achieved in the city of Chicago.

In Chapter Six, Johnson examines a left-critical view of the police as a category of workers that suffers alienation in a peculiar way, for they are often seen as “enemies of workers.” The police exist to protect private property and the interest of capital. Johnson discusses how this role has evolved throughout history depending on the contexts and the relative class position of different publics. He ends the chapter by discussing the use of technology in policing and affirms that “rather than pursue technical fixes or reductions in police labor, left progressive forces galvanized through BLM should push for the abolition of the very class inequalities modern policing has been designed to manage and contain.”        

Johnson concludes his work by putting into perspective the way in which police forces acted or failed to act to stop the US Capitol attack in 2022 with the huge police contingent used in BLM protests. The author shows how this comparison reinforces the idea of racialization of police violence. Furthermore, Johnson argues that BLM is essentially the latest permutation of racial liberalism, proposing a set of bourgeois strategies and solutions for addressing the structurally determined conflict between police and the surplus population. After Black Lives Matter is an important read to understand the mobilizations of this movement through the perspective of class conflict and the role played by capitalism in the maintenance of State violence. However, in this process, it is important not to lose sight of the role played by race relations. An intersectional lens might offer the most effective means of incorporating Johnson’s research into a study on the issue of mass incarceration. While class considerations undeniably influence police’s role, leading us to recognize their primary objective as safeguarding private property, racial oppression equally assumes significance, evidenced by the disproportionate poverty experienced by the Black community. Adhering to the perspective articulated by Audre Lorde (1983), which contends that “there is no hierarchy of oppression,” may facilitate aligning discussions on the origins of incarceration among various ethnic groups with the broader discourse on racial relations and racism in the United States.