Paul A. Passavant

Policing Protest: The Post-Democratic State and the Figure of Black Insurrection

Duke University Press, 2021

368 pages


Reviewed by Shannon Woods

The Black Lives Matter uprising following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 not only raised questions around police brutality and systemic racism, but also the violent ways in which police managed and incriminated protestors enacting their First Amendment rights. Paul A. Passavant’s work Policing Protest: The Post-Democratic State and the Figure of Black Insurrection offers a tangible framework through which to consider the foundation of such abusive patterns. Throughout his work, Passavant constructs a potential explanation as to why policing protest in the United States has become more disparaging and violent over the last few decades. By focusing on an array of case studies, from protests in shopping malls, mega-events, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter, Passavant articulates the militaristic measures law enforcement has instilled to maintain order and indict citizens acting as political subjects.

The concept that anchors Passavant’s study is what he terms the rise of the “post-democratic, postlegitimation state of neoliberal authoritarianism.”Passavant utilizes this refrain throughout his book, asserting that the post-democratic, postlegitimation state functions as the crux for which militarized protest policing operates in the United States. To preface, Passavant observes the devolution of the “negotiated management style of policing” in the late 1990s and early 2000s, meaning the communicative and collaborative relationship between protestors and police, and how this style evolved to the current “security model,” or surveilled and militarized form of protest policing. The body of Passavant’s book traces how the aforementioned models initiated and continue to support the post-democratic state formation. More notably, Passavant defines and unpacks the critical intersection of three crises: a crisis of democracy, an urban fiscal crisis, and a crime crisis between the 1970s post-civil rights movement and the 1990s. According to Passavant, these crises became a triumvirate that cemented the post-democratic, postlegitimation state. In conjunction with the crises’ intersection is what Passavant briefly refers to as the “spectral figure of black insurrection.” This fourth factor “haunts all three crises,” but is not part of the majority of Passavant’s exploration.

The remainder of Passavant’s work meticulously interrogates the infrastructural and systemic decisions governing protest policing, but begins with a granular analysis of how space can cultivate the post-democratic state. For instance, Passavant lays a compelling groundwork in the first chapter by defining shopping malls as spaces straddling both the public and the private. Here, Passavant asserts that shopping malls produce an “aesthetics of consent” and become critical rehearsals for “prevention-oriented policing” and “symbolic production,” or the model for governance of public space. This form of governance becomes the bedrock for the remainder of Passavant’s analysis: protest policing privileges an aesthetics of management working to maintain order and uphold “quality of life” over disruption or the recognition of demonstrators as exercising their First Amendment rights.

The power of symbolic and aesthetic maintenance reveals itself as critically relevant once Passavant reviews the New York Police Department’s response to hosting, managing, and policing mega-events such as the Republican National Convention in the early 2000s. He repeatedly describes policing in these contexts as “market-oriented” and, similarly to shopping malls, part of an aesthetics of “symbolic production.” Furthermore, he addresses a necessary shift in legal and political thought: analyses of NYPD protest policing must reconsider the symptoms of “order maintenance” and recognize that their tactics rob citizens of rights as political subjects while simultaneously provoking fear, intimidation, and dissolving political solidarity.Passavant’s methodology expands in this portion of his analysis to include interviews and primary source accounts of protestors subject to extrajudicial punishment for protesting. These narratives bolster his assertions of protest policing in the post-democratic state as being an expressive and affective response. Notably, Passavant makes the chilling claim that an “affective attachment” to “dominating protestors” undergirds the institutional patterns within the police state, gesturing toward another dark pattern currently acknowledged by protestors and the public.

Passavant continues to make the compelling intervention into the expressive and affective components of protest policing as he transitions into his study of order maintenance policing and the Occupy Wall Street movement. According to Passavant, these affective characteristics become what distinguishes law enforcement from policing. These affective interventions range from the cruel and degrading arrests of protestors to the enjoyment of “kicking ass”—or what Passavant argues is the signifier for “Broken Windows” policing, a neoliberal and post-Fordist concept of policing that leverages surveillance technologies to patrol those seemingly “out of place.” Furthermore, as Passavant illustrates how law enforcement remains outside legalized—or even public—accountability as a result of their extrajudicial prosecution of demonstrators, he briefly questions how race or class signify who is considered “out of place” or “disorderly” within “Broken Windows” policing. Ultimately, however, Passavant does not further analyze or provide answers to these critical inquiries.

Passavant continues his investigation around expressive policing by critiquing the resultant lack of affect that the public now expresses in response to images, videos, and content that circulate social media and garner public conversation or response to protests. Drawing a comparison to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Passavant observes that public response is nowhere as reactive to demonstrations of abusive or violent protest policing. He cites this trend as symptomatic of “communicative capitalism” or “whatever being,” i.e., communication outside the production of meaningful content, response, or change. Readers may disagree with this assertion by citing the virality of videos, memes, and images of current protests and police response, but Passavant argues that this form of communication does little besides expressing acknowledgment—it is communication without revelation and a mere recognition rather than a response.

Passavant concludes his research with an investigation into how neoliberal authoritarianism developed in response to mid-twentieth-century Black political mobilization. For example, Passavant argues that the NYPD’s response to OWS laid the groundwork for the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically regarding how the movement would be policed. The militarized and security model of protest policing established during OWS only became more prevalent with BLM in 2014—especially as a movement that directly addressed police abuse of force—as a twentieth-century model for how to uphold neoliberal authoritarianism and the post-democratic state. Frank Wilderson III’s work on Afro-pessimism becomes a critical voice in this section of Passavant’s interrogation. Passavant probes how protest policing orients itself toward anti-blackness and argues alongside Wilderson that political conflict relies on the continued antagonism and otherness of blackness in the US.

The aforementioned section of Passavant’s argument clearly lends itself to the “figure of black insurrection” he introduces earlier in his study as a hauntology shadowing the militarized and surveilling policing strategies against demonstrators from the 1960s to the present. However, Passavant’s discussion of black insurrection functions similarly to a footnote to his analysis. While he introduces this concept as an integral figure to the social and political culture of policing, he does not revisit it until the final chapter. Each case study certainly signals the “figure of black insurrection,” but readers should be aware that Passavant does not critically interrogate race in the context of abusive police tactics and protest. Passavant instead pivots to the political and social dimensions of neoliberal authoritarianism and misses multiple opportunities to address race or blackness within these contexts—especially when discussing the history of the police state, “Broken Windows” policing, and abuse of military and surveillance tactics.

Policing Protest is a compelling read for scholars and graduate students interested in the police state and its institutional developments in law, political culture, and urban political economy.