Policing in the Age of Climate Change
BY ALLISON GABLE
In the past few years, there have been massive movements in the U.S. to expose the state of racialized police brutality as well as police overfunding and militarization. There have also been efforts to highlight the intersection between policing, border patrol, and the inhumane conditions of migrant detention centers run by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At the same time, we’re starting to see the impacts of climate change: more frequent and destructive extreme weather events, displacement and an intensifying climate refugee crisis, and increasing wealth inequality as climate effects hit the poor hardest, destroying livelihoods and making basic necessities more expensive. The convergence of the American police state and the impending climate crisis spells out a worrying vision for the path the U.S. might take in the future when climate change truly begins to transform and define our world.
As early as two decades ago, we got a glimpse into how policing within the age of climate change might look. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, police were a part of the many people involved in rescue attempts, although many reportedly abandoned their duty after the disaster hit. Most importantly, however, their response to the disaster was remembered for its violence. While people scrambled for basic necessities, like medicine, food, and water, police focused on stopping looting and, at one point, an order was given to shoot looters on sight. This hostile attitude aimed at protecting private property over helping victims also led to violence toward people perceived as looters, resulting in the frequent targeting of Black people. The bloodiest and most publicized case of this was the Danziger Bridge shooting, in which police officers shot at a group of unarmed Black pedestrians crossing a bridge to find medicine and sustenance, killing two people (a 17-year-old boy and a 40-year-old man) and seriously wounding four more.
Climate change will make extreme weather events like flooding and wildfires more devastating and increasingly frequent. While not all of these events will be on the same scale as Katrina, the chaos created by these disasters will leave police struggling to respond, stretched thin, and having to choose who or what to protect. An article from policemag.com advises police officers on how to handle their job when natural disasters hit; the second concern brought up by the article is theft and looting. “Following a natural disaster,” the magazine writes, “there exists a significantly higher than normal probability of looting—not just of retail stores, but the homes left vacant by people who evacuated the area and have not yet returned.” Police’s heightened alertness to looting after natural disasters prompts many concerns: when people are shoplifting for survival necessities, does it help or hurt to have heavily armed police focused on stopping them from getting what they need? And to what extent will racial assessments of Black people, especially men and boys, put them at risk for police violence based on the assumption of being a “looter” or a “criminal”?
The U.S.’ current policies towards migration are also explicitly racialized and xenophobic. Due to historical and contemporary influxes of Asian and Latin American migrants, the media has manufactured anti-immigrant sentiment through claims that they’re “taking American jobs” and stereotypes of the non-White immigrant. These kinds of stereotypes cast immigrants— especially Latinos in recent decades—as preying on vulnerable Americans (e.g. by pushing drugs into White communities) and undercutting American social institutions (e.g. by not paying taxes). White Americans are taught that immigrants coming in from the Southern border to seek refuge and a better life are the root cause of social ills they see around them, especially the lack of high-paying jobs and effects of poverty, like crime and drugs. By casting immigration as the problem, this narrative looks to policing as the solution, both in enforcing a strict Mexican-American border and deporting those who are deemed not American enough in an effort to preserve the status quo of a predominantly White demographic. Just this month, Texas Republicans have used rhetoric about being under “invasion” to push legislation that “empowers border vigilantes to hunt migrants and racially profile Latinos,” according to Victoria Neave Criado, the chair of Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC)—this is an extremely alarming example of the way that xenophobia, White supremacy ideology, and border policing are intertwined.
Climate change amplifies both acute disasters that destroy people’s livelihoods overnight and sustained weather conditions, like droughts, that make it harder to survive in the long-term. This also results in social instability as struggles over resources intensify. In coming years, these factors will cause massive migrations of people across the globe, including a significant northward movement of people from hotter climates and poorer countries in Central and South America toward countries with cooler climates, more resources to defend themselves against climate impacts, and increased opportunities to get a well-paying job. The Department of Homeland Security even has its own Climate Action Plan due to concerns that an increased influx of migrants will further strain ICE’s capacity. Not only will overcrowded and unsafe detention facilities become packed with more people, but states with the biggest detention centers like Texas and Louisiana are prone to extreme heat and flood events that will worsen in the future, leading to extremely dangerous conditions for which the incarcerated migrants are given little medical help. If the U.S. takes an us-vs-them mentality when the climate refugee crisis comes into full force—more militarized borders and anti-immigrant policing to keep people out, referred to by one journalist as a “politics of the armed lifeboat”—the lives of thousands of people will be at risk.
Even within the day-to-day life of American cities, the intersection of aggressive police institutions and the exacerbation of existing social issues by climate change threatens to intensify our world of “haves” and “have-nots”. Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, argues that the police’s future role in a climate-destabilized social order is already evident in how the U.S. has historically responded to social instability. In an article titled “Climate Apartheid Is the Coming Police Violence Crisis”, Táíwò writes that “politicians look at prisons and police as one of their top go-to tools when things get out of hand.” For example, when cities’ homelessness crises are answered with bans on sitting, lying, and loitering—or, as in San Diego right now, selective enforcement of encroachment laws—police are encouraged to harass people experiencing homelessness and clear out the encampments they rely on for shelter. Due to factors such as low-income residents lacking disaster insurance and affordable housing being located in environmentally hazardous areas like flood zones, climate change will displace even more people in already precarious housing situations—and if politicians continue to turn to law enforcement as a solution to homeless people’s presence, when homelessness worsens so will the police harassment that aggravates unhoused residents’ struggles to survive.
Furthermore, climate change is poised to worsen economic inequality, likely leading to more petty crime as people struggle to survive. Hotter weather itself can lead to increased criminality as well. It’s easy to imagine how, driven by media-enhanced fears of lawlessness and politicians’ law-and-order rhetoric, police will be used to crack down on such crimes to create the perception of safety for the middle- and upper-classes and protect the property of corporations. This is something we’ve already seen within our own lifetimes, but it’s something that threatens to intensify with the added social instability created by the climate crisis.
Policing has historically been used to protect the White, propertied ruling class. Politically, it’s used as a band-aid on top of deeper socioeconomic issues by getting perceived as “criminals” and “undesirables,” like people experiencing homelessness, out of sight and out of mind. But if our response to the issues created by the climate crisis is an extension and expansion of our current police state, the result will be a deeply divided and inequitable world.
We have to go beyond our current ways of thinking about justice as locking away criminals and saving those who deserve protection—those categories are socially and historically constructed, and it is not fair to sort complex human beings into them in the first place. True climate justice extends past racial lines, invisible borders, and individualistic notions of the “deserving” vs. the “they should’ve worked harder, then maybe they wouldn’t be where they are.” We can’t let the U.S. fall into “armed lifeboat” politics when faced with the dangers of climate change because, more likely than not, only certain people will get to end up on that lifeboat: those who fall within the perceived category of “American,” those who are assumed innocent because of their race, and those who have money and property they are able to hold onto. As climate change begins to rapidly transform our world and destabilize what we once knew to be the way things are, it’s critical that we embrace this opportunity to deeply reimagine how things could be. This includes investing in communities and social services instead of continuing to put our resources toward punitive and carceral systems. The money that might be allocated to expand immigrant detention centers by contracting more private prison corporations, for example, could instead be put toward a Civilian Climate Corps that would actually help create more good jobs while also mitigating the climate crisis. Another solution is to divest from policing and invest in community-based safety models, as well as infrastructure to protect disadvantaged communities of color against worsening climate disasters. We must also continue to have discussions about the complicated and controversial nature of policing and race, including identifying the racial biases embedded in our culture and connecting them to both their history and their current real-world consequences, in order to unravel the cultural roots of the pervasive and systemic racism in our society.
As our world begins to rapidly change, we will have to fight to sow the seeds for a society of mutual care and healing. It is imperative that we don’t stand by as across the country, attempts are made to scale up policing and behind-the-scenes powers collaborate to expand the prison industrial complex. This kind of “justice system” inherently widens stark inequalities, using an us-vs-them mindset to justify saving some at the expense of increasing amounts of “others”, and taking the public support manufactured on this justification as a go-ahead to continue extracting profits from an inhumane system. The fact that such deep and widespread systemic change is needed to transform what “justice” is in this country is daunting—but, it’s also something worth daring to hope for, and worth putting in the difficult work to make possible.