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How climate justice and police violence are inextricably linked

OPINION: The killing of Chris Kaba and the climate crisis are all part of the same imperialist, capitalism system

William Jones
2 February 2023, 10.38am

Protesters march from Parliament Square to New Scotland Yard following the killing of Chris Kaba by the Met Police


Andrea Domeniconi / Alamy Stock Photo

Chris Kaba, described by his cousin as “a loving son, caring brother, excited father-to-be and a young man with so much potential”, was shot and killed by a Metropolitan Police firearms officer in south London in September.

The police initially claimed they had been “in pursuit” of the 24-year-old Black Londoner, who was unarmed, though it was established at his inquest that he had not been a suspect. Rather, the car he was driving was believed to be linked to an earlier firearms incident.

Months after Kaba’s death, the Climate Reparations Network – a coalition of UK grassroots groups demanding reparations for communities on the frontline of the climate crisis – launched its day of action for climate justice with a vigil.

The event, which was held in solidarity with the Kaba family’s fight for justice, highlighted the links between racist police violence, imperialism and climate change. Together, they argued that the continued impunity of police violence and murder, used disproportionately against Black men like Kaba, must not go unchallenged, and resistance to it must be central to the fight for climate justice.

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A unified movement against state violence is the only solution to the climate crisis that could change a world built upon racialised violence and exclusion. It’s also a step towards ensuring an end to people being murdered by the police, both in the UK and across the world.

Capitalism, imperialism and the police

Activist and writer Harsha Walia has described the climate crisis as “a symptom, and not the cause, of our existential crisis”. It is a symptom of capitalism, imperialism and a racialised system of extraction, in which the Global South’s labour and resources are exploited and extracted for the benefit and profit of a ruling class often located in the Global North.

This system is built on the blood of so many Black, Brown and Indigenous people, many of whom live (and die) under the worst effects of the climate crisis or are forced to protect their lands, which make up 20% of the planet but 80% of the remaining biodiversity, from land clearances.

Upholding this system is the organised violence of police, military and border forces. This is nothing new; the British police – and police forces across the world – have always worked to protect the interests of the ruling class, their property and their need for a so-called ‘civil society’ in the metropolis.

As Azfar Shafi and Ilyas Nagdee explain in ‘Race to the Bottom’, the UK’s first police force, the Marine Police Office, was conceived at a “meeting of slavers” in 1798. It was intended to protect wealth stolen from colonised lands and to maintain class divides essential to capitalist exploitation.

Since then, policing has developed hand-in-hand with the methods and technologies of colonial repression, as was meticulously detailed in a recent report from the Campaign Against Arms Trade.

Continued reforms to how the police work and their position in society – such as the illusion of ‘policing by consent’, the idea that officers can operate only with public support for their actions – have been essential to normalising and legitimising the presence of a repressive institution.

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Changes that transformed policing from its paramilitary embryo, to more insidious methods at quelling dissent were first implemented by Sir Robert Peel following his experience “managing the British colonial occupation of Ireland” from 1812 to 1818, writes American author Alex Vitale in ‘The End of Policing’. These changes were foundational to Peel’s formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 – the same police force that has Chris Kaba’s blood on their hands almost 200 years later.

Of course, such ‘reforms’ always look to “lighten the task of policing”, in the words of political philosopher Frantz Fanon in his 1961 book, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, and never to change its role in criminalising and brutalising people for being Black, Brown, poor, unhoused, disabled or discontented.

It is essential to understand that the police will always stand against challenges to the establishment, and so will also stand against anyone seeking racial and climate justice.

“The police and the military, driven by settler and imperialist rage, are holding back the climate justice movement,” according to The Red Nation, a US-based coalition “dedicated to the liberation of Native peoples from capitalism and colonialism”.

Consent vs force

The imagined and legislated lines defining citizenship and legal belonging, which we have come to know as ‘borders’, control “selective inclusion and expulsion” in tandem with “racial, gendered, sexualized, ableist, and class-based hierarchies”, argues Harsha Walia in the Boston Review. This, Walia suggests, is a key mechanism for managing the differentiation between consent and force.

Consent doesn’t exist for those whom the state seeks to dehumanise for cheap labour and those who look to challenge “the dominant hegemonies in civil society”, as the former head of the Institute of Race Relations, A. Sivanandan reminds us. “The distinction between the mailed fist and the velvet glove is a stylistic abstraction,” he wrote in a 1990 essay.

There was no consent for the racist killing of Chris Kaba by the police, and there is no consent for the destruction of our planet by capitalist greed.

Disruption of the imperial core of civil society places the climate movement in direct contradiction with the function of the police – meaning the movement must extend solidarity to all those who have experienced state violence at the hands of the police.

Yet as members of the climate movement are forced to justify their activities to the courts against threats of incarceration, many “fall back on the carceral logic which divides society”, as the book ‘Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State’ explains.

Many people justify climate protests by saying they are peaceful – ingraining the idea that those that disrupt peace are illegitimate

Arguments against criminalising protesters have often relied on the same carceral logic, a belief in the essential need for a society to have prisons and people who deserve to be put in them, to distinguish ordinary people from the implied (and often racialised) criminal people.

Similarly, many people are quick to justify protests, including climate protests, by claiming that they are peaceful – ingraining the idea that those that disrupt peace are illegitimate. This ultimately negates the liberatory violence of the oppressed against their oppressor, of those who, in the words of Palestinian activist Ghassan Kanafani, refuse “a conversation between the sword and the neck”.

Such expressions of morality rely on accountability to a white supremacist state over accountability to one another. They are framed by respectability to a nation, not a love for those beyond its borders.

The Met Police relies on this logic in order to enact violence in our communities on our behalf and to emerge intact after doing so. In expanding our solidarities, we must question the facades of ‘civil society’, ‘policing by consent’, ‘peace’ and ‘criminality’. In a capitalist state, these function to maintain a system that exploits those excluded from whiteness and to disguise the reality of the ‘perpetual warfare’ that colonised and racialised people live under.

Human vs nature

When fighting for a liveable planet, it is important to understand that capitalist relations of domination and subordination extend to the non-human world too. They conceptualise ‘nature’ as separate from ‘human’, and therefore something to be owned and fought against.

These conceptions were moulded through colonial conquest and are intertwined with ideas of carcerality and patriarchy. In ‘The Death of Nature’, historian Carolyn Merchant investigates how the prominent 16th-century English philosopher and imperialist ideologue Francis Bacon relied on metaphors of the courtroom and torture chamber to explain how, like a criminalised person, nature must be “bound in service”, put “in constraint” and made a “slave” to extract whatever is within.

Carceral logic isn’t just integral to maintaining the capitalist system – it’s deeply embedded in our dominant ontologies, in the very fabric of how we live, work and relate to each other and the non-human world. We must abolish it in every form.

These logics extend to the terrain of environmentalism itself, the history of which is deeply entwined with both eugenics and colonial expansion. Ghada Sasa argues, for example, that Israel engages in ‘green colonialism’ – using the protection of national parks, forests and nature reserves, to justify land grabs from Palestinians and greenwash its image.

Environmentalists cannot always claim the moral high ground. Climate activism isn’t necessarily opposed to racism. Some liberals have revived Malthusian population theories, while others – such as the self-proclaimed ‘eco-fascist’ who killed 51 people in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019 – argue that racist murder is necessary for the preservation of nature.

Solidarities must be built. Climate activists must embrace anti-racism and anti-imperialism, extend solidarities beyond the family, the nation or whiteness, and “build unity within and across borders”, says Walia.

Failing to do so will leave movements primed for co-option and coercion by green-imperialist, welfare-nationalist and eco-fascist mutations of capitalism.

Chris Kaba’s death is finally being investigated by the Independent Office for Police Conduct, after much campaigning. Now we must stand in support of his family – doing so is as integral to ensuring climate justice as standing against any infamous polluter.

William Jones is a pseudonym.

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