How to abolish the police: Lessons from Rojava

June 4, 2020
Two local HPC volunteers on duty during a martyrs ceremony in Kobane, 2016. Photo: Hawzhin Azeez

Recently, we have seen another horrific case of police brutality emerge in the United States with the senseless murder of George Floyd.

Following inadequate police response public outrage ensued. Mass riots and protests occurred across multiple cities and continue to occur. The common cry of the oppressed has revolved around the idea of “no justice no peace”.

The real question is: How can a system, deeply entrenched in a bloody history founded on white supremacy, capitalism and neoliberalism, ever provide true and meaningful justice? Some call for police reforms. Others have called for redistribution of funds. Some have argued that abolishing the police is the best option. Many, even on the Left, cannot imagine such a system ever being viable.

Yet this system already exists in Rojava, the autonomous self administrative region of North Syria. In Rojava, the combination of Assayish forces and Civil Defence Forces (HPC) work together to provide safety and security to the community. The Assayish work as traffic controllers, arrest criminals, protect victims, serve as security guards at main governing buildings and control the in-flow of people and goods from one canton to the next.

The HPC, by contrast, are people in a given neighbourhood trained in basic security. They only patrol their own neighbourhood, unless they are protecting the people during festivals, martyrs ceremonies, local events and nightly watches. The purpose of both forces is explicitly the protection of the people, especially from outside threats such as terrorist forces. It is always the HPC that protects their neighbourhood, never the Assayish.

Community control

The possibilities of instituting hierarchies of power and authority are significantly reduced in this alternative method. The people are the protectors of the people, those that they live with and interact with daily. The proximity of the “security forces” to the community, being drawn from their own neighbourhood, ensures that violations do not occur. Where they do occur, community mechanisms of justice, honour and restoration are immediately activated through the neighbourhood communes. Monopoly of this process is further prevented by encouraging everyone to participate through a roster system. Anyone can volunteer. This includes the elderly, particularly women.

There is nothing more empowering, nothing that restores the soul of a traumatised, war-torn community more than seeing the matriarchs of your neighbourhood confidently at street corners wielding AK-47s for the protection of the people. Unlike the terrifying images of police brutality in the US, these images do not inspire fear and terror. They inspire communal confidence, pride, self respect and belonging. Of course, in Rojava the elderly do have to take on more responsibility due to the fact that most of the young men and women have been fighting at the front lines in the war against ISIS terrorists.

The social ecology of this system is protected through promotion of women’s participation, deep respect for multiculturalism and the sacredness of ecology. This system is established through concerted and repeated efforts towards democratisation, education and unlearning within society towards patriarchal, social, political, economic and cultural hierarchies. It is not enough to simply create alternative institutions without working at significant educational efforts within society. This is the only way long-term, meaningful and organic change can occur. 

People often enter academies for one, two or three months at a time. This is on a volunteer basis but also based on each branch of government institution. For example, the education ministry will roster a group of 30 teachers at a time to enter academies. People continue to be paid during this process.

Women with children can take their children along for free childcare as they spend weeks learning about civic duties, democratic rights, gender liberation, ecological sustainability, capitalism and more. Everyone participates in the daily cleaning, cooking and management of the education centre while they are there.

Communal co-existence

Communal co-existence is promoted as a deliberate, conscious effort to re-organise and reformulate a society. These very same class members go back into the community and join the Assayish, the HPC, the communes, cooperatives and local councils. People are encouraged to partake in multiple levels of participation and decision-making. 

However, even before the establishment of this alternative system was made possible, an alternative ideology needed to emerge that would provide a blueprint for this idea of a democratic society. This system works based on the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan’s theory of Democratic Confederalism, inspired by the American theorist Murray Bookchin’s social ecology.

One of the foundational values of Democratic Confederalism is an anti-hierarchical approach to communal structures and co-existence, starting with the difficult task of promoting women’s liberation and participation in all spheres of the public arena. A quota of 40/60 percent participation must exist across all administrative and decision-making structures. This also includes the co-chair system of all leadership positions being held by one man and one woman. Essentially, a system based on active promotion of equality across ethnic, religious and decision-making processes is fundamental for this anti-hierarchical system to work.

This system is also established on the foundation that institutions with a high level of women’s participation tend to be more inclusive and democratic in nature. According to Ocalan: "The extent to which society can be thoroughly transformed is determined by the extent of the transformation attained by women.

"Similarly, the level of woman’s freedom and equality determines the freedom and equality of all sections of society. Thus, democratisation of woman is decisive for the permanent establishment of democracy and secularism. For a democratic nation, woman’s freedom is of great importance too, as liberated woman constitutes liberated society. Liberated society in turn constitutes democratic nation."

Rojava’s ideological orientation attempts to subvert everything that we know about the state, about peace, liberation and co-existence. It is explicitly anti-hierarchical in all forms.

Since the inception of the Westphalian system, divided and colonised minorities have lived under artificial and authoritarian nation-states. An exclusionary, violent, hierarchical system that teaches that diversity is the antithesis of patriotism and nationalism. Diversity must be sacrificed at the bloody alter of the nation-state with one language, one flag, one identity, one national myth. This history taught the oppressed, the dispossessed and the stateless that only attaining a state can bring about liberation. This process, however, would naturally lead to the oppression of other minorities that would fall within the borders of that state.

Instead, through Bookchin and Ocalan, an alternative blueprint emerged in which primordial hatreds and long established ethnographic-religious cleavages could be addressed through the radical grassroots model of Democratic Confederalism.

Democratic Confederalism unites the rich mosaic of cultures and religions together into an enriched society that thrives on diversity, rather than attempt to erase it to serve the interests of a particular dominant group.

Many Leftists have made the mistake of saying that this implies that all expressions of national identity should be erased. That all Kurdishness, all Armenian, Assyrian, Yezidi "nationalism" should not be expressed. This is a deeply orientalist and western-centric perspective. Asking Yezidi’s to stop being Yezidis or Kurds to stop being Kurds merely serves the interest of imperial and genocidal forces that have established their foundational ideologies on the erasure of deeply oppressed minorities.

In Rojava, this means that all cultures should live freely, expressing the rich beauty of their ancient cultures and colours with other likewise free-existing cultures. It means patriotism to feel pride in your identity, combined with decentralised mechanisms of co-existence based on active dismantling of hierarchies of power. This means explicit respect for multiculturalism, not asking colonised and oppressed ethno-religious minorities to form an alternative "citizenship" based on denial of all that they have fought to preserve through centuries of enforced assimilations.

Diversity celebrated

Rojava argues that diversity is essential and the backbone of a democratic nation. 

In Rojava, schools are run based on the three dominant languages including Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac. Street signs are written in all three languages. Minorities such as the Armenians are given extra decision-making capacity and extra "seats" in decision-making councils to ensure that the rule of the majority does not come always at the detriment of minorities. Destroyed churches are actively rebuilt and made visible, multicultural festivals are promoted; art, culture, music, literature of different cultures showcased side by side.

Diversity is promoted, supported, encouraged, celebrated rather than erased, feared or murdered.

In this system, people are also encouraged towards civil society participation so that interests and needs are expressed across alternative mechanisms other than through ethno-religious lines. This civic re-orientation only works when people do not feel threatened because of their cultural identities. In this way, alienation, fragmentation and colonial anxieties are avoided, and multiple interlinked avenues of belonging and political expression are created.

Likewise, political and civic participation is encouraged and expected. Depoliticisation, apathy and non-involvement are seen as the antithesis of a democratic society.

This system therefore recreates the civic body along a different liberation psychology. It dismantles internalised hatreds and oppressions towards the self and others. It disassembles colonial and capitalist practices of "Othering" and "erasure" in what Eduardo Galeano calls the "nobodies". These nobodies are less than the Other. They are “the nobodies: nobody's children, owners of nothing…the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way”.

For any liberation ideology to be successful it must recreate a Self, a somebody from those that have been made the Other, the nobodies.

Has Rojava dismantled all forms of racism or class structures or gender bias or other practices of discrimination? Certainly not, but it is actively restructuring society so that it can avoid and eliminate these oppressions in the search for a truly democratic society. It is therefore important not to romanticise Rojava, but to view it rationally with the intention of seeing how things work, what doesn’t work and what amendments are needed. Innovation is as essential as avoiding dogmatism in achieving a just and democratic society. In the words of Bookchin: "If we do not do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable."

The essential lesson is that the alternative world you imagine already exists and functions, wounded, and abandoned but still breathing; despite lack of support from the international left, despite repeated invasions, annexations, colonisation, ethnic cleansing and use of illegal chemical weapons against it by Turkey and its proxy terrorist forces.

The inhumanity and violence being experienced by the Black community in the US has been deeply shocking and traumatising to those with a conscience and those who wish to build communities based on mutual respect, humanity, cooperation and support. In order for that alternative society to emerge in places like the US, the revolutions of the people of the Third World must be considered more seriously, and actively studied and emulated. Lessons must be learned, questions must be asked, ideas exchanged and innovative changes implemented to fit the specific socio-political structure of different societies.

The entire social ecology of the US system has been disrupted through mass poverty, income disparity, wage theft, lack of healthcare, lack of housing, mass incarceration, destroyed ecosystems and poisoned drinking water. The arrest and incarceration of not only Derek M Chauvin, but the other three cops responsible for the murder of George Floyd can only act as token efforts towards justice. Police brutality is tied to a systematic practice of multiple, intersecting layers of violence, oppression and injustice. We must ask ourselves what true justice looks like. Nothing short of upending the entire unjust system can ever come close to it.

As Kurds we watch across the Middle East as the Black communities across the US rise up. We cheer their revolutionary courage, their unwavering commitment to justice and desire for freedom; their cry for justice echoes across our own hearts, both beating to the drum of freedom denied; and though our chains may be different, we ultimately face the same oppressive system that continues to kill us and impose various violences on us.

With Rojava, we have ensured that an alternative world is possible. Now we must let solidarity be the bridge that unites us.

[Hawzhin Azeez is a Kurdish academic and feminist who specialises in gender and Middle Eastern studies and is currently teaching in the American University in Iraq.]

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