On Saturday, while standing underneath an oak tree near the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve in Westchester, I thought of Adam Toledo.
“That’s around a 200- to 250-year-old tree,” said my guide, Wyatt Widmer, a 23-year-old Brookfield man who works at Whole Foods during the day and volunteers with Westchester’s Save the Prairie Society on his off time.
“That tree is home to 50 to 60 species of fungi. It can support over 800 species of insects and God knows how many birds and everything else that lives in and depends on this tree,” he said. “And it’s going to be underneath an apartment building soon.”
When he isn’t working for a wage, Widmer volunteers as land manager for what may be the rarest natural ecosystem in the Chicago area. Nowadays, he’s thinking of ways to save the prairie from a developer who wants to build a luxury townhome community ironically called Springs at Wolf Prairie, on 15 acres of land along Hickory Lane, near the nature preserve.
“Imagine this as a giant Brita filter,” Wyatt said about the prairie. “With just a few feet of prairie, depending on the environment, you can clean up to 90 percent of soil runoff and prevent 84 percent of pathogens from getting into the waterway.”
The prairie is downwind from the prospective townhomes, which would start at about $1,400 a month for studio units, according to documents the developer shared with Westchester’s village board last month.
Once construction starts, all kinds of toxins, carrying with them unpredictable effects, will travel from the work site, which is near a former landfill, and onto the rare prairie earth, Wyatt said.
As Wyatt spoke, I thought of how many times I’d passed by this prairie while driving on Wolf Road without so much as glancing in the land’s direction, my eyes on the concrete street.
The logic that drives people to tamper with this precious habitat, possibly defiling an ecosystem that provides humans and other living beings — countless migratory birds and monarch butterflies and numerous endangered species among them — with so many natural benefits in order to build luxury townhomes for a few hundred high-earners is the very logic that frames Adam Toledo’s death by the police. It’s the logic of the death instinct.
Like that old oak tree, Adam — born poor and Brown and rough around the edges — didn’t fit into our hyper-capitalist order. He was of no use to market forces. And he was not the kind of living being that police power was derived to protect.
In his book, “A Critical Theory of Police Power,” Mark Neocleous writes that the police power “is an activity and process rather than an institution or organization, and at the heart of this activity and process is the need to ‘compel people to labour and honest industry,’ as Peter the Great’s 1724 reform has it, and hence to drive out what from the perspective of capital appear to be modes of life that are either useless or antithetical to accumulation (and usually both).”
In other words, there is no market economy without the police power, which is the means of maintaining order by forcing people to work for wages that may or may not rise to the level of subsistence; forcing us to live with the systemic rape of ecosystems and the regular sacrificing of living beings to the machinery of whiteness and wealth.
In 1500’s England, order was maintained through a series of statutes outlawing vagrancy. People were forced by the lash to work and anyone too old or incapable of working had to retrieve a beggar’s license.
Wyatt and I wouldn’t have been able to simply wander about in the forest under King James I, who ordered anyone caught wandering or begging to be “declared a rogue and a vagabond, publicly whipped and imprisoned.”
In 1619, America’s first representative governing bodies, the general assemblies, arose in Jamestown (the Virginia colony bearing the king’s name) around the same time that the first Africans arrived on shore. The assemblies quickly pivoted from introducing “‘just Laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people’” to focusing “more on policing measures against Africans and protecting the rights of masters than on the rights of the enslaved or ethical considerations,” historian James Horn writes. The italics are mine.
By the time Sir Robert Peel established in 1829 London’s Metropolitan Police, widely considered the modern world’s first professional police force, policing had become a well-oiled war machine, which the British would eventually transport overseas to manage colonies in Africa and elsewhere.
In his 1885 book “Our Police Protectors,” which is an early history of the New York City Police (established in 1845), A.E. Costello describes the police as “an army for preserving domestic order in time of peace” and should be “organized and governed according to like features of our military system.”
Neocleous reveals what most experts and historians on policing know as a basic matter of fact, but that most of us miss when we talk about police and policing and “police reform.”
That is, the purpose of police power is not, and has never been, about upholding laws or preventing crime as much as maintaining the capitalist order, which demands all life be subject to the profit motive and that the wealth of the many be perpetually confiscated by the few. So long as this remains the order of the day, the police power will exist to enforce it — with or without the police.
And any living thing (whether an old tree or a juvenile delinquent or a volunteer land manager advocating for a prairie or an indigenous tribe protesting the construction of an underground oil pipeline) who stands contrary to that order is considered by the police power an enemy of the state.
This truth bears repeating: police power was derived to protect private property and wealthy white men; not black soil prairie, and poor Brown boys.
The police power was not even derived to protect the humanity of individual police, per se. Most police officers, after all, are wage-earning, working-class folk who, while agents of police power, are also among the populace to be policed and among the masses considered disposable once they lose their exchange-value (ask a Black officer who is off-duty and out of uniform or a former officer who is no longer able-bodied or who is old or a cop who acts on the mistaken belief that police are to prioritize law above order).
In that dark alley, Adam’s uselessness and Officer Eric Stillman’s exchange-value as an agent of police power and everything it is designed to protect, collided and then collapsed.
If I were in Officer Stillman’s shoes, forced to react in the blink of an eye to someone who was just holding a gun, I’m not confident that I would not have shot Adam myself, although I would like to think I would have acted with the kind of empathy and concern that Stillman and the other responding officers showed in the seconds after the bullet pierced Adam’s body.
I suppose this is cause for some commendation. At least young Adam got the care that LaQuan McDonald, shot 16 times in 2014, was denied. As McDonald’s dead body was on the ground, still smoking from the leaden barrage of bullets, an officer approached and kicked the knife, which moments earlier had presented a threat to tires, out of the boy’s lifeless hand.
But by the time Officer Stillman and other first responders administered care for Adam (“Stay with me,” Stillman, genuinely concerned, told the dying boy) — the officers and the young Adam briefly bonded by empathy and kinship in a moment of death that is virtually impermissible in the ongoing tragedy that is our everyday lives — it was too late.
While Wyatt and I were near that oak tree just off Hickory Lane, two police SUV’s drove by, which was our signal to leave, lest we be mistaken for vagrants or loiterers. As we were walking, Wyatt made the case for treating the land not as something to be exploited purely for monetary value, but for the vital local ecosystem that it is.
“Everything here is pretty tolerant and hospitable of the pressure we can put on it,” he said, referencing the prairie and the nearby oak savannah. “We just have to have some respect for this land and this land returns it to us. Everything we do, if it benefits the land, it will benefit us.”
Wyatt was advocating for the kind of mutuality, kinship and interspecies solidarity that the market doesn’t tolerate and that police power is designed to largely suppress, but that we must be brave enough to fight for. Because once the biomass and the biodiversity that supports our literal lives are gone, he said, they’re gone and whatever empathy and care we exhibit afterwards will have come too late to make a difference.