Against Police Reform - For the Abolition of Capitalism

Just as this piece was ready to go online, yet another blatant police shooting of a black US citizen in full sight has triggered angry protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Jacob Blake has been left paralysed from the waist down. Added to the re-run of nightime curfews, tooled-up police and National Guard lining up against protesters came a follower of "Blue Lives Matter": 17 year old Kyle Rittenhouse, with loaded rifle, promptly shot three people, killing two of them. Or, at least, that’s what witnesses on the scene describe. His lawyer is preparing another story of a young lad running away from an armed, angry mob. One thing’s for sure, this is all like manna from heaven for Donald Trump’s flagging electoral campaign. The best bet for him to get back into the White House is to flag up the "law and order" issue, never mind the fact that it is police disregard for the law which is the nub of the issue. Meanwhile, a growing number of us now see that the real, underlying problem is capitalist society itself and the need to get rid of the whole legal and political infrastructure which underpins the power of the haves against the majority of have-nots (whatever their skin colour). In the article here, we argue that the alternative to "law and order" is not to disband the police but to disband the whole iniquitous system. Read on...

George Floyd Protests

Marx once wrote that there are decades in which weeks happen, and days in which decades happen. In the days following May 26, it seemed as though we had been living through the latter scenario described by Marx, in which the anger and dissatisfaction felt by workers both in the United States and abroad, had coalesced into a worldwide demonstration of decades-long frustrations. Scenes reminiscent of the unrest and riots which sprouted up in individual cities during the second half of the Obama administration, such as Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore in 2015, and Dallas in 2016, had spread to nearly every major city across the country, peaking in mid-June. Protests erupted in smaller cities in the US as well as cities abroad. Protests continue to this day, but have plateaued in most locations over the duration of the summer. Both sympathizers and members of the ICT, including the IWG in the US, the CWO in the UK, and Klasbatalo in Canada, have been actively intervening in protests throughout cities such as New York, Philadelphia, London, Montreal, Toronto, Los Angeles, Trenton, Richmond, and Adelaide.

These riots were initially sparked by the ruthless murder of George Floyd by racist police officers in Minneapolis. His death may have been a catalyst for the protests, but it became clear rather quickly that the protests addressed much deeper issues. Rather, George Floyd was one of thousands of black people killed by the police in recent years (though the tradition goes back much farther). In response to this, working class people of all races have risen up in solidarity with black workers to protest against decades of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence.

The fact that the uprising is multiracial and has garnered such an intense working class response is due to the fact that the issues delve deeper than just police violence against black people. Increasing numbers of working class whites understand not only that an attack on one section of the class is an attack on the class as a whole, but also the role that police have in capitalist society. That is, that police have a very clear social role which does not consist of protecting citizens or being keepers of public safety, but rather of being the armed thugs of the capitalist class. Their task is to protect property and safeguard the interests of capital, which includes terrorizing those who conflict against its interests. While this fact is quite evident from how police have responded to protests and demonstrations throughout the country, communists have long understood the role of police in upholding capitalism.

Police Abolition and Reform

Following the death of George Floyd, “abolish the police” became an increasingly popular slogan at anti-police protests across the country. Self-styled anti-capitalist leftists claim to oppose police reform, advocating for abolition instead. (As communists, we distinguish ourselves from leftists, as leftist refers to the left wing of capital). Mandatory implicit-bias training, de-escalation/crisis training, and requiring body cameras are some examples of reforms that have failed to curb acts of police violence or reduce the number of unarmed black people murdered by the police for non-violent offenses. Upon realizing the limitations of reform, activists have called to abolish the police force by disbanding it and replacing it with an alternative form of community policing. The words “abolition” and “reform” have been watered down to the point where the concepts are used interchangeably. The public understanding of what constitutes reform refers to minor policy changes, whereas disbanding the police and replacing it with another institution that goes by a different name, is seen as something “radical” that goes hand in hand with abolition – instead of as the basic reform package it really is.

The problem with the police abolitionist movement is not the idea of abolition, but the belief that such a structure can be abolished under capitalism. This belief requires the assumption that the police are an institution that can be separated from its capitalist roots and destroyed from within. Communists understand that the police simply exist as a tool of the bourgeoisie, to defend the interests of capital. Therefore, it will continue to exist for as long as capitalism needs it to function. Police abolition cannot be a separate goal, or something that can lead to “gradual development” of communism. Only when capitalism is abolished will the police finally become obsolete.

History of Police

The police were invented within the early 19th century in England and later in the United States as a response to crowds, not crime. The police force was originally designed to control large, defiant crowds – specifically referring to workers’ strikes in England, riots in the Northern US, and the threat of slave insurrections in the South – within the time period of 1825 to 1855. This history of the police shows that it was never an institution that was created to protect its citizens, but rather one that had always relied on violence and intimidation tactics to suppress working class demonstrations and collective action.

The Industrial Revolution in England was a catalyst for class struggle – industrialization itself was a necessary step towards the creation of the proletariat, and as more workers protested for higher wages and better working conditions, the more they became a threat to the capitalist class. The French Revolution in 1789 led to the outlawing of trade unions and meetings of over 50 people in England – due to the British ruling class’ fear that English workers would be inspired by the French. English workers continued to organize in larger demonstrations from 1792 to 1820, although they were met with army opposition. The 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester consisted of soldiers charging into a peaceful crowd of 80,000 people, killing 11 and injuring hundreds. Although the massacre was intended to control the crowd and suppress the demonstrations, it led to a rise in strikes and protests instead. The army could not continue executing strike leaders as the demonstrations grew, since it ran the risk of martyring the workers and inciting a more organized response. This led to the creation of the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829, which was intended to break up crowds through non-lethal violence – a form of police brutality that allowed them to intimidate and control workers without warranting a collective response. The police were dispersed throughout London, policing the daily lives of the working class through neighborhood surveillance. The modern-day police force takes on this form.

Although the historical context to the development of the police force in places like New York and Charleston differed from that of London, the fact that these institutions were created to enforce crowd control and intimidate workers remains the same. It is important to recognize that policing of individuals through acts of violence to “enforce the law” extend beyond racial discrimination or simply a defense of private property. Whether it is an everyday, localized act of police brutality on an individual, or the larger scale riot police instigating violence by dispelling tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters, both are methods used to subdue the working class and defend the interests of the bourgeoisie. Because the police force exists only to fulfill this purpose, it will continue to exist in one form or another despite any attempts at “police abolition”, so long as we still live in a capitalist society.

Bourgeois Politicians and Reform

Most people are able to recognize and see through the cynical and hypocritical efforts by companies such as Wawa when they display “Black Lives Matter” in the same stores where they employ black workers making sandwiches for less than a living wage, or when Nike runs a lazy ad telling people to not be racist and to oppose oppression while simultaneously profiting from prison labor in China. However, even for many of the same people who are vocal against police terror and systemic racism, it is easy to fall for propaganda in the form of nice gestures made by bourgeois politicians. Although we know as communists that police abolition can only happen with the abolition of capitalism and not prior to it, both liberal and conservative politicians recognize that the idea of police abolition poses a threat to capitalism. After all, the capitalist class requires the existence of the police to maintain their system of exploitation. Seeing so many people across every major city in America protesting against the police state and the capitalist system, made clear to the ruling class and their political lackeys that they needed to act fast. Many, of course, stuck to the classic standard of law and order, denying the oppression that was evidently taking place. Arguably, the more sinister politicians were actually those who paraded populist slogans and advocated for incremental change, while simultaneously participating in the exploitation of the same people they claimed to support and represent.

These are the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris types, the Andrew Cuomos, Ilhan Omars and even democratic “socialists” who tweet out #blacklivesmatter and call for national bans on chokeholds as if that will change anything. The politicians who tried to remain “colorblind” during the Ferguson riots while denouncing racism in the same breath, the ones who claim to support both sides in order to garner support from a larger, more moderate audience. Once a movement gains traction and becomes a potential threat to their power, they ride the coattails of that movement in order to eventually steer it towards its own grave. We see through the facades of the capitalists who claim to be on our side, the reality of the exploitative nature of their livelihood. We see the police reform plans for what they are; measures for which concession would be an overstatement, meant to quell the anger felt by so many workers and give them a false sense of security. All so they can return to their lives of wage slavery and continue selling their labor-power without questioning the very system the ruling class try so desperately to protect.

Besides Joe Biden’s proposed plan to give police an extra $300 million under the guise of police reform, similar plans have also been proposed and enacted by Democratic politicians in their own cities and states. In New York City for example, the city council passed what some media sources have called a series of “sweeping police reform bills” which include a “penalty system for police officers with disciplinary issues, a system to intervene with training for officers who are deemed "problematic," and a bill that puts into law the right to record police interactions.”

It remains highly doubtful that these reforms will have any positive effect on the lives of black working class people who are subject to constant harassment and terror from the police. The police have proven themselves to be nothing more than an organized gang, composed of members who will rush to each other’s defense whenever they are threatened, especially in cases of public scrutiny for the violence they inflict upon innocent civilians. Who will be the ones to enforce the penalty system that deem officers problematic, who will guarantee the right to record the police? Likely the police force themselves, who have historically failed to take accountability for any of their actions. And if it is not the police who are overseeing these reforms being implemented, then it will likely be the bourgeois politicians and the same racist criminal justice system that keeps millions of black, brown, and white working class people in prison, forced to perform slave labor in order to produce cheap commodities for our beloved corporations. No matter what sort of institution is created to oversee and penalize police misconduct, it will be sure to be just another apparatus of the same capitalist state that relies on the police to maintain its power. To add insult to injury, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explicitly told protesters in New York, “You don’t need to protest, you won.” It is clear that the aim of the small, incremental reform measures being passed in cities and states across the country are meant to subdue the angry demonstrators who are protesting against the conditions of police violence and capitalist exploitation that have now been fully exposed for the average worker to see. These changes in policy are meant to convince people that their concerns are finally being addressed, to push them into complacency, so that the capitalists and their servile politicians can continue unabated in their exploitation of the working class, which has of course been exacerbated by the pandemic.

However, certain bourgeois politicians and political bodies have taken it upon themselves to go a step further than the traditional reform measures that have historically been passed whenever a case of serious police brutality makes the news. Two weeks after the initial protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, it was announced that the Minneapolis City Council had voted to disband its police force, and to install in its place a “transformative new model of public safety.” While the Mayor Jacob Frey did not himself endorse this reform measure, and could not even commit himself to defunding the Minneapolis police force, the Minneapolis City Council’s plan was clearly one in which liberal politicians had taken upon themselves to latch onto an increasingly popular movement on the left, garnished with a radical slogan calling for police “abolition.”

Despite the fact that such a measure would have been unthinkable in American political discourse ten years ago, this is not something to be content with or celebrate, as so many leftists had done with its passage. It has already been made clear that the police and the capitalist system are part of a symbiotic relationship in which they are dependent upon the other to uphold the conditions that allow for its very existence. While the Minneapolis police department as it currently exists may be disbanded, whatever new structure is put in its place will fundamentally fulfill the same role that the police have always filled.

Problems with Community Policing

Many anti-police activists want to reallocate funding and replace the police department with a community-based institution that would protect the safety and rights of its citizens. Some suggestions call for social workers and mental health professionals to replace police officers in response to certain 911 calls. While it is true that mental health workers would serve as more effective first responders than armed police, the police departments across the United States that already work with social workers and victim advocates offer little flexibility. Mental health professionals often face bureaucratic limitations when collaborating with the police force and legal system, which hinders them from being able to truly help a victim in need. While an extensive mental health support institution seems like a great idea in theory, the institution as it would exist under capitalism would allow for greater potential harm.

Psychology as it exists under capitalism is a bourgeois institution, in the same way that education is, through its promotion of bourgeois propaganda that it instills into students from a young age. This does not mean that there are no benefits to psychotherapy, or that all therapists are bourgeois; it simply means that mental health care under capitalism is shaped by bourgeois interests. For instance, treatment for disorders such as ADHD and depression are often centered on increasing productivity, and people are taught to define their self-worth based on how much they contribute to society. Even class conscious psychotherapists may find that capitalist mentalities continue to permeate into their practice despite their wishes. For example, a major criterion for Conduct Disorder (which is usually the basis for the diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder in adulthood) in the DSM-V includes opposition to authority and disregard for the law. This includes minor situations like shoplifting or lying to the police, both of which are instances that cannot accurately reflect a person’s mental state. A child who grew up in poverty, shoplifts to survive, and has developed a distrust of the police force due to their own negative experiences, is simply reacting to the material conditions of their reality. Pathologizing such behaviors when they are a response to capitalism ignores the traumatizing effect of capitalism and pushes the sole burden of responsibility onto the individual. Replacing the police force with an institution of mental health workers may increase the pathologization of “criminal activity.” Furthermore, this cannot be a solution to policing, as it prevents therapists from providing full treatment and further alienates minorities who already distrust the healthcare system. Ultimately, replacing the police force with a community-based mental health care system is simply putting therapists in police uniforms and forcing them to cooperate with the state.

When the Minneapolis City Council originally announced a plan for disbanding the police force, they themselves had said that there will still be people needed to respond to violent crimes; they simply wouldn’t be called police. Police officers do not stop being police officers simply because they are called by another name. Furthermore, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey had even made clear that the city plans to focus on reform instead of abolition. Disbanding the police and replacing it with a “less corrupt” institution is not abolition, but instead, a shift in leadership. Reform cannot be part of a “gradual change” towards communism, as capitalism can only be abolished through the self-organization of the working class and an internationalist revolutionary party. Replacing racist police officers with community leaders is not enough to end police brutality or state violence against the working class. Just as electing “the lesser evil” politician into power does not change how the government functions, disbanding the police force and giving it a new name does not change the fact that both are institutions which exist only to defend the interests of capital.

Camden, New Jersey

In the midst of all of the calls for police abolition, the example of Camden, New Jersey has been floated around by many leftists as evidence for how their experimental vision for society could be implemented in practice. The headlines of the posts on social media usually declare how the city of Camden dismantled its police department in 2012, with lower crime rates following in the years after. Needless to say, the headlines and social media posts, buoyed by mainstream news outlets that want Camden to be the model that the abolition movement looks towards for guidance, have been more than slightly misleading.

Crime rates did go down after the implementation of Camden’s police reform. In 2013, there were 1,950 reported violent crimes in the city. 5 years later in 2018, that number had decreased to 1,197. This is a significant decrease of around 38%. However, to understand why those numbers decreased as they did, police abolitionists should remember the reasons why people generally resort to crime. Crime is mainly a result of poverty, unemployment, poor education, and lack of resources for children – all of which are byproducts of capitalism. Camden did not pass a series of social reforms aimed at ameliorating the conditions of the working class and at eliminating the root causes of poverty. Instead, the supposed dismantling of the Camden Police Department and the ensuing changes to policing in the city took place under quite the opposite auspices.

In fact, the Camden PD was dismantled due to a series of state austerity measures, with other social programs and city services getting cut along with the police department. It’s not surprising then that the space left by the city police’s absence was then filled by both the Camden County Police, as well as by an overhauled system of surveillance intended to stop crimes before they happened. Though liberals will point to this new system as an example of community policing, with officers on foot patrol interacting with the citizens of the communities that they occupy, this narrative disguises the Orwellian nature of these reforms, which included a marked increase in the presence of security cameras, secret microphones, license plate readers, mobile observation posts, and police intelligence systems. This extreme level of surveillance made it possible for police to write up civilians for the pettiest of crimes, causing cases to increase by 97,000 from 2013 to 2014. The county police wrote 99 tickets for riding a bike without a bell in the timeframe between July and October 2014; only 1 ticket had been written for the same crime the previous year. This system of policing also allowed for the use of excessive force without consequence, which disproportionately affected the black population. It is ironic that liberals use this town as the ideal that police reform should strive towards, when it was found that a black person in Camden is 4.5 times more likely to face aggression and the use of force at the hands of the police during arrest, compared to a white person. The same system of policing exists in Camden as in every other part of the country, albeit modernized and more suited to the sensitivities of liberals in the suburbs who like empire and capitalism to be cloaked in friendlier terms.

In short, the model of policing that exists in Camden, though touted by politicians and liberal political pundits as a solution to the problems of racism inherent in policing, is merely a strengthening of the same oppressive surveillance state that exists across the country, and certainly not anything resembling police abolition.

Conclusion

When the Minneapolis City Council originally announced its plan in June to disband the police force, many leftists across the US celebrated this as a step forward, claiming this was a necessary step “towards socialism.” On the contrary, it was actually harmful towards workers and the communist programme. Not only does this narrative completely misrepresent abolition and reform, it also convinces people into thinking that a gradual approach to communism can work. Furthermore, the dying down of protests since the original announcement shows that the government achieved its intended goal – to placate the workers by telling them that their concerns will be addressed, only to again urge them to simply vote in November if they want to see “real” change. Although protests are still taking place in cities like New York and Portland, the nationwide hype has died down and people are simply being urged to vote if they want to have their voice heard.

This chain of events over the past two months is not surprising. The Black Lives Matter movement was co-opted years ago in support of the Democrats, and this redirecting of police brutality protests into electoralism is simply an extension of that. Addressing working class grievances with electoral promises has been a tactic that dates back centuries. This goes to show that changes in policy and voting do nothing to address the root of issues which affect the working class. The police will continue to terrorize innocent black and homeless people regardless of which politician is in power, and regardless of whatever community system “replaces” the police force in Minneapolis.

The police can only be abolished when capitalism is abolished. Capitalism can only be abolished through the self-organization of the working class and the formation of an internationalist revolutionary party, not through gradual reform or ballots. As communists, we support the protesters demonstrating against police brutality, but it is important that we recognize that there is no organized working class movement that exists today. While it is always positive to see elements of class struggle evident in the protests, without a unified movement, they will be disorganized and fail to achieve any long-term goals towards liberation.

The working class must organize along class lines. Treating police brutality as solely a racial issue, rather than a class issue, inherently involves class collaboration. It assumes that black people are a monolith who share the same interests regardless of their class position. A disorganized movement, in combination with the increasing acceptance of identity politics in the mainstream media, has essentially allowed for co-optation by the petty bourgeoisie. It only shows how deeply embedded capitalism is to every aspect of our lives when you realize the fact that protesting the murder of an unarmed black man has naturally led to the promotion of black-owned businesses and “progressive” corporations. How exactly does supporting a black-owned restaurant help black workers who are terrorized by police violence? It just doesn’t. The black business owners who comprise the petty bourgeoisie do not share the same class interests as black workers. Their racial identity does not change the fact that business owners exploit the employees that they hire, including those who advertise themselves as small, family-owned businesses that “support” the local community. A bourgeois black person simply does not have the same experience as a working class black person, and their interactions with the police may differ heavily due to their class position. It is possible to acknowledge the fact that police brutality in the United States is heavily racialized, and disproportionately affects black people, while also noting that the oppression is rooted in class.

Recognizing that police brutality is a class issue does not ignore the impact of racism. In fact, we must be sure to incorporate the interests of black workers and other minority groups into the interests of workers as a whole. The example of bus drivers in Minneapolis, New York, and Chicago refusing to drive protestors to jail was an excellent demonstration of class solidarity which helped show that workers of all races share the same class interests. We must encourage this kind of solidarity among workers, as it shows resistance against bourgeois tactics that have historically been used to divide the working class to distract from the real threat and turn us against each other. After all, class action against police violence is in the interest of all workers, since an attack on one section of the working class is an attack on us all.

Internationalist Workers’ Group

Tuesday, September 1, 2020