The Cop Question: Reform? Defund? Abolish?
by Mo Sedlak
The murder of George Floyd, committed by four policemen in Minneapolis, USA, and the massive police violence against solidarity demonstrations in the USA and worldwide has once again shown that the police and a safe life for racially oppressed people are not compatible. While under attack from politicians, media and uniformed terrorists on all sides, the movement is now discussing how to deal with the police. The most important positions (though there is overlap) are a police reform (“8 can’t wait”), the reduction of resources (“defund the police”), or the abolition of the police (“abolition”). Revolutionaries must participate in this debate in solidarity. For this, they can look back on a long tradition of demanding the destruction of the oppressive state apparatus.
In this article, we will refrain from giving a concrete description of the massive violence that the police perpetrate every day and especially now against the racially oppressed, political activists, and the working class. Those who can and should be interested in this should inform themselves about it elsewhere, but the pain and trauma that we suffer need not be deepened at every opportunity. The facts and figures in this article alone can be very upsetting, but we ask our readers to be careful with them.
The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the USA have triggered a new movement of protest and solidarity in which hundreds of thousands are involved. The example of these cruel examples of daily police violence ignites the resistance against a system of social control and terror directed against the majority of the population in the USA, especially its black residents.
Historical Roots of White Violence
American capitalism has its historical roots in the racist seizure of land from the indigenous population and the mass enslavement of black people. The economic rise of the USA is based on “settler colonialism” and a modern slavery society which made the industrialization of the country economically possible.
With the implementation of industrial production, especially in the north of the USA, there was a massive conflict within the ruling class between the plantation economy in the South and the factory owners in the North. At the same time, a mass movement against slavery began which was carried not only by religious and humanistic ideas, but above all by the emerging women’s movement and armed abolitionist groups (Angela Davis’ book “Race, Class and Gender” gives a good overview here).
Building on this movement, the Northern states attempted to restrict the spread of slavery to the new states being opened in the West. After the election of Abraham Lincoln, the proponent of such a policy to not expand slavery West, the Southern states declared their independence to defend their “peculiar institution,” beginning the American Civil War which ended with a victory over the Southern Confederate States and the abolition of slavery (after a short while).
There were a brief few years when civil rights were afforded to and fought for on behalf of the former slaves during the Radical Reconstruction 1866-1877 in which the US military would enforce Congressional policy (see to it that the 13th and 14th amendments were enforced in occupied states) alongside silencing social criticism of the new policies such as the newly formed Ku Klux Klan that had begun to ravage the newly freed black slaves. These fights for civil rights from the Radical Republicans in Congress would simply not last with many former slaves still being at a large disadvantage having only recently been freed and having no place to go. The Northern capitalists eventually came to an agreement with the former slave-owners, dethroning whatever remaining Radical Republicans still standing in the way and ending military rule over the South. Black people in the South, now free under the law but still poor and newly unprotected, were immediately pushed into the worst exploited layers of the working class, especially as sharecroppers and domestic workers. New forms of slavery were even introduced such as unpaid work by prisoners as allowed by the 13th amendment. Their political rights were systematically eroded, especially in the Southern states’ “Jim Crow” laws which prohibited Black people from using the same infrastructure (schools, public transport, lunch counters, and even toilets) as the white population.
Like slavery before it, the super-exploitation of the Black population was enforced by murderous violence. An interplay between the police authorities and rampant Lynch Law was intended to prevent the former slaves, who in some states formed the majority of the population, from fighting for their rights. White racism (“white supremacy”), which depicts blacks and indigenous people like wild animals or on average intellectually inferior, was (and is) the ideological justification for this state of affairs.
In the Northern states after the Great Migration of 1910-20, which created large black communities in northern cities, and in the factories as proletarians, these workers still faced racism. This included “race riots” which were in fact pogroms by backward white workers. This in turn generated a civil rights movement in which socialists, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, or black nationalists, like Marcus Garvey, came to the forefront. In summer 1919 a series of pogroms in 27 US cities and in the decade following a mass wave of lynching in the South witnessed the growth of white supremacist movements (such as the KKK again) which paralleled in many ways to European fascism. In the 1930s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) led a mass campaign against lynching and white supremacists in the judiciary who gave it impunity.
In fact it required a huge social movement – the Civil Rights Movement whose most prominent leaders were the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. and a series of organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It started with the campaign for desegregated education, and after 1964 it came to demand the enforcement of federal legislation outlawing large parts of Jim Crow and forcing states and cities to register black voters. In his last years Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. developed a more social-democratic policy emphasizing fighting poverty and union rights. The movement developed an even more radical wing around figures like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, coming to be allied in part with professedly communist groupings of many stripes.
The movement, however, faded in the later 70s and 80s as many of the middle class Civil Rights leaders were absorbed into the Democrats whilst radicals like the Panthers were subjected to state disruption (Cointelpro) and brutal police killings. Like all great mass movements of the oppressed in this period, it is rich in lessons for today. Above all we see the danger of co-option by the Democrats who are allied with murderous police (like against the Panthers) and the fact that, if US capitalism is not challenged, US racism will recover and arise in both old and new forms.
Structural Violence, Structural Differences
The massive and structural violence, the arrests without suspicion, and certainly not least the regular police murders are the current manifestations of these historical origins. The police in American capitalism is not only the central tool of class oppression (as in all capitalist states), but it also enforces the historical segregation that pushes the majority of the non-white population into the worst, most oppressed edge of society. We see a similar structure in the police violence in Europe such as in the former colonial empires like France, Britain, and Belgium.
Similarities are also found even in countries like Austria or Germany. The police are permeated by racism and dominated by racists and nativists all throughout. The murders of Marcus Omofuma in Austria and Oury Jalloh in Germany symbolize this reality. Black people in particular regularly become victims of deadly violence and everyday degradation.
However, the historical role of state racism is not just directed against former slaves or black people, but it is found also against migrant workers and refugees. They are forced into the particularly exploited, politically disenfranchised strata of the working class comparable to that which affected and affects colonially oppressed people. Here too, a complex racist ideology has been formed. This takes place just as much in the US where anything non-white is lumped together. In Europe we find it is primarily based on citizenship, but also on a supposedly superior European culture.
It is incredibly important that the present movement recognizes and fights the commonly-found racist police violence in the imperialist states. The common traits of policing found across many places exposes the alternatives we need to be all the more urgent.
A Less Violent Police Force?
The political landscape left of the ruling Republicans in the USA has to position itself at the moment. The eyewash of “illegitimate violence” by protesters and “outside agitators” is barely even bought by the most bourgeois media. Within the Democratic Party, more and more politicians are therefore demanding a fundamental reform of the police.
The proposals are quite broadly spread. Presidential candidate Joe Biden, while accepting other small reform measures, cynically suggests that, for police training, the police should be instructed to shoot criminals that are endangering officers in the legs rather than in the heart. One simply has to wonder what former segregationist Joe Biden and the racist police force may envision as a dangerous element. One has to wonder how it can be justified that officers use armed force when they feel threatened when so many black men have been shot dead as “threatening.” Clearly this stance is caught up in maintaining the image of a police force that has to keep violent and criminal hordes of People of Color in check with armed violence. Where they shoot doesn’t alter that. More popular is a list of demands of 8 points, including a ban on strangleholds, a de-escalation order, and more police reports. However, almost all of these demands are already in the service regulations of the police in cities like Minneapolis and Baltimore which are notorious for racist and lethal violence.
The left-reformist Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the groups around Bernie Sanders (though notoriously not Sanders himself!) are demanding instead that the police be stripped of their financial resources, mostly under the slogan “Defund the Police.” Here too, the concrete proposals differ. The most toothless is the abolition of the transfer of military material to the police which was already pushed through to some extent under Obama. Better advances are being made by, and being forced out of, Democratic and independent representatives at city level who are trying to push through a cut in the police budget.
In Nashville, Tennessee, for example, the Nashville People’s Budget Coalition discussed with the city council until 4:30 A.M. not only against increasing the police budget, but for a reduction and dismissal of the police chief. A popular article in “The Nation” describes “defunding” as the deliberate redistribution of police funds to alternative programs such as social workers and restorative justice initiatives. Jacobin Magazine also proposes to systematically cut police spending (for example on helicopters, weapons, or overtime) and to fund youth centers instead.
The “defund” demand from all sources stresses that a reform of the police at the level of their actions alone has failed and is going nowhere, so the potential of the police to do harm must be inherently limited since their actions cannot. Alex Vitale says in the Jacobin interview: “Well, we did put a killer cop in prison in Chicago last year. I don’t know anybody in Chicago who dances in the streets because police work is so great now.”
Abolish The Police?
The demand for the withdrawal of funding and the underlying conviction that policing creates more problems than it solves leads consistently to the demand for the abolition of the police. In fact, many of the demands on the table are explicitly stated by their proponents to help in moving towards such an abolition of the police. However, the representatives of such demands and notions deliberately do not usually go so far as to call for the abolition of policing on the whole. They decide to leave out the question of why police work is done and instead make social demands. In the end, they avoid asking the question of power in capitalism and stick to reform proposals, even radical reform proposals, that are supposed to make capitalism and its police enforcers fairer.
The most radical parts of the movement stress that this is an illusion. Under capitalism, the police are mainly there to maintain social structure. The social structure is the bedrock of a society, and the bedrock of our society is unequal relations in economic property. The social structure that the police enforce therefore does not mean preventing brawls and murder, but instead it means primarily defending unequal property relations which unleashes massive inequalities on society. The police enforce the reality that a few capitalists own the social wealth, and that the rest of the people have to sell their labor power to create and give away this wealth in order to survive. This policing comes into action when these relations are challenged concretely such as through theft and robbery or systematically through strikes and occupations.
The social structure also includes the entire social order, i.e. that one must not simply kill, sexually harass, and blackmail other people. But here, too, police work is unevenly spread and the harshest treatment focuses on the workers and unemployed, and indeed the racially oppressed, while good lawyers or political connections protect the capitalists from many, though not all, consequences of such actions. But the mass of police violence will always be directed against exploited and marginalized people. Policing is the concrete form of the state apparatus of oppression.
The radical parts of the movement, realizing this fundamental nature of policing, see reforms as therefore illusory because this necessity will give way to policing even if the police force is altered. They do still demand, as in Minneapolis, the disbandment or abolition of the police department. However, this is not due to any belief in the ability of the fundamental role of policing to be drawn back. No, capitalists will still find ways to enforce their will and maintain their political power. It is demanded as such because it is wished to see the police’s ability to do their enforcement and ability to do harm weakened, and because if they fight contrary to such disbandment it will expose even more fully their bankruptcy. Not only that, but it is with a clear practical consideration that the complete abolition of all policing cannot be posed equally to very urgent demands on the ground.
The disbandment or abolition of the police and its replacement with a working-class self-defense guard, especially including the racially oppressed, in workplaces and communities is therefore the right demand in the fight against racist police violence. This is the case even though many politicians and reformers think that the issue stops at simply disbandment and reshuffling of the departments. For example, the Minneapolis City Council (where George Floyd was murdered) announced that it would dissolve its police department and build a new one. They refer to “abolition,” but they mean a different police force. This is likely a positive step to fight against tangible, racist violence, and every life saved is a victory. It does still show, on the other hand, a defense of policing as an action, able to be done by many different people and in many ways, and a shift away from striking at the heart of our societal structure. But it also shows how quickly the debate is moving to the left under the pressure of the mass movement.
An Alternative of Anarchy and Destruction?
Racially oppressed groups in particular already perceive the police primarily in the role of carrying out unnecessary punishment. They much less often dial the emergency number even if crimes are committed against them. But the social order under capitalism also includes the partial conviction that you can turn to the police if something really bad happens to you.
This raises the question of how a society should deal with its problems if there were no police. It is clear that a fight for the withdrawal or outright disbandment of the police must go hand in hand with the construction of alternatives to them. Some of these already exist in a rudimentary form and others have been discussed already, at least theoretically, especially in the revolutionary movement.
Because the police in the USA almost always act violently when they meet racially oppressed people during an operation, some people have set up systems so that they don’t have to dial the emergency phone. This starts with telephone chains in the house or in the neighborhood if there is a suspicion of domestic violence or brawls. But also entire institutions, for example, schools, shelters for the homeless, psychological treatment centers, and women’s shelters organize their own security services and prepare themselves specifically for crisis situations so that they do not have to call the police. Left-wing groups have spread instructions on how to be in solidarity with those affected by violence.
Such initiatives also include crimes where the police are called in – such as murders, bodily injuries, and sexual assaults committed by state forces themselves. They do not claim that crime just disappears if the police do not show up, but that, by working together and organizing, alternative means of protection are created.
Workers’ Militia Instead of Occupying Power
But you can’t get rid of muggings, road traffic regulations, and political terror through better communication with your neighbors. Neither will this work for self-protection from fascist violence or attempts of the police to maintain their rule over our neighborhoods if we don’t call them in anymore. Workers and oppressed people have to organize themselves. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky describes the demand for such a “workers’ militia,” among others in the “Transitional Program” and “Where is France going.”
He means that the revolutionary workers should organize and arm themselves. The difference with the police is decisive in two points. Firstly, the militia activity should not be the main job for these workers. They should either take turns after certain periods or take over these tasks like in a neighborhood watch next to their job. Secondly, the workers’ militia is not accountable to bourgeois politicians (and thus ultimately to capitalists and their laws), but to the political structures of our class, for example, councils and assemblies.
This may sound like a mixture of utopian thought and 1930s nostalgia, but it is still partially implemented today. The American Black Panther Party relied on armed patrols through the districts of Oakland and Los Angeles. Greek anarchists organize motorcycle patrols to fight fascists and crimes. After all, white supremacist gangs and vigilantes already exist and are tolerated (even supported) by police officers. However as long as our forces remain small scale and not organically rooted in mass organizations of the working class they can and will be picked off and provoked by the forces of the state. Therefore a mass, armed defense guard or militia supported by organized labor, by the youth, and by social movements should be built now to avoid such a fate as destruction via the state like what happened with the Panthers.
Capitalism Without Police?
In his book “What Now,” which deals with the rise of fascism and resistance against it, Leon Trotsky deals quite thoroughly with the question of the police as such. He warns against the Social Democrats’ promise to prevent the dictatorship by calling the police, and instead sees the core of the fascist dictatorship in the extended police rule of the 1930s. And, in fact, police units were often the most loyal helpers in building up fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Chile.
But there is no bourgeois-democratic capitalism without police either. The power of the capitalists, their property and the exclusion of the broad majority, must be enforced. It has been said that only window panes separate us from the bread we lack. But in fact it is the criminal consequences that follow when these panes are broken that enforce hunger.
This basic metaphor demonstrates that a simple abolition of the police is not possible. It is not the question of alternatives for public security, but instead the political struggle is the main obstacle here.
The capitalists cannot give up their enforcement apparatus if they want to keep the power.
In truth, the call for the abolition of the police is an attack on the bourgeois state. It cannot be anything else by the very nature of the state. When communities take over their own policing duties to the benefit of the residents and not the benefit of private property and profit, this presents a clear challenge to the state in the same way that a workplace occupation presents a challenge to private ownership of the means of production. The same dynamic of dual power is at work in both situations and dual power is an inherently unstable situation. Any alternative system of community protection that bypasses state actors like the police will eventually face a singular choice. Will there be revolution, or will there be regression into capitalist repression?
The necessary struggle to disband or abolish the police must be and is therefore a struggle against both the police and those whose rule protects them and is protected by them. Just as any demand to prevent dismissals of workers calls into question the power of the company owners, so does the demand that the cops should stay out of our neighborhoods and apartments question capitalist state power.
Neither Police Nor Capitalism
Both the recent and the older experiences show us that there is no safe life for the racially oppressed and most exploited parts of the working class when it comes to this police system. At the same time, attempts to reform the police force have basically turned out to be a mirage. Where perhaps particularly gruesome details could be overcome, the basic problem has remained. And even the proposal to dismantle the police by gradually withdrawing funding does not manage to answer the political question of police violence.
Revolutionaries are not able to sit idly and endure the daily violence and oppression. Whoever wants justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, for Marcus Omofuma and Oury Jalloh, must fight against the existence of the police as a whole. But this also means a fight against the reasons for police violence and policing as an objective, a look at structural racism and systematic violence under capitalism. We must disarm those who commit racist murders and get rid of those who give the orders. It boils down to the demand that the oppressed and exploited must themselves reach for power, in our neighborhoods but also in society as a whole.