Part one of this essay discussed the origins and function of police as an institution. Far from preventing crime, police were designed to uphold capitalist class society against any resistance.
This second part of the socialist case against the police takes a close look at what role the police play in our everyday lives, and whether they should be considered potential allies in the fight for a better world. Because of their class position and repressive role, the only means of improving the police is to abolish the very institution. Police abolition is tied up with the abolition of capitalism, and our efforts to rid ourselves of police is necessarily part of the struggle for a complete social revolution. This is the socialist case for revolutionary abolitionism.
But What About . . . ?
When making the case for the social uselessness of the police, various objections frequently arise. Let’s take a moment to refute some of the most common myths used to defend policing.
Perhaps the most common myth is the idea that some hypothetical situations are so bad—so dangerous, so violent—that policing is the only solution: for example, a mental health crisis, a fight, or a dangerous incident of domestic violence. Isn’t it good, the argument goes, to have someone who can intervene with force to keep people safe in circumstances such as these?
To this there are two responses. First, as tragic cases like those of Quintonio LeGrier and Stephon Watts make clear,1Rory Fanning, “Why Was Stephon Watts Killed?”, Socialist Worker, February 27th, 2012,https://socialistworker.org/2012/02/27/why-was-stephon-watts-killed. cops have a record of overreacting and making situations worse, up to the point of killing those involved. Indeed, according to a study conducted by the Treatment Advocacy Center, those who suffer from mental illness are 16 percent more likely to be murdered by a cop.2Treatment Advocacy Center, “Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Police Encounters”, December 2015, https://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/overlooked-in-the-undercounted. Second, the general consensus among experts trained to intervene in such situations is that police intervention is not the appropriate, efficacious response.3Notably, “police involvement” does not turn up in any review of evidence-based practices around community mental health or domestic violence intervention. The literature on police response to mental health and the recent trend of using special Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) often notes that police “have become” the front-line responders to mental health crises. I would argue this shift is due to funding decisions made at the state level, rather than any clinical evidence justifying the use of police as front-line responders for resolving situations.. For one example see H. Richard Lamb, Linda E. Weinberger, and Walter J. DeCuir Jr, “The Police and Mental Health”, Psychiatry Online, October 8 2014. It is important to note that the consensus on domestic violence is more contested and debate exists on such responses as ‘mandatory arrest’ practices. However see the INCITE!/Critical Resistance “Statement on Gender Based Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex” from 2008 as an important reference point. https://incite-national.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/CR-INCITE-statement-2008discussion.pdf.
Nonetheless, it remains true that the only option most people feel they have in these situations—mental health crisis, domestic violence, and the like—is to call the police. This is largely because government budget cuts (done to preserve the profits of the rich) have gutted services that could support and articulate a clinically appropriate community intervention plan to respond to these crises. Without these, only the police remain. More mental health services—up to and including community-based crisis response teams—would be a better solution. It’s important to note that the reason why such an alternative does not exist is not due to lack of imagination by the trained professionals who work in these fields, but to a lack of power and resources to carry it out. This impasse represents the warped funding priorities of the state and the ruling class and not any kind of reasoned consideration about how to appropriately deal with social problems. Thus we find ourselves in the absurd situation whereby the police are the lead agency in dealing with homelessness, mental illness, school discipline, youth unemployment, drug abuse, and more.
But it’s not just that police are ill-equipped to actually give people the help and protection they need in moments of crisis. It’s far worse than that: cop intervention is always more risky than whatever crisis situation they enter in the first place—a heavy police presence often makes bad situations worse. To illustrate: more than three quarters of all homicides are committed by someone the victim knows. But of all killings done by strangers in the US, more than a third are carried out by police.4Patrick Ball, “Violence in Blue”, Granta, March 4th 2016, https://granta.com/violence-in-blue/. This means that if you’re killed by someone you don’t know, there’s a 1 in 3 chance that it will be a cop. The threat of the random person in a darkened alley or the specter of being stalked by a serial killer are both statistical anomalies. Cops are not only socially useless, they are a profound social problem.
Another myth that must be debunked is the idea that being a cop is dangerous work. The image of the rugged, selfless cop who braves serious danger to keep the world safe is a familiar one in popular culture, but it is basically a fiction. According to the US Department of Labor, being a cop is only the fourteenth most dangerous job, if we measure danger in terms of the rate of death or injury on the job. Jobs such as fisherman, farmer, garbage collector, and taxi driver are far more dangerous than being a cop.5Christopher Cannon, Alex McIntyre, Adam Pierce, “The Deadliest Jobs in America”, Bloomberg, May 30 2015. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-dangerous-jobs/.
But the myth of policing as an especially dangerous job for cops has more sinister implications. When cops shoot down Black and brown people, they often justify their acts as regrettable mistakes made in life-or-death situations in which they feared for their lives. Lawyers who defend killer cops almost always try to exonerate their clients by painting elaborate, comic book-like fictions in which murderous police officers appear as victims acting to protect themselves from men of color who are represented as “super-predators” and “monsters.” In the vast majority of cases, however, the situations in which Black and brown people are killed by police are, tragically, innocuous: Alton Sterling was selling CDs and Philando Castile was pulled over for a traffic stop. Likewise, Freddie Gray “made eye contact” with a cop—that was all that was needed for a death sentence. Sandra Bland was driving, Eric Garner was selling cigarettes, Tamir Rice and Rekia Boyd were hanging out in parks, Michael Brown was walking in the street, and Stephon Clark was in his own backyard.
These are not examples of situations that police had to intervene in. Before they turned up, there was little (if any) danger. There was no wrong done to a member of the community that had to be righted. Virtually all these killings were the result of the “rountine stops” of racial profiling, suspicion of drug possession or distribution, and so-called “quality-of-life” offenses. We don’t need alternative methods for the cops to use in these circumstances. We just need them to stop. Their very presence is the problem.
Cops Aren’t Workers
This idea that policing is “dangerous work” brings us to another genre of arguments in favor of the police: aren’t cops workers? Don’t socialists argue for working-class unity and collective power? So, shouldn’t socialists adopt a positive stance toward the police and seek to organize and include them in the movement?
It is true that a majority of cops come from working class backgrounds. The police job itself certainly involves working for a wage, which meets the broadest definition of what Marxists consider “working class.” And certain conditions of the job—long hours and the like, battles about overtime, medical benefits, pensions, etc.—all carry semblances of working class concerns. On the other hand, cops do not generate surplus value, and the police do not directly generate income for any private capitalist or even the state (even the fees from fines and ticketing and the like do not cover the massive expenditure of city budgets the police require).6The example of Ferguson, MO is illustrative. The extent that the city used their police force to exert fines and fees upon the Black citizenry was exposed in the Department of Justice report completed after the killing of Michael Brown and made national news. However in this extreme case in 2015 city income from fees and fines collected by the police amounted to 3 million dollars (23% of the total income) while the police budget was 5.5 million (42% of expenditure) (https://www.fergusoncity.com/DocumentCenter/View/1849/2016-COFM-Budget-Main-Final-Version). Though it does not disprove the point, the work of Jackie Wang deserves exploration on this point in her book Carceral Capitalism (Semiotext(e), 2018) that takes up the relationship of municipal finance and debt and connection to the police. But workers like public school teachers and other professions connected with the social reproduction of new workers also do not generate profit and yet we consider them part of the working class. So, are cops workers after all?
Not exactly. Defining the class positioning of the police is important in this regard. Here we borrow from the work of EP Thompson and Ellen Mieksins Wood, who describe class not as a structural location or a “thing,” but as a social relationship. This understanding is important in discerning not just the material conditions in which an individual lives, but how the relationship to their conditions and to others shape how they behave “in class ways.”7Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 82. Thompson describes how class formation came about as the working class “came to feel an identity of interests as between themselves, and as against their rulers and employers.”8Thompson, 11. Capitalist organization of the world into the rough categories of those who own and those who don’t fosters a shared interest—sometimes masked with mixed consciousness and backwards ideas-— among those who don’t own against this unequal dichotomy.
Now, there are some who do not own property whose interests are different from the interests of the working class more broadly. These strata have to work to survive, but the nature of their relationship to workers is to act in the interest of the rulers and employers. High-level managers and supervisors are one example of this; while they may not own the business or means of production, the entirety of their job is to manage and discipline workers. They may be won to the struggle against capital as individuals but as a class their interests are aligned with the bosses. There is much written in Marxism about this middle strata, but one of the commonalities—because of the way their social relationship to workers and capital warps their interests—is that they are unable to collectively assert an independent political position in the struggle between classes. Members of this middle strata are sometimes pulled by the working class movement and sometimes swayed by other forces. This is why socialists—from Marx to Trotsky—have described how these middle strata are especially susceptible to fascism.9Leon Trotsky, “The Only Road” in The Struggle Against Fascism in German (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971) 370.
Cops are an example of this middle strata and an extreme one at that. Unlike other in this layer, their social relationship and function is solely as a repressive apparatus against the working class. Their interests—not as individuals, but as a social strata–are never genuinely aligned with working class interests. Police are an extreme example because they are an even more monolithically antagonistic against workers than are managers, supervisors and small shopkeepers. Cops are, in effect, a uniquely repressive, hyper-disciplinary managerial class.10Williams, 221.
While managers tell workers what to do and have the power to hire and fire based on the boss’s desire, the police dominate workers with the attitude of an occupier. The cop tells workers what to do and has the power to fire his gun and kill if opposed. Indeed, police training is saturated with quasi-fascistic “law and order” ideology that encourages cops to identify with their role as disciplinarian, enforcer and keeper of the status quo.
In a racist society, enforcing the status quo means keeping a boot on the necks especially of people of color. Indeed, many police are trained to see themselves as legitimately occupying the roles of judge, jury and executioner when they interact with Black people. As Trotsky says “such training does not fail to leave its effects.”11Trotsky, “What Next? Vital Questions of the German Proletariat”, 190. Cops therefore have a deep material—that also fosters a psychological—interest in protecting, enlarging and defending their repressive, racist vocation. This is a powerful social relation and one that places their interests apart from that of working class people, who have no such material dependence upon repression of other workers. James Baldwin describes this well when he writes: “The police are the hired enemies of this population. . . . [they are] quite stunningly ignorant; and since they know they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more sure-fire formula for cruelty.”12James Baldwin, “Report from Occupied Country” in Collected Essays (New York: Penguin Random House, 1998), 734.
Though they may seem like workers in some respects, cops are not part of the working class. This fact is the reason why police, as a social block, behave as a ruthless and implacable force of reaction.
The behavior of police “unions” or associations—the Fraternal Order of Police and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association—reflects this point about collective interests quite dramatically. Such associations often advocate for job security, protection and material resources for cops, and it would be easy to confuse this advocacy with standard workplace demands advocated by the labor movement. But what is “job security” and “protection” for cops? In practice it means: defending police who brutalize and kill, while removing any kind of public accountability or oversight. More resources for cops means more military-grade weapons for them to use while terrorizing and surveilling Black, brown, and working class communities. Indeed, police associations are quite explicit about this. In the FAQ of the Border Police Union they describe the need for a union as follows:
It was not unusual in the past for Border Patrol management to ‘throw an agent to the wolves’ to appease special interest groups . . . [who] advocate open borders and/or the return of California (known as Aztlan) to Mexico, using whatever means necessary, including filing false allegations of abuse. They regularly make unsubstantiated allegations of civil rights abuses against agents in an attempt to slander and defame the US Border Patrol. This places a very heavy burden on management and administration officials who, at times, forfeit their personal integrity.13https://bpunion.org/about-nbpc/union-faq/
This is the official and primary reason given for this union’s existence—to help cops carry out the migrant worker expulsion machine’s dictates against the protests of any of its critics. Cops are class enemies by their own self-definition.
This is the reason why after every police murder of innocent Black folks, it is the FOP representative that is first up to not only defend the killer cop, but to slander the victim in often the most grotesquely racist terms. It is also the reason police union contracts with cities invariably include various protections for officers facing allegations of abuse and hurdles for the public to file complaints.14https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-police-unions/ And it is the reason why police associations around the country were solid supports of the Trump campaign and why the ‘Blue Lives Matter’ flag has become a fixture of the newly confident nazi and white supremacist movement.15Much more had been and can be written about actual connections between the police and fascist organizations. This serves as more evidence of the points made here. At least those extremists are honest when they admit that pro-cop means anti-Black.
For all intents and purposes, the cops are a monolith. The culture of silence and solidarity within police ranks ensures that there is no criticism from within. This is a product of the social relationship in which a ‘police culture’ is generated and perpetuated by the institution of policing, not the other way around. There may be a minute handful of individual cops who have spoken up against police abuses at great personal risk, but if you compare it with resistance in the military, there is no comparison.16There is more to be said about difference between the police and the military that should be compared fully elsewhere. Unlike in the military, where during every major war there is mass resistance–defections during the American Civil War, soldier mutiny ending World War II, GI resistance during Vietnam, Iraq Veterans Against the War during Iraq, to name a few–there is no analogous historical or contemporary example of resistance movements among police.
Not only is there historically next to no organized resistance to the excesses of policing within the ranks, but when cops do rebel it is usually on the side of the state or far-right coups directed at state officials. Most recently this can be seen in Bolivia in 2019 when Bolivian police made international headlines by “joining” anti-government protests.17https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/09/bolivian-police-in-la-paz-join-mutiny-against-evo-morales It quickly became apparent that what was happening was not the police joining a mass movement but rather entering the fray as shock troops for a coup carried out by a pro-US capitalist and even explicit fascist forces that deposed the democratically elected leftist presidency of Evo Morales.18Jeffery Webber, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Macho Camacho”, interview by Ashley Smith, Verso Blog, November 15, 2019. Less than a week after the police “joined” the protest they were carrying out a pogrom against mostly indigenous activists in order to cement the reactionary coup against Morales.
Similarly, in Thailand in 2013 media outlets breathlessly reported on the “inspiring” moment when “righteous” police officers joined anti-government protests against the Yingluck Shinawatra government.19https://www.elitereaders.net/thailand-police-join-protesters/ While the Shinawatra government was notoriously corrupt, they were democratically elected. The police joined protests that called for a coup against Shinawatra which the military carried out 5 months later, replacing the government with a military junta. Countless more examples demonstrate that the police, far from potential allies in left-wing rebellions for justice and democracy, always enter into protests forthe cause of repression and right-wing coups against justice and democracy.
To sum up, the basic position of socialists was expressed by Leon Trotsky, who said “the worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.”20Leon Trotsky, “What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat”, in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), 190. Police should never be seen as allies of the working-class movement and our position toward the institution should not be cooperation or compromise, but antagonism. They should be seen as a separate social class with opposing interests.
Just as many cops come from working-class backgrounds, it’s true that many—though not a majority—come from oppressed groups as well. This raises complications that deserve careful analysis. After all, in the wake of the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, many outside the community were disturbed to learn that this almost entirely Black municipality was being patrolled by an almost entirely white police force. In this context, a number of groups advocated for reforming the racial demographics of the Ferguson police by hiring far more Black cops. This forces us to ask: to what extent does the case against the police apply to Black cops?
Some may point to groups like the National Black Policeman’s Association (NBPA) as an exception to the analysis of police associations presented above. But, upon reflection, this example doesn’t hold up. While Black officers certainly face racism inside the police force and the NBPA did make some statements about police killings during Black Lives Matter, these statements were lukewarm and superficial. Exemplary here is former NBPA executive director Ronald Hampton, who diagnosed the “take away” of what happened in Ferguson as being “based on cops and citizens’ difficult perceptions of each other” as though the murder of Mike Brown was just a “difficult perception.”21https://www.mynspr.org/post/what-policing-looks-former-officer#stream/0 The NBPA’s approach remains cosmetic and does not resemble any kind of organized opposition to the status quo of violent policing. With some small exceptions, when push comes to shove Black caucuses and organizations within the police uphold the “code of silence” and generally organize around their own internal, special interest.22Gerda Ray, “Police Militancy”, Crime and Social Justice no. 7, 1977. pg 47-48.
It’s important to keep the big picture in view here: policing is about enforcing a racist, radically unequal status quo. In the same way that the social role of police aligns the interests of cops from working class backgrounds against the interests of the working class, this social role aligns Black cops against the interests of the Black population. Indeed, studies actually find that Black cops are as likely as white cops to commit abuse and murder.23Tom Jacobs, “Black Cops Are Just as Likely As White Cops To Kill Black Suspects” Pacific Standard, August 9, 2018. https://psmag.com/social-justice/black-cops-are-just-as-likely-as-whites-to-kill-black-suspects. Black police chiefs have presided over departments (Chicago, Baltimore, Dallas) with egregious records of murder and racism.24See Department of Justice reports of Chicago and Baltimore police departments after the murders of Laquan McDonald and Freddie Gray respectively. Dallas is fifth highest in the number of police murders in the country and has had a series of public incidents of racism in the department. A Black police chief, mayor, and National Guard Major General all suppressed the Baltimore uprising which arose in response to the murder of Freddie Gray. Milwaukee county Sheriff David Clarke has been in the vanguard of the pro-Trump Blue Lives Matter propapaganda campaign. The position of the NBPA that is very well expressed by Black deputy police chief Malik Aziz who said:
I can no more separate my black skin from the color of this uniform that I don every day for so many years. This is what we have to understand even as black officers. Black people will shout to us, “Black lives matter.” You know what our response is to the black people who shout to my black self that black lives matter? Is yes, they do, and it’s starting with me. What’s your response to that? My life has to matter, too. 25https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2016/07/16/qa-dallas-police-deputy-chief-malik-aziz-black-cop.
To officers like Aziz, the real criticisms of police violence are swept under the rug of crude racial representation. The fact that cops like Aziz cannot separate his oppressed identity from his oppressor occupation reflects the contradiction of the Black cop. The community says “stop killing us” and the Black cop says “what about me?” The solution would be to separate the Black from the blue and that would mean not taking part in an occupation whose role is the violent and racist service of the state.
Appeal or Antagonism?
Despite this damning accumulation of evidence against the cops, some hold out hope that police officers can, through patient organizing work, be made to change their political orientation and behavior and be a part of movements for justice. Indeed, there are some even on the left who hold the position that the police can be won to our side, that our demands should be to back police unions as workers. The most prominent are groups internationally associated with the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) and the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), both heirs to the same British Trotskyist ‘Militant’ tendency. Though they decry police abuse, in the end their position is that socialists should “appeal to the ranks” of the police and that they should “campaign for the trade union rights” of the police.26Lynn Walsh. “The Police”, The State: A Warning to the Labor Movement. 1983. http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/pamphlets/state/. Their argument for this position rests on an appeal to two key historical examples.
First they argue that during the events of May 1968 in Paris, the police were “drawn behind the labor movement” out of sympathy with striking workers.27Ibid. Indeed, the police unions even threatened to strike and criticized the government on May 13th, 1968, apparently bolstering the claim that the cops can, if won over and organized, play a positive role in the workers’ struggle. Does this argument stand up to scrutiny, however?
A cursory glance at the context in which the police threatened to strike decisively puts this argument to rest. Most historians of May ‘68 account for the actions of the police on May 13th as a response to the sudden about-face by the Pompidou government in ceding to demonstrators demands. The government was forced to acknowledge police overreach against the student protesters, and police felt this as “a slap in the face” from the government.To be clear, the “slap” to which the police objected was that their brutal, draconian treatment of movement protesters was being questioned. It’s also worth mentioning that police fear and anger was driven by the fierce resistance and street battles that wounded 345 cops in the days prior.28Daniel Singer. Prelude To Revolution: France in May 1968 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), 128-147. Rather than being “drawn behind” the movement by friendly appeals for solidarity, the reality is that French police blinked and hesitated in the face of an antagonistic movement against their violence, a movement that hurled a flurry of paving stones and molotovs at them from flaming barricades.29Interestingly their only source for the discussion of Paris is one quote from Tom Bowden’s book “Beyond the Limits of The Law” (Hammondsworth; Penguin, 1978) in which not only is May 1968 only a small section but the general thesis of the book ironically is about the tendency of the police to overstep the boundaries of the law in crisis situations. Given this context, the police about-face is far better understood as a spiteful but temporary jab–made under pressure from the fierce, antagonistic resistance by students and workers–and not backed up by a vacillating government whose support of police repression proved momentarily insufficient.
Defenders of the “organize the police into the trade union movement” position have also referred to events from the German Revolution of 1918-19 in order to justify their position. Here they claim that the Spartacus uprising of January 1919 was connected to the defense of socialist Emil Eichhorn’s police. This–they argue–reflects how the police can be “turned into” a revolutionary force.30Walsh, “The Police.” Walsh quotes from J.P. Nettl’s biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg (New York: Verso, 2019,p. 762). In November of 1918, amid a context of escalating class struggle and political radicalization, Eichhorn spearheaded an occupation of the Berlin Police Headquarters, seized all of the weapons from the standing police force, set political prisoners free, removed those in power and took control of the offices. As worker unrest increased over the following two months, the central government, at the time headed by Social Democrats, unleashed a wave of repression in what can only be characterized as a counter-revolutionary act.31Sean Larson, “Red Flags over Germany”, Jacobin, November 9 2018. https://jacobinmag.com/2018/11/german-revolution-centennial-rosa-luxemburg-social-democrats. This in turn provoked a general strike by masses of Berliners moved to defend Eichhorn in early January of 1919.
Does this example serve the purposes of those who would have us “win over the cops” to the struggle? Hardly. What is left out in using this as a historical analogue is that the police under Eichhorn was not the old police institution with all the characteristics described elsewhere in this article. Rather than being “turned into” a revolutionary institution the police had actually been replaced by a new body (the Sicherheitswehr) two-thirds of which was composed of armed worker volunteers.32Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918 to 1923 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017) 53. This change had occurred in the process of the November Revolution, although we should also be careful not to paint the Sicherheitswehr too positively. This example again demonstrates that rather than ‘appeals’ to the standing police force, it has been movements of fierce antagonism that have brought about these radical changes. The point is made palpable by a first-hand account of the first day of the November revolution in Germany:
The whole of proletarian Berlin, the grey impoverished mass that had starved and bled for four years, rose up. And before their daunting presence, any thoughts of resistance and battle melted away. The militarized police, who were used to beating only the unarmed, dropped their weapons as soon as they saw the glint of rifles at the front of the worker columns. . . . In a few hours it had become clear that reaction no longer had any power to employ, and the government was compelled to issue the order: all armed clashes were to be avoided – it had surrendered. By midday Berlin was in the hands of the revolutionary workers and soldiers.33Illustrierte Geschichte der Deutschen Revolution, Internationaler Arbeiter-Verlag (1929) p. 206.
While we certainly welcome the handful of times in which the police–largely under extreme pressure–have refrained from breaking up strikes and struggle, they are far and away the exceptions to the rule. While many of them come from working class backgrounds, their repressive role as shock troops for racism and inequality makes them a socially cohesive reactionary bloc. The policeman’s club is the club of the bourgeois. Indeed Trotsky had it exactly right when he said: “The police are fierce, implacable, hated and hating foes. To win them over is out of the question.”34Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 80.
If we shouldn’t try to win them to our cause, what should socialists do to get the violence of the police to stop? The solution is that we need to get rid of the police, full stop.
Police and prisons secure the ruling class by embodying their monopoly on violence and force. This constant threat of violence is used to quell protest and resistance, protect private property, and occupy populations (usually Black and brown). Hiding behind the myth of being crime fighters, police punish the symptoms of crises caused by the very system they have pledged to uphold and defend. The consistent socialist position on policing is necessarily an abolitionist one.
But fighting for ending policing as a long-term goal does not mean that we shouldn’t take part in fighting for reforms to policing in the here and now. Police reforms can blunt the violence and this has real benefits for populations most targeted by policing. However, the long-run goal of complete abolition should shape the choice of demands we seek to advocate. It must be understood when working to win reforms that the social function of the police is inalterable under capitalism. To attempt to change that is akin to reforming firefighters to stop fighting fires. If that were accomplished, then they wouldn’t be ‘firefighters’ any longer, but something qualitatively different—and the same is true for the police. For that reason, demands for more or “better” training to make cops ‘nicer’ or culturally sensitive miss the mark by a wide margin. Similarly, we should reject the oft repeated line that the problem of police misconduct is one of a “crisis of trust between cops and the Black community.” The problem is not communication or trust, but cops’ violent behavior.
Rather than attempting to transform a pig into a pony, the reforms we fight for have to aim at trying to limit cops, to put a muzzle and a leash on their violence. Generally speaking, socialists ought to support any reform that can limit the number of cops on the street, that gets them out of schools and off of campuses, that reduces their budget, their access to weaponry—indeed, we should back any measure that tries to place restrictions on their belligerent behavior.
Reforms that reduce public expenditure on policing are especially important because they are tied to broader fights to adequately fund the public services that are needed to solve the social crises into which cops are inserted and inflame. In short: we need more teachers and social workers, not more cops; we need to close prisons and open schools; we need more jobs and healthcare, not more taxpayer-funded military gadgets for bullies in blue. If politicians were actually concerned about so-called crime, these are the things they’d invest in.
Winning reforms such as these is a key component of building the fighting capacity, self-activity, and confidence of ordinary working people. But we must also understand that abolishing the ruling class’s primary repressive tool will not be achieved in the end by reform. Nothing short of a social revolution could decisively shatter the institution of policing. Indeed, many of the most successful movements against the police, those that succeeded in their abolition—albeit temporarily—appeared in revolutionary moments and were tied to successful or semi-successfull struggles against the legitimacy of the existing state and social order. In many of these instances alternatives to the police were enacted in the fervor of creativity unleashed by such revolutionary upsurges, in explosive bursts where people invent new institutions and ways of doing things which, to quote historian of the Spanish Revolution Ronald Fraser, “go far beyond anything you’ve dreamt of, read in books.”35
During the Spanish Revolution in 1937, for example, many cities abolished police and replaced them with armed workers ‘Control Patrols’ controlled democratically by barricade committees or village assemblies.35Pierre Broué, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008) 140. Many prisons were closed and prisoners freed, like the women’s prison in the Raval, Barcelona which was left vacant with a banner reading “This torture house was closed by the people, July 1936.”36Chris Ealham, Anarchism and the City: Revolution and CounterRevolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937. (Oakland: AK Press,2010) 185. For a week in 1919, militant workers during the Seattle General Strike took over and ran the city. Order was maintained by the unarmed, arm-banded Labor War Veterans Guard who– equipped only with persuasion and the prestige of the unions–patrolled the streets. The Major General of the Army brought in to suppress the insurrection admitted surprisingly that he had “never seen so quiet and orderly a city.”37Harvey O’Connor, Revolution in Seattle: A Memoir, (Chicago: Haymarket, 2009) 138.
In 2006 in Oaxaca, Mexico a mass movement started by teachers resulted in the self-management of the city for six months. During that time a group of unarmed volunteers, the Cuerpo de Topiles, modeled on Indigenous principles of restorative justice, managed conflict and carried out duties associated with policing.38Gerardo Rénique and Deborah Poole, “The Oaxaca Commune: Struggling for Autonomy and Dignity” NACLA, May 1, 2008. https://nacla.org/article/oaxaca-commune-struggling-autonomy-and-dignity. Most recently, in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 the hated Egyptian police disappeared from the street and half of the police stations in Cairo and sixty percent in Alexandria were burned to the ground.39Asef Bayat, Revolution Without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 157 In the revolutionary squares in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria, revolutionaries self-organized to maintain order, manage conflicts and handle disputes while the police disappeared. All these instances were fleeting, imperfect, and in some cases enacted under great duress, reaction and civil war. All represent situations of “dual power” in which new, revolutionary institutions existed alongside remnants of the old order at the command of the dominant classes. Despite this, these inspiring episodes demonstrate brief glimpses of a really-existing revolutionary abolitionism.
The case of the Russian Revolution of 1917, however, stands apart from the examples above insofar as it went beyond “dual power” to a situation in which the bourgeois state was smashed to pieces and replaced by the direct democracy of workers, soldiers, and peasants councils (soviets). This “soviet power” was described byVladimir Lenin as “a new type of state without a bureaucracy, without police . . . that gives [working people] legislative and executive authority, that makes them responsible.”40Lenin, Collected Works, vol 27, pg 133.
In the first month of the Russian revolution the police and the courts were abolished by the ‘Decree of the Soviet of People’s’ Commissars Concerning the Courts No. 1.’41Декрет о суде, 22 ноября (5 декабря) 1917 г. http://www.hist.msu.ru/ER/Etext/DEKRET/o_sude1.htm. Thousands of imprisoned individuals, both political and common-law prisoners were freed, some of whom were freed in response to petitions from prison soviets.42Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket, 2015) 103. Elected popular courts were established and experiments with justice that moved beyond “expiation of an offense or atonement of offenses” were enacted.43Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1985) 326. Bolshevik legal theorists like Evgeny Pashukanis saw “[t]he criminal jurisdiction of the bourgeois state [as] organized class terror” and attempted to move beyond “the essentially incoherent notion that the severity of each crime can be weighed on a scale and expressed in months or years of imprisonment.”44Evgeny Pashukanis, “The General Theory of Law and Marxism” https://www.marxists.org/archive/pashukanis/1924/law/index.htm. Notions of guilt and punishment of individuals were questioned in ways that presaged current conceptions of alternatives to punishment and present an understanding of crime as a social problem to be solved collectively. While many of the popular courts and tribunals were mainly focused on countering sabotage and counter-revolution, in the early months of the revolution even in these circumstances these were handled with an astonishingly restorative approach, and many members of the previous, deposed government and military were freed with nothing more than public censure and an oral promise not to engage in counter-revolutionary activity.45Leibman, 311-313. Adele Lindenmeyer. “The First Soviet Political Trial: Countess Sofia Panina Before the Petrograd Revolutionary Tribunal.” The Russian Review, vol 60 no 40 (October, 2001) 505-525.
This is an extremely cursory look at the dynamics of the situation in Russia, but one that hopefully points towards further exploration. Obviously, this rosy picture faded as the revolution tragically degenerated in the face of civil war, imperialist invasion, and the failure of the spreading revolutions internationally. These unfavorable circumstances drove the Bolsheviks to make a variety of political mistakes which, after the Stalinist counter-revolution was completed, mutated into the totalitarian police state for which the Soviet Union is now infamous. Despite this, the early years of the Russian Revolution represent a brief early moment in the sun for revolutionary abolitionism. Like the examples of dual power surveyed above, the defeat of Bolshevik abolitionism must ultimately be understood as one part of the defeat of the Russian Revolution itself. Thus, it is not a lack of creativity on the part of working people that holds back the goal of abolishing the police and prisons—the goal is difficult to achieve because nothing short of a revolution could fully unleash the creativity and resources necessary to tackle the social problems that the police poorly pretend to remedy.
Let us try to take stock of what’s been argued in this two-part essay on policing and socialist politics. In the first installment, I showed that the policing as an institution exists to uphold a racist, highly unjust status quo. Radical inequality requires its enforcers. What’s more, the historical origins of the police bear this out: modern police forces were created by the ruling class in the 19th century as a bulwark against working class rebellion and slave revolts.
Building a movement to challenge the police is an important component in building a movement against racism. Challenging the police strikes at the very heart of class society because it means removing the main tool that the ruling class uses to monopolize the use of violence in class struggle. They are not going to give up that powerful tool by moral suasion or being convinced. Fighting for the abolition of the police is thus connected with a struggle for power and control of the world we inhabit, and for the destruction of the state that maintains this status quo. This is why the struggle for police abolition also implies a struggle against capitalism and the fight for socialism. These tasks are intertwined, ambitious, and challenging, but in the end they are essential for winning a world free of racism and police terror.46Thanks to David Whitehouse for comments on the initial draft of this article.