On the Police
Our Analysis of the Police and the Movement Against Racism and Police Brutality
(Adopted July 30, 2020)
The intention of this document is to provide a characterization of our program and strategy toward the police. As Marxists we cannot analyse the role of police in isolation of the role and nature of the state and the rest of state forces and repression. We need to further study: the nature of the military today, which has changed since the end of the draft in 1973 and the Afghanistan War, the nature of elite troops, and of prison guards.
We also want to clarify that our strategy towards all state forces of repression is their dismantling and suppression. We deploy, however, different tactics towards each force at different moments. In order to define our tactics, we use a method that avoids crystallizing tactics based on essential nature of some forces, but looks at the combination of two changing factors: 1) the nature of these social forces, and the class positions of its elements and 2) the role each one of these forces is playing in the class struggle.
The RSN will use these basic understandings to guide our work. We will explain these and strategies and tactics that flow from them in other leaflets, articles, etc.
- The police are part of the “special bodies of armed men” (Engels) that are the core of the bourgeois state. Their major functions are to reinforce class rule, property concentration, class divisions, racial order (white supremacy), and social control of working-class populations. As such they are trained and socialized on a daily basis to control, repress and sometimes murder the working class.
- In the United States, the police originated in the institution of slave catching in the South and the conversion of the constable/night watch system in the North into patrols for the surveillance of working-class areas and especially strike suppression.
- Because of this fundamental role, they cannot be reformed into positive institutions under capitalism.
- The police and other state forces of repression, are not part of the working class, even when their members come from working-class origins. The police are usually paid far better than average workers and are given special legal protection from lawsuits or criminal prosecution when they injure or kill workers and the poor. They are agents of the state against the working class.
- In a workers’ state after a successful working-class socialist revolution, the police would be replaced by democratically controlled workers militias. The important goal of police abolition is only fully possible through socialist revolution though steps toward it can be taken short of revolution.
- A successful working-class revolution will need to divide the military, defeat the police, and eliminate the bourgeois state’s repressive forces. This is one central part of the revolutionary strategy, for which we will require different and changing tactics in relation to the different forces of state repression (army, police, National Guard, Border Patrol, etc.).
- We believe that today the working-class revolution should display simultaneously several tactics: focusing on disarming and defeating the police as a whole; dividing the lower ranks of the military from their tops, and organizing self-defense guards against white-supremacist vigilantes and far-right groups. There are historical examples where police are allied with far right and fascist forces. In Italy, for example, Mussolini’s Black Shirts were trained by police.
In 1975, Farrell Dobbs wrote that the ruling-class:
“tactic is to protect the rights of the fascists while at the same time using fascist forces to try to keep others from exercising those rights. One of the forces used to implement this is that most malevolent of all the repressive instruments of capitalist rule, the police forces. The police structure is of a character that makes it a breeding ground for fascists. […] You don’t only have an army of capitalist cops that represses opponents of capitalism, you have a ripe recruiting ground for fascism itself. You not only have cops implementing ruling class orders in aiding the fascists, you have a police force that is honeycombed with fascists. In this country at this time it is not yet honeycombed, but there are plenty of reactionaries and racists there. The more the lines of confrontation deepen and sharpen, the more the tendency is for fascist formations to attract adherents within the police department.”
Our analysis of the police leads the RSN to take the following basic approach to reforms of the police: We support any demands that are aimed at weakening the police but oppose demands that assume the police function can be made positive under capitalism. We oppose attempts to win better police-community relations, i.e. we oppose reconciling the occupied to their occupiers, such as police review board initiatives.
How our analysis informs our attitude toward reforms
Within the movement for Justice for George Floyd, there are various currents. More middle class and middle class oriented currents stress reform of the police while leaving the function of policing intact. Some of these currents stress the “bad apples” approach. Others who see institutional racism as pervasive in the police and criminal injustice system believe these can be overcome by better training of police, including implicit bias training. They do not question the very function of policing for capitalism as the problem. In fact, when because of institutional racism people of color are a disproportionate section of the poor people that the police are assigned to control, it is inevitable that policing under capitalism will be inherently racist. There is no amount of training that can overcome this. This applies to cops of color as well as to whites. These efforts at better training are misguided and are either aimed at or have the result of reconciling the community to the police. They hold out hope for better police-community relations. Instead, the movement should dash that hope and organize against the police, full stop. On the other hand, some on the Left take an ultra-left position that the only demand that Marxists can raise is police abolition. We reject both the accommodationist and ultra-left positions.
We oppose these accommodationist solutions:
- Better police training, including implicit bias training
- Community policing ( a “soft cop” strategy of winning community support for the police)
- Community advisory boards that give input to the police about how to perform their jobs better but don’t challenge their very job.
- Civilian review boards: There is nothing magical about an election to a civilian review board that would make it different from city council elections. In those cases we are talking of community control of the existing police, and not its abolition and replacement with something different.
There is no reason to believe that an elected civilian review board would end up being more independent of the capitalists than current city governments are, especially because the class and racist nature of the police cannot be changed if we leave the state structure intact. There is a related limitation on the effectiveness of a civilian review board. In a non-revolutionary situation: the standards for evaluating police function are capitalist standards. Though openly racist policing will be officially condemned, actual racism is implicit in policing.
A Civilian Review Board will be bound to apply “reasonable” capitalist standards to policing. It will not be set up to challenge the very basis of policing. This means that Marxists must be very critical of the demand for civilian review boards. We need to point out the faulty assumptions the demand rests on. Marxists need to evaluate each proposal critically. If a specific demand will help more effective organizing against the police, Marxists should support it. In evaluating whether to support a demand, Marxists should decide if it will have a tendency to rehabilitate the police or weaken the police. Revolutionaries should not raise civilian review as a general demand.
We support demands that weaken the ability of the police to fulfill their functions:
- Disarmament of the police: This can take many forms. In recent years the Federal government has given excess military equipment to local police departments. In some cases they now have equipment that is only appropriate for full scale warfare such as armored vehicles! But even when the provisioning of police does not go that far, we oppose any militarization. We support bans on chemical weapons, choke holds and even the use of guns. Any weakening of the police’s ability to threaten the lives of ordinary people is positive
- Making it easier to prosecute and sue police: Right now police feel like James Bond who had a license to kill. Only recently have killer cops even been getting fired for killing Black people due to movement pressure. Still only rarely are they indicted and even less are they punished. When judgements for wrongful death are levied against the police, the individual cop does not pay! It is not even the police budget that is docked! Usually a judgement against the city for police brutality comes out of the operating budget of the city. This means that the victims of police brutality are first the people killed and their families and secondarily the people of the city. Suits against police now end up cutting social programs that benefit the working class! The solution is not to further victimize the families by restricting their ability to sue. Instead, any judgement against a cop should come directly out of the cop’s finances, or at very least out of the police budget, not the social service budget. This would make cops think twice before killing their victims and would restrain brutality. End immunity!
- Defunding police: This is now a very popular demand. It is however very ambiguous. In city after city, liberal Democratic mayors and council members are supporting this demand in response to the uprising against the murder of George Floyd. In many cases their supposed support for defunding is smoke and mirrors. In NYC they cut the general police budget by around one billion dollars but shifted that to police in the schools. In Seattle, the mayor proposed a 5% cut as her response to the movement demand of a 50% + cut. This was in reality mostly a response to the austerity induced by the Covid-19 crisis. The RSN supports actual significant cuts in police funding as a way to weaken the police and as a step toward abolition. We oppose smoke and mirrors and the deceptions perpetrated by the Democratic mayors. Within the defunding movement, we push the farthest steps possible toward total defunding.
- Police out of the labor movement! We support efforts to expel police “unions” from the general labor movement. Labor support of police “unions” undercuts labor’s ability to support working-class interests. They act as a reactionary brake on the labor movement, often blocking progressive actions and resolutions. Labor support for police “unions” implicates the labor movement in the racism and class repression carried out by the police. It divides and weakens the working class. We do NOT support police winning better wages or working conditions. Police collective bargaining contracts often prevent oversight and make it harder to fire and prosecute killer cops. More money for police takes money away from the social programs that can undercut the conditions that cause social conflict. Since police are not workers, cutting their pay does not have a negative impact on the pay of other public workers.
- Police out of our schools! The idea of police arresting or threatening students for discipline violations in schools is repugnant. Reliance on punishment, especially by the police and court system is an abdication of the schools’ responsibility to encourage conflict resolution and restorative/transformative justice. It reinforces the authoritarian training that schools impart. It makes democratic control of schools by students and teachers more difficult. It feeds the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Too often a life of criminal jeopardy for people of color starts with criminalization of school infractions. This criminalization is on a basis of racial oppression, but also on the basis of class.
- End austerity/fund social needs. Capitalism creates social conflict. It creates the basis of class struggle when workers try to re-take some of the value that they have created and that capitalists steal from them on a daily basis and when capitalists daily reimpose their class domination. It’s failure to meet the needs of ordinary people creates conflicts within the working class and poor communities. Crime is defined in class biased ways under capitalism. War that kills thousands or millions is legal. Killing of one person is murder and can result in execution or life imprisonment. Stealing food for survival is a crime. Stealing millions or billions from the public is rewarded with high office and new contracts. As Anatole France put it:
“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
However, beyond capitalist hypocrisy, there is real destructive social conflict within the working class. This cannot be prevented by repression. It can only be ameliorated by rooting out the causes of conflict. The more the fundamental needs of people are met, the less will be the pressure to engage in interpersonal violent conflict. We support all efforts to meet the needs of the population: Free health care, food, utilities, education, housing, decent paying jobs etc. We oppose all efforts to make the workers and poor pay for the social crisis of capitalism. This means in part supporting massive taxation of the rich and a slashing of the military and other repressive budgets.
We completely oppose efforts to use Covid-19 as an excuse for austerity. We also understand that some interpersonal violence is caused by institutional oppression and the attitudes that flow from that. We support the liberation of the oppressed in general but also because raising the power and status of women, and those oppressed on gender and sexual orientation lines will lessen the likelihood of rape and other forms of sexual harassment and violence. This is also true of those now racially oppressed. Any diminishing of racism can help diminish racist violence.
cover image: Sandow Birk, “The Battle of Stonewall ,” 1999