Democrats have repeatedly demonstrated their powerlessness when it comes to protecting the masses – Black people, immigrants, prisoners, protestors, workers – from violence at the hands of the police. Rayshard Brooks is just the latest in a long line of Black people killed or brutalized by police in traditionally blue municipalities:
1991: Rodney King – Los Angeles, Mayor Tom Bradley (D)
2009: Oscar Grant – Oakland, Ron Dellums (registered Democrat, self-described Socialist)
2011: Anthony Lamar Smith – St. Louis, Lyda Krewson (D)
2014: Laquan McDonald – Chicago, Rahm Emanuel (D)
2014: Tamir Rice – Cleveland, Frank G. Jackson (D)
2014: Eric Garner – New York, Bill de Blasio (D)
2015: Freddie Grey – Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D)
2015: Jamar Clark – Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges (D)
2016: Philando Castile – Saint Paul, Chris Coleman (D)
2016: Alton Sterling – Baton Rouge, Sharon Weston Broome (D)
2020: Breonna Taylor – Louisville, Greg Fischer (D)
2020: George Floyd – Minneapolis, Jacob Frey (D)
2020: Rayshard Brooks – Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms (D)
Why is it impossible for Democrats to control the police? The answer is simple: the police, along with other repressive institutions, are the chief instruments of state power. The core of the state is not the collection of elected officials who have their hands on the levers of government, but rather the institutions of organized violence and force – the army, the prisons, the courts, and the police. When various methods of “harmonizing” and blunting the class struggle prove insufficient, the police are there to maintain the capitalist relations of domination and subordination that are the foundation of our society. Even in developed democracies such as the US, the police use brutal violence to guarantee bourgeois mastery of the class struggle. In the UK, most officers patrol the streets without guns, but they still manage to kill civilians in their custody and imprison Black youth at even more disproportionate rates than in the United States.
We know that the unique historical origins of the US police lie in racist slave patrols, but a scientific understanding of capitalist society tells us that the political foundation of the institution of the police in all capitalist societies – including those that never had the institution of chattel slavery – is the division of society into two antagonistic classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In class society, it is necessary for the ruling class to establish an organization for systematic violence against all other sections of the population, disarming those elements of the people who would otherwise engage in violent resistance to oppression and exploitation. We see this systematic violence expressed most clearly in moments of mass rebellion: the police – and if necessary, the military – are called in to extinguish the flames of protest, sparked most recently by the murder of George Floyd and fanned into a wildfire by the winds of a global pandemic and economic crisis.
The police and other law-enforcement agencies (ICE, prison guards, border patrol) dutifully serve the capitalist class and are rewarded with protection even when they overstep the bounds of “appropriate” use of force. Though many are organized into their own “unions,” they share none of the interests of working people. They form a separate layer of professionals granted special authority and trained to enact violence upon the popular classes. They have historically been used to break strikes and enforce the will of bosses against their workers – a role that has been particularly apparent in periods of intensified labor militancy, such as the 1920s and 1930s.
Understanding the nature of the police is key to understanding why no amount of reforms can fundamentally transform an institution that is so integrally connected to the functioning of capitalism. Reforming the police out of existence is an objective impossibility.
It may appear as though police “unions” are the principal force that prevents reforms and protects officers from punishment. They use their resources to pressure lawmakers, support far-right candidates, and wage legal battles in court. Even in progressive municipalities, these organizations are fortress-like, defending their ranks from the slightest accountability at the hands of elected officials and the civilians who elect them. Watchdog organizations like NYC’s Civilian Complaint Review Board are largely symbolic, and their recommendations can simply be ignored by the commissioner.
We see the brutally anti-popular nature of police “unions” constantly on display in New York City with the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) and its rabid spokesman, Pat Lynch. When mass protests broke out in 2016, after a grand jury declined to indict the officer who strangled Eric Garner to death, officers famously turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio. This was a coordinated act of defiance after the hapless mayor “threw them under the bus” during a speech, admitting that he warned his bi-racial son to be careful around police. Just a few weeks later, a gunman shot and killed two officers. The NYPD responded with an unofficial work slowdown, resulting in a significant drop in arrests over a period of several weeks. In a similar display last year, the head of Minneapolis’ police “union,” Bob Kroll, donned a “Cops for Trump” shirt for his speech at a Trump rally after Jacob Frey instituted a new rule which prohibited off-duty officers from attending political events in uniform.
Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker won the support of police and firefighters when he ran for governor in 2010 because he exempted them from Act 10, a legislative attack on the collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions in that state. To be clear: police “unions” in Wisconsin actually supported this legislation, which ended collective bargaining for all public sector unions except those related to “public safety,” i.e., themselves. The State Patrol “union” was even able to negotiate a pay increase for its members in a contract with the Walker administration.
But the fact that cops are protected by their “unions” does not touch upon the heart of the matter. Their real protection lies in the support they provide to the dominant classes in a society that requires the periodic threat of violence for its reproduction.
For the Democrats, the solution lies in reforms, not revolution (take it from Obama, Americans are not looking to “tear down the system”). They have been largely successful at peddling progressive policy while they operate the same machinery of government that reproduces the conditions of bourgeois domination. The Minneapolis City Council recently approved a resolution to “dismantle” the police and replace it with a new public safety model…that is, the police by another name. In an emergency session, they voted to ban chokeholds and neck restraints, but this only addresses methods of force, which has nothing to do with the class character of the police or its role in oppressing workers, the Black nation, and other oppressed nations and national minorities.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) has been engaged in a wobbly balancing act over the past month, swinging between support for her city’s population and backing up her police department. She initially condemned the Black Lives Matter protesters for their destruction of property and sanctimoniously declared “this is not who we are.” She defended law enforcement, who she said, generally “have good intentions.” But the murder of Rayshard Brooks less than three weeks later put pressure on city officials to make a public show of discipline against the officers involved. The police chief resigned within 24 hours of the killing, and the officer who shot Brooks now faces 11 charges, including felony murder. The criminal charges aroused outrage among police officers across the country, who claimed that the municipal response had undermined their ability to do their jobs. There followed reports from Atlanta of “blue flu,” an unofficial, retaliatory police strike that took the form of mass “sick-outs” by officers. The interim police chief noted that the officers who called out explicitly cited “being challenged and attacked, and unease about officers seeing their colleagues criminally charged so quickly” as justification for their absence.
Chicago has been run by Democratic mayors for almost a century. Most recently, Lori Lightfoot, the former president of the Chicago Police Board, was elected on a promise to reform the notoriously corrupt and brutal Chicago police. But, in response to rising crime and gun violence, she ended up assigning more cops to Black neighborhoods and adopting the same measures for which her predecessor Rahm Emanuel, also a Democrat, had been widely criticized. During the recent protests, she called in the Illinois National Guard and hired private security guards to protect businesses from looting.
The Democrats’ attempts to transform the nature of policing inevitably come up against obstacles. Either these reforms conflict with the needs of capitalism, in which case they are quickly retracted (as we will doubtless see with the Minneapolis City Council’s decision to “abolish” the police), or they are resisted by the police, who don’t want to give up their budgets and protections.
And it’s not just the police: Democrats have tried to tackle homelessness, unemployment, health care, and education through new legislation and “new deals.” Their aspirational campaigns to solve problems remain just that – aspirational – because they always sidestep politics, seeking to make every problem a ‘social’ problem and ignoring the central question of state power and the capitalist property that it sustains.
Against petty-bourgeois illusions regarding municipal “socialism” spread by Kshama Sawant and the growing number of D“S”A city officials, we must formulate a proletarian program in which the abolition of the police is given its only genuine content: its replacement by a people’s militia, subordinate—in a way that the police have never been—to democratic governance by the people. That this might sound utterly preposterous to many, and that this point has not been part of the debates in recent weeks, only reflects the absence of the only consistently democratic actor and its party from the political scene today: the working class.
In order to advance the revolutionary struggle, this militia must be either directly representative of the working class or formed by universal conscription on a rotating basis.
Take a look at the situation around the country. Outside the cities, the state turns a blind eye to the arming of right-wing extremists. Inside the cities, working people are singularly rendered defenseless. On the one hand, they face brutal and racist police who are “above the law.” On the other hand, they face lumpen gun violence, which gun control laws have failed to mitigate. The urban working class—which is composed mainly of national minorities—is entitled to defend itself against this violence! We must uphold their right to arms and to self-organization. The realization of this right is a condition for proletarian democracy.
Rather than accept the limitations on democracy imposed by the bourgeoisie and its distorted view of reality, we must take a look concretely at this society and recognize that it is impossible to improve the condition of the working masses in a sustained and far-reaching way without fundamentally difficult transformations of this type, and ultimately without doing away with capitalist private property, full stop. This is not achieved through electing “socialists” into office whose programs do not extend beyond the redistribution of city budgets, nor through the establishment of microscopic, fleeting “autonomous” zones (a strange “autonomy,” in which the police can enter at will at the first sign of trouble!).
Until we directly confront the conditions of capitalist domination, every reform can at best improve the conditions of the working class and prepare us for the struggle to come. We must win and use reforms while opposing reformism, which corrupts and weakens our ranks and turns us into contented tools of our exploiters and oppressors. Reformism amounts to a willful obstruction of the real revolutionary process that is the only means of putting an end to the misery and oppression suffered by millions. Reforms are a step forward, nothing more, and we must make every effort to go beyond them.
In order to win lasting reforms which can be used to further the class struggle, the working class must act from a position of political independence, organized in its own Party. This Party will gather the most advanced and combative elements of the working class to lead the fight of the whole people against the bourgeoisie, which is organized in its state and in its parties. As a student organization, the MDSO cannot directly play a role in the construction of such a Party, but we recognize its urgent necessity as a condition for the emergence of an independent working-class politics in the United States.