Not Possible: To Render the Police Benign Nor Erase Their Repressive Function


by Ellen Isaacs                        June 9, 2020

Multitudes of workers are protesting racism in every American city and all over the world. The crowds are multiracial, mostly young, disciplined and militant. Nothing like it has been seen in over 50 years – it is indeed awe-inspiring.


As the movement continues for its second week since the police murder of George Floyd, it is settling on demands ranging from abolishing to defunding the police. So powerful is the movement that many politicians are even promising to take action on these fronts.

A Failed History of Police Reform


What we must remember is that there is a long history of struggle for police reform in the US, none of which has caused much to change. Only seven years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion and sex, the Nixon administration launched the war on drugs, purposely designed to increase arrests and lengthen prison sentences of black people. In 1968, following widespread riots in black urban communities, the Kerner Commission identified poverty and racism as the cause of unrest and called for retraining police away from violence and prejudice. However, even President Johnson did not support his own commission and nothing was implemented. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton passed his Crime Bill which he touted as an effort to curtail drug use, but which in fact markedly increased sentencing disparities between black and white cocaine users. Both he and Hillary later claimed the increased racist incarcerations were an “unintended consequence,” although the result was widely predicted in advance.


After the recent killings of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and many other widely publicized police murders, calls for police reform intensified. There were demands for more diversity and training for police. However, as Alex Vitale points out in The End of Policing, training is supposed to correct unconscious biases that it assumes the trainee would wish to overcome. But if police believe in racist stereotypes and that poor people are responsible for their station in life, widely held American ideas, then training changes little.


In the last few years, body cameras were said to be a solution –who could argue with the video evidence. However, the video of Eric Garner, shown being choked to death while crying out for breath over the sale of a loose cigarette, did not even result in an indictment of the killer. Only the person who filmed the incident went to jail. It took five years for the murdering police officer to just lose his job, at the behest of NY Mayor deBlasio, who is now calling for defunding the police. Many body cam videos remain forever or long hidden from view, with those taken by bystanders still being most likely to come to public awareness.


Another widely touted and used tactic of police reform is “community policing,” the theory that having officers on the ground in a community will cause them and community members to behave more benignly. However, what cannot be changed is that the role of the police is to survey the neighborhood for criminal behavior and have the ability to use force. Their peaceful interactions tend to concentrate on the more stable and well-to-do community members while criminalizing the marginal members, most often poor people of color, who continue to resent their presence. Civilian community police review boards, have also never proved to actually change police behavior –partly because they are never truly independent of political influence and largely because police misconduct is not really the result of a “few bad apples” but of the function of police in society.


Capitalism Needs Racist Repression


What history teaches us and the protesters are forgetting, as they revel in their strength, is that US capitalism cannot do without the super-exploitation of black, Latin and immigrant workers. Nor can it dispense with the divisions that racism carves between workers, severely weakening all movements past and present that call for significant reforms. Nor will it disavow the racist terror that has suppressed action and dissent in the most oppressed communities. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, wage differentials, inferior housing, schools, hospitals, and environments have been in place for workers of color. From the master’s whip, to lynching, to chain gangs, to wars on drugs, to police brutality, to mass deportations, terror has been used to repress dissent.


The glaring disparities made evident by Covid-19 caused a reaction to one more racist police murder so intense it could not be contained. Finally. The guilty cops even had to be arrested and charged within days, astounding in a system in which 1.5% of police who commit such acts are ever even indicted.


But the capitalist class must still maintain its profits, and that means continuing to minimize wages, benefits, and social costs like education, health care, and housing – costs which racism allows to be minimized for non-white workers. The profits from paying black and Latin workers less that white add up to as much as a quarter of all corporate profit in some years. Trillions more are saved on inferior schools, hospitals, housing, and environments in minority neighborhoods.


Most important, workers are divided and weakened by being poisoned with racist ideology and kept separated so we do not learn to love and trust one another. From redlining to segregated unions, from schools that remain as segregated as ever, from endless racist proclamations by the media and politicians, to racist theories of intelligence and behavior, we are inundated with this poisonous ideology in every moment of our lives. White workers fear black, native-born workers fear immigrants, black workers fear for their lives every day. The result is that few movements, from on the job struggles to social protests, unite us as one force. This is one such moment, one such movement.


Mitigating Repression: Not Enough, Not Possible


It is probably true that the rulers can afford to make some changes to policing. It is not essential that the police be armed with surplus military weapons. It is not essential that they be the first responders in cases of mental health crisis or domestic violence. Such changes could result in some defunding and benefit the community. But such does not change the essential necessity that police, or some other newly-named agency, are still there to terrorize and pacify the poorest and most angry workers. It is essential that they are there to control the crimes of poverty – low level theft, drug dealing, gang assaults –because poverty is not intended to disappear. They are not needed to police the huge robberies committed daily by the rich from the poor, because those crimes are called profit-making, what makes the system go round.


Moreover, US capitalism is in a precarious position in the world, which makes it even more dangerous to workers at home. Once the world’s most powerful nation, the US is fading fast. Outpaced by China in production, on the path to losing military supremacy to China and Russia, and quickly losing any shred of the illusion of “democracy,” U.S. capitalists will soon be forced to fight a major war to try and maintain their power. If they throw any crumbs to workers, it is only to maintain some loyalty for the military they need to build. Unable to sacrifice immediate profits, capitalists continue to destroy the environment, inviting catastrophic destruction of much of the planet.


These worsening cataclysms guarantee that there will be more unrest by workers around the globe who see their lives and livelihoods under increasing threat. There will be more rebellion, and thus the need for repression will only grow. Not only by means of force but by the dissemination of increasingly virulent racist and fascist ideas. Police may be the least of it. Whatever it is called, the capitalist state requires a system of both ideology and force to control the behavior of workers.


So as we glory in the nature, the breadth, the power of this movement we must not be misled by false hopes of mitigating racist police practices or government repression. Let us instead use our multiracial force to build lasting ties and expand throughout our schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, the military so that ultimately we will have the power to do away with capitalism altogether. Let us educate ourselves and our fellows about the ties between racism and capitalism, let us build lasting ties with each other through struggle. We indeed have a great starting point if we do not let ourselves be misled by false hopes and promises.


Further Reading


The End of Policing, Alex Vitale, Verso, 2017


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