Defunding the Police: A Socialist Educator’s Perspective

Written by Yusef El-Baz
Beginning in late May, thousands of Black and multiracial youth in the U.S. initiated an uprising in America’s streets in response to the ongoing murder of Black people by police, putting the capitalist class on the defensive and broadening the opportunities for worker mobilization and class politics. They lit police precincts on fire, blocked highways, took over chunks of urban space, looted and redistributed goods, and generated momentum which has spilled far beyond U.S. borders. In response to the struggle, both Republicans and Democrats have played their initial cards: the Republicans have moved to demonize the movement, attack it with the forces of repression, and offer reforms that amount to increasing the police’s power; the Democrats, in addition to physically repressing the movement, have resorted to purely symbolic anti-racism, proclamations of solidarity, and a program of reforms which are nothing more than cosmetic changes that are far less than what the masses are calling for in the streets; Bernie Sanders, in fact, has called for increasing the police’s pay in order to supposedly professionalize them and thereby reduce their propensity towards racism.
In public schools across the U.S., educators are organizing to amplify the Black Lives Matter rebellion and bring it into our schools. As school districts and states collaborate with the rich to physically reopen schools in the context of a still-rising pandemic, union organizers are faced with the need to develop plans to resist these designs and to promote a platform that combines the fights against austerity and racism in our schools.
In relation to the police as an institution, educators and students are raising the demand to remove them from schools, a demand which education activists have fought for for years, and which now – thanks to the mass rebellion – is becoming a reality.  Over weeks of mobilizations, several cities across the U.S. have reduced police budgets, removed police officers from public schools, and, in the case of Minneapolis, taken concrete steps toward disbanding the city police as a whole. Minneapolis was the first city to cut ties between its school district and the police, specifically the School Resource Officer program which has linked students of color to the carceral state in what many call the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’. Hot on their heels, students and educator activists across the U.S. are organizing to do the same in their cities: Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Oakland, Milwaukee, Phoenix, among many others. While these changes demonstrate the power of mass movements, they also contain the potential pitfall of becoming the sole focus of the movement, as the ruling class would hope for; a demand for relatively minor budgetary alterations is one that can easily be accommodated by the capitalist state if the mass movement does not continue it’s independent rebellion and tie the issue of police to other issues endemic to working class life.
The demand to remove police from schools expresses a desire from educators, students, and families to transform their schools’  relationships to oppressed people, from being institutions of control to ones of resistance, critical thought, and community. In 2016, members of the Seattle Educators Association organized the Black Lives Matter at School movement in response to a white supremacist threat against an attempt to celebrate Black students in a Seattle elementary school. This movement took on a national character, with educators forming Black Lives Matter union committees to take up the demands of the movement, with slogans such as “Counselors not Cops” and efforts to engage students in the classroom with the content of the anti-police rebellion. The work of education activists over the last several years has laid the groundwork for the proliferation of anti-police demands in schools we see today; it also overlaps with the ongoing struggle against a capitalist schooling system designed to indoctrinate youth into acquiescence and subservience to domination – this understanding of the systemic nature of racial oppression and the need for mass rebellions to combat it is necessary if we want to avoid our movement being fully coopted and defanged by the Democratic Party and the non-profit sector it collaborates with.
Educators are organizing in response to three major events in education: school reopening in the Fall, the onslaught of budget cuts by broke local school districts, and defunding the police. Beyond this, workers in general, including students’ families, face unemployment, unsafe working conditions, evictions, and organized state and fascist violence. This is the framework in which we should situate the demands to defund and abolish the police in our schools and cities.
Contrary to what the Democratic Party believes, the police are not an institution that can be reformed to meet the needs of working class people nor the public schools we inhabit. The police exist, and have always existed, as the armed protectors of private property, political power, and racial hierarchies, from the first slave patrols and Indian hunters, to the brutal strikebreaking units during the Great Depression, to the current militarized cops who detain, harass, and incarcerate students deemed ‘dangerous’, ‘unruly’, or ‘disruptive.’ It is not a coincidence that the movement to kick police out of our schools has generated an outpour of stories of police abuse from students and parents; we see this as a just victory against the system and should continue organizing for the defunding and disbanding of all police to the furthest extent possible, while we unite this demand with those of increased school funding and a safe reopening of schools, all of which constitute integral parts of the fight against racism and capitalism. We cannot allow the powers-that-be to limit this rebellion to small and relatively insignificant changes to local police budgets.
Union militants need to fight for a safe reopening that will take place only when the scientific criteria for doing so has been met: we need access to the PPE, testing, temperature checks, and increased staffing to adequately meet our communities’ needs. None of the above criteria are consistently present in the plans of our government officials, who are clearly indicating that their plans to compromise our staff and resources during  a surging pandemic that kills Blacks and Latinos at disproportionate rates. Therefore, we need to be arguing for continuing crisis (distance) learning , organizing for MOUs that institute equitable learning and teaching conditions, and against the privatizers set on profiting from distance learning.
Beyond this, we must build a fight for increased school funding with a specific anti-racist and pro-Black and Brown emphasis. Now that the Black Lives Matter movement has amplified the demand to remove police from schools, we can take that one step further to argue for greater union control over budgetary allocations so that we may deepen our anti-racist work in our schools: increased funding for schools in communities of color, recruiting and retaining educators of color, expanding Ethnic Studies and critical pedagogy against racist histories and standardized testing, i.e. mobilizing to fight against the racist inequalities pervasive in our school system.
The victories our movement has made in the last weeks are directly due to the willingness of Black and multiracial youth to directly confront the state’s racialized violence and abrogation of democratic rights – while unionized educators have carried the torch into our schools, this would not have been possible without the initial impetus of the mass movement in the streets. Riots and protests, in and of themselves, however, remain limited in their capacity to challenge the power of the state and increase the power of our class.
Capitalist society still remains relatively safe until the sites of production and social reproduction are shut down through strike action. These sites include our schools, hospitals, and other workplaces where we produce the material goods, the relationships, and the healing necessary to carry on with our day-to-day lives, and which provide us with the leverage to bring the system to its knees. Educators and workers, unionized and non-unionized, face a valuable opportunity to strengthen this rebellion through organizing actions in solidarity with the movement. A united struggle involving riots and strike action could provide us with the power necessary to outflank both overt violent repression and the ‘soft’ and insidious state repression carried out by the media in order to discredit the radical and proletarian wings of our struggle.
On Juneteenth,  the ILWU, the west coast longshore worker’s union, shut down 29 ports on the Pacific coast of the U.S., part of a general trend of BLM-inspired strikes and strike actions which include about 500 strikes over the last several weeks. Led by the  Oakland local of the ILWU, the port workers, with a long history of solidarity strikes, show how workers can leverage our power in the context of riots and rebellions.
As Fall approaches, educators will be faced with the responsibility of deciding how we want schools to reopen and how we want our finances to be allocated, including, but not limited to, the defunding of police. In order to achieve our demands, educator unions, pushed by the kind of rank and file activism which has animated the last two-years of educator strikes, will need to take clear stances around these issues and prepare our members to escalate actions – including striking – to safeguard human life and protect the dignity of public education. In addition, educators should connect these demands with the struggle against capitalist education in general, as an institution designed to socialize working class children into normalizing capitalist exploitation. The opportunity to weaken the police in our schools can be seen as an entry point into challenging the scripted curricula, top-down control by administrators, draconian discipline, and tracking systems which characterize our schools as the sister institutions of prisons and police.
Furthermore, this struggle intimately relates to the struggle of working families at large. Educators, as community workers, occupy essential roles in today’s labor movement. As the precarity of working-class life accelerates due to the pandemic, forced labor, and the removal of social supports for the unemployed, educator movements will need to expand our work and help cohere a broad working-class united front with essential workers and the unemployed around a program of key demands: guaranteed income for the unemployed, safe conditions and hazard pay for essential workers, and the shutting down of all non-essential aspects of life until we’ve overcome this pandemic. Allowing the U.S. government and its corporate bosses to determine the future course of action means nothing less than the continued massacre of innocent lives at the altar of profit. A working- class united front is critical to safeguard life, continue on the offensive against our oppressors for our fundamental demands, and prepare the groundwork to defeat the capitalist system through the revolutionary action of the oppressed – including the full abolition of the police.  In contrast to the liberals and the reactionaries, this is the socialist perspective on addressing the crisis in our schools and of capitalist society as a whole.

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