For an Independent Working Class Struggle Against Policing: A Balance Sheet of Recent Reforms and Next Steps for the Socialist Movement
By A. al-Tariqi
In mid-September 2020 the state of Kentucky refused to charge officers who killed Breonna Talyor. More recently, while the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer who murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, yielded a rare conviction in a case of a police killing of a Black or Brown person, police murders of working class people have continued unabated, with Black and Latino people representing over half these murders. To name only a few of these cases: Police in the nearby Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center shot and killed a 20-year old Black man, Daunte Wright, at a traffic stop on the afternoon of April 11. The police stopped Wright because an air freshener was obscuring his rear view mirror. Democracy Now! reports that on April 12, “police fired tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, stun grenades, as protesters defied a curfew and took to the streets, Brooklyn Center, for a second straight night. Police said 40 people were arrested. More than a dozen were also arrested during protests in Minneapolis.” A few days later, Chicago Police released bodycam footage showing the police murder of unarmed Latino 13-year old Adam Toledo on March 29. City officials, including the mayor Lori Lightfoot, “spent weeks disparaging Adam Toledo before releasing the bodycam footage,” according to Chicago alderperson Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez. Shortly before the verdict in the Chauvin trial, Columbus, Ohio police fatally shot Ma’Khiah Bryant, a 16-year old Black girl.
The questions of police reform and of the effectiveness of summer 2020’s mass protests in bringing it about continue to be of central importance for our movement. These questions can be further specified. As the police killings of Black and Brown people continue during and after the Chauvin trial, growing sectors of the working class see through the emptiness of Democratic Party officials’ promises of police reform and the co-optation of slogans like “Black Lives Matter” by the capitalist class and its political parties. Workers and youth are increasingly asking deeper questions such as “what is the role of police and their relation to the capitalist class,” “why are Black people especially targeted,” and “how can this be stopped”?
As revolutionary Marxists, our view is that the police are a fundamental part of the capitalist state apparatus, a key to reproducing the status quo of capitalist property relations. The police, along with other coercive state forces (FBI, NSA, Border Patrol, ICE etc.) are, as Friedrich Engels said, “special bodies of armed men”, separate from the working class, accountable to and serving only the ruling class. Capitalism in the United States depends on racial division and animus to maintain itself. First, since capitalism itself generates the inequalities and material insecurity in society, its continued existence depends on the division of the working class along lines of identity. Second, racial discrimination and terror help to secure “super-profits” for the capitalist class, both within US borders and without. Examples range from the real estate and insurance industries, to the pharmaceutical industry, to the slavery-like labor conditions in the prison-industurial complex, to the impoverishment of the global south by US imperialism. As WEB DuBois wrote over a hundred years ago, it is from the “darker nations” and the racially oppressed that the fabulous wealth of Western imperialist nations comes. Today in the United States, it is Black, Brown, Indigenous peoples, and immigrants who are most vulnerable to police violence and other forms of state violence. Race, to summarize, is a core contradiction of US capitalism. The fight against racism and the police is therefore integral to the working class struggle for socialism. Here, we offer a balance sheet of the police reform movement since summer 2020. We show why liberal attempts to reform the police have failed, and the role that electoralism and dependence on the Democratic Party played in this failure. In the concluding section we outline next steps for the working class movement and a Marxist strategy for police abolition.
Balance Sheet of the Reform Movement
Reforms since Summer 2020
By late fall 2020, the federal government and majority of state governments had failed to enact real reforms of policing, let alone address the movement’s most radical demands, such as defunding the police and diverting those funds to social needs, especially of Black communities which have been hit hardest by the ongoing COVID and unemployment crises. Even states with liberal legislatures have taken no major steps in this direction. Racial justice and police reform activists attribute this to pushback by police unions and to poor timing, according to an article in Politico (by late May 2020, 25 state legislatures had adjourned for the summer, though some had returned in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder to convene special sessions on police reform and COVID). Consider the following:
- In California, the failure to pass any significant police reforms was particularly glaring given the state’s liberal reputation and Democratic supermajority.
- In Colorado, one of the few “success stories,” the legislature passed a law ending qualified immunity. Qualified immunity refers to the way that cops have circumvented a US federal legal code called Section 1983, based on the Fourth Amendment, which should allow individuals to sue state or local officials for violations of federal constitutional rights. Under qualified immunity, cops (or other officials) can have lawsuits dismissed by claiming that their actions do not “violate a clearly established” constitutional right. More than 240 officers resigned or retired after the Colorado bill was signed in June 2020.
- Virginia failed in summer 2020 to pass a qualified immunity bill, though the Massachusetts legislature did pass such a bill in late June (allegedly; see below) and Connecticut did so in July, with New York City and New Mexico following suit by March and April 2021, respectively.
It may seem that the bills passed in Massachusetts, Colorado, etc., are positive steps. However, a closer look reveals that these bills are not what they are hyped up to be. In practice, despite the existence of Section 1983, federal courts have usually sided with cops, in effect giving them carte blanche. They commonly rule that even egregious actions by cops, such as property destruction or theft, let alone violence against persons, “don’t violate clearly established rules.” More obviously – though perhaps this is a technicality – the aforementioned examples by definition do not actually abolish qualified immunity, since this is a question of federal law, not of state or local law, as a useful article by Matt Ford in The New Republic recently points out. From Ford’s analysis, we can infer two salient points. First, while states may have found a possible way to circumvent qualified immunity by applying it, on paper, to local and state officials, its implementation at the federal level remains untouched. Second, there are inconsistencies, gaps, or flaws in these laws. Colorado’s qualified immunity law applies only to “peace officers” while New Mexico’s applies to all state and local officials. Connecticut’s has loopholes for officers who “act in good faith”, i.e., they didn’t “intend” to violate anyone’s constitutional rights; and it requires the state, instead of the cop who is sued, to pay damages. Ford rightly worries that these state-level laws may in fact be “fake bans” that end up undermining the serious reforms that policing reform activists have been demanding. We should note here that this confirms what revolutionary socialists have been saying for a long time about the real function of the Democratic Party: its function is to divert, demobilize, and destroy social movements.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act
With the new Biden-Harris administration and Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature, many progressive activists felt that there would be a new and more welcoming climate for racial justice and policing reforms, though other liberals expressed some doubts. Perhaps sensing the need to signal to their base their putative sincerity in addressing racial justice movement demands, the Democratic-controlled House in early March, with the backing of the Biden White House, passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The bill would ban chokeholds and end qualified immunity for cops. Further, it would give monetary incentives to local police for improved training. Along with the White House, it is supported by leading civil rights organizations and figures. It is notable, however, that the bill does not cut police budgets, let alone defund police or reinvest said funds in communities. Indeed, Democratic leaders have consistently stated that, in spite of the fact that “no one” in their party ran on defunding the police, their party’s association in the public mind with the slogan hurt them in the November elections. Quite the contrary, prominent Democrats have pushed for increased police funding, as does, in the form of the aforementioned incentives, the George Floyd Act. Ultimately, we expect that the bill will face serious difficulties going forward. Given the filibuster, it needs to pass by 60 – 40 votes. Further, the party will in no way call for extra-parliamentary pressure (protests, street mobilizations, strikes) on recalcitrant Republicans and right-wing members of their own party such as Joe Manchin.
On March 18, our comrades in Socialist Resurgence summarized the current state of police reforms in their political perspectives document. This is a perspective with which we agree. Our comrades write:
While there has been a nominal increase in some places of non-police first-responder programs, the fact remains that none of the demands of the movement last summer have been realized. On a local level, this seems to at least be partially due to the co-optation of new and young activists into running as Democrats or through incorporation into the “non-profit industrial complex.” Nationally, the Justice for George Floyd Act not only increases funding for police but if it had been passed in 2019, Floyd would still be dead. Despite a massive amount of police violence against protesters and BIPOC communities, virtually none have seen charges.
As we have also previously discussed, liberal reforms are a dead end. Their function is both to legitimize the capitalist state – showing that it is capable of antiracist “wokeness” and of delivering sustained reforms – and to de-escalate and demobilize the energy of bottom-up movements such as we saw last summer. This is the ambiguity and instability (from our class’s perspective) of bourgeois reformism: reforms are won through the combativity of our class, but the capitalist state always finds new ways to re-establish capitalist rule. As our SR comrades point out, at the very moment that policing reforms seem on the horizon, state legislatures across the United States are escalating their attack on voting rights, especially of Black working class people:
The movement against voting rights is reaching a new stage. Georgia, which was the Democratic Party’s shining example of the possibilities of electoralism and enfranchising Black people to vote, just passed one of the most restrictive assaults on voter rights in recent years. That is just one of 253 voter-suppression laws being considered in 43 states.
Movement for Black Lives’ Alternative: The BREATHE Act
On March 17, news sources reported that the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) had come out in opposition to the George Floyd Act. As M4BL spokespeople told the media, this was because the bill “centers investments in policing rather than what should be front and center — upfront investments in communities and people.” Further, while M4BL does support ending qualified immunity, it criticizes the George Floyd Act for being too reactive and incrementalist. They are particularly concerned that the bill would increase funds for policing and the carceral state and that it fails, as M4BL spokespeople put it to national media, to “center the voices” of the communities most affected by these.
M4BL has instead proposed the BREATHE Act, a bill which would abolish the DEA, the use of surveillance technology, mandatory minimums sentencing and life sentences, and would redistribute funding away from policing and towards communities “to address the nation’s systemic racial injustices.” Above, we discussed the trajectory that police reforms have taken within the confines of electoralism, both at the federal and state levels, since summer 2020. What is clear is that the state will tolerate only reforms far less radical than those called for by M4BL. Winning the M4BL reforms would require not only the kind of mass surge in politicization which we witnessed this past summer, but the building of bases of power opposed to the capitalist class and its state that can put them on their backfoot. Specifically, it means mobilizing tactics that go beyond the episodic character of the summer protests, tactics such as work stoppages and strikes. Such tactics would necessitate a strategic vision, type of organization, and level confidence among our class that is, indeed, in contradiction to the logic of electoralism. What do we mean more concretely? From the perspective of working class power, one of the frustrating features of protest waves, and those of summer 2020 were no exception, is how mass energies bubble up, briefly explode, and rapidly deflate. The reasons for this are a lack of democratic deliberation over movement demands and escalation strategy, of democratic leadership, and of inter-regional, national-scale coordination. Lacking these elements, activists and workers moving into politics see no option other than the electoral arena and the Democratic Party. Most others, who were briefly politicized by accelerating events, eventually tire of endless marches and protests, which in themselves provide weak results at best.
Yet M4BL’s strategy, at least as articulated by its spokespeople to the national media, itself strongly tends towards electoralism. The BREATHE Act is unlikely to win majority support in either chamber of Congress let alone from Biden. Acknowledging this, M4BL leaders pin their hopes on the pressure that the younger voters and activists who played a big role in Biden’s November victory can apply to lawmakers. This in turn relies on the notion of “holding politicians’ feet to the fire,” the idea that social movements, through intermediaries in the non-profit sector, can directly hold politicians accountable. As stated recently by Gina Clayton-Johnson, the lead BREATHE Act architect and leadership team member of the Movement for Black Lives’ Policy Table: “Black people have organized, have pushed and created the pathways for you to sit in the seat that you are in and it is because there has been a hope and an understanding that you will deliver on a commitment to race justice and equality.” She adds: “We are owed the opportunity to be safe and that includes first and foremost to be safe from a criminal legal system that has been harming us and taking the lives of Black people and of our loved ones for years.”
BLM10 splits with BLMGN
In early February 2021, BLM chapters calling themselves BLM10 came out in opposition to BLM Global Network (BLMGN), the non-profit that claims leadership over the movement for Black Lives and which, in the public mind, often stands in for it. Particularly notable are BLM10’s objections to BLMGN’s ties to the Democratic Party and support for “Black capitalism”. They state that the BLM name “is now being used to sell products, acquire book deals, T.V. deals, and speaking engagements. We have no interest in these pursuits, and we are opposed to the movement to substitute Black capitalism for white capitalism.”
It should be noted that there are two prominent organizations or networks bearing the Black Lives Matter name, BLMGN and Movement for Black Lives. They have a collaborative relationship, although the latter seems further to the left and more oriented toward direct action. It is important to note that BLM10’s critique has been focused on BLMGN. The latter recently published its annual impact report for 2020. It is a very interesting read and gives further insight into the criticisms leveled by BLM10.
The report leans heavily into support for the Democratic Party and for Black capitalism. The politics it espouses are purely reformist, its vision entirely circumscribed by the goal of being represented in the “halls of power,” channeling the grassroots to electoralism, and making connections to the philanthropic world. Among its stated accomplishments for 2020 include a statement calling for the replacement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a Black woman judge, its massive GOTV campaign, and a letter to the Biden-Harris administration asking them to meet with BLMGN. It argues that the 2020 election was “the most consequential election of our lifetime” (p. 11) and envisions “developing a stake in the philanthropic world” (p. 22) as an important front of its work. On pp. 27 – 28, the report acknowledges Black, particularly Black male, disaffection with the political system and discusses the importance of bringing these sectors back into electoralism. On p. 17, it discusses BLMGN’s partnerships: “Black Lives Matter takes pride in our yearly roster of partners. When choosing partners, we look for entities that are actively engaging with issues affecting Black communities or have committed to donating a large amount to racial justice initiatives.” Two partnerships they choose to highlight are Hamilton: The Musical and Sprite soda company. The same page ends with: “As our scope and capacity expands, we look forward to partnering with more institutions to creatively imagine how we can work together towards achieving Black liberation.” The use of slogans like Black liberation and iconography from previous generations of Black revolutionaries such as Malcolm X side by side with corporate sponsorships gives one a more concrete sense of why Black revolutionary socialists find the BLM leaderships’ behavior so galling.
BLM Inland Empire breaks with BLMGN, Renames itself the Black Power Collective
According to a widely circulated document articulating BLM10’s rejection of BLMGN, the BLM Inland Empire (California) chapter was approached by Patrisse Cullors in 2015 to join BLMGN as a BLM chapter. Cullors, they claim, told them BLM was “decentralized and leaderless,” but this turned out not to be the case at all. BLM-IE found out, instead, that BLMGN was “top down” and “dogmatic.” BLMGN promoted (the presumably more reformist and middle class) Los Angeles chapter and work with One United Bank. BLM-IE has accused BLMGN of a lack of financial transparency, of undemocratic “power moves” by Cullors and other prominent members of the non-profit.
Together, the Los Angeles Chapter along with the Global Network have consistently tried to strong-arm other groups and have worked to undermine a grassroots movement by capitalizing on unpaid labor, suppressing any internal attempt at democracy, commodifying Black death, and profiting from the same pain and suffering inflicted on Black communities that we’re fighting to end.
The use of the BLM name, which we believed was intended to unify our struggle, has been commodified and debased. It is now being used to sell products, acquire book deals, T.V. deals, and speaking engagements. We have no interest in these pursuits, and we are opposed to the movement to substitute Black capitalism for white capitalism. It has become clear that the Global network and certain figures have platformed our struggles with the sole purpose of exploiting our labor.
BLMGN’s relationship to the Democratic Party is specifically and sharply criticized: “the Democratic Party,” BLM-IE statement says, “has historically rejected and ignored BLM’s demands and has made it clear that they are pro-police, pro-prison, and committed to capitalism […] the Global Network is essentially a steering committee acting in the best interest of various fractions within the Democratic Party.” The creation of Black Lives Matter PAC with the use of finances generated during the summer protests, they argue, violates the collective agreement that BLM does not work with police or endorse politicians. The formation of the PAC absorbs the movement into the nonprofit sector and the DP. They further highlight BLM’s funding by Amazon as a violation of the spirit of the movement for Black Lives.
The BLM10 and like-minded Black liberation fighters are currently consolidating as the vanguard of the struggle for Black Lives and against police and state coercion. We urge our party comrades and all socialists working in the same regions as BLM10 to support and collaborate with BLM10, Black Power Collective, and similar organizations. At the same time, our party will agitate in our workplaces, workers’ organizations, activist networks, etc. around the basic ideas that the police and state coercive apparatus need to be dismantled; and that, as we have written in our own thesis on police and state forces of repression, a change of administration, let alone the personal qualities of individual cops etc., do not change the structural role played by the police in maintaining the rule of the capitalist class. Further, wherever and whenever possible, we amplify a set of demands to weaken and eventually defeat the capitalist state forces of repression.
To be clear, we reject “accommodationist solutions” to policing, such as better police training, implicit bias training etc., community advisory boards, building community support for policing, and civilian review boards, which differ little if at all from city council elections. All of these “solutions” are premised on the idea of community control of the existing police, not on police abolition or worker self-organization for self-defense.
We do, however, support demands that weaken the ability of the police to fulfill their capitalist and racist functions, including disarming the police, defunding the police and redistribution of those funds to social needs such as public education, healthcare, public and free facilities such as parks, community centers, arts programs, etc., the expulsion of police “unions” from the labor movement and of police from schools, and ending qualified immunity and making it easier to sue and prosecute cops.
Building Mass Revolutionary Movement and Generalizing the Struggle against Oppression
However, these demands, let alone the abolition of state forces of repression, will not succeed if they are disconnected from a strategy for building independent workers’ power to dismantle capitalism and the capitalist state. Because the need for repression of workers and for the reproduction of racism and other forms of oppression are structural to capitalism, the state forces of repression cannot be abolished under capitalism. Capitalists can, for example, simply replace or complement state repressive forces with privatized forces. Therefore, total abolition will only be possible with a working class revolution. Consequently, rather than working on developing comprehensive alternatives to policing or for decarceration, our strategy is to build the mass movement that can accomplish a working class revolution that would make these changes actually possible. This in turn requires that we prepare our class for self-government while, at the same time, continuously engaging in anti-racist and anti-sexist education. We also support building the confidence of our class to deal with internal conflicts without relying on state forces, such as police and courts, or on bosses as mediators. We think that it is critical to build workers’ committees to deal with these matters instead. When we form such committees, we do so as part of a process of struggle, with the goal of increasing our anti-oppression consciousness and practice and developing mass action and independent organization of our class.
Capitalism is the root cause of all the inequality, precarity, and oppression in society, and policing is used not only to defend capitalist property relations but is often the misguided “common sense” or default (pseudo)solution to these problems. Our struggle therefore needs to agitate for fully funded social services, such as healthcare, especially mental healthcare, housing, education, and social programs to combat violence against women. For we know the interaction between civilians and police is exponentially multiplied when people lack the resources they need to live their lives. By targeting the social roots of policing, and diminishing the occasions for police interventions, we can draw our unions and community organizations into the struggle.
If the abolition of repressive forces is impossible without a mass working class movement, this means we need to broaden and widen the struggles that emerged last summer by generalizing the struggle against all forms of policing, mobilizing the whole working class into the fight against state repression. For example, immigrant workers in the United States are exploited with special violence by the capitalist class. They are, as a result, especially vulnerable to state repression, in the form of immigration raids by ICE along with municipal police forces etc. Women workers – a category that obviously overlaps with both Black and immigrant workers – are another sector of the working class whose ascribed identity the capitalist class uses to intensify exploitation. The fight against women’s oppression is also a fundamental working class struggle. Building collaboration and solidarity between the immigrant workers’ movement, the women’s and reproductive rights movement, and the movement for Black liberation is critical. It is only by both bringing anti-oppression to the heart of our working class struggles and agitating for the necessity of political independence from the political parties of the capitalists that we will be able to defeat racism and its apparatuses of violence.