This article was prepared as an entry in the debate on the police question for the Winter 2021 issue of The Activist.
Prompt: Whenever and wherever there is police brutality, socialists must stand beside the people who resist. But how do we go from protests to political change? Do we want an end to police violence or to policing itself? What should our slogan be, how do we convince others, and when will we know if we’ve succeeded? The following short articles represent distinct positions on “the policing question,” and we hope they will help you clarify your own thoughts.
As socialists, we can all agree that our end goal is to completely dismantle the systems that oppress and exploit all working-class people. And we can all agree that there will be multiple steps and struggles in dismantling these systems. During the COVID-19 pandemic, YDSA members have taken on countless projects from organizing tenants to tuition strikes to mutual aid. These efforts are campaigns to chip away at the power of the ruling class and build power for the multi-racial working class. However, it would be a serious miscalculation in our quest for working-class power if we did not work towards dismantling and abolishing the police state. Just as deeply racialized capitalism is embedded into our country so is police and the concept of policing. One of the many reasons why capitalism in the West has been able to function is because there has been a system in place to control and punish workers for over 400 hundred years, particularly BIPOC workers and their communities.
Police violence is nothing new and has a long, painful history in the states. In the 1700s colony of South Carolina, one of our country’s first organized police forces emerged in the form of “slave patrols.” Scholar Victor E. Kappeler argues
“law enforcement systems existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.” (Eastern Kentucky University)
Slave patrols policed the movement and life of free and enslaved Black folks alike in the South. And in the North, police forces assisted in capturing and returning escaped slaves back to the South. The intertwining of capitalist interests — between the Southern slave-owning elite and Northern mercantile classes — cemented a system for which control over black bodies and freedoms was necessary to further profit.
Even after the abolition of slavery, white capitalist elites still needed a way to control the relations of production and, most importantly, to find a way to produce the highest profits while paying workers the lowest wages. From the beginning of the 20th century to today, police and police agencies like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement have been tools for bosses and corporations to break up and undermine organized labor. In the Triangle Shirtwaist Strike of 1909, police beat and arrested the mostly immigrant women and children workers on the picket line. Since then, ICE has carried out massive raids on shop floors, arresting and deporting hundreds of immigrants, while giving large multi-million-dollar corporations like Smithfield and Tyson slaps on the wrist for practicing predatory employment practices.
Many argue that police systems in this country just need major reform. But police reform has failed in almost every city that has attempted it.
“New York banned chokeholds. Seattle required de-escalation training. Los Angeles restricted shooting at moving vehicles. But those reforms did not stop police from killing Eric Garner, Charleena Lyles or Ryan Twyman, who died when officers used the very tactics that the changes were supposed to prevent” (“It’s not about bad apples,” The Guardian).
Reform has done nothing to tackle these root issues of racism and violence; it will continue to do nothing but pour more taxpayer money into a system that oppresses us. Police and punishment have always and will always be tools of white capitalist elites. Policing is as old and violent as capitalism: one cannot function without the other. If we hope to see trans, Black, Brown, and working-class liberation, socialists must — with complete urgency — organize toward abolition of the police.