Police debate: Agnostic

This article was prepared as an entry in the debate on the police question for the Winter 2021 issue of The Activist. It was not included due to space.

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.


One of the main animating causes of protests in the last decade has been wanton police brutality. This pattern of mobilizations, surges and ebbs, will surely continue. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a simple solution to policing. And the frameworks of both “defund” and “abolish” have downsides (or complications). Ultimately, I think the power to change policing won’t be a result of struggles that emerge to directly confront the police.

Defunding the police has the obvious benefit of unifying socialists and liberals who are disgusted by the videos of murders we see so often. And it focuses the socialist movement on sources of power: elected officials and budgets. At the same time, the “movementism” of struggles against police violence means that the approach defund advocates take might be more about pressuring sitting politicians instead of replacing them with our own socialist candidates. And defund itself is not detailed enough: which aspects of policing do we want to defund? Number of police officers or just surplus military hardware? Defund could be the progressive language that liberals use to justify laying off whole departments, attacking the most reactionary part of the labor movement before turning to the rest of the public sector.

Added to this, the incredibly local nature of policing in the U.S. federal system means that the defund movement will have to go from nationwide wave to hyper-specific issue campaigns, and it’s difficult to pivot and sustain momentum like that.

Abolition asks people to imagine a totally different society based on different values — just like socialism. But abolition fundamentally misunderstands how power works in society. Most people might think that the police are for preventing or responding to crime, even though we know they protect private property. But the underlying causes of crime are societal — unemployment, access to healthcare and housing, quality of life, etc. Local budgets just aren’t enough to offer those universal social services. And whether it’s a public department or a private security force, the ruling class still wants its property rights upheld. This means we can’t challenge police head-on and expect crime — or the rich’s need to protect their property — to disappear. Challenging the authority of the police is really challenging the state’s monopoly on violence — in other words, proposing that the current order be replaced by a new order. For that to happen, we need to connect the issue of policing — which most people do not acutely suffer from — to issues that speak to and can mobilize the vast majority of people: for example, the immense despair that results from staggering inequality or the political constraints imposed by our Constitution.

Not only that, but if we do impose a new order, we still shouldn’t anticipate that the need for internal security will immediately fade away. Revolutions in the past required police, even if they were called something different, so we should predict that states in the near future will too, even if we transform their roles. We can’t lie to the working class about how power works and hope they follow along.

This all might sound pessimistic. But we can end police violence and build a new society. Along the way, we must fight for democracy and accountability to be applied to the police, because that’s our goal for the whole state. We shouldn’t dismiss all reforms; some studies indicate that the diversity of police forces actually matters, if only a bit (Harvey and Mattia 2020). And we’ve got to figure out, as an organization, how to relate to the righteous anger that cyclically takes to the streets, without losing sight of either our own vision or the emotional energy of millions of protesters. For that, I don’t have an answer.