Three-quarters of Minneapolis’ city council members have pledged publicly to disband the city’s police department and introduce new systems of “public safety”.
This is good news in that it shows the impact of anti-police protests and their success in shifting the political narrative.
Minneapolis demonstrators booed and heckled mayor Jacob Frey when he refused to commit to “abolishing” Minneapolis PD. He deserves booing for his double-dealing attitude to the anti-police movement.
But it’s also true that the council policy is in fact more tentative than the “instant anarchist utopia” it sounds like.
The details so far are unclear, but the Minneapolis council members are setting abolition of Minneapolis PD as a longer-term rather than imminent goal. The more immediate policy is cutting the department’s budget, cutting back the police’s role and redirecting funds to public services and community programs.
Twelve out of thirteen council members are members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labour Party, which despite its name is just the Democratic Party’s Minnesota unit (the Democrats absorbed a labour movement party and merged the names). It seems their intention is to combine “defunding” with reconstituting the police with new rules. They don’t dislike the current police chief, but rather deplore his inability to control his department.
Camden, New Jersey, a 90% “minority” city which for years combined high crime rates (the country’s fifth highest murder rate) with a brutal police force, did disband its police force in 2013.
The replacement was a county-wide force, with an emphasis on “community relations” and much stricter rules for the use of force and disciplinary procedures if they are broken.
Now, “excessive force” complaints against the Camden police have dropped 95% since 2014; and meanwhile violent crime has fallen sharply, with the murder rate dropping two thirds between 2012 and 2018.
However, the number of police officers in Camden has actually gone up substantially, as has the number of “low level” arrests and summonses.
If the Minneapolis councillors do something similar to Camden, even more radical, that may well bring improvements but will not amount to “abolishing the police” in the anarchist sense.
In fact, capitalism with only private enforcers (like US cities before mid-19th century, or some “failed states” today) may be worse than regular police. Until capitalism is overthrown, even a reformed police will enforce capitalist interests; but what we want instead is a developed alternative structure based on the labour movement and working-class communities to take its place. Our movements are not yet strong enough to create and sustain such a structure.
Socialists’ general approach, which of course should be tested and reshaped in the course of the struggle, is as follows.
We want to replace the existing, capitalist police by a democratic community-controlled patrol service under workers’ rule. Even further beyond that, we want to see that sort of service gradually merging into becoming only a subsection of community self-administration.
However, the existing police cannot be abolished and comprehensively replaced in this way — in a way that takes us forward — without overthrowing the wider power of the capitalist class and creating a workers’ government.
The problem is not that the demand to abolish the police is “too radical”. It’s a question of how it can be realised.
To demand that the capitalist class abolish its own state machine makes no sense. On the other hand, the breakdown or withdrawal of parts of that machine in favour of expanded private security, or private vigilante groups, would not be a step forward.
Immediately, we should fight for radical measures to curb police power, introduce stronger elements of accountability and democracy over them, expand public social provision and limit the spheres in which the police operate. Meanwhile we should build up the movement to overthrow capitalism and its state — including by opposing the police, however reformed.
We are seeking to interview US activists to gain a better understanding of the issues and debates there, as well as their implications for the UK and more widely.
• Watch or listen to Crime and policing — intro in a series on “The state, crime, prisons and the police”