Abolish the police? Overthrow capitalism!

Submitted by AWL on 24 June, 2020 - 7:34 Author: Martin Thomas
Minneapolis police

The slogan-title of Alex Vitale's book is The End of Policing. His detailed conclusion in the text, though, is that "policing needs to be reformed", with "a larger vision that questions the basic role of police in society".

DeRay Mckesson and others, prominent in the Black Lives Matter movement, have circulated both a range of police reforms, and a narrower focus on curbing police powers. In the second exposition, some of the demands advocated in the first exposition are criticised as worthless, notably police body cameras and better training.

In June 1917, when Lenin advocated revising the Bolshevik party programme in the light of the rise of the Soviets (workers' councils), he proposed: "a more democratic workers' and peasants' republic, in which the police and the standing army will be abolished and replaced by... a people's militia".

Vitale and Mckesson are not quite on the same lines as Lenin, and Lenin's terse formula needs some "unpacking" in the light of events.

The message of an older US advocate of "abolishing the police", Angela Davis, is vitiated by her longstanding support for full-on police states in the old USSR and in East Germany. The same cannot be said against Vitale and Mckesson.

They are on the left fringe of the Democratic Party. Vitale is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Mckesson backed Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination in 2016. Mckesson is also a top manager ("Chief of Human Capital") for Baltimore city schools.

They both want socialistic change. But in their writings that is a remote and vague idea.

The slogan "defund the police" is motivated heavily on the need to fund social provision. To them transferring a bit from the police budget to social budgets seems more within reach than "tax the rich".

Their perspective is for existing city councils (etc.), operating within the existing capitalist structure, to reduce the scope, powers, and funding of the police bit-by-bit to zero.

Lenin, by contrast, was writing in a time and place when the old (Tsarist) police force had already collapsed and dispersed (in the February 1917 revolution), and the "people's militia" (an old socialist idea) had already emerged in the Red Guards run by the Soviets. "The substitution of a people's militia for the police is... now being introduced in most parts of Russia", wrote Lenin in mid-1917, arguing that to consolidate that and forestall the restoration of a Tsarist-type police the workers must end the "dual power" and win a Soviet government.

In the period of "war communism", the Bolsheviks had hopes of rapidly moving to a full "withering away of the state" and the abolition of formal legal procedures. In early 1918 the Soviets were asked to set up militias and "people's courts", on the sketchiest basis. Even after the deep socialist self-re-education the Russian workers had had in 1917, that over-optimism proved foolish.

The pressures of civil war made the informality not a democratic boon but the opposite. A more structured special police, the Cheka, set up in late 1917, spun drastically out of control.

By the end of the civil war, they tried instead a regularisation of the "police" and a simplification and cheapening of justice in the spirit of what the Bolsheviks saw as the most democratic and liberal ideas about law elsewhere.

The Cheka was abolished in early 1922. Its replacement was designated as a detective agency only. But then the Stalinist counter-revolution intervened, and turned its name, GPU, into a byword for despotism.

If an "abolition" of the police were possible within the USA's overall capitalist structure, it would lead not to liberty but to selected "police" functions being operated instead (and worse) by mafias or private security forces, as they were against strikes and unions by the Pinkerton Agency in the late 19th century USA.

We want to push back the scope and powers of the police, to demilitarise it, to decriminalise areas of life, to improve mental-health and school provision, etc. and to cut police funding as a result. A low-paid police in the same class structures will probably just be more corrupt.

The general formula remains one of struggle to impose democratic checks on the police under capitalism, and then to replace it under a workers' government by a public-safety service democratically controlled by communities. For a whole epoch, as the Bolsheviks realised, it will be important for that structure to be "professional" in the sense of regularised, trained, structured, accountable, not ad hoc.

Rahila Gupta of Southall Black Sisters explains that the "communities" also need to be revolutionised.

Instead of "boycotting" the police, she explains, "we negotiate the minefield of conflicting priorities of race and gender by engaging with the police to safeguard women, but every time the police fail to carry out their obligations or overstep the mark, we hold them to account...

"The community itself is a problem, riddled as it is with conservative, patriarchal and religious values... Furthermore, communities cannot be held accountable in the same way as the state".

What cops really do

"Crime control", writes Vitale, "is a small part of policing".

In the USA cops make many more arrests than for example in Britain, yet "felony [serious crime] arrests are a rarity for uniformed officers, with most making no more than one a year". Nor, these days, do cops spend much time on patrol or "on the beat", theoretically preventing crime.

The bulk of police time goes on humdrum work and trying to establish an overbearing presence in worse-off communities.

In the USA, a tenfold expansion of prison populations, a big expansion of federal funding for the police, and the development of ultra-militarised SWAT teams, started in the early 1970s.

Militarisation accelerated in the 1990s. So did the placing of cops in schools. That has been followed by a militarisation of schools (metal detectors, frequent searches, heavy video surveillance); vast numbers of student exclusions; many arrests in schools (92,000 in 2011-2), even for things like "using... phones, disrespecting teachers, and getting into loud arguments"; and students injured or even killed in schools by police violence.

Also since the 1970s there has been a "massive expansion of the role [of police] in managing people with mental illness". "Anywhere from 5 to 20% of all US police incidents involve a person with a mental illness... Two million people a year are admitted to US jails; of them, 15% of men and 30% of women have a serious mental illness".

Post-1970s policing has also created "a revolving door in which homeless people are arrested [usually for petty offences] sent through the jail and court system and then released back" to the streets.

The pattern of the police focusing heavily against sex workers goes back longer. In the 1960s it was "the norm" for those interactions to function through pay-offs and bribes. Even now, the policing of sex work yields many arrests but neither reduces the volume of the work nor makes it safer.

New York City spent a million police hours on arrests for marijuana possession during Michael Bloomberg's term as mayor in 2002-13. Now half of all federal prisoners are there for drug crimes, and $50 billion a year is spent on "the War on Drugs", while US average life expectancy has declined since 2014, partly because of the toll of prescription opioids.

US cops have increasingly constructed big databases of gangs, adding names to them with little evidence, and following up with mass raids and arrests.

Border policing — including giving non-citizens jail sentences for illegal re-entry — and political policing complete the roster of staple police activities. Vitale comments: "There really is almost no reason to deploy armoured vehicles and snipers to manage protests, even those where some violence has occurred".

US police history

The USA actually has fewer police in proportion to population than Europe. Police pay differs hugely across the USA, and is often relatively lower than European rates. However, the USA jails many more people than European countries. Its cops arrest more people, are much more militarised, and kill many more people.

Since public social provision is weaker in the USA than in Europe, often, as Vitale reports, "the primary face of local government in poor communities is the police officer, engaged primarily in punitive enforcement actions". Compare, for example, The Hague. In the city budget, public safety (not only cops) is 2.3%. The other 98% is mostly for welfare, sustainability and improving mobility. Despite many sallies of police reform over a century or more, the police in the USA are a stronger autonomous "corporate lobby" than in Europe.

The Paris daily Le Monde (18/6) reports, for example: "Bob Kroll, the boss of the powerful Minneapolis Police Officers' Federation [which is] a corporation or a lobby more than a union... has been the subject of 20 internal inquiries during his career, and faced sanctions after three of them... [He] has transformed his organisation... into a war machine against all change.

"When the mayor banned military training [for the police, Kroll] announced that the Federation would pay for it for its members".

Minneapolis city council members, interviewed on radio, have reported that 50% of cops sacked from the Minneapolis force for misconduct get rehired.

The USA has generally been closer to deregulated-markets "capitalist anarchy" than Europe, and police forces were formed there later than in Europe. The New York police force was first set up in 1844. Cops got their jobs by bribing city officials.

In 1857 the New York state legislature abolished the city police and created a new force. That led to street-fighting between the two police forces, controlled only by the army, and it was some months before the new force prevailed.

Cops being "on the take" "remained standard procedure in many major departments until the 1970s", and then declined, but did not disappear, reports Vitale.

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