By JOHN LESLIE
The police murder of George Floyd on May 25 has ignited a firestorm of protest. In hundreds of cities, peaceful protests have been attacked by riot police. At last count, 10 protesters have been killed and thousands more arrested and injured by rubber bullets and tear gas. What we have witnessed from Minneapolis to Philadelphia to Atlanta to Washington, D.C., is a national police riot by an out-of-control racist institution.
Liberals want us to believe that police are neutral and that they are here to “protect and serve.” We are asked to believe that it is only a “few bad apples” who are engaged in violent and racist behavior. Socialists reject these illusions. Police exist as the armed enforcers of a racist capitalist system. This violence has deep roots extending down to chattel slavery’s slave catchers.
Epidemic of police violence against people of color
Recent years have seen countless victims of police murder and violence. Many incidents have been caught on video by witnesses, with little or no consequences for the police involved. The Black Lives Matter movement, which began in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, continued to mobilize as police murdered Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and so many others.
Breonna Taylor was shot eight times in her sleep when cops executed a “no-knock” search warrant. The warrant was supposedly for a person who was already in police custody. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, thought that there was a break-in fired on police, wounding one. He was charged with first-degree assault on a police officer and attempted murder. These charges were later dropped. There were no drugs in the house.
The vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery was at first covered up until video of the horrific killing was released on social media. Arbery’s murderers were arrested not long before the lynching of George Floyd.
Of course, there has always been resistance to police repression. In Houston, in 1917, Black U.S. Army troops took up arms against local police after cops attacked a member of their unit. During the 1960s, there were rebellions against police repression in Detroit, Los Angeles, Trenton, and other large cities. In the 1990s, the Los Angeles rebellion followed the acquittal of cops who savagely beat Rodney King. More recently, Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore exploded after the police murders of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.
Capitalism, police, and the state
The question of the police and their relationship to society is an important one for socialists. Many unionists, members of oppressed nationalities, and social movement activists have experienced police repression. Any worker who has been on strike knows that cops are called to suppress workers’ picket line actions and break strikes.
The police attack on counter-protesters during a 2018 far-right demonstration in Portland is another example of the reactionary role of cops. During a far-right “free speech” mobilization, there were friendly exchanges and “high fives” between police and ultra-right protesters. Cooperation with rightist “Oath Keepers” extended to one of the reactionaries’ assisting police with the arrest of a counter-protester.
Earlier this week, Philadelphia police fraternized with Proud Boys and other rightists who formed a vigilante mob of over 100 people, armed with baseball bats and other weapons near a police substation on Girard Avenue. Cops high-fived and cheered on these goons, even after they had intimated Black Lives Matter protesters, physically attacking three of them. It is reported that there were chants of “white lives matter.”
The state is not something particular to capitalism. The state is the expression of the division of society into social classes with conflicting interests. In “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State,” Frederick Engels writes that the state is “a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.”
The state does not exist to “reconcile” the interests of the various classes; it exists for the subjugation of workers and oppressed people by the dominant, or ruling, class. This is expressed in the formation of police, the army, prisons, and other instruments of coercion aimed at keeping working people in line.
In the U.S., policing cannot be separated from the racist nature of the system. The origins of police in the U.S., especially in the South, can be partially traced to the slave patrols formed to catch runaway slaves. Later, police were the enforcers of Jim Crow segregation. They remain an essential component of the regime of mass incarceration, which imprisons hundreds of thousands of young Black and Brown men and women.
Police and fascism
In Italy and Germany, during the rise of fascist movements, there was cooperation between police and fascist groups. This cooperation extended to Italian police training of Mussolini’s Black Shirts. In the U.S., there have been demonstrated links with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and neo-Nazi groups. For instance, in Houston in the 1970s, it was estimated that as many as 40% of the police department were members of the KKK. The same could be said of police departments across the South.
Racist policing is not something isolated to the South. Northern cities have enforced de facto segregation for years through racist policing. Philadelphia, supposedly the “city of brotherly love,” has a long history of racist cops. The most famous is the former police commissioner and mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo. Rizzo’s cops were infamous for attacks on the Black community. This included carrying young Black people into hostile white neighborhoods so that they had to run for their lives to get home. Under Rizzo, the police violently attacked the Black Panther Party and Black civil rights organizations.
The racist attitudes of the Philadelphia police department culminated in the May 1985 bombing of the MOVE house on Osage Avenue. On May 13, police surrounded the house, firing more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition at the home and used fire trucks to spray the house with more than 450,000 gallons of water. Later in the day, a police helicopter dropped a bomb on the roof, sparking a fire. Rather than use the fire department to extinguish the fire, the decision was made to “let the fire burn,” ultimately destroying 61 homes, leaving 250 people homeless, and killing 11 members of the MOVE organization, including five children.
The only person to be imprisoned after this crime was MOVE’s Ramona Africa, the sole adult survivor of the police attack (one child, Birdie Africa, also came out alive). No police or public official faced any legal consequences.
Building resistance to police violence means exposing the reactionary role of police “unions” in society and the labor movement. Cop unions not only make excuses for the murderers in their ranks, they support racist and reactionary policies like mass incarceration. Within the ranks of organized labor, cop unions play a reactionary role by opposing progressive initiatives.
The Fraternal Order of Police and Police Benevolent Association are the largest police unions. The Teamsters, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees International Union also represent police and prison guards. Building labor solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement within the labor movement means challenging the role of police unions and demanding that labor federations cut ties to these reactionary anti-worker organizations.
Revolutionary socialists reject the notion that police are a legitimate part of the workers’ movement. While police may be drawn from the ranks of the working class, they serve the interests of a racist capitalist social order. It’s the role they play as enforcers of the existing state and economic set-up that is decisive.
Leon Trotsky, writing about cops in the 1930s, said, “The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker. Of late years, these policemen have had to do much more fighting with revolutionary workers than with Nazi students. Such training does not fail to leave its effects. And above all: every policeman knows that though governments may change, the police remains.”
Socialists reject calls for more cops and for “law and order,” since these policies always disproportionately target oppressed nationalities and workers. This is why, for example, we opposed Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s call for adding thousands of more police in Britain in the wake of terror attacks.
We must continue to mobilize for justice against police violence and work to expose the links between neo-fascist groups and cops. The future of the various movements depends on our ability to link the struggles for justice against the system. This means holding the system’s enforcers in blue accountable.
Jail killer cops! Justice for George Floyd! Justice for Ahmaud Arbery! Justice for Breonna Taylor! For Black Community control of the Black community! Release all arrested! Drop all charges!
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