Police officer repeatedly strikes a homeless woman while arresting her for panhandling at a gas station convenience store in 2017. A video showed that the woman, Katie McCrary, called out, “What did I do?”


One of the main sticking points that arises out of a common sense understanding of police is the question: “Who else but the police will protect survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence?” However, the role of “protectors” is solely an occasional one for police departments. The primary role of police under capitalism is to break strikes, protect capital, and use force to maintain the social order. In the United States, this last purpose has taken on an expansive meaning in the wake of 50 years of austerity in which police and prisons seem to be the only social programs the state has money to expand.

Annual policing budgets top $100 billion in the United States, with over $30 billion going to private security. While many cities and towns highest paid public workers are police making six-digits doing “overtime,” rape crisis centers and services for survivors of domestic assault are in constant fiscal crisis. Due to the devaluation of mental health and safety, especially for Black and Latinx women, crisis centers and related clinics are forced to navigate a sparse landscape of underfunded public programs, rare grants from foundations with many strings attached, and quickly used up donations from individuals.

Since the militarization of the police began under Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, funding for prisons and policing accelerated in their respective intensity. Not only did funds grow alongside political power through police unions and a political shift towards being “tough on crime” but also the Department of Defense began sending surplus weapons and equipment to local police departments through the “Excess Property Program,” which began in 1997. Just one incident to highlight the trend is the armored tank sent to Willimantic, Conn., a small town with a population of less than 20,000.

At the same time, social services generally have been cut to the bone. The small increases in total spending is simply a reflection of the fact that private health companies have been able to profit from driving up health-care costs. These cuts to services are one of the main methods by which capitalism has to redistribute value away from workers and toward the big businesses and banks.

Most narratives that perceive the prison industrial complex as a system operating with its own logic, outside of capitalism as a whole, ignore this dynamic and the fact that some companies make super-profits off of prison labor while other sections of capital are paid by the state to house, feed, and maintain incarcerated workers.

The same is generally true for the police, whose various duties and bloated budgets are becoming untenable to a section of the declining U.S. capitalist class. In the face of the most dramatic economic crisis in almost 100 years, part of the ruling class is willing to look at budget cuts to the police as the newest step in a decades-long process of spiraling austerity measures. Without drastically shifting the structure of the social order, policing will remain a drain of limited funds while individual capitalists increasingly rely on private security and armed fascists to protect their investments.

The most likely situation to develop through ruling-class politicians taking up even the most radical calls to “defund the police” is a partial decrease in police budgets with marginal improvements to social services coming from those savings rather than from taxing capital. 

Police uphold gender oppression

Every accounting of police, perpetrators, and survivors points to the basic fact that the criminal justice system in the United States is designed to exacerbate gendered and racialized violence. Women experience double exploitation through the utilization of their waged labor by capital at lower rates than men at work and the dependence of the whole system on their unpaid labor reproducing the labor force. Black, Latinx, Indigenous, South Asian, and other immigrant women face double oppression due to their simultaneously being from oppressed nationalities while also women.

Women in general, and women of color in particular, provide a strong backbone for U.S. capitalism, holding important though underpaid jobs in social work, retail, health care, and other essential sectors. Despite being many of the most essential workers, capitalism degrades the role of women in society, including by assigning them to positions as the last hired and first fired, abetting sexual and physical assault, and constantly denying trans women the democratic right of gender self-ID.

Police are used by capital to reinforce all of the modalities of womens’ oppression in the United States. In this way, cops drive down the costs of women’s labor-power, and therefore all workers’ wages, as well as serving to violently maintain the gendered division of labor generally. Police terrorize women and queer people who report sexual harassment and discrimination on the job and domestic abuse at home, and enforce evictions that put survivors onto the street. In the vast majority of cases, survivors are either unwilling to subject themselves to the dehumanizing process that goes forward with the details of assault, or their case goes nowhere.

In the small subset of cases that are taken up by the police, prisons and the criminal justice system in this country “are ‘criminogenic’—meaning that instead of rehabilitating individuals, they make them more likely to commit crimes in the future.” The most open violence is carried out against Indigenous women and Black trans women, who are largely outside of the “productive” circuits of capital and regularly murdered with no attempt at investigation.

Many women and non-binary people acting in self-defense find themselves enveloped in the prison system. Abolitionist groups like Survived and Punished collect stories and correspondence with these women and queer folks, advocate for their release, and fight for a world without prisons. Stories of women like Liya Birru, an Ethiopian immigrant imprisoned for defending herself against an abusive husband and now facing deportation, color the landscape of a system where over 90% of incarcerated women are survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

Smash the capitalist prison industrial complex!

Solving the fundamental problems represented by police and the prison system cannot be done by simply shifting around resources within an already gutted welfare system. The dependence of decaying U.S. capitalism on maintaining the precarity of women and BIPOCs will become more extreme in the coming period. Already, we have seen the starting shots of the movement to completely roll back reproductive rights, rights against sexual violence, and trans rights over the last four years.

The mass movement that has emerged demanding justice for George Floyd has quickly moved past simply calling for prosecuting the involved officers to putting the whole system on trial. As hundreds of thousands are in the streets, voting with their feet and their voices to defund the police, some representatives of the ruling class are beginning to make concessions to an incredibly popular and dynamic social movement that has developed largely without and ahead of them.

It remains to be seen what those concessions will look like, but the more important thing for working people is what kind of organization develops from this upsurge. Whatever immediate reforms are made by capital, without working people and BIPOC making a definite political break with capitalist parties, the gains will still be subject to the control of billionaires (and soon to be trillionaires) who ignore or abet workplace, domestic, and sexual abuse of women and queer people in order to bolster their profits.

A big step forward for the movement would be to participate in forming a workers’ party based on a revolutionary program that begins the long process of organizing society with principles that include that of transformative justice. Such a party will not hold its power through political maneuverings or gerrymandered election results but rather by its ability to mobilize workers and oppressed people in their millions, in mass demonstrations and in strikes. It is only in this way that women and people of color can maintain whatever gains they do make in this moment.

As Leon Trotsky said, “The general Marxist thesis, ‘social reforms are only the by-products of the revolutionary struggle,’ has in the epoch of the decline of capitalism the most immediate and burning importance.”