Unreformable: Police & the Capitalist State
How do we create a society free from a police force that harasses, imprisons, and murders Black people, that represses working-class movements? As we fight for every reform possible under capitalism to decrease the repressive powers of the police, we must link this to building a mass socialist movement. For the fight to abolish the capitalist police is interwoven with the fight to replace the capitalist state with the self-organization of the Black, brown, and multiracial working class.
In early June 2020, two weeks after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, protesters marched to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s house, demanding that he commit to defund and abolish the police. “Will you defund the police?” asked Kandace Montgomery, one of the march organizers. When Mayor Frey responded “No, I won’t abolish the police,” the crowd erupted, booing him out of the protest and shouting “shame!” National media and news outlets picked up the story immediately. Now, as the uprising for Black lives—the largest protest movement in US history—enters its third month, calls to both defund and abolish the police continue to spread across the country.
While debate continues over how much the goal of a police-free future is bound up with the struggle to overthrow capitalism and end class society, abolitionist organizers unite around the need to upend people’s notions about the inevitability or naturalness of the criminal punishment system. “As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm,” says abolitionist Mariame Kaba.
As Angela Davis said recently:
Abolition is really about rethinking the kind of future we want, the social future, the economic future, the political future. It’s about revolution... I am convinced that the ultimate eradication of racism is going to require us to move toward a more socialist organization of our economies, of our other institutions... an economic system that is not based on exploitation, and on the super-exploitation of Black people, Latinx people and other racialized populations.
Davis and others have pointed out that the movement’s scale and fierce urgency is not just due to the political system’s failure to change after past protests against police racism. It reflects a broader revolt against the crisis of capitalism: deep racial and class inequalities, the rise of Trump and the far-right, and the failure of the corporate-controlled Democratic Party to offer a real alternative. It is an uprising in the context of the wrenching, unequal, and racist impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the failure of the US political elite and for-profit healthcare system to respond.
The uprising takes place as the worst economic crisis in living memory ravages working-class people, hitting communities of color the hardest, and coming on the heels of the last economic crisis which wiped out half of Black wealth in the US between 2008 and 2013. All this dramatically worsens the already bleak future facing young people. In this context, openness to fundamental societal change is rapidly growing.
Opportunities exist for the current uprising for Black lives to win far-reaching reforms that decrease the repressive powers of the police, not just cosmetic changes aimed at reinforcing and legitimizing them. Campaigns to defund the police point towards this, and must be linked to the fight to dramatically reallocate wealth in this society toward Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities especially and toward the working class in general. It is through a mass fight for these demands that people will build the confidence, self-organization, and determination necessary to fundamentally transform society.
What could that fundamental socialist transformation look like? What would real public safety look like? How will we get there? Connecting the goal of a police-free future to the police’s particular function within capitalist society can help us understand what it will take to get rid of them, as well as clarify what sort of government and society we want to replace them with. But to start we need a clear-eyed view of the world we live in today.
Capitalist Society & the State
“The rulers of this country have always considered their property more important than our lives.”
— Assata Shakur
We live in a capitalist society. As a class society, we experience a constant battle between the capitalist class (people who own the economy, control the government, and use money to make more money for their own private profit) and the working class (all of us and our families who must work to survive, whether currently employed or unemployed). The latter, this vast majority of people, must sell their labor power and their time to the former, corporations and the rich—where they are undemocratically subject to the will of their employer—at the expense of spending their lives with family and community, engaging in creative activity, and doing what they enjoy. The working class must do this in order to simply survive—without selling our labor we are left unhoused, unfed, and without any means of subsistence. This is horrifying and brutal, yet accepted as completely normal: a key ideological tool to discipline the working class into accepting its own exploitation.
But working-class people are constantly engaged in different struggles to better their condition. Organized as a class, the working class is the force that can overthrow capitalism. It is in the interest of working-class people to put an end to this irrational and immoral system, and to class society as a whole.
The global working class is multiracial and multigender, but disproportionately made up of people of color and women. In the US, Black people are over-represented in the multiracial working class, alongside Latinx and Indigenous people. Black working-class people are some of the most exploited—or, as Manning Marable puts it in How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, “generally more subject to the violence of American capitalism than whites.” The Black working class is concentrated in the lowest paid sectors of the labor force, make up much of the “reserve army of labor,” and are the “historic target of brutality within a racist culture and society” (p. 95). While seeing working-class people’s shared interests across identity lines is necessary, it should not be mistaken for glossing over deep differences. In fact, uniting the global working class is the single greatest challenge facing any revolutionary movement.
It is also the biggest threat to the capitalists’ rule. They purposely keep us divided: racism is baked into the system of capitalism in order to do this. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it.” While racism is a product of capitalism, this is “not to deny or diminish its centrality to or impact on America society,” writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. “It is simply to explain its origins and persistence. Nor is this reducing racism to just a function of capitalism; it is locating the dynamic relationship between class exploitation and racial oppression in the functioning of American capitalism” (p. 206).
Capitalists defend their rule with a whole system of repression, starting with the capitalist controlled media and the production of pro-capitalist ideas. As Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology, the ruling class “among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch” (p. 64).
For example, in asking why there was little public outcry over the proliferation of prisons in the 1980s and 1990s, Angela Davis turns to the role of the media and Hollywood. In Are Prisons Obsolete?, she writes: “It is virtually impossible to avoid consuming images of prison… the prison is one of the most important features of our image environment. This has caused us to take the existence of prisons for granted.” The idea of prisons as natural, just, and as a solution to society’s ills is normalized as one aspect of capitalist rule.
In the US, the capitalist class fortifies itself with a two-party system that has so far managed to deny genuine working-class representation. Since its beginning as the party of slaveholders, big business has dominated the Democratic Party. The rise of the labor and civil rights movements last century forced a political realignment, and Democratic Party leadership shifted to sometimes pay lip-service to working-class people, particularly poor communities of color. But at almost every turn party leaders side with big business; concessions made are most often in response to working-class movements or left-wing challengers, like Bernie and AOC. In fact, current police brutality against Black people and protesters takes place in large Democrat-controlled cities like New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Seattle, where Democratic city government consistently sides with police, and allows them to get away with murder and brutality with impunity.
In capitalist society, what we call “the state” — police, prisons, military, legislature, the executive, the judiciary, and the administration of regulations, Social Security, education — often seems to be neutral, or above the class struggle. But the state is not a neutral body. The state inevitably emerges out of huge contradictions in society to mediate and regulate what would otherwise be either open class warfare or, under conditions of scarcity and desperation, an anarchic brutal battle over resources in society. For the capitalist state, regulating class society means that it maintains and normalizes the violence that is used to oppress and divide the working class: the violence of racial oppression but also that of gender violence and discrimination. Under capitalism, the state has developed historically out of the class conflict and has been shaped at every turn by the dominant class. While it has to reflect, to some extent, the movements of the working class, it is firmly on the side of the capitalists.
The state uses armed forces for repression and social control: police, prisons, national guard, and the military. These repressive apparatuses are the final and decisive way the capitalists maintain their rule. Horrifyingly, the profit the working class creates for the capitalists through our own labor is used to pay for the very apparatuses that are used to repress us.
Capitalism & Racism: A Brief History
“Capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it.”
In the US, capitalism developed through genocide of Indigenous people for colonial expansion, and enslavement of Africans to work this stolen land. This was done in the service of the wealthy elite, to accumulate capital. It was part of a worldwide project of primitive accumulation of capital that fueled the violent birth of capitalism. Alongside the slave trade, genocide of Indigenous people in the Americas, and European colonization, the new order proletarianized the peasantry in Europe through land enclosures and destroyed communal ways of life through cultural repression, religious persecution, and witch-hunts both in Europe and in the colonies. Racism emerged as a central way that the young capitalist class justified conquest and slavery, particularly as their bourgeois movements like the French Revolution began to speak of equality and freedom.
Anti-Black racism in particular emerged as a tool to divide and exploit the oppressed. Edmund Morgan, in American Slavery, American Freedom, documents how anti-Black racism emerged in early colonial Virginia as a way for the ruling class to prevent poor whites and Black slaves from uniting, as they had during the anti-Indigenous revolt of Bacon’s Rebellion. While this 1676 rebellion contained anti-elite sentiment among indentured servants, enslaved people, and farmers, its fuel and aim was to expand the colonial frontier into Indigenous land by slaughtering Indigenous Susquehannock people. The plantation owners were terrified that this multiracial group might unite against the slaveowners instead. Morgan writes: “The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave Blacks by a screen of racial contempt.” (p. 328) Racism began to be codified in law and pushed out through the ideology of the ruling class.
Almost 200 years later, slave resistance, labor walk-outs, and the threat of breaking up the United States and undermining the power of Northern capitalists forced the abolition of slavery. Racist Jim Crow laws emerged as part of a counter-revolution against the revolutionary dynamic of radical Reconstruction. Racist laws and violence in both the North and South were a way to keep Black labor subservient to white capitalists, who continued the super-exploitation of Black people in order to make massive profits. In the North, Black people were imprisoned for violating the Black Codes. In the South, the systems of sharecropping, debt peonage, and convict-leasing tied Black people to a never-ending cycle of debt, imprisonment, and forced labor, often in worse conditions than slavery.
The industrial union movement of the 1930s, the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Black Power movement in the late 1960s were watershed struggles in Black people’s continued fight for liberation. Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party drew clear connections between racism and capitalism. In response, the capitalist ruling class launched COINTELPRO to destroy, terrorize, and turn public opinion against Black and communist movements and leaders. Manning Marable argues that the growth of the Black prison population in the 1960s was another way that the ruling class attempted to suppress radical Black leaders and the Black working class.
The neoliberal assault of the 1980s and 1990s massively expanded prisons, increased militarization of the police, and escalated the so-called War on Drugs. As the post-World War II economic boom came to an abrupt end, the capitalist class internationally looked to restore its profitability by slashing corporate taxes and regulations, ripping apart the social safety net, and breaking unions and other social movements. Neoliberalism meant reversing many of the social and economic advances of working people generally, but especially Black workers. In place of living wage jobs, affordable housing, welfare, and accessible health care including mental health services, the ruling class expanded police and prisons to put a repressive lid on the desperate conditions millions were driven into. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander documents how mass incarceration acts as a continuation of racial social control, in which Black men in particular are “disappeared” from society into prisons.
The Police as a Racist Arm of the State
“In the days of chattel slavery the masters had a patrol force to keep the negroes in their place and protect the interests of the masters. Today the capitalists use the police for the same purpose.”
The police, as an arm of the capitalist state, exist to enforce the rule of the capitalists: to repress and discipline the working class. They protect private property over working-class people’s lives. When there are uprisings against the capitalists rule—whether in mass protests, strikes, or occupations—the police are there to break us.
The police maintain order not only through violence, but also through other means of social control. As Mariame Kaba points out, “they spend most of their time responding to noise complaints, issuing parking and traffic citations, and dealing with other noncriminal issues.” In fact, as Taylor writes, “twenty-first-century municipalities, urban and suburban, increasingly rely on revenue generated by fines and fees that either originate with or are the products of arrests” (p. 126). Not only are these fines and fees one way that the police enact social control over the working class, but they also fleece working-class people, and Black people in particular, to pay for city budgets, including the expanding militarized police force, all while lowering the financial burden on billionaires and corporations whose tax rates have dropped year after year.
In the US, standing police departments were created during the rise of industrial capitalism. In the mid-1800s in the North, the police were used to suppress popular unrest and riots, particularly strikes and labor unrest during burgeoning industrialization. Looking at histories of police in Northern cities from 1865-1915, Sidney L. Harring writes in Policing a Class Society: “In city after city the police institution was reorganized and strengthened as part of a more general effort to control and stabilize potentially explosive class violence in rapidly developing cities.”
In the South, slave patrols are often considered to be the precursors of the modern police force. In fact, some of these patrols simply turned into standing police departments. And Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, in An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, writes that militias in the North American colonies, created “for the purpose of raiding and razing Indigenous communities,” (p. 80) were later used as slave patrols, confirming a deep connection between colonialism, expansion, and capitalism in the US, and its use of racism as a means of violently securing profit and rule.
It is no accident that the US police force is one of the most militarized, violent, racist, sexist, and transphobic in the world. The conditions of their work organically create an environment for racist, sexist, and reactionary ideas to flourish. Many departments across the country have been infiltrated by white supremacists. A substantial portion of cops are domestic abusers; family violence by police is 2-4 times higher than in the general population.
The contradictions and inequalities in US society are bigger than in any other capitalist country: obscene wealth on one side of society and the lack of major reforms on the other (like nationalized healthcare, pensions, and free education won by the working class in other countries), together with the super-exploitation and oppression of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people. The capitalist class relies on a brutal police force to keep the poorest and most oppressed layers in check as a warning to the rest of society.
The police cannot be used in the interests of the working class. We can't rely in any way on the police, not even a significantly reformed force, to protect our communities or be deployed in support of working-class movements, even where they are under the formal control of more left-wing politicians or civilian oversight boards. But to abolish the capitalist police we must get rid of capitalism—and create a new society in its place.
A Completely Different State & Society
“That is the prognosis of the future. In Africa, in America, in the West Indies, on a national and international scale, the millions of Negroes will raise their heads, rise up from their knees, and write some of the most massive and brilliant chapters in the history of international socialism.”
— C.L.R James, “Revolution and the Negro,” 1939
We are fighting for a socialist society. We want the multiracial working class to take power, and organize the economy and society to meet the needs of humanity and nature, not for the profit of a few billionaires. We think the working class can run society, with democratic decision-making bodies in all of our workplaces and communities, deciding what and how we produce the things we need, and how we organize our lives.
But how do we get there? We disagree with the view of many on the left that the capitalist state can be reformed into a tool for the working class to use or transformed into its own democratic socialist state. The working class will not be able to elect our way into control over the capitalist state and then gradually transform it. The limits of democratic control over the existing capitalist state is most starkly revealed when examining control over the police, army, and other core repressive arms of the state. Even liberal capitalist politicians who try to reign in or regulate these bodies quickly face resistance and find them to be deeply unaccountable and autonomous from formal democratic oversight, as Democratic politicians from Seattle to New York are now experiencing.
The attempt to use the capitalist state for socialist purposes has been tried with disastrous results: socialists in Chile in the 1970s found that the armed bodies of the state ultimately responded to the capitalist class, not to the democratically elected socialist president. More often, the capitalist class has not needed to resort to military coups, instead defeating socialist governments through economic pressures like “capital strikes” or by economic threats and extortion. This was recently demonstrated in Greece after Syriza came to power in 2015, but history is thick with similar examples including the well-documented capitulation of the Mitterand government in France in the 1980s.
For the working class to establish genuine democracy, we must dismantle, or “break-up, smash” (in Lenin’s words) the existing capitalist state, and replace it with our own self-organized, democratic institutions. Most crucially, this means getting rid of the repressive features of the capitalist state: the capitalist police, courts, and military, as well as the “bureaucracy” of the executive governing bodies, the “deep state” within the administrations.
Experiences of revolutionary upheavals, workplace takeovers, general strikes, and attempts at working-class revolution show working-class people’s tremendous creative potential. Throughout history, working-class people in revolt have organized mass assemblies of struggle to deal with the crises at hand and to challenge capitalist state institutions for power. The names change, but the idea is the same: workers councils, soviets, cordones (in Chile 1973), shoras (in Iran 1979), communes, street assemblies. Linking these bodies up as the basis for a new workers government is at the core of revolutionary socialist strategy for the working class to take power.
A socialist revolution cannot jump from capitalism to completely abolishing classes overnight: we need a democratic workers’ state to get us there. To transition to a classless, stateless society, the organized multiracial working class needs to create a radically democratic workers’ state that is able to defend the rule of the majority over the tiny but powerful dethroned capitalist class. With their deep networks of entrenched power, ideological grip, and influence over the capitalist state machinery, the old ruling class will not simply give up their billions the day after working-class people take power. As every attempted revolution proves, capitalists will fight as hard as they can to restore their power and profits, and we will need to defend against this in an organized way.
This defense is the core function of a democratic workers’ state: a state controlled by and defending the vast majority of people against the old ruling class, a true democracy with the clear aim of moving decisively toward a classless society. Under these conditions, the capitalist police, prisons, and military can be replaced with new, fundamentally different public safety institutions that must be strictly overseen and democratically controlled by the working class.
Unlike the capitalist police and state, public safety forces run in the interest of the majority of people will actually be able to ensure people’s safety and well-being. Instead of using abuse and punishment, we can develop restorative ways of holding community members accountable when they engage in violent antisocial behaviors. Since these forces will be fully accountable to a democratic workers’ state, the working class will have control over what safety and well-being measures look like—which is also why ensuring that a socialist government remains fully democratic and accountable to the majority of people is crucial; democracy is at the heart of socialism.
Replacing the capitalist state with a democratic workers’ state is not, by itself, enough to immediately end exploitation and oppression. Poverty, alienation, and antisocial behavior will not just disappear overnight, nor will racism, sexism and transphobia. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people in particular will undoubtedly be key leaders in a democratic workers’ state in the US, as well as in the multiracial revolutionary movement that gets us there. Much of the fight against racist ideas can happen within that movement: for it must take up the fight against racism, white supremacy, and settler colonialism as it sets its sight on overthrowing capitalism itself.
A democratic workers’ state, with working and oppressed people holding the reigns of power, would prioritize those most marginalized by capitalism—Black, Latinx, and Indigenous working-class people in particular—in investments and social programs. It would acknowledge historic wrongs and the colossal robbery of Indigenous lives and land, of Black lives, and of lives worldwide through US imperialism and militarism. It would honor Native treaties and restore sacred sites, like the Paha Sapa (Black Hills), to Indigenous people. It would include massive education programs about the history of the US, capitalism, and imperialism. And with the incentive and motive for a racist state gone, what’s left is to root out the vestiges of racist ideas that last past their end date.
The Future We Fight For
“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
— Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
Under socialism, the economy will not be run in the interests of a few billionaires and corporations, but in the interest of the entirety of the people. In this society the working class collectively owns the means of production, not just a few individuals. A democratically planned economy, run by elected decision-making bodies of the working class, will be able to meet human needs and wants, while guaranteeing full, equitable employment with a reduction in labor time and preserving ecological equilibrium.
An ecosocialist transformation of society, in which we can put an end to extractive and nature-destroying industries and work quickly to stave off the effects of climate change, is our only hope at avoiding complete climate disaster—one that will hit poor communities of color globally the hardest. This new society must also seek to heal and transform our relationship to the land and nature: from a capitalist society divorced from the land and ravaging it, to a classless society working truly with the land and in mutual relationship with it.
Under capitalism, billionaires hoard resources, and corporations produce cheap goods made to break and waste food and commodities when not profitable to sell them. With private corporations, billionaires, and the ability to make private profit all abolished, we won’t have to fight over resources. People possess the ingenuity, skill, and resources to produce enough for the world’s population, done in symbiotic cooperation with the natural world—but production and exchange will no longer be the driving force of society; rather we’ll organize society in order to, in the words of Michael Lowy, “give human beings free time to fully develop their potentialities.” We can create a society based on genuine connection with both humanity and nature, as well as plenty of time and the creative freedom to do what we want with our lives—free from the violence of the capitalist state and the ideologies of white supremacy that capitalism continues to stoke.
This building of a new society can only happen as a global revolutionary project. Capitalism is global, and the history of the 20th century teaches that capitalist powers will destroy any revolutionary attempt that threatens their power. Socialism is international or nothing. Revolutions in one country often inspire those in another; new revolutionary governments can support one another. A revolution in the US, for example, would cut off US imperialism, creating global conditions in which a flurry of revolutionary movements would have a much higher chance of succeeding. And as socialist society becomes necessarily global, it will work to erase the vast inequalities between advanced capitalist countries and those in the global South (inequalities purposefully maintained by advanced capitalist countries today) and destroy neo-colonialist structures such as the IMF, World Bank, and massive debt.
A socialist state and society would work to abolish classes once and for all. Once the socialist state has successfully defended the decisions of the majority, and new decision-making structures over the processes of production are set up, then the socialist state can “wither away” (a term coined by Frederick Engels, Marx' closest collaborator). In its place, we can finally reach a stateless society of freely associating individuals building community with each other and collectively organizing to democratically administer society, with no need for a state apparatus. In more classical Marxist terms, this is what is meant by communism.
How Do We Get There?
“Between social reforms and revolution there exists for [the Marxist movement] an inseparable connection. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”
— Rosa Luxemburg
As Rosa Luxemburg would argue, the daily struggle for reforms is how the multiracial working class becomes organized and educated in order to carry out the end goal, that of taking political power for the working class to usher in a completely new society. Fighting for reforms—or what the movement today might call radical demands—like defunding, demilitarizing, and dismantling police departments, is crucial both to improve the lives of Black working-class people now, and in order to prepare our class for the battles ahead.
As long as capitalism exists, we want to limit the ability of the police to use violent force against the working class, and replace the current regime of racist over-policing with expanded social programs. We should support all demands that restrict the repressive powers of the police, including: cutting police budgets, rolling back over-policing and expanding social services to address social problems, demilitarizing, banning rubber bullets, tear gas and other chemicals, dismantling special units like SWAT teams, firing all cops who are found to have engaged in racist policing and excessive use of force, and electing civilian oversight boards with real power over police. These demands protect Black lives and all working-class lives today and will make it harder for the police to be used to suppress a revolutionary working-class movement when the time comes.
Of course, we don’t have illusions in these reforms themselves: any reforms to the police under capitalism, including creating alternate models of public safety, would not change their core function as a capitalist force. Any force tasked with maintaining order within a fundamentally unjust society would still be forced to take the side of the rich and corporations, and to maintain huge inequalities along economic, racial, and gender lines.
For example, “dismantling” police departments will likely amount to little more than a rebranding—a re-launch of a capitalist police force, just with a different name. For example, according to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, after Camden, New Jersey disbanded and replaced its police department, the city had the most complaints of excessive force in New Jersey, and “broken windows” policing (fining low-stakes crimes) wildly increased (p. 133). In Minneapolis, the City Council pledged to dismantle the police department following weeks of protests, but in the words of one Democratic council member, the Council will “work alongside our amazing police chief” to “build new systems of public safety”—the same police chief under whose watch George Floyd was murdered.
Without addressing underlying inequalities, even “community-led public safety” might start as a completely different model of public safety, but will eventually devolve into a force maintaining the capitalist status quo. Unless organized as one arm within a wider anti-capitalist movement—controlled and checked by the organized multiracial working class and clearly taking sides in the class struggle—it would still defend capitalist property relations and would not be on the side of the working class.
In Greek mythology, the monster Hydra developed two new heads whenever the struggling heroes who confronted it cut one off. The capitalist state has a similar ability—if it's not replaced by new and completely different institutions created and democratically controlled by the organized multiracial working class.
But fighting for these reforms is how the working class can become organized into a mass socialist movement, the decisive factor in the overthrow of capitalism. Right now politically advanced sections of the US working class, especially Black working-class youth, are organizing and educating themselves through the fight to defund the police.
Building a Majority
“Not through a majority to revolutionary tactics, but through revolutionary tactics to a majority—that is the way the road runs.”
— Rosa Luxemburg
For this uprising for Black lives to both win meaningful reforms of police, and transform into a movement that can defeat the capitalist class, even more people, particularly Black and brown working-class people, must be brought into struggle. The uprising for Black lives has already won broad popular support for Black Lives Matter, but unless we can translate that into mass involvement and hardened support for far-reaching changes, the political establishment will have plenty of opportunities to try and isolate activists from the broader working class. So what demands we emphasize today, and how we fight for these demands, matters.
While flawed, polls can help assess popular consciousness. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that a majority (63%) of people support the Black Lives Matter movement, but there was opposition (55%) to reducing funding for police departments and spending that money on social services instead. A recent Gallup poll, however, expressed support (58%) for other “major changes” to police policies, and even stronger support (82%) for “community-based alternatives such as violence intervention.” It should be no surprise that Black people, people of color, and young people are much more likely to support all of these.
Yet currently, only 15% of people support the call to abolish the police; including just 22% of Black people and 33% of those younger than 35. Of course, people’s perspectives shift dramatically through the power of mass movements, as shifts in public opinion of the BLM movement and of understanding racism over the past ten years has clearly shown. Within the movement, we can do the political education work needed to collectively raise one-another’s horizons about what is possible and necessary to win real liberation. But our immediate demands should be geared towards bringing more and more working-class people into action.
The current hesitancy around redirecting police department funding, and clear opposition to demands to abolish police, reflect a genuine concern over public safety. For decades, working-class people have been inundated by ruling-class ideology that crime is the biggest threat to their communities. And violence in many poor, working-class communities is a real issue that affects people’s lives in serious, tangible ways.
Policing in poor neighborhoods is often contradictory: police are hyper-present for stop-and-frisk and “broken windows” style of fines and arrests, representing a dangerous and sometimes murderous force, but absent when real harm prevention is needed. While working-class people, Black people in particular, often understand the deeply violent and racist nature of the police and their notorious ineffectiveness at preventing or solving crimes impacting working-class people, many have historically supported maintaining or increasing policing—because what other alternative is there? The power of this movement lies in opening up the conversation about what those alternatives could be.
The approach by liberal Democrats to creating these alternatives represent some real dangers. Of course, the opportunities are clear: if we can keep up the pressure on Democratic politicians, substantial budget cuts and other reforms can be won in the months ahead. Transferring police functions to other groups is necessary, and popular: 61% of people are open to shifting emergency calls about addiction, mental illness, and homelessness to other service providers, and letting police focus on crimes like burglary and murder. In Seattle, the movement pressured a majority of the City Council to commit to defund the police department by 50%, including transferring 911 operations to a civilian-controlled system. It would be dangerous, however, for the movement to trust that promises made at the height of protests will be honored as protests in the streets recede. Councilmembers are already backsliding in Minneapolis and Seattle.
But if cities do begin substantially cutting police budgets—but fail to address the underlying conditions of poverty and desperation that lead to violence—the door is left open to right-wing forces to whip up a popular backlash. Especially as the economic crisis increases the pressures and misery in our communities, we can count on the corporate media to amplify public safety fears, blaming police budget cuts rather than capitalism. Additionally, defunding the police without fully funding social services might lead to a privatization of police forces, where private forces will have even more impunity than our current police force.
Instead, a socialist strategy is far more capable of building and sustaining a popular majority than the approach of liberal Democrats, whose politics hinge on shifting popular moods rather than on a systematic effort to build a conscious majority for real liberation. A socialist strategy towards defunding the police means we don’t just stop at shifting police budgets around. It means we take seriously the safety concerns of Black and brown working-class people, and wage a fight to radically redistribute funds from the capitalist class towards the Black and brown communities they exploit and oppress.
Activists in Seattle, for example, have taken up housing for all as a key demand for public safety. The movement should take this up around the country, and expand defunding demands to include massive investments in working-class communities—Black and brown communities in particular—in healthcare, housing, education, childcare, public transit, and other social services that have been purposefully underfunded and privatized for decades, and pay for these programs by dramatically raising taxes on the wealthy and big businesses.
A socialist strategy also means that we fight for these major police reforms and work to bring new working-class people into struggle without losing sight of the end goal. The police are unreformable, and nothing short of replacing capitalism with our own democratic workers’ state, leading decisively towards a stateless, classless society, will be able to bring about genuine safety and well-being for ourselves and our communities.