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Can the Police Stop Deportations? A Debate with Kshama Sawant

Kshama Sawant, a socialist member of Seattle’s city council, has called on the mayor to deploy the police to stop deportations. Could cops help immigrants resist the ICE? Or does this demand only create illusions in a deeply racist institution like the Seattle Police Department? A debate with the comrades of Socialist Alternative.

Nathaniel Flakin

March 2, 2017
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Image: Seattle Police mazes protesters during the WTO summit in 1999.

Trump is ramping up the US deportation machine. Obama deported 2.4 million people – a record number. But Trump wants to rip even more families apart. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are sweeping out and arresting anyone they can get their hands on. According to reports, they have a “high morale” and are even having “fun” while they drag people out of their homes for the “crime” of not possessing the right papers.

Undocumented immigrants and their families are experiencing terrible uncertainty and fear. How can we resist the murderous apparatus of the ICE? We need to use any means necessary. There are promising signs of resistance, especially the #DayWithoutImmigrants taking place all over the country.

Kshama Sawant, a socialist member of Seattle’s city council, speaking at a rally against the deportation of Dreamers on February 17, had an unusual suggestion: Police should stop the ICE raids. Kshama Sawant said:

I’m urging Mayor Murray – if this is a sanctuary city – do not use Seattle police against peaceful protesters. Deploy Seattle police to block ICE from seizing immigrants.

The mayor responded in a statement that this demand was not just impossible, but dishonest:

The Seattle Police Department and the city cannot stop Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or other federal authorities from conducting raids in our city (…). Being dishonest with the communities in our city targeted by the Trump administration is irresponsible and dangerous when our city aims to do everything we can to support them.

But the Democrat Murray is being dishonest here. The city administration isn’t doing “everything” to help immigrants if it is letting deportations move forward. But there’s a reason the police don’t help immigrants: it doesn’t have to do with the law so much as with the fundamental role of police in capitalist society.

Divisions Within the State

Trump’s plans to deport millions more people has led to deep divisions within the ruling class in the United States, even within their state apparatus. Capitalists in California’s agriculture sector – who by their own admission voted for Trump – are now worried that their workforce, composed exclusively of illegalized workers, will be forcibly removed from the country. Who else would want to pick strawberries for miserable wages?

Whole sectors of the US economy like meat packing plants and restaurants are dependent on workers who are denied the most basic legal rights. This explains why plenty of capitalist politicians – who never spoke out against the millions of deportations under Obama – are now talking about “sanctuary cities”. These divisions are visible at every level of the state. In Milwaukee, the sheriff wants his officers deputized by ICE so they can carry out deportations – but the city managers and the police chief are opposed.

What does a “sanctuary city” really mean, though? As Mayor Murray correctly points out, there is no legal way for city authorities to stop ICE agents – the only chance is to block them physically. Can we expect that municipal police officers will link arms to block La Migra, as Kshama Sawant suggests? The history of the US is filled with pitched battles between the classes. For centuries, immigrant workers have fought with strikes and demonstrations for their rights. We are not aware of a single incident in which the police have fought against another part of the state apparatus to defend the rights of the most oppressed people.

This is no coincidence. Marxism explains that the state is, in the last analysis, nothing more than special bodies of armed men who protect the interests of the ruling class. The modern state apparatus – the army, the bureaucracy, the courts, the police etc. – exists to protect the capitalists and their property. V.I. Lenin explained this is in great detail in State and Revolution: “A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power. But how can it be otherwise?”

US capitalists and their politicians are currently debating how to best exploit undocumented immigrants in the US: Should they offer a perspective of citizenship for some? Or should they turn the screws even tighter? Both wings of the capitalist class, and all parts of the state apparatus, are interested in maintaining a superexploited sector of workers without rights. That’s why the police will never, under any circumstances, be a friend to immigrants.

A necessary debate

For this reasons, it does seem dishonest for a socialist politician like Kshama Sawant to propose that the police could offer assistance. The police will always be the most consistent opponents of the workers and oppressed. Any hope in them is misplaced.

In the early 1930s, Social Democrats hoped that the police would stop the growing terror of the Nazis in Germany. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explained how dangerous this was:

In case of actual danger, the Social Democracy banks not on the ‘Iron Front’ but on the Prussian police. It is reckoning without its host! The fact that the police was originally recruited in large numbers from among Social Democratic workers is absolutely meaningless. Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance. 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 remain.”

But, some will argue, isn’t a socialist revolution – such as the October Revolution in Russia – based on splitting the armed forces of the ruling class and winning at least a significant part of them for socialism? Shouldn’t we at least try to win over police officers to our side? Aren’t they also just workers who sell their labor power?

We need to differentiate between soldiers and police. In the Russian Revolution, millions of rank-and-file soldiers formed councils (called “Soviets”) and fought for an end to the war. These soviets of soldiers’ deputies linked up with the workers’ and peasants councils to depose the provisional (capitalist) government and set up a new Soviet, socialist government. By the time of the October Insurrection, virtually the entire garrison of the capital had declared it would only follow orders from the Military Revolutionary Committee. The old government had no armed forces to defend itself – the uprising in the capital was successful with hardly a shot fired.

But, these were soldiers, i.e. sons of workers and peasants who had been temporarily forced into the service of the imperialist army. They were serving for a few years, in the knowledge that if they survived until the war’s end, they would again return to the working classes. Conscript armies of this type are notoriously unreliable when it comes to repressing mass protests: Each soldier must wonder if he has friends of relatives on the other side of the barricades.

But what about police? They commit themselves to the service of the capitalist state until retirement – they know no productive labor of any kind. Their livelihood depends on loyally carrying out orders to repress workers. Leon Trotsky, who was not just a leader but also a historian of the Russian Revolution, pointed out the fundamentally distinct roles of soldiers and police:

Throughout the entire day, crowds of people poured from one part of the city to another. They were persistently dispelled by the police, stopped and crowded back by cavalry detachments and occasionally by infantry. Along with shouts of ‘Down with the police!’ was heard oftener and oftener a ‘Hurrah!’ addressed to the Cossacks. That was significant. Toward the police the crowd showed ferocious hatred. They routed the mounted police with whistles, stones, and pieces of ice. In a totally different way the workers approached the soldiers. Around the barracks, sentinels, patrols and lines of soldiers stood groups of working men and women exchanging friendly words with the army men. This was a new stage, due to the growth of the strike and the personal meeting of the worker with the army. Such a stage is inevitable in every revolution. But it always seems new, and does in fact occur differently every time: those who have read and written about it do not recognise the thing when they see it. (…)

Soon the police disappear altogether – that is, begin to act secretly. Then the soldiers appear, bayonets lowered. Anxiously the workers ask them: ‘Comrades, you haven’t come to help the police?’ A rude ‘Move along!’ for answer. Another attempt ends the same way. The soldiers are sullen. A worm is gnawing them, and they cannot stand it when a question hits the very centre of the pain.

Meanwhile disarmament of the Pharaohs [police] becomes a universal slogan. The police are fierce, implacable, hated and hating foes. To win them over is out of the question. Beat them up and kill them. It is different with the soldiers: the crowd makes every effort to avoid hostile encounters with them; on the contrary, seeks ways to dispose them in its favour, convince, attract, fraternise, merge them in itself.

Trotsky presents an extremely simplified version of his program towards the police: “Beat them up and kill them.” To be more specific: The police apparatus needs to be broken up – that doesn’t mean liquidating every single police officer. They are of course welcome to abandon their posts and become workers. But, in contrast to army conscripts, socialist revolution has no use of their “skills” of repressing demonstrations and murdering poor people.

This observation can be made of any revolutionary situation in the whole history of capitalism. As recently as the Egyptian revolt of 2011, we could see conscript soldiers refusing to fire on the crowds and even joining the demonstrations. The Egyptian police, in contrast, remained loyal to the state – or if they became too scared, removed their uniforms and disappeared. Again, we are not aware of a single incidence of the police switching sides and joining a revolution in any significant way.

Deeply Mistaken

For these reasons, Kshama Sawant’s proposal seems deeply mistaken. Kshama Sawant is likely the most prominent socialist in the US. (Since Bernie Sanders advocates a reformed version of capitalism and can at best be considered a Social Democrat.) She has an incredible responsibility to explain the ideas of Marxist to a wide audience.

This is not just an unfortunate turn of phrase. Sawant’s organization, Socialist Alternative (SAlt), and their international tendency, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), have a long history of adaptation to the police. They call for democratic control of the capitalists’ thugs, and consider them “workers in uniform” who deserve trade union rights.

But right now in the US, hatred for the police is higher than any time in decades. And it is absolutely justified for oppressed people to not just mistrust, but passionately despise these hooligans in uniform. Liberals will advocate timid reforms, like “body cams” or “community boards”. These only serve to dissipate the hatred of the oppressed, while maintaining the repressive institution.

Socialists, in contrast, call for the destruction of the capitalists’ state. Like in the Russian Revolution, we need to establish our own government based on organs of workers’ self-organization. We want a socialist society with no special bodies of armed men – socialism means working people administering every aspect of our lives in a democratic way.

A Proposal

There has hardly been a better time in the US to boldly call for abolishing the police. This connects with the experience of constantly growing sectors of the vanguard who have experienced the reactionary role of the police first hand. That’s why we think it is a shame that Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative instead want us to direct our energy towards hopeless reforms of the repressive apparatus. One of the discoveries of Marx was that the workers cannot reform the existing state apparatus – we must smash it.

Now some will argue that this position might be correct in theory, but that Sawant, in order to win a seat on the city council, needed to take a “softer” line and appear less “radical”. To that we would answer with a practical example: The PTS in Argentina is one of three organizations in the Workers and Left Front (FIT). PTS member Nicolás del Caño was the FIT’s presidential candidate. The PTS is unapologetically hostile to the police and calls for its abolition – and has members on numerous city councils across the country. While Kshama Sawant got 90,000 votes with her position, Nicolás del Caño got 1.2 million with his. (We can also point out that del Caño has never endorsed a capitalist politician, while Sawant has endorsed a number of Democratic candidates.)

If we can’t put the slightest hope in the police, what then? We think Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative should call for the formation of self-defense committees of workers – with papers and without –, youth, women and LGBTQI to develop plans to stop ICE raids. This seems far more “realistic” than hope that police will, for the first time in history, defend the rights of the oppressed. We can link this with a campaign to disarm, disband and abolish the capitalists’ racist police. We need a mass campaign to block ICE raids and deportations. Such a campaign can only be based on working people – not pigs.

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.


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