Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
Last month, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) held their largest-ever National Convention, reflecting the massive growth of the organization and the growing appeal of left ideas in the United States. Delegates at the convention voted in favor of a series of progressive measures such as a call for reparations to desendents of slaves in the US as well as support for the Boycott, Sanction, and Divestment campaign. They also voted to leave the Socialist International – an international organization that has carried out austerity programs throughout the world, such as through Hollande’s Socialist Party, the PRI in Mexico, and PASOK in Greece. Unfortunately, the delegates voted down a resolution that described the dangers of working within and too closely with the Democratic Party.
The delegates also elected new members to the National Political Committee (NPC), “which functions as the board of directors of DSA” and represents the most important political leadership of the group. Danny Fetonte, co-chair of the Austin DSA branch, was one of the 16 members elected to the NPC.
The following day, it was discovered that Fetonte had worked for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), Texas’s largest police union, which represents 21,000 cops. According to a document made public by several dissenting members of the NPC, during the time that Fetonte worked for CLEAT — the police union successfully advocated for changes to their contract that would allow police to see evidence against them before making a statement. The union also led a 1 million dollar campaign against changes in the contract that would have held a rapist cop accountable for his actions. Most recently, CLEAT supported a law that would protect drivers who run over protesters. Fetonte’s candidate profile did not mention his time organizing police officers, and some DSA members claim that he would not have been voted into leadership had the delegates known his background.
The issue of the DSA’s position toward the police is not likely to go away soon. Despite the outcry that has resulted from Fetonte’s election, DSA leadership has continued to support others who have close affiliations with the cops. For example, one of the DSA’s candidates for City Council is Rev. Khader El-Yateem. His job? Clergy Liaison to the NYPD’s 68th Precinct.
The realization that the largest left organization in 30 years voted a cop organizer to its leadership has opened up an important discussion about the role of the police in society and what position left organizations should have in relation to them.
After the public discovery of Fetonte’s work, the initial reactions among DSA members varied. Austin DSA leadership doubled down on its support for him, but DSA labor activists issued a more progressive statement, calling for Fetonte to step down due to the undemocratic nature of his election, citing the fact that most of the membership was not aware he was a cop organizer.
The labor statement goes further and says, “Let us be clear: the police and police unions in the United States are a tool of white supremacy and capitalist exploitation and oppression. They serve to shield police from accountability. They are a key instrument in enabling racist police terror that we are actively organizing against. It is the duty of socialists in the labor movement to advocate not for police, but for those who are most oppressed by them: people of color facing racist police brutality, prisoners in revolt against prison slavery, workers confronting cops who enforce injunctions and the power of the capitalist class, and the poor.” Their definition demonstrates an understanding of the reactionary nature of the police in society. A promise to engage in a dues strike has been organized, with members vowing to not make any financial contributions to the organization while Fetonte remains in the leadership.
Regardless, it is not enough to simply remove Fetonte from leadership; the DSA and other left organizations must make concrete steps to say that cops, or those that work directly on their behalf, cannot be socialists. It is impossible for a police officer to act as the armed wing of the capitalist state and, simultaneously, work to overturn capitalism.
The NPC did not reach the two thirds majority necessary to unseat Fetonte and it seems that he will remain in the 16-person leadership of the DSA. For some in the NPC, the decision was based on procedural issues. However, the fact remains that the NPC has confirmed that, under the current rules, they do not believe that having a cop organizer in their leadership is egregious enough to create new procedures within the DSA. Rather than create a new precedent that demonstrates in action that police are the enemies of the working class and that working class organizations should have nothing but scorn and disgust for cops, the new leadership of the DSA chose to hide behind procedure.
This controversy did not take place in a vacuum. In the past weeks, the country has seen a rise in mobilizations by white nationalists, including the bloody attacks in Charlottesville that left Heather Heyer dead and others wounded. The timid response of police to these neo-fascist demonstrations stands in stark contrast to the repression police unleashed on Black protesters in cities like Ferguson. This week, Trump also pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who systematically racially profiled Latinos and violated the basic rights of people in prison.
In the face of this political reality, it is important for socialists to have clear definitions about the role of police in our society. The urgent question on the US left about the societal and economic role of the police is: are cops workers or oppressors?
What is the role of the police in capitalist society?
There is nothing natural about capitalist inequalities. We did not naturally organize ourselves so that eight people own half of the world’s wealth while the global working class struggles with poverty, violence, poor education, lack of healthcare, and backbreaking labor. When we consider the daily humiliations of these struggling workers who produce our clothes, serve us coffee, or clean our streets — workers who vastly outnumber the bosses, we wonder why they do not rise up.
There are multiple factors to be considered when answering such a complex question, and they include the condition of low class consciousness, that is to say the lack of realization that bosses get rich off of our labor and the lack of belief that workers are powerful enough to change anything. However, there is another aspect that is more concrete: the police, who play a central role in guaranteeing peaceful functioning of a society based on inequality.
The police force is the armed wing of the capitalist state; cops guarantee the status quo of capitalist profits. We see this in the mobilizations of the working class in the US and around the world. For example, as water protectors at Standing Rock sought to defend the environment and indigenous lands, the police violently attacked them. Whenever there is a strike, the police attack the workers and rarely touch the scabs or the bosses. They brutally attack workers who walk picket lines and use intimidation, beatings, arrests, and killings to keep workers from fighting back. And police have gone further than tear gas and rubber bullets. They have murdered people on the picket lines — from the Lawrence strike of 1912 to the Minneapolis general strike of 1934 to civil rights struggles in places like Jackson, Mississippi.
The police also have a history of attacking socialists and socialist organizations, such as the Socialist Party of the 1920s, led by Eugene Debs, or Black Panther Party whose Illinois chairman Fred Hampton was shot and killed in his sleep by police. Aside from all out murder and mass incarceration of leftists, throughout history, the cops have infiltrated socialist organizations, leading to their demise. Law enforcement agencies around the country spread lies and consciously created division within the organizations to halt their effectiveness. This is not just part of (recent) US history; police infiltration has been recorded during the Occupy Movement and within Black Lives Matter. Police as members of socialist organizations undermines the very functioning of the organization and flies in the face of the history of torture and murder of socialists at the hands of police.
History Reveals the Truth
In the early years of the United States, individual capitalists would hire out the job of protecting their private property. However, as Time.com notes , in the early 1800s, “merchants came up with a way to save money by transferring to the cost of maintaining a police force to citizens by arguing that it was for the collective good.” Police were created, not to protect the public good, but rather to protect the private property of business owners and merchants in the early US. The central purpose of police departments — the protection of private property and a guarantee of the peaceful functioning of profit creation for capitalists — has not changed to this day.
Prior to abolition, police were sent to chase down runaway slaves and strike back against incipient slave revolts. The police were born out of capitalist fear of the loss of private property, including the most valuable private property in US South: the enslavement of Africans which produced much of the initial wealth in this country. After chattel slavery was ended, police played a central role in enforcing Jim Crow laws and establishing a prison system that continued de facto slave labor.
The Racist Police
The role of the police in enforcing racism has shifted its form as laws have changed. However, the racist nature of the police has not changed. This is made abundantly clear in the countless videos of the police mercilessly terrorizing Black people, often killing them; in the videos of the murders of Philando Castille, of Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott as well as the deaths of Black women such as Korryn Gaines and Sandra Bland. As the past few years of high profile cases have shown us, police kill with impunity. The lack of convictions, even in the most egregious of cases, prove that courts have given the cops free reign to kill almost at will with no consequences.
Cops are the brutal enforcers of capitalism and bigotry, locking up a disproportionate number of people of color to work for sub-minimum wage pay in the prisons and ensure a low cost labor force through the exclusion of previously convicted people from anything but the most precarious of jobs once they get out. Prison labor is a billion-dollar industry, fed by mass arrests made by police who racially profile Black and Brown people. Racism and bigotry — enforced and perpetuated by police — is central to capitalist profits in providing low cost labor, both in and out of prisons and enforcing divisions within the working class.
As neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and neo-fascists take the spotlight in hate filled rallies, it is important to remember the role of the police in strengthening these racist and oppressive sectors, both historically and today. We have seen the police protect these white nationalists and attack counter-protesters time and time again. In Charlottesville, the police turned a blind eye to attacks perpetuated by the right wing, even standing by as one white nationalist shot a gun at a Black man. This has been repeated over and over in cities around the US. Al Jazeera reports that “the police seem to know who they want to target, and somehow it’s never the old white men wrapped in American flags or spotty teenagers in Roman warrior cosplay.”
There is no mistaking which side the police are on. As socialists, there should be no mistaking that we and the police are on opposite sides of the barricades, both literally and figuratively. We are on the side of the poor and the oppressed. We are on the side of the working class. And we are on the side that wants to dismantle the capitalist system to institute a new society.
Cops are Not Workers
Some would argue that police are workers since, after all, they are paid a wage. These people would argue that cops are just like other state employees paid to provide services in education or healthcare, as opposed to those employed by individual capitalists. However, the factors that define the working class go beyond payment of wages — they include the function of the work. In the case of the police, this is the protection of private property and the capitalist order using racist terror and other forms of violent repression. And what is the product of the labor of the police? The answer is clear: the direct outcome is prisons filled with Black and Brown people and the murders of countless Black people. This makes the “work” of police officers inherently antagonistic to the rest of the working class.
Ironically, in receiving their salary, cops do benefit from some of the victories won by the working class, such as the right to a union. However, because cops are not workers, police unions differ greatly from labor unions, which were created to protect workers from attacks from the government and the bosses. Police unions exist to defend cops who have been caught planting drugs or have been filmed murdering Black youth. Even CLEAT has argued that police are different from the working class, made most clear when it pushed to pass a bill to try police in special courts.
Thus, organizing police into unions is essentially helping to organize enemies of the working class for better conditions to repress and defeat workers and people of color. That is why Left Voice has raised the demand that all working-class unions remove cops and refuse to allow them to be organized alongside us. This proposal has been supported by Local 2865 of the United Auto Workers and by the African American and Latino caucuses of SEIU Local 721 in Los Angeles.
It is a matter of principle for individual socialists, as well as socialists organizations, to draw attention to the deep chasm between us and cops. No procedural issues can be an excuse for breaking with this basic principle for socialists.
When we advocate the organization of the working class, we do not mean it symbolically. We mean that we are next to the most advanced sectors of the working class at roadblocks and pickets. We must be willing to face off against police repression. We must be willing to organize road blocks, strikes, and pickets. When we say we fight for socialism, for the working class to take the means of production into our own hands, we do so with the willingness to identify and fight against those who attack the workers on behalf of capital.
We know our enemy: the cops, capitalists and imperialists. We unite with the working-class and oppressed people to fight them and to win. No cops in our unions, no cops in our organizations.