Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative Have Turned Against Police Unions — Sort Of

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Millions of working-class people are turning against police and their so-called “unions.” Yesterday, the Martin Luther King County Labor Council voted to kick out cops. Seattle’s socialist city council member, who has an unfortunate history of supporting cops unions, has even come around — with limits.

Clearly not workers (Photo: AP)

Three weeks ago, George Floyd was murdered in cold blood by an officer of the Minneapolis Police Department. Derek Chauvin had killed before, but he was protected by his union, the Minneapolis Police Federation, and thus allowed to kill again. As millions of people have taken to the streets to protest against racist police violence, hatred of police unions has become widespread, and even liberals are discussing the necessity of ending them.

Conglomerate unions — including the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and the Writers Guild of America, East — have called upon police unions to be kicked out of all labor federations. In Seattle, workers have mobilized, demanding the expulsion of police from the King County Labor Council — and on Wednesday, the cops were kicked out. Healthcare workers have started a petition calling for a break with cops.

This is a demand that socialists have always raised: Kick cops out of our unions! Police are little more than state-sanctioned special bodies of armed men, defending the interests of the ruling class. Their “unions” are nothing more than associations to protect capital’s armed thugs. Cops are a vital mechanism for breaking strikes and repressing working-class and poor people. American capitalism was built on the basis of slavery, and so the work of its police is defined by deep-seated racism.

The socialist demand to abolish the police is more popular than ever. Kshama Sawant, a Seattle city council member and a member of Socialist Alternative, has celebrated the expulsion of the Seattle Police Officers Guild. This is an important reversal for Sawant , who is not in the Democratic Party and is therefore one of the most important independent socialists in the United States.

In this time of such widespread hatred of the police, Sawant has a tremendous responsibility to explain the socialist position — that cops are not workers, but rather agents of repression whose job it is to keep working people in line and protect the interests of the capitalists. Police are the first line of defense in a violently racist system. Unfortunately, Socialist Alternative and Sawant herself has been all over the map on the issue of the police — sometimes she and her organization explicitly defend cop unions, while other times calling for their reform.

Sawant and the Police

As the working class turns sharply against the police and their professional associations, Sawant has proposed a 50% cut in funding for the Seattle Police Department. With $409 million going to the SPD in the current fiscal year, what Sawant is proposing is a deeply racist and widely despised institution keeping $204.5 million every year

Sawant has opposed calls to completely defund, abolish, or disband the police. As reported on Twitter and in the Seattle weekly The Stranger, Sawant said: “You’re not going to get bullshit from me. Any politician who tells you the police force can be disbanded under the capitalist system is bullshitting you.”

And in a sense, she is right: Abolishing the police means abolishing capitalism. Capitalism means that an incredibly tiny minority controls all of society’s wealth. Of course, such a system could never function without giant apparatuses of heavily armed persons in order to protect this minority. 

Yet instead of using this opportunity to connect the popular call for police abolition with a socialist program, Sawant’s conclusion is to do the opposite and reject the demand.

Unfortunately, Sawant has long supported police. In 2018, even when voting against the city’s contract with the Police Officers Guild, she made a point to emphasize her fundamental solidarity with police:

I am a rank and file member of a public sector union, I want to be clear that I support the right of all public sector workers to negotiate raises, including the police. … I also want to be clear that I support the right of the police to their union and to collectively bargain.

This is a particularly bad take for a socialist, since hard data shows that police unions are very effective at what they do: they protect killers in uniform as they attack members of oppressed groups all over the country.

The same year that she advocated for cops’ rights, Sawant voted to confirm the Chief of the Seattle Police Department. Her justification was that Carmen Best was supported by “leaders of the Black community” who wanted the police department under Black leadership. But socialists in legislative bodies have always said: “Not one man and not one penny” for the repressive forces of the capitalist state.

Even before this, Sawant had failed to focus on racist police violence in Seattle. In June 2014, a young undocumented immigrant named Oscar Perez-Giron was shot and killed by Malcolm Elliott, an officer of the King County Sheriff’s Department, who had detained Giron for fare-jumping. Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant were noticeably silent and never spoke out publicly against the killing.

Sawant and Socialist Alternative claim to be part of the Trotkskyist tradition. But Trotsky himself was clear on the question of whether or not police were members of the proletariat, writing: “The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.” 

Muddling the Question

While working people across the country are standing up against police racism, we are not seeing a single such challenge coming from within police unions. Absolutely nothing. And this is no coincidence: due to their fundamental nature as the defenders of a racist state, police forces represent the most solid bastion of racism in the United States.

In response to the growing campaign demanding the expulsion of police from union federations, the Minnesota chapter of Socialist Alternative put out a lengthy statement that attempts to apply the brakes. They write:

No police unions should be on labor bodies until they take a stand against racist policing policies, as well as the role of police in breaking strikes and other uprisings. However, movement activists putting too much focus on whether or not police unions are affiliated with local, regional, or national labor bodies avoids the deeper questions of developing a real strategy to fight against racism both in the labor movement and broader society. And this lets the Democratic Party politicians and the conservative leadership of most unions off the hook.

Of course, it does no such thing. Kicking cops out of our unions draws clear class lines between us and them — between workers and those who exist to oppress us. And not only does Socialist Alternative fail to draw that line — the statement actually introduces new illusions in the cops, implying that police unions can be reformed. When the members of Socialist Alternative write that they are “more than willing to take a stand against the reactionaries who lead most police unions in the U.S.,” note that they do not object to the existence of these institutions themselves, but only to (most?) leaders that currently control them, as if some kind of “non-reactionary” leadership were possible.

As the campaign gains momentum by the day, Socialist Alternative writes that “we should be sober about disaffiliation’s impact.” Instead of expelling cops from the labor movement, this group is calling on cops to “organize a real challenge to the reactionary leaderships that dominate police unions across the country.” 

But while Socialist Alternative is placing their hopes in the impossible appearance of progressive, anti-racist, perhaps even socialist police officers, they are opposing the campaign that is underway right now, setting themselves against these demands. A “real strategy” to fight against racism requires a mobilization of the working class against the capitalists and the institutions defending them — how could that be possible without confronting the police?

Socialists, going back to the days of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, have always said that the working class cannot just take over the existing state machinery, which serves the interests of the capitalists. This state as it is must be smashed, and replaced with a state run democracy by working people. Yet Socialist Alternative opposes this revolutionary perspective, and instead calls for a “top-to-bottom purge of police forces across the country” — much like liberals, Socialist Alternative seems to think that police can serve the interests of working people if we just get rid of the “bad apples.”

In an article released the same day as the expulsion of the cops from the Seattle labor council, Socialist Alternative again argues that police are not a thoroughly reactionary institution, but rather one with “deep divisions.” Everyone has seen cops across the country employing the most horrific violence against protesters. But Socialist Alternative is sure that there must be officers out there just waiting to do the exact opposite. The only evidence they offer — a letter in which 14 Minneapolis police officers “wholeheartedly condemn” Derek Chauvin — is not very convincing. It takes a nationwide uprising to get a handful of cops to distance themselves from one of their own committing murder on video? This example only serves to emphasize an observation that Marxists have made again and again over the past 150 years: While soldiers (and especially reservists) often switch sides during a revolution, police have never once done so. The hopes that Socialist Alternative is placing in non-existant “progressive cops” can only distract the working class and the protest movement from the concrete needs of developing self-defense to beat the bosses’ police.

An International Mistake

This pro-cop position did not fall from the sky. Socialist Alternative, which is part of the International Socialist Alternative (ISA), traces its political origins back to the British Trotskyist Ted Grant. While Grant claimed to represent the continuity of revolutionary Marxism after the Second World War, he adapted the program of Trotskyism so he could work indefinitely in reformist parties. This included a revision of the Marxist theory of the state, claiming that socialists should support police and correctional officer unions. Grant thus represented the most conservative deviation of the Trotskyist movement. The Socialist Party of England and Wales, which was until recently the sister organization of Socialist Alternative, has deep connections to the “workers” of the Prison Officers Association. As recently as September of 2018, the party’s publication interviewed the POA’s general secretary in solidarity with a protest in support of more jobs for prison guards.

Today, several political tendencies that can trace their lineage back to Grant are holding on, to different degrees, to this pro-police legacy. There is a certain irony to this, since Grant always wanted to present a program that was acceptable to what he considered the average — not the most advanced — consciousness of the working class. His followers have often claimed that most workers could not understand the traditional socialist hostility to the police. But now, as masses of workers around the world are turning against the police, these centrists are finally “swimming against the stream” — albeit to the right.

Socialists, especially those in prominent public positions like Kshama Sawant, have a huge opportunity to further expose the nature of the police and dispel the mistaken idea that “police reform” can save the lives of Black and Brown people from state violence. The police cannot be reformed, and demands for a very limited decrease in funding are a dead end. Now is the moment to take up a bold revolutionary call to abolish the police and abolish capitalism. We are in a moment when these demands can be taken up by the tens and hundreds of thousands of young people fighting heroically on the streets — this can help build up a massive revolutionary socialist force in the United States.

About author

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from New York City. 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 appeared last year in German and this year in English. He is on the autism spectrum.