Reform, Defund, or Dismantle the Police? A French Perspective on the Movement in the United States

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Police violence and racism confront workers and minorities in both France and the United States. France’s capitalist leaders insist that what happens on the other side of the Atlantic is irrelevant and reject any discussion of defunding or dismantling the police. The authors put the lie to their contention.

“France is not the United States.” Over and over, that is the refrain from those seeking to stigmatize the demonstrations in recent weeks here in France against police violence and racism. To that they add, over and over, that the demonstrations are a form of ethnic factionalism, that they are divisive, that they are a threat to the “Republic.” Indeed, in view of the latest statements by Macron, the right wing, and the extreme right opposition, it is true that “France is not the United States.”

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Compared to the debate in the United States — including within the Democratic Party and the mainstream media — regarding the role and function of the police, what they do and shouldn’t do, what they are and cannot be, the defense of French cops by Macron and his ministers indicate there is indeed a wide gulf between France and the United States. We could learn a thing or two from the difference.

Of course, the positions the U.S. Democratic Party establishment and the mainstream media have taken on the need for reform, budget cuts, and even disbanding this or that police force cannot be separated from the historic level of mobilization underway in the United States since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25. Its depth and breadth explains why people across the entire traditional U.S. political and media spectrum have been forced to reposition themselves around issues of maintaining order (their order), police violence, and structural racism. The movement has touched every city, no matter how small, including in the traditionally Republican states and counties. The movement’s slogans have been raised, with courage and determination, by hundreds of thousands of young and old people, Black people, Latinx people, and people from other racial and non-racial minorities. And since repression has done nothing to stop the demonstrations — curfews imposed in 200 cities across the country, the deployment of 62,000 National Guard troops in 30 states, and the arrest of more than 25,000 people nationwide — many within the traditional political apparatuses have had to change their minds, or at least pretend to do so.

This is true even within the Republican Party: while Trump continues to spew his race hatred and reactionary ideas to his base, the party to which he is supposed to answer has nevertheless commissioned Tim Scott of South Carolina, the party’s only Black senator, to draft a police reform bill — despite that the current occupant of the White House signed an Executive Order on police “reform on June 16.1

This response is in stark contrast to Macron’s speech two days earlier, on June 14, in which he essentially said — in a cop-like tone — “move along, there’s nothing to see here.”

“Reform the Police”

Never before has the debate on the role and function of the police in the United States been so animated, spreading far beyond those already politicized and radicalized. “What is the function of police, and what can we do about them?” That is the dual question being asked in the recent demonstrations and in neighborhoods across the country — in a much broader way than in the past. In the past three decades, going back to the 1992 Los Angeles “riots” following the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat up Rodney King, or more recently, after the birth in 2014 of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that emerged during protests against police killings of Black youth, the debate has never been framed in these terms. In the 2010s, fairly widely across American public opinion — including even among the less-reactionary Republican electorate — BLM contributed to putting forward the issue of police practices and their links to racism in the country. These issues include how these repressive forces serve to ensure communities’ adherence to both the symbolic and actual social position assigned to them under the racist, capitalist system, whose roots are in slavery and later in the de facto segregation that is still very much alive today.

It was from that moment, with the appearance of BLM and not because the first Black American president had won a second term in office, that the question of reforming police institutions was raised. It was through the main idea that the police should, at the very least, be reformed that the Black Lives Matter movement at its height was partially captured and absorbed by the Democratic Party. The debate was broadly over the need to “separate the wheat from the chaff” and get rid of the “bad apples” that discredit the “real police,” which was the concept of police reform promoted by Hillary Clinton and others. At the same time, some new “best practices” were introduced for cops; these included having them wear body cameras and putting them through “sensitivity training” to “correct” abuses, all against a backdrop of promises of “police accountability” from federal agencies. Above all, local police aimed at rebuilding the pained, or even broken, link between the populace and local police.

Some in France would like to see these same sorts of measures implemented in the French police forces — body cams, identity check receipts,2 reform of the IGPN,3, and so on. The mere mention of them is intolerable to the Place Beauvau4 and the police unions. Notably, none of these measures implemented since 2015 have resulted in any significant change in the dynamics of racist police violence in the United States.

“Defund the Police”

For hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans, especially for the working class and minorities, it is obvious that the problem of the police is not one of form. They know this because they are the ones who are increasingly subjected to the oppression of the police forces every day. They recognize that the problem is the structural role police play. Thus, the issue of police reform and police practices gave way in the United States to the demand to “defund the police.” This demand, although it emerged from the demonstrations, was gradually taken up by many who are questioning the “over-equipping” and militarization of police forces (which often inherit used equipment from U.S. Army field operations) and who are pointing to the links between insufficient funding and neoliberal budget cuts in health, education, and housing, in particular, and the gargantuan budgets for the forces of oppression. This has changed the terms of the debate “from below”; the Democrats need to change it back, “from above,” so they can channel the debate more effectively into the presidential electoral campaign and, most importantly, neutralize it.

Several lines of argument clash, complement each other, or overlap around this “defunding” issue. There are those who simply wish to “defund” police budgets “to zero.” There are also those within the state apparatuses and their various components who raise the idea of budget cuts because they are forced to do so or because they need to make a gesture towards the demonstrations. This is exemplified by the aftermath of the police murder of Eric Garner in 2014 in New York City, which helped give birth to the BLM movement. It is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who ran as a left-wing progressive in the Democratic Party primary and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, who first put forward the idea of a $1 billion cut in the budget for the New York Police Department (NYPD) — a proposal eventually taken up by the mayor himself, Bill de Blasio, despite his initial objections. Even CNN recently reported, “There’s evidence that less policing can lead to less crime. A 2017 report, which focused on several weeks in 2014 through 2015 when the New York Police Department purposely pulled back on ‘proactive policing,’ found that there were 2,100 fewer crime complaints during that time” compared with an equivalent earlier period.

The scope of this demand is quite different among large parts of the demonstrators. Among Black mothers, and among the young Black, Latinx, and white people that are mobilizing, the idea has not been to reduce police funding as a way to restore the reputation of a discredited and hated institution. Nevertheless, the catchphrase “defund,” which is certainly not revolutionary, has a certain “reformist banality” that raises two essential issues about “fewer police.” The fact that the police are unable to solve the “problems” they are supposed to solve has become the new and obvious “common sense” to hundreds of thousands of demonstrators and their supporters. Further, contrary to the dominant ideology (which works only because some of those in society’s lowest rungs has been convinced of it), the slogan shows that the issues of security and criminal offenses — even if we do not radically challenge capitalist “law and order” — cannot be resolved by criminalization and punishment. At the very least, the resolution ought to focus on prevention. As Alex Vitale, a sociologist who specializes in policing and social justice, points out in an interview with Jacobin, “Police are the public face of the failure of the state to provide for people’s basic needs, and to paper over that failure with solutions that just harm people further.”

“Dismantle the Police”

Under the pressure of the protests, other solutions are making their way among the individuals and groups mobilized around the issues of police violence and racism. Here again, these solutions are being taken up by some city leaders as a way to channel the anger of the demonstrators. For example, in Minneapolis, a city under Democratic Party control, the majority of the City Council — the same people who earlier lined up behind Mayor Jacob Frey and Governor Tim Walz when they called out the National Guard to “restore order” and carry out repression — are now considering “abolishing” the city’s police force. The announcement of such a move underscores the about-face of more moderate Democrats, but it is a promise far off from being implemented and would probably resolve nothing if carried out within the current framework of capitalist institutions. The example of the city of Camden, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia with 80,000 inhabitants — three-quarters of whom are Black or Latinx — that has been described as “problematic” by the authorities, is a good example: the Camden Police Department was effectively dissolved in 2013. Now, the Financial Times holds it up as an example. But, on the spot, the county police hired many of the former Camden Police Department cops as part of a reconstituted metro department, without in any way putting a halt to police “abuses” against the population. This scheme of dissolving one repressive body and then reconstituting it in a different way changes nothing, of course. It does, however, point to how the debate might take shape regarding the dissolution of the police as a repressive body alien to the communities the cops are supposed to serve and their replacement with other structures for the management of community order that would not be at the service of capitalists and a racist and discriminatory societal hierarchy. That is what is being debated today in the demonstrations, and beyond.

The other element of the discussion that is gaining more and more traction within the mobilized sectors concerns another American taboo that is falling by the wayside, although it remains firmly anchored within the French trade union movement. It is about expelling the police “unions” — which have some 125,000 members — from the AFL-CIO, which is the national trade union federation in the United States and is close to the Democratic Party. Except for some union locals, only one small national union — the Writers Guild of America, East, which represents writers and journalists — has, as of this writing, called on the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) from the federation. This call has forced some bureaucrats, such as Lee Sanders, the head of the powerful 1.4 million-member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, to come out of the woodwork and resort to making some risky comparisons. Drawing a parallel to the early 1960s, when some AFL-CIO member unions were still defending discriminatory policies that excluded some workers from membership, he wrote in an op-ed: “Just as it was wrong when racists went out of their way to exclude black people from unions, it is wrong to deny this freedom to police officers today.”

Against a backdrop of growing social unrest in the workplace, this line of reasoning doesn’t win the unanimous acceptance it once did. Several local and national unions, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the West Coast (historically a very combative union) and the United Auto Workers (UAW) have held work stoppages in solidarity with the demonstrations against police violence and on Juneteenth, the commemoration of when news of abolition reached the last enslaved people on June 19, 1865 — a celebration that this year is associated with the memory of George Floyd. In Seattle, the largest city in the Pacific Northwest, where a veritable ZAD5 was set up around the abandoned location of the police department’s East Precinct, the cop’s “union” was expelled from the local federation by a vote of the union representatives.

“F*** the Police”

In light of historical experiences, the program of revolutionary Marxism stands for abolishing the police and the army. Cops and professional soldiers are not “workers in uniform,” but henchmen, watchdogs of the established order. Our security — jobs, housing, healthcare, education for all, the fight against discrimination and oppression – can be provided only by ourselves, by men and women from our own ranks who are accountable to their neighborhoods and their coworkers. This, of course, means “order” that is radically different from their order, which legalizes the right to fire workers, evict tenants, fail to provide healthcare and education, and unleash police violence and institutional racism, and criminalizes those who oppose it. 

First published in French on June 28 in RP Dimanche.

Translation by Scott Cooper

Notes   [ + ]

1. Of course, in his remarks at the signing, Trump made sure to emphasize, “I strongly oppose the radical and dangerous efforts to defund, dismantle, and dissolve our police departments … Without police, there is chaos.”
2. Translator’s note: This is a reference to a proposal first made in 2012, after the election of François Hollande of the Socialist Party as France’s president, to create a system of “receipts” (récépissés de contrôle d’identité) that would prevent the same individual from being checked multiple times in the same week by police — as a way to “regain the confidence and respect” of the people for French cops. The proposal came from Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister.
3. Translator’s note: The Inspection generale de la police nationale (IGPN, General Inspectorate of the National Police) is the equivalent of the Internal Affairs bureau in most U.S. police departments.
4. Translator’s note: This is shorthand in France for the French Ministry of the Interior, which has been located at Place Beauvau in Paris, inside an old hotel, since 1861.
5. Translator’s note: In French, ZAD — for zone à défendre (“zone to defend”) refers to a militant occupation, typically to block capitalist development projects that would harm the environment. Here the author is referring to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.