After the gruesome murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police over a counterfeit $20 bill, the United States erupted in an unprecedented nationwide revolt. This uprising has seen harsh clashes between protesters and police and put many new proposals on the table about what to do with the police as an institution.
There are demands circulating that the police be defunded, removed from certain spaces such as schools, or completely abolished. This last demand is clearly the most far-reaching, but the question is how to actually end the police as an institution — a question that has been asked more and more especially since the City Council of Minneapolis has endorsed dismantling the city’s PD.
The calls for the defunding of the police seek to address the fact that police budgets are obscenely bloated while other government programs such as education scramble for resources. In many cases, police departments, jails, and prisons can take up to 60 percent of a city’s annual budget. However, we must ask: why are police budgets so big? Is it because cities have bad priorities and invest in police instead of social services?
The gigantic police budgets are not accidental: they are central to the American capitalist system founded on slavery. They are essential to maintaining a society where Jeff Bezos is about to be a trillionaire while Amazon workers, many of them people of color, live in poverty. The police are an intrinsic component of the capitalist system; they are one of the repressive forces that maintains this order and the stark inequalities that it inevitably gives rise to. Therefore, if we are serious about abolishing the police to save the lives of Black, Brown, and working-class people, we need to be clear that our fight is against the capitalist system and the state that enforces its rule. There can be no abolition of police under capitalism.
A History Lesson
The police as an institution has always been intrinsically racist and sexist. In the American North, before formal full-time police forces were established, there were night watches. These night watches hired volunteers for a day to surveil communities for sex work and gambling. The night watchmen were severely disliked by the public and scorned for cracking down on working people’s leisure activities and vulnerable women’s means of survival.
The first formalized police department in the North originated in Boston in 1838. As a port city, Boston was a major place of commerce, and it developed the full-time police force to protect the shipments of the affluent bourgeoisie. To cut down on the cost of hiring people to safeguard their property, these wealthy owners convinced the public that a police force was necessary for the common good.
In the South, before the police were formalized into departments, there were slave patrols. Their sole purpose was to repress Black people. They did this by chasing, apprehending, and re-enslaving Black people who had escaped, by terrorizing enslaved people in order to prevent revolts, and by brutalizing them through extrajudicial punishment for breaking plantation rules. It is thus entirely unsurprising that many members or admirers of the KKK today are police officers. In fact, there has historically been an important overlap between the KKK and the police, and the two organizations have worked hand in hand in strengthening white supremacy.
After the Civil War, these slave patrols became Southern police departments. They enforced the Black Codes through imprisonment or fines for unemployment, houselessness, and interracial marriage. They put freedmen and women into impossible debt or hard labor camps akin to slavery. Similarly today, Black people are disproportionately arrested, face unaffordable bails, and are super exploited as prison labor.
Capitalism Needs Cops
Police exist because capitalism needs them. Just as Southern slave owners used slave patrols to maintain their “private property,” the Northern bourgeoisie needed the police to repress strikers and send them back to work, to quash any challenge to the capitalist order, and to defend the private property of the means of production. As industrialization increased capitalist profit, police also became necessary to repress the immigrant and native-born working class.
In the twentieth century, there came a series of social upheavals in which workers organized to win greater rights on the job, more control of the workplace, and proper compensation for their work. In response, nearly every city developed a PD, and the bourgeoisie began to sic their repressive dogs on the working class. Unionizing attempts were often quashed by police. Ideas spread about the “troublemaker” who would likely incite a workplace strike. For example, during the 1934 waterfront strike in San Francisco, police fired their shotguns into crowds of supporters and strikers and entered the union hall to further their attack. The police killed two people and were not arrested. Similar brutal actions occurred throughout the 20th century all over the country.
The current role of police is no different. Around the world, the police terrorize working-class neighborhoods in the same way. Never was the inception or the practice of policing rooted in protecting people’s safety. Because the police were always intended to preserve capitalist private property, the solution to police terror is not better oversight or greater accountability. Rather, the solution is the abolition of the racist system in which wealthy white men, many of whom inherited their property directly from the slave trade, aim to keep people in conditions of starvation, precarious shelter, fatigue, and alienation. And the harsher the oppression, the more brutal the violence used to keep the working class “in their place.”
Body Cams and New Training
After the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement and even today, there have been calls for body cameras to be worn by police and better training for officers. The argument for these reforms is that they would provide greater transparency and accountability for officers.
The problem is that measures like this have already been instituted in many states around the country but have done little or nothing to curb police brutality. For example, Eric Garner was choked to death in 2014 in broad daylight, in front of a crowd, while being recorded using an illegal NYPD chokehold. Tamir Rice was killed in a public park that had cameras. Philando Castile had his murder captured by police dash cameras and a recording by his girlfriend. Derek Chauvin looked and smiled at the people who recorded him killing George Floyd. The (in)justice system in this country is such that even recorded murders of Black people don’t mean that killer cops will be locked up.
Furthermore, police often turn off their body cameras when committing heinous acts of violence. Just recently, a Kentucky barbecue shop owner was shot and killed by an officer who had their body camera shut off.
The number of people shot and killed by police has remained nearly consistent since 2015 even after a greater use of cameras. We don’t need more images of Black people being brutalized and killed by police. We need this repressive racist apparatus to disappear.
The Trouble with Community Policing
One of these reformist ideas that is often proposed by the mainstream media and bourgeois intellectuals is community policing. The notion is that when cops are stationed in a particular neighborhood, preferably where they themselves live, and only police that area, the officers will have stronger relationships with the community. According to this argument, such a move would decrease incidents of crime, brutality, and lethal interactions.
This rosy picture doesn’t acknowledge the function of police as an institution in charge of enforcing the rule of law. The Community Oriented Policing Services program, or COPS, established by the 1994 crime bill invested billions into enhancing the practice of community policing for the very purpose of fostering relationships between police and people. The program, however, was an absolute nightmare for working-class Black people. Not only did it do almost nothing to reduce “crime,” but it also contributed to mass incarceration, throwing countless Black youth in prison and leaving them in circumstances of job disenfranchisement and housing precarity.
The fact is, as long as nothing is done to address the underlying structural conditions that communities of color face — housing segregation, economic insecurity, unemployment, and scarcity of resources — policing can lead only to criminalization and brutality, regardless of whether it’s community based or not.
Furthermore, community policing doesn’t change the fact that police budgets drain funds for much-needed resources away from communities. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, cities scrambled to get essential supplies like ventilators. When the ventilator manufacturers raised their prices, New York City still had $5.6 billion allocated to the NYPD and $8 billion for building new jails. The cops received a massive budget for their riot gear, tear gas, and military-grade weapons, which were then used to repress the protesters. Nurses, meanwhile, were forced to reuse masks and wear garbage bags instead of proper PPE.
Community policing doesn’t mean the cops no longer serve the racist capitalist system. A cop who knows a community, the families of that community, and the culture of that community will still brutalize that community because that is their job and their function.
Defund the Police?
Another discussion that is circulating today is the idea of defunding the police as a solution to police terror. It is true that police budgets have increased over the last few decades, especially after the 1994 crime bill was passed, while healthcare and education have been defunded; however, the current efforts to reverse this trend would only make a miniscule difference. In New York, Mayor De Blasio has vowed to cut the budget of the NYPD and reallocate those funds to youth services. In LA, Mayor Eric Garcetti has said he will cut the LAPD’s $1.8 billion budget by $150 million to reallocate to marginalized communities. These promises are no more than minor concessions that will not change anything. What will change something is the total defunding of the police to a budget of zero and ultimately its permanent abolition.
It is worth noting that anti-police organizations such as the Black Panther Party emerged in the 1960s when police budgets were far smaller. These organizations correctly identified the police as a repressive force within working-class Black communities. As one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party, Huey P Newton, put it, “The police in our neighborhoods occupy our community just as a foreign troop occupies a territory and the police are not there to promote our welfare, they are there to contain us. To brutalize us and murder us because they have their orders to do so.”
The swelling size of police budgets and further militarization of the police were a response to increasing social tensions. In fact, the first SWAT units were developed at the time of the Watts riots and the rise of the Black Panther Party.
Partially defunding the police is no solution. If we use the momentum of today’s protests to merely decrease police budgets today, how can we stop city, state, and federal governments from increasing these same budgets tomorrow? More importantly, what will partial defunding do to end the systemic violence against Black and working-class people?
Our goal shouldn’t be to lessen the number of Black people killed and brutalized by police. Our goal is not a little less oppression. Our goal needs to be to protect Black lives and to eradicate all forces that threaten them. Aspiring to anything less as an ultimate goal only reserves a spot in the future for more grief and anger over the next Black person killed by state violence.
Abolish the Police, End Capitalism
Police cannot be reformed to be on the side of the working class and oppressed. Therefore, the only viable solution to police terror is complete abolition. But, for there to be abolition of police, there must also be an abolition of prisons, the military, the state, and capitalism, because these forces are all intertwined.
Since police exist to protect private property and repress the working class, there needs to be a revolutionary force composed of the working class that opposes capitalism and its violent guard dogs. In the current struggle, though spontaneous and scattered, there is a massive worldwide revolt against police that is forcing major concessions from the state. With this unprecedented solidarity, there is a potential to organize this force into one that directly opposes the police, other state agents, and capitalism itself.
There needs to be an independent political working-class party that fights for socialism. Only such a party can organize a society in which resources are distributed by need and not profit and in which the prisons, the police, and the military can be done away with permanently.
Repression is an integral component in maintaining a system of exploitation. Therefore, police will always exist within a capitalist system. If we are to destroy the forces of repression that kill children, lock people in cells, spread misery, and stifle efforts to improve the material conditions for society as a whole, our fight needs to be directed toward the system that relies on and maintains that repression.