Sunday, June 28, 2020

Defunding the police as a stepping stone to getting rid of capitalism

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by Frank Brenner

Defunding the police has become the marquee demand that’s emerged from the George Floyd protests. It’s understandable given the history of racist police violence in America, but more than that, it indicates that for masses of people – in the black and brown communities and among progressives of all races – the lynching of George Floyd has crossed a line. The cell phone video of a cop’s knee on Floyd’s neck, choking the life out of him, is now seared into our collective consciousness. In just shy of 9 minutes that video has undone nearly a century of cop hero-worship from Hollywood and broadcast tv. Which is in itself remarkable, attesting to two things: first, that social media, seemingly almost suffocated to the death by surveillance capitalism and the social pathologies of trolling, still has enough residual power to break through all the bullshit with moments of searing reality; and second, that the masses respond to those moments with outrage, as if all the decades of pop culture programming are just so much loose dirt easily brushed away.

The demand to defund (or abolish) the police is not just a slogan that protestors have latched on to as a way of venting their outrage over Floyd’s murder. There is good research by activists and academics underpinning this demand. Notable in this regard is the book The End of Policing by Alex Vitale, a criminologist from Brooklyn College. (The e-book version is available for free from the publisher, Verso Books.) The book is a thorough deconstruction of mainstream cultural myths about how the ‘thin blue line’ is here to serve and protect us all. In a chapter on the history of policing, Vitale writes:

“The reality is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and non-white people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements … [P]olicing emerged as new political and economic formations developed, producing social upheavals that could no longer be managed by existing private, communal, and informal processes. This can be seen in the earliest origins of policing, which were tied to three basic social arrangements of inequality in the eighteenth century: slavery, colonialism, and the control of a new industrial working class.”

Predictably the origins of the police in England go back to the suppression of the Irish; in America, again predictably, policing goes back to patrols for capturing runaway slaves in the antebellum South. The suppression of labor unrest became a paramount concern for the powers-that-be with the ramping up of the industrial revolution in the later decades of the 19th century. America’s imperialist expansion starting at the end of that century, particularly its military takeover of the Philippines, provided important models for how to run domestic police operations. (In this respect, the much-discussed militarization of the police in recent decades is more an intensification of past practices rather than a departure from them.)

In a recent interview with Jacobin, Vitale explained how this history bears on the current crisis with policing:
Today, we’re not dealing with slavery and colonialism in the same way. Instead, we have neoliberal capitalism and austerity. That system is producing massive wealth inequalities and the hollowing-out of the welfare state, which is in turn producing mass homelessness, mass untreated mental illness, mass problematic relationships with drugs, black markets for drugs and sex work and stolen goods, that people have turned to survive in this precarious economy. Policing has come in to manage those suspect populations — really, in their mind, surplus populations. They’re not trying to form them into a working class, they’re warehousing them in our prisons and jails. We have to understand policing as fundamentally a tool of social control to facilitate our exploitation. So the idea that we’re going to make them nicer and friendlier while they do that task, and that’s gonna make everything okay, is laughable.”
These truths are evident to many protestors on the streets and to activists who have long been fighting against police brutality and mass incarceration. A recent op-ed in The New York Times by one such activist, Mariame Kaba, got a lot of attention. The piece was titled: “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police”, with a subhead: “Because reform won’t happen”. In support of the latter claim, Kaba walks us through over a century of public commissions and inquiries which again and again laid out the facts about police brutality and called for reforms, only for nothing to change beyond some window-dressing.
Kaba zeroes in on the fundamental weakness of all these reform proposals: “The philosophy undergirding these reforms is that more rules will mean less violence. But police officers break rules all the time.” And then she lists some widely-reported examples of such rule-breaking during the recent protests: “police officers slashing tires, shoving old men on camera, and arresting and injuring journalists and protesters.” She also notes how Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who choked Eric Garner to death in 2014, wasn’t worried about being filmed; in fact he waved to the camera. “He knew,” writes Kaba, “that the police union would back him up and he was right. He stayed on the job for five more years.” Most telling of all in clinching the argument against police reform is that no city was more committed to such an agenda than Minneapolis – and yet it made no difference in terms of getting George Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, off the force despite a record of 17 misconduct complaints over two decades.

All too often, impassioned arguments against injustice get murky when it comes to spelling out alternatives, but that isn’t true in this case. The protestors do have a clear objective, which is to make the police “obsolete”, as Kaba states, and in order to make that happen what they want is massive cuts to police budgets and to the number of cops, and redirecting those billions in savings “toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.”

Mental health problems, which cops all too often make much worse with shocking and at times lethal brutality, would instead be dealt with by community care workers with special training. Restorative justice models could be used as an alternative to the plague of mass incarceration. Vitale spells out a number of measures that could be taken immediately, including eliminating COPS – the Orwellian named Community Oriented Police Services – which has been the federal government’s main conduit for militarizing and expanding city police forces.

The police would no longer be able to function as an army of occupation in minority communities, a brute force for keeping a knee on the collective necks of “surplus populations”, as Vitale puts it. Kaba sums up her vision as being that “of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation … This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.”

It isn’t hard to see that Kaba’s vision of “a different society” is really a socialist society: there simply isn’t any other kind that’s based on cooperation and mutual aid. Maybe Kaba was leery of using the s-word in the e-pages of the authoritative newspaper of the American establishment or maybe she hasn’t thought this vision through beyond a rejection of society as it exists now, which I imagine is true for many protestors. There is a glaring gap between the radicalism of what protestors want and the absence of a vocabulary to articulate it. That’s because the sort of vision Kaba is talking about is traditionally associated not with any particular race but with the working class – and yet that class has largely lost its voice.

Trade unions have been marginalized for generations (apart from police unions, that is!) and no mass socialist party exists. The Bernie Sanders campaign could have provided the impetus for such a party, but Sanders turned out be more radical in his rhetoric than his politics. At the very moment when reality itself (the pandemic, mass unemployment, the George Floyd protests) seemed to be crying out for the sweeping social reforms that Sanders had been campaigning for – at that very moment Sanders bowed out and threw his support to Joe Biden, a candidate who, in combining reactionary politics with doddering mental faculties, vies with Trump for exemplifying how rotted-out mainstream politics has become. In this way Sanders consigned himself to the same historical junkyard where many other progressives in America have ended up – the one with the words ‘Lesser Evil’ over the entrance.

Bernie Sanders-brand popcorn

This leaves the current political situation in a dangerous place. On the one hand, mass protests against police brutality; on the other hand, the contagion of Trump’s populism that still largely fills the political vacuum left by the corporate Democrats (and by Sanders now as well) in the white working class. If we are ever going to have a chance of getting to a society based on cooperation and mutual aid, that fissure has to be overcome.

One big obstacle to doing that is the prevailing mindset of identity politics. A term like ‘white privilege’ – without any qualifiers – is egregiously counter-productive. Racism is deeply entrenched in American history but painting all whites with a racist brush does nothing to overcome it. White workers are as much wage slaves as black or brown workers, assuming that they can get a job at all. To the extent that all workers remain demobilized as a class, to that extent many of them are also vulnerable to the scapegoating of minorities and immigrants that capitalist ideology constantly resorts to in order to keep its wage slaves divided and obscure the systemic nature of its economic oppression. But the first step in mobilizing such workers is to recognize them as potential allies rather than enemies. Terms like ‘white privilege’ only perpetuate those divisions, and in that sense undercut the struggle for structural change that will really make it possible for black lives to matter. Like all identity-based politics, ‘white privilege’ isn’t a cry for liberty but a bill of complaint, one whose ultimate purpose isn’t to change the system but to ‘diversify’ it, as in having a black president in the White House.

‘Defund the police’ is potentially a breakthrough to structural change because it is a direct challenge to the legal monopoly of violence exercised by the government machinery of corporate capitalism.  The “surplus populations” are saying they’ve had enough with being warehoused by the system and constantly terrorized by its armed thugs. The argument is beginning to shift from vague rhetoric about structural racism to concrete manifestations – but the remarkable thing about that shift is that it ceases to be just about race. If it were just that, then the problem would have been solved decades ago, with more black and brown cops and even (by now) more black and brown mayors and chiefs of police. But this is the police reform agenda that has completely failed, as Vitale and Kaba make perfectly clear. So the consciousness of the masses has begun to move on. The police are un-reformable, so we have to get rid of them.

What would it take to abolish the police? Kaba tells us: the billions from police budgets should be redirected “toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs.” Big investments should be made in mental health and treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, which account for an appallingly large percentage of the victims of police brutality and mass incarceration. Even bigger investments would be needed to improve education, provide free college tuition and create millions of decent-paying jobs. The redirecting of police-budget money would be a start – but only that. What this would really take is a massive re-distribution of wealth from the rich and super-rich to the increasingly impoverished great majority. Or to the put this another way, defunding the police can only work if it’s a down payment on getting rid of social inequality.

Housing is instructive in this regard. There is no more blatant manifestation of structural racism than the big city ghettos where black and brown families seem condemned to live eternally. And nothing has perpetuated this de-facto segregation more that the redlining of minority neighborhoods by banks in their mortgage-lending practices. According to recent reporting by NPR, in Chicago 68 percent of all the housing loans made by banks went to majority-white neighborhoods compared to 8 percent for majority-black neighborhoods. JP Morgan Chase, the biggest bank in the country, was also the worst in this regard, lending out 41 times more in white than black neighborhoods. It’s a similar story in other metropolitan centers like DC, New York, Los Angeles and the eye of the current political crisis, Minneapolis.

It could be the banks are all full of racist loan officers, but this would miss the point. This isn’t about the prejudices of individual bank officials (many of whom happen to be minorities themselves) but about the way banks operate. Their guiding principle isn’t race but the bottom line. Historically ghettos were indeed the product of racist policies, especially by federal government housing authorities, but banks don’t operate to right historic wrongs. They go where the money is – where they can make the most profit at the least risk. In minority communities the reverse is most often true: low profits, high risks. So the only way to end the blight of urban ghettos would be a massive overhaul of the banking system so that the need for decent and affordable housing takes precedence over the bottom line. You can’t get rid of the structures that perpetuate racism without getting rid of the structures of capitalism.

But no matter how true an argument is, it needs to find a point of connection with mass consciousness to have a political impact. For many protestors who’ve just begun to be politically engaged, ‘defund the police’ sounds like something do-able whereas overthrowing capitalism sounds like a far more distant (and hazy) prospect. But in a period of crisis like the one we’re living through mass political consciousness doesn’t tend to develop incrementally but can suddenly leap forward to positions hardly anyone would have expected. A mere month ago ‘defund the police’ would have seemed pie-in-the-sky, but seemingly overnight it’s become a demand that millions are backing. What’s crucial now is to make sure such demands don’t get gutted of their radical potential through the usual co-opting by the political mainstream. You can already see this happening with Black Lives Matter, as it gets suffocated to death by the embrace of corporate and political elites.

We should do everything possible to push ‘defund the police’ as far as it can go – and if that pushes the limits of what the mainstream considers acceptable, then so much the worse for the mainstream.

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