The roots of the police in the United States reach back in two directions. On the one hand, their formation is directly connected to pre-Civil War slave patrols. These armed groups of white men would hunt down runaway slaves trying to make their way north. On the other, their origin traces back to the growth of large industrial centres in the north. With the rapid expansion of these cities the rich needed to protect their wealth and property from the poor immigrants they employed who lived in conditions of deprivation.
Awareness of these sordid roots has increased in recent years as ordinary people reflect on the never-ending police killings of unarmed Black people in the US. Black Lives Matter began in 2014, when a wave of police killings took lives like Eric Garner’s, who was strangled to death for selling loose cigarettes in New York City (NYC).
The brutal murder of George Floyd on 25 May this year triggered a qualitative shift in this movement. Calls for defunding the police and police abolition, formerly the position of only a small minority, have entered the mainstream and gained currency. A national movement has cohered around this issue and has inspired movements around the globe. There is now pressure to defund or abolish the police nationwide. Some cities have begun moving forward on its implementation. Under enormous popular pressure, the New York City Council voted to defund the police by $1bn of their total $6bn budget on 30 June. Unfortunately, while this did defund the police on paper it was largely a smokescreen.
This money is mostly just being shuffled around and the vast majority will end up still funding police functions. For example, the money that previously went to the police to pay for their presence in public schools will now be going to the Department of Education, but the DOE will use this money to pay for the same police presence in the same schools. None of the activists on the NYC streets have been fooled by this deception and have continued to agitate and to demand real change. City Hall Park was occupied with hundreds and sometimes thousands of protesters before and after the vote. These protesters gave teach-ins about a world without police, as others sat and debated what a post-capitalist world might look like.
If anything, the disappointment coming from the City Council seems to have only increased the militancy of this movement. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, the City Council vowed to dismantle their police department on 26 June, after a month of enormous popular pressure and social unrest. Their plan was to eventually replace the police department with citizens patrols. The City Council has already walked this goal back, looking at only partial defunding and abandoning the goal of creating alternatives to the police.
Many people had put their hopes in change coming from the City Council and are learning that the alternative instead needs to be built from the bottom up. Seattle, where socialist Kshama Sawant sits on the City Council, is going through with a plan to defund their police department by 50 percent, diverting that money instead to social services. This win is coming after enormous pressure on the streets, principally from the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), later re-named Capital Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP). This occupied zone spanned six city blocks and a park.
The occupation lasted just over three weeks before being cleared out by riot police. CHOP demonstrates the increasing militancy of this movement, even though the anarchist and autonomous ideas that inspired the occupation meant that it quickly ran up against certain limitations. While CHOP gave a place for many beautiful developments, the fact that it arose spontaneously without the solid foundation of integral working-class organisation resulted in problems with crime including five shootings.
The movement is showing no signs of slowing down. As I write, Portland, Oregon is ablaze with anti-police protests. Donald Trump has called in federal law enforcement who have been kidnapping protesters and taking them to unknown locations without charges. Against those who have been insisting that the only practical socialist strategy in the United States is the most modest social democratic program, this anti-police movement has illustrated the revolutionary sleeping giant that is the US working class.
As socialists we need to engage with this movement and continue to pull it in this direction. Marxist philosopher György Lukács talks about “the actuality of revolution.” When a given issue arises, revolutionary socialists should judge it according to the way it hastens or impedes society’s long journey toward revolution. According to this metric alone, any weakening or abolition of the police would be an enormous leap forward.
Thomas Hummel is an activist and a member of Marx 21. Go to: marx21us.org
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