There must be a reason that politicians resist defunding the police, even as millions of people have turned out to protest against police brutality in the past few weeks. What role do police play in capitalist society?
Police forces are distinctively modern inventions, which didn’t exist before the development of capitalism. They were first created in countries like Britain and the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century as industrialization brought large numbers of workers together in huge cities characterized by huge social and economic inequalities. The role of the police was to maintain order—to break strikes, suppress urban uprising, and protect the property and safety of the rich. In the U.S. South there was a further dimension: capturing runaway slaves and preventing slave rebellions.
In general terms, the police have always served the wealthy and protected their property. That is why in Black, Latinx, and poor working-class neighborhoods, the police typically operate as an occupying force, viewing the residents with suspicion and treating them with contempt, or worse. The underlying cause of police violence and racism is not the psychology of individual cops, but the role they play in the current system. What good is maintaining “law and order” if the law discriminates against the poor and people of color, and the social order is fundamentally unjust?
The idea that the police play a vital role in preventing or solving crime doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In the first place, the worst crimes in capitalist society are committed by the rich and powerful and they are rarely held accountable for their actions. For example, every year the amount stolen by various forms of wage theft by employers is around three times all other forms of theft (larceny, burglary, auto theft, and robbery) combined. But police target the petty criminals, not the worst offenders.
Even with respect to so-called “street crime,” the police have a poor record. More police do not mean less crime—in fact, often the opposite, with police forces in major cities routinely engaging in acts of corruption, brutality, and murder. Individual cops are rarely charged or convicted, but taxpayers end up paying hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to victims or their families.
This is why support for defunding the police has begun to grow. Capitalism creates huge social problems, but there are better ways to deal with them than throwing money at police departments, which have seen their budgets grow enormously over the past 30 years. Instead, we need money to be spent on education, housing, healthcare, and social programs that deal with the roots of the problems. In many emergencies, social workers and mental health professionals are needed, not armed cops. And we need public safety agencies to be rooted in local communities and committed to social justice.
As we work to replace capitalism with socialism, we should demand that police budgets be cut and the money spent in more socially useful ways.
David Whitehouse’s blog post on the origins of policing
Alex Vitale’s article, “The answer to police violence is not ‘reform.’ It’s defunding. Here’s why.”
Alex Vitale, The End of Policing (Verso, 2017). (Madison Area DSA will be reading and discussing The End of Policing together starting June 22. Keep an eye on the MADSA event calendar for details). You can get the e-book for free from Verso.
Maya Schenwar et al. (eds.), Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? (Haymarket, 2016)
As a socialist, I get that organized labor is very important. Union, yes! But I have to say, police unions seem unrepentantly evil and bad. What’s the difference between a police union and other unions?
Not Sold on their Solidarity
Dear Rightfully Suspicious,
While police unions and labor unions are both unions in name, they couldn’t be more different.
First let’s look at labor unions, which are an organized group of workers who unite to make decisions about their working environment and conditions. Labor unions allow workers to protect themselves against bosses and other company authorities who seek to extract as much profit as possible from workers, which inevitably leads to the mistreatment and exploitation of laborers.
Next, let’s look at police unions, which serve the following purposes: Police unions aggressively fight reform efforts, bust union organizing, and defend officer misconduct. See: Philly officer Joseph Bologna who is facing assault charges for beating a student at an anti-racism protest, who’s union issued a statement saying they “will not stand-by and watch Inspector Bologna get railroaded.” This is a prime example of the way in which police unions will band together to defend police brutality, reinforcing a precedent for police to commit future acts of violence with impunity. Police unions aren’t for protecting cops against the bosses the way labor unions do. Cops ARE the bosses in the sense that they act out the violent will of the state, busting unions, oppressing the oppressed, and funneling bodies into the carceral system.
In short, cop unions aren’t actually unions, they’re state-sanctioned mafia masquerading as unions. As socialists, we demand the abolition of the police and of the carceral system, which includes the immediate disbanding of all police unions.