No Unity of the Police and the Community is Possible or Desirable

After the police murders of Alton Sterling, 37, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile, 32, of St. Paul, Minnesota, we are asked to embrace the police, to form a partnership, to work together. From President Barack Obama on down, Democratic and Republican party politicians have called upon the police and communities to unite to solve our common problems.

The idea is as preposterous as it is insulting and infuriating. There is no possible basis for working class communities to unite with the police. We are adversaries, enemies by nature, or, better, by the nature of our society.

This should not seem extreme to you. As James Baldwin wrote back in 1966 in “A Report from Occupied Territory”:

Now what I have said about Harlem is true of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco—is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population….the police are simply the hired enemies of this population.[1]

Unfortunately, despite the civil rights and Black power movements, after the 1960s things did not change enough, some things returned to the way they were before, and new things—some even worse, like the “war on drugs—developed later. We are still enemies.

What Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote of the South in 1964 in Why We Can’t Wait is today true in all areas of the nation where Black people, Latinos, and working class whites live:

….armies of officials are clothed in uniform, invested with authority, armed with the instruments of violence and death and conditioned to believe that they can intimidate, maim or kill Negroes with the same recklessness that one motivated the slaveowner.[2]

The truth is that in both South and North the police have always behaved this way. It is intrinsic to their function.

We make up the 99%–but the police are employees of the 1%, hired to protect that class’ possessions from us, to insure their power and their status. In our society, the police function primarily to protect the capitalist system, private property, and the existing hierarchy of class, gender, and race relations.

It is true that the police do sometimes bring home lost children. And some individual police officers may be decent human beings. Still, the role of the police forces in our society it to keep in their place working class people and especially those, like Blacks, Latinos, and low-income whites, who are perceived as potentially most threatening to the social order.

Police Power Breeds Arrogance, Corruption, and Violence

The basic definition of a police force is: the state’s homeland monopoly of violence. (For violent action overseas there are the Army, Navy, and Marines.) The government gives police license to use force and weapons to maintain the existing system of economic exploitation and class oppression, as well as the existing racial and gender hierarchies.

The nature of the job—the use of force and the handling of arms—tends to attract those with a penchant or even a lust for violence. The profession attracts no small number of thugs and sadists. So it is not surprising that police officers, for example, tend to beat their wives and girlfriends at twice the national average.[3]

Power such as the police wield also leads to arrogance, corruption, and malevolent behavior. The police can and often do extort and rob. They collude with criminals and share in vice. The Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division scandal of the 1990s was no doubt uniquely large and multifaceted:

“More than 70 police officers either assigned to or associated with the Rampart CRASH unit were implicated in some form of misconduct, making it one of the most widespread cases of documented police misconduct in United States history, responsible for a long list of offenses including unprovoked shootings, unprovoked beatings, planting of false evidence, frame-ups, stealing and dealing narcotics, bank robbery, perjury, and the covering up of evidence of these activities.”[4]

Yet, while this was an extraordinary case of police corruption, similar if smaller cases are uncovered year after year in many other police departments around the country. The recent case in Oakland where several police officers had sex with a teenage prostitute[5], or the Detroit case of cops robbing drug dealers[6], or the current case of illicit dealings between businessmen and cops in New York City[7] are more typical of police corruption cases We are constantly reading these reports because corruption is inherent in policing since police exert such extraordinary power in our society.

The “war on drugs” created an atmosphere that encouraged police to engage in extortion and robbery. As Michele Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow, “Journalists and investigators have documented numerous…instances in which police departments have engaged in illegal shakedowns, searches, and threats in search of forfeitable property and cash.”[8]

Since the job of the police is to preserve the status quo—capitalism, patriarchy, racism—it is not surprising that policing everywhere tends to attract people who are more conservative, authoritarian, and intolerant.[9] The police officer often has an authoritarian personality; he looks up to authority and looks down on others. So it is not surprising to find—as reported by the FBI—that white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan have been successful in infiltrating some police departments.[10]

Many white police are racist, yet the more important fact is that police forces—whether the officers are white, Black, Latino, or Asian—tend, because of the persistence of white supremacist attitudes in the society and in the police forces, to be racist toward Blacks. Black officers will just as soon kill Black unarmed men. Shortly before Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered, a Black off-duty police officer in Brooklyn killed Delrawn Small, 37, saying he feared that Small, who approached his car, was going to harm him, though the officer might simply have rolled up his window and driven away from the scene. Whatever the race of the officer, the police not only reflect but also reinforce white supremacist attitudes. So Black police officers can become racist in their dealing with other Black men.

Fundamentally, however, the issue of the police is not a psychological question. Put simply, the economic elite, the wealthy and propertied class, controls the government, and the government deploys the police. The police slogan “serve and protect” is absolutely correct if we understand that they serve and protect not the citizens, but the existing social order.

Policing: More Important than Ever

This task of keeping working people and the poor down has become more important as unemployment has risen and poverty has increased. This has, of course, created many more dissatisfied people, some of them quite angry. After the Great Recession of 2008 the 1% recovered economically—after the government bailed them out with our money—but we did no do so well. Officially 4.9 percent of workers are unemployed, the poverty rate is at 14.5%  (those figures might be doubled and be more accurate) and 22% of children live in poverty.

Black people suffered most. The 2008 recession led banks to foreclose on delinquent mortgages causing many to lose their homes. Many Black people have been stripped of their financial assets, the work of a lifetime, sometime the work of generations. But many whites and Latinos also lost jobs and homes, as the entire working class slipped backward.

At the same time both Republicans and Democrats have adopted austerity policies, cutting in all sorts of government programs, eliminating what had been secure unionized public sector jobs and cutting pubic education, health care and social services. Meanwhile the stock market climbs, reaching new highs, expanding the gap between the 1% and the 99%.

All of this, of course, makes policing more important. As the wealthy prosper, they often invest in real estate. So, as bankers and realtors work to gentrify neighborhoods and raise rents, the police collaborate by enforcing evictions and through aggressive policing techniques that make the neighborhood inhospitable for its old residents. The police force, as Baldwin noted, becomes an occupying army in the neighborhood, intimidating by it very presence, but also stopping, frisking, and harassing.

For all of these reasons, it is impossible for our communities to unite with the police, since they are the enforcers of this unjust system. We have to view the police as adversaries and enemies just as workers and unions must view the corporation and the boss as enemies. Just as real unions reject “partnership,” so the social justice movement must reject collaboration. Those who wish to cooperate, who decide to collaborate with the police either become frustrated with the project when they see it has no future, or become the dupes or shills of the police and their public relations agents.

What then do we want then, if we will not cooperate?

While we are adversaries of the police, we do have a program of reforms that has been raised by many community organizations over the years and recently by some labor union members. These are guided by the notion that we want to increase the power of working people and to decrease the power of the police.

* We want absolute civilian control over the police and over all investigations and major disciplinary actions.

* We want to end the militarization of police: the tanks, the riot suits, the high-powered weapons, the robots-with-bombs.

* We want community control of police at the local level.

* Poverty should not be treated as a crime and people should not be arrested and prosecuted for begging, loitering, sleeping in public places, etc.

* Crimes involving property should not lead police to take armed action.

* Because the police work principally to repress working class communities, as well as to break strikes, we want the police and prison guards driven out of the AFL-CIO and the labor unions.

* We want to eliminate the Fraternal Order of Police and other such police organizations that exist to protect the impunity of police officers, shielding them from investigation and prosecution.

We need to build powerful working class organizations—community groups, labor unions, and socialist organizations—that can create a real class-conscious working class movement. If we had such a movement, as existed in other countries at various time, we could incorporate the police into it, since most police are recruited out of the working class. In Germany in the 1920s, the powerful Socialist and Communist Parties governed cities where they controlled the police, police departments that actually protected workers. Even in the United States between the 1930s and the 1960s there were some places where union power kept the police in check. Ultimately, of course, we want to overthrow capitalism and to create an egalitarian society where no state and no police are necessary.

Dirk van Westen is a New York-based writer.


[1] James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” The Nation, July 11, 1966.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. Why We Cant’ Wait (Signet Classics), p. 15.

[3] See for example these accounts: http://womenandpolicing.com/violencefs.asp, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/09/police-officers-who-hit-their-wives-or-girlfriends/380329/, http://thefreethoughtproject.com/cops-beat-wives-girlfriends-double-national-rate-receive-promotions/

[4] “Rapart Scandal,” Wikipedia, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rampart_scandal

[5] “Oakland Loses Third Police Chief in Little Over a Week After Sex Scandal,” Channel 7, at: http://abc7.com/news/oakland-loses-third-police-chief-in-little-over-a-week-after-sex-scandal/1391256/

[6] and “Corrupt ex-Detroit police found guilty of robbing drug dealers,” Michigan Live, at: http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2016/07/corrupt_ex-detroit_police_foun.html

[7] William K. Rashbaum and Joseph Goldstein, “3 N.Y.P.D. Commanders Are Arrested in Vast Corruption Case,” New York Times, at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/nyregion/nypd-arrests.html

[8] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 79.

[9] Andrew M. Colman and L. Paul Gorman, “Conservatism, Dogmatism, and Authoritarianism in British Police Officers,” at: http://soc.sagepub.com/content/16/1/1.abstract

[10] Samuel V. Jones, “FBI’s warning of White Supremacists infiltrating Law Enforcement nearly forgotten,” at: http://copsholdingcopsaccountable.com/hate-groups/

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