The Capitalist Limits of Police Reform

Nearly 6 years ago the Black Lives Movement started as mass protests after the police murder of Michael Brown. Its victories were largely in the realm of consciousness-raising, while cities nationwide implemented a variety of reforms—body cameras, implicit bias training, increased oversight, community policing, etc.—that resulted in no perceivable change in police behavior.

The new movement triggered by the police murder of George Floyd recognized the prior shortcomings and started with more radical demands, themselves the result of organizers already demanding “cops out of schools”, “defund the police”, “smash police unions” and “abolish the police”.

The more militant demands combined with larger protests have already achieved important victories: cities are moving toward a ban on tear gas and chokeholds, police are being removed from schools and possibly from transit, the police budget shrank in Los Angeles and Minnapolis promises to “defund and disband” its police department. The cops are on the retreat.

But police reform is an especially tricky animal, a whack-a-mole that retreats today but rears its head tomorrow. This is already evident on the streets: on the same day the Portland Mayor attended protests and promised change his police later tear gassed the crowd.

Demanding reforms is critical to any social movement, and many police reforms can save lives and reduce harm, but they are often fleeting, as Alex Vitale explains in his book “The End of Policing”. The especially complicated dynamics of police reform have deep roots twisted together with the base of class society, where capitalist fueled austerity creates the social disruptions that police are called to “manage”.

Vitale’s book discusses the complex web of legal, social, and institutional barriers to reform that ebb and flow over the decades but ultimately remain in place, because the police are themselves the byproduct of historic economic relationships that have evolved over the years— police power grows as inequality grows, which widens as pro-market politicians shrink social services.

Banning specific weapons or tactics will be replaced by other forms of violence, because as Vitale explains, police are ‘violence workers’, experts in force that view all problems as nails to be hammered.

Police abolition is now being discussed publicly— a victory unto itself— but abolition will not bear fruit unless the tree is torn down by the roots and re-planted in non-capitalist soil.

The Nature of Policing is Glued to the Role of the State

The Marxist definition of ‘the state’ remains the most useful, and is consistent with what Vitale describes in ‘The End of Policing’. When a society is led/dominated by one class of people (a small minority) that depend on the exploitation of another (the majority), a state/government becomes necessary as a repressive apparatus to “manage” the labor and discontent of the larger, lower class.

The laws are created by those in charge, and thus reflect this exploitative class relationship, enshrining a dominant class that profits off the work of the laboring class. To enforce these laws and protect the property of the wealthy, the military/police are created, since a ruling class cannot rule without a violent apparatus capable of enforcing its will.

The laws thus created reflect this exploitative class relationship, enshrining a dominant class that profits off the work of the laboring class. To enforce these laws and protect the property of the wealthy, the military/police are created, since a ruling class cannot rule without a violent apparatus capable of enforcing its will.

The property of the ruling class— their mansions, rental properties, corporations, banks, etc— require force to protect from those with nothing; the police are the first line of defense for the ruling class.

Vitale explains that the modern U.S. police were created to protect property: African slaves on one hand and the property owned by the newly-rising capitalist class on the other. These two types of police protecting these two types of property existed side by side— north and south— before the civil war ended the slavocracy.

After the civil war the police enforced strictly capitalist laws, and the state— legislative, executive, judicial— became so intrinsic to the fabric of capitalism that their ultimate purpose was eventually lost. The ruling class learned to hide behind the state so effectively that most people don’t realize the group actually running society, since politicians and police are the public facing instruments the rich use to maintain and expand their profits, as we’ll see below.

Vitale notes that the nature of the police “since its earliest origins, is to be a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status-quo. Police reforms that fail to directly address this reality are doomed to reproduce it.” And ultimately “as long as the basic mission of police remains unchanged, none of these reforms will be achievable”

The “mission” of the police is tightly wound up with deeply-entrenched economic relationships that are responsible for the creation of the rest of the state. Without understanding the fundamental role of policing, Vitale explains, reformers can have misguided assumptions about what is possible, or what victories can be made permanent.

The police are not an independent part of the state that can be amputated from the rest of the government and be repurposed to actually provide “public safety” while a wealthy establishment dominates the rest of society; instead, the group that dominates society will continue to dominate all state functions, even if it lessens its grip occasionally in reaction to revolt.

The state for the capitalist is like a shell for a hermit crab; both can survive without their protective armor, but only briefly.

Police Reform Requires Government Transformation

The wealthy value the police for the services they provide, and these services will continue to be prioritized as a key part of the economic-political strategy deployed by the capitalist establishment, not only the protection of wealth but its expansion.

In nearly every American city the wealthy have a deathgrip over city government, and the police are their favorite and most sacred institution, which is reflected in the outrageous amount spent on police in city budgets.

The demands to “defund the police” are moving energy in the right direction since such demands will quickly expose the undemocratic nature of city budgeting. The budget is not transparent because its purpose, largely speaking, is to promote and protect the interests of those who run the government— the wealthy. Participatory budgeting has long been a demand of the Left, but the budget is so highly protected that little gains have been won.

Divesting from police and investing in working people is the way forward, but there are gigantic class barriers that need to be recognized so that the power needed to overcome them can be amassed.

Defunding the police involves moving the money into public services, housing, etc. But this is a much more complicated demand than it appears because it directly challenges the direction that the wealthy are taking the economy. Similar ideas emerged after the nationwide riots that erupted after the Rodney King verdict in ’92. The outcome was more austerity and mass incarceration.

American cities have been imposing austerity budgets for decades precisely because this is what the wealthy want: the budget reflects the priorities of the rich that dominate the government, thus city wealth has been used to subsidize corporations and promote gentrification/real estate investment and fund police to deal with the fallout.

City governments are notoriously undemocratic because a tiny class of wealthy people cannot promote their interests with real democracy. Elections are overwhelmingly won with money, and the few exceptions to this rule find themselves in a city hall deeply entrenched with big money interests that have moulded the culture and practice of governing.

City government is nimble and efficient when the wealthy agree on a project, while being impenetrable or paralytic when issues like police reform come up. Government at every level was built this way, which is why working people have zero faith in using city, state, and federal government to enact change— they’ve learned correctly that capitalist government isn’t met to serve them, but is an instrument of their oppression.

Ultimately city government cannot be reformed without transforming the economic relationships being expressed— as long as there remain very rich people their money will find its way into city, state, and federal government, maintaining a state that was built in their image.

How Austerity Empowers Police

Democrats and Republicans remain united in their general strategy of capitalist austerity, or ‘neoliberalism’, where police serve several critical functions. The problem is even more complicated now that we’ve entered a serious recession,

which police reformers should recognize as a major obstacle to achieving their demands.

Recessions destroy government budgets because tax revenue shrivels up. Whenever this happens pro-capitalist politicians— the vast majority— insist on cutting social programs, since “there are no other options”. Taxing the rich remains “off the table” simply because the rich dominate politics, and challenging them can easily destroy your political career.

Because “managing inequality” is a fundamental role of the police, reducing/eliminating inequality must be an integral component of lasting police reform, and without drastically increasing taxes on the wealthy this is impossible.

Vitale explains that years of austerity budgets have continually empowered police. As federal housing funds were slashed in the 80’s the police were directed to “manage” the social problem of homelessness; as state psychiatric hospitals were shuttered police “managed” the outcome; as welfare funds were slashed the police were the de facto body expected to “handle” the consequences— all of which disproportionately impacted people of color, exacerbating the racism born of slavery.

Police wound up in schools, in part, because as school resources shrank and classroom sizes swelled, the classroom became “unmanageable”, and the police were the only institution left to “bring order” to schools.

As funds for social workers dried up the police became the only body available to respond to domestic disputes, drug overdoses, or perform welfare checks for abused children or the elderly, etc.

Occasionally new money is allocated to address these social issues, but it often takes one small recession to eliminate the program, re-relegating the solution to the police.

The decades of austerity must be reversed if real police reform is possible since simply shifting police budgets to social services will only be a drop in the bucket, after decades of massive cuts at the city, state, and federal level.

In addition to filling the social gaps left by capitalist austerity, police power is expanded alongside capitalist investment. For example, the longstanding demand to ‘end broken windows policing’ cannot be separated from capitalist-centric urban planning, where development is usually centered around real estate investment in poorer neighborhoods.

Once a neighborhood is prioritized for development the investment must be “secured”, by police, which includes arresting people who may threaten the investment— often people of color forced to survive in the informal economy that past waves of austerity pushed them into.

The urban focus on real estate investment is not an easily-reversible trend, because it’s become a fundamental feature of modern capitalism: for 30 years the housing market has attracted the lion share of global investment, creating demands to continually expand this market while police endlessly manage the consequence of soaring housing costs and rents, such as evictions, homelessness, addiction, crime, etc.

As cities prepare to end pandemic restrictions and “return to normal” during a historic recession, we’ll see a new “demand” for police as evictions soar and the newly homeless need to be swept from sight so that profits can resume.

Will The Middle Class Save the Police?

In city government elections are typically determined by middle class-leaning voters, who usually have only pro-establishment politicians to choose from. City council prioritize these residents because they vote, and they vote because their class position affords them a neutral perspective towards the state, rather than the oppressive experience of the working class and poor, who are usually correct when they say “voting will change nothing for me”.

The middle class thus have either a neutral or even positive perspective on the police, not recognizing their actual role in society; many middle-class people hold the “few bad apples” perspective because their personal experience with police has been positive. The problem is abstract to them, and can be quickly rooted out by firing bad cops and making “reasonable” reforms.

Vitale explains that when ‘community policing’ is pursued the ‘community’ that’s most likely to be represented are middle-class homeowners, while “renters, youth, homeless people, immigrants, and the most socially marginalized are rarely represented.”

Equally relevant is that the middle class is acutely aware that its class position is precarious— nothing terrifies them more than poverty or homelessness. What little property they own feels under threat by the poor. This fear heightens in times of social disorder, where it just takes one bout of looting before they beg for the police to implement “law and order”.

The Coming Police Counter-Revolution

Knowing they have the allegiance of the middle class— and understanding that they perform the ruling class an invaluable service— police have become savvy public actors and know how to effectively organize their base to shape public opinion, or bend city government to their will.

A great example of this occurred in New York, where the police murder of Eric Garner in 2014 made the Black Lives Matter movement especially strong. Mayor Bill de Blasio initially championed the BLM movement, setting himself on a direct collision course with the police.

He was steamrolled, in part due to the strong organizing of the police union, who organized a classic “slow down”, i.e., removing part of your labor to cause disruption. The New York Post called the police slowdown “a virtual work stoppage” that quickly shrank the city budget— because less fines were enforced— while agitating the middle classes since lower-level public offenses were ignored.

The police “proved their worth” to the establishment while showing that, if necessary, they could effectively organize an outright strike.

Another way police prove their worth is whenever looting/rioting occurs, since it just takes a couple high-profile examples for the middle class to clamor for “law and order”. Whether the police sometimes “allow” looting as some have alleged, is irreverent, since the outcome is the same. Even Portland’s infamous police reformer city councillor Jo Ann Hardesty called for a police-enforced curfew when rioting occurred, which intentionally or not resulted in the police being empowered.

Should Police Unions Be Outlawed?

Since the police murder of George Floyd fresh discussions have emerged about how police unions act as key barriers to reform, which this writer previously discussed in ‘Black Lives vs. Police Unions’.

Defanging police unions is a critical tactic, so long as it’s understood that police will respond to such a provocation by upping the ante— some snakes don’t need fangs to squeeze the life out of you.

If police unions were smashed their legal and political power would wane, but their organizing power would remain, since a union is at bottom employees taking collective action.

This writer argued in the above-mentioned article:

“The real power of the police union is two-fold: their role as a vital organization to the daily functioning of society (a strike threat terrifies city officials) and more importantly, the internal solidarity of the police that enables them to act collectively in a way that all unions should be jealous of (meaning that a powerful strike is actually achievable).”

Both of these components will remain if a police union is broken and would remain a serious threat to reform. For example, there is a well-documented history of police ‘non-cooperation’ with newly-installed reforms, and when done collectively non-cooperation is a powerful labor action that smashes reform without requiring a legally-recognized union to deploy.

There have been calls for labor federations to kick out police unions while not recognizing them as part of the labor movement. Such a move, however overdue, will remain largely symbolic since most police unions already function powerfully as independent associations that don’t rely on the larger labor movement; nor do the police have an affinity for the labor movement, since their power is rooted in other class interests.

Police unions must still be confronted, however, and when the union contract is being bargained the public must be able to attend the bargaining sessions and mobilize over demands. Such battles must be fought to strengthen the movement via education, organizing and building power, while realizing a victory here is merely a battle won in a wider war.

Deep Reform Requires Revolution

While acknowledging the economic structure that creates the political “necessity” for police, Vitale argues that fighting for reforms remains essential. His advice is to “reduce the scope and power” of police, for example taking police away from schools and public transit while legalizing drugs, gambling, and sex work.

Achieving major victories in these areas will be difficult, while deeper institutional changes are subject to reversal if the underlying class relations remain unchanged, i.e. the organized power of the ruling class in relation to the working class.

This deeper power is why Vitale argues that “even if we could somehow implement these [police reform] changes, they would be ignored, resisted, and overturned”.

Vitale argues that for reforms to be successful in the long run “communities must directly confront the political, economic, and social arrangements that produce the vast gulfs between the races and the growing gaps between the haves and have-nots.”

For this reason there are a growing number of organizations in the Black Community today combining the demand to defund the police with the demand for community control.

To avoid a real political-economic transformation, the establishment is quickly creating alternatives for police reform, most of which are either cosmetic or outright PR stunts. With one hand promises are being made while tear gas is deployed by the other. Some reforms will be offered as “starters” while the establishment intends for these appetizers to be the main course.

The ruling class understands that social movements are typically brief— thunderstorms to be wethered. And thus stalling becomes a critical strategy to prevent real change, while an organizer’s job is to expand the movement’s lifespan.

Promises will be made and crumbs happily granted, whatever it takes to calm the streets. Commissions will be created to study the “feasibility” of implementing radical proposals; the budget office will be recruited to research the question and offer recommendations. The most radical promises will be made but they will “take time”.

Along these lines the majority of Minneapolis City Councilors announced their support to disband the police department, to be replaced with a “community-based public safety model”.

But such ideas become utopian if the underlying economic power isn’t challenged; if the role of the police in a capitalist economy isn’t openly discussed it reappears in similar form under a different name. Other police departments have been dismantled before, only to have their hideous features grow back. Just as a hermit crab sheds their shell when a more appropriate one is spotted, the state shell that protects the wealthy can evolve along with their needs, and especially when it’s under threat from below.

This new upsurge is already at its first crossroad; the liberal establishment is working overtime to co-opt the energy, for example the ‘Can’t Wait For 8’ campaign that, if implemented, will ignore any structural consideration, allowing for police oppression to continue.

If working-class organizers can’t unite over a way forward, the ruling class will convince middle-class organizations to collectively pursue toothless reforms that will eventually win out, since mass movements need the fuel that clear demands provide.

A sober approach to the issue is understanding that what’s won today can be lost tomorrow, due to the balance of power that teeter-totters back and forth— until the underlying illness is diagnosed and eradicated.

This requires putting police reform alongside a shortlist of social demands that must be fought simultaneously, such as the Black Panthers’ 10 Point Program that prioritized issues specifically affecting Black people— such as racist police violence— while connecting these issues to larger class demands meant to broaden the movement.

The world has changed dramatically in 6 months and there are endless opportunities for this moment to produce the revolutionary energy needed to abolish the police and the economic conditions that give rise to it.

Poor people are not a permanent feature of society, but they are under capitalist society. The racism inherited from slavery doesn’t have to be permanent, though it continues to exist, in part, because its serves a very useful function for capitalist exploitation.

Our imagination around what’s socially feasible has been stunted by an irrational addiction to the market economy, that assumes the existence of repressive police is “necessary”. To truly re-imagine public safety we must assume an economy that prioritizes the needs of working people. Such a world is possible but not within the cramped shell of the capitalist state.

Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at