Following the cop killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a powerful wave of protests has swept across the world, penetrating into hundreds of small towns and rural areas across the U.S., drawing a whole new generation of youth into political activity. As hundreds of thousands marched, all four of the cops involved in the killing of George Floyd have been arrested and indicted on serious charges.
The protests continue, as new and longstanding fights for cops to be prosecuted for brutality and killings have spread, like demanding charges be brought against Garrett Rolfe, the cop who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta June 12.
At the same time, liberal political figures are increasingly pushing to turn the protests into a discussion and debate over what “practical” steps can be taken to end racism and cop brutality.
Their goal is twofold. First, to try and convince those in the streets that there are ways to “solve” cop brutality with reforms to the capitalist criminal “justice” system. And second that they should now turn to working for lesser-evil — mainly Democratic Party — politicians to stop the “fascist” Donald Trump.
Their bywords are “defund the cops,” “police service not police forces,” we’ve got to root out the “bad apples,” and similar proposals. What they share in common is the idea the capitalist system and its cops, courts and prisons can be reformed. But they can’t.
And many of those advocating these measures know it. Like Nicholas Kristof, one of the dozens of liberal scribes on the New York Times opinion pages. “The idea behind ‘Defund the Police’ as most conceive it,” he wrote June 10, is “not to eliminate every police officer but to reimagine ways to make us safe that don’t necessarily involve traditional law enforcement.”
In other words, cops would be left to deal with “crime,” while much else, like homelessness and drug addiction, would be dealt with by armies of social workers.
Every time there have been big mobilizations against police brutality, these are the reforms the liberals offer.
But the simple fact is that under capitalism, the role of the cops isn’t to fight crime. It’s to protect the private property and political rule of the capitalist bosses and bankers. This was described perfectly by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, in his introduction to Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, one of the best books you can read to understand what is happening today. Barnes says:
- “We serve and protect” — that promise is displayed on squad cars across the United States from which cops harass and brutalize workers day in and day out, disproportionately singling out African-Americans, Latinos, and immigrants as targets. For working people, those words will always be a contemptible lie. But for the ruling class and privileged middle layers, they are a truthful summary of the function of the U.S. state apparatus — the armed forces; the multitude of local, state, federal, and military cop and spy agencies; the courts, bail-bond sharks, and probation and parole officers; the over-stuffed jails and prisons, with their evermore frequent, dehumanizing lockdowns and gang-controlled life, organized by those who run the “penal system” and overseen by thuggish prison guards (a true microcosm of bourgeois social relations). The U.S. state is the largest repressive apparatus in world history, with the highest — and increasing — incarceration rate of any country on earth.
These institutions of class rule, of bourgeois “law and order,” do brutally serve and protect the property, profits, and assumed prerogatives of the U.S. capitalist class — from the streets, factories, fields, mines, border crossings, and prisons across the United States, to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and beyond.
We can win concessions from the ruling class as we organize and fight their assaults on our jobs, living conditions and political rights. We can win the prosecution — and conviction — of cops who gun down our friends, family and co-workers.
But not by looking for ways to patch up and reform what is fundamentally an inhuman, class-divided, profit-driven and inherently brutal capitalist system. That just isn’t possible.
The cops do what they do because that is what the bosses and their hangers-on need. The only way a tiny minority whose wealth and position is based on the exploitation and misery of the vast majority of humanity can stay on top is to convince us there is no realistic alternative and deploy their criminal “justice” system to intimidate and brutalize working people to keep us in check.
The cops haven’t existed since the birth of humanity. The first police departments emerged in the 1830s as capitalism became the dominant social system worldwide. They grew out of the privately organized night watch paid for by the bosses to protect their plants, warehouses and property in the North. In the South they grew out of the slave patrols that were organized by the plantation bosses to brutalize and keep chattel slaves on the masters’ land.
These new government institutions of oppression and brutality emerged alongside the prisons, workhouses, chain gangs and other essential institutions of capitalist rule.
The only thing that can do away with them is to do away with the capitalist system itself. As Barnes puts it:
- Only the conquest, and exercise, of state power by the working class and expropriation of finance capital can lay the foundations for a world based not on exploitation, violence, racial discrimination, class-based pecking orders, and dog-eat-dog competition, but on solidarity among working people that encourages the creativity and recognition of the worth of every individual, regardless of sex, national origin, or skin color.
A socialist world.
Former President Barack Obama often tried to discourage working people from organizing to fight against the attacks of the government and the bosses, urging them to “work within the system” and look for the lesser of the capitalist political evils on display every four years. “Don’t boo,” he said, “vote.”
But the political road forward isn’t to hold your nose and pick the less-worst capitalist mouthpiece and then regret it for the next four years. We need to continue to fight against the attacks of the employers and their government, whether it’s on the strike picket line or marching against police brutality, the rulers’ wars abroad or other manifestations of capitalist rule.
We need to fight to help our struggles gain the widest support, and involve the broadest number of workers, farmers, youth and others exploited and oppressed by capitalism. With discipline, clear objectives and growing support.
The road forward is to break from the Democrats and Republicans — the twin parties of the capitalist rulers, to form our own political party, a labor party. And to use that party to chart a course to take political power into our own hands.
The cops are an indispensible instrument of capitalist rule. Only an end to capitalist exploitation and oppression can rid us of their brutality.