What is the role of police under capitalism?

Protesters, marking the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown, are confronted by police on Aug. 11, 2015 in Ferguson, Mo. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on Aug. 9, 2014. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)


On June 9, 2017, a Philadelphia police officer, Ryan Pownall, shot David Jones multiple times in the back as he ran away. Pownall had stopped to search Jones, who had been riding a dirt bike. While police claim that Jones had a gun, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, he “had already dropped the loaded 9 millimeter gun” when the shooting occurred.

Reports state that this is the second time that Pownall shot a fleeing “suspect” in the back. The question of why a police officer would fire at an unarmed and fleeing person remains. David Jones was not a threat at the time he was shot.

Jones’ father, Thomas Jones, said, “I didn’t think my son would get shot in the back, I thought there was a procedure where you would tase a person first, or shoot a person in the leg. I didn’t think you would shoot to kill if a person is running away. If someone is running away from you, why shoot him in the back like an animal?”

On June 16, a Minnesota jury acquitted the police officer who gunned down Philando Castile last year during a traffic stop. Castile, a legal gun owner, had notified the officer that he was in possession of a firearm and had a permit to carry. The cop opened fire, killing Castile. The failure of the system to convict the cop who murdered Philando Castile is just one more in a long series of outrages that expose the lack of justice under the current system. The courts will not protect our rights when the police are involved.

Epidemic of police violence against people of color

According to the Washington Post, police nationwide shot and killed 492 people in the first six months of this year. At this rate, police killings will exceed 1000 for the year—for the third year in a row. A quarter of the deaths have been Black men, although they represent only six percent of the population.

Police brutality, and the ex-judicial murder of people of color, is nothing new and extends back as far as the history of police. In cities both North and South, police have enforced the existing social order against any perceived threats. These threats could be communists, labor organizations, LGBTQ people, or oppressed nationalities.

Recent years have seen countless victims of police murder and violence. Many incidents have been caught on video by witnesses, with little or no consequences for the police involved. The Black Lives Matter movement, which began in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, has continued to mobilize as police murdered Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and so many others.

Of course, there has always been resistance to police repression. In Houston, in 1917, Black U.S. Army troops took up arms against local police after cops attacked a member of their unit. During the 1960s, there were rebellions against police repression in Detroit, Los Angeles, Trenton, and other large cities. In the 1990s, the Los Angeles rebellion followed the acquittal of cops who savagely beat Rodney King. More recently, Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore exploded after the police murders of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.

Capitalism, police, and the state

The question of the police and their relationship to society is an important one for socialists. Many unionists, members of oppressed nationalities, and social movement activists have experienced police repression. Any worker who has been on strike knows that cops are called to suppress workers’ picket line actions and break strikes.

The police attack on counter-protesters during a recent far-right demonstration in Portland is another example of the reactionary role of cops. During the far right “free speech” mobilization, there were friendly exchanges and “high fives” between police and ultra-right protesters. Cooperation with rightist “Oath Keepers” extended to one of the reactionaries assisting police with the arrest of a counter-protester.

The state is not something particular to capitalism. The state is the expression of the division of society into social classes with conflicting interests. In “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State,” Frederick Engels writes that the state is “a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.”

The state does not exist to “reconcile” the interests of the various classes; The state exists for the subjugation of workers and oppressed people by the dominant, or ruling, class. This is expressed in the formation of police, the army, prisons, and other instruments of coercion aimed at keeping working people in line.

In the U.S., policing cannot be separated from the racist nature of the system. The origins of police in the U.S., especially in the South, can be partially traced to the slave patrols formed to catch runaway slaves. Later, police were the enforcers of Jim Crow segregation. They remain an essential component of the regime of mass incarceration, which imprisons hundreds of thousands of young Black and Brown men and women.

Police and fascism

In Italy and Germany, during the rise of fascist movements, there was cooperation between police and fascist groups. This cooperation extended to Italian police training of Mussolini’s Black Shirts. In the U.S., there have been demonstrated links with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and neo-Nazi groups. For instance, in Houston, in the 1970s, it was estimated that as many as 40% of the police department were members of the KKK. The same could be said of police departments across the South.

Racist policing is not something isolated to the South. Northern cities have enforced de facto segregation for years through racist policing. Philadelphia, supposedly the “city of brotherly love,” has a long history of racist cops. The most famous is the former police commissioner and mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo. Rizzo’s cops were infamous for attacks on the Black community. This included dropping young Black people in hostile white neighborhoods so that they had to run for their lives to get home. Under Rizzo, the police violently attacked the Black Panther Party and Black civil rights organizations.

The racist attitudes of the Philadelphia police department culminated in the May 1985 bombing of the MOVE house on Osage Avenue. On May 13, police surrounded the house, firing more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition at the home and used fire trucks to spray the house with more than 450,000 gallons of water. Later in the day, a police helicopter dropped a bomb on the roof sparking a fire. Rather than use the fire department to extinguish the fire, the decision was made to “let the fire burn” ultimately destroying 61 homes, leaving 250 people homeless, and killing 11 members of the MOVE organization, including five children.

The only person to be imprisoned after this crime was MOVE’s Ramona Africa, the sole adult survivor of the police attack (one child, Bertie Africa, also came out alive). No police or public official faced any legal consequences.

Cop “unions”

Building resistance to police violence means exposing the reactionary role of police unions in society and the labor movement. Cop unions not only make excuses for the murderers in their ranks, they support racist and reactionary policies like mass incarceration. Within the ranks of organized labor, cop unions play a reactionary role by opposing progressive initiatives.

The Fraternal Order of Police and Police Benevolent Association are the largest police unions. The Teamsters, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees International Union also represent police and prison guards. Building labor solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement within the labor movement means challenging the role of police unions and demanding that labor federations cut ties to these reactionary anti-worker organizations.

Revolutionary socialists reject the notion that police are a legitimate part of the workers’ movement. While police may be drawn from the ranks of the working class, they serve the interests of a racist capitalist social order. It’s the role they play as enforcers of the existing state and economic set up that is decisive.

Leon Trotsky, writing about cops in the 1930s, said, “The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker. Of late years, these policemen have had to do much more fighting with revolutionary workers than with Nazi students. Such training does not fail to leave its effects. And above all: every policeman knows that though governments may change, the police remains.”

Socialists reject calls for more cops and for “law and order,” since these policies always disproportionately target oppressed nationalities and workers. This is why, for example, we must oppose Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s call for adding thousands of more police in Britain in the wake of terror attacks.

We must continue to mobilize for justice against police violence and work to expose the links between neo-fascist groups and cops. The future of the various movements depends on our ability to link the struggles for justice against the system. This means holding the system’s enforcers in blue accountable.

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