(By the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Liberation News)
An updated study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement revealed that every 28 hours, on average, law enforcement officers in the United States killed a Black person in 2012. The pandemic of police violence is largely concentrated against Black communities, but the increase in aggressive, militarized policing has spilled over into other communities as well, resulting in scores of deaths of Latino, Asian and white people.
The levels of police abuse and violence are deeply connected to the current stage of monopoly capitalism, which has delivered higher levels of vulnerability and economic insecurity to increasing sections of the population, alongside record profits to the corporate rulers.
In this sort of society, where the disparities are so enormous—particularly in relation to oppressed Black and Latino communities—the ruling class has preserved their rule with increased militarization of the police, mass incarceration, surveillance and other tactics designed to intimidate those most likely to resist and rebel.
For those that are confronted by the U.S. police on a regular basis, they know they are facing a truly lawless organization—a gang of a certain type—which has the authority and the will to use force at a moment’s notice.
This reality has spawned growing resistance, as people all over the country have been brought into struggle seeking a way out of the daily and often grotesque abuses carried out by the police.
For the PSL, our tactical orientation in any struggle is to unite with those in motion, to help develop demands that crystallize the needs and desires of the working class, while raising consciousness about the concrete struggle as a symptom of class oppression. We aim to consistently widen these struggles and advance their demands, through higher stages of combativeness and political consciousness, and ultimately to revolution for a new system, built on a new class power.
Revolutionary Marxists energetically support the immediate struggles for justice and reform, but oppose reformism, the ideology promoted by so many politicians, labor union leaders and non-profits that the best the working class can achieve is a slight improvement of their condition as wage slaves.
In search of justice
In the spontaneous reactions to police brutality, the first thing is to always address the prosecution and imprisonment of abusive and killer cops— on the need for basic justice. This is the first and primary demand for any family who has lost a relative, and for every community dealing with the epidemic of police violence on a daily basis.
What seems basic, however, involves a long and hard-fought struggle in the capitalists’ courts. The prosecutors and judges—not to mention the corporate media—protect police officers as part of their system and understand that it is essential for the cops to retain their right to freely use force on the population. Any legal precedent that checks this “right,” such as the incarceration of an officer for excessive force or murder, would also diminish their effectiveness in intimidating the population.
City governments would much rather pay out tens of millions of dollars in civil lawsuits to families than see one of their own—even their most despicable officers—go to jail. This has been the experience of those fighting back over decades against police terror.
So how can justice be won? It is through political struggle, not letting the legal process simply “take its course.” Without struggle and a popular outcry, district attorneys typically do not indict, or even seriously investigate, after incidents of police brutality. Just winning an indictment is a hard-fought battle, as the case of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham shows. It took 14 months to secure an indictment of Officer Richard Haste, who stormed into his house and shot the unarmed teenager, and then the indictment was dismissed based on a fishy procedural basis.
Beyond the indictment stage, history shows that the ruling class will only convict one of their own if they fear the consequences of not doing so.
The task of revolutionaries is to intensify the struggle and bring wider layers of the class into the struggle: from the family to the neighbors, to the community, and other organizations like labor unions, tenant associations, youth and social justice groups—even people who might not be personally affected by police brutality, but have a class stake in defeating it, and demonstrating their solidarity.
Current attempts at reforms in New York
In New York City, a coalition of progressive non-profit organizations is fighting for bills, which they call the Community Safety Act. These would make NYPD’s “Stop-and-Frisk,” the widely hated policy of racial profiling and harassment, illegal in cases where the officers are stopping individuals on discriminatory terms and cannot point to reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. Other parts of the bill would strengthen people’s rights to make discrimination claims, give oversight of the NYPD to the City’s Department of Investigation and make it illegal for officers to trick people into consenting to searches.
These are modest reforms, which basically reaffirm that the U.S. Constitution—which protects against unreasonable search and seizure—still applies to New York. They would eliminate the NYPD’s special privilege to not have oversight of their activities. By creating a clearer legal standard to stop and question people, and increasing the necessary paperwork for cops to explain their actions, the reformers are hoping they will reduce the overall volume of discriminatory stops.
But this is only one aspect of the problem. It was not Stop-and-Frisk that killed Amadou Diallo, Anthony Baez, Patrick Dorismond, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Shantel Davis and Reynaldo Cuevas—which is just a short list of unarmed Black and Latino people killed by the cops in recent years. It was the fact that the NYPD is like an occupation army, approaching oppressed people as enemies of the state, shooting first and asking questions later. These cops are rarely indicted and never convicted.
Even the understandable demand for an “independent prosecutor” in cases of police shootings would not resolve this basic trend toward violence. How will the independent prosecutor be selected? A mayoral appointee would clearly be in bed with the cops, while elections—controlled as they are by campaign funds and spending—would not produce a victor unless they had significant backing from the ruling class. And even if the prosecutors were “independent,” the judges, the courts and the laws are not.
The rampant violence and harassment from the police dates back far before Stop-and-Frisk, which became official policy in 2002. Before 2002, they had other unofficial and official policies that targeted oppressed communities, and after Stop-and-Frisk they will undoubtedly create new ones.
The point is not to oppose such immediate struggles for reform, but to show that we need to go further than new legislation to offer a solution to the epidemic of police harassment and violence.
Pointing towards dual power
In-the-streets marches and rallies inspire greater willingness to struggle, and show the power of organizing, to people who are told every day that they have no alternative but to submit to the existing authority.
Given that police brutality is an intrinsic part of the capitalist system and the operation of national oppression in the United States, revolutionaries instead try to develop slogans and tactics that challenge the legitimacy of the state itself, while developing new forms of people’s organizations that can become a second power in society.
Every revolution passes through a stage of dual power, in which the old authority is questioned and in crisis, while the movement creates a new body to truly represent the people and become the new government.
For instance, after the courts let the cops off who killed Amadou Diallo, and popular rage filled the streets of New York’s oppressed communities, revolutionary Marxists advanced the slogan “Abolish the NYPD.” The institution was so corrupt and rotten, they argued, that it had become a cancer on the city that had to be removed altogether.
Tactics like Cop Watch are not only practically useful in demonstrating police violence and helping victims prove their innocence. If raised to the next political level, they raise the fighting confidence and level of organization inside oppressed communities, while providing the embryo of alternative policing, the idea of a new state.
Insofar as community organizations review and prosecute abusive officers in their own independent tribunals—instead of turning their recommendations and information back over to the capitalist state—they suggest an alternative power to the racist courts and judges.These are just a few examples of how the struggle for justice in individual cases can connect to a larger project to build resistance and revolutionary organization against the system as a whole.