A reader recently commented: “I’m so sick of reading about police violence. The way they beat people at the IMARC protests made me so angry. I feel that the cops only exist to protect the rich. Shouldn’t the police just be abolished?”
Socialists agree that the main role of the police is to protect the rich and powerful. The police are an important part of the capitalist state – the institutions through which class rule is maintained. But many working people look to the police for protection from violence or theft.
The people that own and control the economy are a minority. They make their profits by exploiting the rest of us. They stay in power thanks to their control of ideas (the media, education etc) but also because they have a repressive apparatus that includes the police, the courts, the prisons and the armed forces.
We’re told that the state is used to “maintain order” and “fight crime”, but it’s no coincidence that hundreds of cops can be found to get a few executives into a mining conference, while very little is done when a worker’s house is robbed.
Senior officers and the government set the priorities of the police at the behest of their big business backers. Obviously they do some crime fighting, but their main role is as a repressive force that helps to defend profits and capitalism.
Any struggle against corporate interests needs to take account of the state. A correct policy towards the police can often be the difference between victory and defeat.
Socialists are clear about the repressive role of the police, but we also understand that contradictions exist. For example, while individual officers work to defend the interests of the ruling class, most of the lower ranks of the police are drawn from the working class.
They tend to adopt the outlook of their superiors, but in times of struggle they can also be influenced by events, and by their friends and family.
When workers face attack from police, an approach that seeks to open up this contradiction can weaken the resolve of the police or even neutralise them. During a number of struggles – like in France during 1968 – sections of the police have refused to carry out their duties and this has strengthened the hand of working people.
While a layer of people see the real role the police play, many others believe they are necessary to fight crime. Socialists understand that crime affects working class people disproportionately. We don’t condone criminal behaviour, and we especially condemn violent crimes against vulnerable people.
While capitalism is the underlying driver of crime, we understand that people want safety in the here and now. In that sense it would seem strange to many people if we were to call for the immediate abolition of the police.
In fact, the capitalists would use that to paint us as defenders of chaos, when we are the ones fighting to give people safety and prosperity.
With that in mind, we think a better approach is to highlight the role of the police, while also fighting for the police force to be put under democratic public control.
We think the police should be controlled by elected committees made up of ordinary people. These committees should have the power to appoint senior officers, and they could weed out racist, sexist and homophobic officers. The committees could also oversee complaints about police conduct, rather than officers investigating themselves.
Most importantly, elected committees could decide day-to-day policing policies. For example, rather than defending dodgy bosses, the police could tackle wage theft.
In the past some democratic reforms to the police have been won. Previous ‘special branches’ and spying departments were abolished by some state governments under political pressure. Today we stand for the abolition of such squads, as well as federal spy agencies that are effectively political secret police.
So called ‘riot’ and ‘public order’ squads should also be done away with. Their role is to be the most brutal squads for beating back social movements and breaking picket lines.
But the only way reforms can be maintained and extended is if the working class move to do away with minority capitalist rule. If the majority ran society democratically, we would soon have no need for a repressive apparatus.
While we work to build this type of socialist society, we also need a program that can deal with the immediate problems posed by the police and the state. Proposals for democratic reforms help to show that the police are not there to “serve and protect” us all, and, if these reforms are won, can improve conditions for struggle.
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