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 the by 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.
What is to be done?
Lenin laid out the function of communists is to help stimulate struggle by carrying out “energetic political agitation, live and striking exposures” of the ruling class, which would have the effect of catching “some criminal red-handed and immediately to brand him publicly in all places.” He continued: “Calls for action, not in the general, but in the concrete, sense of the term can be made only at the place of action; only those who themselves go into action, and do so immediately, can sound such calls.” (“What Is To Be Done?”)
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.
With this objective of deepening revolution class consciousness from within the living struggle, it is worth evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of some tactics and slogans that have emerged to combat police violence. There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all approach to such struggles.
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 Oakland courts only went after the cop who killed Oscar Grant because they feared that letting him walk free — as they usually do — would greatly intensify the growing street rebellion and working-class activity.
The same thing happened in Greece after the police murder of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos led to a tremendous social upheaval, street battles and strikes. The cop was given a life sentence.
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.
Can police brutality be stopped?
Beyond the immediate demands related to a particular case, one question often arises “how do we stop police brutality?” Our placards say “Stop Racist Police Brutality” as an expression of the fighting mood and frustrations of oppressed people, and as a call to action for the people to fight back. But it cannot be stopped with a simple reform. From a Marxist perspective, such brutality is intrinsic to the current system, which is based on violence, force and the tyranny of a tiny minority over the vast majority.
In this regard, the struggle against police brutality is similar to the struggle against war and imperialism. We mobilize to stop U.S. attacks on oppressed countries, knowing that the combined resistance of the targeted peoples and our internal struggle have halted the Pentagon in the past, such as in Vietnam.
But we bring into the antiwar movement the perspective that such wars flow from the nature of the system itself, and no simple reform — such as a new president or Congressional oversight — can eliminate this tendency towards war. It can only be halted by creating a greater social crisis for the ruling class, and can only be ended by overthrowing that ruling class.
For organizers and revolutionaries, the fight against police brutality poses several challenges in terms of developing a tactical response. Some social problems — hunger, homelessness, educational inequality, etc. — can be partially alleviated with greater funding and social programs, in which the ruling class concedes a greater portion of the wealth they have expropriated from poor and working people. But police brutality is an inescapable part of the state itself, and on their ability to dispense force the government yields nothing.
The slogan of “community control of the police” emerged in the late 1960s, particularly as a demand of the Black liberation movement in response to the epidemic of racist police violence. At the time, police forces were almost entirely white in nearly every major city. They patrolled neighborhoods in which they did not live, and showed open contempt and racism toward residents.
Community control was one expression of the overall idea of Black Power, that Black people should have control over the political, social and economic institutions in majority-Black neighborhoods and cities. Revolutionary Marxists defended the demand as a basic expression of self-determination, an uprising against centuries of white supremacy.
Among different forces in the Black liberation movement there emerged a dispute of what community control of the police (and Black Power more generally) looked like. Revolutionary socialists emphasized that it required the construction of altogether new police and state forces, built from the ground up, to serve the interests of the community. This was a vision of community organizations taking over and replacing the functions of the state.
More moderate and liberal groups emphasized the need to make police forces reflective of the communities they patrolled, and fought for residency requirements so that cops would live in the same areas instead of the suburbs. They campaigned for independent review and new complaint processes to report police abuse.
As the revolutionary groups were repressed, and the overall radical upsurge of the period receded, this second meaning of community control came to dominate. These were progressive reforms in and of themselves, which may have improved certain aspects of police-community relations, but the ruling class could institute them without fundamentally disturbing their rule. Police departments even adopted a new slogan of “community policing.”
Civilian complaint review boards, while fought initially by police departments, suffered from the weakness of not having prosecutorial power. In some ways, the board could even benefit the cops, who were free to lie before them while collecting information on those who complain. The presence of civilian complaint boards, which are in place in different forms in cities all over the country, does not seem to have diminished police brutality.
More radical activists tried to push for review boards with real power over hiring and firing of police, as well as the ability to prosecute officers, but these efforts were almost always defeated. This was the line that the ruling class would not cross: any disruption of their chain of command, personnel decisions or discipline. The community might have some control over new complaint processes and far more Black and Latino officers were hired, but when it came to police orders and operations — the real centralism of the state — they would yield no community control.
Because “community” does not have clear class or political content, it has been repeatedly manipulated by politicians and police departments. The state helps develop pro-police neighborhood groups, small businesses and local officials and then uphold them as representatives of the “community” as a whole.
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.
Stop-and-Frisk is, however, 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. What killed these innocent people was not policy per se, but the very 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 state 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 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.
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.
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.