Can We Abolish the Police Without Abolishing the U.S. Government?

A lot has happened during the last year. There was an unprecedented global pandemic that is still raging out of control in parts of the world. A man named George Floyd was murdered. If Floyd had been born white, he would likely still be alive. A massive protest movement erupted, some say the largest in U.S. history. The perpetrator was arrested. The protest movement continued. People began questioning the very notion of policing — embracing ideas like defunding and abolition.

Now the perpetrator has been convicted, but what happens next?

A heartening aspect of these events was the tenacious spirit of radicalism that began developing in their wake. People from all backgrounds realized that American policing, at its core, is simply an expression of the state’s monopoly on violence. And that state is inherently colonialist, capitalist, and white supremacist. There is an assumption that we start by defunding the police, and we gradually move toward replacing them with something completely different — something that truly upholds safety and security for our communities.

But what is the way forward? What are the logistics of this monumental task?

These questions have been on my mind lately, so I decided to articulate my thoughts on this controversial yet crucial topic. This is not really an essay or an op-ed. It’s more like a letter. Like many other Americans, I have found myself becoming increasingly radicalized during recent years.

To put my radical views into context, I wanted to begin this analysis more broadly. What about these more generalized notions like safety, security, and law? I was recently asked the following question by a more conventional-minded individual regarding my views on American policing:

“Do you think we should just eliminate all laws and let citizens protect their own families and property as they see fit?”

To answer this question, let me begin with the fact that I am of a political tendency (Marxism-Leninism) that is regularly demonized on the Western left for its alleged “authoritarianism” (see the 1872 essay entitled “On Authority” by Frederick Engels for the quintessential response to this accusation).

Suffice it to say; I definitely support the concept of law. That being said, my support depends on whose interests are being served by any given set of laws. Generally speaking, laws in capitalist societies overwhelmingly serve the interests of the elites, and laws in socialist societies overwhelmingly serve the interests of the working class. At the risk of being redundant, I generally support the laws in socialist societies and oppose the laws in capitalist societies.

Add settler-colonialism, white supremacy, violent imperialism, and neoliberalism to the mix, and my opposition to the laws of a capitalist society increases exponentially.

The other part of the previous question relates to self, family, and community defense. I do want to briefly clarify that I am in favor of the right to bear arms and generally oppose gun control efforts (especially under a capitalist state). As Karl Marx famously said, “Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.” This is becoming a more standard leftist view in the U.S. and is promoted by organizations like the Socialist Rifle Association. Another notable aspect of this topic is that the history of gun control in the U.S. is steeped in overt racism — another reason other leftists and I oppose it. Though seemingly unrelated to the main issue at hand, I included the topic of armed defense because it would likely be necessary in the absence of conventional policing (not that the police actually protect people).

Now for my conflicting thoughts on “what is to be done” regarding this vile institution of American policing.

While I don’t believe it is possible to reform the U.S. government or American policing to the extent that these institutions would serve the interests of the people, I do generally support some of the recent efforts to reallocate local resources away from policing and toward efforts to improve the standard of living for poor and marginalized people (though this could be partially thwarted by President Biden’s proposed $300 million in funding for police departments nationwide).

For instance, in my city (Austin, TX), the city council voted to cut $20 million from the police budget and reallocate those funds toward (among other public health initiatives) housing currently (or formerly) unhoused people in hotels and providing them with essential services. Since I believe housing and other necessities should be de-commodified and provided to everyone, I obviously see this as a positive development.

City council member Greg Casar explained, “Cities that have stepped up and tried to reallocate police budgets have faced backlash usually driven by misinformation for the past few months, but I believe in the next few months cities that reallocated police funds can start showing results, can start showing what cities can do when we reduce police overspending. It’s only possible if we keep rethinking our priorities instead of continuing to over-invest in policing.”

Since all previous efforts at police reform have failed, many Americans feel that policing as we know it must be abolished and the entire concept revisited (defunding local police departments, as mentioned above, is sometimes seen as a step in this direction). An entirely new approach — likely involving several different professions — would theoretically replace conventional policing. For instance, a city employee doesn’t need a gun to issue traffic citations or respond to noise complaints. Those could easily be separate jobs from policing. Responding to a mental health crisis also doesn’t need to involve armed police officers, who are not trained in mental health and often turn situations violent or deadly.

These are just a few examples of current police duties that could be delegated to other professionals. And, as I mentioned, individuals, families, and communities should undoubtedly engage in armed defense (and other forms of safety and security, including mutual aid) if they feel comfortable doing so. As I detailed in an article last year, police don’t have any legal mandate to protect people. They often take too long to respond to a situation and make situations much worse than they would have otherwise been. The new mantra is becoming “we keep us safe.”

Book cover for “The End of Policing” by Alex Vitale (Verso, 2017)

The quintessential book on the problems with American policing is “The End of Policing” by sociology professor Alex Vitale. I read it last year after previously attending a talk the author gave. In addition to providing a thorough history of American policing, the layout of the chapters is also illuminating; many of them are broken down into categories relating to the enforcement of a specific set of laws or policing as it relates to a specific phenomenon (e.g., War on Drugs, homelessness, sex work, mental illness, border policing, school policing, etc.). For each chapter, Vitale discusses the main topic, goes through a history of the failed efforts at reform, and finally, offers alternatives. As a compelling bonus, the other options discussed and advocated for have, in many cases, been successfully put into practice in various places around the country.

For instance, the “alternatives” section of the school policing chapter begins with:

“A task force in New York found that schools with less punitive disciplinary systems were able to achieve a greater sense of safety for students, lower arrest and suspension rates, and fewer crimes, even in poor and high-crime neighborhoods. What is needed, but often not supplied by school officials, is a set of nonpunitive disciplinary measures designed to keep kids in school while getting to the root of disruptive behavior. Schools cannot solve all the problems students bring in, but they can be part of the solution rather than part of the criminal justice system. To do that, they need more resources to deal with the whole student.”

Vitale goes on to articulate why more resources need to be reallocated to schools and mentions places where various alternative approaches have succeeded. In the chapter on the policing of those with mental illness, Vitale writes:

“Mike Koval, chief of the Madison, Wisconsin police force, has spent years advocating for community-based mental health services in the wake of police killings of [people with mental illness]. He realizes that even with enhanced training and specialized response, there are still limits to what the police can do: ‘The unique challenges presented in these calls are going to result in more tragic outcomes unless or until there is a commitment to provide more proactive, pre-emptive, and collaborative interventions BEFORE an individual’s mental health issues have declined to critical levels.’ He even got permission from the city of Madison to undertake litigation against the state for closing down a mental health clinic, arguing that the loss of its services diverts considerable police resources and money away from patrolling, as officers must now transport people longer distances.”

The common theme here is reallocating resources away from policing and toward other local programs, professional organizations, and practices that not only repudiate violence against marginalized people but have shown a proven track record of efficacy. (Side note: Ending the War on Drugs would also be monumentally helpful, as even a Nixon aide admitted it was created specifically to target the Black community, but changing existing laws is a separate topic outside the scope of this piece.) I’d recommend everyone read the entire book to get a glimpse of the myriad viable alternatives to traditional policing and other notable proposals, but for an overview of the philosophy behind these ideas, a concise source is a New York Times op-ed by Mariame Kaba.

After summarizing how American policing has never had the cumulative effect of preventing or reducing crime, Kaba explains:

“When people, especially white people, consider a world without the police, they envision a society as violent as our current one, merely without law enforcement — and they shudder. As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm.”

“People like me […] have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.”

To provide further articulation of this general outlook, here are the last passages of an article Vitale wrote about a year ago:

“The ‘defund the police’ movement that we see taking off across the country is the expression of a lot of these ideas that have been percolating across the country for years. I am part of a movement of organizations on the ground, in cities across the country, who have been pushing back against this program of mass criminalization — who have been saying, ‘We don’t need another jail, we need youth centers. We don’t need school police. We don’t need the police to be in charge of mental health services, we need actual mental health services.’”

“My hope is that what’s happening today across the country will help feed those movements and help build their power. Because I think any movement to create economic and racial justice in the United States has to involve dialing back the power of the carceral apparatus, which is going to be used against us and our movements.”

In addition to defunding, another promising tactic I’ve noticed is simply attempting to minimize interactions with the police, such as making available alternatives to calling 9–1–1. This strategy usually comes as lists of phone numbers in cities around the U.S., which are shared on social media and include things like mental health organizations, social workers, suicide prevention lines, food banks, mutual aid networks, medics, housing assistance, and domestic abuse assistance. Another example is Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) “brake light clinics,” which feature DSA members replacing broken or dysfunctional brake lights free of charge in attempt to prevent unwanted encounters with the police.

While I agree with the ideas and sentiments expressed by Casar, Vitale, and Kaba, I also find myself slightly pessimistic and skeptical at the prospect of these massive transformations. A good way to introduce this somewhat bleak outlook is to mention my previous optimism regarding both recent presidential campaigns of Senator Bernie Sanders. While I was rooting for Sanders and thought he had a good chance of winning, I simultaneously knew a Sanders presidency wasn’t the solution to the inherently elitist and corrupt character of the U.S. government. But for a while there, especially after the first few 2020 primary states, I was convinced this white-haired eccentric would soon be victorious.

It turned out I was a bit naive. Long story short, Sanders proposed a new Franklin D. Roosevelt-style set of reforms that would have improved the lives of millions while preserving American capitalism and its global hegemony. This prospect for minimal progressive change seemed threatening enough to the bourgeois political establishment that the Democratic Party put all its efforts into defeating Sanders in the primaries, even to the point of nominating someone who held many of the same policies as Trump. Without the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, Trump likely would have won a second term — something Democratic Party elites would have preferred over a Sanders presidency and its mild threats to their obscene wealth.

This example is somewhat analogous to how I see the situation with American policing and the prospects for improvements. Sure, there are lots of excellent analyses out there, and even some positive changes occurring (both of which I mentioned above). But I fear these changes are similar to the development of the progressive movement surrounding the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns. Maybe they are all well-intentioned and could even help in a small way. But the inherently capitalist, colonialist, white supremacist nature of the American state will likely overrule these efforts, just as they did with the Sanders-led “political revolution.” Despite the defunding of some police departments and reallocation of city resources, Black and Indigenous people will still be killed and brutalized by police regularly and at vastly disproportionate rates. Poor and marginalized people will still be targeted and incarcerated almost exclusively.

Striking garment workers picketing in Rochester, New York (1913) (Wikimedia Commons)

This brings me back to the FDR reference; the New Deal reforms significantly improved conditions in the United States. They were historic and could not have happened without a robust, militant, and well-organized labor movement. The New Deal was essentially a compromise between capitalist leaders and a largely socialist and communist labor movement — a settlement to prevent an actual revolution (remember, this occurred only about a decade after the successful socialist revolution in Russia).

The movement for Black lives is certainly inspiring, and I consider myself part of that movement. However, it is nowhere near as organized or as powerful as the U.S. labor movement was during the ’20s and ’30s. As Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” The way I interpret that quote is that the demand needs to be exerted through power of its own. We must pursue such power if we truly want to see systemic change.

A 2014 Princeton study found there is generally no correlation between public opinion and federal government policy in the U.S. (while there is a qualifiable and significant correlation between the opinions and desires of economic elites and federal government policy). The U.S. government has proven time and time again that it will pour billions of dollars into PR campaigns to make us think they’re finally doing the right thing, only to maintain the status quo through austerity and violence once again. The entire Obama presidency was a textbook example of this; a performative façade of “change” while continuing (or expanding) the same destructive policies of the previous administration.

My point here is that the American state’s capitalist, colonialist, white supremacist character will remain operational unless challenged with power it cannot ignore. Policing is simply the tangible embodiment of these characteristics — the hideous, violent, terroristic expression of capitalist state power in its unique American manifestation. This is how the U.S. government survives. If the police aren’t sufficient for a given situation, the Nation Guard is called in to crush the will of the people. In the almost unimaginable event that American policing was “abolished,” the ruling class would simply deploy a private paramilitary force that would serve the same functions and utilize the same tactics as modern police departments, just as corporations do overseas.

Nothing resembling a revolutionary level of working-class power currently exists in the United States. I certainly hope to see that power develop and hope to be a part of it, but part of Marxism is having a grounded, scientific analysis of the existing material conditions and an understanding of the historical trajectory of any given society.­ As I recently mentioned, it essentially took the largest mass movement in U.S. history and an entire city being burned down (okay, slight hyperbole) to convict someone who was filmed flagrantly committing murder (not to mention someone who already had 18 complaints on his record before murdering George Floyd). Imagine what it would take to create a society in which human needs are met, and everyone has the opportunity to thrive and live with dignity.

If you see what I see, we have a long road ahead of us.

In short, it seems that notions like defunding or abolishing the police, while helpful, are a bit naïve if they don’t include a revolutionary component. But the radicalism these ideas often accompany is a step in the right direction regardless. Though it might be taboo, I have come to the realization that revolution (or at least immense, multi-racial, working-class power that is capable of making demands) is the only way to truly address the ubiquitous state terror that people of color and other marginalized groups face in this country.

Despite the rapid spread of radical ideas, many are likely still wary of the notion of a working-class revolution. I will therefore leave you with the radical words of the conventionally beloved Abraham Lincoln, who once said, “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it.”






Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: