Reform or Abolition of the Police, Part One

In at least two posts, I will explore the issue of reforming the police versus its abolition. Conveniently, there are a couple of articles that address the issue.

Mr. Rosenfeld, a self-declared radical and Marxist living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in an article published in the social-democratic magazine Canadian Dimension on April 20, 2020, Reform and Transform: Police Abolitionism and Sloppy Thinking), responded to another article published on April 12 in the same magazine, written by James Wilt,  Abolishing the police is the only reasonable response to Winnipeg Police killings. Wilt argues that the police cannot be reformed but must be abolished since their function is essentially repressive, and that essential function is sufficient for demanding its abolition:

Unlike what many liberals claim, police cannot be reformed with better training, oversight, or diversity. Nor can police violence be eliminated by following the victim-blaming advice from (mostly) white social media users like “improved parenting” or “better decision-making.” Both of these supposed solutions reflect deeply naive and ahistorical understandings of what it is that police do—and how police actively harm communities, especially those of Indigenous peoples and racialized minorities.

The left’s response to the police killings of Eishia Hudson and Jason Collins must be to recommit to the only just solution: abolishing the police and reallocating the massive resources currently committed to policing to measures that actually keep our communities safe, like housing, harm reduction, strong public services, non-carceral crisis response, food security, income supports, returning land to Indigenous peoples by acknowledging existing sovereignty, and a whole lot more. At the root of this demand is resistance to the call for a “better balance” of policing and social services. On the contrary, policing must be dispensed with entirely.

Mr. Rosenfeld argues against abolition. Mr. Rosenfeld, however, not only argues against abolition; he finds the idea of the abolition of the police absurd–as his subtitle says. Indeed, Mr. Rosenfeld’s subtitle: “Police Abolitionism and Sloppy Thinking,” reflects the hostility that I faced here in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, when I questioned the ideology of “fair contracts,” “fair wages,” and “decent work” expressed by some trade unionists and social democrats.

I will try to show, in at least two posts if not more, that Mr. Rosenfeld’s view that the proposal of the abolition of the police is not absurd and that the proposal of the reform of the police as the rational solution–is absurd.

But let us first listen to Mr. Rosenfeld:

Having heard some of the younger activists with whom I work in the free transit movement muse about getting rid of the police force, I often found that most were not really serious about it as an immediate demand but were expressing their vision of how we might do things differently in an imagined future [my emphasis]. There are other activists, many of whom are passionate defenders of the rights of the homeless, the poorest and those most targeted by the system and its repressive apparatus, who argue that police budgets need to be radically trimmed in order to pay for the kinds of social programs and services that could contribute to addressing some of the most glaring forms of inequality and injustice. Few of them seriously demand the complete elimination of policing, but some do.

The issue of the reform of the police versus its abolition has become a focal point of controversy  since the murder of George Floyd has now come to light. Mr. Rosenfeld’s social-democratic casual dismissal of the abolition of police has been challenged practically as millions protested against the police throughout the world. Mr. Rosenfeld’s claim that the proposal that the abolition of the police involves sloppy thinking has been practically refuted as some who protested did propose abolishing the police.

Indeed, even before the mass protests against the murder of George Floyd, there have arisen movements for the abolition of the police in the light of systemic racism among the police. Why does Mr. Rosenfeld not refer to such movements?

For example, Meghan McDowell and Luis Fernandez published an article in 2018 about the movement for police abolition, titled “Disband, Disempower, and Disarm’: Amplifying the Theory and Practice of Police Abolition,” in the journal Criminal Criminology: 

In July of 2016, the popular Fox News program “Kelly File,” hosted by conservative T.V. personality Megan Kelly, held a town hall style forum to discuss race and law enforcement. The forum brought together what Fox News considers a diverse cross-section of the U.S. public: former FBI agents, retired NYPD officers, conservative Black pastors, community organizers, and “regular” Americans whose views spanned the ideological spectrum. The recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of law enforcement, uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Charlotte in the past year, and Micah Johnson’s targeted assassination of five Dallas police officers earlier in July, not only formed the backdrop for the conversation, but also set the conditions of possibility for such
a conversation to air on a mainstream media outlet in the first place.

At one point the conversation turned toward an indictment of the Black Lives Matter
(BLM) movement. Many forum attendees began to condemn BLM, reiterating racial tropes [a figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression] about Black-on-Black crime and “personal responsibility.” In a clip that has now gone viral, Jessica Disu, a Chicago-based community organizer and artist, tried to reframe the conversation: “Here’s a solution,” Disu interjected with conviction, “we need to abolish the police.” The Chicago Reader, a weekly alternative newspaper, described the ensuing reactions  to Disu’s comment:

“Abolish the police?” came [host Megan] Kelly’s incredulous response, as a clamor of boos and protests rose from the forum. “Demilitarize the police, disarm the police,” Disu pushed on, undeterred by the yelling. “We need to come up with community solutions for transformative justice. Can we all agree that a loss of a life is tragic?” [Disu] asked the forum, attempting to explain her vision. “Who’s gonna protect the community if we abolish the police?” Kelly asked, a this-must-be-a-joke smile spreading across her face. “The police in this country began as a slave patrol,” Disu managed to squeeze in before being engulfed by the noise.

I suppose Mr. Rosenfeld would also consider Disu’s view of the need  for abolishing the police to be “sloppy thinking” and “absurd.” Mr. Rosenfeld shares the same view–and attitude-towards the abolishing of the police as do those who defend the status quo. Not a very good beginning for a person who considers himself to be “a 70 year-old Marxist and democratic socialist.”

McDoowell and Fernandez continue:

In her call for police abolition, on Fox News no less, Disu challenged the hegemonic idea that the police are an inevitable fixture in society, and moreover, that the police are analogous to community safety. Disu’s presence on a national mainstream talk show illustrates that crises are also opportunities (Gilmore 2007). The uprisings, and corresponding organizing that expanded alongside or formed as a result of the rebellions, enabled Disu, and others, to publicly challenge law enforcement’s right to exist. That is, activist and movement organizers had already been pushing toward police abolition, but the difference is that this time there was an audience more willing to accept the challenge. In this article, we examine abolitionist claims aimed at law enforcement institutions in the aftermath of Ferguson and other subsequent rebellions. [In Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown Jr. was murdered by the policeman Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014].

Mr. Rosenfeld’s evidently lacks a  concern with researching the issue in at least a preliminary manner.

McDowell and Fernandez note that the movement towards the abolition of the police gained ground after the Ferguson murder:

Under the headline “the problem”, the anonymous collective For a World Without the Police (2016) argues, “The police force was created to repress the growing numbers of poor people that accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism,
while on plantations and in agricultural colonies, [the police] formed in response
to the threat of slave revolt.” Their analysis outlines the core functions of policing under racial capitalism [my emphasis]: protect the property of the capitalist class; maintain stable conditions for capital accumulation; and defend against any threats to these unequal conditions of rule (For a World Without Police 2016; see also Williams 2015; Whitehouse 2014). [see the website For a World Without Police].

The police undoubtedly has other functions, but its core function is to maintain the power of employers as a class so that they can continue to use human beings as means for obtaining more and more money (see  The Money Circuit of Capital).

The abolitionist movement against the police, as McDowell and Fernandez indicate,  involves the slogan “disband, disempower and disarm the police”:

The call for police abolition gained national traction soon after the 2014 Ferguson rebellion and is encapsulated by the slogan: “disband, disempower, and disarm the police!”8 This is more than a slogan however. The over-arching strategy is to eliminate the institution of policing, while disarmament and disempowerment are two inter-related tactics used to achieve this goal (Vitale 2017).

The recent call for defunding the police, therefore, can express a reformist position or an abolitionist position. The reformist position does not aim to “disband” the police but rather only to decrease funding for the police and, often, increase funding for social programs. The following question posed by Mr. Rosenfeld expresses this reformist view:

Shouldn’t that institution be thoroughly transformed, by political struggle, into a more humane, limited and less autonomous one?

The abolitionist stance, by contrast, sees defunding (disempowering and disarming) as means to the end of abolishing the police institution altogether–along with a society characterized by the dominance of a class of employers. Social reformers like Mr. Rosenfeld, on the other hand, at best see disempowering and disarming as ends in themselves–while preserving the existence of the police as a repressive institution and hence preserving its core function.

Historically, the abolitionist movement has a long history that was not restricted to the abolition of the police. The idea of abolition includes the movement for the abolition of slavery in the United States and elsewhere, the abolition of child labour, the abolition of prisons and the abolition of capitalism.

In relation to capitalism, I first became aware of the idea of proposing the abolition of prisons when I read Thomas Mathiesen’s works The Politics of Abolition and Law, Society and Political action: Towards a Strategy Under Late Capitalism. Mathiesen argues that the capitalist state has become particularly adept at co-opting or neutralizing more radical movements so that it is necessary to emphasis the abolition of structures rather than their reform in order not to contribute to the continuation of repressive structures. From page 73:

In the fourth place, we have seen that legislation which breaks with dominating interests, legislation which in this sense is radical, is easily shaped in such a way during the legislative process that the final legislation does not after all break significantly with dominating interests, as the examples from political practice of trimming, stripping down, the creation of pseudo alternatives, and co-optive co-operation, show.

I have referred, in another post, to the whittling down of the criminalization of employer actions following the murder of the Westray miners in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1992 (see  Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part Three). Co-optation is a real danger for the left–and Mr. Rosenfeld minimizes the power of the capitalist state to co-opt movements through reforms. This minimization of the danger of co-optation can be seen from the following:

In reality, though, bourgeois democratic institutions are not simply a façade for a bloody and murderous dictatorship over the poor and colonized. Yes, there are instances of state acts of murder and even terrorism. The liberal democratic state and institutions facilitate private capital accumulation and are structured in ways which seek to repress, diffuse and co-opt alternative political and social movements, but these are mediated by the necessities of legitimating capitalism [my emphasis] The relative power, political ideology and organization of the working class and colonized Indigenous peoples also affect the character of liberal democracy (and in the subordinate strata, there are forms of class differences and other contradictions that also matter). We don’t live in a fascist dictatorship.”’

I will address in another post Mr. Rosenfeld’s trivialization of the brutality and terrorism of the American government in other countries (“instances” makes it look like American murder and terrorism is an isolated event).

Let us limit ourselves to the question of the relevance of Mr. Rosenfeld’s reference to the need for the capitalist state to legitimate the rule of  employers over the daily working lives at work. He separates the diffusion and co-optation of alternative political and social movements from the need for “legitimating capitalism.” However, one of the major ways of “legitimating capitalism” is through diffusing and co-opting alternative political and social movements.

Mathiesen saw this danger to which Mr. Rosenfeld is blind. He calls the state absorbent when it has a refined capacity for neutralizing radical and revolutionary movements and demands. Mathiesen calls being co-opted “being defined in” and being shuffled to the side as irrelevant extremists “being defined out.” He calls “finished” the impossibility of contributing to the overcoming of the economic, political and social structures that characterize the dominance of the class of employers. Page 252:

The strongly absorbent late capitalist society has in fact managed, by the process of defining in, to absorb large parts of the Left into political work of a structure maintaining kind, while at the same time, through the process of defining out, it has managed to neutralize the remaining part of the Left as so-called extremists. By an interchange of the forces which define in and define out, on the one hand, and internal organizational reactions to these forces on the other, the parties of the Left have to a large degree either become ossified organizations which are defined in, or ossified organizations which are defined out. In any case they are, in our sense, finished.

Mr. Rosenfeld, however, fails to distinguish between reforms that form part of a movement to abolish a social institution and specific social relations and reforms that emerge as co-opted and that do not lead to questioning the oppressive and exploitative social institutions and social relations characteristic of the society in which we live.

Thus, Mr. Rosenfeld accuses Mr. Wilt of advocating immediate revolution–as if that is the only alternative:

Is he saying that reforms do not matter and that short of an immediate social revolution, nothing can change?

Abolitionists will take any reform that improves the lives of working-class communities–but there is a condition attached to such a view. Reforms that limit the capacities of workers and community members to think and act critically to oppressive and exploitative social relations and social institutions, without any positive change, are regressive. But most reforms can be simultaneously defended and criticized if some aspects are positive, while other aspects are regressive., such as the movement for a $15 minimum wage, which in Canada is coupled with the concept of fairness. Let us indeed fight for a minimum wage of $15 an hour (and other reforms associated with the movement, such as paid sick leave), but we should never link such a movement with the idea that there is “fairness: in receiving the minimum wage and other needed reforms. Coupling the fight for a minimum wage of $15 with “fairness” freezes the movement–rather than indicating that the achievement of the $15 minimum wage is a temporary resting place (given the balance of class power) that is inherently unfair since the wage system is itself inherently unfair and needs to be abolished. No “minimum wage” that involves the need for workers to work for employers is fair–and the idea of coupling the fight for the $15 minimum wage with the idea of “fairness” must be criticized constantly if any gained reforms are to go beyond contributing to the maintenance of the power of the class of employers.

Thus, Mr. Rosenfeld did not raise any objection to the pairing of a fight for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour with the term “fairness.” I have raised that issue often enough on this blog, and Mr. Rosenfeld had ample opportunity to criticize my position–but he chose not to do so. Why is that? I certainly support an increase in the minimum wage and other “reforms,” but they should never limit the capacities of workers and community members in their critical questioning of the system characterized by the class of employers.

Mr. Rosenfeld creates a straw person when he asks whether there should be reform or immediate revolution. Calling for abolition does not mean immediate revolution: it means making explicit the need to aim for abolition of an oppressive or exploitative institution from the very beginning. If we do not have the power–for now–to abolish a repressive or exploitative situation, that does not mean that we should not aim to do so  when we have more power. It also does not mean that we should reject all reforms out of hand merely because we cannot, for the moment, abolish the repressive or exploitative institution or social structure.

A further, personal example. I worked as a bilingual library technician at the District Resource Center for School District No. 57 in Prince George, British Columbia, Canada,from 1990-1992 (before I moved to Winnipeg). We had a collective agreement between support staff and the district that was coming up for negotiations. I volunteered to be part of the negotiating team because I wanted to learn about the process first hand (I was also the union steward for the board office). We bargained in the usual way, with a small group of union negotiators engaging in demands in the context of meetings with the negotiating team of the employer.

When our bargaining team was ready to present the results of negotiations to the members, I volunteered to draft the list of demands that we had made in a two-column set of papers, with an x beside the demands that we did not get and a check beside the ones that we did get. The union business manager was obliged to read this out during a public ratification meeting (she, however, noted that my presentation was very negative). When she sent out the ballots for voting to those who were not able to attend (School District No. 57 is a large school district geographically), she only sent out the demands that we obtained. The agreement was ratified.

The point is that I wanted to demonstrate the limitations of collective bargaining (and the corresponding collective agreement) while not rejecting any changes in the collective agreement. Furthermore, the demonstration of the limitation of reforms–or the politics of exposure as Mathiesen calls it–forms an essential element of the politics of abolition. From The Politics of Abolition Revisited, page 143:

Here lies the significance of the exposing or unmasking policy which the
above-mentioned sequence of events illustrates. Let me repeat: By unmasking
the ideology and the myths with which the penal system disguises itself – for
example through political work of the kind described here – a necessary basis
for the abolition of unnecessary and dangerous systems of control is created. The
example illustrates the struggle involved in such a work of exposure. The system
continually tries to adopt new disguises. We must continually try to unveil them.

Given the predominance of social democrats or social reformers–among the left here in Toronto–my prediction is that, unfortunately, the movement for the abolition of the police will be overshadowed by the movement for merely defunding the police. This will, in turn, result in further watering down of such a movement to a form acceptable to economic and political conditions dominated by the class of employers.

However, at least we can expose the limitations of the political position of the social-democratic left or the social-reformist left so that, when further murders by the police arise, we can point out the limitations of their political position and prepare the way for a more adequate politics–a politics of abolition.

I will continue the issue of reform versus abolition of the police in another, later post.

 

 

 

 

 

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