Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part Seven: Giving to Abolitionists with One Hand While Taking Back with the Other and Giving to Social Democrats

In his article published in the social-democratic journal Canadian Dimension on May 28, 2020, “Can We Ever Truly Transform or Democratize the Police? Measures Are Needed to Restrain and Neutralize Police Brutality to Whatever Extent Possible,” Harry Kopyto, ( seems to agree much more with James Wilt in the debate between Mr. Wilt and Herman Rosenfeld in the same journal (see my posts, such as Reform or Abolition of the Police, Part One). He argues, in effect, that it is, in practice, impossible to reform the police:

Rosenfeld is correct in promoting legislative and other changes similar to the ones identified above in response to the litany of police violence described by Wilt, but he is wrong in sowing illusions that these measures will change the fundamental nature of the police and “transform” them.

On the other hand, he claims that both Mr. Wilt and Mr. Rosenfeld have something to learn from each other: 

In my view, based on a career working as a criminal lawyer and a legal advocate against police abuse for 47 years before retirement, they should both learn to listen to each other because they both have something insightful to say.

I deny that Mr. Rosenfeld has much to teach us about how we are to address the problem of the police in relation to the working class. Mr. Kopyto concedes too much to Mr. Rosenfeld. Indeed, Mr. Kopyto falls into the same position, ultimately, as Mr. Rosenfeld, when answering the question: What is to be done? 

For example, Mr. Kopyto concludes his article with the following (despite showing the oppressive nature of the police historically): 

On the other hand, Wilt is right to point out that as enforcers of capitalist laws, police forces are inherently violent instruments of class oppression and must be abolished along with the capitalist system they serve. However, in the meantime, until that happens, measures are needed to restrain and neutralize police brutality to whatever extent may be possible [my emphasis].

This is a defensive position. Of course, we need to restrict the powers of the police at every opportunity (but this contradicts Mr. Rosenfeld’s view that we need the police because they protect workers from the theft of their property and from murder–see my critique. Mr. Kopyto does not mention Mr. Roesenfeld’s defense of the police in terms of these two functions).

In martial arts, if you can attack and defend at the same time, all the better. From Alan Gibson (2000), Why Wing Chun Works, pages 39-40 (Wing Chun is a form of Chinese kung fu): 

Simultaneous attack and defence.

Simultaneous attack and defence does not only mean doing one thing with one hand, (defending) and something different with the other (attacking). In Wing Chun this happens most of the time. Simultaneous attack and defence also refers to one hand serving two purposes at once.

Defensive measures may, on occasion, be necessary under special circumstances, but it is much more preferable to engage in simultaneous attack and defence in order to win a battle. To engage in purely defensive actions constantly often leads to defeat or at least to a weakening of one’s actions–as has indeed occurred with the rise of neoliberalism and the weak, defensive response of unions in many parts of the world. 

Mr. Rosenfeld, with his reformist suggestion of “transforming and reforming the police,” puts off forever the need to take back the protection of our lives from threats to it from others–and that means the major threat that employers mean to working-class lives (something which Mr. Rosenfeld does not even consider) (see Working and Living in a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers May Be Dangerous to Your Health). 

But let us return to Mr. Kopyto’s “In the meantime.” This “in the meantime” provides an opening to the social-democratic left to put off forever the abolition of the police. Their position, practically, is to perpetuate the existence of the police. They do not aim to abolish the police as a separate institution until some vague, distant future (Mr. Rosenfeld mentioned 100 years in his article–but it could well have been 1,000 years or 10,000 years–100 years is an arbitrary number chosen by Mr. Rosenfeld in order to postpone aiming to begin the process of abolition today). 

I will repeat (and quote) what I wrote in other posts about the difference between the abolitionist stance, which argues that it is necessary to incorporate the goal of abolishing the police in the present if that goal is to be realized. 

In a previous post (see How to Aim for Socialism Without Aiming for It, or The Nature of the Social-Democratic or Social-Reformist Left) , I wrote: 

The movie Rocky III illustrates what I mean. Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone), who had lost his title of world heavyweight champion to James “Clubber” Lang (played by Mr. T), was being trained by former heavy-weight boxing champion Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers, who won the first match against Balboa in the first movie and lost in the second movie). (There are undoubtedly racist overtones in the movie–see  Siobhan Carter’s  master’s thesis  Projecting a White Savior, the Body, and Policy).

At one point in his training, Rocky said that he would train later. Apollo answers: “There is no tomorrow.” The basis idea is that if you want to accomplish anything in life, you had better not procrastinate–putting off tomorrow what needs to be done today. Social democrats (and the radical left here in Toronto) act like Rocky Balboa did before Apollo Creed criticized him–they believe that socialism can arise in some distant future without explicitly incorporating the aim in the present, just as Balboa believed that he could regain the heavyweight title without incorporating that goal into his present actions. In other words, he believed that he could engage in procrastination.

The social-democratic or reformist left do the same thing. They shift the fight for socialism to some distant future and content themselves with fighting for reforms that fail to challenge the class structure. Their socialism is always pushed into the future as an ought that never meets the present conditions and circumstances; future and present (and past conditions) are severed.

They may indeed achieve social reforms–as they have in the past, but the claim that they are aiming for socialism is untrue–as was Rocky Balboa’s efforts at training to regain the heavyweight championship of the world until Apollo Creed criticized him.

The social-democratic left (and, practically, much of the radical left here in Toronto and undoubtedly elsewhere) consider that it is impossible to aim for socialism by incorporating it into our daily lives. They believe in magic; an aim can be realized without the aim organizing our activities in the present. 

Mr. Kopyto’s “In the meantime” provides an opening for social democrats to separate the future from the present and put off aiming for socialism in the present.

Let me repeat from still another post what a real or good aim means (not the pseudo-aim of social democrats who claim they are aiming for socialism). From Democracy and Education (2004):

The aim must always represent a freeing of activities. The term end in view is suggestive, for it puts before the mind the termination or conclusion of some process. The only way in which we can define an activity is by putting before ourselves the objects in which it terminates—as one’s aim in shooting is the target. But we must remember that the object is only a mark or sign by which the mind specifies the activity one desires to carry out. Strictly speaking, not the target but hitting the target is the end in view; one takes aim by means of the target, but also by the sight on the gun. The different objects which are thought of are means of directing the activity. Thus one aims at, say, a rabbit; what he wants is to shoot straight; a certain kind of activity. Or, if it is the rabbit he wants, it is not rabbit apart from his activity, but as a factor in activity; he wants to eat the rabbit, or to show it as evidence of his marksmanship—he wants to do something with it. The doing with the thing, not the thing in isolation, is his end. The object is but a phase of the active end,—continuing the activity successfully. This is what is meant by the phrase, used above, “freeing activity”

By contrast, the idea of “in the meantime” that is purely defensive involves an external aim or a pseudo-aim or not really even an aim since it fails to link up the present with the future and the future with the present:

In contrast with fulfilling some process in order that activity may go on, stands the static character of an end which is imposed from without the activity. It is always conceived of as fixed; it is something to be attained and possessed. When one has such a notion, activity is a mere unavoidable means to something else; it is not significant or important on its own account. As compared with the end it is but a necessary evil; something which must be gone through before one can reach the object which is alone worth while. In other words, the external idea of the aim leads to a separation of means from end, while an end which grows up within an activity as plan for its direction is always both ends and means, the distinction being only one of convenience. Every means is a temporary end until we have attained it. Every end becomes a means of carrying activity further as soon as it is achieved. We call it
end when it marks off the future direction of the activity in which we are engaged; means when it marks off the present direction.

Mr. Kopyto certainly does not intend to be a reformist, but his “in the meantime” leads directly and practically to such conclusions. His insights, such as the following, then can be dismissed by the social-democratic left:

The police, in Canada and elsewhere, were created to protect property rights and enforce repressive laws that were created and interpreted in the interests of the status quo. Even decades before it became the norm for police to break up demonstrations or target minorities, they were used to enforce criminal conspiracy charges against trade union “combines”. Police forces are not neutral or reformable—they are quasi-militarized with all emphasis on a culture of obedience and none on training to be able to exercise independent and critical judgment. Hence, sexism, racism, xenophobia and a “we-they” mentality run rampant in these institutions of repression. In many cases, as we know, police have been used to deny democratic rights and attack or restrict labour actions.

Why is it not possible to engage in defensive measures while simultaneously engaging in actions that serve to protect workers and other community members? I have already provided some examples of such efforts in the past (see Reform versus Abolition of Police, Part Four: Possible Alternatives)? 

There has been a call for defunding the police and using some of the funds to hire mental health workers, social workers and others to investigate violent crimes and to deal with gender- and race-based violence, civil services to engage in traffic services, the enforcement of bylaws and minor offences, and a specialized unit for immediate intervention in violent crimes, with such a unit having all other present functions performed by police allocated to other kinds of people as outlined above, and therefore with a much reduced budget and area for intervening in citizens’ lives (see 

Furthermore, why not use some funds to create protective organizations for workers and others outside work? For hiring or training workers in health and safety inspections since workers often face many more dangers from working for an employer than threats at being murdered (see Working and Living in a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers May Be Dangerous to Your Health). 

Such abolitionist initiatives need to be sought in the present and not in some distant future. From Ray Acheson,  (page 25): 

The imperative of now

Abolition is inevitably a long-term, ongoing project of change. But abolition is not just
about the future: it needs to start now.

In this moment that we are currently experiencing, this moment of profound shifts in
thinking and in action happening across the United States and around the world, it
is important to recognise that we are already doing abolitionist work. Throughout the
COVID-19 pandemic and during the recent protests, we have built and enriched mutual
aid networks—models of community support learned from, among others, Indigenous,
Black, and queer communities. People from all walks of life are coming together to care
for each other physically and emotionally. Many of these acts of solidarity and support are
being documented through independent media like Unicorn Riot; many of them will never
be recorded. But it is happening, and it shows what more we can do.

Mr. Kopyto may not have intended to argue that the police should be perpetuated, but his use of the phrase “in the meantime,” coupled with merely defensive measures that regulate the police in effect defend the perpetuation of the police. 

Socialists need to aim for abolition by bringing such an aim into the present–into actions and engagements that institute policies that link the present to the future aim, and the future aim to present actions and engagements. 

That is our task at the present as socialists. 

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