Reform versus Abolition of Police, Part Four: Possible Alternatives

This is a continuation of an earlier post on the issue of reforming the police versus its abolition.

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.

In the last post on this topic, I indicated that I would provide an outline of some possible alternatives to police as a separate organization that might be created in the present.

Let me, however, fully admit that one of the reasons why people accept the separate existence of the police is the need for protection from activities that may harm them, such as personal theft of their property or murder. Mr. Rosenfeld is certainly not wrong when he points out that workers do rely on the police to protect them from such activities (although he certainly overestimates the effectiveness of the police in carrying out that function and ignores completely the fundamental or main role of the police as violent defenders of the existing organized exploitation and oppression of millions of Canadian workers and billions of workers worldwide).

As says Kristain Williams argues (2007), in Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, page 224, the police rely on the protection function, such as it is, to legitimate their own continued separation from the rest of us–as does the capitalist government or state:

C R I M E AS A SOURCE OF STATE POWER

There is a question that haunts every critic of police-namely, the question of crime , and what to do about it. This is a real concern, and it deserves to be taken seriously. The fact is, the police do provide an important community service-offering protection against crime. They do not do this job well, or fairly, and it is not their chief function, but they do it, and this brings them legitimacy. ? Even people who dislike and fear them often feel that they need the cops. Maybe we can do without omnipresent surveillance, racial profiling, and institutionalized violence , but most people have been willing to accept these features of policing, if somewhat grudgingly, because they have been packaged together with things we cannot do without crime control, security, and public safety. It is not enough, then, to relate to police power only in terms of repression; we must also remember the promise of protection, since this legitimates the institution.

A personal experience drove this protective function home to me. The mother of my daughter, Francesca, was born in Guatemala. In 2013,  Francesca graduated from high school, and I promised to take her to Guatemala when she graduated before I moved to Toronto. However, I looked at the murder statistics in Guatemala, and they were even higher than during the civil war–a difficult feat given the massacres that the Guatemalan military had carried out during the civil war.

I wanted my daughter to improve her Spanish. I myself had learned Spanish in Guatemala in two cities: in Quetzaltenango (locally called Xela), and Hueheutenango (known as Hueheu by the locals). At the time, I did not know how dangerous it was in Xela or in Huehue. I opted for another city in Guatemala–Antigua (not Antigua and Barbuda of the Caribbean). I had heard of Antigua when I was learning Spanish in Guatemala, and I made a point of not going there since I was told that it was very touristic–and it still is. However, given that Antigua had extra police in Antigua–tourist police–I opted for Francesca to study Spanish in Antigua rather than in Xela or Hueheu–for protective reasons. Despite my evident dislike of the major police function of protecting the power of the class of employers, the protective function of the police was something that I considered when making a decision concerning Francesca’s safety.

Proposals for the abolition of policing thus need to take into account the importance of the protective function for people.

The protective function of the police needs to be integrated into the community once more–not as “community police” (which so typically combines the carrot and stick) but into the community protecting itself through its own organizational efforts—self-organization of the community. Williams mentions two historical movements that shed light on the potential for communal self-protection: the labour movement and the resistance of Afro-Americans to police oppression and their own internal need for self-protection (page 226):

The obvious place to look for community defense models is in places where distrust of the police, and active resistance to police power, has been most acute. There is a close connection between resistance to police power and the need to develop alternative means of securing public safety.

In the United States, the police have faced resistance mainly from two sources-workers and people of color (especially African Americans) . This is unsurprising, given the c1ass-control and racist functions that cops have fulfilled
since their beginning. The job of controlling poor people and people of color has
brought the cops into continual conflict with these parts of society.

He outlines the creation of an alternative worker-protective force during the 1919 Seattle general strike (page 227):

The classic example is the Seattle General Strike of 1919. Coming to the aid of a shipbuilders’ strike, 1 10 union locals declared a citywide sympathy strike and 100,000 workers participated. Almost at once the city’s economy halted, and the strike committee found itself holding more power than the local government. The strike faced three major challenges: starvation, state repression, and the squeamishness of union leaders. Against the first, the strikers themselves set about insuring that the basic needs of the population were met, issuing passes for trucks carrying food and other necessities, setting up public cafeterias, and licensing the operation of hospitals, garbage collectors, and other essential services. Recognizing that conditions could quickly degenerate into panic, and not wanting to rely on the police, they also organized to ensure the public safety. The “Labor War Veteran’s Guard” was created to keep the peace and discourage disorder. Its instructions were written on a blackboard at its headquarters:

The purpose of this organization is to preserve law and order without the
use of force. No volunteer will have any police power or be allowed to carry
weapons of any sort, but to use persuasion only.

In the end, the Seattle General Strike was defeated, caught between the
threat of military intervention and the fading support of the AFI.:s international
officers. While the strike did not end in victory, it did demonstrate the possibility
of working-class power-the power to shut down the city, and also the power
to run it for the benefit of the people rather than for company profit.

The strike was broken, but it did not collapse into chaos. Mayor Ole Hanson
noted, while denouncing the strike as “an attempted revolution,” that “there
was no violence . . . there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings.” Indeed,
there was not a single arrest related to the strike (though later, there were
raids) , and other arrests decreased by half. Major General John Morrison,
in charge of the federal troops, marveled at the orderliness of the city.

The Afro-Americans developed, first, the Deacons for Defense and Justice and, later, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in order to deal with police oppression and the general need of Afro-American for their own protection (page 227-228):

Almost fifty years later, more sustained efforts at community defense grew out of the civil rights movement. As the militancy of the movement increased and its perspective shifted toward that of Black Power, African Americans prepared to defend themselves-first against Klansmen and cops, later against crime in the ghetto. As early as 1957, Robert Williams armed the NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina, and successfully repelled attacks from the Ku Klux Klan and the police. Soon other self-defense groups appeared in Black communities throughout the South. The largest of these was the Deacons for Defense and Justice, which claimed more than fifty chapters in the Southern states. The Deacons made it their mission to protect civil rights workers and the Black community more generally. Armed with shotguns and rifles, they escorted civil rights workers through dangerous back country areas, and organized twenty-four-hour patrols when racists were harassing Black people in Bogalusa, Louisiana. They also eavesdropped on police radio calls and responded to the scene of arrests to discourage the cops from overstepping their bounds.

Williams and the Deacons influenced what became the most developed community defense program of the period-the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. ‘The Panthers, most famously, “patrolled pigs.” Visibly carrying guns, they followed police through the Black ghetto with the explicit aim of preventing police brutality and informing citizens of their rights. When police misbehaved, their names and photographs appeared in the Black Panther newspaper.

The Panthers also sought to meet the community’s needs in other ways, providing
medical care, giving away shoes and clothing, feeding school children breakfast, setting up housing cooperatives, transporting the families of prisoners for visitation days, and offering classes during the summer at “Liberation Schools.” These “survival programs” sought to meet needs that the state and the capitalist economy were neglecting, at the same time aligning the community with the Party and drawing both into opposition with the existing power structure.

The strategy was applied in the area of public safety as well. The Panthers’ opposition to the legal system is well known: they patrolled and sometimes fought the police, they taught people about their legal rights, and they provided bail money and arranged for legal defense when they could. But the Panthers also took seriously the threat of crime, and sought to address the fears of the community they served. With this in mind, they organized Seniors Against a Fearful Environment (SAFE) , an escort and bussing service in which young Black people escorted the elderly on their business around the city.

A further example of self-organization of the protective function is the women’s liberation movement. The women’s liberation movement in the 1970s led to the formation of women’s organizations designed to address a lack of protection from the separate police force: (From Vikki Law (March 2011), “Where Abolition Meets Action: Women Organizing Against Gender Violence,” pages 85-94, in Contemporary Justice Review, volume 14, Number 1), pages  86-87:

The 1970s (women’s liberation: defending themselves and each other)

Women’s liberation movements of the 1970s allowed women to begin talking openly
about their experiences of sexual assault. Discussions led to a growing realization that women need to take their safety into their own hands and fight back.

Some women formed street patrols to watch for and prevent violence against
women. In Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, members of Women’s Liberation group
Cell 16 began patrolling the streets where women often left their factory jobs after
dark. ‘We were studying Tae Kwan Do and decided to intentionally patrol, offering to accompany women to their cars or to public transportation,’ recalled former Cell 16 member Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. ‘The first time two of us went to the nearby factory to offer our services to women workers, the first woman we approached looked terrified and hurried away. We surmised that my combat boots and army surplus garb were intimidating, so after that I dressed more conventionally.’

Later efforts were better received: Dunbar-Ortiz recalled that one night Cell 16
members met Mary Ann Weathers, an African-American woman, at a film screening. ‘After the film we introduced ourselves and told her we provided escorts for women. We asked her if she would like us to walk her home, as it was near midnight. Mary Ann Weathers, who joined our group, marveled over the bizarre and wonderful experience of having five white women volunteer to protect her’ (Dunbar-Ortiz, 2001, p. 136).

Dunbar-Ortiz also recalled that she traveled around the country speaking and
encouraging women to form similar patrols. Students at Iowa State University and the University of Kentucky responded, forming patrols on their campus.

The lack of police and judicial response to gender violence led to increasing recognition that women needed to learn to physically defend themselves from male
violence.

In 1969, Cell 16 established Tae Kwan Do classes for women. Unlike existing police offered self-defense classes that promoted fear rather than empowerment, Cell 16’s classes challenged students to draw the connections between their learned sense of helplessness and their role in society as women (Lafferty & Clark, 1970, pp. 96–97).

Self-protection of women by women emerged not only in response from attacks from strangers–and the lack of protection afforded by the police–but also in response to attacks from people women knew (page 87):

Although much of the 1970s rhetoric and organizing around gender violence presupposed that women were attacked by strangers, women also recognized and
organized against violence perpetrated by those that they know, including spouses and intimate partners. In Neu-Isenburg, a small town near Frankfurt, Germany, a group of women called Fan-Shen decided that, rather than establish a shelter for battered women, they would force the abuser out of the house. When a battered woman called the local women’s shelter, the group arrived at her home to not only confront her abuser, but also occupy the house as round-the-clock guards to the woman until her abuser moved out. When the strategy was reported in 1977, Fan-Shen had already been successful in five instances (‘Women’s Patrol,’ 1977, p. 18).

Sex workers in Daytona Beach, Florida, armed themselves with weapons after it became clear that the police were doing little to protect them (page 89):

In March 2006, police responded to the murders of three sex workers in Daytona Beach, Florida, by cracking down on prostitution. In one weekend, 10 people were arrested in a prostitution sting. Recognizing that the police response did more to target than to protect them, street prostitutes began arming themselves with knives and other weapons to both to protect themselves and each other and to find the killer. ‘We will get him first,’ declared Tonya Richardson, a Ridgewood Avenue prostitute, to Local 6 News. ‘When we find him, he is going to be sorry. It is as simple as that’ (‘Daytona Prostitutes,’ 2006).

Montreal sex workers formulated a different strategy: they used shared information to protect each other and to organize to advocate for the decriminalization of their profession (pages 89-90):

In Montreal, sex workers have taken a different approach to ensure their safety. In
1995, sex workers, public health researchers, and sympathizers formed Stella, a sex
workers’ alliance. Instead of knives and other weapons, the group arms sex workers
with information and support to help them keep safe. Stella compiles, updates, and circulates a Bad Tricks and Assaulters list, enabling sex workers to share information and avoid dangerous situations. It also produces and provides free reference guides that cover working conditions, current solicitation laws, and health information. Recognizing that the criminalization of activities related to the sex industry renders sex workers vulnerable to both outside violence and police abuse, the group also advocates for the decriminalization of these acts (Stella, n.d.).

Other examples could be given, but the above examples of grassroots self-protection should be enough to show that we do not need the protective function to be embodied in a separate organization called “the police.”

Mr. Rosenfeld’s claim that the demand for the abolition of the police is absurd is itself absurd. He also claims that Mr. Wilt’s call for the abolition of the police is an example of “sloppy thinking.” Intelligent thinking, however, requires inquiry in one form or another–or it is just sloppy thinking.

Since Mr. Rosenfeld’s article presents little evidence of having engaged in inquiry into the nature and function of the police in a society characterized by a class of employers, on the one hand, and historical examples of communities organizing to protect themselves without the police on the other, it can be concluded that Mr. Rosenfeld’s article is a good example of the sloppy thinking characteristic of some of the social-democratic left here in Toronto (and undoubtedly elsewhere).

It is too bad that the social-democratic left rarely engage in self-criticism in order to prevent sloppy social-democratic thinking from becoming public.

Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three

This is the third post in a five-part series on the issue of the reform of the police versus its abolition. It is more philosophical than the first two posts since it deals with the relation of the present to the future–and the future to the present.

The context of this post is explained thus (from the previous posts):

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

Near the end of my last post, I quoted Mr. Rosenfeld:

It is one thing to envision what a future socialist and decolonized society might look like in 100 years and strive to move in that direction. But to talk as if the necessary political and social conditions of such a society exist at this moment is to fly in the face of reality. And, once again, it takes the struggle to transform or democratize these institutions off the agenda.

I will now address the issue of “a future socialist and decolonised society” in terms of the nature of the relation of the future to present reality, or more generally the relation of the future to the present.

In general, there are two ways of imagining the future among the left: the social-democratic way and the Marxist way.

The social-democratic way imagines the future as some distant event that we aim at but has little to do with our present activities and realities. The aim is indeed there–to achieve a socialist society–but only as an external aim that has little or no self-organizing function of our present activities and realities. Here the present and the future are separated, with the future being simply beyond present reality. This is indeed how Mr. Rosenfeld presents the future–as illustrated by the above quote.

This view of the future has a long history among the left. Karl Kautsky was a leader of the German Social Democratic Party in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Jukka Gronow says (2016), in On the Formation of Marxism: Karl Kautsky’s Theory of Capitalism, the Marxism of the Second International and Karl Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, page 162:

The revolutionary goal principally accepted by the party in its programmes seems
to be of no practical importance.

He then quotes Kautsky:

We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it. And since the revolution cannot be arbitrarily created by us, we cannot say anything whatever about when, under what conditions, or what forms it will come

This is the attitude of a reformist, not someone who aims to change the present conditions through aiming at socialism. This is also Mr. Rosenfeld’s attitude–as it is of so many leftists–really social reformers or social democrats.

Let us look at John Dewey’s view of the nature of aims to see the difference between an internal aim (what Dewey called a good aim) that incorporates the future in the present and an external aim that has little relation to the present. From Democracy and Education (2004). Let us begin with his characterization of a good aim:

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”

Let us now turn to his characterization of a bad aim–what is typical of the social-democratic or social-reformist left in general and Mr. Rosenfeld’s attitude in particular. Dewey had this to say:

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.

A quote from Dewey in another post is also relevant (see Intelligent Activity According to John Dewey: Its Political Implications for the Left):

The net conclusion is that acting with an aim is all one with acting intelligently. To foresee a terminus of an act is to have a basis upon which to observe, to select, and
to order objects and our own capacities. To do these things means to have a mind—for mind is precisely intentional purposeful activity controlled by perception of facts and their relationships to one another. To have a mind to do a thing is to foresee a future possibility; it is to have a plan for its accomplishment; it is to note the means which make the plan capable of execution and the obstructions in the way,—or, if it is really a mind to do the thing and not a vague aspiration—it is to have a plan which takes account of resources and difficulties. Mind is capacity to refer present conditions to future results, and future consequences to present conditions. And these traits are just what is meant by having an aim or a purpose. A man is stupid or blind or unintelligent—lacking in mind—just in the degree in which in any activity he does not know what he is about, namely, the probable consequences of his acts. A man is imperfectly intelligent when he contents himself with looser guesses about the outcome than is needful, just taking a chance with his luck, or when he
forms plans apart from study of the actual conditions, including his own capacities. Such relative absence of mind means to make our feelings the measure of what is
to happen. To be intelligent we must “stop, look, listen” in making the plan of an activity.

Intelligent activity–which is really intelligent thinking–involves the unity of the future in the present and the present in the future.

Mr. Rosenfeld’s article is a good example of the social-democratic left; he sees socialism as an end that will be realized only in the distant future–hence his reference to “100 years.” Such a goal is only vaguely related to the organization of present activities–hence his disdain for all talk of abolition in the present. He, like his social-democrat comrades, split the present and the future, and the future from the present.

Since Mr. Rosenfeld claims that police abolitionism is “sloppy thinking,” presumably his own reasoning illustrates “non-sloppy thinking.” I hope to have shown that his thinking is in fact the opposite of what he accuses the abolitionist stance. The abolitionist stance incorporates the future into the present and the present into the future by organizing present activities in real preparation for the creation of a socialist society. Socialist society cannot arise in any other way–because the future is always through the present and not something external to it.

This view of the relation of the future to the present and the present to the future has philosophical predecessors before Dewey. A later post in this series will refer to these philosophical predecessors in order to round out the issue of reform versus the abolition of the police and to link the previous concrete issues to more general issues so that the reader can, hopefully, see the connections between more abstract theory and more concrete considerations–as well the connections between more concrete considerations and more abstract theory.

 

 

Reform versus Abolition of Police, Part Two

This is a continuation of an earlier post on the issue of reforming the police versus its abolition.

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

Mr. Rosenfeld has the following counterargument:

How can a class society such as ours, wrought by contradictions, which often manifest themselves in the form of criminal activity, and in which working class and socialist political agency are virtually non-existent, manage without some kind of policing institution? Shouldn’t that institution be thoroughly transformed, by political struggle, into a more humane, limited and less autonomous one? How can this happen if it is simply abolished, or if criminal activity such as murder and theft, that often targets working class people (yes, working class people have personal property that can be stolen), is no longer illegal or goes unprosecuted?

Mr. Rosenfeld, in his haste to oppose what he perceives to be left-wing extremism, fails to inquire whether his assumption that the police actually do engage mainly in activity that either prevents “murder and theft” or at least investigates it after the fact. I have already referred to a quite different view of the nature and function of the police (see , for example, Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part One).

Mr. Rosenfeld removed himself from this blog in May 2020 (see the comments to the post Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Three, and the above post was posted in August 2019, so there is no excuse for his ignoring what I wrote in the above post. I will quote, once again, from that post, in addition to providing a couple of further references. Mr. Rosenfeld has a responsibility to workers and to community members that he failed to fulfill.

From Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power, pages 112-113:

Since, as we have seen, law-enforcement is merely an incidental and
derivative part of police work, and since, as Lustgarten has noted, the police
invariably under-enforce the law, the equation of policing with law enforcement
is clearly untenable.68 The police enforce the law because it falls within the scope of their larger duties of regulating order which, in an ideological loop of remarkable ingenuity, is then justified in terms of crime control and the need to ‘uphold the law’. In other words, law enforcement becomes part of police work to the same extent as anything else in which the exercise of force for the maintenance of order may have to be used, and only to that extent. Police practices are designed to conform to and prioritize not law, but order, as the judges and police have long known.69 Law-enforcement is therefore a means to an end rather than an end in itself, as witnessed by the fact that, for example, police often prefer to establish order without arrest. The assumption central to the rule of law that people should not take the law into ‘their own hands’ reminds us not only that the law is meant to be used and controlled by chosen hands, as Bauman puts it,70 but that police do in fact handle rather than enforce the law. The law is a resource for dealing with problems of disorder rather than a set of rules to be followed and enforced. The kind of police behaviour which offends the sensibilities of civil libertarians or which seems at odds
with the assumptions in the liberal democratic conception of the rule of law in fact turns out to be within the law and exercised according to the need to deal with things considered disorderly. The police follow rules, but these are police rules rather than legal rules. Thus when exercising discretion, the police are never quite using it to enforce the law, as one might be led to believe. Rather, officers decide what they want to do and then fit their legal powers around that decision. Hence the main ‘Act’ which police officers purport to enforce is the ‘Ways and Means Act’, a set of mythical powers which they use to mystify and confuse suspects, and the question of whether an officer should detain a suspect on legal grounds is displaced
by the question ‘which legal reason shall I use to justify detaining this person’. Exercised according to police criteria rather than specific legal criteria, the rules are rules for the abolition of disorder, exercised by the police and enabled by law.

“Murder and theft” form a minor part of what the police actually do. Mr. Rosenfeld’s own fears perhaps are expressed when he refers to “murder and theft.” Furthermore, given the number of murders in Canada per year is around one half the number of workers who die in Canada (with over 600,000 injuries a year)–and the police do little to address this problem–Mr. Rosenfeld’s ignoring of these facts likely expresses his own biases and fears.

Mr. Rosenfeld also ignores the fear that the police often instill among some sections of the working class–a fear that he simply ignores. How such fear can be overcome with his reforms he never says.

From Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power, page 113:

‘We fear the policeman’ then, as Slavoj Zizek comments, ‘insofar as he is
not just himself, a person like us, since his acts are the acts of power, that
is to say, insofar as he is experienced as the stand-in for the big Other, for
the social order.’73 And it is because the police officer is the stand-in for
social order that order is the central trope [something such as an idea, phrase, or image that is often used in a particular work] around which even the smallest
police act is conducted. As a number of ex-police officers have testified,
the police themselves are obsessed with order, being institutionalized to
achieve order at all times and in all contexts. Malcolm Young has commented
on how one folder containing a record of the Orders by a range of
senior officers reveals ‘how everything in this world had an ordained place
and could therefore be controlled, ordered, disciplined, checked, scrutinized’.
Likewise ex-police sergeant Simon Holdaway has pointed to the
way prisoners are treated as ‘visible evidence of disorder’. Needing to
detect and end disorder among citizens, the police cannot cope with ambiguity
in any way.74 In dealing with any particular situation a police officer
makes a decision about what, if anything, is out of order and then makes a
decision about how to overcome it. Because each individual officer is institutionalized to achieve order at all times the police institution must have
a strong sense of the order they are there to reproduce, reflected in the
activities they are taught to pursue, the techniques they use in pursuit, and
compounded by a unitary and absolutist view of human behaviour and
social organization.75

The police as the representative of “order” entails not only fear but a need for the expression of deference. From Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power, pages 113-114:

So for example, failure to display deference to an officer significantly increases the probability of arrest, for it is understood as a failure to display deference to an officer’s demand for order. Any hostility directed to them is treated as an attack on their authority and power to order, and thus an attack on authority and order in general, mediated by a supposed hostility to the Law. Antagonistic behaviour is a symbolic rejection of their authoritative attempt to reconstitute order out of a disorderly situation; it is this which may result in more formal (i.e. legal) methods of
control. Regardless of the legal issues pertinent to the situation, the failure to display deference is therefore likely to make one an object of the law as an arrested person as a means of reproducing order.

I have already referred to my personal experience with a social worker who was connected to the legal system through providing a written document to the court (see, for example, A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and its Representatives, Part Three). Since I did not show deference to his authority, he retaliated by, among other things, lying in his document to the court.

Another critical theorist argues that the criminal justice system fails in its overt claim to protect citizens from what really threatens them, and in so failing it actually justifies its continued existence. From  Jeffrey Reiman and Paul Leighton (2017), The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, page 31:

Ultimately, American criminal justice policy makes more sense if we look at the system as wanting to have high crime rates—there are groups for whom “crime pays” and for whom the system’s failure is a success.

This may seem paradoxical, but such is the nature of a social order characterized by the dominance of employers as a class and their corresponding economic, political and social structures and relations.

From pages 39-41:

Although many Americans are confused about whether crime rates are increasing or decreasing, the overall pattern since 1992 has been one of declining crime rates. This reduction in crime only constitutes a “success” for the criminal justice system to the extent that the system caused the decline. A review of criminal justice literature, however, shows that prisons and police played a quite limited role in the national crime decline. The drop in crime rates is better explained by non–criminal justice factors, such as the decline in use of crack, an improved economy in the 1990s and continued low inflation, and the removal of lead from gas and paint. In this section, we examine the factors linked to the declining crime rate to assess their importance. We’ll start with the criminal justice response.

;;;

POLICE Another popular theory is that police contributed substantially to the decline in crime rates. Bear in mind that we are not here talking about the effect of police arresting people and putting them in prison. (That was discussed in the previous section.) The claim to be evaluated now is that changes in the number of police or their strategies—such as policing crime “hot spots” and aggressive enforcement of gun-control laws—lowered crime rates. Strategies that temporarily suppress crime at a hot spot or that displace it into another area cannot be responsible for a long-term, geographically widespread crime decline.

The National Academy of Sciences panel on policing (quoted earlier) found weak or no evidence that standard policing or widespread variants contribute much to declining crime rates. John Conklin in his book Why Crime Rates Fell concurs that there is little evidence to support a general link between policing and crime
rates.86 A 2005 report by the General Accounting Office found that between 1993 and 2000, President Clinton’s COPS plan for 100,000 officers “amounted to about 5 percent of the overall decline.”87 The Brennan Center analysis of the crime decline suggests that the increasing number of police had a “downward
effect on crime in the 1990s, likely between 0 and 10 percent”—but the effect did not continue into the 2000s because the number of police leveled off and then declined.

It is true that there may be some evidence that the use of the police, combined with other strategies, may reduce crime. From Reiman, pages 41-42:

The National Academy of Sciences panel and more recent reviews of the literature note that policing hot spots can reduce crime when combined with a problem-solving approach that tries to change underlying conditions.89

However, there are others considerations here, from a political point of view. Firstly, who defines what actions are a crime? Mr. Rosenfeld does not even ask the question. He does not even consider the filtering process that eliminates the harmful actions of employers in various ways on our lives from consideration as a crime. Secondly, he does not factor into the account the general function of the police to maintain order–order characterized by the daily subordination, oppression and exploitation of millions of workers in Canada and billions in the world–in order to prevent “theft and murder.”

Mr. Rosenfeld’s focus on “murder and theft” expresses more his biases rather than any real analysis of the situation which members of the working class face vis-a-vis the real dangers of working for an employer, on the one hand, and the nature and functions of the police, on the other.

As for theft, let me provide a personal anecdote. In 1996, I believe, I was doing my practicum for my bachelor of education degree with the French university in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, the College universitaire de Saint-Boniface. They lent me a fairly expensive video camera (with  tripod) so that I could have someone film my classroom practice. At the time, I was living in the north end in Winnipeg, on Machray Street near St. John’s High School, an inner city school. The north end is relatively poor in terms of income level. My daughter at the time was around one-year old. I had her carriage and other things in the trunk and the video camera and tripod in the back seat.

I woke up early to prepare for the day. I went out to the car–and the window was broken and the video camera and tripod were gone. I phoned the police–and all they asked me was what the serial number was. They did not even bother sending a police person for further details. No one came. No one investigated further. Is this a good example of how the police deal with “personal theft?” If so, Mr. Rosenfeld’s reference to “theft” as justification for the non-abolition of the police sounds more like an expression of his own social-democratic biases rather than an analysis of the real nature of the police in a society dominated by a class of employers.

Another author provides further proof of the real nature of the police and not Mr. Rosenfeld’s social-democratic fantasy. From Alex Vitale (2017), The End of Policing: 

The police exist to keep us safe, or so we are told by mainstream media and popular culture. TV shows exaggerate the amount of serious crime and the nature of what most police officers actually do all day. Crime control is a small part of policing, and it always has been.

Felony arrests of any kind are a rarity for uniformed officers, with most making no more than one a year. When a patrol officer actually apprehends a violent criminal in the act, it is a major moment in their career. The bulk of police officers work in patrol. They take reports, engage in random patrol, address parking and driving violations and noise complaints, issue tickets, and make misdemeanor arrests for drinking in public, possession of small amounts of drugs, or the vague “disorderly conduct.” Officers I’ve shadowed on patrol describe their days as “99 percent boredom and 1percent sheer terror”—and even that 1 percent is a bit of an exaggeration for most officers.

Even detectives (who make up only about 15 percent of police forces) spend most of their time taking reports of crimes that they will never solve —and in many cases will never even investigate. There is no possible way for police to investigate every reported crime. Even homicide investigations can be brought to a quick conclusion if no clear suspect is identified within two days, as the television reality show The First 48 emphasizes. Burglaries and larcenies are even less likely to be investigated thoroughly, or at all. Most crimes that are investigated are not solved

Mr. Rosenfeld, in his haste to oppose really radical proposals (such as the abolition of the police), merely asserts the liberal view of the nature of the police. It is certainly possible that many members of the working-class believe the same thing, but a Marxist has an obligation to question such an ideology. Mr. Rosenfeld, though, not only indulges such beliefs but reinforces them.

He may reply that he had pointed out in his article that

I will start with a disclaimer: I am no expert on policing, criminal justice, the sociology of Winnipeg or police and community relations. I am a 70 year-old Marxist and democratic socialist, who has lived and worked in Toronto for the past 44 years, and have been organizing, doing education and writing for and about working class politics and public transit.

I too am not an “expert on policing, criminal justice, the sociology of Winnipeg or police and community relations.” However, as a Marxist, I have an obligation to at least do some research on topics before I write about them. Besides, so-called “experts” often ignore issues that are relevant to the working class.

Mr. Rosenfeld is retired, so there is no justification for his lack of engagement in at least preliminary research concerning the abolition of the police. However, there is no evidence that Mr. Rosenfeld did any research concerning the nature and function of the police. He merely expressed his unwarranted bias. Mr. Rosenfeld, perhaps, watches too many Netflix crime movies or programs.

As a result, he panders to the prejudices of the working class rather than criticizing their views and enlightening them about the real nature of policing. This should surprise no one. The social-democratic left, in general, pander to the prejudices of the working class in various ways (by, for example, not criticizing such cliches as “fair contracts,” “fair collective agreements,” “fair wages,” “The Fight for $15 and Fairness,” “decent work” and the like.

Mr. Rosenfeld claims that we live in a liberal democracy and not in a fascist society. Since he does not elaborate on what he means by these terms, I will assume that by “liberal democracy” he means that in Canada we live by the “rule of law”:

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. 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.

Of course, “bourgeois democratic institutions” need to legitimate their rule, and the level of legitimization required relates, in part, to the level of “relative power, political ideology and organization of the working class and colonized indigenous peoples.” Any abolitionist can agree with this. And? Is Mr. Rosenfeld, though, implying that, since the capitalist state attempts to legitimate the rule of the class of employers that the general and essential function of the police to maintain class order is somehow unimportant? That the iron fist does not support the legitimating function of the capitalist state? Furthermore, the legitimating function of the capitalist state hides the real nature of the lives of the working class, does it not? (See the series of posts on this blog about the silence of the history curricula in various provinces in Canada concerning the nature and origin of the class of employers in Canada.. See, for example, A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees).

Mr. Rosenfeld, however, is little concerned with the legitimization function of the capitalist state in its negative aspect; his real concern is with the positive aspects of that function, such as civil liberties. By all means, let us appreciate and fight for these limited rights that we do have that protect us from the iron fist of the police–but let us not idealize them. They modify but do not negate the primary function of the police–to maintain the order of a society characterized by the dominance of the class of employers and the associated economic, social and political structures and relations.

Furthermore, Mr. Rosenfeld does not even consider the importance of the capacity of the capitalist government or state for combining  the iron fist (the stick) and the carrot (reforms) in many, many different ways; this capacity to combine the two is one thing that gives the government or state dominated by employers its power and makes it very difficult to overcome. I already pointed out the following in another post:

From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, page 2:

The whole flavour of the rhetoric of justice is summed up in the idea that it is better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be wrongly convicted. Why then the paradox that the vast majority of cases processed through a criminal justice system so geared to favouring the accused results in a finding of guilt?

For they do. According to the criminal statistics for 1978, conviction rates were as follows: 8o per cent of Scottish cases involving crimes, 95 per cent of Scottish cases involving offences, 84 per cent of English Crown Court cases, 93 per cent of indictable cases, 95 per cent of non-indictable cases, in the English magistrates’
courts. Some samples show even higher rates-a 98.5 per cent conviction rate for magistrates’ courts in Sheffield (Bottoms and McClean, 1976). Conviction depends in court on the plea or the verdict. If the accused pleads guilty to the charge against him, conviction follows as a matter of routine. If he pleads not guilty, a contested trial follows. According to Bottoms and McClean, 72 ·5 per cent of those contesting the case in magistrates’ courts, 55 per cent of those choosing jury trials, and 71 per cent of those allocated to the higher courts were convicted on some or all counts (pp. 106, 209). In the rhetoric of justice everyone is entitled to a fair trial; yet most defendants plead guilty. In the rhetoric of justice any reasonable doubt should result in acquittal; yet for the clear majority of cases the court is convinced beyond reasonable doubt, despite all the rhetorical hamstrings on police and prosecution, that the accused is guilty. Why?

One answer might be quite simply that the defendants are guilty; the case against them is too strong to be plausibly disputed; the facts speak for themselves. Sir Robert Mark has suggested indeed that the very limitations placed on police and prosecution bringing a case to court make it highly probable that only the indisputably guilty come through the process at all….

Mr. Rosenfeld probably has been indoctrinated into the ideology of law, which presents courts as areas where legal due process is dominant–whereas the opposite is the case.

From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, Page 153:

Legal policy has established two tiers of justice. One, the higher courts, is for public consumption, the arena where the ideology of justice is put on display. The other, the lower courts, deliberately structured in defiance of the ideology of justice, is concerned less with subtle ideological messages than with direct control. The latter is closeted from the public eye by the ideology of triviality, so the higher courts alone feed into the public image of what the law does and how it operates. But the higher courts deal with only 2 per cent of the cases that pass through the criminal courts. Almost all criminal law is acted out in the lower courts without traditional due
process. But of course what happens in the lower courts is not only trivial, it is not really law. So the position is turned on its head. The 98 per cent becomes the exception to the rule of ‘real law’ and the working of the law comes to be typified not by its routine nature, but by its atypical, indeed exceptional, High Court form. Between them the ideologies of triviality and legal irrelevance accomplish the remarkable feats of defining 98 per cent of court cases not only as exceptions to the rule of due process, but also as of no public interest whatsoever. The traditional ideology of justice can thus survive the contradiction that the summary courts blatantly ignore it every day-and that they were set up precisely for that purpose.

The real world of courts (and the police) needs more than “transformation”–it needs abolition since they function at the level of real law and not at the level of the rhetoric of justice. From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, pages 154-155:

The rhetoric of justice requires incriminating evidence as the basis for arrest and search; the law allows arrest and search in order to establish it. Justice requires that no-one need incriminate himself; the law refuses to control the production of confessions and allows silence as a factor in proving guilt. justice requires equality; the law discriminates against the homeless, the jobless, the disreputable. Justice requires each case be judged on its own facts; the law makes previous convictions grounds for defining behaviour as an offence and evidence against the accused. Justice places the burden of proof on the prosecutor; the law qualifies the standard and method of proof required and offers the prosecutor opportunities for making a
case which the accused is denied. Justice proclaims the right to trial by one’s peers; the legal system ensures that 91 per cent of all defendants plead guilty, and of the rest most are tried without a jury.

If, then, the process of conviction is easier than the rhetoric of justice would have us expect-and easier still the lower the status of the defendant-it is hardly surprising. A wide range of prosecution evidence can be legally produced and presented, despite the rhetoric of a system geared overwhelmingly to safeguards for the accused, precisely because legal structure, legal procedure, legal rulings, not legal rhetoric, govern the legitimate practice of criminal justice, and there is quite simply a distinct gap between the substance and the ideology of the law.

This conclusion has two direct and immediate implications. First it places the contemporary policy debate over law and order in a new light. The police demand for more powers, for the removal of the hamstrings of the right to silence, the limitations on arrest and search-and indeed the civil liberties camp’s agitated response that the legal checks of British justice must be upheld-begin to appear rather odd. Both sides of the debate are framed in terms of the ideology of civil rights, not in terms of the realities of legal procedure and case law which, as I hope this analysis has amply shown, have all too often already given the police and prosecution the very powers they are demanding. The law does not need reform to
remove hamstrings on the police: they exist largely in the unrealised rhetoric.

Second, more theoretically, this analysis has implications for the explanation of law-enforcement and its outcomes. A whole range of excellent sociological studies has pointed out situational, informal, non-legal factors in police-citizen encounters and courtroom interaction to explain who is arrested or convicted, and to explain why the system so often seems in practice to be weighted against the accused. Their answer lies essentially in the complex nature of social interaction and motivation; in the fact that people do not merely administer the law but act upon and alter it as they do so. This study offers a supplementary perspective, making the law rather than the activities of its administrators problematic. The conclusion is quite different. Given the formal procedures and rules of the law and the structure of arrest, investigation, plea and trial, one could not–even if human beings acted entirely as legal automatons–expect the outcomes to be other than they are. If the practice of criminal justice does not live up to its rhetoric one should not look only to the interactions and negotiations of those who put the law into practice but to the law itself. One should not look just to how the rhetoric of justice is subverted intentionally or otherwise by policemen bending the rules, by lawyers negotiating adversariness out of existence, by out-of-touch judges or biased magistrates: one must also look at how it is subverted in the law. Police and court officials need not abuse the law to subvert the principles of justice; they need only use it. Deviation from the rhetoric of legality and justice is institutionalised in the law itself.

Mr. Rosenfeld implies that we need the police. He asks:

Shouldn’t that institution be thoroughly transformed, by political struggle, into a more humane, limited and less autonomous one? How can this happen if it is simply abolished, or if criminal activity such as murder and theft, that often targets working class people (yes, working class people have personal property that can be stolen), is no longer illegal or goes unprosecuted?

Note the assumption that the courts and the police are somehow very effective in protecting personal property and preventing murder.

Racism exists in our society, and it certainly can serve the short-term interests of some sections of the working class by reducing or eliminating competition from other workers. Should we aim at transforming racism “by political struggle, into a more humane, limited and less autonomous” social institution? Or should we aim at abolishing it?

In any case, some members of the working class do steal the personal property from other members of the working class–and they should not (although there are undoubtedly many mitigating circumstances that need to be taken into consideration here). And some do murder some members of the working class–and they should not. Do these facts legitimate the continued existence of the police as a social institution designed by its very nature to maintain the order of oppression and exploitation characteristic of the domination of employers (see Employers as Dictators, Part One)?

The police, whether armed or not, have the legal right to use force–they have a monopoly of this force. Mr. Rosenfeld assumes that the call for abolishing such a monopoly is absurd. That, however, is what a socialist society would involve–a return of the power of doing things to people in their own hands. A movement to achieve this can arise in the present and not in some distant future.

Mr. Rosenfeld denies this:

It is one thing to envision what a future socialist and decolonized society might look like in 100 years and strive to move in that direction. But to talk as if the necessary political and social conditions of such a society exist at this moment is to fly in the face of reality. And, once again, it takes the struggle to transform or democratize these institutions off the agenda.

I wonder how it would be possible to “transform and democratize” racism? Mr. Rosenfeld seems more of a defender of the police than a critic.

In any case, what kinds of alternatives to the police might arise in the present? A further post will explore this issue.

Another post will address the issue of the way in which we conceive the future and its relation to the present. Mr. Rosenfeld gives away his own social-democratic bias by referring to “what a future socialist and decolonized society might look in 100 years and strive in that direction.” The end is shifted into a distant future as something to be aimed for–in 100 years. This issue has philosophical or more general implications–and political implications as well.

 

 

 

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.