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.