Defund, Abolish…but what about Overthrow?

By kites editorial committee members in the US

Click here for a printable PDF of this article.

Following the protests and rebellions ignited by the police murder of George Floyd, calls to “defund” and “abolish” the police have grown in popularity, mostly among the activist/Leftist crowd and the progressive petty-bourgeoisie. Some elected officials have given their endorsement to these calls, and the Minneapolis city council intends to make a considerable overhaul of its local repressive state apparatus. The exact meaning of “defund” and “abolish” the police varies considerably, but usually means shifting money away from the police and into social service and community programs.

To some degree, these calls represent a growing recognition of the depth of brutality at the hands of the police faced by Black proletarians and other oppressed people, with the words “structural” and “systematic” in increasing, if unclear, usage. This recognition tends to come through the prism of Foucauldian power relations rather than a communist understanding of the police. In the latter view, the police under capitalism-imperialism are a crucial part of the bourgeoisie’s repressive state apparatus. Under US capitalism-imperialism in particular, the police play the function of keeping oppressed people—especially Black proletarians and all those “surplus populations” cast off into the “reserve army of labor” (unemployment)—in a subordinate position and stamping out the threat of rebellion through harassment, brutality, and murder, as well as repressing protests that go beyond the acceptable limits of dissent. While the prism of Foucauldian power relations focuses instead on the daily interactions between different groups and individuals in society with differing amounts of power, it is nevertheless a good thing for growing numbers of people in the US, including substantial numbers of white people, to confront the scope of brutality the police inflict upon Black proletarians and other oppressed people, through whatever ideological prism they understand it.

On a more practical level, these calls to defund or abolish the police also highlight how neoliberal austerity over the last several decades has drastically cut social services, from mental health treatment and intervention to school councilors, while simultaneously dramatically increasing police budgets, arming the police with military weaponry, and siccing the police on everyone from school children to individuals undergoing a mental health crisis. So it’s understandable that people are seeking funding for the social services that have been cut under austerity by demanding funds be withdrawn from police budgets, as doing so might mean fewer individuals in mental health crises being killed by the police and fewer Black youth being thrown in prison for “misbehaving” at school. On the ground, it is inspiring and righteous to see high school students fighting to expel the police from their schools.

But there are two important contradictions with calls to defund or abolish the police. One, usually they are simply radical-sounding rhetoric masking making reforms to the system of capitalism-imperialism that oppresses and murders Black people. That’s not to say that such reforms wouldn’t make life a little better for some people—that’s what reforms do. But shifting some money to social services and nonprofit organizations, who preside over oppression with paternalistic rather than blatantly brutal methods, will not alter the fundamental nature of the system and the brutality it inflicts on the masses.

And by “taking action,” what Kijiji means is buying themselves some public relations wokeness by giving $100k to Black and Indigenous charities that encourage oppressed peoples to work harder at succeeding in a system that murders them at shocking rates.

Which brings us to contradiction number two: calls to defund or abolish the police pretend that you can somehow get rid of the police without overthrowing the system that the police are there to protect. In any society divided into classes, the ruling class maintains standing armed bodies to defend its rule and prevent rebellion among those it oppresses. In the US, where the oppression of Black people—from slavery to Jim Crow to Northern and urban ghettos to unemployment and mass incarceration—is central to the foundation and functioning of capitalism-imperialism, the police play a crucial role in defending the system exactly by the brutality they inflict on Black people. Consciously or unconsciously, calls to defund or abolish the police imagine that you can somehow get around these facts and trick the ruling class into relinquishing the repressive force that its rule rests on. It’s an odd rehash of the old Trotskyite “transitional demand,” where you seek to manipulate the masses by making a demand that the system cannot meet rather than telling the masses that the system must be overthrown. The masses cannot be manipulated into making revolution and the bourgeoisie cannot be tricked out of power.

Given the explosion of protest and rebellion that has rocked the US, there will likely be aspects of “defunding” the police implemented in the coming months and years. These measures will sew confusion and bourgeois-democratic illusions while keeping the system intact and gluing the smooth functioning of bourgeois law and order back together. Some nonprofit organization careerist activists will secure higher salaries for themselves and funding for community programs that make little difference in the lives of the proletariat. Some social services will be used for things like mental health crises, while the police will be focused on brutalizing specific sections of oppressed people with greater precision (for example, after “stop and frisk” was no longer official policy, the NYPD targeted youth in housing projects with a vengeance under the rubric of fighting gangs). In the most extreme scenario, especially if ecological catastrophes and economic collapse increase, we could imagine the bourgeoisie employing private security to protect their neighborhoods and wealth while the masses are left to fend for themselves.

Besides failing to make substantial change for the masses, reforms and performative wokeness can also be used to enlist people to assist the police. “Community control” of the police can easily facilitate the creation of snitch networks. And woke snitching is now a reality. After Rayshard Brooks was killed by Atlanta Police on 12 June 2020 outside a Wendy’s fast food restaurant, protesters burned down the Wendy’s. Activists acting under the rubric of postmodernist identity politics rushed to point out the white woman in a video supposedly torching the Wendy’s. Police then arrested the white woman, Natalie White, and charged her with first degree arson. A subsequently released police video showed Rayshard Brooks referring to Natalie White as his girlfriend.

A fast-food joint burned to the ground is immediately labelled terrorism and criminality by the dominant class forces. But another Black man murdered by police – that’s just business-as-usual in America. Rayshard Brooks was killed by Atlanta police outside this Wendy’s on 12 June 2020.

The bourgeoisie also has the option of allowing and even encouraging the flow of drugs and guns, as well as contradictions among the people, to lead to an increase in gang violence, while the police take a more hands-off approach. In summer 2018, a communist-led multinational social investigation team visited Black proletarian neighborhoods in Baltimore and talked to residents about what their experiences with the police and with the system overall were after the 2015 rebellion ignited by the police murder of Freddie Gray. Many people pointed out that the police in fact backed off in the wake of the rebellion, allowing drugs to flow and murders to occur with little intervention. It’s not that the police became less brutal per se, but they allowed the effects of decades of unemployment, deteriorating neighborhoods, drug addiction, and the underground economy to run their course and do the work of brutalizing the people for them. Here’s what three Black proletarians in Baltimore told the communist-led social investigation team:

Let me tell you something, we don’t have cops no more. We got monitors. They monitor the crime. For instance, walk across the street, [you hear] “I got this, I got that, I got ‘bupes’, I got percs.” They be selling their wares, and the police be sitting right in front of them, and they don’t say nothing. [Pointing at a police car parked at one of the busiest drug-dealing corners in West Baltimore:] There you go, his lights are flashing, but he’s not going to get out the car.

[The police are] hanging around the corners where people are doing what they’re doing [dealing and using drugs] and they’re not doing nothing. They may have even be having a conversation with the criminals. In fact, I think they may even be involved with some of them; there’s some crooked cops out here.

People like you of different nationalities, before the Freddie Gray situation, the police would have stopped the car, got out, asked what was going on. But nowadays, I can be holding a gun to you, and holding you hostage, and the police would roll right by. …They just figure like “why should we put our hands on someone?” They just thinking “why should I jeopardize my career?” We video recording them now. So they just avoid it all.

To be clear, and before any idiot eager to prove their wokeness gets it twisted, the police would only respond to the rampant drug trade by brutalizing and murdering people, not by stopping the importation of drugs or providing treatment to addicts. The point here is that the system has no solution for the oppressed, whether that comes in the form of police brutality or unemployment and economic devastation leading to a booming drug trade and violence among the people. As one Baltimore resident told the social investigation team concerning the failures of existing social service programs:

Drug needles over here. Programs over there. All these programs doin’ nothing but helpin’ you a little. But it’s putting you back out in the system. Because once you finish the program you gon come back out in the streets. Right on the drugs again.

A similar scenario played out in Cincinnati after the 2001 rebellion set off by the police murder of Timothy Thomas. A large number of guns mysteriously appeared the summer after the rebellion, the flow of drugs seemed to increase, and murders among the people reached new heights. The bourgeoisie has learned many ways to respond to rebellion, including fomenting gang rivalries and contradictions among the people and then saying, when the murder rates increase, “see what happens when the police aren’t around?”1 The increase in murders in a number of cities through the US since the 2020 rebellions could very well be in part fostered through conscious bourgeois policy. This is exactly why we need revolutionary organization with deep roots among the people that can act as a counter to this tactic. Here, we renew the call we have been making in kites: as Mao emphasized, at the core of being a communist is doing social investigation among and integrating with the masses, and those in North America who are serious about becoming communists should spend far less time on the internet and talking to Leftists and far more time in proletarian neighborhoods getting to know the masses and struggling side by side with them.

The bourgeoisie is quick to learn from history because, as the ruling class, it is a highly organized class. The proletariat cannot hope to begin doing the same without organization.

Some might read all this and say, “okay I agree with your theoretical arguments, but shouldn’t we unite with the defund/abolish the police position because it’s the best thing that’s out there now?” This line of reasoning confines potential within the narrow horizons of the existing activist/Leftist milieu and justifies a petty-bourgeois fear of challenging those who use postmodernist identity politics to appoint themselves leaders of the existing movement (and increase their nonprofit activist salaries with Ford Foundation funding). But it does point to a real problem: no revolutionary leadership—individual or collective—exists today in the US with the ability, experience, influence, and audacity to vie for leadership of the current movement against police brutality and the oppression of Black people, set correct dividing lines, unite all who can be united, and divert the spontaneous movement towards revolutionary objectives. This is what we must transform by training communist cadre capable of acting as such a leadership (including by training ourselves). Not taking on this responsibility means allowing class forces other than the proletariat and politics and programs short of communist revolution to lead and deflate the existing resistance movement into dead-ends and keep the system intact, even if some reforms come to pass.2

Finally, if the above arguments have not swayed you, here’s something to marinate on concerning the problem with today’s “abolitionist” politics: Angela Davis is now a celebrated author, academic, and hero for the activist crowd. Ruchell “Cinque” Magee is still in prison. How many “abolitionists” even know who he is?

1 One noteworthy strength of the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion was that a gang truce was reached shortly before the rebellion and subsequently strengthened in the course of and after it, making it much more difficult for the bourgeoisie to employ this tactic.

2 As a practical suggestion for training communist cadre in relation to the present movement against police brutality, we suggest reading the article “From the Masses, to the Masses: A Summation of the October 22nd Coalition’s Resistance to Police Brutality in the Late 1990s” in kites #1.

ENDNOTES

  1. One noteworthy strength of the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion was that a gang truce was reached shortly before the rebellion and subsequently strengthened in the course of and after it, making it much more difficult for the bourgeoisie to employ this tactic.
  2. As a practical suggestion for training communist cadre in relation to the present movement against police brutality, we suggest reading the article “From the Masses, to the Masses: A Summation of the October 22nd Coalition’s Resistance to Police Brutality in the Late 1990s” in kites #1.