by the kites Editorial Committee
Published February 2023
2023 opened with three high-profile murders by police across the US. In Los Angeles, Keenan Anderson was tasered six times and died of cardiac arrest due to the brutality of the police. In Atlanta, Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán was shot dead by police while taking part in a protest occupation to prevent Atlanta forestland from being bulldozed to make way for the construction of “Cop City,” a massive police training facility. In Memphis, Tyre Nichols was brutally beaten and pepper sprayed by at least five cops and died three days later from his injuries. These three police murders that made national news are the tip of the iceberg: a study by the Mapping Police Violence project shows that in 2022, police in the US killed around 100 people per month, the highest number ever recorded.1
The sheer quantity and the vicious brutality of police killings proves the communist understanding that the role of the police is to serve and protect the ruling class, and in the US, that means harassing, brutalizing, locking in jail, and lynching the most oppressed and potentially rebellious sections of the population, especially Black proletarians. After a decade of large protests and a series of rebellions culminating nationwide in Summer 2020, the question of “why hasn’t anything changed?” is on the minds of the broad masses. As communists, our responsibility is to give answers to this question that go beyond the spontaneous, often righteous, understanding of the masses and that contend with liberal, postmodernist, abolitionist, and Leftist answers that all ultimately obfuscate the class interests behind the perpetuation of police brutality and the oppression of Black people.
That responsibility is particularly urgent right now given that, to some degree, the defiance of 2020 has understandably given way to despondency and despair in the face of few practical victories won by the mass struggle. The failure of the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie, whose companies displayed “Black Lives Matter” logos and whose politicians wore kente cloth in Summer 2020, to enact any substantial reforms to reign in police brutality is a stark reminder of the class interests that shape government policy. Indeed, more police and prison policy reform was passed under Trump’s presidency than during the subsequent two years in which Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress, demonstrating the Democrats’ well-rehearsed role of feigning concern for injustice to rope people back into the official electoral channels. It took a video recording of Tyre Nichols being lynched by police to bring federal police reform back on the agenda. Bias awareness training and bourgeois “diversity” have proven no prevention of the police murder of Black people. Many brutalizing police have received hours of bias awareness and racial sensitivity training, and Black women have been appointed as police chiefs in several cities across the US, from New York to Memphis, with no tangible diminution of police violence against Black people. The profound limits of bourgeois reform stand exposed before the masses, but absent a proletarian class-consciousness of the deeper underlying class relations and of how those class relations can be swept away through revolution, the masses’ spontaneous understanding of the limits of bourgeois reformism can only lead them to hopelessness and nihilism.
The one substantial victory won by the people’s struggle against police brutality and the oppression of Black people is that now sometimes when a police killing is blatantly exposed, the police face criminal charges and jail time. Never have government officials moved so quickly to fire and charge police for brutalizing Black people as they did in the murder of Tyre Nichols. No doubt this was only for two reasons: (1) the beating of Nichols was caught on camera and would have been difficult for bourgeois politicians to justify given its sheer brutality, and (2) the bourgeoisie, still haunted by the specter of 2020, was seeking to avoid another outbreak of rebellion. Seeing even a few police go to prison for their brutality is indeed a great victory for the people. However, it is also a double-edged sword used by the bourgeoisie against the masses. The show trial of Derek Chauvin, the cop who murdered George Floyd, served to advance the bourgeois narrative that the problem is “a few bad apples” violating police procedure who can be rooted out of police departments through the official legal channels, with top police officials, including Minneapolis’s police chief, testifying to that effect at Chauvin’s trial. It is a great thing and a cause for celebration that Chauvin is in prison, but materialist dialectics teaches us to see the contradiction in all things.
The jailing of a few murderous police as a victory of the militant struggle of the people also highlights the bankruptcy of the dominant politics among the Left, namely abolitionism. For abolitionists cannot join the masses in celebrating these victories without betraying their core ideological beliefs. We will have more to say about the radical-sounding but reformist, “left in form, right in essence” politics of abolitionism below. But first, let us consider the immediate challenges of the moment—a moment that, by the time this editorial is published, has largely passed. Since many moments like this one are undoubtedly on the horizon as the police keep being police, the orientation below can hopefully be consciously applied in the near future.
How to mount a political intervention, short-term and long-term
Over the last decade, outbreaks of nationwide protest against police brutality and the oppression of Black people have drawn out people from different classes and of different nationalities, with a variety of political forces in the mix. Rebellions by mostly Black proletarians have been the most positive aspect and driving force of these outbreaks, but a recurring dynamic has been that opportunists and grifters have managed to seize on the mass energy to dominate the political messaging of the mass movement and reap the benefits, financially and otherwise. After the 2014 Ferguson Rebellion, Black Lives Matter (BLM) emerged as the main opportunist force feeding off of the mass movement; since their founders and leaders have been exposed in recent years as nothing but grifters using the movement for their own financial gain, fortunately BLM was not able to be a visible force in the outbreak of protest around the police murder of Tyre Nichols except in a few places. Tired old Leftist organizations, such as the Trotskyite PSL (Party for Socialism and Liberation), have in some places managed to use their bundles of boring placards and the “cadre” they recruited off the internet to put themselves in the foreground of the latest wave of protests. The opportunist forces out on the street, who have no intention of taking the struggle where it needs to go to stop the police killing of Black people, in effect join with more “official” reformist forces, from Democrat politicians to Al Sharpton to attorney Benjamin Crump, in diverting mass outrage away from rebellion and revolutionary politics.2
In response to that scenario, which we have seen play out over and over in the last decade, the more radically inclined lament the seizure of protest and mass discontent by opportunists. Yet their criticisms of those opportunists rarely broach the question of political line, staying confined to rather petty and narrow matters of protest tactics or purported violations of the ever-shifting rules of postmodernist identity politics. Such radicals fail to reckon with their own impotence in the face of opportunists, an impotence that flows from a small-group mentality with no small amount of anti-vanguardism manifest in the refusal to take responsibility to lead.
These “small-group-mentality radicals,” as we might call them, often have real hatred for the system and some heart (in more of a Che Guevara than a Mao sense) for the masses. They have certainly been on the militant end of protests, risking arrest to do graffiti, smash up the edifices of exploitation and oppression, and even burn police cars. We respect their spirit and militancy, but must call attention to their inability to understand what makes that militancy appropriate and effective in some situations (the 2020 Rebellions) and a total flop in others. For small-group-mentality radicals remain disconnected from the masses, and have no method, politically or organizationally, for assessing the mood of the masses and giving leadership to the masses in such a way that draws forward their militancy to the maximum degree possible without stepping beyond what the advanced masses are ready to do at any given moment. In short, small-group-mentality radicals lack the mass line, democratic centralist organization, and an understanding of the relationship between the subjective forces and the objective contradictions in society.
A more long-term process of unity – struggle – unity with small-group-mentality radicals over these questions is necessary, but in the immediate sense it is worth raising a tactical question: How can we prevent the opportunists and grifters from taking the leadership of the next outbreak of protest? To that end, all genuine political forces who despise the opportunists should tactically band together for outbreaks of protest and take over those protests from the hands of opportunists. That may wind up involving some degree of physical confrontation with opportunists, which must be accompanied by political work among protesters and the masses to explain and expose the opportunists. People new to political life and protest movements are often confused as to why everyone can’t “unite”; such sentiment is overall positive, so there must be substantive explanation of opportunist politics and why opportunists must be pushed out of the mass movement. Confronting the opportunists will also require violating the rules of postmodernist identity politics, since opportunists excel at fielding people of the “right identity” for the moment to advance their grifts.
In order to assert leadership over outbreaks of protests, the more radically inclined will have to recognize the limits of small-group-mentality militancy and master the ability to move with the masses rather than stepping too far ahead of them. A helpful way to think about this is striving for protests with a mass character and a militant edge, with the former principal over the latter. When the objective situation compels the masses in a more militant direction, the militant edge can and should become the mass character. But losing the mass character due to a justified desire for “fucking shit up” generally does not serve to advance the struggle. Further discussion of the tension between stepping out ahead of the masses with militancy and bringing the masses along with us in the process is certainly necessary; as a starting point, we suggest collective watch parties of the 2008 film The Baader Meinhof Complex followed by discussions of the strengths and limitations of the enraged radicalized petty-bourgeoisie.
As excellent as it would be if the more radically inclined would get beyond the small-group mentality and make concerted efforts to assert collective leadership over outbreaks of protest against police brutality and the oppression of Black people, that in itself will not be enough to unite with the broad masses and take the wind out of the opportunists, especially those with more official backing. Fixation on high tides of protest at the expense of conducting regular political work and building organization among the masses has only left radicals isolated from the masses. In relation to the mass movement against police brutality, this isolation is particularly egregious given that a strong model exists for mass work: the practice of the October 22nd Coalition Against Police Brutality from 1996–2000. This practice has been summed up in a previous article in kites,3 and we call on our readers to not just study that article, but also to take initiative in applying it to today’s circumstances. In future, a national mass organization, whether a resurrected October 22nd Coalition or something new, will be necessary to give leadership to the mass movement against police brutality and give the masses something to join and make their own, in opposition to opportunist-led efforts. For now, the approach of the October 22nd Coalition—its way of uniting with the families of victims of police violence and bringing them forward as mass leaders, its mobilization of proletarian youth, and its cultivation of breadth around protests that refused to rely on the official political channels—should be applied in local efforts. The larger point is that beyond outbreaks of protest, there needs to be regular political work among the masses on the question of police brutality.
To connect with and lead the masses in such political work, the radically inclined will need to rupture with petty-bourgeois politics that fail to grasp the underlying causes of police brutality and the oppression of Black people and fail to resonate with the life experience of the masses. The principal manifestation of those petty-bourgeois politics today is so-called abolitionism. A previous editorial in kites explained the fundamental reformism behind 21st-century abolitionist politics.4 Since abolitionism is today the main thing holding back the struggle against police brutality, let us elaborate on some of the nonsensical analysis by abolitionists seen in their responses to the latest wave of police killings.
“Policing” is not the problem
Today’s abolitionists have increasingly painted “policing” in and of itself as the problem, drawing heavily if sometimes unknowingly on French philosopher Foucault’s postmodernist conception of power relations to imagine liberation as the allowance of “difference” among individuals and social groups unburdened by social regulation. There is a growing number of sophisticated and banal postmodernist analyses of “policing” being written, and a corner of the academic publishing industry devoted to the topic. For our purposes, let us cut away all the sophistication and state that when abolitionists frame the problem as “policing” as such, what they are essentially saying is that social regulation is bad.
In reality, social regulation is not an inherently good or bad thing; it’s just part of human existence. All human societies practice it, and the most egalitarian societies have practiced it the most. The late anarchist anthropologist David Graeber’s book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021; co-written with David Wengrow) expresses Graeber’s discomfort at discovering that communal humanity practiced a high degree of social regulation, not unbridled individuality as the anarchist ideal would like to imagine. (Interestingly, The Dawn of Everything received probably the most favorable reviews from bourgeois media publications of any book an anarchist wrote in recent decades, or possibly ever—bourgeois ideologues have long posed social regulation as a bad thing.) Anyone who has raised a child—or, for that matter, babysat a toddler for an hour—knows that without some form of social regulation, people who don’t know any better do some dumb and dangerous shit.
The question is what kind of social regulation, serving what class interests, what production and social relations. Policing—in the sense of a specialized body of police organized to enforce specific forms of social regulation—emerged after human societies were divided into classes. Police forces have become especially important for the bourgeoisie—the ruling class in capitalist societies—who must exercise their class rule over large urban populations which include a sizeable portion of exploited and oppressed people, often living in decrepit conditions that make them prone to rebellion. Consequently, police in capitalist societies direct their repressive force against the reserve army of labor—unemployed proletarians—and the most exploited among the working class. In the particular social formation of the US, that overlaps with the police’s function to enforce the rule of white supremacy and repress the oppressed nations and nationalities inside the borders of the US, especially but not only Black people. That explains why Black proletarian men, substantial numbers of whom have been rendered a more or less permanent reserve army of labor as deindustrialization and the “offshoring” of production have gutted capital’s need for their labor in the US over the last few decades, are the number one victims of police murder. In addition, police also serve other functions of social regulation, most notably repressing manifestations of dissent that step outside of the official political channels, hence police brutality against militant protests like the one against the construction of Cop City on forestland in Atlanta. There are, of course, functions of social regulation the police are ostensibly responsible for that serve a socially positive role, such as making sure people don’t drive so fast that it puts themselves and others in danger, but those socially positive functions are overwhelmingly secondary to the police’s principal role, are often performed poorly by the police, and are carried out in such a way as to serve the main, repressive function of the police (e.g., the enforcement of traffic laws is used mainly to pull over, harass, arrest, and brutalize Black drivers, not in the interests of public safety).
The underlying problem is not “policing” as such, but the class divisions and class relations of exploitation and oppression under capitalism-imperialism that make policing necessary for the ruling class. The abolitionists who make the problem out to be policing as such and believe, or pretend to believe, that policing can be abolished without overthrowing and uprooting those class relations are at best deluded and at worst deliberately fostering illusions. While a proletarian revolution must and would overthrow and destroy the bourgeoisie’s police forces, it could not immediately eliminate all forms of policing if that revolution hopes to thoroughly uproot class divisions and all forms of oppression. Policing will be radically different under proletarian rule, focused on repressing overthrown and newly generated oppressors and exploiters and putting a stop to social behaviors, such as rape, that are harmful and oppressive to the masses of people. It would not be directed at the masses of people, and mediating everyday disputes among the people could be quickly transferred away from specialized bodies such as police towards mass organizations and non-police specialists.
To illustrate the need for a radically different type of policing after a revolution, let us use an example our present-day so-called abolitionists should be familiar with: the brief period of Reconstruction after the US Civil War. During the Reconstruction years, substantial repression was directed at overthrown Southern plantation owners who made their wealth by exploiting slave labor, with federal troops occupying—policing—the South and acting as agents of repression over former slave owners. W.E.B. Du Bois called the Reconstruction period the first dictatorship of the proletariat in history, pointing to how the brief burst of freedom for Black people rested on the repression of former slave owners.5 When the federal government stopped policing those former slave owners with the Tilden-Hayes Compromise of 1877, the reign of white supremacy resumed unchecked and rolled back many of the political gains that had been won by and for Black people, reconfiguring the semi-feudal exploitation of Black people in the South as sharecroppers in the same old plantation system rather than as slaves. To sum up, the policing of the overthrown plantation owners under Reconstruction was good and necessary (and the more brutally it was done, the better), while the policing of the masses of Black people after Reconstruction by the forces of white supremacy under the rule of the plantation owners restored to power in the South was a terrible thing. Policing as such was not the problem; who was policed and towards what ends was what determined whether policing was good or bad.
Policing—in the sense of specialized bodies of police organized to enforce specific forms of social regulation—can only be ended with the end of class divisions and all forms of oppression. In short, while proletarian revolution and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat can and will destroy the bourgeoisie’s police, only the achievement of communism can eliminate any and all need for policing as such. However, even under communism, social regulation will continue to be a part of human existence, but it will be a social regulation that fosters and reinforces communal relations based on the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs,” with individuality flourishing on that basis. Along the road to communism, social regulation working to uproot all oppressive and exploitative social relations and model genuine equality will be a crucial part of the advance to communism, with new forms of social regulation emerging after each phase of social revolution.
“Anti-Blackness” is not the cause
When the news broke that Tyre Nichols was beaten to death by five Black cops (it has subsequently come out that white cops were also involved), abolitionists explained that Black police are not immune from “anti-blackness,” because racism in the police force is systematic or institutional. That explanation gets at the ideology inculcated in all police, but fails to go beyond ideology and explain the class and social relations that generate that ideology in the first place. Regardless of what any cop thinks, they have a role to play: to defend bourgeois rule, including the rule of white supremacy, and to suppress any (potential) threats to that rule. Given that role, police academies tend to attract the most reactionary among the people, including outright white supremacists and lots of men who beat their wives. But even if someone enters the police force genuinely intending to “serve the community,” they have a role to play, and cannot depart from that role if they want to keep their job, just like a delivery driver cannot decide they do not want to deliver packages or a Starbucks worker cannot decide they want to make hamburgers instead of overpriced coffee.
The point here is to understand the production relations in society, which under capitalism-imperialism are material relations of exploitation and oppression, and then understand the role of the police within those production relations. In that context, the ideology of the police must correspond to their role within those production relations, or the police cannot play their role, which is why the bourgeoisie cultivates the most reactionary political outlooks among its police. Where the abolitionists err is in treating the ideology as divorced from and standing above the material relations—not surprising given that today’s abolitionism is rooted in the philosophy and politics of postmodernism, which places “discursive formations” over and above material relations, if it does not ignore material relations altogether.
Consequently, postmodernists and abolitionists have invented, or chosen and given new meaning to, a whole set of vocabulary that divorces ideology from material relations. A favorite word among them, used to explain how Black police could be involved in brutally murdering a young Black man in Memphis, is “anti-blackness.” On the surface, there might not seem anything wrong with this word—police as a whole are, indeed, against the masses of Black people.6 But when you examine how “anti-blackness” gets used, and consider that it replaced existing terms such as white supremacy, the oppression of Black people, and the more popularly understood if less scientifically accurate racism, you might notice that “anti-blackness” treats the oppression of Black people as a discursive disposition divorced from historical circumstances and material relations, as some sort of essential, timeless quality of thought. Besides not being a scientific term of analysis, it also buttresses capitulation, for when you divorce reactionary ideas from material contradictions and conflicts, those reactionary ideas seem timeless and everlasting, and you cannot envision how to transform historical circumstances and material relations (think of how often the masses say “it’s just human nature” when confronting the seeming impossibility of doing away with oppression). And that explains why the rise of the term “anti-blackness” dovetailed with the promotion, among some postmodernist intellectuals, of so-called “Afro-pessimism.”
Our point here is not to fixate on terminology, but to draw out what is meant by today’s terminology and how postmodernist terminology trains people in ways of thinking that are anti-materialist and hence anti-revolutionary. We must also caution against opposing postmodernist conceptions like “anti-blackness” with their mirror opposite: a mechanical and class-reductionist “Marxism” that opposes a communist understanding of the oppression of nations, and the centrality of the struggle for Black liberation to communist revolution in the US. We challenge our readers to think through “what’s in a word,” and to consider how the ways we explain oppression to people can either foster illusions or bring people to a deeper, more materialist analysis of the problem and point towards its revolutionary resolution.
Combining the above “discursive analysis” of abolitionist politics with our call for regular political work among the masses on the question of police brutality, we must also state that postmodernist terminology and conceptions routinely fail to connect with most of the masses who are the prime targets of police brutality. Presenting the problem as “policing” as such to people who live in neighborhoods that are dealing with gangs and crime, owing to the objective conditions of unemployment and poverty, wildly misses the mark and cedes ground to fascistic populism of the Eric Adams (the mayor of New York) variety. Proletarian masses dealing with crime can be won to understand, and often spontaneously understand, that policing in bourgeois society will not solve the problem of crime, but abolitionist arguments about policing will not resonate with their life experience. For example, gang shootings among proletarian teenagers have in part been fueled by a breakdown in social regulation—most gangs today lack older OGs in positions of authority who can prevent teenage gang members from letting silly beefs on social media turn into gun battles. Until revolutionaries can start to offer an alternative revolutionary social regulation grounded in the assertion of revolutionary authority, talk of “ending policing” will sound absurdly out of touch to most proletarian masses, even as many of them understand that the bourgeoisie’s police are no solution to the problem of crime.
Likewise, “anti-blackness” and other postmodernist conceptions of the oppression of Black people do not resonate with the life experience of Black proletarians, since they confront the very material realities of police brutality, prisons, poverty, etc., rather than just the “discourses” that fortify those material conditions. Furthermore, postmodernist lingo remains largely alien to proletarian masses, and using it is a sure way to identify yourself as belonging to an insular crowd of activists and academics who do not know how to relate to the masses. There are, of course, terms that are at present mostly foreign to the masses that we should popularize, such as proletariat, but (1) when we use them, we should give clear explanations and use them alongside terms that the masses are already familiar with, and (2) these terms will resonate with the masses because they describe the material reality they confront in their daily lives.
If you don’t believe us about the alienating effect of using postmodernist terminology among the masses, take up the challenge that kites has been making to go to the masses and conduct social investigation and political agitation.7 Whether around police brutality or any other social question, we test the correctness of our ideas by taking them to the masses, learning from their experience and thinking, and developing and carrying out concrete plans for mobilizing them in struggle. If you’re not doing that, what are you doing? …“Abolitionism”…and that’s the problem.
1 The study is available online at mappingpoliceviolence.us. It is only in the last decade that mainstream media and mainstream political organizations started to document police killings, so not many national statistics exist before then. The first attempt to document police killings on a national level was the Stolen Lives Project by the October 22nd Coalition in the late 1990s, an impressive effort conducted mainly through print media research and on-the-ground investigation, before the liberal petty-bourgeoisie cared much about police brutality.
2 One uniquely windy expression of this phenomena comes from Chicago, where local politicians who needed to restore trust in the police following outrage over the killing of Laquan McDonald entered into a strategic alliance with some dusty revisionists and opportunists to reinvent the toothless, shop talk police review board, which those revisionists claim will lead to “community control” of the Chicago Police.
3 See “From the Masses, To the Masses: A Summation of the October 22nd Coalition’s Resistance to Police Brutality in the Late 1990s” by Kilmor and John Albert, published in kites #1 (2020).
4 See “Defund, Abolish… But What About Overthrow?” in kites #2 (2020).
5 Du Bois wrote an impressive, lengthy analysis of the Reconstruction period: Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (The Free Press, 1998 ), which today’s so-called abolitionists ought to study to help them understand how starkly they contrast with the nineteenth-century abolitionists from whom they have appropriated their moniker. Eric Foner’s aptly titled Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (Harper and Row, 1988) is also well worth studying.
6 Although it is worth raising the question of why use a term that implies degree (blackness) rather than draws attention to the way that Black people as a whole are an oppressed nation within the US. The likely answer is that postmodernists often elevate secondary issues, such as the problem of colorism (lighter-skinned Black people looking down on darker-skinned Black people), above the principal matter (Black people being oppressed under bourgeois rule and white supremacy).
7 For a helpful “how-to” guide on taking the initial steps of going to the masses, see “A Call for Communist Social Investigation a Year After the Summer of Rebellion” in kites #4 (2021). Though it was written for a specific moment that has passed, its step-by-step approach remains relevant.