Why the police aren’t on our side

October 6, 2011

Amy Muldoon looks at the role of police and their attitude toward political protest.

"WE ARE all Sean Bell, NYPD go to hell!" "NYPD: Rape is a felony!" "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, NYPD go away!"

Over the past two weeks in New York City, lower Manhattan has been besieged by angry protesters responding to racism, sexism and the crimes of America's biggest financial institutions. While the issues are different, one common target among others has emerged in all these movements: the police.

Following the execution of innocent Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis the night before, protestors gathered September 22 in Union Square for a Day of Outrage demonstration and began an un-permitted march downtown.

Repeatedly outwitting, outrunning and outnumbering police, marchers made it past several blockades to join the ongoing Occupy Wall Street encampment. Davis himself was the victim of a lynch mob mentality within the police force when 25 officers were assigned to find a suspect for the murder of an off duty officer.

Two days after the Troy Davis march, an un-permitted march by Occupy Wall Street to Union Square was attacked without provocation, and the gratuitous pepper-spraying of a group of young women by a commanding officer made headlines nationally.

Police force a protester to the ground in the midst of the Wall Street occupation
Police force a protester to the ground in the midst of the Wall Street occupation (Adrian Kinloch)

The following week, more than a thousand people marched on police headquarters to protest the assault. The next day, Saturday, thousands gathered to march across the Brooklyn Bridge. The police seemed to be guiding marchers into a single lane of traffic on the roadway, but a third of the way over the bridge, the cops stopped and fenced them in, arresting 700 people.

Inspired by protests after Toronto officers offered the advice to young women "not to dress like sluts" if they wanted to avoid being raped, SlutWalk came to New York City at the end of September, and it also took aim at the NYPD. In June of this year, two officers were acquitted of the rape of a woman who was intoxicated and requested an escort home. Days before the march, women in Brooklyn reported being told by police officers they were "the type of girls" a local rapist was looking for because they were wearing shorts or skirts.

In all of these instances, most people think the problem is that these are the acts of a "few bad apples." But taken together, one has to ask: Should an orchard producing so many bad apples be allowed to continue operating?

Another question is raised by the attitude of some activists in the Occupy Wall Street struggle who believe that the police are part of the "99 percent" that the movement is speaking for. For example, when the arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge were taking place, some marchers who hadn't been trapped appealed to police with chants of "Join us, you're one of us."

IS THERE something fundamentally wrong with the police, or can they actually protect and serve the people, and even come over to the side of the struggle?

This question is made more complicated by the attitude expressed by individual officers and even groups of them in support of certain struggles--most notably, during the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol last winter, when the police union stated for a time that it wouldn't clear the building of protesters and even directed members to sleep over at one point.

But the truth is this: The police force is not, and cannot ever be, a force for social justice.

In reality, the police don't even do the job they're supposed to do: protect regular people from crime and violence. This has nothing to do with the individual intentions of cops on the street--though that's not to say there are not murderous and bigoted people on the force--but the structure and purpose of the police is to protect the status quo: a state of affairs where a tiny minority benefit from the exploitation and oppression of the vast majority.

It is the nature of the police as an institution under capitalism to protect inequality and--in the U.S. in particular--to both act out and promote racism.

Occupy Wall Street's slogan "We are the 99 percent" both illuminates and confuses this reality. On the one hand, it is absolutely true that a tiny parasitical minority of economically powerful people who benefit from control over the immense wealth they have stolen from the rest of us.

However, this begs the question of how do they manage to hold on to what they have taken from us? While we are often ruled by ideological justifications for inequality in society--that we can't redistribute the wealth, or we shouldn't--in the final instance, we are prevented by the existence of a government (or, as Marxists would say, the state) that has the monopoly of violence and uses it to keep the intense inequality in place.

Society is not just a collection of autonomous individuals: institutions exist to mediate between the class of rich owners and directors of capital and the millions of people who must work for them in order for society to function. As socialist Peter Morgan wrote:

The police are just one part of the state which, along with the courts and the army, is there to do one thing--protect the property of the minority who own it against the mass of the people who do not. Frederick Engels pointed out over 100 years ago, "The state is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel."

Capitalism is a society that is based upon the accumulation of capital and therefore needs a highly efficient state machine to protect its property. The police exist because the antagonisms between classes with conflicting interests can no longer be settled directly--they therefore require a power appearing to stand above society to regulate conflicts. The state does this by ensuring that it alone possesses a monopoly of power, although it claims to operate in the name of society as a whole. In fact, it operates as the instrument of one class to oppress the other, subordinate, class.

Despite the majority of cops coming from working-class backgrounds, the role of the police puts them directly at odds with the aspirations and needs of the rest of the class.

Police are a necessity in all class societies, not to stop crime, which they do a miserable job at, but to enforce a social order that will never allow the liberation of the oppressed or economic justice. In the U.S., police encounter a crime in progress on average once every 14 years.

Plus, the police force never addresses the causes of crime--overwhelmingly caused by poverty, but also drug addiction, mental health issues, domestic violence, racism, sexism etc. Instead, the culture of the police force is that society is held together by "law and order" consisting of punishment and violence--up to and including death--meted out by them.

THE IMPORTANCE of the ability of the police to retain this power of life and death over average citizens--and non-citizens, who find themselves increasingly in the sights of the police--is made clear by the near-impossibility of prosecuting police for their crimes, especially against people of color.

In the past few years, the high-profile killings of Sean Bell in New York City and Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif.--both clear-cut cases of racist murder--resulted in not one cop being found guilty. Much of the defense of cops is that it is a high-stress job, and the general population couldn't possibly understand the pressures of policing "high-crime areas."

Reading between the lines, the police are understandably afraid of Black men (even when they are unarmed and lay face-down on the pavement), and supposedly justified in killing them.

The strategic deployment of police in low-income, non-white neighborhoods inevitably leads to greater arrests and conflicts with these constituencies. It is a self-fulfilling logic that results in an attitude of occupation on the part of the cops.

The trend through the 1990's was toward militarization of the police, including assault weapons, armored cars, and special units known for their excessive use of force (such as the NYPD Street Crimes Unit which adopted the Klan's slogan "we own the night" and shot unarmed street vendor Amadou Diallo 41 times in his own doorway).

In New York City, the recent exposure of the Demographics Unit within the NYPD made explicit that certain nationalities or religions are automatically suspects (in this case Arabs, North Africans and Muslims). But the daily bread of harassment for the NYPD is the "stop and frisk" policy, which nominally targets gang members but is widely recognized to be a no-holds-barred racial profiling operation.

The obvious hypocrisy of claiming to be protecting neighborhoods from gangs by targeting huge numbers of Black and Latino youths prompted Bob Herbert to write in the New York Times:

From 2004 through 2009, city police officers stopped people on the street and checked them out nearly 3 million times. Many were patted down, frisked, made to sprawl face down on the ground, or spread-eagle themselves against a wall or over the hood of a car.

Nearly 90 percent of the people stopped were completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

An overwhelming majority of the people stopped were Black or Hispanic.Blacks were nine times more likely than whites to be stopped by the police, but no more likely than whites to be arrested as a result of the stops.

SO WHILE individuals may join the force with good intentions, the internal culture and practical experience of implementing policy that is racist and anti-working class either overrides the good intentions, or drives out anyone unwilling to go along. The internal culture of the police depends on separation from, and hostility to, the communities they are meant to "serve and protect." All the light-blue "Community Outreach" windbreakers in the world can't cover this fact.

While the armed forces are trained to dehumanize people of different nationalities overseas, the police are inculcated to dehumanize the domestic population--a much deeper training. The resulting culture of police leads to a kind of self-segregation where cops socialize together, marry, and live together and a kind of impenetrable loyalty keeps dissent out. As a result of an atmosphere saturated with bigotry, every year lawsuits by gay cops, female cops and non-white cops shows that behind the thin blue line is a world where discrimination is not just reserved for "perps."

As capitalism's crises deepen and spread, the antagonisms between the exploited and the exploiters will rise to the surface more clearly, and the 1 percent will call for the use of the police more explicitly as the protectors of property against those of the 99 percent who threaten their hold on power.

Even if the majority of police officers opposed such actions, the police force is not a democracy. The upper echelons of the police force are essentially political appointees, unaccountable to the public, who create policy to legitimize their own continuation and expansion as an institution.

Looking back to February, when thousands of union members and students occupied the capital in Madison, Wis., the notion that the cops were on our side made sense given the public statements and daily participation by the police against Governor Walker's bill.

Wisconsin Professional Police Association (WPPA) Director Jim Palmer said: "Law enforcement officers know the difference between right and wrong, and Governor Walker's attempt to eliminate the collective voice of Wisconsin's devoted public employees is wrong." But three days after making this statement, the police cleared the capitol building, breaking the momentum of the mobilization. In fact, some activists argued for compliance because of the good relationship with the police, putting that above the priority of maintaining the occupation.

The rallies and marches of the past several days have shaken the confidence of the police by refusing to stay within circumscribed protest areas; unfortunately for them, every attempt to use force and arrests to intimidate and divide the movements has backfired. If they are on good behavior now it is only because our side is growing stronger and they have been exposed.

They will try to claw back some legitimacy by appearing neutral and only interested in "order" and "keeping the peace," but by protecting a "peace" where Wall Street amasses profits while foreclosures pile up, bankruptcies mount, and unemployment increases they show their true nature, whether or not they bloody another nose or open another canister of pepper spray.

In cities like New York, which is majority non-white with a police force that routinely beats, frames, and kills people of color, our allies are people who have been targeted by police, not the police themselves. The aim of any movement against economic inequality must take into account the role of racism plays in capitalism. To become more inclusive of communities struggling against oppression, where the police play a repressive role ever day, reaching out to the NYPD is exactly the wrong direction to go.

If we are to advance our struggle in the name of justice and redistribution of the great wealth we ourselves create, then we must understand that the police as an institution are in our way, and must be dismembered along with capitalism, the system it protects. Only with the destruction of inequality will the existence of a separate, unaccountable, armed body disappear.

In the meantime, building a movement that is broad, inclusive, democratic and that draws in the largest numbers to radical action is the best way to push back against police powers in the here and now. Making friends with cops or trying to persuade individuals, no matter how sympathetic they might personally be, is a dead end.

The movements will never advance on terms that will preserve friendly relations with the police; our aims are fundamentally opposed.

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