Our Enemies in Blue: Can the Police be Reformed? by Leela Yellesetty

This is the text of a speech presented by Leela Yellesetty at our meeting titled “Our Enemies in Blue: Can the Police be Reformed?”

In years past, I might have begun a talk like this by laying out the case for why we’re even talking about police reform. I might have gone through statistics about the number of people killed by the cops so far this year– anywhere between 783 to 989 depending on who’s counting– compared with the number of officer convictions– which shot way up to one this year, after zero last year. I would talk about the fact that unarmed Black men are three and half times more likely to be killed than unarmed whites, or go through any number of statistics about how minorities and Black people in particular are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, harassed and otherwise brutalized by the police.

But I’m not going spend much time on this, because thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement these facts are well known, not just among the communities who have lived with this reality for so many years, but to the broader public who has been made aware thanks to ongoing protests in the streets and even on football fields around the country.

On the other hand, it’s clear that two years into this movement, police terror continues unabated. To give just one example, last Friday near here in Auburn, 23 year old Renee Davis, a pregnant mother of three, was shot and killed by King County Sheriffs in her home on the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation. Like all too many fatal police encounters, Davis was struggling with mental health issues and a friend called 911. Instead of being provided with help in her time of need, she was gunned down in front of her two young children.

Tragedies like this occur on a daily basis and are what fuel the growing movement. Yet many are rightly asking what will it take to win justice? Can the police be reformed, and if so how? Here in Seattle, activists recently won a big victory in blocking a proposed $149 million dollar police bunker in the North Precinct. Yet a couple weeks ago Mayor Ed Murray proposed increasing the Seattle Police Department’s annual budget from $300 million to $329 million by 2018, including hiring 72 more police.

This despite the fact that Seattle is facing an unprecedented homelessness crisis that the city claims it doesn’t have the resources to tackle. But the police somehow must get their money, even as they are still under consent decree by the Department of Justice for a pattern of brutality and racial profiling. Supposedly they are now getting better, yet just weeks after SPD chief Kathleen O’Toole attended the President’s State of the Union address as a poster child for police reform, the SPD took the life of Che Taylor.

Nonetheless, Murray argued in his speech: “We must of course address the issue of race and policing. But we must also have a police department prepared to respond to and thoroughly investigate domestic violence and rape,” and crimes involving gun violence.

Inherent in Murray’s speech was a position that yes, there are problems that need to be addressed, but at bottom the police are a good and necessary institution. You wouldn’t know it from hearing him or most politicians, but in fact crime rates are at all time lows in this city and nationally. And as for handling issues domestic violence, we might ask if the police, who are twice as likely to commit domestic violence than the general public, are the best people to address this epidemic.

This is why I think the question “can the police be reformed?” actually implies two distinct but related questions, with two different answers. First, can the police be reformed into being less worse than they are currently are? I think yes. But second, can the police be transformed into a positive good? I say no. And I think your answer to the second question actually informs your approach to the first, so I will actually start with that.

The conventional wisdom we are all fed is that the police are there to “protect and serve.” Sure there is corruption and “bad apples” but in general, the police are tasked with stopping crime and keeping us safe. Now immediately we see practical issues with this idea. It is extremely rare that a police officer actually manages to stop a crime while it is in progress. If they are called, they usually arrive after the fact. And if they are simply on patrol, the odds of them happening upon a crime are extremely low.

So mostly what the police are engaged in is what’s called “crime prevention”– basically being on the lookout for a potential crime to occur. As such, this work inherently involves profiling– looking for perceived “criminal elements”, which in a racist and unequal society, means focusing on poor and minority communities. Profiling is thus not merely the product of individual racist officers, but is built into the nature of the job. This helps to explain why Black people are disproportionately subject to stops and searches, even though they are less likely to actually be found in possession of contraband than whites.

On a deeper level it’s worth thinking about what constitutes crime itself and where it comes from. I already mentioned that crime rates are at all time lows, and that increasing the number of cops has no discernable impact on crime rates, but most people would still agree that crime is a bad thing that we should do something about. The problem is which crimes are targeted and which ones aren’t.

Wall Street bankers made billions of dollars by crashing the economy, causing millions to lose their homes and retired with golden parachutes. CEOs make cost-cutting decisions that lead to workplace accidents, deadly product malfunctions and environmental catastrophes, and get away with slap on the wrist. Meanwhile millions of poor people of color languish in prison for crimes of poverty, such as shoplifting, or things that arguably shouldn’t be crimes at all, like drug possession. As the great socialist Eugene Debs put it, “the judicial nets are so adjusted as to catch the minnows and let the whales slip through.”

It is therefore impossible to understand the role of the police outside of the bigger political context. Rather than a neutral body here to serve everyone, I would argue that the police are tasked with enforcing the existing order, at the behest of those who benefit from it. This becomes even clearer when we look at the origins of modern police forces.

The police as we know them are a relatively recent invention, evolved over the past 200 years or so. The two major forerunners to the police, were, in the North, the nightwatch and constable systems, inherited from the British, and the Southern slave patrols. The slave patrols were obviously a brutal and racist means of controlling a captive workforce. But it wasn’t until there arose a growing concentration of urban slaves and workers that more formal, professional City Guards were organized. As David Whitehouse put it:

“The crucial urban adaptation was to police crowds of Black people in the markets, and crowds of Black churchgoers on Sunday. Those were the gatherings that might become unruly, but they were also places for Black people to plot some resistance to the master class.”

A similar development took place in the North in response to a growing industrial working class concentrated in urban centers. Previously, the constable system was rather loose and lacking in authority. In fact it was legal even to kill a constable if you felt they were trying to arrest you unjustly. It wasn’t until the increase in strikes and collective action by working people, that modern police organization was born. The concern was not about solving or preventing individual crimes, but preventing and disrupting the gathering of crowds of “rabble rousers” that could spell problems for the elites. Police are of course still tasked with this role, as anyone who has been at a protest and picket line can attest.

I obviously don’t have a chance to go through an exhaustive history of the evolution in this short talk– I would point people to this excellent book by Kristian Williams. He goes through, for instance, the role of the police as an essential component of the corrupt political machines that dominated most American cities from the late 19th through mid twentieth centuries, highlighting the ways in which corruption among the police is far from the anomaly but has been the rule.

That such corruption continues to this day is no major surprise. This summer the Oakland police department came under fire when it was revealed that multiple officers in several departments had sex with an underage prostitute and some may have also engaged in a murder cover up.

These more shocking scandals aside, corruption is built into the fabric of “normal” policing and is often completely legal. Take for instance the system of collecting massive amounts of money in fees and fines from poor residents for minor infractions, as was exposed in the wake of Ferguson. Or the civil asset forfeiture programs that allow cops to literally just take people’s money and put it directly into police coffers– whether or not the person is charged with any crime.

In recent decades, there has been a concerted effort, first spearheaded by LBJ in the wake of the upheaval of the 1960s, to professionalize and militarize the police as a means of containing social unrest. This has only accelerated in the past few decades. It is now a familiar scene to see police occupying neighborhoods with tanks and advancing on protesters with tear gas canisters as if they are in a war zone. Thanks to federal programs local police departments across the country have near unlimited access to surplus military equipment. The point of such equipment is not so much that police *need* bayonets or grenades to protect themselves and the public. Rather it is all about intimidation.

A passage from James Baldwin in 1960 rings as true today as it did then:

“The only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive. None of the Police Commissioner’s men, even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in twos and threes controlling. Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children. They represent the force of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are, simply, for that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man corralled up here, in his place…One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congeals, editorials, speeches, and civil-rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like men.”

This goes a long way in explaining the mentality of the police. What is missing from discussion of “good cops” versus “rotten apples” is how the entire culture is rotten by nature. Police are accustomed to treating the communities they patrol as an occupying army. They are both authorized and encouraged to use force with impunity. Not only does this sort of gig naturally attract its share of sociopaths, but those who are not willing to go along and preserve the “blue code of silence” are punished for their virtue.

The inherent racism and brutality of the police role ensures that police officers unions are almost invariably cesspools of reaction. In San Francisco, the police chief was forced to step down after a series of racist and homophobic texts by multiple officers were released to the media. Here in Seattle, the head of the Seattle Police Officers Guild was forced to step down after a facebook post in which he attempted to blame a “minority movement” for the shooting of police officers in Dallas. This is just the latest in a long history of disgusting comments by the SPOG.

For the Ed Murray’s of the world, this crass racism may be somewhat of an embarrassment, but at the end of the day he will still defend and fund them, because he needs the police as an institution to control the social unrest provoked by the housing crisis, to be the shock troops of gentrification and keep Seattle welcoming to business interests. Indeed, it is no coincidence that budgets for police and prisons have skyrocketed over the same decades in which we’ve witnessed growing inequality and the decimation of working class living standards. While budgets for education, mental health and other essential services continue to be gutted, there is never a shortage of money for cops. This is because police brutality and racism are essential tools to keep the population intimidated and divided in the face of this onslaught.

The job of the police is to protect a fundamentally racist and unjust social order. While poor Black and brown communities are in the center of the crosshairs, all of us are potential enemies. A recent report from Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology found that fully half of all US adults are recorded in police facial recognition databases. Recently the SPD admitted that it had secretly and illegally purchased technology which allowed them to track and monitor the social media posts of all residents in real time. Although they now claim it was only used to track “criminal activities” this software was specifically purchased as a response to BLM protests.

This is why as socialists we do not believe the police are good or necessary– to contrary they represent a tool of the ruling class used to keep the rest of us in line. Ultimately, we want to fight for a world without racism and inequality, and hence also police. We can talk more in the discussion if folks like about what such a world would look like, but for now I want to get to what all this means for strategy in the here and now.

Does this all mean that it’s pointless to fight for police reforms? Not in the least. However, we want to argue within these struggles that any reforms won under the existing framework will be at best partial and temporary. Therefore the key importance of these fights for us is to help build the confidence and organization of our side to continue to fight for more radical demands. This is crucial, because at the end of the day, without constant pressure, any reforms we do win will be rolled back as soon as they get the chance.

We know that most people today do not come into the movement with a fully formed critique of the police as a fundamentally unjust institution. We want to unite with the broadest possible layers of people around immediate demands that will make a difference in the here and now. Anything that forces the cops to hesitate or fear repercussions for their actions will mean literally saving lives.

At the same time, we want to connect this to a broader critique of the police as a whole, an argument which becomes clearer in the course of struggle, as people face the backlash of opposition to such seemingly reasonable demands. Socialists are not the only ones who have ideas about strategy for the movement of course. Any struggle involves a battle for ideas, and the more conservative layers of the movement, often tied to the Democratic party, will argue to limit the scope of demands within the bounds of the status quo. We got a glimpse of how this works from leaked DNC emails this summer where staffers were encouraged to meet with BLM protesters, make it seem like they’re being heard but don’t commit to any actual policies.

We should be wary of some proposed solutions that either won’t solve the problem or make it worse– body cameras, for instance are being pushed as a solution in Seattle and elsewhere, but I am skeptical because a) there isn’t any way to prevent a conveniently timed “malfunction” or “forgot to turn it on”; b) getting caught on camera hasn’t stopped many cops from getting away with murder; and c) they could potentially be used as a further expanded surveillance and violation of privacy. I will leave that open to discussion.

What exact campaigns and strategies we engage in are tactical questions, but they form the building blocks for a broader movement. A campaign like block the bunker was a defensive one, but at the same time it was a chink in the ideological armor that says it’s impossible to challenge the police. Likewise even what seem like largely symbolic actions– like the thousands Seattle public school teachers wearing BLM t-shirts to school last week– are hugely important. Thanks to this movement, millions of people are realizing that they’re not alone in thinking that there is something fundamentally wrong with this system, but also that we can act together to challenge it. We are still at the beginning of this process, but we have a world to win.

I want to close with a quote about the Seattle General Strike of 1919, in which tens of thousands of workers not only shut down the city but began to run it themselves. Among other things, they did away with the need for the cops. As Harvey O’Connor wrote in his history of the strike:

“A Labor War Veteran’s Guard was organized to keep the peace. On the blackboard at one of its headquarters was written: “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.” During the strike, crime in the city decreased. The commander of the U.S. army detachment sent into the area told the strikers’ committee that in forty years of military experience he hadn’t seen so quiet and orderly a city.”

I wanted to end with this because at times it can seem like the police are all-powerful and insurmountable, with a near monopoly on the means of violence. But our side has a power greater still, which is our collective strength as those who work to make society run. It was precisely this power that the police were designed to keep in check, and it is precisely this power which we must bring to bear to win a world without them.

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