Opportunist Word Games to Justify Tailing Democrats
“Abolish the Police”
New York City DSA at June 29 march to NYC City Hall to pressure city council to reduce NYPD budget. Calls to “defund” and “abolish” the police under capitalism serve to tie protests against police brutality to Democrats’ budget maneuvers.
As activists call to “defund” the police while Democratic leaders call for more funds to the cops, in a presidential election pitting “shoot the looters” Trump vs. “shoot ’em in the legs” Biden, the Democratic Party is worried about energizing young voters in particular, especially if protests against racist police killings pick up again later in the summer. Biden-Sanders need a little help from the opportunist left, to get out a “Dump Trump” vote in November. Early on, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic (Party) Socialists of America (DSA) star, called to “defund the over-funded police.”1 More recently, the DSA has been carrying banners to “Disarm – Defund – Abolish” the police. On June 29, the New York DSA, towing behind it a raft of groups nominally to its left, called a “Mass March to Defund the NYPD & Abolish the Police.”
The knee-jerk answer to this would be, “you and whose army?” The idea that a central pillar maintaining capitalist rule would disappear as a result of a referendum, legislative act or charter amendment is liberal/reformist illusion-peddling of the highest order, no matter how much “mass pressure” is thrown in. This is akin to the 2018 liberal/reformist calls to “Abolish I.C.E.” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), which – as Ocasio-Cortez made clear – just meant replacing it with some other form of immigration cops. Whether I.C.E. or its predecessor, the INS, it’s still the hated migra. Today, if something purporting to “abolish the police” were enacted, it would simply substitute some other form of “reimagined” policing. And since racial oppression is intrinsic to U.S. capitalism, the liberal/reformist formulas actually mean that the imagined “peace officers,” “community police,” “public safety agents” or whatever they are called, would in fact be maintaining racist, capitalist “law and order.”
Leftists who help prettify this reality are, whatever their intentions or wishful thinking, helping to deceive and politically disarm the working class and anti-racist youth on a question that is literally one of life or death for all the oppressed: the nature of the capitalist state. To pretend that police can be abolished without a socialist revolution is of a piece with pacifist appeals for imperialist countries to carry out “disarmament,” adopt a non-imperialist foreign policy, etc., which Lenin in World War I heatedly denounced as bald-faced deception of the working class. As he emphasized, dispelling such illusions is a crucial part of clearing away the roadblocks to revolution.
Opportunist leftists present “abolish the police” as if that is the true meaning of protests calling to “defund the police.” But the actual role of the “abolish” demand is as sucker-bait, as professional con men call it, to tie BLM protests to budget machinations by Democratic politicians. This was the case with Occupy City Hall in New York. With protesters suffering from demo fatigue after June 19, some set up camp outside the NYC City Hall to push for cuts to the police budget. The occupation was initiated by VOCAL-NY, a liberal NGO begun by AIDS activists and partly funded by the city and the Ford Foundation. It grew to well over 500 people as the city council debated. Banners and chants called for defunding and abolishing the police. But after the budget with its phony billion in cuts to the NYPD passed, the numbers of occupiers fell.
This amounted to a kind of militant lobbying. For the easily excitable reformist and centrist not-so-far left, it was a throwback to the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement that swept the U.S. Meanwhile, across the country in Seattle, Washington, there was the considerably larger Capitol Hill Organized Protest or Autonomous Zone. The CHOP or CHAZ, which at the height covered six city blocks and a park, was established when police withdrew from Seattle’s East Precinct on June 8 after days of vicious cop attacks on demonstrators. Intended as a “police-free” area, it was blasted by President Trump, who denounced the occupiers as “domestic terrorists” and demanded that Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan “take back the area.” After several shootings in the zone grabbed headlines, the “police-free zone” disappeared as the cops moved in on July 1.
For the three weeks of its existence, CHOP/CHAZ was hailed by virtually the entire left. The arch-reformist Socialist Alternative (SAlt) had a little trouble with this, as its city council member Kshama Sawant had voted for and vociferously supported Police Chief Carmen Best. Meanwhile, as support was growing around the country for calls to expel police “unions” from the labor movement, SAlt cynically tried to dodge the issue by going on about the right of the police – the armed fist of the capitalist state – to form “unions.” As a cover, it piously requested that “police unions reject racist policing policies and agree to support a purge of the police to remove those with a record of violence and racism in order to remain in or join labor councils” (Socialist Alternative, Summer 2020). Anti-racist police “unions” of these professional strikebreakers and enforcers of racist repression? As if.
The slightly more leftist Left Voice (affiliated internationally with the Trotskyist Fraction), which has been calling (LV, 12 June) to “Defund the Police (to 0!)” – how cute – breathlessly described NYC’s Occupy 2.0 and Seattle’s CHOP as the high points of the “mass uprisings” that have led many to “to question the integrity and even the very existence of the police” (28 June). These were supposedly forms of “self organization” that “could become the nascent forms of an eventual system of dual power capable of seriously challenging the state and winning significant demands.” It added, “May the word revolution once again blossom in the mouths of this new generation.” Waxing lyrical, LV calls upon readers to imagine uniting black and Latino neighborhoods with “workers who control production, distribution and services. Imagine this power now relying on workers’ militias,” etc.
But in all this imagining and romanticizing, Left Voice fails to put forward a program of demands for struggle leading from the current mass protests against racist police terror to overthrowing capitalist rule. By linking “abolition” of the police to “defunding” it, while coyly adding “even if we could defund police departments to zero,” Left Voice tags along after the DSA, aiding the Democrats in coopting protests with their “defunding” ploy rather than exposing this deception and calling clearly for socialist revolution. Revolutionary clarity is the antithesis of these cynical centrists, who with their inveterate tailism and sly word games are counterposed to the rules of Trotsky’s Fourth International, which instructed its members to “face reality squarely ... call things by their right names” and “tell the truth to the masses.”
While liberals and reformists call to “defund the police,” Internationalists called “For the Right of Armed Black Self-Defence,” and to “Smash the Racist Capitalist State Through Workers Revolution!”
In contrast, back when the DSA, AOC, SAlt, LV and Democratic Party pols were calling to “abolish I.C.E.” under capitalism, the Trotskyists of the Internationalist Group, U.S. section of the League for the Fourth International, called to “Smash the I.C.E. Gestapo with Workers Revolution!” (The Internationalist No. 53, September-October 2018). At the June 29 DSA-sponsored demo in New York’s Washington Square Park, when Left Voice joined practically the entire reformist left (FSP, PSL, SAlt, MORE, CPUSA) playing the “defund/abolish the police” game, a Revolutionary Internationalist Youth sign read, “Defund the Police? Smash the Racist Capitalist State Through Workers Revolution.” The IG/RIY banner proclaimed, “The Police Can’t Be Reformed” and called for “Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution.” ■
- 1. Meanwhile, demonstrating that she knows how to “go along to get along,” playing by the rules of bourgeois electoral politics, AOC landed a slot as co-chair of the Biden-Sanders task force on climate change (along with former secretary of state John Kerry), although her signature “Green New Deal” didn’t make the cut.