Hammer, Sickle and Four logo
The Internationalist
  September 2017

Cops, Prison and Security Guards Out of the Labor Movement!

DSA Debacle Over Cop “Union” Organizer

Danny Fetonte (front left), together with Bernie Sanders. Fetonte, who was long-time leader of the Austin, Texas branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, was for years an organizer for a cop “union,” the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT). Police are the enforcers of racist capitalist repression. Cops, prison and security guards out of the unions! (Photo: Austin DSA)

In early August, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) held a national convention in Chicago that caused a sensation among the reformist left and got oodles of favorable publicity in much of the mainstream bourgeois press. Long a staid and seemingly moribund pressure group on and in the Democratic Party, the DSA boasts of rising to 25,000 members and growing due to the combined impact of Bernie Sanders’ bid to win the Democratic nomination and the election of Donald Trump. The DSA has sought to give itself a more “progressive” makeover appealing to its new millennial base, even as these social democrats repeatedly called the cops on an Internationalist sales team for selling revolutionary literature outside the convention (see the introduction to “The ABCs of the DSA,” The Internationalist, August 2017). 

Then came the Danny Fetonte scandal. A long-time leader of the DSA’s Austin, Texas branch, Fetonte was elected to the organization’s National Political Committee at this year’s convention. Endorsed by vice-chair Joseph Schwartz and other DSA leaders, Fetonte put particular emphasis on the growth of the Austin chapter and his role in “building the Bernie Campaign,” noting that “37 out of the 75 Bernie delegates to the Democratic National Convention from Texas were DSA members,” as well as touting his “years as a union organizer” (“NPC Candidates,” dsaconvention.org).

Less than a week after the DSA’s convention closed in a crescendo of self-congratulation, the group erupted in full-blown crisis over the “revelation” that Fetonte’s vaunted organizing career included working for a cop “union,” the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT). In fact, Fetonte’s role as an organizer for CLEAT was far from a secret. Publicity about his activity in the Sanders campaign touted his CLEAT connection, as reflected in articles in the Austin Villager (11 December 2015) and American-Statesman (15 August 2016).

Logo of Texas police “union.”

Yet for many new members, it came as a shock, particularly since the DSA convention had just passed a resolution for “abolition of the prisons and the police.” While such a call is completely illusory without socialist revolution, it reflected the widespread revulsion against racist police terror that led to mass protests after the cop murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and so many others. Many DSAers worried that Fetonte’s election would hurt work with “coalition partners” in Black Lives Matter.

Over the following weeks the Fetonte affair tied the DSA in knots, while also shedding an uncomfortable light on the crowd of opportunist leftists doggedly tailing them. Amidst the myriad statements and counter-statements by groupings within the DSA, a common theme was what a group of labor bureaucrats described, in a statement supporting Fetonte, as “DSA’s image as a ‘big tent’ that does not seek to impose stringent ideological litmus tests on its members.” In the anti-communist social-democratic milieu, this is contrasted to the supposed evils of Leninist “democratic centralism.”

As Rosa Luxemburg emphasized in Reform or Revolution, the counterposition between revolutionary Marxism and social-democratic reformism centers precisely on the question of the state. The idea that cops – the armed fist of the bourgeoisie – are “workers,” and that organizations devoted to representing their interests are “labor unions,” is characteristic of social democracy. It is the ideological reflection of social democrats’ role as real or would-be administrators of the capitalist state.

Cops of all kinds are not workers – they are professional enforcers of racist capitalist repression. Marxists fight for the elementary demand: Cops, prison and security guards out of the unions!

Post-Convention Turmoil

DSAers vote at convention, August 4, with Danny Fetonte in the foreground. Meanwhile, DSA social democrats called the cops on Trotskyists selling revolutionary literature on the public sidewalk. (Photo: Scott Heins)

Many members of the DSA learned of the Fetonte scandal as they were traveling home from the Chicago convention. On August 8, the Interim Steering Committee elected by the new National Political Committee (NPC) issued a statement declaring that it would “investigate the facts of the matter” and was “moving towards a solution that emphasizes due process and transparency.” Some DSA members started an online petition opposing Fetonte; a number of local chapters and groupings within the organization submitted protests calling on Fetonte to resign or be removed from the NPC. Many of these calls focused on Fetonte’s failure to mention his CLEAT connection in his 2017 NPC campaign materials – though at a raucous Austin meeting on the scandal, his wife reportedly stated he had done so when running for the NPC in 2015.

Fetonte lashed out with denunciations of the leadership for showing “no moral courage” in the face of these demands. This complicated things for the DSA tops. They knew that as a minimum to appease the membership they would need to “censure” Fetonte, and tried mightily to negotiate with Fetonte to get him to resign so that they would not have to vote on his removal from the NPC. The negotiations did not work, Fetonte refused to acknowledge any deception or “wrongdoing.” In fact, Fetonte wrote, “some NPC members were afraid that what would come out is that they knew every bit of my history working for CLEAT,” as “there was ample evidence that my work history and my connections with law enforcement were widely known.” Moreover, he stated, “Texas DSA has at least a dozen members who organize or work with law enforcement” and “has a past NPC member ” (whom he did not identify) who “organized police and correctional officers” while serving on the NPC.

Reflecting his links with much of the DSA’s old guard, Fetonte positioned himself as a defender of the organization’s mission of pressuring the Democrats: “I gained votes by a strong advocacy for a DSA strategy of working inside and outside the Democratic Party and opposed the position that DSA should only support socialist candidates. I gained support because I opposed DSA isolating ourselves from the millions of Bernie supporters” who are working together “with other progressive[s] in the Democratic Party.” Though just about everybody weighing in on the question swore fealty to the social-democratic framework of “big tent” reformism, Fetonte sought to portray his opponents as the sort of dreaded “sectarians” and “dogmatists” that DSAers are taught to revile, denouncing them as leftist “extremists.”

On August 27, the NPC issued a statement announcing that it had voted to censure Fetonte but that a vote to remove him from the body had failed by a vote of 8.5 to 7.5; 11 votes would have been needed to oust him. The statement censures Fetonte for “omitting what would likely have been relevant information in his campaign materials” but states that the NPC did not find him guilty of any “malfeasance” that would be grounds for removal. Strikingly, among those backing the decision were some key figures of the DSA “left,” including two of the three members of the Momentum Caucus (which claims to be Marxist) on the NPC. Additionally, a “Statement by DSA Members of Color” cited the “pluralistic” nature of the DSA and the fact that “we are not a democratic centralist organization” as grounds for declaring that “we support the NPC’s decision not to remove [Fetonte] for malfeasance.”

A minority of the NPC issued a statement criticizing the decision as “a stunning failure of leadership on [the] part of those on the NPC who were unable to act decisively on an issue that gets to the core values of what it means to be a socialist and fight against racist oppression in our society. Those members chose to seat an unapologetic police association organizer – an institution of violence and terror against Black and Brown and working class people since its inception.” At the same time, the NPC minority’s declaration that “an unapologetic police association organizer cannot be anywhere near the leadership of a socialist organization” tacitly accepts that cop “union” members or promoters could be in the DSA so long as they’re not on leadership bodies.

In a sharply-worded description of the turmoil over Fetonte, a disgruntled New Mexico DSAer wrote:

“Finally, after some dawdling, the NPC voted to keep him. This isn’t surprising.... First, the DSA’s origins aren’t as far left as many believe. To be crude, Michael Harrington founded the organization in the 1970s to force the Democrats further left. Look at the Democratic Party. Teddy Roosevelt on horseback in the Spanish-American War is farther to the left than the Democratic Party. And having police collaborators on the NPC wouldn’t be a first for the DSA.”
–“How the DSA Screwed Up with Danny Fetonte,” pastemagazine.com (1 September)

True enough – as the history of Harrington, his “State Department Socialist” colleague and mentor Norman Thomas et al. amply demonstrates. But how many of those revolted by this episode, and this history, can make the necessary break from social democracy to embrace revolutionary Marxism remains to be seen.

As for Fetonte, the cop organizer evidently decided to cut his losses and try to have the last word. On September 8 he issued a letter of resignation from the DSA in which he petulantly portrays himself as the victim of “factionalists” and “DSA extremists” (sic!) with “less than one year” in the organization. Underscoring his pro-cop stand, he admonishes: “We should look to the examples of law enforcement organizations in Sweden and the law enforcement union in South Africa.” In Sweden, police snatch squads have been resisted as they go after youths in immigrant neighborhoods of Stockholm (most recently this past February) and Malmö (on September 8). In South Africa, the POPCRU police “union” has defended the killer cops who gunned down dozens of striking mine workers in the 2012 Marikana massacre (see “Bloody South Africa Mine Massacre Unmasks ANC Neo-Apartheid Regime,” The Internationalist, August 2012).

While many in the DSA no doubt hope to return to patting themselves on the back for a “successful” convention, “stunning” growth and the like, the issues posed in the Fetonte affair will not go away. For starters, in New York City the DSA is proudly proclaiming its central role in the City Council election campaign of Khader El-Yateem, a DSA member running in the Democratic primaries in Brooklyn in what his campaign manager calls “a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party” (Village Voice, 5 September). El-Yateem is a clergy liaison for the New York Police Department. At a public forum on the election last spring, he “called on NYPD to allocate more police officers to the 68th Precinct in Bay Ridge, which he said was chronically understaffed, so that more cops could patrol the streets” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 20 April).

In addition,  DSA member Marc Fliedner is running for District Attorney in Brooklyn (Village Voice, 8 September). Fliedner has been an Assistant D.A. for almost 30 years and praised his former boss, D.A. Charles Hynes, notorious for numerous bogus convictions in which evidence was manufactured or withheld, and accusations of racist favoritism. District attorneys are linchpins of the police-prosecutor-prison system of capitalist state repression, and now a DSAer is trying to fill that slot.

Police “Unions”: Deadly Enemies of the Working Class

As the Class Struggle Education Workers (CSEW), which is fraternally allied with the Internationalist Group, stated in a 2014 pamphlet, police, prison guards and security guards:

“are not fellow workers but the bosses’ agents of repression – ‘producers’ only of repression for the owning class against the working class, poor and oppressed. Whether public or private, proprietary or contract, police and guards of all kinds seek ‘unionization’ to improve and strengthen their position to ‘do their job’ of repression, which in the racist USA, founded on slavery, falls most heavily on doubly and triply oppressed African American, Latino and immigrant poor and working people and youth.”

The pamphlet notes that the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA) filed suit even against the toothless “anti-profiling” law enacted in New York City in 2013, and that “for years, contracts negotiated by the PBA included the notorious ‘48-hour rule,’ which required the city to wait two full days before questioning officers involved in ‘police-related occurrences’ – like shooting down black and Latino youth” (Campus Protest, Capitalist “Security” and the Program of Class Struggle).

Internationalist Group and Class Struggle Education Workers at August 2014 Staten Island, New York protest over police murder of Eric Garner. Reformists called for “unity" with the PBA, the phony police “union” defending the racist killer cops. (Internationalist photo)

In contrast, liberals and social-democratic reformists routinely support the police. In August 2014, following the racist police murder of Eric Garner, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE), an opposition caucus in the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), refused to support a protest march in Staten Island and issued a statement grotesquely calling for “the leaderships of the UFT and PBA to find ways to work together and unite” with “our brother and sister officers.” In contrast, the CSEW marched with signs denouncing racist police terror and the threats of the fascistic PBA chief Pat Lynch to defend the cops who chokeholded Garner to death (see “MORE Takes a Stand … With the Police,” in The Internationalist No. 38, October-November 2014).

It comes as no surprise that in Texas, the CLEAT cop “union” boasts that “effective legal representation” for police is one of the main benefits it offers. The statement on Fetonte by the minority of the DSA NPC noted:

“Fetonte had a direct hand in building police association power which was used by killer cops to cover for their actions. Fetonte organized the Bexar County Sheriff Deputies and successfully bargained a contract that included terms allowing officers under investigation to see all evidence before making a statement. Officers in the department Fetonte organized used that contract he negotiated to view all evidence against them after they shot and killed a man. They then made statements which omitted the fact that the man they shot had his hands up. It wasn't until another video was released later that the truth came out, but to no effect. That was police union power in action, power which Fetonte helped to organize.”

Moreover, “during the time Fetonte worked at CLEAT, an officer raped a handcuffed woman in the back of a squad car and the officer’s CLEAT local spent $1 million dollars in a public campaign to prevent changes to the police union contract that would’ve held the rapist accountable....”

The statement notes that CLEAT opposes “even the most tepid of reform legislation, including the Sandra Bland Act which would’ve put limits on racial profiling by police” and “is currently supporting a bill which would limit the liability of motorists who hit protesters with their vehicles.” What this means is shown by the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville by a Nazi who rammed his car into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters.

CUNY Internationalist Clubs at 7 July 2016 New York protest against racist police murder of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  Trotskyists say: “Police Can't Be Reformed – Workers Revolution to Stop Killer Cops!”
(Internationalist photo)

In “doing their job” of representing the interests of capitalism’s uniformed enforcers, police “unions” are, and can only be, deadly enemies of the most basic interests of the working class and oppressed. The “special bodies of armed men” that, as Friedrich Engels pointed out, are the core of the capitalist state, cannot be reformed, and the idea that police and prisons could be abolished under capitalism is the sort of feel-good reformist illusion that stands in the way of the struggle to actually smash the machinery of racist repression in the only way possible: through socialist revolution.

In Brazil, our comrades of the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil led a struggle to oust guardas (police) from the Municipal Workers Union of Volta Redonda, the “Steel City” with a history of convulsive workers struggles. (See Internationalist pamphlet Class Struggle and Repression in Volta Redonda Brazil – Cops, Courts Out of the Unions [1997].) In Latin America, as in the U.S., reformists often claim that police are “workers in uniform,” going so far as to support “strikes” by the Military Police and military firemen in Brazil, police mutinies in Bolivia, etc. The same line is taken by social democrats in France, Sweden and other European countries, who have often taking the lead in organizing “unions” of the police forces they administer when their capitalist masters let them take their turn in office.

Brazilian Trotskyists waged hard struggle to oust police from municipal workers union in Volta Redonda, Brazil. At July 1996 rally, signs say: “Bourgeois courts, get out of our union,” “Bosses’ courts, military police and municipal guardas out of the union.”
(Photo: LQB)

Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky responded to similar arguments raised by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany, which took on the task of administering capitalism’s repressive forces when defeat in World War I faced the ruling class with the threat of red revolution. (It was then that SPD leaders Friedrich Ebert, Philipp Scheidemann and their “bloodhound” Gustav Noske ordered the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.) As the social democrats looked to the Prussian police, which included quite a few former social-democratic workers, to resist the rise of Hitler’s Nazis, Trotsky emphasized, “The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state is a bourgeois cop, not a worker” (What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat [1932]).

Military police “strike” in the state of Alagoas, Brazil, in July 1997. Trotskyists said, “cops out” while social democrats supported mutiny of these professional assassins. (Photo: Marco Antônio/AP)

Today, the Fetonte affair poses a bit of a dilemma for left groups seeking to ingratiate themselves with the DSA. All of them chimed in with the chorus of exaltation over the DSA conference, hailing the social democrats’ growth, “moves to the left,” etc., while mixing in a suggestion here, a bit of face-saving criticism there. In one way or another, they seek to avoid having the DSA monopolize the opportunist benefits of being “Sanders socialists,” hoping that cozying up to the DSA – while positioning themselves a wee bit to the left on the social-democratic spectrum – will help them get in on the action.

The most prominent of these outfits is Socialist Alternative (SAlt), best known for its thoroughly reformist “socialist city councilperson” in Seattle, Kshama Sawant. SAlt – which holds that cops are workers – puts forward a recipe for police “reform” in which “elected civilian review boards” would take responsibility for the “priorities” and budget of capitalism’s police apparatus. As we noted, in 2014 Sawant

“praised the process of hiring a new police chief, saying it was ‘positive … that a woman will be at the head of what has been and still is a male-dominated bastion.’ She hailed the new top cop’s ‘openness’ and ‘commitment to build a relationship with the community,’ as well as her ‘tiered approach for policing protests,’ so that riot police will only be deployed ‘if absolutely necessary’.”
–“Black America Under the Gun,” The Internationalist No. 48, May-June 2017

The position of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), to which SAlt is affiliated, that police are supposedly workers is shared by the International Marxist Tendency, which likewise has its origins in the Militant tendency of Ted Grant, which buried itself in the British Labour Party for four decades. Their position on cops is far from abstract: both the CWI and the IMT hark back to the days when Grant’s Militant Labour ran the Liverpool city council in the 1980s, when claiming the cops were “fellow workers” was all in a day’s work (see “Her Majesty’s Social Democrats in Bed with the Police,” The Internationalist No. 29, Summer 2009).

Even some groupings that have taken up the call for police out of the unions (like Left Voice, associated with the right-centrist Fracción Trotskista led by the Argentine Partido de Trabajadores por el Socialismo) evade the question of security guards, who are “unionized” by the Service Employees International Union, among others. For its part, while laudably issuing a call in 2015 for the AFL-CIO to break its affiliation to the International Union of Police Associations, United Auto Workers Local 2865 (which represents student employees at the University of California) did not call for removing security guards from the labor movement.

Yet as the Class Struggle Education Workers pamphlet demonstrates in detail, security guards are a key sector of the bourgeoisie’s repressive forces that works closely with the “regular” police. Moreover, the pamphlet notes, “in many circumstances, the ‘private’ basis of their authority enhances security guards’ legal powers”: among other things, they are not required to read Miranda rights to those they detain.

The Fetonte episode is a vivid illustration of a simple fact: the DSA is not, has never been and never will be a means to overthrow this capitalist system of racist police terror, war and exploitation. However much it seeks to accommodate its new millennial base, the DSA’s politics remain thoroughly reformist – in other words, a means for accommodating would-be radicals to the capitalist state, as it seeks endlessly to pressure the Democratic Party to the left. Illusions that an influx of new members would “transform” the DSA crashed into reality just days after its biggest convention ever.

The flare-up over Fetonte should bring home to thoughtful activists the bankruptcy of groups that use “socialist” as a buzzword while disdaining the key questions of principle, program and history that have divided reformists from revolutionaries since the days of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. For those who actually do want to fight for socialism, it’s high time to ditch the DSA. ■