By Socialist Alternative (our sister organisation in the US)
Two weeks after the dawn of a working-class rebellion, led by young people of color, shook the political establishment to its core, there is a growing discussion about where the movement should go from here. Because of the strength of the movement, the same Democratic Party politicians who presided over the social conditions that led to George Floyd’s murder are now scrambling for headlines by making bold promises for reform.
The movement following George Floyd’s murder is becoming a national crisis for the ruling class (see Socialist Alternative’s recent article). Corporate politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer took a knee for nine minutes, though no amount of African Kente cloth could cover up the Democratic Party’s historic complicity in oppressing communities of color. Even Joe Biden dared to address George Floyd’s daughter at his funeral, though he didn’t apologize to her for his role as a key architect of the modern, deeply racist mass incarceration system.
On Sunday June 5, nine of the twelve sitting Minneapolis City Council Members — which headlines are calling a “veto-proof supermajority” — declared their intention to start a process to “dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department”. This pledge is a sign of the movement’s strength, and this wouldn’t be happening if there wasn’t a determined rebellion on the streets with mass support from the working class. However, this “supermajority” can change under pressure from the state Democratic Party or big business. There’s no actual proposal up for a vote, which is the only reason a “supermajority” is relevant. It’s not clear if the City Council even has the legal authority, never mind the political willpower, to follow through on this. Despite enthusiasm for this among many activists nationally, most people who participated in the Minneapolis uprising are understandably skeptical.
Politicians walk it back
It would be a mistake for the movement to allow the same City Hall that presided over George Floyd’s murder to take the reins now. It’s also provocative that the City Council’s first public appearance to announce this was held in the same park where thousands of working class people met to actually discuss and plan successful community-controlled public safety measures, while City Hall appealed to the Governor to call in the National Guard to arrest protestors.
Within hours of their press conference, many council members were already walking it back and managing expectations. Council President Lisa Bender called the goal “aspirational” on CNN. Some councilmembers are already warning against “lawlessness or anarchy”. Other more skillful politicians are using the same tried and true arguments about “getting the process right” which they used to delay passing a $15/hr minimum wage, and many other progressive initiatives. It shows why we urgently need to keep up the pressure for real, meaningful reform of policing with coordinated mass protests, occupations, and national days of action.
Councilmember Steve Fletcher, who said nothing while big business and the cops relentlessly attacked Ginger Jentzen’s socialist campaign for City Council in 2017 for genuinely addressing police brutality, was the first in City Hall to mention “abolishing the police” on social media. He walked this call back a few days later in an op-ed published in Time magazine, where he credits the movement for raising the issue, but points to the same political establishment that got us here to solve things. For example, he defends the “talented, thoughtful police chief” of the Minneapolis Police Department, and re-casts Mayor Jacob Frey as an ally to the movement whose attempts at reforms were blocked by the police union.
At this point, Mayor Jacob Frey should resign. He’s part of the problem, not the solution. He initially tried to jump in front of the movement by calling on Trump’s FBI and state agencies to lead the investigation into George Floyd’s murder. He stood by as the Hennepin County District Attorney claimed that there was undisclosed “additional evidence” that pointed away from prosecuting all four cops, only to have them quickly file charges after the Third Precinct burned. Then he mobilized the National Guard, whose role amounted to suppressing non-violent protests, targeting journalists, and terrorizing working class people trying to keep the neighborhood safe. This didn’t stop him from taking the opportunity to weep in front of cameras next to George Floyd’s casket.
A few days after George Floyd’s funeral, Mayor Frey was asked point blank at a protest of thousands of people whether or not he would “abolish” the Minneapolis Police Department. He answered “no”, and was correctly booed out of the protest by genuine activists who had spent two weeks facing down rubber bullets, tear-gas and mace to win #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd. However Mayor Frey’s answer illuminates a truth about U.S. capitalism: that structural racism and racist policing are essential tools used by the billionaire class to divide working class people and maintain their class rule. We recognize that in all societies based on economic inequality, the “haves” use violence against the “have nots” to enforce their rule. Even if the current police force were disbanded under capitalism, then the billionaires would find new forces of violence to enforce their racist, sexist system of oppression and exploitation. To end racist repression, we need to end the capitalist system itself that requires it.
However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the important changes to policing that have been forced onto the agenda by the movement. We need to massively defund the Minneapolis Police Department’s bloated budget, which for years has far outmatched funding for affordable housing, social programs and services. Police budgets across the country should be cut by 50% or more. City budgets are a concrete reflection of the priorities of the Democratic Party politicians who run them. In Seattle, Socialist Alternative City Councilmember Kshama Sawant proposes cutting the police budget by half, along with a bold initiative to Tax Amazon to fund permanently affordable social housing, social services, and jobs.
Faced with a rebellion, City Hall is willing to make limited concessions to the demands of the movement, as long as they regain control. They do not want working class people, especially people of color, to directly shape things because they’re afraid this will spiral beyond what’s currently acceptable to big business.
In one illuminating example of a corporate Democrat’s vision of social change, Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender listed her “progressive” achievements as a way to reassure the movement, but left out the massive victory of the $15/hr minimum wage because that movement was willing to defy City Hall, and was led by low-wage workers, especially black and brown workers, unions and socialists.
A working class approach to public safety
The working class people who forced this discussion into the national spotlight (again), especially young people of color, need to have a direct democratic say in managing public safety. Many have already gotten a taste of this at the height of the protests. While the MPD and National Guard focused on terrorizing non-violent protestors, working class communities organized grassroots initiatives to keep each other safe. The National Guard didn’t even stop a speeding semi-truck that plowed through a blockaded highway on live TV while thousands of people protested on the 35W bridge. Instead, the Guard and police used the shock of the semi-truck to help disperse the peaceful march and pepper spray protestors.
The last two weeks have shown how a working class centered movement was better equipped to manage public safety in the middle of a massive crisis, compared to the Democratic Party politicians that did nothing to address the conditions leading to George Floyd’s murder, and then made things worse during the protests (see our article from May 31st for more details).
Time after time City Hall has failed to learn the lessons from brutal police murders, and ignored the advice of activists pushing for change. Too often, debates over the budget result in a minor re-allocation of funds toward consultants or training. These measures are a totally inadequate drop in the bucket compared to the clearly out of control policing being described in every major U.S. city.
Under pressure from a community mobilization with demands to fund programs aimed at decreasing police interaction, the council increased 2020 funding for the “Office of Violence Prevention” but approved a budget that still grew the police department’s overall funding by about five percent from 2019. The City Council puts a tremendous emphasis on “getting along” with each other, rather than on their track record at standing up for working people.
We support non-police based public safety programs and emergency responses though it’s important to point out that expanding mental health programs, domestic violence prevention, and addiction services would not have addressed the crime George Floyd was executed for: being working-class and black living under U.S. capitalism. Other significant steps could include disarming the police and banning the tear gas and other chemical weapons as well as the military hardware used by so many departments.
Of course, socialists understand that communities need protecting and defending, and the deep social problems which exist in all working class communities cannot simply go unaddressed. However, we are confident that the working class, on the basis of asserting its power and ability to govern society, could address and manage these problems in an infinitely more effective, humane and safe manner than the racist U.S. capitalist police force.
The role of the police unions
Many genuine working class people, activists and protestors are correctly pointing out the utterly reactionary role of the local police union. However, we should be wary when corporate Democrats like Mayor Frey and the establishment focus on blaming the police union to deflect from their own role and responsibility. Police racism, violence and impunity are also severe in jurisdictions without police unions. Police unions can strengthen the hand of the reactionary wing of the police as they evade accountability, but it is not the root problem, as the key details in their contracts which protect killer cops are typically ratified by Democratic Party Mayors and City Council Members that run cities across the country.
This in no way means we should excuse away the real role the Minneapolis Police Union has played resisting any efforts at reforms, defending racist and brutal police officers, or continuing to elect a union boss who introduced Trump at a local rally, and who described Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist organization”.
Genuine socialists are more than willing to take a stand against the reactionaries who lead most police unions in the U.S. Socialist Alternative Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant was the only “no” vote against a police contract in 2018 that rolled back accountability. By standing with the black community and activists, Kshama earned the wrath of the other Democratic Party councilmembers, and the conservative labor leadership who claimed the police are “like all workers”, instead of pointing out that a core function of the police is to protect private property and repress workers, including AFL-CIO led strikes.
Unlike Mayor Frey, Kshama Sawant linked her opposition to the SPOG contract to the need for a fully independent, elected oversight board with real teeth, including setting budgets, hiring and firing, etc. In the last two weeks, Kshama has also introduced a proposal to cut the Seattle police budget by half, and to ban the use of chemical weapons on protests.
In Seattle, some member-unions on the King County Labor Council are now working to push the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) out of the local labor federation, and other unions like UFCW and SEIU have passed resolutions placing conditions on the SPOG for their continued affiliation. Similar calls are developing nationally, which are being resisted by the national AFL-CIO. Of course, socialists support the labor movement making every attempt to confront racism within its ranks, but we should be sober about disaffiliation’s impact.
After all, the Minneapolis Police Union has operated independently of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation and the state AFL-CIO since 1927, and the union is thoroughly reactionary. Some police are undoubtedly horrified by the murder of George Floyd. The scenes of officers taking a knee may in some cases be quite genuine (although in other cases police have kneeled as a tactic to generate undeserved sympathy or to catch protesters off guard before teargassing them). However, a far deeper demonstration of the desire to change would be for cops who oppose the reactionaries to become whistleblowers, and organize a real challenge to the reactionary leaderships that dominate police unions across the country.
No police unions should be on labor bodies until they take a stand against racist policing policies, as well as the role of police in breaking strikes and other uprisings. However, movement activists putting too much focus on whether or not police unions are affiliated with local, regional, or national labor bodies avoids the deeper questions of developing a real strategy to fight against racism both in the labor movement and broader society. And this lets the Democratic Party politicians and the conservative leadership of most unions off the hook.
The Labor Movement Needs to Join the Fight
In an AFL-CIO hosted press conference, the leaders of some of the country’s biggest unions had little more to say than, “racism is bad, Trump is bad, please vote.” This is completely unsatisfactory. The needs of the movement cannot wait until November. If the existing labor leadership is not equipped to fully mobilize their membership in the battle against racism, then we need new leadership. We need the most fighting, willing elements in the labor movement to organize to reclaim the unions as real organizations of struggle.
A shining example of what it looks like for the labor movement to actually fight for Black Lives Matter is the socialist-led transit workers union in Minneapolis who — on the very first night of demonstrations — refused to transport protestors to jail. This quickly spread to New York City and Washington D.C. (among other cities) where transit workers have taken a similar stand.
In addition, Socialist Alternative members who work at the post office in Minneapolis spearheaded a solidarity rally with 60 postal workers. They marched from their burned out worksite to the occupation at the site of George Floyd’s murder, boldly declaring that a building can always be rebuilt, but that we can’t rebuild the life of someone murdered by the police.
On June 5, a Minneapolis grocery worker and Socialist Alternative member organized her entire shift to walk off the job for 8 minutes and 45 seconds. These work stoppages spread to healthcare workers, and to larger industrial unions like the ILWU dock workers. In Seattle, where Trump is now threatening to send in the military to quell an ongoing occupation in Capitol Hill which threatens to bring down Mayor Durkan’s administration, unions like electrical workers’ IBEW Local 46 are supporting members who participate in calls for a one day strike on June 12th.
These actions are essential for building the strength and confidence of working class people to organize wider strike actions, which can bring the working class directly into the struggle at the point of production. We need to show our power and build the movement with a nationally coordinated 8 minute and 46 second general strike on June 19th (Juneteenth).
“You Can’t Have Capitalism without Racism” — Malcolm X
Policing under U.S. capitalism is more militarized, more violent and more racist than any other advanced capitalist country. One reason for this is the particularly violent history of U.S. capitalism, which was built on the foundations of slavery, genocide of indigenous peoples, and the brutal repression of workers, necessitating huge levels of state repression. This legacy is alive and well today, with black people facing disproportionate levels of police violence, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, poverty wages, unemployment, and deaths from COVID-19.
This shows how a multi-racial working class movement, not Minneapolis City Council, is the key force to fight against racist police violence while at the same time building a movement to address the underlying structural inequalities which the police act to defend.
The police and courts benefit the rich. For example, a 2017 study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that in the ten most populous states, an estimated 2.4 million people lose a combined $8 billion in income every year to different forms of wage theft by their employers. That’s nearly half as much as all other property theft combined, according to FBI stats from 2018.
American capitalism will always need some form of repressive force to protect people like Jeff Bezos, who is on course to become the world’s first trillionaire while 40 million people are unemployed. The ruling class understands the rage and contempt the vast majority has for their wealth and privilege, so they rely on tools like racist repression to keep people divided. Minneapolis City Council and Mayor Frey, as the local administrators of capitalism, are no different. They need a police force, though they are openly questioning whether or not the Minneapolis Police Department in its current form can even regain public confidence to maintain order.
While we need a top-to-bottom purge of police forces across the country, where officers with histories of racism, sexism, and violence should be immediately fired by democratically accountable community oversight boards, we need to fight to tax billionaires and corporations to build permanently affordable socially-owned housing, a green jobs program, quality public schools, free transit, and healthcare for all.
One of the main obstacles to this will be the Democratic Party, which is tied by a million threads to billionaires, corporations and cops. This is why we need to build a new party for working class people, that unapologetically represents social justice movements in hostile city halls, like what Kshama Sawant does in Seattle. Recently, after leading a march from a rally in Capitol Hill, Kshama Sawant opened the doors to Seattle City Hall for an ongoing occupation, calling on Mayor Durkan to resign for failing to address the need for deep, structural changes to policing in Seattle, instead blaming peaceful protests for police violence.
Furthermore, socialists argue that dismantling policing means dismantling capitalism itself. To achieve this, we need to build an explicitly revolutionary party that links the current struggles against police brutality to the need for a society run by working people, not corporations and billionaires. A central task of a workers government, where key corporations are brought into public ownership and working class people have democratic control of the economy, is to combat the racist legacy of slavery, imperialism and inequality of all forms, and create the conditions for a society truly free from racist policing, exploitation and oppression. This will include working class communities organizing their own safety and protection.
The process of dismantling the police, prisons and state repression generally is intertwined with the process of ending and moving beyond capitalism, and establishing a truly egalitarian, classless socialist society. This will not be done by Minneapolis City Council, but through the conscious organization of working class people into a revolutionary movement. Join Socialist Alternative Today!
Socialist Alternative calls for:
Mayor Frey resign — No trust in City Hall — Launch an elected community-led commission to purge the MPD, and create an elected civilian board with real teeth, including control over hiring, firing, budgets, enforcement priorities, and the power to subpoena. Spread this model nationally.
Defund MPD — Community control over public safety — Tax the rich to invest in green jobs, social programs, public education, and permanently affordable social housing. Cut MPD’s budget by half. Fund alternative emergency response methods and hire workers in mental health services, additional specialists, and social workers — well paid with the right to a union.
Build a political alternative to the Democratic Party — In cities across the country, Democratic Party politicians are responsible for racist policing, a lack of affordable housing, underfunded schools and expensive, inadequate public transit. We need independent, working class, movement based candidates who are prepared to take on big business and the cops.
An injury to one is an injury to all — Unions should fully mobilize their memberships to the protests, assist with solidarity contingents to protect the protests from riot police and vigilantes, and lay plans for a nationally coordinated 8 minute and 46 second general strike on Juneteenth (June 19)!
Dismantling the police means dismantling capitalism — Police violence is part and parcel of the capitalist system, which rests on structural racism and inequality. A society without police repression, can only be built on socialist foundations, where the economy is democratically controlled to improve the lives of all.