Police brutality and the Left
Platypus Review 129 | September 2020
On July 11, 2020, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a virtual panel discussion with Gerald Smith (Oscar Grant Committee), Larry Holmes (Workers World Party), Andrea Pritchett (Berkeley Copwatch), and Conrad Cartmell (DSA, Class Unity Caucus). What follows is an edited transcript of the event. The full video of the event can be found at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwf1_df6FiA>.
Andrea Pritchett: When Berkley Copwatch started 30 years ago, we were much more about resistance at street-level interaction. Our analysis and methods have change along with technology and methods of holding police accountable. People have developed a lot of different approaches, from the point of observing police brutality and asking questions about the role of police in society. We never considered ourselves a revolutionary organisation. I think of us as a as a training ground, as a curriculum. People have taken that experience of seeing how the police operate into other movements.
We run counter to the 911 campaign, calling the police for everything you see. We said, “Let’s see what we can manage on our own.” We patrolled South Berkley, an historically political area, where the People’s Park riots and the battles around the anti-war campaigns of the 60s took place. In the ’90s, full scale gentrification was happening, intended to displace unhoused people, poor people, youth of colour and activists from that area.
When we started, America did not perceive a problem with policing. Those were the Clinton years: 100, 000 more cops on the street and the incredible proliferation of the prison industrial complex. Reagan initially brought in the idea of privatised prisons. It grew exponentially under Clinton. In 1992, we experienced the riots related to the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King.
The difference between then and now is that the response then was not broadly linked to an analysis of the inequities in America. People said, yes there’s racism in the judicial system or there’s these bad apples. The analysis was very short lived. Out of all the riots and the property destruction, eight proposals made it to the state legislature to “reform policing”, none of which passed. The 90s continued to see 20 new prisons built for one university.
Each time the police killed someone we said, “Oh an incident!”, and would form the “justice for whomever” campaign. The courts would dictate the timeline of our movement. When they didn’t file charges against the killer cop, we said, “Let’s get a new District Attorney.” We kept going down this road.
Many revolutionaries would have nothing to do with that. They were good at supporting the family. The Revolutionary Communist Party and others helped to create Families Against Murder by Law Enforcement. But there was not a broad call for a revolution. People didn’t feel like that was going to happen imminently. There was a disconnect: we stand in solidarity with the families, but we don’t have any remedy to offer you short of revolution. That was frustrating for me. It felt like we weren’t able to build organisers and build the movement in that way, because we weren’t offering things to do other than cop-watching, which is not the courtroom timeline but it’s not revolution.
With the murder of Oscar Grant, I didn’t want to go down the same road again. Our response was to try to create an Oakland Copwatch, to give people a tangible way to participate in resisting encroaching police power, or at least putting it in check or being able to communicate about it accurately and broadly.
I credit all those activists who were part of the abolitionist movement. Critical resistance started in ’98. At one time, abolition seemed ludicrous. Now we see that it’s where we need to go. Now all kinds of reforms are being proposed and we’re being asked to sign on to this and that, but we cannot allow this moment of reform to be de-coupled from deep, structural and fundamental economic reform, because, if we’ve learnt anything, we know that police brutality and police conduct is about maintaining the class structure.
Larry Holmes: In this uprising, people have come out in capitals all around the world. It’s unlike anything that’s ever happened in my lifetime, and I’ve been around. It is unique in many ways: people are pulling down confederate statues and statues of Christopher Columbus, and burning down a Police Station in Minneapolis. Usually when it happens, they send in the 81st airborne or the marines and just shut down the city, but they were not able to do that because of the political equation. Progressives and radicals inside the organised labour movement have opened up a struggle to push the police out of the organised labour movement. That’s a big step because the police are not workers. The police are there to beat down the working class, starting first with the most oppressed.
The Bernie Sanders movement had a lot of good aspects, but it did not make the struggle against the police, racism and white supremacy central. That was an enormous mistake. It is not the only tendency in the working-class movement around the world where the working class and economic issues are pitted against fighting racism and white supremacy, when in fact these are linked. The most advanced in the working class should be leading these struggles. We should have had a general strike in support of this uprising, but that’s not where the organised labour movement is now.
This is not a one-dimensional uprising. It’s fuelled by the Covid pandemic and the greatest capitalist economic crisis in history. The liberal bourgeoisie are running over each other to try to co-opt this, saying all sorts of nice things on CNN, because they’re worried that the uprising will spread to other issues like mass evictions, which we’re expecting in this country, and depression-level unemployment.
I prefer “abolish the police” to “defund the police”, and there was a time community control of police was big, which I understood and supported—as long as you do not make those demands the enemy of a revolutionary orientation. We have to get rid of the entire system, otherwise this problem will not stop. We have to see everything in the context of the death agony of the capitalist system. When I was a young revolutionary, reference to the end of the system was the high point of militant rhetoric. That’s not true anymore; it’s happening as we speak. All of us who consider ourselves revolutionaries have to re-calibrate our minimalist expectations.
It is time to prepare for a revolutionary upsurge and trying to be in the leadership of it or at least playing a helpful role. The Democratic Party in this country and the social democratic parties don’t want it. They want to co-opt the struggle and side-track, but we have to put “ending the system” in a more serious way, not just rhetorically because this is the situation that we face.
Many from my generation were revolutionary; I still am, I believe. But because things were difficult and the period was reactionary, they lost the fervour for the revolution and they lowered their expectations to winning progressive things. I think that’s part of the generational problem that you see today. The millennials are raising hell, pulling down statues. But people of a certain age don’t know what to do, because this has surprised them.
Conrad Cartmell: I am a Millennial in the DSA, so it will be interesting to get an impression of how these protests fit into the longer history of these events. It’s been half a decade since the Ferguson and Baltimore protests of 2014-2015. One would imagine that that would be enough time for the American Left to develop a battle-tested stance on police brutality, but sadly, like many other things, that has not been the case. In the intervening time, it has fallen to the Democrats to articulate a programmatic response to the problem; they have done so extremely successfully from their perspective, all despite the fact that those very same Democrats are the ones that control the municipalities that oversee America’s largest police forces. This has resulted in a number of highly lucrative media careers for a small subset of antiracist opinion setters, as well as an enormous constellation of NGOs with a renewed focus on purging America's universities, industries, and nonprofits of “institutional racism”.
Hal Draper remarked in Anatomy of the Micro-Sect that on the American left, the term “‘[m]ovement” is often used to describe something that does not exist in organized form; … as an abbreviation for scattered ... elements that often do not “move” at all.’ Not much has changed since 1973. In all of this, the Left has taken highly variable approaches to the problem. In aggregate, these strategies, centered around protest, introspection, small municipal pressure campaigns, and impassioned public antiracist rhetoric tend in aggregate to produce a movement that exists to serve only as the “radical” end of the dominant Democrat response. The Left serves up bodies to plan “actions”, staff NGOs, conduct training, and lead by example in public declarations of their own racist failings and need to “do better”. All the while, self-styled socialists run active interference against attempts to subvert the reductive narratives promulgated by the Democrats and their agents for why police brutality persists as a feature of working and sub-working-class life.
This obfuscation takes a number of forms. One notable such tack is the common insistence that the latest set of protests and riots constitute a “working class” movement. That only serves to conjure something that socialists wish for, but does not exist.
Socialists within DSA have abandoned any pretense to the historical specificity of modern police brutality. Instead, they generally acquiesce to the notion that the almost daily tragedies that we witness today are a simple continuation of what they take to be a foundational principle of American society: racism. According to this analysis, the causative throughline from slavery and its associated patrols, convict leasing, segregation, and now mass incarceration and police brutality is the transhistorical category of racism, or, if they need to account for the almost universal condemnation of such attitudes today, structural racism, institutional racism, etc. Such maneuvers move the fight against police brutality from the question of specific institutional forms to a primordial set of malign attitudes held deeply within all of us.
Socialists sacrifice the centerpieces of what has historically been their critique on the altar of progressive respectability. As Cedric Johnson has demonstrated, the rise of the modern American carceral state mirrors the rise of neoliberalism, and with it the need to cheaply manage a growing reserve army of labor; one that just so happens to be as multi-racial as the rest of America. As I have noted elsewhere, this sacrifice ends up “attack[ing] the very basis of a socialist political project, which is to forge working class unity” in opposition to capitalism. Treating demands like the right to live life unmolested by the violent and often arbitrary police state as if they are demands of a specific race papers over this fact of the matter: the police exist to protect the social order of capitalism, and to do this they must threaten to mete out equal violence to all those who are ill-served by that social order. A confident and strong Left would lead with this analysis against that of the progressive Democrats, secure in the knowledge of both its superior explanatory power and its potential to unite a broad swath of working class people behind it out of something other than a sense of charity. Far from representing a moment that can be built upon towards socialist ends, the protests represent what happens when there is no alternative. They are expressions of political despair.
Embarrassing displays like the recent Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone phenomenon are a faint echo of the failed experiments in public “occupation” from the last decade. Side by side, there appeared calls to abolish the entire criminal justice system as well as the tiniest (but desirable) of reforms, such as expungement of criminal records for marijuana offences. Apparently, no thought was given to who would expunge these offences after the criminal justice system had been destroyed. Victory can ultimately be declared when any of the positions – no matter how piecemeal and inconsequential – are adopted, with any questions about what social force implemented them conveniently swept under the rug.
Reframing defeats as victories is taking place as we speak on a much wider scale. Since at least 2017, prison and police abolition has been a matter of much excitement on the Left. However, in the moment that this portion of the Left seems to have been waiting for, this demand is subtly transformed into a call to defund the police, no matter whether by technical adjustments by the ruling class, austerity measures, or genuine responses to public pressure.
One strategy in DSA is to go into the protests to earn the trust of the activists that are participating in them, and thus draw them into the organization where they can be turned into socialists; another holds that it would be presumptive for DSA to try to exert influence over the events given its racial composition. For them, the protests represent an opportunity to take on leaders from racial minority backgrounds, particularly those who are female or of minority general or sexual orientation. This completely concedes the socialist critique in an attempt to ingratiate the organization to social justice “leaders” who may lack a democratic constituency or a socialist analysis. Are committed progressive activists and their admirers more amenable to our outlook than others? The answer to this question is unclear. But the bigger issue is that the people who want to use the protests to recruit generally accept the premise that the protests themselves are doomed to failure, as a real social movement would need a more structured way of making decisions, keeping people involved, providing education, and exerting authority. Adorno noted in his Marginalia to Theory and Praxis that
“Solidarity with a cause whose ineluctable failure is discernible may yield up some exquisite narcissistic gain; in itself the solidarity is as delusional as the praxis of which one comfortably awaits approbation, which most likely will be recanted in the next moment because no sacrifice of intellect is ever enough for the insatiable claims of inanity.”
The sacrifice of criticism necessary to take the latest protests to be the basis for a socialist project – rather than an infusion of energy into the Democrats and their private sector affiliates – is too great to bear.
The police patrol the discontents of class society. In order for their excesses to be diminished, the discontents must be pacified through other means. In order for their excesses to be eliminated, class society must be brought to a close.
Gerald Smith: All things that are false and based on lying should disappear. Unfortunately, we see much of the Left has disappeared. I agree with Conrad: maybe this is good, let’s clear the field, because some of these so-called socialists are obstacles. But we have to look at it dialectically. They do carry out education, they do try to do positive things, and some of it adds up to something.
The Oscar Grant Committee participates in everybody’s struggle. We are opposed to sectarianism, because this is life and death. There is a contradiction in the pandemic. On the one hand, we’re trying to shelter in-place; on the other hand, we feel like busting loose! They just killed this poor guy! In the Oscar Grant Committee, we say, put on your mask, gloves and goggles, and let’s struggle!
I agree with Andrea that the police cannot be reformed. I’m in a minority in the Oscar Grant Committee, because I have been favorable towards the defunding people. Working-class people say, “If you ain’t gonna have the police, who are we gonna call? You?” We can’t pretend: only about 16% of the population supports the defunding of the police. You can’t reform the police because you cannot reform the capitalist state. It exists for a reason: it is a repressive apparatus that the 1% cannot survive without.
To abolish the police, we have to smash the existing state, and that will require a socialist revolution. People think we are in the midst of it now. We are not. This is not a revolutionary situation because we are missing a main ingredient: the revolutionary party that workers recognize as their party. While I support the enthusiasm of the youth, it is already co-opted by the opportunist politicians.
In almost every big city in the United States, Democratic Party mayors are the bosses of the racist killer cops. It is urgently necessary to build a revolutionary workers’ party. Justice for George Floyd and all those killed by the racist system can only be achieved by socialist revolution, which alone can bring down the murderous capitalist state, and open the way back for Black freedom, and the liberation of all oppressed and exploited people.
Responses and Q&A
AP: Sometimes I get frustrated with the revolutionary Left because they expect that we can’t do anything until the revolution comes. Within those failed experiments of occupations or sit-ins, real people are getting political education. If we absent ourselves from those situations, you can see all kinds of bad theory and analysis. That’s why it’s so important that we get our hands dirty, sit on those steps, engage in conversation and allow ourselves to be changed.
What would you say to young people who are protesting now? What are some of the limitations of the current protests?
AP: There are some contradictions, which create bottlenecks. For example, to remedy the exclusion of people of color and the disempowerment of African Americans in Leftist political circles, and the racism and arrogance of white activists, we talk about centering black leadership, but I’m still struggling with what that means, because the formations of our organizations are not necessarily democratic. I understand that within normal “democratic Leftist circles,” the racial dynamics often work to the exclusion of people of color; but sometimes there are formations that have black leaders who don’t have politics that other black leaders would agree with. I’m not sure what principles should govern the creation of our organizations and coalitions. If you don’t like consensus, what principles of representation are acceptable?
If we’re not forging alliance and community support, we’re mere rhetoric, and we won’t have credibility in our local communities to make the kind of changes we say that we want. If we don’t want the police, we have to account for community safety. As I lay in my bed the other night, I heard five shots. Do I phone the police, or am I supposed to go out there and handle this? You know what? We are! If we talk about good pedagogy, what are we teaching, what are we learning from the actual experience of trying to build this revolutionary force that’s gonna take power? We have to prepare to take power.
Larry, has police brutality been the same for four-hundred years, or has the past forty years presented a more specific problem?
LH: The police exist as a pillar for capitalist rule. Their origins are in chasing freed slaves. To know that is to know a lot about the police. They uphold white supremacy and everything that’s connected to capitalism.
But the police have taken an even more dangerous turn following the 2008 financial crisis. In Ferguson, they had tanks! All that is about preparing for revolutionary upsurges.
I agree with Conrad that most of the people in the protest probably didn’t see themselves as the working class, or that they were fighting in the interests of the working class. You can’t get around that political problem. But sociologically, the overwhelming majority of the participants were working class. I want to distinguish that from when I was a GI in uniform, AWOL from the army, going out to protests in the late ’60s. We considered a lot of the youth that went to Washington to stop the war middle class. When the war was over, they would go back to and their more or less privileged life in the suburbs with a professional future. That’s not the situation of young people today: the “precariat.” They’re the most disenfranchise part of the working class, and you saw them flex their muscle, even if it wasn’t in the name of the working class, with this uprising. Nobody denies that the Left has many weaknesses. But the problem is how to raise class consciousness, so that this powerful social force begins to act more consciously as a class.
I agree with some of Conrad’s “cynicism” about where some of the Left is and what they can do. Some of us have been around for years and years. The fact is that our experience has not prepared us for any kind of revolution. It may take new people. I’d be very wary of the advice coming from older people because they have become conservative.
The World Workers Party realizes it is very small and that for a working-class party that can make a revolution to arise different organizations and revolutionaries will have to come together, which may have some basis in the past, but is a product of a new period.
CC: I agree with Gerald that this is not a revolutionary moment, because of the lack of an organized Left in society. I disagree with Andrea that there is analysis in these protests, coming from the past decade and #Occupy, connecting inequality with the issue of police brutality. To make that connection solid you would need more durable organizations to bridge the gap between all of these different types of unrest. Andrea brought up this disconnect between consciously revolutionary organizations and more immediate demands for justice. We will never get where we want through a hands-off approach, but – we certainly see this in the DSA – engaging in the present often involve sacrificing part of your critique of society in the interest of short-term coalition-building. We have to recognize that objective dynamic.
Larry spoke of the conservatism of the older generations and the potential radical nature kind of this “new” phenomena of “precariat”. Looking towards young people as a social force that can sweep away the conservative mistakes of the older generations is a mistake. The lack of generational experience in the DSA accumulating over time through the organization is a problem for political practice in acute ways. People get very excited about things, but they don’t have a really good idea of how to carry that through periods of less excitement.
GS: On the one hand our movement is restricted by the lockdown; on the other Covid has shined a light on all the inequalities in society. It’s showing working people what kind of society we really live in and the utter incompetence and the reactionary nature of these politicians. But our young people have broken through that and it’s a good thing.
Larry, regroupment of the Left to form a revolutionary organization is a possibility – a necessity – but we have to overcome sectarianism. I differ with Larry and Andrea on this term “privilege”. You have a job and a television, so you’re privileged? Living a normal life is not a privilege. What we face as black people is “special oppression”, beyond the normal oppression that the rest of society suffers. I distinguish between “special oppression” and so-called privilege theory.
I agree with Larry on the demilitarization of the police. In the Oscar Grant Committee our job is to stop the police from doing things, not to reinvent the police. Andrea was way before her time in keeping a database. The database now is a national phenomenon, but in whose hands?
Conrad, there’s another philosophy: revolutionary optimism. If we don’t succeed, we face ecological devastation and possibly nuclear holocaust. I got a lot for you to be optimistic about. We saw white kids talking about Black Lives Matter! That gives me hope. We need unity of the working class to vanquish the one percent. But we also need intergenerational unity. I’m going to win you over.
There’s a saying, ‘Everybody hates the police until they need them’. Why do the police exist? Is it just a racket, a gang? What would it then mean to abolish the police? How does one get there?
AP: We want safety; we need justice. The strategy in South Africa was to make the townships ungovernable for the apartheid government. In some communities you might get a burning tire around your neck. That’s a kind of justice – not very good. There’s another kind: restorative justice. It refuses an adversarial style of justice, a winner-take-all, western style. It’s embedded in the community so that real justice and healing can occur. There is an alternative to the police. The question is, what is our trajectory towards a sense of community-owned justice? Police is what happens when you say “I have no agency or participation in justice, I’m gonna hire somebody to do it for me.” That’s what the factory owners and the slave owners and the white settlers who went out west in America engaged in.
Can we overcome the need for police within capitalism, if congenital unemployment in capitalism produces the need for the state and oppressive police?
AP: Police are the state response to the structural tensions built into the system, but it doesn’t have to be capitalist. It takes a lot of violence to make those people at the bottom stay there. We will either be governed by coercion or consent.
Look, the police have gone through crises before. In the progressive period when the police were widely perceived to be just thugs with sticks, they had to professionalize. We are at a crossroads: the digitization of police. Unless we eliminate those structures and tensions in society for which the 1% require police, policing will again transform. They may say, “No more militarization.” But it may become like China, where they program your ID card in such a way that you can’t access your bank or public transit. You will be detectable 50 yards from your house. There are ways they can coerce us that are not as brutal as what we see today.
Larry Holmes: The absolute answer is the abolition of classes, but you need transitional solutions that people can grasp. A well-organized and serious block association in Harlem is likely to protect the residents better than these police, who ride around in cars terrorizing people. If there’s drug trafficking and kids are getting shot, you don’t want to come out of your apartment. People from the community who are defending the community should have the right to bear arms to defend themselves. That would be 100% more effective than the police in protecting people on a day-to-day basis from their fears. The police cannot do what they do in the interest of capitalism unless they have a certain quota of political support. Maybe they will get over that, but it’s a material factor in the struggle against police.
For over a century, political support for the police has come through the Democratic Party. It seems now that the Democrats are posturing towards defunding rhetoric.
LH: You must do whatever is necessary to prevent the Democrats and Biden from co-opting the movement with a few superficial gestures. We’ve been there and done that. It doesn’t do a damn thing.
Conrad Cartmell: I support reforms like devolving police functions to other organizations and improving them, but the danger is that that puts you in coalition with elements of the capitalist class and their political agents. There is a recognition amongst certain subsets of the capitalist class that mass incarceration and the police regime we have right now might not be perfectly optimized for what they want to see done, which is a pacified stable society. There protests are evidence of that.
GS: “Everybody hates the police until they need them”. I’ve called the police. The police play some socially necessary role. But their primary role is not to help grandma cross the street, but repression, so they need to be abolished – but how?
I would like to warn people of the existence of the non-profit industrial complex. Our oppressors and exploiters are not going to give us money to expose them and to mobilize against them. What is your program to get rid of the state? That is the program of social revolution. Demands, primarily negative, are necessary. If we can, we should accomplish what we see in other capitalist countries. In some countries police kill people maybe two times a year, not at all in some countries.
Gerald doesn’t that defer the question of overcoming capitalism in favor of achieving some kind of European Social Democracy?
GS: It would be nice if the United States was a little more civilized. Stop killing us! At the same time, my program is not a more humane capitalism. Capitalism is the problem. I talk about the need for a revolutionary organization. I can’t explain what that means, but it is the key ingredient. We have to have a common organization that has authority among the masses so that we can conduct a coordinated struggle against capitalism and its state.
Although the police maintain existing property relations, isn’t their relation to the most marginalized working-class layers in the big urban hubs very different than to the white working class? Are their specific demands and slogans to address this situation?
CC: I’m not sure how different it is. I read an article by Dustin Gustella about the parts of the United States that have the highest rates of police killings per capita. A lot of them are extremely rural and almost exclusively white or Hispanic areas. Often, the rate of police killings is directly related to the number of police and how well they’re paid. In parts of the country where there is concentrated poverty amongst white people, Latinos or Native Americans, you see the exact same dynamics emerge between them and the police.
AP: I’m in touch with high school kids and college kids, and I’m concerned about the way that they hold the relationship of class and race. Sometimes you can get shut down when you want to talk about class. They say “No, this is a black lives matter movement, we’re talking about race.” Without a class analysis it’s almost like a fetishism. I feel like I’m encountering a shallow analysis. The white working class can break fascist or they can break revolutionary, and if we don’t come at this with a class analysis, we miss an opportunity to create that umbrella that is needed to move this mountain.
GS: There is a tendency – this is why a lot of Left groups have disappeared – to tail behind whatever is popular at the moment. When I was coming up, Black Nationalism played a major role in shaping the movement. There’s nothing wrong with that, but as the Left started to disintegrate, the Democratic Party became the organization that claimed to represent the majority of black people. Biden wrote part of the 1996 Crime Bill, which began the mass incarceration phenomenon, and he was the author of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, so that they didn’t even have to report the names of a pig that murdered somebody. Identity politics sometimes plays a very negative role. For instance, the Oscar Grant Committee defends non-black families. We got some negative responses in the black community because we defended a man of Mexican heritage. That’s the politics of resentment; that’s them damn Democrats. A lot of people who think that they’re fighting police brutality have misnamed it as a phenomenon of racial oppression. It is disproportionately that, but when you put that forward you make the white working class disinterested. We also want to win those white workers to an anti-capitalist perspective.
LH: Gerald is right on point. It’s a deliberate political calculation on the part of the capitalist government to use racism to divide the working class. This is one of the reasons why the capitalists are very concerned about things evolving into multinational class struggle. When that happens, they lose that opportunity to divide on the basis of race. Ultimately, they’ll come out against the workers regardless of their race.
Who do you call when you need somebody to do something that only the police can do? That’s a conundrum. This is a good discussion, if only to reminds us that there’s a lot of confusion and its gonna take a lot more political discussion.
I don’t want to put down the older generation. Some of them are in prison, like Mumia Abu-Jamal. Older revolutionaries have staying power. We won’t know until young revolutionaries show it: do you have the staying power?
CC: Gerald mentioned that the Democrats set this whole rotten arrangement up. The Democrats claim the mantle — not that this is true — and the voting patterns of black people in America. So when those young people that Andrea is talking about articulate this as a struggle against racial oppression, we have to be extremely cognizant that that is in effect saying this struggle will be waged through the Democrats, which articulates itself as an anti-racist party. That’s a really serious problem.
Democrats at the national level have already pushed the misleading narrative that Trump opposes criminal justice reform and even the sanctity of black lives. How can the Left’s lack of theoretical clarity, coupled with this mendacious narrative, give hope to attempts at resisting co-optation by the Democrats, who are obviously motivated by fortifying their monopoly on the black vote this November?
GH: I’ve told you what I think of “sleepy Joe”. The Civil Rights Movement achieved what it could; from then it started to go down, and the black power movement started to rise. The Democratic Party is the elephant’s graveyard of all social movements in America. Them co-opting your “Defund the Police” is not new.
With the Left, all that is false needs to be driven asunder. If you’re not real, get the hell out the way. We need an organization to systematically coordinate this education. In a revolutionary movement, all voices on this panel would be in a common organization. Only with the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat can we begin to abolish the bourgeois cops.
Andrea, the question was about the possibility of criminal justice reform coming from the Trump administration, and the theatrics of the Democrats being about maintaining their control on the black vote come November.
AP: Well, I think it’s very true. I think that there is a matter of efficiencies that are not lost on the capitalists, the Democrats, etc. The folks who are gonna make their money off the privatizations of prisons and managing prison labor have made their money. Now it’s a dollar and cents question of retooling policing. Policing will become much more sophisticated and digitized.
I have not participated in a particular revolutionary party because so rarely do I hear the talk of the incremental plan of how we get there. A lot of people say what we need is a coalition or this organization and I just don’t understand why it doesn’t exist at this point. I am hopeful that because of the pandemic and the economy people will be much more ready to hear that. Are we ready to work with people? We wait for socialists to be readymade to plug into this organization in the sky, but we are a rough material. You don’t go from relying on the police to nothing. We create those alternatives. Some people are great at thinking internationally and historically; I need you to think about tomorrow and breakfast.
Frankly, if everyone agrees that a revolutionary party and a class analysis are needed, why are we lacking both? What’s the obstacle on the Left?
LH: The short answer is conditions. This is not to say that parties didn’t make mistakes, were sectarian and opportunist, and did superficial things to feel happy, although that’s true. On the other hand, you can’t forge the revolutionary organization unless you have the conditions. That’s a process of building, learning, political struggle, coming together and splitting apart. This is what I learned from history.
CC: Much of the Left disagrees with us vehemently. Socialists sacrifice their critique on the altar of respect for progressive Democrats. On a personal and organizational level, that is the problem. At some point, we’re gonna have to get over the idea that progressives are necessarily closer to us than anyone else. The Philadelphia DSA chapter put out a statement, “we want full employment and medicare for all”, and some other basic reformist demands to address the problems of deprivation in people’s lives, which often leads to violent encounters with the police. They were almost universally condemned for doing so on the grounds that they were not paying sufficient respect to racism as a causative element.
Gerald, what if police brutality is actually not the major issue that the Left needs to be addressing today?
GH: The DSA is not rooted in a deep understanding of what racial oppression is all about, so they cannot be looked to as a solution. Their program is so-called universality. That is, as Eugene Debs said, “socialism has nothing special to offer the Negro.” He was a revolutionary and a great man; he was wrong. He’s especially wrong today because a little blood has gone under the bridge since the time of his statement. Young people today are out there in solidarity with black people. It is up to us to find the road to them. That of course is a challenge. One obstacle is that America is the only advanced capitalist country not to have a labor workers’ party. But that shit is over. I was recently at a longshore rally, where the leadership of the union, which is primarily black, came forward openly for the creation of a labor party. That is a challenge to the Left. If we don’t see that, we’re gonna miss yet another fabulous opportunity.
You raised the Spector of Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party. Debs was speaking in the age of Jim Crow, which no longer exists. Do you really think that the needs and demands of black and white workers are more different from each other today than they were in Debs’ time?
GH: Debs’ limited vision is understandable. Today though, there is something called the New Jim Crow. The position of black people as a socially ostracized caste has not changed. To mobilize the class as a whole, we cannot go forward unless we look out for black people, the LGBT crew and women and their right to abortion, for instance. These have to become class wide demands in order to build the unity upon which a combat revolutionary organization can be built.
Transcribed by Emilio Fogarty, Grant Tyler, Jonny Black and Mike Atkinson
Edited for brevity and readability by Efraim Carlebach.