Police brutality and the Left
Platypus Review 132 | December 2020
On August 29th, 2020 the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a public forum entitled “Police Brutality and the Left.” The panelists were Mike Golash (Progressive Labor Party), Chaz Bufe (See Sharp Press), John Palmucci Jr. (Socialist Party USA), and Chris Sloce (Democratic Socialists of America), with Gabby Gottfried as moderator. What follows is an edited transcript of the panel proceedings.
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 shutdown, protests have erupted in every state across America raising the issue of police brutality. The relationship of the Left to these protests, however, has been unclear. Following disappointment with the Bernie Sanders campaign and the nomination of Joe Biden, the Left has sought to politicize the protests and police brutality in different ways. How can the Left address police brutality today? How has it sought to do so in the past? What is the role of the Left in the current moment?
Mike Golash: The Marxist movement beginning with Marx in the 19th century has seen racism as a tool to maintain capitalism and to divide the working class. Marx sent a letter to Abraham Lincoln supporting the Union in its fight against slavery in the U.S. Civil War and helped organize textile and dock workers in England to refuse shipments of cotton from the Confederate South.
There are two aspects of racism: there is the ideological aspect, i.e. the ideas that justify "special oppression" and "superexploitation" of people of color; and the practical aspect, i.e. low wages, poor healthcare, poor education, etc. These ideas initially developed in the United States. People think about racism as something that has been around forever. In reality, racism as we know it today only began in colonial Virginia in the 17th century when African slaves and white indentured servants were brought to work. They were both treated poorly, so they said, "Let's get together to improve our conditions." The slave John Punch tried to fight back so the plantation owners changed all the laws to enslave people in perpetuity, including their children. By the mid-19th century we developed the pseudo-scientific ideas that justified the harsh treatment of black people, e.g. that they had something wrong with their brains that made them slovenly, they liked being enslaved, etc. Then came the eugenics ideas of the 20th century, along with Bell Curve theory, black culture, etc. The capitalists make a tremendous profit off people of color. Their wages are kept lower, they are not allowed into professional jobs, and this provides surplus value for the capitalists.
The Progressive Labor Party sees racism as a necessary component of capitalist society. If you want to get rid of racism, then you must get rid of capitalism. To get rid of capitalism, you must build an organization of workers, students, and professional people dedicated to accomplishing that goal. Today the Black Lives Matter movement and everything else—that's all great, but there is no serious political organization pulling them together and moving in a revolutionary direction. People say, "If we elect Joe Biden, things will be better." But Joe Biden authored many of the bills during the Clinton administration that led to this situation. We talk a lot about Trump's policies towards immigrants, but if you look at the numbers, Obama incarcerated, deported, and broke up many more families on an annual basis than Trump has. Many of Obama's deportations were people that already lived in this country for years. Trump's are mostly just catching people at the border and tossing them back. Electing a Democrat only changes the rhetoric, but the policies of managing capitalism, maximizing profits, preparing for war, and preaching racism will continue unabated.
Chaz Bufe: I basically agree with Mike that ending capitalism is necessary to end racism. The divide-and-conquer tactic has been in play forever. I am extremely happy to see the demonstrations against police brutality and racism all over the country. One of the reasons the antiwar movement in the 1960s prevailed was because people were marching and organizing visibly. I see the same thing going on now. To cite a less sanguine example, this is also how the Iranians got rid of the Shah in 1979. What came out of this was worse than the Shah, and it is incredible that people actually try to make a good case for that. This shows the necessity of not just asking for large wants and then giving up; it is important to remain active. I was nearly ready to leave San Francisco in 1992 when the Rodney King beating and riots took place in Los Angeles. We saw a huge mass of people coming up the street, and they were pissed. Keith, a friend of mine from Food Not Bombs, and I started yelling, "Pacific Heights!" which is one of the ritziest neighborhoods in SF. We knew there would be violence, so we wanted it to be there. If people were going to trash anything, let it be Pacific Heights. But instead the protest turned downtown and did massive vandalism, which brought out police brutality in response. They smashed Keith's face in, and he still has neurological side effects today. They got away with it because there was no video.
Today, the similar demonstrations against police brutality are hugely encouraging. Unfortunately, we are not in a revolutionary situation. Hopefully new organizations come out of this. The role of the Left in this is to advance the idea that racism is tied to capitalism and to make sure the new organizations are as democratic and horizontal as possible. This police violence has been going on forever; the only change is that people see it now because of cameras. We need to put police violence in people's faces so they see how absolutely awful and dehumanizing it is. The only way to break into the white suburban bubble's consciousness is to show them what is going on. It will outrage people, which is a good thing. The demands of the Left should be to end police impunity, to make cops have body cameras turned on at all times, and relatively minor liberal things such as civilian review boards. Try to get your local authorities to adopt a community policing model, which is not so brutal. On reforms, we cannot abolish prisons overnight, but we can get rid of victimless crimes and end mass incarceration.
John Palmucci Jr.: To get right to the point, we should admit to ourselves that the Left has failed to address police brutality in any meaningful way. Violence against the people on behalf of the state is just a matter of fact. But we have done and continue to do very little to address it. We have slogans like "Abolish the police!", "Defund the police!", "Abolish prisons!", abolish this, abolish that. But we rarely explain what they mean or how it would be possible to achieve these under capitalism. Typically, we just say they are not possible under capitalism; we can only do that under socialism. That is probably true, but we don't do a very good job at explaining that part either. We may have the right rhetoric, but to build a Left we need a lot more than rhetoric. We have "perceived victories'' too, but I say "perceived" because they are not genuine victories. We all remember the Minneapolis City Council announcing the disbanding of their police department, but it turns out they can't really do that without amending the city charter, which was blocked and deferred indefinitely. If they do it someday, it probably won't be good. It would just be police under a different name. Some huge victory, right? Those are the only victories that they will let us have. Some Confederate statues came down. Great. A pancake syrup is changing its branding. Also fine. The worst NFL team in the NFC East is changing its name. Okay. But our elected officials—most of the time Democrats—only gesture towards some progress, and we never actually see it. Those are the only victories we can claim: the meaningless ones.
There are those who say we are on the cusp of revolution, but the last time I checked we do not have a real, mass socialist party, so I doubt it. What is the revolutionary aim? Sure, there is anger that the police are using excessive force to kill people. But anger is not a revolutionary aim. It is human to express anger, but we should not confuse it with socialist revolution. We are a long way from that.
The mainstream media ignores even the prominent leftists except once every four years when they tell us it is time to vote for a Democrat, and they get Chomsky, Angela Davis, and many others to come on TV to say the Democrat will be more amenable to pressure, will reduce harm, etc. The number of socialists that are willing to back Joe Biden (seemingly most of them) is staggering and unsurprising at the same time. All roads lead back to the Democrats. What are most of us going to do in November? I will not vote for Biden. I would urge anyone who calls themselves a socialist in a serious way to not even consider it. But that is the road we are on. We will get four or more years of complacency until someone worse than Trump comes along.
I realize I seem sour on how the Left orients itself to police brutality, but I do not think we should be afraid to express overarching disappointment instead of continuing with optimism. There are so many neophyte leftists that are trying to get into this too. If we just feed them bullshit, then where will that get us? I hope we change.
Chris Sloce: I am not quite 30; I got into organizing at the start of the Trump campaign, so it is good to hear from others who have been at this for a while. This is a topic that touches everyday lives. I have witnessed awful police brutality firsthand. I have been to the protests. I want to mention the memory of Marcus David Peters, a young black man shot by the Richmond police department. I want to start off with something relatively provocative. I view the police as a third party in a weakly bicameral system. There is no real opposition party in America. We have no workers’ party. The Republicans and Democrats are married to the continued propagation of capitalism. The police and our global military are pure tools of capitalism. They act as material, cultural, and racial gatekeepers. Politicians sometimes die, there are changes and realignments in voting blocs, but there will still be police. It is easier to imagine the end of capitalism than a society without police. They are not independent but parasitic on the state, and the host is weak right now. There is a lot of justified anger in society at the failed response of the state to the COVID crisis and the police brutality issues. The state has proven itself absolutely illegitimate because they can only enrich the very few while everyone else is left to die. Because of this, buildings are looted, cars are burned, and that is good. The world is no longer working for me, so why should I let it stand?
In America, there is a long-standing socialist tradition, though we act like there is not because of our cultural programming. I will speak for my organization—although I do have qualms with the DSA's response to this—that we look at this voyeuristically. The Sanders campaign was imbued with such a messianic power, but it could not bring about salvation. It was essentially to reproduce capital. I would have voted for those reforms, but let us not get this issue twisted: the president does not grant the working class power. The working class must build its own power in the form of unions and political organizations. Even if Bernie was elected to an FDR-style four terms, there would still be police.The president's job is to execute the state's affairs and is useful for setting the tone for the country. Ultimately the DSA was built for the longshot (a Sanders victory) that still would not amount to socialism, which is what I want. I want a working class state. The state should be the cumulative representation of the people, but right now that is not the case. These protests fizzle out and people get tired, so the Left's job is to provide places for this anger to continue to flow. We need education on theories of the state and the police. After the education, we need organizations to strategize for resistance, both legally and extralegally. This party Mike alludes to is quite a bit different than the way the Democrats and Republicans operate, and I lean towards a party as well, though I am admittedly non-doctrinaire on the forms the struggle must take. We must organize to crush the police and capital. We owe it to our martyrs and to the fallen.
MG: I think John is a bit cynical. If you look at history for the last 100 years, there was not much going on for a long period of time, and then suddenly out of nowhere there appears a large scale rebellion. That happened during the Great Depression in the 1930s, and again in the 1960s. Those periods of instability in capitalism give you the opportunity to win large numbers of people to an organization that can sustain the struggle and move it to a higher level.
Why did the movements from the 1930s die out in the 1950s? The movements in the 1960s did not even last that long; they were pretty much gone by the 1970s. You must sit down and evaluate what happened to them. Maybe we can do a better job this time around building a new revolutionary movement based on the principles of Marxism. These young people in the streets are not thinking of strategic power and the leverage they have against the capitalist class. There are certain key industries like transportation, aerospace technology, and hospitals. If those workers said they wanted the police to be cut back, then you would have real leverage.
CB: I do not agree that a political party is necessary. At best, that leads to a social democracy like in Scandinavia, which is better than the unbridled capitalism in the U.S., but it is not what anyone really wants. If you really want the economy modeled on "From each according to his ability to each according to his need," then you will not get that using a political party. Just look at the Soviet Union, East Germany, and the so-called communist countries, which I consider state capitalist. As long as you allow organized domination and submission, you will never have an egalitarian society.
What really needs to be organized in society? It is the economy: the production and distribution of goods and services. We need working people to take control of it. I do not mean using the modern unions like the AFL-CIO, which are an impediment to revolution. They are conservatize, hierarchical buttresses to the status quo. Just remember the 1960s when the Teamsters supported Richard Nixon in the Vietnam War! The only radical union this country had was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which was crushed in the Red Scare using the Sedition Act. The workers taking over the economy and abolishing the state was anathema both to the U.S. government and to the Leninists with their fixation on seizing state power supposedly in the name of the people.
Regarding Bernie Sanders, I like the guy and would have voted for him, no question. But his slogan that called his political movement a "revolution" was ludicrous. It was only a call for minor reforms. The country would be better with them, but they would not have changed the fundamental nature of capitalism. Regarding Joe Biden, I do not like him or the 1990s Crime Bill. But the good news is that Biden is a shameless opportunist; he will go whichever way the
wind is blowing. If we can put enough pressure on him, then we will see some reforms. As far as voting for Biden, as Howard Zinn once said, "It takes five minutes, so why not?"
JP: I just heard an anarchist say of Biden that “it takes five minutes to vote for him, so why not?” Biden has given us fifty years of reasons not to vote for him. I made the joke last month that I am in favor of mail-in balloting because it makes it even easier for me to not vote for Biden! If we cannot even agree on not voting for Biden, then how are we going to organize a revolutionary anything? I love the Socialist Party USA, do not get me wrong. But I cannot help but be cynical. I feel this way after only half a decade of participation on the Left. If you asked me five years ago, I would be bright eyed and bushy tailed about the possibilities. But now I am taking things as they are. This is how it really is, and we need more than this. Mike mentioned the desire to return to the 1930s and the 1960s. Okay, but where did that get us to? It got us to where we are now. If there were potential moments, then we did not seize upon them. I will be voting for Howie Hawkins. If it takes five minutes, then the least I could do is vote for socialism. It does not mean anything because we are not going to get socialism from that vote, but we will not get socialism from Biden either.
CS: Ultimately I feel like voting is just one thing. It is not the thing. We have seen attempts at electoral politics, at entryism, etc. by social democratic or liberal parties, and they tend to get crushed. I cannot fault people for lack of trying. I have stepped away from focusing so much on the electoral thing, because I will 100% agree with John. I hate Joe Biden more than I enjoy breathing. Right now I can continue to push people towards the realization that the system is what Chomsky has called in the past a “business party,” that it exists to continue the propagation of business. During Pride Month, do you want rainbow colored Doritos? That is the choice we are given.
I think there is a weak chauvinism with a lot of US leftists, where they think this is where the revolution will be, and they ignore what is commonplace in many other countries. The more you read about history, you should slowly come to the realization that we are ultimately not that special. There is a lot of American exceptionalism we need to breed out of the Left.
If one preaches racism today, they will be fired from work, banned from social media, ostracized, etc. This seems to fit capitalism quite well. It is a regulation of the labor market. The divide-and-conquer tactic used to rely on racism to divide the working class, but now the working class appears to be divided on whether something is offensive or not, rather than claiming some right to racial superiority or equality. Is the fight against racism really tied to the fight against capitalism anymore?
MG: I would say definitely the fight against racism is tied to the fight against capitalism. Right now, because of the Black Lives Matter movement, racists are on the defensive. But the capitalists themselves have not retreated from racism. Schools that serve black neighborhoods are still underfunded, the wage differential between black and white workers is still in place, the poor healthcare and poor insurance for black workers and people of color are still in place, so the material conditions which create the basis for racism have not been alleviated at all. And that's what needs to change. Yes, you can't say racist things right now. It has changed the rhetoric a little bit, but the material conditions of life for people of color have not changed.
CB: Yes. Racism is inextricably tied to capitalism. There is no question of that. And you cannot really address the problem of police brutality until you address the problem of systemic racism.
JP: Yes it is because if we look at the way the working class tends to be divided in the present, it is predominantly around "identity." I do not think this is some kind of accident. Democrats and Republicans traffic in that kind of stuff. If the working class is divided on racial grounds, then yes addressing that would help us in the fight against capitalism. Sure, different people of different colors experience different things, some worse than others. There is no denying that. But that is what the capitalists want, and that is what we are buying into. We cannot address capitalism until we address racism, but now we have Democrats telling us what racism is. The DNC is all about "systemic racism this, systemic racism that," but it is their system! The fights against capitalism and racism are still linked, but we have to change the way we think about that connection.
CS: As long as every person in this country still lives under capitalism, then yes. I am from Appalachia, my grandad was a coal miner, etc. When the media says "working class" they mean a chimney sweep. This is a weak understanding of what the "working class" is. They are essentially anyone who must sell their labor to live. Most people do not own other people's labor. You aren't a boss or a manager. If you were born into intergenerational poverty in a horrible neighborhood, that was not an accident. That was designed for a reason. It's about race. We can fight our racist uncles on what they say, but people are ultimately contradictory. The right has done a wonderful job at making people skeptical of and disgusted at any social good.
John mentioned the problem with slogans like "Abolish the police!" Is the ambiguity about how this would be accomplished? Is it avoidance of any account of how one would get there? Chaz mentioned that this could not happen overnight. How do we get to "abolishing the police"? What is necessary for this? What is inhibiting the achievement of this popular goal?
JP: We should stop with the maximalist stuff because we are in no position to achieve it. A maximum program assumes we have the strength and numbers to implement it. Why can we not formulate a vibrant list of minimal demands that are not Democratic Party nonsense? Why do we not say "the socialists once got behind this and organized around this, and they actually did achieve it"? That would be a real victory instead of the hollow victories. We can admit to ourselves it won't happen overnight, but let's do something about it. The slogans are great; that's why they're slogans. But when we do not get the demands, people crawl back to the Democratic Party.
CB: Right now we can focus on getting specific reforms from the Black Lives Matter movement and the general uprising against racism and oppression. Focus on practical things, e.g. body cameras on all the time, ending police immunity, etc. People say voting for Joe Biden is an obstacle to achieving socialism. I don't see that. I quoted Howard Zinn earlier on voting: "It takes five minutes, so why not?" He went on to add, "Continue doing what you're doing. Don't pour your energy down the rat hole of electoral politics." But it does make a difference in people's lives whether you have an absolutely psychotic monster like Trump in office, or if you have somebody who can be pressured for minimal reforms. Biden will move on climate change. If Trump is reelected, it will get a hell of a lot worse.
Surely making small changes in the right direction is better than doing nothing in the wrong direction?
MG: There is nothing wrong with small victories. Just getting a policeman arrested and thrown in jail is an accomplishment. But if you think a small victory is electing Joe Biden, it's not! That points people in the wrong direction. The bottom line is that unless you build an organization which has the outlook of getting rid of capitalism, then none of these things are sustainable. They come and go. Reforms are rolled back, people are pardoned, etc. You must build a revolutionary organization based in the working class that educates people on the road to change. If we don't start building that now, then the revolution will never happen. The revolution in the Soviet Union was made by 15,000 people. That was its weakness. Not many people were won to communism. They wanted "Bread, Land, and Peace." That allowed the continuation of the wage system, the inequality between rich and poor, and the restoration of capitalism. We should learn from that. We must build the revolutionary base before we make the revolution.
There is agreement that we are not in a revolutionary moment. But does this not imply that these past few months were an inflection point in history that we failed to grasp? They should have been a revolutionary moment but weren't. What then is the obstacle that explains why we cannot make these moments of discontent matter?
CS: That is a hell of a question. There have been so many moments in history you could say should have been revolutionary. I am sure five people would give you five opinions on #Occupy Wall Street. We immediately recognized the crash; we had the perpetrators red-handed. And then what? But I do not think it is our job to predict history. Our job is to be ready when the capitalist state is so ready to fail that we can take action, like in Tsarist Russia where people were dying in an absurd war. Maybe we screwed up because we did not do this or that, and the time is past. I am a materialist, and the material I have in front of me today is that we did not get socialism out of the "George Floyd Uprising," so we have to be ready for the next one.
MG: This is the beginning of a revolutionary moment. This is the opportunity to build an organization that can transform this moment into the full revolution. This morning I talked to forty strangers in Spain that sent me a note saying, "We want to talk about making revolution." In our party, we are seeing people around the world step forward to say, "We heard what you have been saying for 50 years. Something is different now. I am willing to help build the party." This crisis is going to mature. China is growing as an imperialist power. Sometime in the next 20 years will be a clash that will kill tens of millions of people. World War I created the Russian Revolution. World War II created the Chinese Revolution. Fortunately, there is going to be another world war. Hopefully it will be an opportunity to transform society.
CB: I hate to agree with Mike, but I will when he says the Left in this country is disorganized. It is an absolute tragedy. Where I differ with Mike is that any movement needs to be decentralized and horizontal. To Chris's point, #Occupy is a good example. The movement spread across the country. There was no formal leadership. This frightened the crap out of the government and the capitalist class. So Obama, Biden, and the Democrats crushed the #Occupy movement in a coordinated series of police raids. This was a textbook example of free speech and assembly, but they could not abide it. If allowed to go on, it would have led to a genuine revolution.
These responses immediately became whether or not to vote for Biden. That is telling because the last few months have been us watching as the Left is upstaged by both the Democrats and Republicans in terms of siphoning off discontents with police brutality. The working class does not only have economic demands. They make political demands of the state too. The question of race seems to be a question of how you organize people. In the absence of an organized working class movement for socialism, there is no sense of a shared interest between white and black workers; Black Lives Matter expresses that. What is necessary for the working class to intervene in politics?
CS: Unless you are voting for a white supremacist like Donald Trump, then I shrug off the idea that voting matters. People can do it or not do it; either is fine. I think this conversation shifted to the monstrous, empty husk that is Biden so quickly because we have lost the capacity to talk about “vision” beyond these piecemeal reforms. We have no vision of a society that works for everybody. It is a shame that we cannot talk about shop floor democracy, though I am no anarcho-syndicalist. I wish organizations gave you a better understanding of what you are signing up for. A lot of the rhetoric of the radical speeches of the past has been lost. Now we feel bored and amiss. We need organizations willing to say they are for going beyond what currently exists.So much of our work right now is to rebuild our vision. I hope to God I am around to see what that looks like.
MG: Today, the PLP is raising political demands to reform the laws, based on the racist structures that keep black people suppressed. We are also raising economic demands because the COVID crisis is causing the Metro system in DC to reduce its pension and layoff black workers. Today, there is a nice article from the Brookings Institution, a liberal Democratic think tank, explaining how protesting is just as valuable as voting. We should take advantage of it.
Chaz mentioned that the most organized the working class ever was was the Industrial Workers of the World. What was lost when the IWW dissolved?
CB: I did not say the IWW was the most organized the working class has ever been. I would say that of the CIO of the 1930s. However, with the crushing of the IWW was lost the concept of a union that focused solely on seizing the means of production and continuing their use under workers' control. None of the current unions or political parties advocate that. The idea of direct democracy on the shop floor was lost.
MG: The reason why the IWW collapsed is because people like William Z. Foster, Bill Haywood, and Tom Mooney realized that they needed to do more than just seize factories. The government has state power to call out a police force to drag you to jail. They all left the IWW to join the Communist Party because that was a more useful vehicle for building class struggle.
Do you think that reducing funding to the police is impossible within capitalism? What do you make of Trump's claims that economic growth is the path towards criminal justice reform?
MG: Police have a lot of unnecessary functions, e.g. giving parking tickets, addressing mental health crises, etc. That money can be redirected elsewhere. There are better social services other than the police. Also, the militarization of the police is excessive. But there has been economic growth in this country since the 1970s, and corresponding to that growth is mass incarceration. There are more jobs and more productivity, but our racist criminal justice system is still in place.
JP: I am with Mike. We have had a lot of economic growth, so where the hell is the criminal justice reform? A lot of things are possible under capitalism, and until we get them, then we will not know what they are, but they probably will not be anything good.
Is not everything mentioned here completely possible within bourgeois politics? How is socialism, Marxism, etc. necessary to adequately address the panel's issue of police brutality?
MG: Capitalism is based on commodity production. Workers sell their labor power to the capitalist and create value, which allows the capitalists to accumulate tremendous amounts of wealth, while the workers remain poor at subsistence levels. The justifications for this are racism, sexism, etc. The mechanism for maintaining these inequalities is the police. For the egalitarian society of "From each according to ability, to each according to need," you cannot have capitalism.
JP: I am not entirely sure what I have been "calling for." Are some of the demands possible under capitalism? Yes, but they are not happening right now. We are not really doing or achieving anything.
Chris, what did you mean when you said looting is good?
CS: I did brush over that too quickly. I think it is a valid form of protest. I also think it slows down the productive gears of society. When people are alienated from their labor, what the hell do you think is going to happen? I did not shed a tear when the police precinct burned. The point of
lineage we all descend from is the French Revolution, and it started with the storming of a prison.
I am struck by Chaz's ambivalence towards Biden. I would think an anarchist would be steadfast in their insistence on organizing civil, social action against the state. Are you pessimistic about organizing at this level? Why make demands of the state?
CB: It is not an either/or proposition. Holding your nose and voting for Biden will help. There is an old leftist trope: “The worse things get, the better they are for revolution.” I don't buy it. Most revolutions have taken place in periods of rising expectations. If Trump wins again, then the boot will come down even harder. He will crush BLM, and there will be less space for people on the Left to operate. Continue to organize civil society, but that is not inconsistent with voting for a mild liberal who will not be as bad.
MG: I think voting in these elections creates illusions that somehow it will make things better, but it is only through class struggle that things will get better. | P
Transcribed by Ethan Linehan, Justin Spiegel, and Jason Roland.