Cops, Crime & Capitalism

October 1992

Crime is an explosive issue in the United States. Bourgeois politicians win votes by promising to be "tough on crime" and to restore respect for "law and order." Penalties have been increasing for those convicted of criminal activity, including harsher prison sentences and wider application of the death penalty. In 1988 George Bush sounded like a backwoods county sheriff during his presidential campaign, and this year we had the disgusting spectacle of Bill Clinton interrupting his presidential campaign to return home to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a brain damaged black man.

The prisons are overflowing in the "land of the free." In fact the U.S. has the world’s highest per capita prison population, more than either the former USSR or South Africa. The U.S. is also the only major Western industrialized country which retains the death penalty. Despite the repression the U.S. also has one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime. According to Interpol, in the year 1983-84 there were 7.9 murders per hundred thousand people, 35.7 rapes, and 205.4 robberies. Between 1970 and 1987 the population increased by twenty percent while murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft increased 143 percent (The Justice Juggernaut, Diana Gordon, p. 207).

Fear of crime has created widespread willingness to trade civil liberties for the futile hope of physical safety; hence the mass passivity towards the increasingly right-wing Supreme Court’s decade-long assault upon habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights (especially Fourth-Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure). Popular "solutions" to crime involve variations on the "more police with more power" theme.

Working people, blacks and other oppressed layers are ambivalent about crime. Black people, for example, are the most frequent victims of crime, and many want more police protection for their neighborhoods. On the other hand, they are also the most likely victims of police brutality and misconduct. Blacks, especially young males, have been so uniformly stereotyped as criminals that much of the bourgeois rhetoric about law and order is racist code for "get the blacks." It is estimated that a black male is almost six times as likely as a white male to do time in a state prison during his lifetime (Ibid, p. 40).

The link between fear of crime and the race question creates a formidable barrier to working-class unity. The political and economic status quo is secure as long as the working class, and other victims of the system, are divided against themselves. Capitalism needs racism and breeds racism—because it keeps the working class divided.

Police brutality is an integral part of the crime problem. In one week in early 1990 New York City police killed three teenagers, two of them Latinos and the other black. And the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles represents standard operating procedure for police departments across the country.

Even if some cops are not subjectively racist, they all live by a "code of silence" which protects the racism of the others. The conditions in which the police perform their function of controlling people who live in brutally dehumanizing conditions on the margins of society, require and reproduce police forces which are brutal and racist institutions. As the armed fist of the ruling class they reflect, in a concentrated form, the essence of this inhuman social order.

Capitalism Cannot Eliminate Crime

The Bolshevik Tendency (BT) believes that citizens have a right to security of their persons and their personal possessions. However Marxists look beyond the surface manifestations for the material basis of the problem. Poverty, oppression, social inequality, and the dehumanization and brutalization they engender are the major causes of the burglaries, robberies, assaults and other crimes which cause so much fear among Americans. Pervasive oppression leads people to seek relief from intolerable circumstances in mind-and mood-altering drugs, and poverty leads a portion to engage in trade to supply those drugs. Government reports show that even in the most drug infested inner city areas only a very small percentage of youth are involved in drug trafficking, and those who do are mostly street-level dealers who make very little profit. But there is no doubt that this trade is one of the few avenues for enrichment (or even survival) for those at the bottom of the pile in this steadily decaying capitalist society. The laws against these substances are largely responsible for the violence and criminality associated with their sale and use, and the "war on drugs" is used as a further pretext for police oppression of black youth.

The capitalist state attempts to control, but not eliminate, organized crime. Recent disclosures of substantial interpenetration of organized crime and the ruling party in Japan are a reflection of the universal character of the relationship between the traditional sectors of the ruling class and the parvenu upstarts on its fringe who control drugs, prostitution and other illegal economic activities. The capitalists have often used the services of gangsters against militant trade unionists and leftists. The CIA and the Mafia have been cooperating for years in efforts directed at overthrowing Fidel Castro and reversing the Cuban revolution.

In capitalist America both the number of people living in poverty, and the gap between them and the rich has dramatically increased over the past two decades. There are few societies in which the contrast in living standards is so extreme, and in which wealth is so conspicuous. Americans are daily subjected to depictions of the super-rich flaunting their booty, and the glorification of those who accumulate vast amounts of money. Donald Trump maintains his Taj Mahal, a luxurious hotel and gambling casino, while legions of homeless roam the streets. Corporate executives grab multi-million dollar "golden-parachutes" while millions of hard-working people are thrown out onto the street with nothing. Real wages have fallen, the tax structure hits middle-income and working class people harder, and social services have been reduced and eliminated.

Poor and working class children of all colors face an economy increasingly incapable of providing them with meaningful futures. They are forced to attend schools in which even dedicated teachers can do little more than supervise day-time holding pens.

The American ruling class and its government present a picture of moral bankruptcy, violence, greed and corruption. From the gutting of industry, to insider trading on Wall Street and the looting of the savings and loans outfits, to the viciously racist slaughters in the Persian Gulf and Panama, the bourgeoisie shows its rottenness. It is inevitable that some of the dispossessed will turn to crime to survive, all the more so in a climate of massive social and economic crisis and decay.

Crime has been endemic to capitalism since it began, and crime will not be eliminated as capitalism continues to decay. In the wake of the social counterrevolutions which swept Eastern Europe and the former USSR there has been the explosive growth of criminal syndicates. In the U.S. the institution of a police state might at least in the short term, substantially reduce crime but it would require huge (and economically irrational) investments in the machinery of repression which would further erode the competitive position of American capitalism. Ultimately criminal activity (both civilian and police) can only be eliminated through a social revolution that brings the proletariat to power and lays the material basis for eliminating poverty.

Who Are the Police?

The state is the mechanism which guarantees the supremacy of the ruling class. The capitalists (or bourgeoisie) control science, education, culture and all the levers of social power. This allows them to run things for their own benefit and appropriate the lion’s share of social wealth. To maintain their rule the bourgeoisie requires a monopoly of armed power with which it can exert violence against those who might resist. The police are the institution charged with the day-to-day exercise of that power to coerce and suppress other classes when the preferred means of persuasion do not work.

The police are not part of the working class, and their "unions" are not part of the workers movement. They should be thrown out of all trade union federations and other working class organizations. The police serve as the first line of defense of capitalist property and safeguard the dictatorship of the capitalist class over society. As an arm of the state, the police are not neutral in any dispute between the powerless and the powerful, workers and bosses, tenants and landlords or oppressed and oppressor. Cops enforce a capitalist law and order which places the interests of property, wealth and social privilege above all else.

The police occasionally do useful things, of course, such as directing traffic, comforting children and even risking their lives to rescue victims of disasters. Sometimes they even apprehend real criminals or take action against some element of the bourgeoisie itself. But all the movies and television programs notwithstanding, anything socially useful they do is little more than a cover for their real role as the defenders of an unjust society.

Reforms and Crime

The liberal pretence is that these secondary "good" things that the police do can be expanded, and that effective controls can be put in place to prevent police "excesses." But the police cannot be "reformed" out of their oppressive role, because that is their core function.

There are a variety of measures proposed by liberals to address the problems of crime and the police. Some demands are for more black police and for black or liberal police chiefs. More black police will not change the nature or role of the police, and neither will changing the color or political philosophy of the police chief. Berkeley’s black police chief, Dash Butler, is currently implicated in a lawsuit which charges that the BPD Internal Affairs division "routinely fails to sustain citizen complaints against members of the BPD…." Richard Hongisto, the quintessential liberal cop, presided over the San Francisco police at the time of the protests against the Simi Valley verdict. They arrested and charged 105 people with felonies, 90 percent of whom were black!

Equally futile are calls for "sensitivity training" for police or the propaganda about "community policing." Community policing is essentially a public relations campaign for the police, covering their real role and activities with the image of smiling cops finding lost children. Sometimes presented in the form of Neighborhood Watch programs, the intent of this is to divide neighborhoods (often along racial lines) into those who are asked to cooperate with the cops and the "criminal element" who are informed upon.

In some cases these programs may result in removing a crime problem to some other part of the city. However, it ties working class residents of the neighborhood more closely to the police, their enemy, and tends to perpetuate the myth of the police as crime-fighters.

Calls for "community control" of the police are often proposed as the solution to police crime and brutality. But the "community" is composed of different classes. In capitalist society the police cannot be "controlled" for the benefit of anyone but the ruling class.

Civilian police review boards are also frequently suggested as a means of controlling police behavior, but they have been and will continue to be largely impotent in dealing with police misconduct. Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union, an advocate of civilian review boards as a means of avoiding the urban rebellions of the 1960s, captured what these boards are all about when he said, "There’s a percolating anger out there and if you don’t have a safety valve, I think it’s going to blow up" (New York Times, 3 March 1991). The liberals are mostly interested in containing the anger and explosiveness of the populace.

Where police review boards exist they should be used to achieve whatever amelioration of conditions is possible, and the BT has assisted in presenting individual cases of police misconduct before the Berkeley Police Review Commission. It is one of the most independent police review boards in the country, but it is virtually useless in reviewing the worst police abuses in that city. In any case its rulings against BPD officers are regularly overruled by City Manager Michael Brown.

We support any measure which limits the power and independence of the police, without in any way encouraging illusions that these measures will substantially alter the system. These commissions do allow some small level of public scrutiny of the police, and they may require them to give up information which may be useful to citizens in legal actions against the police. So, depending on the political composition and effective powers given to it, establishing a civilian police review board with a real measure of independence from the cops is a demand which Marxists can support. But in practice these review boards are usually ineffective. Some of them exist only to whitewash even the most clear-cut incidents of cop brutality.

We also support requirements that police wear their badge numbers or prohibitions on the choke-hold and various other dangerous practices. Such checks on the oppressive powers of the police can have a real, if limited, value.

However one liberal measure which must be opposed strenuously is the cry for gun control. Gun control speaks to widespread concerns about random acts of violence, but it also poses serious problems for workers and the oppressed. Ordinary people must have the right to self-defense. More importantly, it is the right of the oppressed to bear arms, and the bourgeois state should not be given an absolute monopoly on weapons. We say no to gun control!

In the United States the police generally have a level of independence from political authorities which amounts to semi-bonapartism; they operate with freedom from most restraints, as long as they do not attack members of the ruling class or have their activities recorded on video or audio tape. Many city charters are written in such a way as to make it virtually impossible to fire police chiefs or individual officers. Police chief Daryl Gates successfully defied the Los Angeles city council in the wake of the Rodney King beating. In the Bay Area the Alameda city manager professed not to have the power to fire city police officers who put explicitly racist messages onto police computers.

What Can Be Done?

In many cities throughout the United States there are organizations which seek to monitor the police and defend their victims. We support such work, because it can act as a check on some of the worst police excesses. In supporting measures to reduce abusive police behavior toward citizens, it is important not to feed illusions that such abuses can be eliminated under capitalism.

In Berkeley we participate in "Copwatch." We believe citizens have a democratic right to be free of police harassment and brutality, and we support Copwatch’s overall perspective of reporting on police misconduct. Copwatch is an organization including people with a wide spectrum of views, many of which we do not agree with. Our Marxist analysis of a class-divided community has at times been a point of debate within Copwatch.

It is vitally important to link the activities of organizations which monitor the police and defend victims of the police to the organizations of the working class. The same cops who hassle homeless people and black youth also escort scabs through picket lines and beat picketers while breaking strikes. The history of the class struggle teaches that at some point there will be social upheaval and massive fightbacks by workers and the oppressed. When this occurs the capitalist state will use the draconian criminal laws against the working class.

Only the proletariat has the social power and the objective interest to eliminate the causes of crime. A strong workers movement which established integrated workers defense guards could take a big step toward defending workers and the oppressed from both crime and police brutality. Workers defense guards would have nothing in common with the Guardian Angels (or equivalent community policing scams) who work with the police, nor with vigilantes who are often racist, ethnically-based gangs defending "their turf" against "outsiders."

To be effective workers defense guards should be integrated to cut through the racism which so divides the working class. They would generally be initiated in response to attacks upon workers’ picket lines by the capitalist state, its fascist allies or the private goons of individual employers. Once engaged in class struggle, workers will quickly see the usefulness of defense guards in protecting workers and the oppressed in other areas of their social life, including the fight to be free of crime and police harassment. This perspective is not simply pie-in-the-sky theorizing. Saint Petersburg under the Czar had both a large dangerous criminal class (the "dark people") and a large and brutal police force. After the February revolution in 1917 both the criminal class and the police disappeared from the workers’ districts. Armed workers’ militias created the most "crime free" period in modern Russian history up to that time.

A class-conscious workers movement would fight for full employment, through a sliding scale of wages and hours that would lead to a shorter work week with no loss in pay. If everyone in society who wanted a job had one and was able to feel they had a future, much of the material basis for crime would be removed. That’s not such a huge thing ...but impossible short of socialist revolution. The workers movement must call for the decriminalization of all drugs and the repeal of other victimless criminal statutes; it is the illegality of drugs and prostitution which make them so lucrative for criminal elements. At the same time the workers movement must call for education programs administered under its control and inspired by neither moralism nor political expediency, for the dissemination of scientific information on the effects of various drugs.

The workers movement must defend the homeless. Among them are women and children who have escaped from abusive home environments, and people with HIV or who are in need of psychiatric care and who have been kicked out of their homes or institutions. Many are truly unable to cope with social life. If prolonged, homelessness often has a devastating, negative impact, both physically and psychologically, and tends to make its victims less socially acceptable. So wherever there are homeless people there is a body of citizens who seek a stronger police presence, and the homeless become the objects of police harassment—even in "progressive" cities such as Berkeley.

Across the country the police harass, jail and attack the homeless, steal their meager belongings and push them out of sight. They do not arrest the corporate big-wigs, landlords, bankers, speculators, developers or anyone else responsible for unemployment, low wages and obscenely high housing prices, nor do they force property owners to make unused buildings available to the homeless.

The working class must fight homelessness by utilizing its power to prevent landlords and sheriffs from evicting tenants. It must support the homeless when they take possession of abandoned housing. There must be a fight for low-cost affordable housing for all; and the workers movement must wage an uncompromising fight against racism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of chauvinism. The working class must also fight for adequate support services for women and children such as free 24 hour childcare and decent refuge from abusive situations. The demand for free quality health care for all must include the placing of a high priority on AIDS research, care for people with HIV, and good psychiatric services. And above all, the fight against homelessness is the fight for jobs for all. Thirty hours work for forty hours pay!

Toward a Workers State

In order to carry out its historic mission of world revolution, the working class must have its general staff, a party, to link the struggles of the working class to the struggles of the victims of special oppression: blacks, hispanics, other national minorities, women and gays, and unite with the desperate struggles of the poor. There must be a complete and irrevocable break with the Democratic and Republican parties, the twin parties of capitalist rule, who will never act in the interests of the oppressed.

Incorporating the program outlined above, a workers party would fight for the expropriation of basic industry under workers’ control and for the establishment of a workers state with a democratically-planned economy in which production would be for human need and not for private profit.

The Bolshevik Tendency is dedicated to the task of building such a party as the American section of a future Fourth International, the world-wide party of international proletarian revolution.

The human race is facing enormous challenges at this time. Capitalism has given us wars, racism, sexism, poverty, hunger, economic depression and ecological degradation. U.S. capitalism has created one of the most violent and irrational societies on earth. Yet capitalism has revolutionized the means of production to such an extent that the technology exists to produce abundance for all people on this planet. The private ownership of the means of production for private profit acts as a brake on further human progress, and capitalism has long since outlived its usefulness. Workers power is the only choice!

Posted: 23 November 2004