IMT: ‘Defund the Police’ or ‘Workers in Uniform’?

An open letter

14 June 2020

Dear comrades,

The International Marxist Tendency (IMT) has recently published a number of articles which deal with the role of the police under capitalism and the politically amorphous demand to “defund the police” that has been embraced by many activists participating in the protests sparked by the cop murder of George Floyd. In “Black Lives Matter mass movement spreads internationally: US ruling class on the defensive” (10 June 2020), you write:

“‘Defunding the police’ has become one of the slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement this time, but the slogan can mean different things to different people. To the protesters, it clearly means that they think the problem is not one of a few bad apples, nor one which can be solved with measures of ‘control’ and ‘accountability’. The slogan points towards the need to do away, root and branch, with an organisation that is rightly seen as inherently racist and violent, not to be trusted with defending citizens’ lives and property. This is potentially a revolutionary conclusion. The police is a component part of the capitalist state: armed bodies of men and women in defence of private property. The fact that their legitimacy has been eroded to the point where a mass movement has put forward demands—although they are still undeveloped—calling for it to be disbanded, is extremely significant.”

This slogan can indeed “mean different things to different people.” It can indicate a basic awareness of the repressive role of the police in defending capitalist property and a desire to abolish the cops. But it has also been widely used by those who want to reform the police, make them a bit nicer and move some of their funding to schools and hospitals without fundamentally changing anything.

Readers of your article could be forgiven for not knowing the IMT’s position is that cops (and prison guards) are part of the working class. Despite sometimes denying it, you have in fact made this incorrect and dangerous characterization on a number of occasions, e.g., when your Canadian comrades described rank-and-file cops and soldiers as “working class boys in uniform” (“Winnipeg 1919: 100 years after the general strike,” 15 May 2019).

This is not a matter of making some sort of benign sociological observation—you have openly supported police and prison guard “unions” and “strikes." Quite concretely, that means increasing funds for the cops. Lest anyone think we are misrepresenting your position, this is what one of your leading comrades, Rob Sewell, wrote when cops in London were gearing up to go on strike:

“There has been a continual build up of public anger at the government's attempt to impose a 2% limit on public sector pay. The Police are getting a paltry 1.9% rise, in effect a pay cut.…
“The police even decided to march through central London last week. Some 25,000 police took part. The Met said the real figure was only 22,500, but they always underestimate demo figures, don’t they?
“There was a sea of burly blokes with white base-ball caps. They read ‘Fair P(l)ay for the Police’.…
“Today we have entered unchartered waters. Feelings are running high and strike action is being discussed. In 1919, they faced Lloyd George. Today they face Gordon Brown. In 1919 they were dubbed ‘Bolshevik Bobbies’, today they will need to take a leaf out of the experience of their forefathers if they are to get anywhere. ”
—“Britain: Bolshevik Bobbies,” 29 January 2008

However you may attempt to spin this rather embarrassing article, Sewell was clearly offering advice to the police, whose “pay cut” (i.e., “defunding”) he opposed.

In 2013, in Alberta, Canada, you vocally supported prison guards, sheriffs and crown prosecutors when they struck over “health and safety” issues, claiming their “inspiring militant strike” provided “real leadership” and a “lesson for the entire labour movement” (see “Cops, Reformism & Black Liberation: Exposing Fightback’s Social Democratic Record,” 1917 No. 39).

Your American comrades have attempted to defend and distort your shameful record. They write that cops “may, within certain limits, be considered ‘workers,’ though we would not argue that they are part of the working class.” Posturing as “dialecticians,” they write:

“Dialectics shows that contradictions exist everywhere—including the bourgeois state apparatus. Disputes can and do arise between the individuals who carry out the functions of the state and their masters. In many instances, the disputes are of a reactionary character. As an example, a few years ago, some of the inmates of the notorious Rikers Island prison in NYC were going to court to testify against mistreatment by prison guards. The corrections officers’ union organized a job action to stop these people from testifying. This was a reactionary strike and we were completely opposed to this.
“But there are other, exceptional occasions, when the ‘armed bodies of men’ confront the ruling class and make demands upon it, as occurred during the soldier strikes after WWII. Or when the police or prison guards go on strike for higher wages and/or better conditions for themselves and the prisoners they guard. In the context of the ongoing attacks on public sector workers, these struggles can have an effect on the broader working class, as was the case in the Alberta prison guards’ wildcat strike.” [emphasis added]
—“Marxism vs. Sectarianism,” 18 October 2019

The article noted that you “support police unions linking up with the rest of the labor movement insofar as this can, in certain instances, weaken the bourgeois state.”

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, the Writers Guild of America, East has called for the expulsion of the International Union of Police Associations from the AFL-CIO. In “How Can the Working Class End Police Terror?” your American section reiterates that the inclusion of police associations in organized labor could serve as “a potential point of pressure by the broader working class on the capitalist state apparatus,” but now claim: “A tipping point has been reached, and if we are to harness the massive untapped potential of the working class, the national and local labor leaders should take action and unceremoniously show these entities the way out the door.”

Nothing has changed in the repressive function of the police—they should never have been recognized as a legitimate part of the workers’ movement. Your willingness to entertain the possibility of keeping the cops in the labor movement does not represent a revolutionary rejection of “abstract formulations or one-size-fits-all positions, regardless of time and place”—it is an acknowledgment of your support for cop unions, which you have only temporarily set aside in this “time and place” because it is unpopular with young activists whose eyes are opening to the truth.

Yours for Marxist clarity,
Jordan Briggs
International Bolshevik Tendency