Policing Crisis Requires Moving Beyond Current Discourse
On a basic level, this seems like an odd, esoteric discussion entirely disconnected from objective circumstance. It seems like we are forgetting or suspending acknowledgement of some pretty basic things here. There isn’t anything special about disciplinary language in police contracts that gives the union superpowers to protect the most racist goons. Anyone should feel free to research actual language in any of these infamous department’s contracts—it’s the same types of just cause variations you find in every other labor agreement. It’s a host of terrible court decisions that protect cities from liability for the actions of their police and make a police’s actions damn near unquestionable so long as the police claims they felt threatened that permits police to act with impunity. I think we all also know that the union has a legal obligation to represent members.
Why would you take away someone’s ability to talk with their employer about how overtime is doled out because the Supreme Court has decided that a cop need only say they were scared to render themselves untouchable to an arbitrator in brutality cases?
Police get fired all the time, as anyone who follows arbitration reporter services knows. They just don’t get fired for brutality because it’s essentially unreviewable. No arbitrator is interested in upholding a termination knowing they are going to be overturned in court. It’s easier to fire a cop right now for tardiness than it is for beating unarmed black men but that has nothing to do with the contract. I also think it’s a mistake to engage this question as if it turns on what the definition is of the word “worker” and in turn to have that definition turn on someone’s role in the perpetuation of class relations.
It’s 100% true that cops in our society are on what I would say is the wrong side of basically everything politically. But that’s actually true of a lot of occupations. Coal miner’s living depends on extracting carbon from the earth that poisons the entire world, but disproportionately so members of their own class, to enrich a small number of ruthless plunderers. As Marx says in Wage Labor and Capital: “What is a Negro slave? A man of the black race….A Negro is a Negro. Only under certain conditions does he become a slave. A cotton-spinning machine is a machine for spinning cotton. Only under certain conditions does it become capital. Torn away from these conditions, it is as little capital as gold is itself money, or sugar is the price of sugar.” Police under capitalism are what they are not because police in general are this, but because capitalism is what it is.
If bargaining rights are to be treated as a privilege bestowed upon those deemed worthy of the title “worker” and that definition turns on your occupation’s contribution or injury to the rest of their class, police are certainly out. But then again, so are the legions of teachers who treat it as an obligation to pledge allegiance to the world’s foremost emblem of imperialism, as are the social studies teachers who get paid to whitewash the legacy of slavery, aggression, and oppression because their charge is to instill a toxic, nationalist chauvinism into every kid. So are the unionized public sector carpenters who board up the houses of other workers who are unable to make their tax payments.
Of course they have terrible politics and act like assholes. But if the extension of rights is conditioned on someone subscribing to similar politics to the person holding the keys, those are not rights at all. Those are privileges.
At the end of the day, capitalism has a whole hell of a lot of us doing work to perpetuate the current mode of production. It necessarily has to—physical coercion may be the most obvious manifestation of the perpetuation of capitalism and undermining of the interests of the working class but it’s not even the most important piece of the two apparatus that self-perpetuate the system. Capitalism enlists nearly every institution and countless occupations we have in its replication across generations. I feel like it is basic Marxism to understand and acknowledge that all of society reflects the dominant mode of production—good or bad. Capitalism is a system based on oppression, it depends on imperialism, and domination. Thus, even the most sacrosanct of our institutions bear the shameful mark of the economic base on which they exist. To quote Marx again, this time from Critique of Political Economy: “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”
Cubans don’t hate their police because they exist within a different context and therefore don’t exist to oppress workers to defend capital. Acknowledging that means acknowledging that capitalism is the base of the issue, but I kind of thought we all already knew that?
I really think we can do better than these abstract conversations. Going back to the original point I made, all anyone has to do is actually read these contracts to see that there is something else at work. Did we learn nothing from the relentless onslaught against teachers unions that convinced a lot of fence-sitters to join forces with right wingers and misguided liberals to disembowel them because of a bogeyman that anyone could have dispelled the notion of if only they would read the damn contracts and do the research?