There isn’t a lot of new stuff that needs to be said about police brutality, which is itself most of the point: this shit ain’t new. But seeing as we’re having riots again the least we can do is make sure we’re properly focused.
To say that riots are “the language of the unheard” is in one sense to say they’re justified, but it’s also to say they aren’t actually a plan. Rioting is the last resort that people undertake when they’re desperate and they don’t have any other options. If there were any kind of democratic institution that people could use to make policy changes, they obviously would have been doing that this whole time. But there isn’t, because there are in fact almost no democratic inputs to the United States political system that actually do anything, so there simply does not exist any “responsible” way to address this issue. There comes a point when the available options are reduced to giving up or fucking shit up.
So, first of all, by the very nature of the action, rioters aren’t really going to give a shit about whether you think their actions are “justified” or “tactically sound.” More importantly, the moral valence of any particular act of rioting has absolutely nothing to do with the question of what we’re going to do about the incident that provoked it. Even if you assume that riots are necessarily reckless and counterproductive, the solution is still to fix the actual problem that caused them. Anyone who wants you to spend any amount of time judging the rioters is someone who doesn’t want to fix the problem.
But precisely because there aren’t any levers available to pull on this issue, rioting defaults to being the most productive of very few available tactics. It’s clear that the riots are generating enough pressure on the system to require some form of resolution. The cops who murdered George Floyd very obviously would not have been charged were it not for the intensity of the protests. But then, concessions of this sort, valuable as they are in and of themselves, are made precisely because they don’t change the way the system operates. They don’t prevent anyone else from being murdered in the future. There is in fact no “justice” available for Floyd, because he doesn’t exist anymore. Real justice means changing things so that people don’t get murdered in the first place.
A situation like this, where the response to each individual incident ends up not really mattering that much because the underlying mechanisms that caused it remain operational, resulting in the same thing happening over and over again, is what we in the business refer to as a systemic problem. It’s important to understand how this works, because this is the part where it actually is really easy to fall into a counterproductive kneejerk reaction that ultimately ends up making the problem worse – particularly as the phrase “systemic racism” has devolved into a buzzword meaning “finger wagging at the naughty racists,” i.e. the exact opposite of systemic analysis.
The sense in which cops are necessarily bad is not that each of them is as an individual a maximally immoral person. It is that policing as an institution is bad, and therefore anyone operating within it can only have bad effects. It’s easy to understand why this has to be the case. If it weren’t, if each instance of police brutality were the result of a flaw or an external factor impeding the proper operation of the system, the police themselves would be the most eager to correct it and get back to business as usual. People normally have a pretty strong interest in not having racist murderers as coworkers. This is actually the simplest form of the argument: a “good cop” would in this situation quit, and therefore not be a cop anymore. Ergo, there are no good cops. And not only does this never happen, it’s always the exact opposite: the cops are always in lockstep formation allied against any potential fixes. This is obviously not because each individual officer somehow had the exact same set of opinions beamed into their head. It’s because they’re all doing their jobs, and this is in fact what those jobs entail.
Again, this has been going on for decades, so “explaining” the whole thing would be a truly heroic feat, but we can at least sketch the general outlines. All levels of government have consistently been cutting social services while pursuing “war on crime” policies that have massively expanded the scope of what policing is expected to accomplish. This basically amounts to creating a bunch of problems that social services would otherwise have dealt with by actually helping and then hiring more cops to instead deal with them by force. The police are also overequipped due to spillover from a constantly-producing imperial war economy. This makes them highly disinclined to ever deescalate since they know they can resolve any situation through overwhelming force, as well as the general hammer/nail effect of having access to all that stuff in the first place. This arrangement has also resulted in the police having outsized political influence, which they naturally use to immunize themselves from any potential consequences and lock in the policies that empowered them in the first place.
All of this results in precisely the situation we’re seeing now with the protests: a huge number of cops show up to “deal with” something that’s not even a problem in the first place, they’re ridiculously overequipped and they know that they can do basically whatever they want without worrying about facing even the slightest consequences. The situation proceeds naturally from there.
This is very clearly a situation where reforms are not only “not enough” but are in fact not anything at all. It’s not like murder isn’t already illegal. The problem isn’t that cops somehow don’t know that they’re not supposed to be killing people, it’s that they have practical immunity, which means they don’t bother with whatever regulations they’re supposed to be following and they feel perfectly comfortable responding to any situation where they feel even slightly threatened or inconvenienced by just fucking killing whoever they’re dealing with.
Worse, reformist policies tend to have the perverse effect of supporting the thing they’re trying to prevent. Like, if you’re going to give the cops more training and more regulations to follow, then you’re going to have to give them more money to do that, right? And if they have the practical capacity to just ignore all that shit anyway, well, do the mother fucking arithmetic.
So the crucial thing to understand here is that pushing for reforms is not at all a “pragmatic” or “incremental” approach; it is actively counterproductive. It will make the problem worse while alleviating pressure to act. This is not a matter of theoretical speculation, it is a conclusion mandated by the available empirical evidence. This has all happened before, and every time – particularly when Obama was in charge – we were assured that the government was taking the problem seriously and was going to do all sorts of smart policy things to deal with it. So we got body cameras and implicit bias training and bans on this or that technique, and none of it did a single fucking thing. Most of the reforms that Campaign Zero has been pushing are already in place; the chokehold that was used to kill Eric Garner had already been banned for more than a decade. The rate of police murders has been constant the entire time.
The genuinely unrealistic position at this point is to continue to imagine that anything other than defunding will have any impact on the problem, against the available evidence. It is at this point simply a fact of the matter that reforms don’t do anything, and anyone pushing them as any kind of solution – particularly professional activists and politicians who absolutely know better – is not at all “trying to help,” but is actively and intentionally impeding progress. They do not want to fix the issue, they want the protests to end and everyone to go back to sleep while the bodies keep piling up.
In just the same sense, the concept of police abolition is not at all “idealistic” or even “aspirational.” It is simply the only thing that will have any effect here. Like, if you really wanted to, you could argue that the phrasing is off in that it encourages people to imagine the police not being there when they’re needed, but the key intervention that’s required right now is to get people to understand that, in situations where the cops currently show up brandishing military-grade weaponry, they can just not. Not only was there no need for the police to show up at the protests, they shouldn’t even have been able to. They shouldn’t have the manpower to mobilize that kind of response and they shouldn’t have access to things like tear gas and “rubber” bullets that serve no purpose other than brutalization. The simple fact of the matter is that police have too much power, so regardless of where this is eventually going to end up, the necessary first step has to be reducing that power.
Thus, the demand to defund the police is the central concept of this moment. Not only is defunding the only thing that will have any effect on the immediate problem, it is also the best way to combat the original source of the problem, which is the dismantling of the welfare state. Not only can we remove cops from situations where they’re inclined to kill people, we can also resolve those situations in more productive ways. Instead of paying cops to harass homeless people, we can pay to build shelters. Instead of paying cops to arrest drug addicts, we can pay for detox programs. Instead of paying cops to go into schools and “discipline” children we can pay for more teachers and counselors. Instead of paying cops to point guns at someone having a mental health crisis, we can pay for therapists and social workers. There’s also the valid concern that defunding by itself will simply end up meaning privatizing, as it does with so many other things in this society, so specifying that defunding must also include redirecting the same money towards useful programs is key to the concept. Like, what happened in the first place was that after the Reagan Revolution the welfare state was dismantled and turned into a police state, so it’s really the least we can do to dismantle it back. To truly insist that “black lives matter,” it’s not nearly enough to simply not murder people. We have to create a functioning, supportive society in which those lives can actually be lived.
Also, defunding the police is the demand that is actually in the streets right now. When the mayor of DC tried to score PR points by painting a “Black Lives Matter” mural even as she was busy increasing police funding, protestors countered her by instead painting “Defund the Police.” When the mayor of Minneapolis tried to talk to the protestors, he was asked specifically if he would commit to defunding the police, he said no, and they ran him out on a fucking rail. This is the furthest possible thing from a high-handed academic intervention. This is an idea whose time has come.
The crucial thing that each and every one of us is morally obligated to do right now is to hold the line for defunding and against reform. Anyone who supports defunding is on the right side of this issue and anyone who supports reform is on the wrong side. Any politician who commits to support defunding can be supported and any politician who does not must not be. Like, Sanders is against defunding, so fuck him, he’s done. We don’t have time for this shit.
This is why the absolute most pathetic smooth-brained scumsuckers in this situation are the people insisting that the solution to this is to VOTE. The whole fucking problem here is that everyone in the government is in on this. Pretty much all the big cities with the worst police departments not only have Democratic mayors but are entirely Democrat-controlled, and basically all of those Democrats have responded to this moment by making excuses for police brutality while still trying to increase police budgets. Quislings like these who talk big and then do everything they can to make the problem worse are exactly why this thing blew up in the first place: because the fact that nobody in power is going to do anything about any of this has become completely unavoidable for anyone who actually cares about the substance of this issue.
While we are going to need people in office to formally execute this stuff (that is, we don’t need people to “lead,” we need people willing to stop bootlicking for five minutes and do what we fucking tell them), there simply aren’t people like that available right now – specifically because the Democratic Party has done everything it possibly can to keep any such people as far away from power as possible. There are some notable exceptions, such as the members of the Minneapolis City Council who have pledged to dismantle their police department, and this is the sort of standard we have to insist on in order to change anything. Voting in fucking Joe Biden, one of the primary people responsible for creating this situation in the first place, will constitute at most 0% progress. (There’s honestly a good argument to be made that Biden will be worse than Trump on this issue, since Trump, despite his big talk, is a useless loser who doesn’t know how to do anything, whereas a Biden administration would consist of people who are committed to expanding the police state and know how to get that done.)
I don’t generally think much of “cultural” solutions to this kind of problem – the base does in fact determine the superstructure – but in this case there probably is also a necessary cultural component. Resistance to the idea of defunding comes from the feeling economically comfortable people have that the police are “there to keep us safe,” and we’re probably not going to be able to build the kind of broad political pressure we need without getting through this assumption. When people ask “but what are we going to do about violent crime?”, it doesn’t do much good to point out that more cops don’t really have much of an effect (on the issue of rape they clearly perpetrate more than they help), because the argument is based on the feeling of security rather than any actual incidence of it.
That is, the specific way in which the base has determined the superstructure here is that decades of destroying every social institution except the police has led people to assume that the only way to deal with any problem they have is to “call 911.” Some of this paranoia is justified. Even the most blinkered bubble-dwellers know on some level that being poor in America is a near-death sentence, so without a social safety net it makes perfect sense to act as viciously as possible to defend what little you’ve managed to acquire. Cops and citizens don’t have to be Klansmen to support and benefit from this system, they just have to be normal self-interested people going about their days.
That’s another reason why reinvesting in social infrastructure is such an important part of this: we need people to stop being afraid of each other and start acting like citizens. Indeed, even the most opportunistic instances of self-interested looting actually serve a positive function here, which is to de-legitimize the concept of private property as it is currently deployed. In theory, private property is a perfectly sound moral concept if it means that people can’t be forcibly deprived of things they need, but of course in reality it’s used in the exact opposite way. Rich fucks hoarding resources that could be used to keep people alive justify doing so by recourse to property rights. But the thing about “rights” is that they’re made up and they’re only justified if they’re conceptualized in a way that actually helps people. A moral conception of property rights would be the opposite of the one we have now: starving people have a right to food, sick people have a right to health care, homeless people have a right to housing. It is in this sense that poor people looting an insured megacorporation with warehouses full of stuff it’s never even going to sell is actively moral behavior.
Another thing we can understand from this is that “the police” as the particular institution under discussion at this moment is not at all identical with the general concept of law enforcement. If anything, abolishing the police may be one of the best things we can do to start actually enforcing the law. When the government makes cuts to agencies like the IRS or the EPA, this isn’t considered “defunding the police,” despite the fact that they very much do go after criminal behavior and prevent it from happening. The crimes they target are far more consequential than muggings or drug deals, and because they employ specialists working on targeted areas of enforcement, they’re also far more effective than thugs roaming the streets with guns. The people worried that defunding the police will leave them unprotected have the situation exactly backwards: we’re all being severely exploited by vicious criminals right now, and this might be the only way we can start doing something about it.
The other aspect of the problem is of course straight-up racism. The “us” who are the good hardworking folks just trying to protect our families are implicitly white, and the “them” who are opportunistic savages out for a quick buck are implicitly black. Just as the police state was justified through imagery of “superpredators,” the welfare state was delegitimized by coding it black via “welfare queens.” The entire history of America has basically been white people murdering and pillaging everyone else and then being constantly terrified that those people are coming to take back what’s theirs, and this is basically the same psychological dynamic that underlies fears of “thugs” and “looters” and “home invasions.” And of course all of this rests on the general ideology that certain types of people don’t matter and can therefore be bulldozed over in order to make way for “progress,” which is of course the ideology on which America was founded in the first place.
Particularly with modern anti-racism having been co-opted by neoliberal identity hustlers, the boring old conventional concepts of not dividing ourselves into warring tribes and realizing that we’re all in this together still apply. As much as I’d love to blow your mind with a radical conclusion here, this is ultimately just about working together to build a society that works for everybody and that directs resources towards what people need instead of what makes stock numbers go up. Defunding the police won’t even get us there, it’ll get us about halfway back to the post-war consensus, but it is at this moment the necessary standard on which we absolutely cannot compromise. As charged with potential as this moment feels, no one really knows where it’s ultimately going to go. But it definitely won’t go anywhere unless we refuse to be snowed by useless cowards like DeBlasio, charlatans like McKesson, or, yes, smooth-talking imperial managers like Obama. Anyone taking this issue seriously knows by now what our goal has to be and who our enemies are, and by that fact necessarily adopts the minimum moral responsibility to hold the fucking line.