In The Fight For Justice, The Police Can Only Be On One Side
3:01 PM EDT on May 3, 2023
In the waning days of the 2023 Chicago mayoral election, the head of the city’s police union menaced that a victory by former public school teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson would cause as many as 1,000 of the city’s almost 12,000 police officers to quit. And because subtlety has never been a strong suit of the Fraternal Order of Police, John Catanzara punctuated his don’t-threaten-me-with-a-good-time claim of mass resignations with the equally hyperbolic claim that a Johnson victory would create “blood in the streets.”
Though he backed away from it during his mayoral run, Johnson surely earned the ire of the FOP for his statement during the 2020 rebellion that defunding the police was “an actual, real political goal.” The FOP backed Johnson’s opponent, Paul Vallas, a corporate education reformer most known for undermining public schools around the country. A week before the election, The New York Times cast the race as a tale of two unions: “Chicago’s mayoral race pits the teachers union against the police union.” (Spoiler alert: The teachers union won.)
The Times had it right: CTU and the local FOP have different visions for the city of Chicago, and the country. It would not be a stretch to say that their approaches are diametrically opposed. Casting itself as the warrior-heroes keeping the city safe from annihilation, the FOP has defended several members accused of brutality or murder while its department protects the city’s elite. CTU, on the other hand, has been a nationally influential example of social justice unionism. Its 2012 strike united teachers, parents, and students in demanding safe and affirming schools where everyone is cared for and augured an inspiring—and infectious—fighting spirit among teachers unions.
Yet in After Black Lives Matter: Policing and Anti-Capitalist Struggle, political scientist Cedric Johnson (no relation to the mayor-elect of Chicago) attempts to convince readers that the FOP and the officers it represents not only have common cause with the CTU and members of the labor movement, but a necessary role to play in building a socialist future. Johnson perhaps understands how counterintuitive that sounds, rightly acknowledging that “[p]olicing continues to exist for the advancement of the interests of capital” and that a series of transformations to American cities and suburbs since World War II have rendered Black, brown, and increasingly white, working-class people disposable to the broader economy and thus susceptible to carceral violence. A fierce critic of neoliberalism, Johnson even says his book is “inspired and informed by the left-wing of contemporary antipolicing struggles.” But that solidarity is hard to find in this contrarian book, which derides the left wing of contemporary anti-policing struggles while posing that anti-capitalism can be advanced without challenging police power.
After Black Lives Matter begins by rehashing a tired and tedious argument that treats anti-racism as a barrier to social change. Johnson joins the bustling tradition of self-described leftists dismissing the Black Lives Matter movement as “innate liberalism and ethnic politics” that is antithetical to coalition building, while choosing not to find any meaning in the fact that the summer of 2020 saw millions of people across class and demographic lines joined together to rebel against a violent and oppressive police state. Though he acknowledges that the carceral system concentrates its violent regulation on the lives of Black and brown urban working class communities, he nonetheless describes a decade-old movement rooted in that premise as a handmaiden of neoliberal capitalism. When it comes to proving these claims, the book is not beleaguered by evidence. Indeed, while Johnson spends 13 pages discussing Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Senator who infamously described Black families as trapped in a “tangle of pathology” due to the outsized power of Black women, he does not even mention Vision for Black Lives, the statement endorsed by more than 50 organizations that is the closest approximation to a political platform for BLM.
For a book about Black Lives Matter, Johnson has surprisingly little to say about Black Lives Matter. Yet his critiques of the movement unfold through a perplexing discussion of the purpose and nature of policing, which is worth unpacking. He begins from the premise that police are essential because coercion is “a necessary aspect of political life,” and the only type of coercion he imagines is that enforced by Billy clubs and predator drones. The problem, he maintains, is not policing but police brutality. He uses the examples of federal troops occupying the South following the Civil War and the National Guard's deployment to the same region a century later to suggest that police have been “necessary to secure racial justice, a fact that is lost sight of in the time of Black Lives Matter” (emphasis in original).
Lost in these historic examples, however, is any acknowledgement that the closest approximation of such federal intervention “in the time of Black Lives Matter” has been the use of consent decrees and DOJ investigations to reign in notoriously abusive police departments. That such measures—already far short of what anti-policing organizers have pursued—have failed to curb the many structural problems of modern police is hardly a vote of confidence that police departments are necessary guardians of racial justice. Johnson does not outline how either municipal or federal authorities might check the undue influence of police power. Instead, through the labor movement, Johnson sees police as having a potentially progressive role to play in supporting collective bargaining rights and confronting the relentless automation that, alongside the broader transformation of the United States from an industrial economy to a consumer economy, is to blame for modern police brutality.
His defense of the need for police leads him to dismiss abolition for a curious reason: public opinion polling. And Hollywood. Johnson says that police being “valorized in popular entertainment, especially television and film” demonstrates that “[p]ublic perceptions of police” remain “favorable.” Johnson uses the prevalence of police in popular culture in an attempt to expand our notion of what police do. “While police killings have dominated activist understandings of the institution,” he writes, “so much of the work that police do, such as procedural work and public relations, is mundane and largely valued by majority publics.” He seems unaware, however, that police presence in such mundane “procedural work” increases bad outcomes in schools, traffic enforcement, and responding to mental health crises, and that much of the “public relations” work of police—what some critics call “copaganda”—is aimed at naturalizing their repressive authority.
It’s curious to see Johnson, a socialist, place so much stock into opinion polling and popular culture—but only as it relates to the value of police. (Maybe we should have burned down more police stations when it was popular.) Nowhere in the book does Johnson ask us to turn away from anti-capitalism just because capitalism, despite its many demonstrable harms, still polls pretty well. Perhaps he’s more convinced than I am that Knives Out may yet turn the American public against capitalism.
Selectively using polling data to bludgeon abolitionist demands but not socialist ones is disingenuous as a research method and self-defeating as politics, given that many movement participants share both goals. (Take, for instance, the push for a federal job guarantee and a Green New Deal, or local initiatives like the Chicago “treatment not trauma” campaign.) Regardless, polls are a weak tonic for socialists. As Stuart Hall observed, “politics does not reflect majorities, it constructs them,” and social change is not made by doing what is already popular. It is made through organizing and contestation. Johnson affirms this at times, such as his positive discussion of a 2015 Black Lives Matter demonstration that shut down portions of a posh Chicago shopping district, and his declaration that “there is no other way forward but through politics.” But the book’s contrarian impulse too often pulls him away from a strategic politics of contestation toward a chaotic politics of condescension. After Black Lives Matter makes a series of dubious, even contradictory claims. He describes abolition as “anarcho-liberal assertions.” While the demand to defund the police “represents the promise of Black Lives Matter as a political force,” he alternately says it “may not be ambitious enough,” but has also somehow been taken over by “rightwing lobby organizations,” while being upheld by “wokelords” pushing the “defeated horizon of welfare statism.”
The entire project is felled by this incoherence: Johnson urges us to pursue an “abolition of a different sort—not the dismantling of police departments and the complete closure of prisons, but the abolition of the conditions that police have been charged with managing over the last half century of welfare-state devolution and privatization.” Don’t abolish the police, abolish the conditions. Ignore the cops, just eradicate capitalism: this is bargain-basement socialism. It is also a meaningless proposition. Police are the condition. Politicians who bend to police agencies’ every whim know this even more than anti-policing movements do. Police power is not just in their capacities for violence on the street but in shaping budgetary priorities—from the local level to the national. There is no pathway to the kind of radical transformation Johnson claims to want that does not run through police power. While Johnson twice names the need to “right-size and demilitarize police,” he devotes whole chapters objecting to abolition and defunding the police that never say what the “right size” is, or how welcoming police into the labor movement will either shrink their size or facilitate their demilitarization. (And, as abolitionists have shown, militarization is hardly the only problem with police.)
Johnson avers that police exist to uphold modern class relations and that the objective must be to eliminate “defense of capitalist interests.” How he imagines capitalism will be abolished while leaving the core function of police intact beggars belief. That may be why he never says how this “abolition of a different sort” can be achieved. If capitalism is abolished while the carceral system remains intact—a formulation so awkward that spellcheck may as well flag it for grammatical inconsistency— what will happen to the bloated budgets, military arsenal, qualified immunity, and urban warfare schools of the world’s most militarized police system? I want to live in the world that Johnson implies, where unions reign in police power and legislative majorities somehow eradicate class relations. But I live in the one where police departments kill people almost every day but refuse to stop massacres of school children, where police lobbying forces Democratic-run legislators to overturn modest bail reform they enacted, and where police slowdowns and PR-spin stoke crime-panic media to force progressive reformers out of office. Neither denying the political economy of racism nor ignoring the authoritarian threat of police moves us from this world to that one.
Johnson sees police as just another group of beleaguered public-sector workers, punching the clock in austere times. This leads him to allege that “Calls to cut police budgets and implement restorative justice programs, however, are leftist in form but rightist in substance.” Defunding the police, he says, follows the logic of privatization visited upon “public housing, education, the postal service and infrastructure development.” This is nonsense. To equivocate between the police and public-sector workers is to deny the reality that police budgets have grown consistently and voraciously while public-sector budgets have been slashed to the bone. If anything, decades of neoliberal defunding of the public sector teach us that the reverse is true: the call to defund the police is rightist in form but leftist in substance. Communities have seen their schools, libraries, parks, and post offices defunded while their police departments have acquired armored personnel carriers, drones, and sniper rifles. (The NYPD spent $553 million in overtime pay alone in the first three months of 2023 and negotiated a retroactive raise, while insisting on steep budget cuts to libraries, parks, and schools.) While Johnson worries this hardware facilitates automation of policing itself, police departments demand both more weapons of war and people to wield them.
As the Chicago FOP most recently made clear, police are the only “public-sector workers” that threaten to strike by promising blood in the streets. No other group of public-sector workers could do that. But also, no other group of public-sector workers would do that. Police are also the only government agency who lie so often and thoroughly that its mendacity has been upheld by the Supreme Court. They are the government employees routinely found to post racist and misogynist messages to private group chats or social media, or become members of far-right groups. No other public worker is armed to the teeth, told that they are a god on earth, and insulated from legal sanction. Johnson says “police unions are wrong on the matter of police violence,” but can otherwise be won over to (unnamed) proper political positions (through unnamed means). But state violence is anathema to working-class power, and being “wrong on the matter of police violence” is a disqualifying disposition. This union is wrong on the issues, but at least they fight for their members’ pensions—it rings like a Borscht Belt joke.
This cognitive dissonance reaches its apotheosis in Johnson’s discussion of the January 6 insurrection. He describes the thousands of Trump supporters who rallied to overturn the election as a “lumpen bourgeoisie, small profit-hungry entrepreneurs, allergic to taxes, state regulation and redistributive politics, and smitten by Trump’s brash and unapologetic performance of the capitalist boss.” On this we agree. Yet he does not mention that police were perhaps the most heavily represented profession present on January 6—and I do not mean the Capitol Police. Almost fifty current and retired police officers from 17 states, some of whom traveled across the country to participate, are known to have stormed the Capitol in an effort to keep Trump in power. Many more, no doubt, were active participants in the proto-fascist “stop the steal” rallies and Facebook groups preceding January 6.
While individual officers certainly vary in their politics, the police as an institution has always been the base for Trumpism; indeed, cops helped create it and are its truest exponents. So it is no surprise that the blue line who swarmed the Capitol continues to do the work of racial capital. Perhaps the police and sheriffs pushing rightwing causes (including attempts to limit voting rights) and upholding border vigilantism, abortion restrictions, transit fare enforcement, evictions, teen curfews, and other forms of repression against the criminalized majority of society are waiting in the wings to pursue social democracy. Then again, perhaps not.
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Dan Berger teaches at the University of Washington Bothell and writes about activism, Black Power, and the carceral state. His latest book is Stayed on Freedom: The Long History of Black Power Through One Family’s Journey.
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