Why does police authority exist?

James Rothenberg

Police brutality has again injected itself into the public eye. Today we see what could be covered up before. The actual crime. And because we see it, we feel it, making the brutality seem closer and more frequent. And then we witness the hostile reaction of lowly people to the coercive apparatus which enforces their subordination and we feel the rage of the lowly people. Or, do we?

Burning and looting is unsettling to watch, even when you understand it. And, particularly if you don’t understand it, you may think there’s a middle ground somewhere but none exists. What’s coming next — what has to come next — is increased force from above. Unless we want to be a part of that, we must consider ourselves lowly. This I gladly do because it puts me on a side.

Things don’t get by as much as they did in the pre-digital age. Oppression is not limited to skin color, but think back to the days when blacks were lynched. Not only were the perpetrators not hiding what they did, but they broadcast it in the widest ways possible to act as examples.

It’s possible that instances of police brutality have actually decreased proportional to population. Though this reasoning is unscientific, the restraining presence of security cameras, body cameras on police and ubiquitous cell phone cameras in peoples’ hands figure to have an effect greater than zero.

Of course it’s beside the point if we’re alarmed at a new level of police violence, or simply alarmed because this violence doesn’t escape our attention. If there is a distinction here, it is mentioned solely to get it out of the way for a different examination.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times by Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris bore the strong headline, “No More Money for the Police.” The authors observe that the Minneapolis Police Department, held up as a model of progressive police reform, has gone through all the recommended procedures you can think of but to what avail? It seems we haven’t had much luck in “training” police brutality away. At a certain point one cannot get away from concluding that police brutality is here because police are here.

“The problem is that the entire criminal justice system gives police officers the power and opportunity to systematically harass and kill with impunity.”

They further envision the power of the police being reduced and eventually abolished, along with the prisons, with the money — an estimated $100 billion — directed in ways more beneficial to society.

That’s a revolutionary thought, just as it was a century ago when Lenin wrote “The State and Revolution”. The Marxist analysis is that the state is an unnecessary evil, with the police (armed force) as the chief instrument of its power.

Lenin cites Friedrich Engels, co-author of “The Communist Manifesto” with Karl Marx, in that,

“The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without; …Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’…”.

“Engels elucidates the concept of the “power” which is called the state, a power which arose from society but places itself above it and alienates itself more and more from it. What does this power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc., at their command.”

Thus the special problem of whether police violence is becoming worse or not gives way to the general problem. Why does police authority exist? If it exists because “the state is a product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms” (Lenin), then we have to ask where the antagonism comes from. And if we find that the oligarchic class (the colloquial 1%) have interests that are inimical to the class of workers (the colloquial 99%), but especially so to the sub-classes of the 99% — the bottom 50% having nothing at all — we will have identified a source of the conflict.

If we then find that state power is associated with the oligarchy, it becomes clear that it has to be protected from any actual or potential movements from below, and — significantly — that it does not win on numbers.

The social function of the police is to protect and serve the certain interests of the state. Changing this involves taking the side of the proletariat in the class warfare which characterizes capitalism. Since this places one on an opposite side to the state, the problem of the police and the problem of the state become inseparable.

James Rothenberg, of North Chatham, writes on U.S. social and foreign policy.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1


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