Occupy Wall Street & the Police

Police brutality against protesters

The violent actions of the police in response to the Occupy movement, especially in New York, Denver, Atlanta and Oakland, are one component of the ruling class’ attempt to stifle dissent. These actions cannot in any way be justified. To its great credit, the movement has responded to these acts of intimidation by getting even more organized and coming out in even greater numbers.

The police are part of the capitalist state apparatus, the “armed bodies of men” in the service of the ruling class. They are used against the labor and student movements to break up strikes, picket lines, protests, and occupations. They are used to terrorize and intimidate minority and poor communities, all in the interests of defending the private property of the rich.

However, although understandable, the knee-jerk response of referring to police officers as “our enemies in blue” or “pigs” does nothing to raise the level of political discourse in the movement.  Of course, much of this is natural for a movement in the process of sharpening its politics and in a country without a labor party. Yet the task of socialists and Marxists is to patiently explain what is happening, to offer clear analysis and transitional demands in order to raise the level of consciousness among the working class.

There are no shortcuts to revolution.  No amount of sloganeering or pandering to inexperienced naivety will replace the hard work of building a Marxist leadership that will really make the 1% pay for their crisis. How we deal with the repressive forces of the state is therefore a question of correct tactics and orientation.

As many first-time protestors at OWS have discovered, the state does not stand politely to the side as the workers begin to move. This begs the obvious question of whose interests it looks after. The state is not a neutral arbiter standing over society, as some idealists have suggested.  Rather, it is a product of a particular society and the relations of production and property which brought such a society into being.

In the last analysis, the structure of a state roughly corresponds to the way in which the ruling class can most efficiently perpetuate the property relations which keep it in a privileged position.

Capitalism creates a situation in which an increasingly-small group of capitalists own the means of production for an increasingly-industrialized globe.  Lenin, in his work, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, analyzed the concentration of capital into industrial combines and financial monopolies during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the process has only become more pronounced as capitalism has spread to cover more and more of the globe. In America, the average CEO is paid 185 times more than the average worker; 10% own more than 80% of total wealth; and 400 individuals own more wealth than the bottom 50% of Americans combined. This creates a situation in which the number of workers tends to increase while that of those holding the productive forces and exploiting the workers becomes even smaller. So the capitalist minority must use the state with its army, prisons, etc. to keep the majority “under control.”

Those who say the police are not on our side are correct in a sense; the police force is set up against the interests of the working class.  Yet, things are not so clear and simple in reality. The police force is still made up of individuals working for pay.  However, as part of the state apparatus, they are not employed to create wealth but to safeguard it. Their position as part of a coercive force also distances them from other state workers employed in education, administration, maintenance, social services, etc.

How then, do we explain the “cops for labor” during the mass demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin, earlier this year? Firefighters and police were exempt from Walker’s proposed law and even so, hundreds of them joined the occupation of the capitol. Are these the actions of a unified reactionary bloc, marching in lock-step to smash the unruly workers? The police are unionized, and clearly a layer of the police in Madison saw themselves represented in organized labor. Although their job involves protecting the capitalist state, a significant layer also has an interest in defending itself through defending labor.

The structure of the police is very hierarchical, something familiar to most workers. So, it follows that there are layers of the police more privileged than others, and thus more invested in maintaining the status quo. This is especially important in the context of the crisis of capitalism. As workers the world over have seen in the last few years, the capitalist class will spare nothing in its desperate struggle to save itself. Like a drowning man, it will pull down anything it can with reckless abandon in order to keep afloat for another moment. The bourgeoisie will not even spare its own state apparatus; all over the world, austerity measures are stripping the state machines bare. In the U.S., police forces are being cut, drastically in some cases. Naturally, most of the cuts are among the lower ranks of police, and this contributes to building dissension.

And in this lies the key to correct orientation. Anything that draws attention to the antagonisms and contradictions between the different layers of the police, while also pointing at the antagonism between the rank-and-file officers and the rich they are hired to defend, thus splintering the force, is good for the politicizing workers. Anything that alienates us from the broader masses of our class, while also steeling the ranks of the police by chasing the would-be sympathizers into the arms of reaction, assures our defeat.

Ultimately, only the conscious, revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the working class can succeed in dismantling the coercive apparatus of the capitalist state. As part of this struggle, an independent mass party of labor, armed with a socialist program, would put forward the demand to nationalize the financial sector, and many police officers would agree. The heavy battalions of labor, by waging a relentless political and economic struggle against the 1%, while also calling on the police unions to defend the rights of working class Americans, would make it much more difficult for the bosses to maintain control.


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