by Michael D. Yates
In 2017, Daniel Fetonte was elected to the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a rapidly growing left-wing organization in the United States. Fetonte was co-chair of the Austin, Texas, branch of the DSA and had been involved in labor union organizing for many years. However, he had also been employed by the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, the largest police union in the state, with a membership of 21,000 police officers. When DSA members learned of this, many raised objections, arguing that anyone representing cops, who are the perpetrators of assaults, including numerous murders, on working people, especially if they are black, should not be an officer in an organization such as the DSA. (Can the Working Class Change the World?)
Fetonte was eventually forced to resign. Today, with police murders and assaults on people of color leading to worldwide protests, cops are assaulting old men, news reporters, legal observers, putting out people’s eyes with plastic bullets, spreading teargas near and far, and jailing thousands in crowded cells, denying them habeas corpus, it is difficult to believe that there was debate in DSA about Fetonte. Police are doing these deeds in full view of television cameras and smartphone videos. If it never before occurred to many of us, doesn’t it now seem obvious to every thinking person that police are not workers, not members of the working class? They are, instead, the enemy of those who labor.
We say, “Law Enforcement.” What does that mean? A look at history tells us that the laws have always had extreme bias built into them. In the United States, the Constitution itself, embraced slavery. So, enforcing the law meant enforcing slavery. On the ground, applying the law meant it was fine to beat and torture human beings, because the law considered them property, to be done with as the slaveowner saw fit. If slaves escaped, public and private “police” were free to capture them, even kill them if necessary, though it was expected that property be returned intact(and the owner might punish or kill the slave catcher failed to do so). After the Civil War, there was a brief period of federal government protection of former slaves, but this ended in 1877, and there followed a century of legally sanctioned violence, including innumerable lynchings of black men and women. There also followed mass incarceration, with prisoners farmed out to businesses in what amounted to a new form of slavery, one that continues today with the incredible rise in imprisonment of black persons, what Michelle Alexander calls the “New Jim Crow.”
The last paragraph could be rewritten with Indigenous Peoples or Mexican Americans substituted for Black Americans. They have been continuous victims of police violence. American Indians were slaughtered by the U.S. Army and are today routinely subjected to police barbarity. Throughout the Southwest, Mexican Americans were hanged by mobs and otherwise treated with extreme cruelty, without recourse to police protection. Today, the U.S. government is holding Hispanic immi- grant children in concentration camps.
The law is also biased in favor of property over persons. Ownership of businesses, buildings, machinery, and so forth enjoys all manner of legal protection, exactly what we would expect in a capitalist system. Urban police forces were originally established to quell disturbances by city workers protesting working conditions and merchants raising prices of bread and other essential products above their traditional levels. Similarly, national guards and their ubiquitous armories were put in place or greatly expanded in response to the great labor uprising in 1877. Their job was (and is) to protect business property from damage. Harm to people is simply collateral damage, the fault of those who had the temerity tot rise up in the first place.
Even the labor laws, which presumably give workers collective rights, go out of their way to protect employer property from boycotts, strikes, and pickets. What is more, police and even the U.S. Army have been regularly deployed to break strikes, using force and murder when necessary. Prosecutions for such behavior have been extremely rare.
Today, police have organized themselves into powerful unions. And they have been aided and abetted by U.S. organized labor. Consider this, taken from an essay I am writing, especially next time you imagine that the U.S. labor movement, as currently constituted, can transform itself and suddenly become a force for the liberation of the working class: Both the AFL-CIO and national unions have chartered police union locals. What is more, police unions routinely negotiate collective bargaining agreements that make it nearly impossible to severely discipline cops who maim or even kill working people, especially if they are people of color. Town and city government officials are typically in league with the police unions, receiving large donations from them and usually serving the same rich constituents. Recently, The Center for Public Integrity sought comments from top union leaders concerning police violence and police unions. Its reporter wrote: “None were willing to talk about police unions. Trumka, of the AFL-CIO, was too busy to chat. The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union couldn’t fit a call into his schedule. Teamsters President James Hoffa declined to comment.
Silence from the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, United Auto Workers, Communication Workers of America, Unite Here and the American Federation of Teachers.
Labor leaders briefly talked about police unions in response to a reporter’s question Wednesday. They seemed uncomfortable.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said no union contracts should shield employee misconduct, but that focusing on collective bargaining is a ‘false choice.’”
In the wake of the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Trumka made this remarkable statement: “Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother who works in a grocery store, is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member, and Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, is a union member, too, and he is our brother.”
We cannot prevent cops from having their own organizations. But we can demand that they not be given sanction by our labor spokespersons and their unions. We can demand that police be outside the purview of labor laws meant to protect workers, not murderers and torturers (not too strong a word for the notorious Chicago Police Department and many others). Because make no mistake about it, the police are our enemy. We must have entirely different conceptions of public safety, as well as prisons and justice. The more radical our demands, the better. We live in a sick, depraved system. Destroy it root and branch, as we learn to care for ourselves, collectively and democratically. We owe this, at the least, to the memory of the myriad struggles of Black, Hispanic, Native American, and all the workers who fought so bravely to turn the tide against police brutality and the depredations that are the daily lives of all who live under capital’s yoke.
Michael D. Yates is the Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press. His latest book is Can the Working Class Change the World? (Monthly Review Press, 2018) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This essay originally appeared in Counterpunch on June 12, 2020.
For two decades, Chicago police routinely tortured suspects. They “beat suspects with telephone books, flashlights, batons, and baseball bats. Some victims described being burned, either by their flesh pressed against hot radiators or by having cigarettes put out on their bare skin. Some were nearly suffocated with plastic typewriter covers. Other torture survivors reported having guns put to their head or in their mouth, and being struck with cattle prods.Kelly Hayes, The Appeal, Dec. 6, 2019