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Can Biden reform the police?
In the fifth and concluding article in our series on the new Biden administration, Hannah Sell, the Socialist Party's general secretary, looks at one of the most contentious issues in the USA today - policing. What is the new president's response to the demands of the anti-racist Black Lives Matter movement for wide-ranging change?
In the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement swept the US and the world. The brutal murder of George Floyd by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was the spark for the movement.
Newly elected Democrat President Joe Biden promised that his 'George Floyd Police Reform Bill' would pass by the anniversary of his murder on 25 May. The deadline was missed.
Meanwhile, there have been more police killings, including a 13-year-old Latino boy, Adam Toledo, shot dead by the Chicago police in March 2021. At this stage the BLM movement has subsided, as protesters hope that Biden will be pushed into taking effective action. If he fails to, however, a new wave of struggle will erupt.
What are the prospects for Biden successfully reforming the police? No meaningful reform was carried out under the last Democrat president, Barack Obama. In 2016, the last year of his presidency, there were still over 1,000 police killings, with black men nine times likelier to be killed than other Americans.
It was under Obama's rule that BLM demonstrations erupted across the country in 2014 in response to the police killings of two black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. No one was prosecuted for either crime. Under the pressure of the 2020 movement, however, Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd. Does this indicate that under Biden some change will actually take place?
The final contents of the George Floyd Police Reform Bill are not yet clear, nor whether it will ever pass in any form. It has been passed by the House of Representatives twice, but has failed to pass through the Senate to date. The last time it went to the Senate not a single Republican voted for it, and it would take the support of all 50 Democrats, plus ten Republican Senators for it to pass.
Senate bipartisan negotiations between Democrats and Republicans are currently taking place. But if any agreement is reached, it will undoubtedly dramatically water down the already limited bill.
The original bill that was passed through the House of Representatives did include some reforms, including banning choke holds, changing the threshold for use of force from "reasonableness" to being "necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury", and increasing the powers of the Federal Justice Department to investigate police forces. It also promises to limit police departments' supply of military grade equipment.
However, even if every one of these measures was to make it onto the statute books, something that would clearly be welcomed by BLM campaigners, it would not transform the deeply engrained repressive, racist and violent character of American policing.
Britain's police force is certainly 'not innocent', as BLM protests here rightly proclaim. But to give an idea of the greater levels of police violence in the US, between the start of 2015 and June 2020 a horrific 6,451 were recorded as killed by the police there.This compares to 23 over the same period in Britain - a killing rate 56 times that of Britain accounting for population size.
Of those killed in the US, 3,353 were white, 1,746 were black, and 1,152 were Latino. Given the make-up of the US population, those figures show that you are far more likely to be killed by the police if you are black. The rate of killings is 7.9 per million for the black population compared to 3.3 per million for whites and 3.5 per million for Latino people.
Social class factors
There is also another important factor in whether you are more likely to face police violence: social class. One study divided local communities into five categories based on poverty levels, and showed that in the poorest fifth the likelihood of being killed by the police was 6.4 per million, compared to 1.8 per million in the richest fifth.
So, if you are working class you are more likely to be killed. But if you are black and working class you are at even more risk.
The same story can be told about other aspects of the US state. The US has the highest level of incarceration in the world. In 2016, 2.3 million people were imprisoned in the United States; a rate of 698 people per 100,000. African Americans make up 13% of the population but 40% of those locked up.
As the levels of people imprisoned have rocketed, so has the proportion of prisoners who are from the poorest sections of society. One indication of this is that in 1970 someone from the least educated section of the population was seven times more likely to be imprisoned than someone in the most educated quarter. By 2017 the disparity had soared to 48 to 1!
The racist character of the US state is intertwined with the racist character of capitalism, including the specific characteristics of US capitalism, which developed with a large black population making up a significant minority of the rural poor and working class, suffering vicious institutional racism.
As Malcolm X famously said: "You can't have capitalism without racism." The mighty US civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s - with Malcolm X prominent in the struggle, followed by the Black Panthers at its high point - was able to win important gains, but it did not overcome racism.
In the wake of the civil rights movement, the US capitalist class set out to create a black elite, in order to increase the stability of their system by giving some African Americans a 'stake' in the American dream. A black US president and now vice-president, unimaginable at the time of the civil rights movement, is an indication of how much has changed.
At the same time, however, the US overall is more unequal than ever. In 2019, the last year for which figures are available, the gap between rich and poor was the widest ever recorded.
Since then we've had the Covid pandemic, with the impoverishment of millions while the wealth of the richest soared, creating 56 more US billionaires in 2020 alone. African Americans remain overwhelmingly concentrated in the poorest sections of the working class, with racism endemic in the structures of society.
Racist police killings are not just a question of a few bad apples. It is true that there is considerable evidence of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groupings within the police, and that they have been given more confidence by Trumpism.
However, the root cause of the 'institutional racism' of the police is that they are part of a state apparatus which is not neutral, but ultimately exists to defend the existing capitalist order, based on the exploitation of the working-class majority by a tiny, highly privileged elite. This is true in Britain as well, but is particularly starkly posed in the US.
One of the demands adopted by many in the BLM movement is 'defund the police'. This has been a response not just to police brutality, but to the vast sums spent on the police compared to the amounts spent on other aspects of the public sector, such as social welfare. In Milwaukee, for example, 58% of all city funds are spent on policing!
In Britain, in the past, the existence of a mass workers' party - Labour - albeit with a capitalist leadership, was an important factor in aiding the working class in winning important reforms, including the NHS and a raft of social benefits. These have been dramatically undermined over the last decades by pro-capitalist Labour governments as well as the Tories.
In the US, however, where there has never yet been the development of a mass workers' party, the capitalist state has always delivered far more repression against minorities and the labour and socialist movement, and less welfare.
After four years of Trump, millions of Americans are hugely relieved at the election of Biden. There are also hopes that his stimulus packages can improve the lives of working-class Americans. Nonetheless, the Democrats are a capitalist party, and Biden's goal is not to act in the interests of the working-class majority but to strengthen US capitalism.
Historically, he has supported an increase in police repression. For example, when Clinton was the Democrat president, Biden helped author the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which deployed and trained more police officers, increased prison sentences, and built more prisons.
Now, having nodded to the BLM movement with the Police Reform Bill, he is concentrating on emphasising how he wants more, not less, funding for the police. It is clear that the fight against police racism and brutality cannot rely on the Biden presidency, but on the kind of magnificent mass mobilisations that we've seen in BLM.
To win victories, however, it will also be important to discuss what programme should be adopted. When the massive BLM demonstrations erupted in the wake of George Floyd's murder, they had very high levels of popular support. According to one Washington Post poll, an overwhelming 74% of Americans supported the movement. This pointed to the potential for building a powerful movement, able to win decisive victories.
Later in 2020, however, popular support did ebb to some extent. Trump cynically whipped up allegations of violence by demonstrators in an effort to mobilise his base for the presidential elections.
In reality, protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, and it was BLM protesters who were victims of violence both from the police and from armed right-wing vigilantes egged on by Trump.
Reactionary, frenzied denunciations of the BLM movement are inevitable from Trump and his ilk and protesters should not give an inch to them, or step back from struggle on the basis of the level of support they have in opinion polls at any particular moment. No oppressed grouping ever won its demands by passively waiting for other sections of the oppressed to support their cause.
Nonetheless, far more than at the time of the civil rights movement, the possibility exists today for a mass united struggle of black, white and Latino workers.
One factor in this is the greater anti-racist conscious of big sections of the working class, reflected in the multi-ethnic character of the BLM demonstrations. But most important is the ongoing crisis of capitalism which is threatening the future of all working-class young people.
Given that 63% of the US population is non-Hispanic white, winning large sections of the US white working class is an important step to victory. As capitalist crisis develops, even some sections of white workers who have currently swallowed the capitalist lies that it is black workers rather than capitalism that are responsible for their misery, can potentially be won to an anti-racist mass united struggle.
Achieving this requires linking the fight against racism to the vital economic and social questions of jobs, homes and public services, and raising demands that point to capitalism's responsibility for the impoverishment of all sections of the working class.
It also requires taking a skilful approach to the question of the police. Biden has repeatedly denounced the 'defund the police' slogan, ultimately because he does not, in reality, have any intention of making fundamental changes.
However, it is also true that it is a slogan that is easily picked up and deliberately misinterpreted by the right in order to discredit the movement.
The police force plays a dual role in society. It is a repressive apparatus, but it is also all that is available to deal with the crime and violence from which the working class in particular suffer.
According to the Financial Times: "Murders in New York rose last year by 43% - and are on track to be higher this year than last. The situation is even uglier in Chicago, which is close to its 1974 peak when almost 1,000 people were murdered. Ditto across urban America."
A call to 'defund the police' can create fears that the demonstrators want to abolish all law enforcement. As a result, even among African Americans polls show that only around a quarter supported the slogan.
An overwhelming majority could be won, however, to the meaning many BLM protesters would give to the 'defund the police' slogan, such as demilitarising the police, ending violent and repressive measures, and increasing spending on social services and affordable secure public housing.
There would also be support for the key demand of democratic control over the police. Raising demands such as the formation of community control boards for each precinct, composed of democratically elected residents with the ability to hire, fire, subpoena, investigate, and charge police officers, along with setting police budgets, would point towards the entirely different character the police would have if it operated under the control of and in the interests of the working class, rather than the capitalists.
The battles for such a programme could win important concessions. Who can doubt, for example, that Chauvin would not have been sent to prison were it not for the BLM movement?
However, to fully achieve these demands it will be necessary to overthrow capitalism and build a new democratic socialist society, based on meeting the needs of all rather than the profits of a few.
The building of a mass party of the working class, independent of the Democrats - bringing together all the different struggles against injustice in the US - will be an important first step.
In The Socialist 30 June 2021:
What we think
Biden police reform