Defund the police, not the working class

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Most workers see current calls to defund the police as against their interests. They may be right. That’s why we need to advocate an anti-police politics that empowers the working class.

The killing of George Floyd sparked a radical shift in the way we talk about policing in the US. It’s not just unprecedented popular support for police reform. People are daring to imagine, many for the first time, how we can address social problems without police. Black Lives Matter activists have introduced tens of millions of people to the idea of police and prison abolition. Trouble is, the working class seems to be against it.

According to a recent poll by the Huffington Post, a person’s attitude towards defunding the police depends strongly on their political identification, age and level of education. Race doesn’t seem to have much of an impact: 26% of white people said they support defunding the police, while 29% of Black people did. This is not to say that Black and white people have similar feelings about police in general: 44% of white people agreed that “The police system is basically sound, but needs some improvement,” while only 13% of Black people did. The call to defund the police, whatever that means exactly, seems to divide people along different lines.

Disagreement about defunding the police runs along a class divide: only 24% of people with a high-school education support defunding the police, compared to 43% of postgraduates. This is not “class” as in “how much money you make,” but class as in what kind of jobs you tend to work. The distinction is between the working class, who work blue-collar jobs, and the professional-managerial class (or “PMC”), which includes academics, artists, journalists and engineers. Attributing the disagreement about police to a lack of formal education itself amounts to little more than classist resentment. And that logic serves to avoid hard questions about how the economic interests of workers (and of activists) relate to policing.

Many activists reach for historical context to justify and understand the struggle against policing. Strike-breaking and labor repression, along with controlling enslaved and indigenous populations, were central to the formation of modern policing. This history would suggest an antagonism between police and the working class. But today, such antagonism is largely absent. The conditions that produce their contemporary relationship are more immediate.

I'd like to suggest that many people support the police because it is among the last good jobs available to those with a high school diploma or associate's degree. It’s a career, and widely regarded as a respectable one. Police have some of the strongest unions in the country. And police work is a lot safer than its supporters like to make it out to be. This makes for a stark contrast with the rest of the blue-collar job market, where only 10% of workers are unionized, and where since 2000 more than a quarter of US manufacturing jobs have gone offshore or otherwise dried up.

Many activists argue that merely reducing police funding, in the absence of additional spending elsewhere, would amount to a kind of “progressive austerity.” This is absolutely right; the other side of defunding the police must always be re-funding communities. The trouble comes in the details. Often, people are advocating very generally for more public sector spending around education, healthcare, and mental health support. These are sectors which are predominately staffed by the professional-managerial class. Unless specific and explicit solidarity with the working class can be created, new funds for communities are unlikely to benefit their most precarious members.

In the absence of such solidarity, calls to defund the police will effectively be a vehicle for bourgeois class struggle against the working class of every race.

Tech companies and big brands have given vocal and vigorous support for the movement for Black lives. Yes, they’re trying to scrub clean their brands, which in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic were under public scrutiny for monopolistic and anti-labor practices. And many are also attempting to introduce #disruptive technology to policing. But these explanations can’t account for the same vocal support coming from NGOs and the academy. A class analysis suggests another possibility: changes to law enforcement present opportunities to increase the share of the economy and the social position occupied by the class which makes up most of their salaried and decision-making workforce.

The first step Minneapolis took into abolishing the police was to hire some consultants.

Of course, most people who support defunding—myself included—would say they aren’t motivated by jobs or money. But the power of class analysis comes from its ability to put aside our intellectualized reasons for our beliefs. I wish that defunding the police was inevitably pro-poor and pro-worker. But if it was, it would probably have popular support.

So let’s say we’re not satisfied with a vision of defunding the police which, however incidentally, transfers public wealth to the class which is calling for defunding the police. How can we recuperate the morality which is at the core of the demand for the end of the violence and oppression wrought by the police and the prison industrial complex? What might a pro-labor defunding of the police look like?

What kinds of jobs, what kinds of careers might the 65% of the US population without a four-year degree come into solidarity to create?

Activists need to work with blue-collar communities to try to answer these questions. This is the key to forming an anti-racist and working-class coalition. I don’t take the loss of the working class to reactionary populism as a foregone conclusion. But we’ve got to recognize that it’s the road we are on.

We could look in any number of directions. How about public infrastructure spending, including the construction of public housing towards a housing-first approach to homelessness? Staff for harm-reduction programs? Or non-police first responder services like EMTs? Or community health workers?

We need to begin to take an intersectional approach towards anti-police politics. In an age where the champions of intersectionality tend to be metropolitan and well-credentialed, that means building solidarity across economic lines.