Intro: There are millions of oppressed people inside the borders of the u.s., but I’m not one of them. I come from a privileged background. I’m not the main victim of the police. Nor am I a leader in the growing struggle against police violence. Recognizing how far I am from the front lines, I hesitated to write about cops at all.
In the end I decided that it’s important for all radicals, whether oppressed or privileged, to struggle for clarity about cops’ place in society.
There are many kinds of police, ranging from elite national political police like the FBI to local auxiliaries who direct traffic and write parking tickets. But at the heart of the police in the u.s. are its bands of street cops. These are the people who physically maintain “order,” dealing out street justice and funneling civilians into the prison system. All other aspects of police power revolve around them, and that’s what I discuss below. –B
U.s. cops killed over 1,130 people last year. They brutalized and tortured many thousands more. This systematic violence has nothing to do with “rogue cops” or “poor training.” It’s the predictable result of a carefully-camouflaged fact: cops are gangsters.
It’s not just that cops act like an ocupying army in oppressed peoples’ communities. Even though that’s certainly true. Or that cops repress ordinary people in the interests of the rich and powerful. (That’s true too, of course.)
I’m saying something additional: cops are literally criminals. That’s not an epithet or an insult; it’s a plain description. Cops have the parasitic vocation and the lumpen outlook of gangsters, violently preying on civilians to build themselves up. That’s their social and psychological character. It’s their class.
Capitalists and gangsters
To put this in perspective: The ruling class collaborates with gangsters—with organized crime—all the time. This is a perfectly normal part of modern capitalism.
In fact, there’s no hard and fast line between gangsterism and “legal” capitalism. Take the era of Prohibition, for instance. From 1920-1933, alcoholic beverages were illegal in the u.s. During that time the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol became the focal point of intense, murderous gangster competition, involving iconic mobsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. Today these exact same activities are completely legal and peaceful.
On the flip side, marijuana was a normal legal commodity in the u.s. until it was outlawed in 1937, during a burst of racist backlash against Mexican immigrants (who supposedly used it to seduce white women). Today this same crop is a major profit center for deadly and powerful gangsters, and thousands of people are in prison for possessing, selling or transporting it.
As historian Gerald Horne puts it, “Organized crime – the ‘big lumpen’ – historically has been one of the bourgeoisie’s chief allies in this nation in maintaining its hegemony. In return, gangsters have been allowed, in some instances, to evolve “respectably” to bourgeois status themselves. In any case, mobsters in this nation have enjoyed a form of enrichment that the bourgeoisie in many nations will never see. This has added a level of coarseness and lack of principle to the otherwise crude and unprincipled rule of the bourgeoisie.”
We know that some of the biggest capitalist fortunes in the u.s. were accumulated through organized crime. The “robber barons” like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Morgan became rich through the systematic use of thug mercenaries, corruption and fraud. The Kennedy clan made its first big money in bookmaking and bootlegging during Prohibition. They worked closely with the Mafia for decades. Henry Ford allied with organized crime to suppress unions.
Successful gangsters often try to diversify by investing their criminal assets in legal capitalist businesses. While for their part, “legal” capitalists turn readily to gangsterism to accomplish objectives that are difficult to achieve by other means. Modern capitalism as a whole is heavily dependent on organized crime, partly because the drug trade, human trafficking and arms smuggling are among the most profitable industries in the world.
In fact, the financial system would collapse overnight without gangster money. A few years back a whistleblower revealed how billions of dollars in profits from the Sinaloa cartel ended up in Wachovia Bank accounts in the u.s. between 2001 and 2004. Gangsters deposited their drug profits in small amounts at local currency exchange agencies (casas de cambio) in Mexico. This cartel money was then accepted for wire transfer to Wachovia branches here, where it became “legal,” no questions asked. Similarly, HSBC was recently forced to admit that they laundered billions of dollars belonging to Russian mobsters and Latin American drug cartels. The Bank of New York used shell corporations to organize the illegal transfer of $7 billion of Russian mafia money into the u.s. In 2011 the U.N. conservatively estimated that there was about $580 billion in organized crime money sloshing around in the world financial system, much of which was in the process of being transformed into “legal” investments.
Gangsterism and legal capitalism interpenetrate on many levels, and have various power relationships. Sometimes gangsters become strong enough to control large parts of a capitalist state, like narco cartels do now in Mexico. Many uniformed, official cops there report directly to the traffickers. (This hasn’t prevented Walmart and General Motors from making big profits in Mexico.) In the u.s., at least for now, it’s legal capitalists and their state who have the upper hand. These capitalists are proactive in their dealings with organized crime, though: they not only collaborate with gangsters, they also organize new gangs.
The interrelationship of u.s. capitalists and gangsters has a long history. Before permanent police forces even existed in the u.s., mercenary gangs were authorized to clear the way for settler land theft, and to enforce slave “law and order” for the capitalists and their governments. Gangs of “Indian hunters” such as the Pit River Rangers and the Oregon Militia were given official bounties for each Native person killed. California alone paid millions of dollars out of public funds to these murder squads. Slave patrols of white vigilante thugs were rewarded by plantation capitalists for capturing and “chastizing” escaped slaves. These early genocidal gangster mercenaries were the precursors of modern cops.
When radical labor insurgency erupted in the u.s. starting in the 19th century, leading industrialists relied on private police forces like the Pinkerton Coal and Iron Police to repress workers. These freelance mercenaries worked side by side with government cops and the military, acting with complete impunity. It didn’t matter that they didn’t have official badges. They used their own bombs, snipers, blackmail, arson and machine guns, and they reported directly to the capitalists who hired them.
In the 1980’s, the CIA collaborated with urban gangs to flood Black communities with crack cocaine and automatic weapons. The profits generated from this illegal trade were used to fund similarly illegal counterinsurgency gangs in Latin America. This kind of activity is routine. Criminal organizations, mercenaries and death squads have been employed by u.s. capitalists to repress the Left in dozens of places, from the New York waterfront to the streets of San Salvador.
Where do modern u.s. cops fit into this broader landscape of gangsters working for and with the ruling class?
First of all, police are institutionalized, “official” gangs. This reflects the fact that they are meant to act for the whole ruling class, rather than just a single capitalist group. Cops are sponsored and endorsed by the state; employed to keep the population under long-term control and to combat other gangsters who get too independent.
Instead of being paid as contractors, or through bounties, modern police get a regular government paycheck. But this doesn’t in any way indicate that street cops are mere government functionaries carrying out a list of instructions passed down through the political bureaucracy. While police may be paid as employees, they actually function as a confederation of loosely controlled gangs, with a broad mandate to terrorize civilians. Cops are given a free hand in enforcing “order.” They are also encouraged to create insular, thuggish, semi-militarized cliques that breed a lumpen culture with its own hunger for power. Like other organized crime groupings, they have their own strict internal codes of ethics and conduct that override and exist outside the law.
Cop influence extends outward into broader social layers, generating networks of informants, groupies, wannabes, hangers-on, cheerleaders and private donors. Cop-lovers attend rowdy cop parties, sign up as eager auxiliaries (like George Zimmerman), sponsor foundations to benefit cops, bring them donuts and plaster pro-cop stickers on their cars. These networks of civilian loyalty exist independent of the state, and are in fact generally contradictory to official state control. They have nothing to do with cops being civil servants. Rather, these support networks are drawn to cops’ independent street power. They are similar to the civilian networks that gather around other criminal confederations like the the Cosa Nostra and the Yakuza.
Intended to terrorize
When the capitalist state establishes and supports official police forces, it intentionally gives them wide leeway to function as semi-autonomous gangs. This has proven to be an effective formula that permits the ruling class to maintain a layer of separation and denial between themselves and the gangster violence they unleash. Capitalists pretend to have clean hands, even acting shocked by criminal cop behaviors. If public outcry becomes strong, their politicians re-shuffle top police leaders or initiate drawn-out bureaucratic investigations, making a superficial show of reining in police abuse. Nevertheless, it is fundamental to the ruling class’s repressive strategy that street cops operate with broad independence and impunity.
Cop violence is specifically intended to operate outside the law as well as inside. Police criminality isn’t a problem for the ruling class—it’s a solution. Cops are doing dirty work that regular state functionaries can’t do. Institutionalized, state-backed gangsterism is an effective tool of social dominance: it causes generalized fear and submission, while it also can be targetted at specific enemies. The ruling class recognizes that mad-dogging, upredictable sadism and deadly brutality are indispensible parts of the gangster arsenal, and considers their use by cops to be both inevitable and, with some limits, desirable.
From the cops’ point of view, impunity for criminal acts is a basic guarantee, an integral part of their vocation and their identity. They have little patience for politicians’ anxieties about public opinion, or capitalists’ desire to maintain ideological legitimacy. Cops strain to be let off the leash completely. Their lumpen instinct is to dominate the population through unchecked terror.
Cops push back hard against any attempts by civilian managers to establish day to day operational control. Police gangsters usually have the upper hand too, because they are indispensable to the ruling class and intimidating in their own right. Police have the power to make or break elected politicians. That’s why New York City Police Commmissioner William Bratton, currently the u.s.’s biggest celebrity cop, gets away with dictating policy to his supposed boss Mayor DeBlasio and publicly insulting the City Council. (His disrespectful comments play well with his underlings, although overall he is considered too compromising by regular NYPD cops.)
A parasitic way of life
Like other gangster forces, cops recruit heavily from the ranks of high school bullies, sadists and losers. Military drop-outs and children of cops also gravitate towards policing. All these people have a good idea of what they’re getting into. They want to become cops precisely because they get paid and rewarded for intimidating, assaulting and shooting people. San Antonio cop Daryl Carle could be the poster child. He bragged on Facebook that he loves his “job” because he can “kill people and not go to jail.” His bosses did think that was a little indiscreet of him. But nevertheless he’s still out there on street patrol with a badge and a gun.
As thugs, cops love the thrill of combat—as long as it’s one-sided in their favor. Listening to the media mythology about a so-called “war on police,” you might think that cops must take a lot of casualties. But actually, over the course of the police slaughter and torture that rolled across the u.s. last year, fewer than 40 cops were killed by suspects. Most of those deaths happened while responding to domestic disputes. As a point of comparison, hundreds of cops commit suicide every year in the u.s. By any statistical measure, being a cop is less dangerous than being a construction laborer or long-haul truck driver.
Then again, being a cop isn’t just a job; it’s a lumpen way of life.
Detective Louis Scarcella was an alpha cop in Brooklyn starting in the 1980s. He was involved in literally hundreds of murder investigations there. Scarcella, who was praised as one of New York’s top homicide detectives, is now suspected of obtaining fifty or more murder convictions using false evidence. At least six of these convictions relied on testimony from a single “eyewitness”—a desperate crack addict who appeared over and over in Scarcella’s cases, despite the fact that she kept contradicting herself. The entire “criminal justice system” looked the other way as Scarcella fabricated confessions, “lost” vital evidence, and pressured inmates to finger his hand-picked suspects in return for time out of jail, prostitutes and crack cocaine. Nobody even bothered to look for the real killers. Due to recent revelations by the media, a few of Scarcella’s victims are having their convictions thrown out; a handful of men (and one woman) are being released after more than 20 years in prison. Others are still incarcerated. Scarcella, meanwhile, has been enjoying a happy, taxpayer-funded retirement since 1999.
A recent Guardian investigation explored how routine it is for the most brutal cops to be protected, honored and promoted in Chicago. “A crew of detectives…used electric shock, suffocation and mock executions to coerce confessions of more than 120 men from the 1970’s through the early 90s.” The ringleader, Jon Burge, was convicted years later on trivial charges (obstruction of justice and perjury). He served only three and a half years in prison, and is still collecting his pension. The other cops involved in these crimes have never been charged at all. Another alpha Chicago cop, Francis Valadez, was honored several times and eventually promoted to Commander, even though he’s accused of coercing six murder confessions, plus battery and assault. In one case he tortured an injured man for 36 hours to obtain a confession that was later proved false by DNA testing. His resume also includes the fatal shootings of four people–so far. His most recent killing, in August, was of Rafael Cruz Jr., an unarmed man fleeing in his car. According to the Guardian, “Valadez has garnered 131 awards across three decades on the force.”
Cops are determined to dominate every situation they encounter. They insist on immediate obedience, whether warranted or not; legal or not. Attempts by civilians to protest their treatment or assert their rights are routinely answered with intimidation and violence. This carries over into cops’ private lives too. They walk around with feelings of entitlement and superiority even when they’re not on duty. Cops flash their badges and draw their weapons during traffic incidents and barroom brawls; they terrorize their personal enemies; they often beat up their families and their “beloved” K-9 dogs. They demand special privileges and civilian submission at all times.
Every day there’s new proof that u.s. police kill, rape and brutalize with impunity. Cops are also notoriously corrupt. Nightclubs, casinos and restaurants bribe them to get special treatment. Tow companies pay them off to generate more tows. Drug dealers and crime syndicates put cops on their payrolls as shields from arrest and prosecution.
Groups of cops run protection, arms and narcotics rackets; they rob banks and carry out murder for hire and human traficking. Many have dual gang loyalties. For instance, Texas “Cop of the Year” Noe Juarez turned out to be working for Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most vicious drug syndicates. He got them assault rifles, police scanners and access to police databases in the u.s., among other things. In the 1990’s, more than 70 supposed “anti-gang” police in L.A. were implicated during an investigation that uncovered assassinations, theft of massive amounts of impounded cocaine, routine use of false testimony and a level of brutality unusual even for the LAPD. It turned out that several of the cops were actually Bloods associates, who joined the police to get the upper hand over rival gangsters.
Corruption and outside illegal moonlighting can obviously undermine a police force if it gets too far out of hand. But a certain amount of individual criminal initiative is expected and admired. It’s normal lumpen behavior. Cops aren’t supposed to be choir boys; they’re gangsters.
Increasingly, u.s. police are encouraged to grab property, cars, electronics and jewelry from the civilians caught up in their investigations—even those who are completely innocent. Cops hold seminars to learn which items are easiest to resell, and how to “legally” get away with ripping off “little goodies,” as one enthusiastic DA calls them. In 2012, $4.3 billion worth of so-called “civil assets” were seized by police; seizures have gone up rapidly since then. Much of the loot from this “for-profit policing” goes right back into police department coffers to spend on anything they want. Some of it is handed directly to individual cops as bonuses.
Two tiny police forces in Florida—Bal Harbour Police and Glades County Sheriff’s Office—were recently discovered to have laundered over $55 million belonging to narco gangs. Under the pretext that they were conducting an “undercover investigation” into how illegal drug money got turned into legal assets, these enterprising cops accepted millions in money-laundering “commissions” from a range of criminal groups. Flush with unaccountable cash, the cops bought fancy cars, guns and computers, partied at high end resorts, and withdrew over $831,000 in cash out of a slush fund. They didn’t arrest a single “money launderer.”
Cops lie about pretty much everything. That goes with the badge. Scarcella, Burge, and Valadez are no isolated examples. It’s completely routine for cops to plant evidence, frame innocent people using false testimony, coerce confessions through torture and doctor their reports. The other gangster cops cover for them unconditionally under a strict code of silence. If civilians happen to inconveniently catch a cop in a lie, nothing serious happens to them anyway, no matter how dire the consequences for innocent people.
In the early days of the u.s., police were virtually all white settler thugs. Most of them still are. A key function that police carry out for their political sponsors—and for themselves—is to repress whatever rebellions and freelance organized street gangs emerge among oppressed peoples. Cops are eager to do this. Their own goal in carrying out repression has nothing to do with safety or security for civilians. They’re not even mainly concerned with helping their capitalist patrons. Instead, their aggressive presence in ghettos, barrios and reservations is an opportunity to advance their “careers” and to enforce their own violent gang supremacy. Within oppressed communities, cops look at rebels and street gangs as turf rivals, to be dominated and eliminated as competitors.
The police are riddled with (and sometimes led by) extreme white supremacist sub-cliques. For example, the “Lynwood Station Vikings” was just one of a series of “elite” racist sub-gangs that have emerged inside the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department over the years. Fully-blooded Vikings (including some top department officers) had “998” tattood on their ankles, referring proudly to the code for “officer-involved shooting.” Membership in this gang-within-a-gang was by invitation only. But all the cops knew about it. The walls of Lynwood Station were openly decorated with racist cartoons of Black men as well as a map of the police district drawn in the shape of Africa. Efforts to discipline the Vikings were heavily discouraged by top LASD brass, even in the face of negative publicity and numerous costly civil rights lawsuits.
Historically, membership in police gangs has served as an access point into white privilege in the u.s. For instance, immigrant Irish—a nationality that was originally considered “non-white”—took advantage of police affiliation as part of a process of “graduating” to whiteness. By participating in officially-sanctioned armed gangs to enforce ruling class “law and order”—especially, repressing people of color—Irish cops proved their loyalty to u.s. capitalism, augmented their social prestige and helped their communities move up the racial heirarchy.
Although the FBI has taken the lead in organizing the repression of political dissent in the u.s., they often count on street cops as their rank and file enforcers. The larger urban police forces have their own counterinsurgency forces, too. It was LAPD cops—350 of them—that fired round after round into the Los Angeles headquarters of the Black Panthers in 1969, (trying unsuccessfully) to murder everybody inside. It was the Philadelphia Police department that attacked a MOVE house in 1985 with automatic weapons and firebombs, killing six adults and five children, and burning down more than 50 homes in the Black community.
Cops are predators. They intimidate, bludgeon, shoot and terrorize their way into a position of power, material comfort, prestige and privilege. Their “job” is actually a hustle; a disguised protection racket through which public money is used to oppress the public; we get to pay our own oppressors. On top of that, police use their gangster power to generate opportunities for endless corruption and sadistic gratification. But what about the good cops? The idealistic, friendly ones who just want to help their community?
No good cops
Gangsters, like all of us, are friendly or unfriendly depending on their personality and the specific situation. Some criminal organizations even like to project a benevolent façade alongside the lurking threat of violence. Good public relations can certainly be an asset for a gang, just like it is for a rapacious corporation or an opportunist politician. (Consider the mobster Giovanni Gambino, who made this carefully-calibrated pitch in an interview on NBC News: “The Mafia has a bad reputation, but much of that’s undeserved. As with everything in life, there are good, bad and ugly parts….”)
But what’s most important to us about police is their actions, not their image. And contrary to the usual media propaganda, police “work” is fundamentally incompatible with idealism or community service. How friendly a gangster acts doesn’t change their basic criminality when push comes to shove.
During the very first year on the street, each rookie cop witnesses incidents of sadistic cop brutality, blatant racism and glaring corruption right in front of their eyes. More often than not, these police crimes are committed by “role models”—the ones you’re supposed to admire and imitate if you want to succeed as a cop. After witnessing or participating in repeated abuse of civilians and other gangster behavior, a rookie cop’s collaboration becomes virtually irreversible. They’ve become part of a criminal subculture. Whatever their original dreams or loyalties were, they’ve now joined a gang and accepted its code. (In D. Watkins’ The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America, an East Baltimore resident describes a cop acquaintance: “He ain’t Black no more, he’s white! Better yet, he’s blue, he’s with the biggest gang in the city.”)
I want to emphasize this last point, because I believe it’s central to analyzing cops’ position in society. There are no good cops, no “public servant” cops. This isn’t a personal thing. But nobody can be part of the constant, pervasive racism, institutional brutality and ingrained corruption of policing in the u.s. and come out with clean hands.
In that respect, police are no different than other organized crime groups. Most organized crime is actually non-violent. And many gang members want it to stay that way; they are the growers, smugglers, lookouts or salespeople, who would prefer to live a fairly normal life. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t matter much in practical, class terms. Their affiliation with a parasitic criminal enterprise, their complicity, their loyalty and their silence makes them gangsters.
The same is true of “reluctant” u.s. cops: the ones who try to avoid gratuitous violence; the ones who wish they could just have a regular “career” enforcing the law, without all the unpleasant brutality. That’s not going to happen, though. If they really wanted to enforce the law, the first thing they’d have to do is arrest their partner, or their boss. They know better. And so should we.
Working class heroes?
Many u.s. citizens evade this reality. Instead of acknowledging that cops are gangsters, a lot of civilians mentally classify them as heroic skilled workers. That’s what we were taught, after all. The script is that cops are public servants doing a dirty but necessary blue-collar job, complete with union card.
The twisted pretense that police are working class heroes resonates strongly among privileged civilians, especially the worker elite, which often shares cops’ macho values and fear of the proletariat. Once we classify cops as exemplary workers worthy of our grateful support, why would we want to tie their hands? Aren’t police “working conditions” tough enough already?
The idea that cops are working class heroes should be easy to refute, since they repress each and every freedom struggle—including, of course, the struggles of oppressed workers. Cops have no intention of carrying out any actual labor, either.
For their part, police unions are notoriously rabid defenders of cop illegality, loudly demanding an absolute free hand in terrorizing the population. Cop “labor contracts” are full of provisions preventing prosecution—or any accountability at all—for the most sadistic elements in their ranks. Still, the tendency to identify cops as salt-of-the-earth uber-workers is remarkably persistent, suggesting it is deeply rooted in u.s. class politics.
No matter how many videos and eyewitness accounts of racist, murderous cops come to light, no matter how many popular political leaders are railroaded and assassinated, no matter how many picket lines and demonstrations are viciously beaten down, there’s still a loyal audience that clings to a narrative of heroic “good cops” who are being undercut by ungrateful civilians and unfairly tarnished by a few “bad apples.”
Some civilians argue that cops should be given immunity when they use illegal violence, because they are upholding righteous “law and order.” At the same time, others argue that cop criminality is completely abnormal—something that only happens when there is a rare breakdown of discipline. Logically, these two arguments cancel each other out. If cops are already acting legally, they don’t need impunity from criminal acts. And if you give cops impunity, you can’t pretend that they are supposed to act in a legal manner. These are in fact simply two contradictory threads of a single hypocritical authoritarian ideology. Meanwhile, out in society, thugs with paychecks and unions are still just thugs.
Depending on gangsters
Cop gangs are the largest organized crime groups in most parts of the u.s. Openly displaying their weapons, oozing arrogance, they have the run of the streets. In daily life, it’s almost impossible to completely avoid them. What’s worse is this: Because the police are so institutionalized, we ourselves can easily become complicit in their criminality.
Most of us are poorly-armed; vulnerable to criminals. To our misfortune, we sometimes find ourselves depending on a group of cop criminals to defend us. That isn’t just ironic; it’s disastrous. It undermines our freedom struggles and offends our human dignity.
We rationalize that it’s the cops’ “job” to protect us. (Even though we know that repressing people isn’t really a job.) We tell ourselves that, however bad the cops may be, at least they’re official, “approved” thugs, which makes them better than those “unapproved” thugs down the block. A more practical part of our brains calculates that the cops have their own selfish reason to protect us from the other criminals: they’re maintaining their status as the dominant gang.
Calling in cops may sometimes seem like the best of our bad options. Which means we need better options.
For one thing, asking for police protection often backfires. Cops have utter contempt for civilians, especially civilians who don’t have connections or privileges. We have to be very careful how we speak to them, constantly pantimoming respect and submission. Cop aggression is notoriously volatile, and can turn on us in a split second.
But even when calling the cops doesn’t backfire in such an immediate practical way, it still damages us. When we ask cops to protect us—to take control of emergencies in our lives and and resolve our problems—that helps make their ongoing atrocities against other people more legitimate. It draws us into the orbit of police criminality. To a greater or lesser extent, they take on the role of our preferred gang, our chosen thugs. That in turn becomes a point of poisonous unity with our rulers.
Because we live surrounded by violence and insecurity, civilians are tangled up in a knot of fear, helplessness and dependency on criminal cops. We have to untangle that knot before we can become free.
The new upsurge of mass struggle against cop violence in the u.s. is a very hopeful sign. But we also have to be prepared for what happens when the struggle against police power intensifies; when cops and their paymasters feel that their dominance on the street is threatened. Some of our most important radical leaders have been assassinated by cops. Others have spent decade after decade in hellhole prisons, captured in actual warfare with cops. When revolutionary struggle rises again, there will be more captives, and more casualties.
We don’t yet have a strong enough movement to carry out widespread community self-policing or militant counter-repression. In the meantime, it’s important to understand our enemy as deeply as possible. There have been desperate cries to end police brutality for a long time. But stopping it, I think, will involve recognizing cops’ fundamental criminality. Cops in the u.s. aren’t civil servants to be reformed. They aren’t workers to be retrained. They’re gangsters.
Even after I became a radical, I had a hard time really comprehending that the police were my enemy. I understood the concept, intellectually. But because I lived a sheltered life, it was kind of abstract. Are those macho working class guys you call when somebody steals your car really all that bad?
The first time I was in a demonstration that was violently attacked by police, it affected me strongly. Those cops really enjoyed beating and gassing us, even after we fled. Especially after we fled. In that moment, things were not so abstract.
Later I was in other demonstrations and picket lines attacked by cops. At the same time, cops kept murdering, framing and imprisoning prominent radicals. I was outraged, shaken. These were leaders of my movement. But in retrospect, I realize that I kept drifting back into a default civilian frame of mind about cops. Yes, I was a radical activist. And pigs were pigs; I got that on some level. But even my personal negative experiences didn’t fully revolutionize my attitude towards cops.
For a few years I worked at a job site where a bunch of cops hung out. They would come by to collect their payoffs, play with their guns and dogs and swap war stories. They didn’t know my political views of course. Seeing how cops acted when their guard was down was an eye-opening experience for me. I was particularly surprised that Italian mafia guys hung out at the same place (although usually not at the same time). The owner was “connected,” but he was also in tight with the cops. It worked out fine for him. This fascinatingly ugly scene did make a lasting impression. But afterwards, my attitude about cops was still full of contradictions. These cops were acting like criminals. But were they all like that, all the time? Or did they have some kind of dual role in society?
When I began working in industrial jobs, I saw that many of my co-workers also had contradictory thoughts about cops. Attitudes would ebb and flow. The baseline assumption was that cops were some kind of uber-workers—macho and elite like us, but more so. Then suddenly, if we went out on strike, cops took on a whole different aspect. It was crystal clear that they were on the other side of the struggle. Their intent was to dominate us and help the employer. We didn’t necessarily know exactly how things were going to play out, though. Sometimes cops posed as reluctant enforcers—fellow union members who sympathized with our cause but had a job to do. Then again, sometimes they seemed like pure thugs who got a kick out of pushing us around. Eventually even the longest strikes would end, and cops would begin to slip back in the mental “heroic worker” box, until the next time. (This is clearly different from how proletarians interact with cops, which is much less ambiguous.)
What my personal experience has taught me is that denial about cops’ gangster role in society is extremely powerful, especially among the privileged. Respect for cops is a key element of the authoritarianism indoctrinated into us from birth, an element that’s constantly reinforced by u.s. culture. Pro-cop propaganda is relentless. It surrounds us every place we go—school, movies, TV, books, parents, friends. Much of the Left is vulnerable to this mindset too, especially during periods when the movement is weak. For example, lately some activists have been talking wistfully about police as “part of the 99%.” (Among other things, this clueless assertion implicitly marginalizes the prisoners of war and political prisoners held captive inside the u.s. gulags.) It seems like privileged people are always trying to make excuses for cops in our minds, even when it’s against our better judgment.
There may be a kind of stockholm syndrome at work here. Cops have so much real and mythological power over civilians that we can be seduced and intimidated into acting like their compliant hostages. On an everyday level it’s hard to treat them as enemies—it’s too frightening and depressing. In that respect civilians in the u.s. are no different from other civilians around the world who are forced to tolerate organized crime. Like Italian civilians living under the thumb of the ‘ndrangheta, submitting to the mafias yet at the same time trying to ignore them as much as possible. Or middle class Tokyo civilians, going about their daily business, pretending that yakuza syndicates don’t control big chunks of their economy using violence and intimidation. After all, cop gangsterism tends to only become a pressing issue when it crashes into our personal lives. For some people, that’s every day. But for privileged people, it may be rare.
Most of my life I viewed cops as some sort of mutant labor elite, morphing back and forth between labor aristocrats and “agents of repression.” But as wiser comrades pointed out, this just doesn’t work as a useful explanation for how cops operate in society. It mystifies them instead of explaining them. I realized finally that I needed to dig deeper and think harder about their class nature. I know that analyzing cops more accurately isn’t going to stop their crimes. But it seems like a step in the right direction.
I used to have the naive impression that gangsterism was an exotic subcultural activity on the seedier margins of capitalism. And I used to assume that the lumpen were desperate outcasts or pathalogical parasites at the bottom fringes of society. But what I think now is that organized crime has become a massive, normal feature of everyday capitalist life. It’s a complex social space that can draw in people from a variety of classes; it generates its own stratifications and internal conflicts. Most of the lumpen is made up of very poor people with radically limited options. But there are some other people who gravitate toward the lumpen not only to survive, but also to “succeed,” and to participate in male bonding and conquest. Inside the working class, there are parts of the lumpen that have a higher standard of living than the proletariat. Examples in the u.s. include many motorcycle gangs, mercenaries, mafiosi—and cops.
Lumpen activity is “an integral part of the social whole,” Rosa Luxemburg wrote. “All sections of bourgeois society are subject to such degeneration. The gradations between commercial profiteering, fictitious deals, adulteration of foodstuffs, cheating, official embezzlement, theft, burglary and robbery, flow into one another in such fashion that the boundary line between honorable citizenry and the penitentiary has disappeared.” The examples she gives of lumpen activity may sound mild compared to the rawness of crime in the u.s. these days. But her point remains: criminality is all around us, in a multitude of “legal” and “illegal” guises.
“Cops versus criminals” is the default mindset in the u.s. We’re indoctrinated to use these ideologically-burdened categories to designate opposite poles of society. But in reality cops are criminals too. They’re associates of a certain subset of criminal gang: the ones that capitalists organize, permit and encourage to violently dominate and control us. Like other gangsters, cops exist to prey on civilians and, especially, on the oppressed.
—Bromma, February, 2016