A mentally ill homeless man was beaten to death in Los Angeles. In Philadelphia, a 16-year-old boy was so brutally assaulted that his genitals were damaged. Multiple women have been violated along Texas highways. A man in New Mexico was restrained and rectally violated eight times, at times with forced medical procedures. Multiple people locked in cells have been beaten, assaulted, and tasered, sometimes to death. All by a group of people who children are taught to look up to; who proclaim their motto to be “To Protect and Serve.”
Police violence takes new and ever more sickening twists nearly every day, despite being given little coverage in most mainstream news sources. Since the start of the Iraq war, more Americans have been killed by police officers at home than by Iraqi fighters in their home country. The Department of Justice estimates that 500 people per year are killed by police. Figures vary wildly on how many people are victimized by police, as the federal departments in charge of compiling population statistics (such as the Census Bureau) are under orders not to research police violence, according to the World Socialist website.
Yet we are still asked to respect the authority of the police and law enforcement personnel, even though their behavior has become increasingly militarized and unpalatable. It has become incredibly clear that police and law enforcement personnel are not only better armed today, but they are also actively taught to view the communities they are supposed to “protect and serve” not as civilians who pay their salaries but as legions of threats and enemies. So far, the mainstream powers of the political, economic, and media sectors of our society have been unwilling to acknowledge this problem, much less try to solve it. Is there a solution? Indeed there is.
Enter socialism. Socialism relates not only to our economic system of production, but also to our relations within society. In its endeavor to eliminate all hierarchies within our society, socialist thought necessarily examines our relations within capitalism in order to determine how to improve them in an egalitarian manner. Being that the goal of socialists is to change the structure of society and eliminate the problems of poverty, waste, oppression, and violence, we must examine what it is about our current relation to the police that causes so many officers to brutalize the people they are supposed to serve.
In the current capitalist world, the entirety of society is structured around authority. The idea of career and economic success is tied to the accumulation of personal wealth and the acquisition of authority over workers. The idolization of Presidents, CEOʼs, and other hierarchical figures validates and fetishizes authority over others, with the effect of encouraging members of the working class to seek positions of marginal authority over other workers in the service of the wealthy elite that exploits them. This can take many forms, as people are taught to compete with others for positions in management, government, and of course, law enforcement.
The idea that one gains power over others by pursuing a certain career path often steers people towards management positions, usually with little regard for actually increasing their abilities. Within fields that presume to command authority over all of society, this can have an insidious psychological effect. Many law enforcement officers, despite being otherwise decent people, begin to think of themselves as superior to others, and, therefore, the targets of “lesser” people. This combination of fear and perceived superiority manifests itself in police abuse, leading to demands for actions around the country, including an effort by SPUSA Male Co-chair Mimi Soltysik to establish a community control council over the LAPD.
The problem goes deeper than just the desire for power over others, however. The social relations and the material nature of capitalism changes and perverts the purpose of law enforcement. The function of law enforcement in any capitalist society is, first and foremost, to protect property rights. The laws of capitalist nations are structured around the protection of private property, as opposed to the protection of individuals and communities from violence and exploitation. Officers of the law and legal scholars have admitted to this, and many of the restrictions on liberty and democracy written into the Constitution are based on this premise. James Madison was a very bright man, and Federalist 10 hinted at his understanding of the potential for a socialist society quite some time before socialism began to take shape as a complete ideology. Unfortunately, Madison decided to limit democracy to stave off revolution, rather than promote the Aristotelian concept of limiting poverty, a precursor to social democracy.
In a socialist society, officers of the law would be responsible to their communities and mindful of their important roles as protectors of workers from violence and exploitation. Instead of becoming violent agents of capital interests that control society and shape the laws for their own protection and profit, they would have respectful positions within their communities as maintainers of peace and protectors of community enrichment. Rather than being over worked and under paid (many cops make little more than minimum wage and work multiple jobs) and being stressed out because of their material conditions, they would be well rewarded for their important work, as long as it was done properly. Instead of being intimidating, armed assailants in the eyes of the working class, they would be valued members of their communities, assisting victims of violence and abuse, and no longer required to arrest people for victimless “crimes,” such as the use or possession of drugs that threaten the billion-dollar alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical industries.
In short, only a socialist society can repair the schism between militarized police and the battered communities that need them, and only through socialism can a spirit of cooperation and mutual benefit exist between people who regard each other as equals, no matter what job they have or what uniform they wear. As socialists, we can work to make such a world a reality sooner rather than later, as there will be a mounting toll of victims as long as the violent heart of capitalism continues to drive the world.