Thin Blue Lines in the Sand

The question has haunted some of the more politically and socially aware sections of the Internet in recent months: are police unions unions? That is, are they mechanisms for the solidarity and protection of the worker, just like any other, or are they a thing unique unto themselves, and should they be treated as such?

It’s a fiendishly difficult question, and one against which the resolve of many solidly leftists minds have been broken. And it’s never been more relevant than right now, when dismal economic prospects have driven people who would ordinarily be stolid establishment liberals towards a socialist mindset – and, at the same time, when police unions have staunchly fought to protect the wicked abuses of their worst members, particularly when it comes to the murder of black citizens.

The question has vexed people far brighter than me, and I have myself made strenuous arguments on both sides of the issue. On the one hand, it is undeniable that the police are working people. They do a job that mixes some of the worst elements of white-collar and blue-collar labor, and one which often carries a significant risk of injury and death.   Their membership is drawn largely from the working class, and they increasingly are made up of blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. They are one of the hot potatoes of political discourse: many blowhard public servants, both Democratic and Republican, talk big about the heroism and sacrifice of the police, but when it comes time to materially support them, they are always among the first to have their benefits cut, their pensions looted, their pay frozen. They possess skills and knowledge vital to the uplift – indeed, the mere survival — of the working class, but they are forever prevented from showing any class solidarity. In every economic sense, the police are workers, and should be treated as such, with full access to union organization and protection.

On the other hand, the same can be said about soldiers, and is a longstanding matter of fact that the military cannot and should not be treated like organized labor. The crucial distinction is that soldiers are the direct instruments of state power, of the ability of the state to wield a monopoly on physical violence. The ability to organize, to strike, to say no to their bosses – so critical to all other workers – could cripple the effectiveness of a military force during times of threat. It is the same with the police – and, one might argue, even worse, because the police are literally the instrument for enforcing laws that hinder social progress. They are the purest implements of oppression behind which the capitalist state remains committed to an untenable ideology that benefits the few at the cost of the many. At nearly every labor uprising in modern history, it has been clear which side the police are on.

The problem is, because they are the instruments of state force, it is crucial that any organized movement get the police and the military on its side. Most successful socialist revolutions have made it a special project to raise the consciousness of the working-class element within the ranks of the police and soldiers, and it is almost unthinkable to achieve real social transformation without them. From Rosa Luxembourg telling the men who came to arrest her that they should be fighting for her cause to the protesters at Tiananmen Square shouting that “the People’s Army would not hurt the people”, all revolutionary idealists have recognized both the power and the potential of organized police and military forces. The question then becomes:   do we offer them the support and protection that a union provides in the hopes that, when widespread social change begins to happen, they will recognize the Marxist left as their natural allies and throw in their lot with the revolutionary forces? Or do we treat them as a protected class who are not due such protections so long as they serve the interests of a corrupt state, in hopes that when the revolution comes, they will make the right decision and desert their official duties of a more egalitarian state?

I have given this question an agonizing amount of thought over the years, and my position has changed innumerable times, often in the course of a single argument. I have never been sure that my view is the right one. I’m still not. But as it stands now, especially in the face of such recalcitrance on the part of police unions to defend the abuse of working people and minorities by their membership, my current way of thinking is that police unions should be disbanded, and reorganized along different lines – not outlawed, but with greatly reduced power and subject to thorough and binding civilian review. It is painful to think this, especially at a time in America where all union labor is on the decline, the working class is unprecedentedly unorganized and weak, and public sector unions – already under attack – are about the only hope the movement has left.

But one can only see property defended at the expense of humanity for so long. One can only bear the sight of another dead African-American, killed by the police thanks to a fearful bourgeoisie, so many times. One can only see a murderer, dressed in the uniform of the state and protected by the shield of a corrupt union with no interest in the wider prosperity and freedom of the working class, go free without any punishment without thinking that changes must be made. Though I warn again that my thinking may change on the issue by tomorrow morning, for now, I must insist that police unions must reform or vanish. We want to be on their side, but this cannot happen until they show that they will be on ours. They must prove that they value the lives of the working class before they enjoy working-class protections.  So long as they swear loyalty to the law and not the intent behind it, so long as their loyalty is to property and its owners and not people and their needs, fighting for their rights is fighting against our own.

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