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The police: serving and protecting the 1%

By: 
Faline Bobier

August 27, 2013

With the recent shooting of 18-year old Sammy Yatim in Toronto, the whole question of the role of police in society is brought to the fore, once again.
 
Yatim was on a streetcar in Toronto. He was exhibiting erratic behaviour and he had a small paring knife in his hand. Yatim allowed passengers and the streetcar driver to exit the streetcar. He was alone in the streetcar when police fired three times. Sammy fell to the floor and then police fired off six more rounds, as well as Tasering Sammy where he lay.
 
Thousands marched through the streets of Toronto demanding justice for Sammy, led by his family and friends.  Under the weight of public pressure, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) charged Toronto police Constable James Forcillo with second-degree murder. This is only the second time in the SIU’s 23-year history that it has charged an officer with murder, despite the Toronto police murdering many men—mostly black and many with mental health issues. Meanwhile Forcillo was suspended with pay (he currently makes over $100,000.00 a year) and he was out on bail almost immediately after being charged, which is not what would happen with any ordinary citizen charged with second degree murder.
 
Toronto defence lawyer Peter Rosenthal, who has represented families of people fatally shot by police noted: “It’s inappropriately hard to get officers charged and convicted. The remarkable thing about the (Sammy) Yatim case is the video.” It’s only the fact that a bystander, or bystanders, got clear video footage, which can be viewed on youtube, that has made it impossible for police to claim that “justifiable force” was used. Toronto Chief of Police Bill Blair has called for a special inquiry, but as many other victims’ families who have lost family members to police violence have stated, there is no need for another special inquiry that will only whitewash police violence.
 
Just a few bad apples?
A recent movie released in theatres, Fruitvale Station, based on a true story, details a 2009 incident in where a young Black man was shot in the back by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer when he was returning home on New Year’s Eve. In this case he had no weapon and there were white and black officers present. As in the case of Sammy Yatim, there were passers-by who shot footage with their digital cameras and cell phones and who were appalled at this brutal murder by police. There was a community response which lasted for several years, with the officer responsible being charged with involuntary manslaughter and eventually spending only a couple of months in jail, segregated from other prisoners to protect him.
 
The question of police violence is not just a case of a few bad apples, or of the individual failings of particular police officers, although these officers should definitely be held accountable for their crimes. Although Toronto police are supposedly there ‘to serve and protect’ we need to ask to serve and protect whom or what exactly? There is a reason that the victims of police violence are overwhelmingly young, black, people of colour, recent immigrants and First Nations.
 
It has to do with the racism of the larger society, which cannot be solved by hiring more Black or Aboriginal police, or more women officers, in an effort to combat sexism within the force, although of course, we would argue that all these groups should have the right to join the police force, should they so decide.
 
The police cannot be reformed in this way because they are an integral piece to maintain class rule in a society which is based on inequality.  
 
The state
In Frederick Engel’s groundbreaking work The Origin of The Family, Private Property and the State, he points out that it’s only with the division of society into classes that it becomes necessary to create a so-called “neutral” state which seeks to mediate between contending classes.
 
Before the rise of class society, when human beings mostly lived communally in hunter-gatherer societies, there was no need to have a body sitting on top of society to essentially protect the wealth and property of the tiny minority who came to control the resources. This was because in hunter-gatherer societies the clan or group shared out equally the food they collected. They lived in societies of scarcity where they had to share the work of gathering food and then distributing it among the clan for the whole to survive. There was no surplus big enough to allow a section of the clan to become wealthy at the expense of other members. This is not to say that these were ideal societies, or that we would want to return to these conditions, but it does mean that such societies didn’t need a police force whose essential task was to safeguard the wealth of the ruling class.
 
Once agriculture is developed and you have the creation of much more stable groupings, you also begin to see the creation of wealth over and above what is required for the community to survive. Those individuals who come to own this wealth also begin to need some way to perpetuate their dominance and to ensure that others will not attempt to expropriate their resources, which they have essentially stolen from the rest of society.
 
This is where we see the creation of the “armed bodies of men” that Engels referred to—the state and the institutions that defend that state—the army and the police. The state must appear to be neutral, otherwise why would people give it any legitimacy?
 
But if we look at how the state and the police intervene in society we can see that they are anything but neutral. These armed bodies of men (and today some women) are there to defend an inherently unjust and unequal division of wealth in society. That is why trying to reform the police by hiring officers of colour, women officers, or LGBT officers cannot fundamentally change the nature of the institution.
 
To serve and protect the 1%
Capitalism as a system uses the tools of racism, homophobia, sexism to divide and conquer. It’s no accident, then, that these same tools are used by those institutions charged with propping up the capitalist state.
 
 
These cases of murder by police, and countless others that have been documented, point to the overwhelming brutality required in order to keep capitalism safe for the wealthy. If you look at prison statistics in the US and Canada, it’s overwhelmingly poor, Black, Hispanic and First Nations people who are incarcerated.
 
None of the wealthy who stole millions from ordinary people during the economic meltdown has done time in jail, nor will they, because they are protected by the system that they serve and perpetuate.
 
Police are also routinely used to break occupations, strikes and protests—from the killing of indigenous activist Dudley George, to mass arrest of G20 protesters, to the attacks on striking Quebec students. Anyone who has been on strike will recognize that the police are not neutral in these situations. The state does not preside neutrally over society, but is fundamental to propping up the class divisions and the rule of the wealthy few over the rest of us.
 
Socialism
It’s only with the dissolution of class society and capitalism that we will be able to rid ourselves of these bodies that serve to keep class rule intact. When Marx wrote about the Paris Commune, where for a few brief months ordinary people took over the running of the city and all people were made equal, he notes that the police and army were replaced by a people’s militia, whose role was not to beat down ordinary people, but to defend the Commune from the capitalist army that wanted to restore ‘order’. In fact, armies “separate and apart from the people” were declared illegal.
 
In a socialist society, where there is no need for hunger or want and where we can turn the vast wealth that already exists in our world to meet human need, there would be no need for an armed force to defend the wealthy with brute force.

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