Police brutality is one of the sharpest and most widely recognizable reminders that we live in a society dominated by an oppressing class. The cops commit some of the most shocking atrocities against poor and working people on a regular basis, and a broad section of the working class can identify with the experience of having been brutalized.
In the United States, the police are especially central to the maintenance of white supremacy and national oppression. Black and Latino communities, especially youth, are subject to the most extreme forms of police harassment and violence, including murder. The ruling class criminalizes and stigmatizes these communities because they reflect its long history of oppression and inequality. These communities have been the site of major social struggle and militant resistance, and now, suffering from record unemployment and under-employment, they pose a threat to their social order.
The police carry out repression in other arenas of society as well. The wide application of police terror on behalf of the capitalist class provides a key opportunity to challenge its rule over society. The fight against police brutality has major strategic importance because it is a potential engine of working-class unity.
Police attacks on LGBT community
As the armed enforcers of the existing social order, the police enforce patriarchal laws and norms, and have historically carried out terrible violence against women and LGBT people who defy those norms. Given their full-time role as enforcers of an unjust system, police forces often concentrate all the prejudices of society within their ranks. As the only entity with free license to use violence in public, it is worth noting that they often go far beyond their protocols in abusing their targets.
LGBT people are subject to constant abuse at the hands of the cops. Just a few weeks ago, three gay men, Josh Williams, Antonio Maenza and Ben Collins, were attacked by a group of New York City police officers. Williams was arrested, handcuffed and then pepper-sprayed while a cop yelled a homophobic slur. Several months ago, members of the PSL marched in defense of Jabbar Campbell in Brooklyn, after cops assaulted his Pride Party.
In 1969, the modern LGBT movement was launched during the historic Stonewall uprising against the police.
While major gains have been won since Stonewall, police brutality against LGBT people remains commonplace and in recent years has expanded rapidly. In the period from 2007 to 2008, such violence increased by 150 percent. Transgender people in particular are targeted in an especially vicious manner, being three times more likely to be brutalized by the police according to a report on hate violence in 2012. (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-Affected Hate Violence in 2012)
Challenging police harassment and violence remains a central task of militant LGBT organizations.
Instrument of repression against unions
Nothing poses a greater threat to capitalism than working-class organization and mobilization. Unions are another long-time target of police brutality, which rises sharply during high points of labor militancy.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, industrial workers began to organize and wage militant struggles in their workplaces, leading the capitalist class to rely heavily on police repression to weaken and turn back the labor upsurge.
One prominent example is the 1932 Ford Hunger March, when thousands of unemployed people in Detroit marched on Henry Ford’s River Rouge industrial complex demanding jobs and an end to racial discrimination. As the demonstrators left Detroit city limits, cops from neighboring Dearborn attacked the march, killing four protesters. Similarly, cops murdered ten protesters in Chicago who were attending a demonstration in support of striking steelworkers in the infamous 1937 Memorial Day Massacre. During this period, labor unions were outspoken in their opposition to police repression, holding mass marches on the issue.
Workers who stand up for their rights on the job still face serious police brutality. Members of the International Longshore Workers Union were attacked during a 2011 struggle against terminal operating corporation EGT, which wanted to set up a non-union facility in Long View, Wash. The cops responded to the ILWU’s efforts to secure the right to organize with beatings, harassment and over 130 arrests.
Cops against immigrants
In this era of U.S. capitalism, employers have relied on a super-exploited layer of labor, immigrant workers, who in response to impoverishment in their home countries began entering the highly developed countries to find work and feed their families. Police brutality is a central tool employed by the capitalist class to manage this influx and impose second-class status on the immigrant workers and their families.
A number of recent high-profile murders carried out by the viciously racist Border Patrol have raised the profile of this issue. Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old, was killed by border cops on Oct. 10, 2012, when they opened fire into Mexico. The cops claim that they felt their lives were in danger because Rodriquez was throwing rocks at them. But even if this were true—it was the middle of the night when the killing took place, calling into question the agents’ ability to see where the rocks were coming from—responding to stones with bullets is so wildly disproportionate that it can be considered nothing short of cold-blooded murder.
On Sept. 3, 2012, people attending a family picnic on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande River saw a Border Patrol pontoon boat trying to drown someone who was attempting to swim across. In response, the border cops opened fire into the crowd that had assembled along the river trying to rescue the man being drowned. When the gunfire stopped, Arevalo Pedroza, a construction worker who was celebrating his daughter’s birthday, was dead.
Immigrants who successfully reach the United States are also met with racist harassment and brutal violence. A federal judge recently ruled that semi-fascist Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio engaged in systematic racial profiling targeting Latinos. Manuel Jamines, a Guatemalan immigrant worker and father of three, was gunned down in September 2010 by Los Angeles Police Department officers. The cops allege that Jamines was armed, but eyewitnesses have disputed this claim and at no point were the officers’ lives in danger—they simply chose to execute an immigrant laborer as part of their ongoing campaign of terror.
Mobilizing the power of our class
The large and varied constituencies affected by violence carried out by the same arm of the capitalist state—the police—points to the possibility of a united, class-wide fight back that can challenge and defeat the ruling class. There are several examples of the power of this type of broad unity in struggle. In October 2010, the ILWU went on strike to join a demonstration demanding justice for Oscar Grant, who was murdered by a BART police officer in Oakland, Calif. The strike took place as the cop’s trial entered the sentencing phase. While he was given an outrageously light sentence, that a cop was sentenced to any jail time at all is a testament to the threat posed by the widening people’s mobilizations.
Looking outside of the United States, the murder of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by police in Athens, Greece, sparked a wave of rebellion across the country beginning Dec. 6, 2008. This struggle intensified and was given a strong class orientation when a general strike was held four days later that shut down economic activity throughout Greece. The cop who killed the teenager was convicted of murder, and given life in prison, while his partner was charged as an accomplice and sentenced to 10 years.
A sustained, mass fight against police brutality needs to answer the bigoted violence of the cops with the broadest possible unity. Complete victories for such struggles will ultimately require that the multinational working class take the lead in the fight against all forms of oppression.
This orientation allows for not only waging successful struggles against the police but also the construction of a revolutionary movement capable of replacing the rule of a wealthy minority that can only perpetuate itself through ruthless physical coercion—along with spying on the entire population and using its wealth to rig elections. Instead, we can have true majority rule based on a workers’ government and complete self-determination for oppressed peoples.