The Democrats Who Created the System of Overpolicing Won’t Be the Ones to Dismantle It

Mass protests across the country have beat back police repression and won public support for scaling back police power. The Democrats who built the overpolicing and mass incarceration regime now feel left out and want to channel that energy back into familiar territory: getting them reelected.

Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden speaks at the Liberty and Justice Celebration at the Wells Fargo Arena on November 1, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Scott Olson / Getty Images

The broadest protests in US history have literally brought leading Democrats to their knees in the last few days. But that’s probably about all we’re going to get from them.

A week or so ago, liberals expressed understandable fears of American fascism: armed white vigilantes were joining with police, backed up by the president, to squash constitutionally protected free speech and even kill at least eleven protesters. Luckily, mass protests in a hundred US cities have beaten back police riots and repressive curfews while winning majority public support. Some cities are now reluctantly considering cutting police budgets, and multiple mayors are facing significant pushback, even calls to resign for using curfews and police to crush peaceful protest.

Americans’ political consciousness has shifted thanks to a million angry protesters in the streets. In response, Democrats in Congress introduced a suite of reforms. Inspired by the #8cantwait campaign, Democrats’ proposals include a ban on chokeholds (something that wouldn’t have stopped the murder of Eric Garner, whose killer used an already banned chokehold), ending no-knock warrants in drug cases, and create a national registry for tracking police misconduct.

These measures would be useful, but they come nowhere close to addressing one of the primary causes of police violence which activists are calling attention to: the excessive militarization and ever-growing budgets of police and prisons at every level of government, at the expense of education, health care, and other services that would both improve lives and reduce crime.

Congressional Democrats’ proposals are cut from the same cloth as a raft of symbolic gestures by corporations, politicians, and police looking to align themselves with righteous but vague calls for justice and against racism. One day before Buffalo police knocked an elderly man unconscious in a sickening viral video, the same police kneeled with protesters for a photo op in the very same place. This tactic reached a comic level Monday when Pelosi, Schumer, and other Democrats kneeled for cameras before introducing their hollow reforms while wearing kente, a traditional Ghanaian textile.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) joins fellow Democrats from the House and Senate, including (L-R) Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO), Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), to announce new legislation to end excessive use of force by police across the country at the US Capitol June 8, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Joe Biden gave an address Tuesday at George Floyd’s funeral calling for “racial justice” but offering nothing in the way of concrete reforms that would have saved George Floyd or countless others. On Wednesday Biden released a criminal justice platform, including lip service to addressing the root causes of crime but also, amazingly, a pledge to spend $300 million more on policing.

These gestures are worse than empty. When street protests start to die down (which they will have to eventually), corporate Democrats will try to convince people that the time for disruption is over, and, thanks to them, the problems will be solved. The only thing left for ordinary people to do is vote for Democrats come November.

But the Democratic Party itself bears enormous responsibility for these crises. After all, many Democratic mayors and governors have called in the police to brutalize and repress peaceful protests across the country. Just as importantly, for the last fifty years, Democrats like Joe Biden have partnered with Republicans in pushing the policies that have built and sustained the mass incarceration system at the root of much of the police violence today. And the injunction to vote our way out of this crisis aims to throw in the towel on mass protest and disruption and instead entrust the same political establishment that brought us to this crisis to pull us out of it.

Democrats Helped Build Mass Incarceration

In the 1960s Democrats supported some social-democratic reforms to address rising urban poverty and unemployment as part of the “Great Society.” But spending on the Vietnam War and the exodus of the middle class to highly segregated suburbs soon dried up funding for Great Society Programs and municipal budgets — just as a conservative, white reaction was growing against the Civil Rights Movement’s achievements. By the recessions of the 1970s, Democrats had mostly abandoned their commitments to redistributive reforms, and joined Republicans in a neoliberal assault on unions and social services. Poverty soared, and in cities, crime increased.

Without a strong labor movement or independent labor party, there was no significant social force pushing for higher taxes on the rich to fund social-democratic reforms. So instead of addressing the economic roots of urban crime, politicians in both parties whipped up racist “law and order” sentiment and turned to the cheaper alternative of police and prisons.

By the 1980s, punishment was also a more electorally popular way of dealing with poor, unemployed people in cities, a large number of whom were black. Democrats were more than happy to be champions of this punitive turn and worked hard to brand themselves as the real “tough on crime” party. And champion they did: in the 1990s Bill Clinton pushed through crime and welfare reform legislation that expanded mass incarceration while further gutting programs for the poor. Hillary Clinton was selling this agenda when she made her infamous and racist 1996 “superpredators” comment which turned many young progressives against her twenty years later.

With poverty and inequality worsening and the police state growing, police murders under Barack Obama’s tenure sparked the Black Lives Matter protests. While a few activist district attorneys and judges have been elected, Democratic mayors from Houston to Minneapolis still oversee murderous and racist police departments.

Democrats’ anti-mass incarceration posturing will be even more absurd this year since their de facto leader until at least November will be Joe Biden, a mass incarceration zealot who, Branko Marcetic writes, “makes Hillary Clinton look like Michelle Alexander.” Biden was a key architect not only of the 1994 Crime Bill, which dramatically expanded police and punishment, but also headed up multiple similar efforts before and since.

For decades Biden went to great lengths to prove he was tougher on crime than Republicans, making “law and order” a central part of his political brand. In 1989, Biden criticized then-President George H.W. Bush’s crime legislation for not being “tough” or “bold” enough: “In a nutshell, the President’s plan does not include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, enough prosecutors to convict them, enough judges to sentence them, or enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.”

During the key period in which the modern system of American mass incarceration came to be, Biden has repeatedly fought to push this process further. And he’s not shy about it, bragging in 2007 that “my greatest accomplishment is the 1994 Crime Bill.”

So it’s no great surprise that Democratic mayors, even in liberal cities like Oakland and Seattle, have instituted curfews and sent in police to brutalize and gas peaceful protests in the last two weeks.

Mass Action, Not Cooptation

This is why Democrats kneeling in kente cloth while a million people are in the streets protesting Democrats’ own legacy of racism and mass incarceration is at best darkly comical. Protesters are proving that the power to win transformative changes in our society has to be anchored in masses of people taking collective action — by marching, sitting in, striking, and generally disrupting business as usual.

As Nick French writes, today’s protests are part of a long tradition of achieving social transformation through mass action. The New Deal of the 1930s and Civil Rights victories of the 1960s were won thanks to “Millions of ordinary people engaging in (usually illegal) strikes or street protests, often in the face of incredible police brutality, [which] compelled capitalists and state officials to make changes.” Yet during and after each of these upheavals, disruptive and independent action was subdued and channeled into more acceptable activities like electing Democrats. On some level, of course, this is natural — mass upsurges can’t last forever. But the way that that disruptive action has been subdued has often robbed those upsurges and their aftermath of their more transformative potential.

After earth-shaking strikes of the 1930s helped build new industrial unions and the CIO, many left-wing labor leaders were convinced that they could best continue labor’s advance by throwing their and their unions’ support behind FDR’s Democratic Party rather than pursue independent political action. Unfortunately, since the late 1930s, Democrats have largely declined to fight for labor, or even defend the New Deal.

Worse still, this Democrat-labor alliance has often worked to actively undermine workers’ organizing. For instance, during World War II, FDR incorporated labor leaders into the Democratic Party through administrative appointments. Clothing Workers president Sidney Hillman boasted, “We have participated in making the labor policy of this administration.”

But there was a price to pay for this incorporation: Hillman and other union leaders were recruited to help FDR enforce the wartime “no-strike pledge” by breaking the strikes of their own members. This and similar collaboration helped undermine the militant capacities of workers after World War II and set the stage for labor’s historic defeats under neoliberalism.

A similar pattern played out in the 1970s and 80s among civil rights activists. Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor writes in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation that once the massively disruptive and effective Civil Rights Movement began to recede, “The Democratic Party had opened itself up to Blacks, women, and youth for fear that these constituencies would pull voters away from mainstream politics.” In turn, movement activists “entered the party believing they could use it for their own purposes. But instead of the left turning the party, many activists found themselves having to conform to Democratic Party objectives. In some cases, radicals and revolutionaries … jumped ship on liberalism altogether and defected to the right wing.”

The results have been depressing. While former civil rights activists and other African Americans were elected across the country, this new cohort of politicians largely ended up administering much of the same austerity and repression that mainstream Democrats and Republicans were in this period.

Sticking Around for the Long Haul

This is not to say that elections aren’t important, especially when socialists use elections and elected office to help stoke working-class discontent. Bernie Sanders’s campaign played this role in a whole slew of struggles beyond his campaign. And some left-wing candidates and politicians have been putting their bodies on the line in the last two weeks promoting protests and advancing protesters’ demands in concrete legislation. 

In Seattle, socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant has literally taken to the barricades with protesters to demand a 50 percent reduction in police spending and the resignation of Democratic mayor Jenny Durkan. A slate of socialist candidates for New York state legislative seats have also been at the forefront of the protests, and socialist Janeese Lewis George just won election to Washington, DC council after running on defunding the police. If we are going to win serious reforms, if we are going to truly transform our society into a just and equal one, the working class will need many more elected political leaders and its own political party that’s committed to stoking more of this kind of mass action.

Reflecting on the 2014–15 BLM movement in 2019, Taylor argued that the mass momentum might have been sustained longer if energy in the streets had been joined with durable, democratic, mass membership organizations. Formal organization would have allowed more debate over strategy and tactics, democratic accountability of de facto leaders, funding sources independent of conservatizing funders like the Ford Foundation, and encouraged sustained and active participation among broader layers of activists. 

But in the absence of such organization, mass marches and mass actions were deemphasized. Activists instead went in two directions: some carried out “actions [that were] smaller, more secretive, led by small groups of people who were then vulnerable to arrest”; and others were absorbed into the moderating influence of NGOs, foundation funding, and Democratic Party roundtables and electoral efforts. 

Taylor affirms the need for continued mass action which can not only scare the political and economic establishment into making changes, but also breaks thousands of participants “from the isolation of everyday life and turns us into political actors.” Mass action shows “how the solution to so many of our problems is collective.”

If and when the tidal wave of street protests begins to recede, thousands of people activated by this movement will need to continue organizing for the long haul — and they must do so independently of the Democratic politicians and their racist, anti-worker agenda that got us here. That might mean supporting local Black Lives Matter protests, joining a socialist organization, starting a committee at your school or workplace to fight against racism and for defunding the police, organizing a union to protect workers from racism and exploitation, or even going on strike. What it doesn’t mean, however, is entrusting the same Democrats who helped create mass incarceration to now dismantle it.