To Roll Back the Police State, We Need to Tackle Economic Inequality

Cedric Johnson

The last few years have seen unprecedented mobilization of mass outrage against the most blatantly racist aspects of US policing. But we can’t confront police abuses without addressing their role in our society as managers of an unequal class status quo.

Policing has always been about protecting class relations, which is why the focus of policing, its necessities, and its central modes shift from one historical moment to the next. (Spenser H / Unsplash)

Interview by
Astrid Zimmermann

In the spring of 2020, the police murder of George Floyd sparked an unprecedented upsurge of protest, notable not just for its intensity — with an estimated 15 to 26 million people joining street protests around the country (and many more around the world) — but also for the breadth of sympathy expressed for the cause and the Black Lives Matter slogan, from the US Congress to Nike and the NFL.

Two years later, it seems as if nothing has changed. Though perhaps shocking, this turn of events should not have surprised anyone, argues Cedric Johnson, professor of black studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his latest book, The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now, he explains why police brutality cannot be fought through anti-racist training seminars and why ending police violence depends on the fight against poverty. Jacobin Germany managing editor Astrid Zimmerman spoke with Johnson about the history of policing, its role in managing class relations, and why tackling economic inequality is essential to undoing the police state.

Astrid Zimmermann

Police brutality is often described as a symptom of racial discrimination. You argue that this actually obscures the true social function of the police — which is to secure class relations. This aspect becomes really apparent when we look at the historic roots of police work. So how has policing changed over the course of history?

Cedric Johnson

Policing has always been about protecting class relations, which is why the focus of policing, its necessities, and its central modes shift from one historical moment to the next and from one national context to another in concert with the evolving requirements of capital.

Many contemporary thinkers and activists in the United States want to focus on the readily apparent racial aspect of policing and mass incarceration. A common move is to root the origins of our carceral system in the antebellum slave patrols. In other instances, we hear talk of the Thirteenth Amendment’s exception clause, which permits forced labor if someone has been convicted of a crime.

Recalling these historical phenomena are useful for activists who want to make the argument that policing has always been about racial domination. This is not helpful historical analysis. What this interpretative tendency really cuts out of the picture is the fact that metropolitan police departments were being established around the same time as the slave patrols, both in London and also in various US cities, when capitalists were trying to control the nascent power of industrial labor and social conflicts that accompanied rapid urbanization. So in both of these historical cases, policing was fundamentally about shoring up the interests of capital, whether we were referring to plantation owners throughout the cotton and sugar regions of the American South or urban industrialists.

In addition, during the late nineteenth century and into to the twentieth century, the primary function of policing is the direct repression of worker rebellion throughout the country. If we just focus on the United States, this aspect dissipates in the immediate years after World War II. Again, the central focus and operational modes of policing shifts with the emerging valorization requirements of capital.

During the postwar years, the direction of police work then becomes less focused on the repression of worker struggles because the workers aren’t fighting back in the same ways. They have become tamed through a variety of different measures, like the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which criminalized solidarity and had the effect of dampening the power of labor and collective bargaining. Likewise, the expansion of the consumer middle class in the United States is another factor that contributes to the decline of worker militancy.

So what you see in the 1950s and ’60s is the redirection of police power toward organized crime, which certain blocs of capital were ready to get rid of, as well as the black working class who are leaving the South and crowding urban ghettos. The black southern migrant is the walking contradiction of the affluent society, a  symbolic threat to the kind of aspirational, suburban middle-class life born out of massive federal investments in mortgage lending, highway construction, and urban renewal.

In all of these different moments, policing is essential to securing the capitalist class relation — but it looks different given the context.

Astrid Zimmermann

You’ve used the term “stress policing” to explain how police work is used to manage the social problems that are created by capitalism, like poverty and crime. Can you expand on this term?

Cedric Johnson

In order to understand that notion, you have to go back to “broken-windows” policing, which was an idea that was introduced in a 1982 article by political scientist James Q. Wilson and criminologist George Kelling but quickly became common sense among most big-city mayors and police departments across the country in a relatively short time.

The idea behind “broken windows“ is that you have to deal aggressively with minor crimes, especially property damage, car break-ins, vandalism, petty theft, graffiti, these sorts of things. Because if you don’t, the prevalence of such minor crimes sends a signal to criminals that this is a “safe place” to operate. And so the logic goes: if you begin to stamp out crime at this low level and punish offenders harshly, minor infractions won’t escalate into major problems.

This policing strategy has been central to the project of urban revanchism. Stress policing has been typically implemented to prevent crimes within areas that have stable or rising real-estate values. And it is used against the most submerged, desperate elements of the working class; it’s used to contain them and to drive them away from those places that are deemed valuable by the investor class. Ramped-up policing has been central to the efforts of city leaders to bring back more affluent residents to urban areas as tourists and residents.

Stress policing accounts for the large numbers of people we have in jail in the United States. It’s important to keep in mind that the incarcerated in every state hail from a very select number of zip codes or neighborhoods. The same people are being constantly stopped, questioned, having their license plates run through the police database of warrants and arrested for petty crimes, and held in jail, because they don’t have the money to bail themselves out. Ultimately, they are convicted in most cases because they cannot afford a lawyer and have to rely on overworked and underresourced court-appointed attorneys.

Consequentially, we see the same people being cycled into the criminal-justice system. So stress policing is used to manage the boundaries of most cities between those nouveau riche middle-class areas, especially those that are gentrifying rapidly, and the ghettos that have been deemed no-go zones for most people and fiscally abandoned by neoliberal politicians.

Astrid Zimmermann

So if we want to understand the social function of the police throughout history, we can say the police were created to manage social ills produced by capitalism and also to strike down any form of labor militancy that’s fighting these underlying problems.

I feel like there’s a broad public consensus about the fact that the police in their current, very militarized form are a problem and people are rightfully very outraged by the routine abuse of power by the police. What’s a little less clear to me is how big the opposition to this social control function that you just described actually is — because police work is seldomly explicitly discussed in these terms.

Cedric Johnson

I think that’s a major problem. What you just described speaks to the power of Black Lives Matter as a source of mobilization but at the same time also reflects its patent limits as an approach to political organizing and building majority power that might end police violence and roll back the carceral apparatus.

Most of the people who turned out into the streets over the course of that summer of 2020 were motivated by what was a flagrant case of police violence against George Floyd. It was inhumane, it was extreme, and everybody saw that, and few could deny how excessive and heinous Derek Chauvin’s actions were and the complicity of the other responding officers. It was so much more of a clear-cut case of police brutality than some other cases where a suspect is reaching into their waistband for a gun or somebody strikes the officer when resisting arrest and so on.

But this event, the arrest of Floyd, was so straightforwardly wrong that people turned out en masse to oppose it. And I think in general, most people are opposed to seeing racist action. But like you said, they’re not necessarily opposed to the more general managerial function of policing. And we’ve seen that so clearly over these last two years as the revelry and spectacle of the 2020 protests have not congealed into the kind of sustained public pressure and transformation so many hoped for that summer.

Just to give you one example, we’ve had serious problems here in Chicago, especially when the weather warms and people flock to the tourist zones like Millennium Park, the Magnificent Mile shopping corridor, and the public lakefront. Another space where this seasonal manifestation of class struggle has unflolded is Navy Pier, which was at one time the most visited tourist destination in the American Midwest. In recent years, all of these places have become filled with black adolescents. They have nowhere else to go, so hundreds, if not thousands of kids come downtown and hang out with their friends. Some of them get into fights; sometimes others harass tourists; sometimes tourists are rude toward them and these youth respond in kind.

In May, sixteen-year-old Seandell Holliday was shot and killed after getting into an argument with another seventeen year old, an incident that provoked calls for law-and-order policing throughout the downtown core.  In recent years, there has also been a growing problem of regular “smash-and-grab“ robberies, which is often lumped together under broader racist anxiety about black youth “wilding.”

So all of this provided justification for Mayor Lori Lightfoot to come down hard and impose a youth curfew. If you’re under the age of eighteen, you can’t even be downtown without a parent or adult chaperone. Not wanting to appear soft on crime in the midst of a reelection campaign, Governor J. B. Pritzker stepped up and passed a measure to create harsher penalties for those convicted of smash-and-grab robberies. And of course, neither Lightfoot nor Pritzker are conservatives, but rather both are liberal democrats and generally progressive on various social issues like abortion and racial justice.

So the contradiction in all of this is pretty apparent: the very same political elite has poured millions of dollars, certainly billions over decades, into the downtown core, subsidizing private sector development through land grants, infrastructure giveaways, tax breaks, and waivers of environmental and labor regulations, all in an effort to shore up the business district, the tourism zones, and condo construction for the nouveau riche and middle class. They’ve totally abandoned other neighborhoods, where there is little commercial development beyond basic services and predatory down-market operations, and where young people have very few places to go for recreation and safety.

The local political elite has divested from certain parts of the city, aside from policing. But the people living in those very same netherworlds have come back to the tourist zones, demanding to be seen and to be acknowledged, reasserting their stake in urban life. Many Chicagoans and tourists who were outraged by what happened to Floyd are in favor of these curfews, these mandatory minimum sentences, and this harsh treatment of adolescents. They have not rebelled against these changes. There are no grand shows of solidarity with young black Chicagoans and no corporate outpouring of support for their plight.

The 2020 George Floyd rebellion was just that, a massive display of sympathy for Floyd, but as these recent events in Chicago make clear, not some major shift in American popular sentiment against the regime of capital accumulation that produces the very dispossession and police abuse that Floyd and many black youth in Chicago endure. During that summer of 2020, there was a moment when the majority of Americans, around 60 percent, supported the basic premise of Black Lives Matter. But within a couple of months, that disappeared. The popular support for defunding the police, abolitionism, and these sorts of ideas is just not there. Many Americans are totally okay with the police arresting young people for selling cannabis, but they didn‘t want to bear witness to the brutality of Floyd’s death.

Astrid Zimmermann

I have to admit, the call to defund the police, which gained a lot of traction during the summer of 2020, made a lot of sense to me when I first heard it. It really zeroed in on the fact that pumping all this money into policing was not beneficial at all to the majority of people living in the urban core. But like you just said, the popular support just isn’t there. So what’s the problem with “Defund the Police”?

Cedric Johnson

That was the greatest virtue of the defund demand. It opened up the door to a discussion about spending priorities in cities and society writ large. And it remains to be seen, but of course it is possible for someone to go from demanding that we defund police to deeper and more sustained criticism of public spending of the kind I just alluded to, about public investment doled out to sports stadiums, condo towers, and all manner of capitalist development. So in that regard, I support the spirit of the defund demand and the latent possibilities it contains.

On the flip side, however, the call to defund the police misses some things. To take one example, defunding and dismantling departments won’t necessarily solve the problem of police violence, and more importantly, these demands only begin to focus our attention and resources on the underlying structural problem that stress policing and mass incarceration reflect.

The core problem is that there is deep inequality in the United States and that there are people who are no longer even included in unemployment statistics because they are not actively looking for work. A de facto surplus population remains, and in regard to African Americans, these unemployed segments did not fully experience the great gains of the civil rights movement and the Great Society reforms. Many were born in decades when those victories were already fading into nostalgia.

Millions in the US working class will endure the same struggles of daily existence and wageless life, even if you take the police out of the equation. I think the focus should not be on defunding the police but rather on abolishing these inequalities. The defund demand has provided an all-too-ready flash point for right-wing mobilization against both Black Lives Matter protesters and public sector unions, and it has been a distraction from the core problem of inequality, which is not exclusively or universally affecting the black population. It affects segments of the working class across the country, those living in small deindustrialized towns and rural areas that ceased thriving a long time ago.

Astrid Zimmermann

You just brought up deindustrialization and a lack of economic development in certain areas across the country. On that note, I was wondering how economic stagnation plays into all of this. Around the same time that economic growth slows down and capitalism cannot provide sufficient jobs, we see mass incarceration really blowing up. Is there a connection between capitalism’s inability to deal with the surplus population that it creates and the expansion of mass incarceration?

Cedric Johnson

Yes, absolutely. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, whites were still the majority of the American prison and jail population. That demography really began to flip over during the 1980s and ’90s. During that decade we see intensifying efforts, first under the administrations of Reagan and George H.W. Bush and later by the Clinton Democrats, to attack the social democratic gains that remained from the reign of the New Deal coalition.

In the waning decades of the twentieth century, we saw deep cuts to welfare-assistance programs, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was taken away altogether and “replaced” with an approach that handed power over to the states and imposed time restrictions and work requirements on the poor seeking assistance. It was not Republicans but Bill Clinton who shepherded HOPE VI, a national strategy for the redevelopment of public housing, which tore down a lot of tower blocks and other central city-complexes that had been built in the 1950s and even earlier to house the poor. HOPE VI provided funds to demolish public housing and redevelop the same parcels as mixed-income complexes, where only a fraction of the poor would be allowed to remain.

During the time when the remnants of social democracy are being destroyed, the prison expansion takes off. As Adaner Usmani and John Clegg concluded in a 2019 Cataylst article, prisons provided a cheap solution to the problem of poverty, albeit an inhumane and crisis-laden solution, I would add. Instead of housing the poor and providing other basic needs, for a time, American popular consensus supported warehousing the poor in prisons. Such consensus has buckled time and again, but it has held up, even in the face of Black Lives Matter’s latest wave.

Why is this the case? We need to look deeper at the American populace, not merely those who poured into the streets in 2020. The current form of society holds firm because many Americans don’t see themselves as directly implicated in the problem of policing. If the problem is one of racist cops or historical racism, such can be cured either through firings or jury trials or through some broader project of national reckoning and remembrance, the removal of offensive statuary and building and street names, and so on. But if the problem we are facing is in fact the structurally determined relationship between surplus population and the police and, on a deeper level, the social consequence of capital intensification and globalized production, then we can no longer focus solely on rogue cops or the history of colonial plunder but would need to address our society’s pernicious contradictions and inadequacy and our culpability.

Astrid Zimmermann

This decoupling of race from class that you just talked about is a widely shared consensus among the majority of the Left today. It’s so rarely questioned that it almost appears self-evident to many of us now. In your latest book, The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now, you explain that this is actually a fairly new development on the Left and that it has a lot to do with the rampant anti-communism during the McCarthy era. Can you explain how this paved the way for the triumph of a more timid, liberal anti-racism?

Cedric Johnson

People like A. Philip Randolph did not not draw a distinction between the fight to dismantle Jim Crow segregation, the fight against discrimination, and demands for employment and worker power. He and his black left contemporaries like John P. Davis of the National Negro Congress were keenly aware of the challenges, and they knew firsthand how various unions discriminated against black workers and engaged in all sorts of chicanery. But these figures like Randolph and Davis saw those instances as challenges to organizing, not necessarily as barriers that could never be surmounted — unlike some on the US left today.

That said, McCarthyism had a chilling effect on the civil rights movement. It is not that people like Randolph and even more militant left and union figures completely disappeared, but there is a simultaneous rise of other blocs of black leadership who become more central, and their ascendancy as black liberals is facilitated in part by the broader, aggressive campaign against communism. One of the routine strategies used by the FBI and Congressional anti-communists was to discredit and muzzle activists through the accusation of being communists or communist sympathizers. Some civil rights activists had real connections to the interwar American Communist Party, and the party’s work in the Scottsboro Boys defense campaign, its organizing among black sharecroppers, and the influence of the Popular Front all prefigured the southern struggle that intensified after World War II. So there was truth to the accusation in some cases.

As the struggle to defeat Jim Crow through litigation and direct action began to gain popular momentum and the support of national elites, however, open associations with communism were shunned and seen as a liability by the civil rights establishment leadership who focused on the prospect of integration in the consumer society rather than its overthrow. During the early Cold War, the space for left revolutionary politics was shrinking.

Once racial liberalism becomes institutionalized through the civil rights movement’s victories and the national government was working to regulate discrimination as a violation of the liberal equality of opportunity that capitalism is supposed to provide, this separation of race from class relations and an anti-capitalist politics is complete. And it remains with us.

If you think about Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, he approached black poverty in a specific way. And he actually says this in his 1965 commencement address at Howard University: he declared in front of that majority-black audience that black poverty was not the same as white poverty. Of course, what he meant by that was black poverty was concentrated in cities, and there were peculiar problems born out of those social conditions. Flowing from that social fact, Great Society liberals actually focused more on behavioral modification — strategies such as job trainings, providing support for young, impoverished mothers through programs like Head Start [a preschool program for low-income households] — but this is crucial, they steered away from policy interventions that had previously empowered and improved the lives of working-class people more generally, such as the right to collective bargaining, the expansion of federal public works programs, and in some cases, targeted local programs like the Dyess Colony, which was an agrarian rehabilitation project formed during the Depression for the benefit of mostly white sharecroppers in Arkansas.

There were many other experimental projects like this supported by the federal government that had been forgotten by mass publics and abandoned by politicians by the ’60s. Whereas these earlier policies provided workers with legal protections, state-supervised employment, and land for cultivation, the bases of their survival and empowerment, Great Society interventions were primarily geared toward assistance, and when they did encourage black self-determination, such as in the case of the Community Action Program, such interventions largely emboldened the position of local black political elites rather than the working-class constituencies they sought to represent.

So there’s a moment during the Johnson administration where liberal Democrats clearly pivot away from class and begin to talk about poverty in racial terms. And that posture has stayed with us to this day. Most Americans today still assume most black people are poor, even though that has not been the case empirically for decades. And these same publics also imagine incorrectly that most whites are middle class or wealthy. We’ve reached a point where white and black still symbolize rich and poor in popular discourse, but race is not synonymous with class differences. Race discourse confuses and conflates. It leads away from the kind of concrete thinking about class position and power that might help us to build left-democratic popular power.

Astrid Zimmermann

This lack of ability to account for the actual complexity of black political life and account for conflicting interests that you just pointed out leads to a really flattened understanding of society in general.

In one of your essays, you make a very compelling point about how this underdeveloped and often really essentializing point of view is connected to the rise of standpoint epistemology. Is there anything we can salvage from this idea, or do you think it was misguided from the get-go?

Cedric Johnson

We need to jettison this tendency to essentialize epistemology in racial terms. Again, this practice confuses and conflates social reality. You could grow up on the same block with someone, and sure, you’re going to have certain shared experiences and sensibilities. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into politics and interests in the ways that standpoint epistemology leads us to believe. How you arrive at your political positions is a much more circuitous, unpredictable route. I mean, take Friedrich Engels for example. He was not born into poverty. His family owned two mills. He could have become a second-generation factory owner and exploiter, a nineteenth-century version of Elon Musk — but unlike Musk, Engels would have been someone you’d actually want to party and share a few pints with. Instead, Engels ended up becoming the opposite of what his lineage might have us predict.

I grew up in the Deep South. I’ve lived on the East Coast. I’ve lived in the Midwest, and I’m moving to the West Coast for an extended stay soon. In each of those regions, especially among black people, there’s so much complexity in how politics is actually lived that gets swept away whenever we become caught up in easy racial generalizations.

And this has always been the most dangerous edge of race thinking and racism, which obliterate individuality and the fact of complex social interactions and set up false divides and hierarchies, all in service of perpetuating and expanding capitalist class power. If we look closely and honestly at black life, we see all of the same class contradictions that are present in the broader population. Black Lives Matter as a slogan is adaptable to different class positions within the African American population. So it is not surprising to see people who are deeply committed to black entrepreneurship now popularizing spin-off slogans like “Black Wealth Matters.”

Many on the Left have been quick to label the corporate embrace of Black Lives Matter we witnessed in 2020 as “cooptation,“ but they have been less willing to see how corporate appropriation complements these bourgeois maneuvers within the black population, especially among blacks who are committed to neoliberal politics and wealth creation. None of this should be surprising, but its effects are disastrous.

The murder of George Floyd sent political and corporate elites scrambling to take advantage of the moment, and they have reinvigorated the myth that we might repair racial wealth disparity through “baby bonds,“ various reparations schemes, philanthropy and programs to stimulate black entrepreneurship, and so on; but none of these technocratic solutions addresses the problem of the surplus population, the conditions of unemployment, desperation, and dispossession that Floyd endured.

I know if I bump into another African-American person here in Berlin and we start a conversation, there will certainly be some things we have in common. We might talk sentimentally about certain musical or cultural markers. If we’re the same age, we might see how our specific coming-of-age stories are intertwined in some ways. If we talk long enough and have lived in some of the same places, we might realize we have some acquaintances in common. And certainly, as is often the case, we could easily trade stories of discrimination, like being trailed and harassed while shopping, or worse, our own harrowing tales of police encounters and racist bullying and so forth.

You’ll never hear me deny the fact of peoplehood — shared history and experiences of African Americans. But things get more complicated when it comes to politics. It’s one thing to share experiences, but what we make of those experiences and how we understand the world is an entirely different thing. We just can’t equate identity with political conviction. It’s just not helpful and obstructs our view of actually existing black life.

Astrid Zimmermann

When the Black Lives Matter movement was at its height, it seemed like the public opinion was really shifting in some way. Even centrists in parliament and big corporations paid lip service to the cause, and there was broad popular support, like you had pointed out earlier. It really looked like a watershed moment.

Only two years later, we see that not only did the government fail to defund the police, it’s actually pumping more money into the police. And according to recent polling, the public’s trust in the police also appears to have bounced back as though nothing really happened. How can we make sense of this disconnect?

Cedric Johnson

I think in order to understand why the George Floyd protests were so powerful and so spectacular we first have to keep in mind that his was a really stark case of brutality. It was just so apparent that what had happened to this man was just outlandishly wrong.

But there were also other factors: Floyd was killed just as some of the COVID shelter-in-place orders were being lifted. The protests that quickly swept across the United States provided a socially acceptable reason to be in public again and to be social again. Many of these protests took on a party-like atmosphere, as friends reunited in person for the first time in months. The question we should ask, however, is how deep were the political commitments of those who filled the streets for days and weeks with demonstrations, candlelight vigils, concerts, rallies, and riots? How deep are the commitments to defund, dismantle, abolish the police beyond the ranks of devoted Black Lives Matter activists? If the last two years are any indication, not very deep at all.

Some of the problems here lie in the difference between mobilization of outrage and actually organizing for power. These are very different things. It’s fairly easy to get people outraged. People were pissed off by the murders of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and they should have been. But while the spectacle of mass protests is exhilarating and may well enhance the power of movements to achieve their demands and goals, mass protests don’t necessarily equal popular power. Protests don’t always sway rulers. Protests can be met with repression, indifference, paternalism, and patronage from powerful classes. So there is a disconnect here between mobilization and actual power, and many seasoned activists and intellectuals I know who were swept up in the euphoria of the protests lost their capacity to tell the difference. Desperate for some sort of spark that might revitalize the Left in this country, too many read the popular mobilization as prefiguring popular power. We can mobilize crowds, but so far, we have not built mass support that’s sustained and capable of imposing a different, more socially just order. And that requires people settling in with one another in a different kind of way. It is more than just showing up to demonstrations and taking pics for social media. It’s actually saying that each day I’m going to be involved in practical work. I’m going to try to pull other people into this regular work. I’m going to talk to people and build relationships as comrades — not necessarily as friends or chums but people who are committed to advancing the same interests.

Of course, we should keep in mind that so much of sustained political organizing is not always fun, rewarding, or Instagrammable. It can be boring, tedious, and thankless. It can test your patience and the depth of your commitments, but it is necessary and transformative on a deeply personal and social level. But that’s the kind of work we have in front of us, whether we are organizing to roll back the carceral apparatus or end the problem of gun violence. The US left has been effective at mass mobilization, but we can do so much better in terms of organizing for power.

Astrid Zimmermann

Fractions of the Left will accuse strategies like this of being “class reductionist.” It is often claimed that when organizing is primarily around class interests, we’re bound to reproduce racial inequality in a different way. A lot of these critics will point to the New Deal and argue how the New Deal, which was supposed to better the livelihood of all of the working class, failed the black working class. You’ve pointed out that this is actually an ahistorical account of the New Deal.

Cedric Johnson

I mean to me it’s unbelievable. I was taken aback when I heard various journalists making false claims about the New Deal during the 2016 primary election cycle. They were inaccurate and largely either driven by some need to provide a catchy tagline for their latest opinion piece, or worse, they were doggedly committed to undermining the challenge that Bernie Sanders posed for the Democratic Party establishment.

It has been even more disturbing to see so many historians following along with this narrative and repeating the same lies. I know this may sound strong, but it’s true. They’re actually lying. So many of their claims about the racism of the New Deal just don’t square with what happened historically and contradict the experiences of hundreds of thousands of African Americans who were direct beneficiaries.

Black people disproportionately benefited from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). They were numerically overrepresented among the WPA workforce. The same is generally true for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as well. Federal law mandated that CCC jobs be given to blacks in proportion to their numbers in the general population. All that just gets swept away.

There were even aspects of the New Deal that were clearly anti-racist, like the Slave Narrative Collection [a WPA project that offered jobs to out-of-work writers and collected stories of former slaves]. But still people hold on to this idea that the New Deal was just the reproduction of Jim Crow in national public policy, even though there are clear examples of citizens using the funding of it as an opportunity to do something that was of value to the country. Because of this slave narratives project, for instance, we now have an invaluable audio archive of firsthand experience of antebellum slavery.

For the people who are arguing that we can’t or shouldn’t try to organize a broad popular coalition, that we shouldn’t try to build broad institutions for the working class and push for socialism — I would tell them that arguing against working-class solidarity just divides us in terms of power. Unless we focus on class and the ways that capitalism forms and degrades our lives, we simply can’t build the consciousness, working solidarity, and political capacity that are necessary to win.

But there’s also an even bigger problem. There are many Americans who have really given up on the possibility of effective democracy and meaningful political life. On one level, I don’t blame them. There are pretty compelling reasons to give up when you think of the shit show we have endured, and Donald Trump’s presidency was only the most honest and unvarnished representation of ruling-class hubris that so many Americans feel too powerless to contest.

We’ve reached a dangerous moment. Millions of Americans know all too well that the society works against them. They feel a nagging, terrible alienation and have endured decades of wage stagnation, precarity, and worsening labor conditions, but the means of escape are not illuminated or clear. Fatalism and apathy are not the answer, of course. When people think there’s nothing we can do, my vote doesn’t matter, showing up to a city council meeting or public hearing doesn’t matter, and paying attention to local news or world events doesn’t matter anymore, that disposition just flings open the doors to Trump and other equally vile figures.

Astrid Zimmermann

So we’ve established that we need a broad coalition that can challenge capital if we really want to solve the problem of police brutality because otherwise we will never be able to tackle the underlying preconditions of police brutality.

I wholeheartedly agree, but that’s a really long-term goal. Do you think there are any reforms worth pursuing in the meantime to dismantle the carceral state and — for lack of a better word — stop the police from flat out killing so many poor people?

Cedric Johnson

Since 2020, some states have moved toward creating nonviolent response teams for mental health crises, because people with mental health conditions are more likely to be brutalized by cops. I think this is a welcome and progressive advance. Decriminalization and decarceration as processes should be pushed forward in all states. For instance, legalizing cannabis and exonerating and expunging the records of those who were incarcerated for cannabis possession and distribution would go a long way toward reversing the damage of the “war on drugs.” People are still going to prison for selling cannabis in my home state of Louisiana, but in Illinois, this is no longer a crime. That disparity across states has to be rectified. This kind of punishment is unnecessary and unjust now that cannabis has become a national, lucrative industry.

As you said at the beginning, these are survival crimes committed by the poor. We should not put people in prison when they are just trying to survive. We have legitimated cannabis in one state, and at the same time, we’re destroying people’s lives in other parts of the country for petty offenses where cannabis is still illegal. We need to bring the entire United States up to the same standard and reverse the wrongs of the drug war years. And I think we should decriminalize other forms of work as well. There’s more and more organizing now around legalization of sex work for example.

So much of this old carceral apparatus should be torn out, including money bail and underfunded public defenders’ offices that often just can’t even manage the ton of cases they are assigned and, consequently, must often rely on making plea deals for their clients rather than mounting a dedicated trial defense. So there are various ways we might begin to dismantle our overgrown and unjust carceral infrastructure.

Astrid Zimmermann

All of these reforms are also really focused on social inequality — which also goes to show how the current system disproportionately targets the working poor.

Cedric Johnson

Exactly. They are the people most likely to go to jail, which is why we have to fight the underlying inequality at the same time. One possible way of addressing this problem is through a revitalized approach to public works. During the New Deal, we developed publicly funded and publicly managed jobs programs. After World War II, however, we shifted over to a publicly funded but privately managed model of infrastructure development. That’s how the freeway system was built under Dwight D. Eisenhower and how it is maintained to this day — not by public workers but through construction companies and private developers who have been awarded federal contracts.

Why can’t we revitalize these earlier experiments in public works, even if it’s at a metropolitan scale? Why can’t we do that in a way that’s more democratic, where people are determining what they need in their cities, whether it’s building bike paths, improving public transit and public housing, or providing care work, which is another huge area of devalued labor? There are all sorts of needs in any given city that are not being met by the capitalist market. Those social needs will differ from one place to another, but we might use democratic planning and genuine public works to reorganize urban society around use value as opposed to profit and finally begin to deal with the underlying inequality reflected in hyperpolicing and expansive carceral power.