Black Lives Matter protests, looting, riots, and calls to focus on race have become a constant theme in the American media. For both the media and the presidential candidates themselves, the race issue is as important, if not more so, than anything related to COVID-19. We are told that the success of either candidate will depend on how they respond to police violence, the future of black businesses, etc. For its part, the black petty bourgeoisie, which sees the protests as an opportunity to attract capital to its businesses, characterizes the problem of the lumpenization of the neighborhoods as a racial problem whose center lies in preserving the intergenerational wealth of black families and its resolution would be structured around a reformed police force, strengthened in number as well as in power and authority. But such solutions, suggested by both Democrats and Republicans, not only leaves workers at the mercy of violence, but is incapable of ending the social process it claims to tackle.
Police and the lumpen, an old friendship
The expansion of police into the working poor neighborhoods of the United States began during the civil rights period when a Democratic government initiated a war on crime under the banner of improving black neighborhoods. The first generation of leaders trained in the Civil Rights movement faithfully followed this line. It was not a product of Southern racism, nor was it invented by Reagan. There is nothing contradictory about Joe Biden talking about “racial justice” while emphasizing the need for stronger policing.Nor is there any contradiction in the fact that Democratic lawmakers do not take seriously the slogan Defund the police, although they do, of course, speak of the need for the police to be fair … in the end they need to regain its legitimacy and authority.
It is not so easy. The lumpenization of working class cities and neighborhoods in the United States has always been linked to the criminal activity of the police. The historical record of the 20th century tells us of a police force aspiring to organize rather than repress criminal groups, from pickpockets…
Then, if a citizen lost his wallet and made a report, the detectives knew which gang was working in the area so they could recover the stolen property. On other occasions, pickpocket gangs would associate with a patrolman. When a victim discovered a robbery, a diligent police officer would arrest the pickpocket (to later release him).
In 1914, the “bunco squad” [policemen investigating scams] insisted that a swindler, new to the city, would be subject to arrest unless he sought out a member of the “bunco squad” and made a payment of $20. This gave the scammer the privilege of operating; however, if a victim filed a complaint with the police, the scammer in question was expected to share ten percent of the proceeds with the police, apparently as a penalty for operating so inefficiently that a complaint was made. The system even allowed for credit arrangements. An inexperienced fraudster could ask permission to work until he earned his $20.00.
But the police also needed to maintain their reputation as defenders of the law. When particularly egregious crimes occurred or when newspapers complained of a crime wave, they would order mass arrests [dragnet arrests], arresting all, or almost all, in a degraded area for questioning later. As the Chicago police chief explained in 1906
We cannot put an end to [mass arrests]. Detectives and patrolmen are ordered to bring them all in… And the chances are that nine out of ten people picked up are not guilty of the crime. But if with the tenth time we catch the culprit, it will have been worth it for us and for society.
And of course, everything was back to normal afterwards…the police continued to work with the criminals as usual. The situation could only get worse during the period of Prohibition. The rise of the Mafia went hand in hand with widespread police corruption.
The [Chicago] city police quickly established friendly relations with the smugglers, accepted favors ranging from money to free alcohol, escorted beer trucks through the city streets, and sold liquor confiscated at police stations. Then, from 1923 to 1927, Mayor William E. Dever, despite his personal opposition to prohibition, insisted that the police enforce the law; and a reluctant police force closed many breweries and distilleries and raided speakeasies. But the relationships established between the police and the smugglers, combined with the police’s opposition to the enforcement of the ban, were too tenacious for the mayor to break. When Dever failed to win re-election in 1927 because of his attempts to enforce the law, the police quickly and openly resumed a cooperation with smugglers that had been disrupted but not destroyed during his administration. Once again, the political system protected the police from pressure to treat the alcohol problem as a law enforcement problem.
Not only did it happen in Chicago, where 60% of the police force was involved in the alcohol business, but it was commonplace in New York, where the Mafia was also thriving. In fact, corruption of the police force, politicians, etc., was widespread in the United States and crucial to the success of organized crime. And of course it wasn’t limited to alcohol. Prostitution and gambling were also tolerated by the police… who benefited from them.
In addition, by tolerating gambling and prostitution, the police acted in the service of powerful local politicians, some of whom raised substantial funds from businessmen in the entertainment districts. Many of them were also members of gambling groups. In fact, in some districts political organization and gambling groups were so intertwined that they were virtually the same. In those districts, local political leaders selected the police captain primarily on the basis of his sympathy for the local players. And some neighborhood patrolmen served as employees of the local gamblers. Finally, the tolerant attitude of policemen to gambling and vice arose from the desire to supplement their income. The players, despite their political influence, tended to make goodwill contributions to the police.
Democratic party’s patronage networks, organized lumpen and segregation in the cities
Politicians were as corrupt as the police. They sponsored athletic clubs, which were really gangs used to commit voter fraud and do all the dirty work of the Democrats to secure their election. In return, “gangsters” received police protection and were then hired as police officers or even co-opted as local political representatives. Many had family members who were police officers. And in addition to committing crimes for politicians, they enjoyed the freedom to steal, compete with other gangs, and carve out territory.
All of this was happening in the context of the outbreak of World War I and the Great Migration, when the labor needs of industry during the war allowed tens of thousands of black workers from the rural South to migrate to the cities and escape racist violence and exclusion.
The European conflict dramatically increased demands on US companies to produce ammunition and other goods to support the war effort. At the same time, the workforce on which these companies normally depended – immigrants and native-born Americans – was shrinking. Recruitment absorbed many of these men, while unrest in Europe disrupted the flow of immigrants from that area. Because African Americans constituted a large part of the unskilled labor force in the South, and because of social conditions there, they were subjected to intense recruitment campaigns. Northern companies offered well-paying jobs, free transportation, and low-cost housing as incentives for African Americans to move north.
But the North was not free from violence either. When they arrived in Chicago they faced violence from Democratic-sponsored gangs. These gangs, like the Irish, forcibly prevented blacks from crossing into their territory. As a result, they became concentrated in what came to be known as The Black Belt. That is, racial segregation in cities is inseparable from gangs and the police who supported them.
At the same time, real estate agencies also enforced racial segregation by establishing racial deals that prevented real estate agents from selling houses to black, Jewish, Mexican, etc. people. They claimed to do this in order to preserve property value. The police, of course, were responsible for maintaining these racial divides. Of course, this system of urban division intensified segregation and led to the emergence of race-defined gangs in each of the ghettos into which the working class neighborhoods were divided.
Police reform attempts
The outbreak of World War II, the resulting additional migration of black and Mexican workers in search of industrial jobs and the subsequent destruction of jobs after the war worsened an already serious situation. Investment in the new suburban neighborhoods far exceeded investment in the working-class districts of the cities. Infrastructure was neglected. And while in the suburbs there were more and more job opportunities for skilled workers and the petty bourgeoisie, unemployment in the impoverished neighborhoods kept rising.
In this nightmarish setting, gangs continued to develop in the poor neighborhoods and became increasingly violent. The neighborhood residents not only suffered a deterioration in the standard of living and an increase in lumpen violence, but they knew they could not count on a police force that had always been corrupt and involved in criminal activity. As a result, in the 1950s the police were subjected to reform initiatives aimed at ending a corruption that was closely linked to their relationship with politicians.
Reforming commissioners and police chiefs, often elected as a result of one or another scandal, sought to change the nature of the police bureaucracy itself. Among the reforms instituted within police organizations were the establishment of selection standards, the training of new recruits, the placement of police in the public service, and the granting of promotions as a result of probationary procedures. The hope of these reforms was to diminish the influence of politicians, and in particular, constituency leaders, on police officers. It was hoped that if the recruitment, selection, and promotion processes were conducted within the department and if they were governed by objective criteria, officers would no longer have to rely on political operatives for their work and their ranks.
Similarly, reform-minded police executives began to try to restructure the department itself, making it more bureaucratic, with a clear internal chain of command. Once again, the hope was to structurally isolate police officers from politicians. In this regard, many police departments added a middle level of management to their organizational plans; they changed the geographical lines of police stations so that they no longer covered electoral districts and created special groups to carry out specific tasks within the departments.
One of the ironies of this reform effort was that the creation of centralized special groups such as transit, criminal investigation, vice, and narcotics eventually had the effect of reducing the costs of organized crime corruption. Instead of spreading across an entire department, narcotics and prostitution operators could now corrupt a smaller, more discrete unit and still maintain a high level of immunity from police interference in their illegal businesses. […]
[Later,] In the 1950s, professionalization of the police was widely promoted as the best way to improve police effectiveness and reform the police as an institution. O.W. Wilson set the standard for the professionalization movement when he published his book Police Administration, which quickly became a blueprint for professionalizing the police. Wilson advocated greater centralization of the police function, with an emphasis on military-style organization and discipline. Crime control and efficiency became central issues in police administration.
Closer supervision of police officers was recommended; foot patrols were replaced by motorized patrols; precinct houses were consolidated and more central police facilities were built; and command functions were centralized among headquarters staff.
But the professionalization of the police, instead of controlling crime, caused riots in neighborhoods that were already very degraded and lumpenized. Let’s see why.
Professionalism antagonized tensions between the police and the communities they served and created resentment and dissent within the departments themselves. Crime control tactics recommended by the professional movement, such as aggressive stop and frisk procedures, created widespread resentment in the community.
The police were instructed to go to these neighborhoods and arrest suspicious people and frisk them. The aim of the police was to aggressively prevent crime by closely monitoring poor neighborhoods. The result was an increase in police violence against all residents of the neighborhoods who were considered suspects. The addition of unemployment measures such as arrest quotas further aggravated the situation by leading the police to increase arrests in order to justify their work.
In other words, the professionalization of the police and their increasing militarized presence in the neighborhoods were the immediate cause of the neighborhood riots of the 1960s. Professionalization also led to another very significant change in the police and penal system. The government described the riots as the product of chaos, of a weak police force. It had also concluded that the social programs it implemented to combat lumpenization had been very ineffective. The result: an escalation of police presence and forcefulness, that is, brutality.
Turning a problem of segregation and unemployment into a war on crime
One month after the famous Watts riots, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Law Enforcement Assistance Act. A crime commission was also created to evaluate the projects of another new entity, the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance (OLEA).
In 1968, the new Johnson crime bill established the OLEA, within the Department of Justice, which over the next decade and a half disbursed federal funds for more than eighty thousand crime control projects. Even funds for social projects-youth employment, for example, along with other health, education, housing, and welfare programs-were redirected to police operations.
This was the beginning of the massive expansion of the police force and prisons. The police received massive funding and continued to patrol neighborhoods suffering from lumpenization, now reinforced and militarized by the government, which had turned a problem of segregation, lack of basic services, and unemployment into a war on crime.
The new political approach presented lumpenization as a racial problem. That is, its plan was based on the idea that blacks became criminals because as a racial group they suffered from some kind of cultural pathology. The administration followed the lead of sociologists who claimed that there was a fundamental difference between poor blacks and whites… they said that poor blacks had become criminals to prove their masculinity and that this was a response to the trauma of being raised by single mothers. Their plan to counteract lumpenization was not only to be tougher on crime, but to encourage the model of the nuclear family – the two-parent household with a small number of children. And, of course, the male had to be the financially supportive member of the family… so he would regain his masculinity and, consequently, avoid falling into crime.
Not surprisingly, the problem of lumpenization kept getting worse and the War on Crime became more and more brutal in the following decades.
With Richard Nixon, any element of the “Great Society” that would have survived the disastrous end of Johnson’s presidency was drastically reduced, with an increased emphasis on police and prison construction. More Americans went to prison between 1965 and 1982 than between 1865 and 1964, Hinton reports. Under Ronald Reagan, even more social services were shut down, or deprived of funds until they disappeared: psychiatric hospitals, health centers, work programs, children’s education. By 2016, 18 states were spending more on prisons than on colleges and universities.
What is happening nowadays?
The problem of lumpenization has not only not ceased but, in many ways, has worsened. Prisons are not an obstacle… on the contrary. There are entire gangs created within them directing their members on the outside and coordinating the drug trade. The professionalization of the police has not eradicated corruption. The police continue working with the gangs to generate income for their members. There are even police who are gang members and do their dirty work, killing rivals or coordinating murders during the guards.
At the same time, police continue killing anyone considered a suspect, whether lumpen or workers, and planting evidence against anyone to meet detention quotas. It routinely employs brutal force against people with mental illnesses… even if they are helpless children.
However, the lumpen who protest police brutality and who loot, do not do so in the name of respect for life. They claim that they themselves can do the work of the police … who would say otherwise? If they oppose the intervention of the police in their affairs it is a question of costs and margins… which vary according to the situation, alliances and agreements, as in any other sector with capitalist interests. Asking the lumpen how they want the police to be is like asking a small industrialist how he wants the state to be: he wants the police to leave him alone when he commits atrocities against his exploited, to act when he cannot deal with them or with the competition, and in any case to do so as cheaply as possible so as not to lose profits.
But the reality is that for lumpen, lives are only a means to an end – their little piece of accumulation – and it doesn’t cost them much to kill if that means defending their business because, like the ruling class, the lumpen puts profits above the lives of human beings.
It is also not like lives matter to the police. Their primary purpose is to defend the state and the interests it represents through the use of violence. When the working class acts as a class and raises demands expressing universal human needs, the first thing it encounters is a police line. It is not surprising that the police themselves not only fail to reverse lumpenization but have contributed greatly to it.
That’s why the debate between Republicans and Democrats is so sterile and insubstantial. When Trump talks about crime he presents the police as a heroic force that will protect us from criminals and keep our neighborhoods safe. In the meantime… Biden says exactly the same thing. In fact, both accuse each other of wanting to defund the police and boast that they will provide the police with new and increased spending. Both talk about how the police need to be reformed and professionalized. Both speak of the need for peace, to avoid riots and looting. Both accuse each other of being unable to control the chaos. Both plan to ban choking techniques. And to top it off, both speak of the need to increase the involvement of social workers. The main differences between the two positions are rhetorical rather than substantive. Both follow the logic of previous governments. And both seek to appease the petty bourgeoisie… but neither is capable of ending lumpenization and preserving the security of the neighborhoods.
Because lumpenization and police brutality are not racial problems… they are products of capitalism that represent a daily threat to all workers. The uncomfortable truth: the police cannot be trusted to confront lumpenization, not even the state’s social programs. The future in this, as in everything else, does not depend on the grace of the rulers, but on the ability and willingness of the workers to fight.