Let’s take a moment and consider the phrase “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Many use it to mean the literal repetition of events like wars or genocides. However, maybe this phrase is not meant to be applied to such temporally concrete events. If we instead apply this phrase to social or political patterns, it can be used to reveal evidence of an ongoing struggle between those with influence and those without it. At its center lie the methods of control used by the state to reinforce the status quo. Some are more subtle than others but none has had a longer, more violent, or widely applicable role than that of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). From Labor movements to the Civil Rights Movement, anytime an under-served population has attempted to disrupt the status quo, police and the PIC have been there to quash it.
In June of this year, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police led to protests across the country in response to systemic abuse faced by Black Americans at the hands of police. What began as the revamping of the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved into a examination of the values that we as a nation choose to uphold and the systems we choose to invest in. At the forefront of this movement lie the institutions of policing and incarceration, as well as nationwide beliefs regarding justice and punishment, contribute to the cycles of oppression and state-sanctioned violence.
It is obvious that the uprisings provoked this summer did not occur in a vacuum. Amplified stress placed on America’s working-class due to coronavirus cojoined with longstanding government inaction in addressing police violence evoked public revolt. Less obvious but no less important are the parallels between the George Floyd protests and the events of the long summer of 1967. There is a shared context between these two summers: dramatic unemployment rates, inadequate housing, rampant police militarization and heavy investment into the PIC. Yet, that the summer of 1967 is known more for Haight-Ashbury than the 159 riots that took place makes it clear that we did not learn our lesson the first time around. This summer has devolved into one of our historic moments of repetition, and its time to learn.
So, if the PIC is such a powerful method of societal control, it demands we ask how it got to be this way and what we can do about it. In order to understand this, we must first dissect what exactly this term refers to. For one, when discussing the Prison Industrial Complex, weo don't just refer to prisons and how private companies profit off them. The PIC is more similar to the Military-Industrial Complex in how it utilizes the criminal justice system to collect power and satisfy the overlapping interests of the government and the ruling class. There are many ways that the PIC does this, including perpetuating stereotypes of minorities through mass media, increasing the influence of police and prison guard unions, and using lobbying efforts to enact legislation that protects the interests of parties who benefit from incarceration.
The fact that the PIC is so large and complex is, in part, what gives it its power. But the core of its power lies with its connection to the police. Policing as an institution was born out of a need for social control, manifesting in its modern form from the slave patrols of the Antebellum South. And as such, violence has been an integral part of what makes policing an effective means of control.
As socialists we understand that a socioeconomic power imbalance exists, and by organizing labor and advocating for electoral change we attempt to offset it. However, now is the time where we must analyze the intersection of these issues with those of policing, crime, and justice. Some connections are much more obvious than others, such as how police have consistently been used to physically and violently break up protests or strikes. But others require a more critical examination of things we feel are essential parts of socialism, like who is included in the labor movement. We bring this up because when it comes to examining the justice system from a socialist lens, it challenges our thinking and even parts of our subconscious (such as assumptions of what safety means and who is authorized to deliver or certify it) that we’ve never acknowledged. But the degree with which the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), and more specifically policing, directly oppose socialist goals make it an essential topic of thought and conversation.
One of the most difficult, but most critical, concepts sparked by a reexamination of policing comes from considering the institution's relationship with the labor movement. While historically police have been the go-to method for business owners to break strikes and control the working class, police themselves are unionized. How can a group of people whose job is to destroy working-class solidarity through intimidation and violence utilize one of the most fundamental organizational systems of the labor movement? In short, they can’t. Police unions, even in their most basic form, are antithetical to the interests of labor as the entire purpose of policing is to protect private property and ruling class interests.
Policing as an institution within the US began as a way for white plantation owners to capture escaped slaves and later to enforce Jim Crow laws in the South. In the North, private police like the Pinkertons were hired by business owners to infiltrate unions, break strikes, and intimidate workers into rejecting unionization efforts. And so, there is consistent evidence of police being the defenders of capital and property rights.
Despite the history between police and labor unions, it is possible for some to argue for the existence of police unions in considering that police officers still have an occupation and thus, work-related rights to be protected. This can be refuted in several ways. First, we must consider if a police union like the Fraternal Order of Police is even actually a union. In the way it carries out a most basic function - the negotiation of contracts - these organizations do appear to take the shape of a union. But outside of this one role, police unions bear more resemblance to college fraternities than the Teamsters.
For one, police unions have no concept of solidarity outside their ranks and abide by no law but their own. Police union contracts often include riders that make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to effectively investigate and discipline officers accused of misconduct. Riders like these are why officers can kill an unarmed civilian and not lose their jobs. The nature of these organizations creates a social and cultural environment where abuse of power is normalized, and speaking out against it is met with harsh punishment. There are many stories of officers, who after reporting misconduct to Internal Affairs, were denied partners and sent into hostile situations without backup as a form of punishment for disloyalty. This has led to what is known as “the blue wall of silence,” where officers view each other not as co-workers but as brothers: as a different kind of human, whose occupation and oath place them in a class above all others.
The history of police as foot soldiers for the bourgeoisie, in tandem with this "transcendent brotherhood” mentality make organizations such as FOP or PBA not only incompatible but dangerous to the labor movement. Their purpose will always be to protect property, not people, making them incongruous with the labor movement's emphasis on people, not property. The events of this summer, not unlike those of 1967, have demonstrated this in the terrifyingly clear terms: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” uttered both by Miami Police Chief Walter E. Headley in 1967 and President Trump in 2020.
Some additional reading:
"Blue Bloods: America's Brotherhood of Police Officers" in Vanity Fair
"No More Cop Unions" in The New Republic
Critical Resistance's Abolish Policing definition and resource page