Make Black lives matter

Fight for elected civilian review boards

Two people stand by a burning dumpster, with a row of police in the background. One of the people is holding a sign saying
After the killing of George Floyd, protests sprang up across the country, including this one in Lafayette Park, near the White House, on March 30, 2020. PHOTO: Rosa Pineda
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For decades, protesters against police brutality have scrawled the names of people killed across cardboard and marched in the streets. As another video was released and another murder uncovered, the list of the fallen grew longer. The politicians stayed silent. The cops stayed employed, protected, untouched.

George Floyd could simply have been the latest victim. But his cold, casual suffocation by white cop Derek Chauvin sparked a visceral rage that grew into rebellion. Out of the quiet of quarantine and mass unemployment, militant Black youth sounded a battle cry for justice that ignited the most widespread protest in recent U.S. history. Multiracial multitudes followed their lead.

This epic uprising has energized the fight for transformative solutions like working-class boards empowered to hold police accountable. In New York, following five years of movement pressure, the city council is on the brink of addressing actual legislation for such a board.

A movement reborn. The flames of Black Lives Matter protest have scorched the false face of U.S. democracy. They have produced a national and international consciousness that racial oppression, like sexism, is part of capitalism’s very fabric.

In just weeks, the uprising has gotten more cops fired and charged with crimes than during the previous seven years combined. Cities are cutting police budgets and banning chokeholds. Confederate statues and flags are toppling. Revolts against bigotry in schools, workplaces, and the media are erupting.

History shows that when Black struggle intensifies, other struggles advance too. Pressure from today’s spirit of rebellion has led to positive rulings from the reactionary Supreme Court on the rights of LGBTQ+ people, women, and immigrants.

A vehicle for increasing community control. Demands of the Black lives movement include slashing police budgets and directing the funds to social needs; taking away cops’ military hardware; and freeing arrested protesters. The Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) is among those who also demand disarming the cops and expelling their unions from the AFL-CIO.

Calls for independent community control boards are being raised in cities including Chicago and Pittsburgh. In New York, FSP is part of the Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board (ECRB), which the party helped found.

The multiracial coalition organizing for the ECRB in New York is made up of neighborhood activists, members of groups like FSP and Democratic Socialists of America, leaders in Black Lives Matter Greater NY, and movement stalwarts like Juanita Young, whose son Malcolm Ferguson was killed by police in 2000. On June 8, a campaign media conference and spirited rally at 1 Police Plaza announced the introduction of ECRB legislation by NYC Councilmember Inez Barron.

ECRBs are designed to transfer control over discipline of the cops to a community body independent of the police and politicians.

Members, full-time and well-paid, would be elected from citywide districts. They would be empowered to investigate and resolve all complaints of police misconduct, including assault, discrimination, infiltration of community groups, abuse of LGBTQ+ people, sexual harassment, and false arrest. They could order additional training for cops, suspension, demotion, or firing.

To give the ECRB real teeth, it would have full subpoena power and partnership with an independent, elected prosecutor to handle criminal cases against police. The prosecutor would have jurisdiction to bring charges instead of district attorneys who are closely tied to cops.

To serve and protect … the class in power. Since survival reforms like an ECRB are still subject to Democratic Party gatekeepers, winning them requires building a massive, steadfast grass-roots movement. It also takes leaders who understand the basic social function of the police.

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederick Engels identifies the material origins of the police.

Early communal clans regulated themselves based on egalitarian relations and common ownership. But with the development of private property, slavery, and later capitalism, societies were split into unequal, opposing classes — the haves and have-nots. The ruling class needed its own police to enforce its power and suppress resistance.

In the U.S., police first formed as small roaming patrols in the rural South, hired to hunt down runaway slaves and prevent rebellions. In the late 1800s, brutal working conditions led to a surge of militant strikes in the cities, many led by immigrants. The private security forces of corporations were overpowered by large uprisings of workers who armed themselves in self-defense. Companies then began to fund governmental police in a big way, building armories and equipping cops with machine guns.

The police role in the 21st century has not changed: enforce systemic racism and other forms of oppression, protect profits, and suppress protest. Neither capitalist party — Democratic or Republican — will let police departments be compromised without a huge fight.

So, despite its powerful momentum, the Black Lives Matter movement is colliding with the same old institutional hurdles. In NYC, for example, despite public outcry, Democrats blocked any substantial changes to the massive police department budget.

A crossroads for the movement. Elected civilian review boards hold the potential to weaken the police and empower the working class. And just the fight itself for these boards can unify oppressed groups, strengthen leadership in the Black community, and inspire broader sections of the working class to take on the police.

However, even radical, game-changing reforms like ECRBs cannot solve the problem of cop violence in the end.

Activists are quickly learning that the struggle against racist police leads directly to confronting the profit system that police exist to serve. To abolish the police means abolishing capitalism.

Revolutionary motion toward this goal is more possible today than it was only a few months ago. As the FSP statement “The murder of George Floyd shakes the U.S. and the world” concludes: “We can and must fight for survival reforms, but they will always be transitory and under constant attack until the day the international working class is in the driver’s seat. The Black Lives Matter struggle in 2020 is hastening that day.”

To stay up to date with the ECRB campaign in NYC, visit stoppoliceviolencenyc.org.

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