Note: these thoughts are, necessarily, incomplete - they do not, for example, discuss the oppression of women - but I hope they add constructively to the discussion of a difficult, complex, and emotional issue. They are likely inadequate, and in some cases maybe wrong, but they are set down in good faith.
The confrontation of Toronto Pride and the Toronto Police by Black Lives Matter, intimidation and oppression of First Nations and other people in Canada and the United States, fascist and racist outbreaks in post-Brexit Britain, and the seemingly endless executions of Black people by police in the United States, all require an attempt to understand how and why our society is the way it is, in order, perhaps, one day to create a new and better society. In any period of social upheaval, such as the one we are living through today, it is usually instructive to go back to Lenin.
It seems to me that there are two elements to what we are seeing: the state-sanctioned legitimacy of police violence, and the fact that the targets of violence are predominantly people of colour.
In The State and Revolution, Lenin discusses Marx and Engels’ conception of the capitalist state. For all three, the state was not an institution somehow standing apart from the social relationships inherent in a society. Instead, it is the organization of the ruling class against the lower classes, required by the ruling class so that the antagonism between the exploiters and the exploited do not tear society apart. In order to achieve a semblance of legitimacy, the state positions itself (in appearance, but not in reality) as standing above the fray, of remaining aloof from social conflicts. In this view, the impossibility of convicting police officers of illegal shootings can only be seen as an accident (or worse, as the legitimate workings of a “neutral” justice system).
In reality, the state is the organization of the tools and institutions of violent oppression of one class against the rest. If such tools and institutions (police, prisons, justice system, etc) did not exist, the antagonisms between social classes would tear society apart. In effect, the state is the mechanism by and through which the ruling class maintains control over society. For Marx and Lenin, the commune on which they modeled their view of the society of the future (the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Soviets of 1905 and 1917, respectively), such police activity as would be required would be supplied through the self-organization of the community itself. The police would not be a separate, permanent body of permanently armed men with a state-sanctioned monopoly on violence.
We have seen, over the last few years, the increasingly militarization of the police (most notably in Ferguson, MO following the killing of Michael Brown). To the Marxist this is an indication of the need for increased violence to maintain control over a society increasingly riven and fractured by social antagonisms.
The police, then, despite decades if not longer of a heavy public relations campaign, are an institution of state (that is, ruling class) oppression exercised through violence and the threat of violence. And the police cannot be reformed, because they occupy a necessary position within the state apparatus. Only by getting rid of the state can we get rid of the police.
But in order to self-organize, in order to get rid of the state, we need to abolish social classes. Only in a classless society, a commune, can everyone be seen as a member of the community, and not as an Other to be feared and killed. It is precisely because First Nations and Black people, LGBTQ and immigrant communities, all those who suffer at the hands of the capitalist state and the bourgeois ideology, are seen as Others, as “not members of our community”, and so it becomes legitimate to oppress, harass, and kill them with impunity.
That race is the criterion through which this social mechanism plays out is indisputable. But race itself is a social relation, and so contains within it economic (that is class) elements. What follows is one way of thinking about how this works, but there are many others, and they are by no means mutually exclusive.
Capitalist society requires certain elements of society to be kept in poverty, to be kept precariously-, marginally-, or flat-out un-employed, it requires certain people to remain uneducated and marginalized. In the earliest decades of capitalism, these people were the working class as a whole, including white factory workers, women, and children. Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England is a scathing indictment of the treatment of the English working class in the middle of the 19th century. Following the Second World War, partly as a reward for dying in a massive imperialist conflict, and partly to defuse the social tensions that had created the conditions for the war in the first place, a section of the working class was increasingly bought off with higher wages, improved living standards, etc. This is generally known as the Long Boom which lasted until approximately 1973, when the neoliberal revenge against the working class (now undertaken under the “austerity” euphemism) set in. This section of the (predeominantly white) working class took completely to the bourgeois ideology of the ruling class and became ideologically (though not economically) what we now refer to as “middle class”.
Lenin identified this process of buying off the working class in his analysis of support for the First World War by left-wing parties in his 1916 book Imperialism: The Latest Stage of Capitalism.
But this process of promoting (or bribing) the white working class in North America made the racial and heteronormative basis of this promotion explicit. The remaining members of the working class and poor, those who were not bribed to support the ruling class, were increasingly people of colour and sexual and gender minorities (those who were, from a bourgeois point of view, “unprofessional” and unemployable). This process has continued to the present day.
So we have, currently, legitimate anger on the part of oppressed people (oppressed by race, class, and gender), coming up against the violence of an institution for the maintenance of state control (the police), supported and legitimated by a working class bought off by higher wages and higher standard of living (who no longer recognize themselves as working class). And into this mix we throw the murderous tool developed and perfected throughout the long centuries of the capitalist mode of production: the gun.
Since all of these social relationships, all of these historical dynamics are products of the fundamental way in which society is organized, reforming this or that institution is doomed to failure. Only by fundamentally changing the forces and relations of production and the social relationships that grow out of them can we eventually get rid of the state, get rid of the police, and get rid of the need to see certain people, certain human beings, as non-human, as not part of the human community. Only by creating a society in which seeing Black, First Nations, LGBTQ people as human beings and not as disturbers of the social order, can we end the ruthless, criminal, sanctioned violence and murder with which we live today. As Paolo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
While the problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind’s central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern. Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality And as an individual perceives the extent of dehumanization, he or she may ask if humanization is a viable possibility. Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion. But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation. (p. 45).
I don’t have any real practical proposals for what we can do right now in order to try to bring about this kind of change, to further a project of humanization for all. But we can start with listening, reading, and education ourselves, calling out hypocrisy and lies and recognizing the effect of generations of dehumanization on marginalized members of our communities. I also think a good start would be to ban guns outright. But we must also remain cognizant of the legitimacy, the requirement, to fight back against a state whose organization of violence can, perhaps, only be met by confrontation up to and potentially including more violence before we eventually, hopefully, achieve peace.