The Sean Bell Case: Police Brutality is a Class Question

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In the early morning hours of Nov. 25th five New York City undercover police officers pumped fifty bullets at nearly point blank range into a car occupied by three unarmed black men. Sean Bell, the driver was killed and two passengers were seriously wounded. So outrageous was this assault that even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York State Governor George Pataki quickly issued public statements decrying the obvious use of “excessive force” by the cops. Rev. Al Sharpton and a legion of civil rights leaders held angry press conferences, organized the usual protest marches and silent vigils, posed for pictures with grieving family members and denounced the racism of the New York City police department. There’s no doubt that racism is rampant within the police department.

However, this time it was not simply a case of white cops victimizing black victims. The squad of undercover cops who went berserk that night were about as ethnically diverse a group of cops one is ever likely to encounter, including two minority cops, one black and one Hispanic. In fact it was the black cop, who had been undercover as a customer in the same strip club where the victims had been drinking for most of the evening, who followed them to their car, first pulled his gun, and jumped on the hood of the car, provoking Bell to try to drive away from what he thought was an armed assault. Supposedly the cop, who himself had consumed two alcoholic drinks during his undercover operation at the bar, did this because he thought one of the passengers was in possession of a gun. While it was a white cop who fired 31 times, both the black and Hispanic cops also opened fired on the unarmed victims. Only the sergeant who was in charge of the squad did not first; apparently lacking confidence in the accuracy of his colleagues, once the shooting started, the sergeant ducked for cover.

For years leftists, civil rights leaders, and black nationalists have portrayed the problem of police brutality simply as a question of racism. The solutions offered by these leftist bourgeois activists are always the same: fire the police commissioner, hire more minority cops, appoint a black police commissioner, and elect more black politicians. As this incident demonstrates, having more minorities on the police force only increases the chances that a black person will be brutalized by a police officer who has the same color skin. There are plenty of black mayors and black police commissioners across the U.S. these days and police brutality continues unabated.

In capitalist society, the police are a special body of armed men, a critical element of the state apparatus that serves to maintain law and order – capitalism’s law and order – and to repress threats to that order. Sure, sometimes that includes some social useful things like solving crimes that reflect anti-social behavior, returning lost children to their parents, and directing traffic. But ever since the rise of the first police departments in the U.S. in the early 1800’s it has included the use of force and intimidation to suppress social and political discontent. The exercise of coercive force is crucial to intimidating the population to toe the line. Police brutality is a class weapon, not a race weapon. It has always been used to victimize and terrorize the poor and the working class, whether it was the Irish, Italian, Jewish immigrants in the industrial slums of major cities in the 19th and 20th centuries, long before the massive migration of black workers from the rural south to northern cities in the 20th century. Police brutality was used against workers, white and black, in the course of the class struggle throughout American history. It’s true that many police officers are recruited from working class families, and on an individual basis, it is sometimes possible to get through to an individual police officer to break with the institutionalized brutality and violence that engulfs their professional life. But as an institution the capitalist police, is the enemy of the working class. We will never rid society of police brutality except by destroying capitalism first. – JG, 13/1/07.