Aren't Cops Workers Too?

The crackdown in Pittsburgh and the attitudes of the angry left

YDSers at the G20 protests

YDSers at the G20 protests

There is no doubt in my mind that civil liberties were egregiously violated in Pittsburgh during the G20 summit last week. Peaceful protesters were arrested, uninvolved onlookers gassed, students expelled. Limbs were bruised, eyes were seared, eardrums were blasted in the fog of tear gas, nightsticks and rubber bullets. Watching some of the more disturbing videos of the incidents on YouTube, it is very easy for a leftist to curse at the screen, call the police "fascist pigs" and idolize the protester who kicks the tear-gas canister back at those who fired it. Indeed, it is too easy. To use Saul Alinsky's baseball metaphor inĀ Rules for Radicals, this amounts to shirking true gameplay in favor of simply yelling, "Kill the umpire!"

Although such name-calling always reflects poorly on the name-caller, what bothers me is not so much the fact that some of us of the Left labeled the police in Pittsburgh "fascist pigs" after the turmoil at the summit, but before it even began.

The police and national guard presence in the city certainly was complete overkill, and without doubt was orchestrated for the purpose of dissuading would-be protesters. The rows and rows of armed guards in riot gear lining either side of the street as we marched, and attack dogs tugging on their leashes and green humvees sporting mounted machine guns, had descended upon the town for the purpose of intimidation as much as protection. When walking through such a scene, it is so easy to look into the goggled eyes of those uniformed men and see the face of the enemy -- the system of global capitalism, of militarism, destruction and exploitation. It is even easier to imagine when you see them firing tear gas into peaceful crowds, ordering students around in their dorms and making threats of arrest.

But this projection falters when you ask yourself the question: are these men enjoying themselves? I'm sure some truly enjoyed their draconian tactics those nights, but similarly sure that the vast majority did not. Let's not forget that these police and national guardsmen weren't there because they wanted to be there, they were there because it's their job. Like most other workers, they simply did what their bosses told them to do. History has taught us that ordinary people in certain situations are capable of horrible things -- particularly involving orders from above and survival instincts, both of which had a role to play in the mentality of police in the chaos of the G20.

After the protest, returning to the beat must have been quite a relief for these police. No more yelling, no more running, no more worrying -- just making an honest living.

Indeed, antagonizing police is counterproductive for the Left. As the (often unwitting) defenders of the capitalist stranglehold on society, they are an essential group to win over. Nothing shakes a capitalist to the core like seeing the police he brought in take up pickets and join the striking workers. As low- to moderate-income government employees whose livelihoods are threatened by budget cuts, police have as much of a stake in the success of the progressive movement as anyone else. But yelling "fascist pig!" certainly doesn't help them gain that awareness. On the contrary: yell "fascist" at them enough times, and they just might start to believe it.

With the election of our first black president and the unfortunate widespread misuse of the word "socialism," the far Right has been energized like never before. A right-wing extremist organization of military and police called Oath Keepers formed in the past year and purportedly is "hearing from more and more federal officers all the time." Founder Stewart Rhodes said of the Right's strategy for combating the alleged socialist conspiracy, "Imagine if we focus on the police and military. Game over for the New World Order." For a more in-depth reading, see the Fall 2009 issue of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report. These right-wing extremist groups would seem much more attractive to a cop angry about senseless provocation by left-wing protesters than one who faced polite left-wing protesters with a well-articulated message. We need to treat police like the human beings they are, and not like the system it's so easy to see them as embodying.

There is no cause to treat law enforcement with disrespect. By stereotyping ourselves as angry foul-mouthed rebels, we effectively cut off communication with any audience before it began. And as Saul Alinsky said, failure to communicate effectively translates to assent to the system. Taunting police serves only to vent our anger and to give us a convenient excuse to cop out of the necessary organizing to build a powerful social movement.

The police at the G20 did bad things. They did these things because their bosses gave those orders, whose bosses told them to give those orders, whose bosses told them to give those orders, etc. The responsibility for the horrible civil liberties violations is distributed all the way up the chain of command, but a real big-picture analysis would suggest that the real fault lies with the system itself, for the same reason that capitalism has always spread with military force, breaking down traditional societies, forcing subsistence farmers from their land and into wage slavery, violently protecting the property of the super rich above all else. For the same reason that police lined the streets in droves when the march took us through the business district of Pittsburgh, and not an officer could be found as we passed through the neighborhoods of the poor. The problem is the G20 itself and the plutocratic world system it serves to perpetuate.

If those responsible are to truly answer for the crimes in Pittsburgh, global capitalism must be brought to justice. And that won't happen in any court, but in the workplaces, classrooms and streets around the world. We can't just shake our fists from the sidelines and yell "Kill the empire!" -- we've got to get out on the field and beat the other team. As socialists, we fight for all workers, police and soldiers included.

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