If the workers of the world want to win, all they have to do is recognize their own solidarity. They have nothing to do but fold their arms and the world will stop. The workers are more powerful with their hands in their pockets than all the property of the capitalists. --Joe Ettor (IWW labor organizer)
With the current uprisings against police terror, it is imperative that we understand how to rid ourselves of state repression and achieve real abolition. The struggle requires an understanding of police violence as well as of capitalism.
Image byEgan Jimenez, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
After the gruesome murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police over a counterfeit $20 bill, the United States erupted in an unprecedented nationwide revolt. This uprising has seen harsh clashes between protesters and police and put many new proposals on the table about what to do with the police as an institution.
There are demands circulating that the police be defunded, removed from certain spaces such as schools, or completely abolished. This last demand is clearly the most far-reaching, but the question is how to actually end the police as an institution — a question that has been asked more and more especially since the City Council of Minneapolis has endorsed dismantling the city’s PD.
The calls for the defunding of the police seek to address the fact that police budgets are obscenely bloated while other government programs such as education scramble for resources. In many cases, police departments, jails, and prisons can take up to 60 percent of a city’s annual budget. However, we must ask: why are police budgets so big? Is it because cities have bad priorities and invest in police instead of social services?
The gigantic police budgets are not accidental: they are central to the American capitalist system founded on slavery. They are essential to maintaining a society where Jeff Bezos is about to be a trillionaire while Amazon workers, many of them people of color, live in poverty. The police are an intrinsic component of the capitalist system; they are one of the repressive forces that maintains this order and the stark inequalities that it inevitably gives rise to. Therefore, if we are serious about abolishing the police to save the lives of Black, Brown, and working-class people, we need to be clear that our fight is against the capitalist system and the state that enforces its rule. There can be no abolition of police under capitalism.
A History Lesson
The police as an institution has always been intrinsically racist and sexist. In the American North, before formal full-time police forces were established, there were night watches. These night watches hired volunteers for a day to surveil communities for sex work and gambling. The night watchmen were severely disliked by the public and scorned for cracking down on working people’s leisure activities and vulnerable women’s means of survival.
In the South, before the police were formalized into departments, there were slave patrols. Their sole purpose was to repress Black people. They did this by chasing, apprehending, and re-enslaving Black people who had escaped, by terrorizing enslaved people in order to prevent revolts, and by brutalizing them through extrajudicial punishment for breaking plantation rules. It is thus entirely unsurprising that many members or admirers of the KKK today are police officers. In fact, there has historically been an important overlap between the KKK and the police, and the two organizations have worked hand in hand in strengthening white supremacy.
Police exist because capitalism needs them. Just as Southern slave owners used slave patrols to maintain their “private property,” the Northern bourgeoisie needed the police to repress strikers and send them back to work, to quash any challenge to the capitalist order, and to defend the private property of the means of production. As industrialization increased capitalist profit, police also became necessary to repress the immigrant and native-born working class.
In the twentieth century, there came a series of social upheavals in which workers organized to win greater rights on the job, more control of the workplace, and proper compensation for their work. In response, nearly every city developed a PD, and the bourgeoisie began to sic their repressive dogs on the working class. Unionizing attempts were often quashed by police. Ideas spread about the “troublemaker” who would likely incite a workplace strike. For example, during the 1934 waterfront strike in San Francisco, police fired their shotguns into crowds of supporters and strikers and entered the union hall to further their attack. The police killed two people and were not arrested. Similar brutal actions occurred throughout the 20th century all over the country.
The current role of police is no different. Around the world, the police terrorize working-class neighborhoods in the same way. Never was the inception or the practice of policing rooted in protecting people’s safety. Because the police were always intended to preserve capitalist private property, the solution to police terror is not better oversight or greater accountability. Rather, the solution is the abolition of the racist system in which wealthy white men, many of whom inherited their property directly from the slave trade, aim to keep people in conditions of starvation, precarious shelter, fatigue, and alienation. And the harsher the oppression, the more brutal the violence used to keep the working class “in their place.”
The problem is that measures like this have already been instituted in many states around the country but have done little or nothing to curb police brutality. For example, Eric Garner was choked to death in 2014 in broad daylight, in front of a crowd, while being recorded using an illegal NYPD chokehold. Tamir Rice was killed in a public park that had cameras. Philando Castile had his murder captured by police dash cameras and a recording by his girlfriend. Derek Chauvin looked and smiled at the people who recorded him killing George Floyd. The (in)justice system in this country is such that even recorded murders of Black people don’t mean that killer cops will be locked up.
Furthermore, police often turn off their body cameras when committing heinous acts of violence. Just recently, a Kentucky barbecue shop owner was shot and killed by an officer who had their body camera shut off.
One of these reformist ideas that is often proposed by the mainstream media and bourgeois intellectuals is community policing. The notion is that when cops are stationed in a particular neighborhood, preferably where they themselves live, and only police that area, the officers will have stronger relationships with the community. According to this argument, such a move would decrease incidents of crime, brutality, and lethal interactions.
This rosy picture doesn’t acknowledge the function of police as an institution in charge of enforcing the rule of law. The Community Oriented Policing Services program, or COPS, established by the 1994 crime bill invested billions into enhancing the practice of community policing for the very purpose of fostering relationships between police and people. The program, however, was an absolute nightmare for working-class Black people. Not only did it do almost nothing to reduce “crime,” but it also contributed to mass incarceration, throwing countless Black youth in prison and leaving them in circumstances of job disenfranchisement and housing precarity.
The fact is, as long as nothing is done to address the underlying structural conditions that communities of color face — housing segregation, economic insecurity, unemployment, and scarcity of resources — policing can lead only to criminalization and brutality, regardless of whether it’s community based or not.
Furthermore, community policing doesn’t change the fact that police budgets drain funds for much-needed resources away from communities. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, cities scrambled to get essential supplies like ventilators. When the ventilator manufacturers raised their prices, New York City still had $5.6 billion allocated to the NYPD and $8 billion for building new jails. The cops received a massive budget for their riot gear, tear gas, and military-grade weapons, which were then used to repress the protesters. Nurses, meanwhile, were forced to reuse masks and wear garbage bags instead of proper PPE.
Community policing doesn’t mean the cops no longer serve the racist capitalist system. A cop who knows a community, the families of that community, and the culture of that community will still brutalize that community because that is their job and their function.
Defund the Police?
Another discussion that is circulating today is the idea of defunding the police as a solution to police terror. It is true that police budgets have increased over the last few decades, especially after the 1994 crime bill was passed, while healthcare and education have been defunded; however, the current efforts to reverse this trend would only make a miniscule difference. In New York, Mayor De Blasio has vowed to cut the budget of the NYPD and reallocate those funds to youth services. In LA, Mayor Eric Garcetti has said he will cut the LAPD’s $1.8 billion budget by $150 million to reallocate to marginalized communities. These promises are no more than minor concessions that will not change anything. What will change something is the total defunding of the police to a budget of zero and ultimately its permanent abolition.
It is worth noting that anti-police organizations such as the Black Panther Party emerged in the 1960s when police budgets were far smaller. These organizations correctly identified the police as a repressive force within working-class Black communities. As one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party, Huey P Newton, put it, “The police in our neighborhoods occupy our community just as a foreign troop occupies a territory and the police are not there to promote our welfare, they are there to contain us. To brutalize us and murder us because they have their orders to do so.”
The swelling size of police budgets and further militarization of the police were a response to increasing social tensions. In fact, the first SWAT units were developed at the time of the Watts riots and the rise of the Black Panther Party.
Partially defunding the police is no solution. If we use the momentum of today’s protests to merely decrease police budgets today, how can we stop city, state, and federal governments from increasing these same budgets tomorrow? More importantly, what will partial defunding do to end the systemic violence against Black and working-class people?
Our goal shouldn’t be to lessen the number of Black people killed and brutalized by police. Our goal is not a little less oppression. Our goal needs to be to protect Black lives and to eradicate all forces that threaten them. Aspiring to anything less as an ultimate goal only reserves a spot in the future for more grief and anger over the next Black person killed by state violence.
Abolish the Police, End Capitalism
Police cannot be reformed to be on the side of the working class and oppressed. Therefore, the only viable solution to police terror is complete abolition. But, for there to be abolition of police, there must also be an abolition of prisons, the military, the state, and capitalism, because these forces are all intertwined.
Since police exist to protect private property and repress the working class,there needs to be a revolutionary force composed of the working class that opposes capitalism and its violent guard dogs. In the current struggle, though spontaneous and scattered, there is a massive worldwide revolt against police that is forcing major concessions from the state. With this unprecedented solidarity, there is a potential to organize this force into one that directly opposes the police, other state agents, and capitalism itself.
There needs to be an independent political working-class party that fights for socialism. Only such a party can organize a society in which resources are distributed by need and not profit and in which the prisons, the police, and the military can be done away with permanently.
Repression is an integral component in maintaining a system of exploitation. Therefore, police will always exist within a capitalist system. If we are to destroy the forces of repression that kill children, lock people in cells, spread misery, and stifle efforts to improve the material conditions for society as a whole, our fight needs to be directed toward the system that relies on and maintains that repression.
Amid renewed fear mongering about an “invasion” at the U.S.-Mexico border, this week’s 175th anniversary of the 1846–1848 war the U.S. government instigated with Mexico is a reminder that throughout U.S. history, invasions have gone almost exclusively from north to south, not vice versa. A near-continuous series of invasions—military, political, and economic—moving from north to south has helped produce the poverty, violence, and insecurity driving people to migrate from south to north. The current humanitarian crisis at the border, with record numbers of unaccompanied minors desperately fleeing violence, insecurity and poverty, reveals the consequences of an interventionist policy that’s even older than the U.S.-Mexico war.
To be honest, interventionist is an all-too-common euphemism for imperialist invasions. The first invasion came in 1806 when U.S. military forces entered Mexican territory (then still controlled by Spain) and established a military base in today’s Colorado. In total, including the 1846–1848 war that resulted in the U.S. government seizing nearly half of Mexico, the U.S. military has invaded Mexico at least ten times.1 Across Latin America, U.S. forces have invaded southern neighbors more than 70 times, leaving occupying armies for months, years, and in some cases decades.2
Today the U.S. State Department acknowledges that U.S. troops instigated the war with Mexico.3 In early 1846 President James Polk deployed forces into disputed territory along the Rio Grande River. “We have not one particle of right to be here,” U.S. Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock wrote from near the river. “It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.”4 After fighting ensued, Polk used what he knew to be false claims that Mexico had “invaded our territory and shed American blood on American soil” to win a Congressional declaration of war.5
Once the war started, many U.S. soldiers questioned the invasion of a neighbor posing no threat to the United States. Angry volunteer troops from Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina mutinied. Thousands of soldiers deserted. Several hundred Irish-American soldiers switched sides to fight for Catholic Mexico in the San Patricio Battalion. Casualty rates were unusually high for U.S. forces. They were higher still for Mexicans, including civilians subjected to U.S. bombardment and wartime atrocities. Commanding generals inflicted “extravagant violence” against Mexicans, following the pattern of scorched earth-style warfare employed against Native American civilians.6 “Murder, robbery, & rape on mothers and daughters, in the presence of the tied-up males of the families, have been common all along the Rio Grande,” reported U.S. General Winifred Scott in 1847.7 A young soldier at the time, future general and president Ulysses Grant said, “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico.”<8
When U.S. and Mexican officials signed a treaty to end the war in 1848, the U.S. government took almost half of Mexico’s pre-war territory. This included around 525,000 square miles that today are the U.S. states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. President James Polk had wanted even more territory: he had plans to invade the Yucatán Peninsula (and also hoped to buy Cuba from Spain).9 Some expansionist Democrats in Polk’s party pushed for annexing all of Mexico. They were among a group of southerners who dreamed of expanding the United States’ growing North American empire into the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico based around enslaved labor and new slave-holding territories. Some led “filibustering” campaigns— private military invasions—in the 1850s into Mexico and Central America, although all failed.10
From Mexico to Nicaragua to Panama and Beyond
The most infamous of the filibusters was William Walker. Walker led a private army, mostly composed of southerners, in an 1853 invasion of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. He declared himself president of what he called the Republic of Sonora. After Mexicans forced him to retreat to California, Walker led at least six separate campaigns into Nicaragua between 1855 and 1860. For a brief period, he declared himself president of Nicaragua, earned recognition from U.S. President Franklin Pierce, declared English the national language, legalized slavery, invaded Costa Rica, and announced his intention to take over all of Central America. Twice, the U.S. Navy captured him and returned him to the United States; in 1859, the administration of President James Buchanan ordered him released. Walker soon landed in Honduras during another attempt to take over Nicaragua. This time, Hondurans captured Walker, tried and executed him with a firing squad.11
While U.S. government officials generally opposed private invasions like Walker’s, the U.S. military invaded parts of Latin America and the Caribbean throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. U.S. forces invaded Nicaragua in 1853, 1854, 1867, 1894, 1896, 1898, and 1899; Panama in 1856, 1860, 1865, 1873, 1885, and 1895; and Haiti in 1891 (with another invasion threatened in 1888).12 In 1903, U.S. officials and Navy warships helped Panamanian secessionists declare independence from Colombia to help advance plans to build a canal across the new country. Panama soon became a U.S. “colony in all but name.”13 The Panama Canal Zone was a U.S. colony, full stop, until its return in 1999. Between 1856 and the 1989 U.S. war in Panama, the U.S. military would invade Panama a total of 24 times.144 U.S. military bases in the Panama Canal Zone served as launch pads for yet more invasions elsewhere in Latin America.
New U.S. Colonies in Cuba and Puerto Rico
During the U.S. war with Spain of 1898, U.S. troops conquered Cuba and Puerto Rico, as well as the Philippines. U.S. officials turned Puerto Rico into a colony while officially granting Cuba its independence. In practice Cuba became a quasi-colony. To a greater extent than even the Panama Canal Zone, Guantánamo Bay became a U.S. colony, camouflaged by a U.S.-imposed “lease” that has no end date and that can only be terminated with the agreement of both governments. This arrangement amounts to an eviction-proof lease.
In 1901 U.S. officials also inserted an amendment into the new Cuban constitution allowing U.S. troops to invade at will. They soon did. An “Army of Cuban Pacification” occupied the island for almost three years in 1906-1909. U.S. forces occupied the country again in 1912 and for five years in 1917-1922.
Elsewhere in Latin America, the U.S. military occupied the Dominican Republic in 1903-1904 and 1914, and for nine years in 1915-1924. Neighboring Haiti suffered new occupations in 1914 and for nearly 20 years in 1915-1934. In Central America, Honduras experienced eight invasions and occupations in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1920, 1924, and 1925. The U.S. military occupied Nicaragua for two years in 1909-1910 and for around three decades in 1912-1933. U.S. troops invaded Guatemala in 1920. Naval vessels threatened the use of force in the waters of Costa Rica and Panama in 1921 and El Salvador in 1932.15 U.S. warships entered Latin American ports some 6,000 times between the mid-nineteenth century and 1930, in classic “gunboat diplomacy” style—in other words, political-economic bullying through displays of military force.16
President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy of the 1930s brought a brief pause in the invasions and occupations. After World War II, however, new, increasingly covert U.S. invasions largely replaced the overt wars and occupations. These invasions included CIA-backed coups in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Chile; weapons, training, and logistics support for right-wing forces in Central America’s horrific civil wars of the 1980s; Plan Colombia-style military deployments amid the “war on drugs”; and a growing number of U.S. military bases in the region. U.S. support for recent coups and coup attempts in Honduras, Bolivia, and Venezuela illustrates the persistence of such strategies.
U.S. military and CIA invasions into Latin America always have been matched by U.S. economic and corporate invasions, as Mexico demonstrates. Following the end of the war that began in April 1846, Mexico became as much of an economic dependency of the United States as it had been to its Spanish colonizer: mines were controlled by U.S. firms; railroads were designed to ship the wealth of the mines from south to north; the oil industry was dominated by Rockefeller, Mellon, and other oil giants; the peso was pegged to the dollar; Mexico was deeply indebted to U.S. banks.17 While Mexico has more power now relative to its northern neighbor than it did in the early twentieth century, the pattern of northern dominance largely has persisted.
Much of Central America and some other parts of Latin America have remained far more dominated by the United States than Mexico. There’s a reason that Honduras was the model for writer O. Henry when he coined the term “banana republic”: Honduras was under the near-complete control of U.S. banana companies and their political and military muscle, the U.S. government. Perhaps distracted by the clothing brand, many forget the original meaning of the term “banana republic”: a weak, impoverished, marginally independent country facing overwhelming foreign economic and political domination. In other words, a de facto colony—which is what Honduras and some other Latin American countries became in the twentieth century; in some cases they remain so today.
The U.S. government and U.S. corporations are not solely responsible for the violence, poverty, and insecurity that are at the root of today’s migration from Latin America to the United States. Other government and corporate actors within and beyond the region also bear responsibility. They include corrupt national leaders, European governments, and European, Canadian, and Asian corporations that have shaped Latin America through history.
This article is adapted from Professor Vine’s new book The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State (University of California Press).
One hundred and seventy five years after a U.S. president instigated a war with Mexico that resulted in the seizure of California and other lands that have been major sources of U.S. wealth, the current U.S. president and others in the United States should acknowledge the disproportionate role that U.S. leaders have played in invading and plundering to the south as well as the role these invasions and plunder have played in spurring mass migration northward.
Beyond recognizing U.S. culpability, President Biden has a historic opportunity to repair some of the damage our country has caused and stop causing more harm. This means abandoning the immoral and largely ineffective strategy of President Trump and his two presidential predecessors to outsource immigration control to the military and police forces of southern neighbors.18 It means admitting tens of thousands of Latin American asylum seekers per year as a start of paying off a long-owed “imperial debt.”19 If Biden is serious about addressing the “root causes” of migration, he and Vice President Kamala Harris must go beyond pitifully small increases in humanitarian aid to Central America20 to end more than 200 years of military, political, and economic invasions that are at the root of those root causes.
Patricio Zamorano, Director of COHA, and Fred Mills, Deputy Director, collaborated as editors.
↩ “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2020,” fas.org
↩ “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2020,” fas.org; The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State, www.ucpress.edu