Abolish the police!
Systematic violence cannot be reformed
By Jakob Reimann
[This article published on July 5, 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, Schafft die Polizei ab! – graswurzelrevolution.de.]
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Armed units are not solutions to social problems. They should be replaced by nonviolent and civilian concepts. It's possible.
It was a balmy summer night in East Brandenburg a few years ago. After partying, we walked back home through the forest. A dozen Nazis came toward us. One half beat up my buddy, the other half beat up me. My friend yelled her head off and did her best. At some point the police came. The Nazis disappeared into the forest. On the part of the state authorities no effort was made to grab even one of them. Less than two minutes later, for the second time that evening, I was lying with my face in the dust, beaten to the ground by a policeman, my hands tied behind my back with cable ties, knees in my neck.
Police do not end up in court
I have often experienced police violence firsthand or witnessed it in others. The story above is one of the more innocuous ones. Absolute disproportionality on demos and in everyday life. Harassment, beatings, kicks, violence of all kinds, condescension. Obsession with the power that uniforms and firearms confer for a moment. All isolated incidents? Anecdotal evidence cannot prove anything systematic, after all.
Anyone who walks through life with their eyes wide open quickly recognizes the extent of police violence in Germany, the impunity of the perpetrators and the complicity of politics in all of this. A particularly spectacular example, the G20 summit in Hamburg in early July 2017: A flood of photos and videos of excessive police violence against demonstrators spread like wildfire through the world press. Senseless uses of pepper spray and water cannons, excesses of violence of every kind for all of us to see on YouTube and Twitter. "There was no police violence," on the other hand, says Olaf Scholz (SPD), then mayor of Hamburg, about the orgies of "his" police, thus making himself an accomplice to the violence. "They did everything right and pulled off a heroic operation," Scholz continues. Backing also from Federal President Steinmeier, media cleverly placed handshakes with the police.
urden of proof, 169 proceedings were initiated against police officers*, but obviously to deceive the public, because the vast majority of them have since been discontinued - not a single charge, let alone a conviction. "The signal that Hamburg sends out," writes netzpolitik.org, "is fatal: police officers can be sure that they will not have to fear prosecution, even in clear cases, and that they will have the backing of politicians.
In Hamburg, we are not dealing with an exception in a normally functioning system against excesses of the executive - no, Hamburg is the rule: A systematic study by the University of Bochum from last year showed that there are at least 12,000 alleged cases of police violence per year in Germany - on average 33 every day. Of these, only about 2,000 are ever handled by prosecutors, so 83 percent of cases of police violence don't even end up on anyone's desk. On the one hand, this is because public prosecutors do not want to strain their relationship with the police, who routinely work for them. On the other hand, many people are afraid to report police officers or simply have no confidence that anything will come of it. Less than 2 percent of the 2,000 cases handled by the public prosecutor's office are ultimately even heard in court, and a staggering less than one percent result in a conviction.
violence - even well-documented and extremely brutal cases against unarmed people who pose no threat whatsoever - has no legal consequences for the perpetrators.
A taz columnist drives Seehofer up the wall
In the wake of the protests in the U.S. following the murder of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer by 8 minutes 46 seconds of knee to neck, the web was literally flooded with particularly horrific examples of police violence: a young woman is first grabbed from behind on her breasts, then beaten by two police officers with batons until she goes down. A 75-year-old peace activist is pushed to the ground by two officers, hits his head on the concrete and immediately starts bleeding from his ears. Two police cars drive into a crowd of people - in Nice we call such things Islamist terror, in Charlottesville Nazi terror: what do we call it when police officers commit terrorist attacks in New York?
In the spirit of these videos, taz columnist Hengameh Yaghoobifarah recently wrote her click-maximizing satire "All cops are professionally unfit," in which she muses that if the police, but not capitalism, were abolished, "what industries can ex-cops even be allowed into?" "After all," says Hengameh, "the proportion of authoritarian personalities and those with a fascist mindset is above average in this occupational group." Spontaneously, the "garbage dump" comes to her mind: "Among their peers, they certainly feel most comfortable themselves."
The taz column is infantile and has no journalistic value, but Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) went into such a rage that he announced - in true style, in an interview with the right-wing BILD newspaper - that he would denounce the author. It took him four days to get this outrageous attack on the freedom of the press out of his head, but he summoned the taz management to the Interior Ministry for a telling off. The fact that the taz editorial team wants to accept the "offer of a talk," albeit at a different location, is in my eyes an embarrassment for the formerly militant left-wing paper. The fact that the interior minister is not calling in those responsible for similarly wide-reaching right-wing hate media to run the gauntlet, but is seething with rage because of what is basically harmless anti-police polemics, is a declaration of bankruptcy for his person and his office. What an absurd story. Very well.
The Republic is beside itself over the column. Police representations file criminal charges, hundreds of complaints and dozens of charges with the Press Council, the taz leadership distances itself in part from the text and author, CSU and other right-wingers and etatist bourgeois are seething with rage, Merkel is making noise. "How radical can the left be?" asks Die Zeit in the context of the taz column. As is well known, the root of the word "radical" wants to get to the "root" of problems, which is why the question makes no sense at all: If something is not radical, it is not left-wing, dear Zeit. Everyone may think what he or she likes about Hengameh's clickbait style and the lurid posturing of the column, but the underlying premise is of fundamental importance: the police as an institution of state power must be abolished. Not overnight, and of course not without replacement. Step by step, social upheavals of revolutionary proportions do not work overnight, as is well known.
Disarming the police
In 2019, 5.4 million crimes were registered in Germany - the lowest figure since 1992. Of this total, just 3.3 percent fall into the category of "violent crime," which includes murder, rape and grievous bodily harm, for example. This figure is not published in the statistics, but of these 3.3 percent, only a fraction certainly belongs to the category "caught in the act" - in which there is only the theoretical possibility that the use of coercive police force could change anything at all in the course of a violent crime.
So why does every police officer permanently carry a potential murder weapon? Do you feel safer with the daily sight of murder tools?
In Bavaria and here in Saxony, police officers are allowed to use hand grenades against people - hand grenades! Do you feel safer at the sight of small bombs?
That would be the first of many steps that could be implemented in all German states in a very short time: Disarming the police. This may sound absurd and impossible to realize in some unimaginative minds, but there are a total of 18 countries in the world where police are already unarmed by default. These include insular dwarf states like Vanuatu and Nauru, but also Norway, New Zealand, Malawi, Ireland, Botswana and even the United Kingdom. In Iceland, the first and only person to be shot by police since independence in 1944 was killed in 2013. (In the Netflix series Valhalla Murders, the Icelandic police's failure to arm themselves is powerfully addressed in a key scene).
In the U.S., by contrast, about 1,000 people are killed each year by police, who are increasingly resembling the U.S. military in appearance and weaponry. After Bill Clinton passed the relevant law in 1997, billions of dollars of military equipment were transferred from the Pentagon to police forces, although it is scientifically proven that the increasing militarization of the police also leads directly to increasing killings by those same police. We are dealing with a cultural problem when war rhetoric is "brought home" and the use of armed force is presented as a legitimate "solution" to civilian problems: The "War on Terror" was preceded by the "War on Drugs," the "War on Crime," and the "War on Poverty."
Whole sections of the population are thus declared enemies of war - and by what means are wars waged?
Those who shoot suspected criminals do not need to deal with the causes of the suspected crimes, an extreme example: the megalomaniac president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has executed tens of thousands of people in his "Drug War" since the beginning of his reign of terror in 2016 - does anyone seriously think that drug use can be countered in this way?
Disarming the police would be the first short-term step; abolishing the institution of the police as a whole must be the medium-term goal.
Abolition of the police
Prompted by the murder of George Floyd, such concepts are now being widely discussed even in the gun-saturated United States. In every misfortune, as is well known, there is always an opportunity for change. As expected from the US left, but even in the New York Times voices are now being heard that discuss alternatives to the dogma of the police under the keyword Police Abolition.
Since the beginning of time, anarchists have been working on viable, sustainable concepts of how society can be organized without state power and thus without police.
But we have outsourced the solution of social problems on a grand scale to people with firearms, who have neither the aptitude nor the training for it. Police are encroaching on areas of life where they have no business, such as the natural domains of social work, health care systems, pastoral care, community, mediation, drug counseling, and many others.
A meth user needs - if needed - a good social worker, not a cop. A violent offender needs a good therapist, not a cop; and his victim needs health care, pastoral care, and a strong community to catch them. And a homeless person doesn't need a cop to run her off her roost; she needs temporary or permanent shelter and public care when needed, or just you to drop off some food once in a while.
In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, the city council has now voted to disband the existing police force, in a veto-proof 9-to-4 vote. The current police department is not simply to be rebuilt, but replaced in the medium term by a new kind of community-based public safety system. City Council President Lisa Bender says, "Our commitment is to end the police system as we know it and restore public safety systems that actually protect us." Although statements about the nature of this new system are still rather vague: A major U.S. city decides to disband its police force is a historic step in the right direction.
We need to tackle problems at their roots from below rather than hitting them from above. We need to pull resources away from criminalizing, punishing and prosecuting people and take them into communities. We need to start by transferring the lion's share of police work - for which police officers are simply unsuited - to civilian agencies, to preventive and mediative institutions. We need to put money into housing initiatives, addiction and violence prevention programs, community centers and mental health infrastructures - and in parallel, dismantle the police step by step. We need to develop alternative structures for how we deal with violence as a society.
We need to abolish the police.