Wednesday, July 14, 2021

BDS the Police

 Originally published at Rampant magazine.

A central strategy of the Palestinian struggle for liberation is rich with potential for abolitionist movements. It’s time to boycott, divest, and sanction the police.

Keith Rosenthal · July 14, 2021

This past spring saw the explosion of protests, demonstrations, and even workers’ strikes in Palestine, the United States, and around the world in response to the latest Israeli assault on the people of Gaza. Three insights emerged from this uprising: 1) the depth and scale of the popular outpouring of solidarity with Palestine demonstrates the extent to which the hegemony of the pro-Israel Zionist discourse was being substantially eroded; 2) the international Palestinian struggle has gained a new degree of political potency, as the uprising arguably played a role in bringing the Israeli assault to an early cessation; and 3) significant ideological headway has been won in terms of popular acceptance of the related notions that Israel is an oppressive apartheid state and that boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) is an efficacious movement strategy.

Over the past year or so, the connections between the struggles for Palestinian liberation in the Middle East and Black liberation in the US have been expansively drawn and highlighted by markedly increased numbers of people. The massive, historic uprising for Black lives that erupted in the wake of the high-profile police lynching of George Floyd in May of 2020 saw protests, rebellions, and riots break out in a sustained fashion across the country. This social struggle not only led directly to significant local reforms in policing across numerous communities, schools, and cities but also played a major role in changing the public discourse around the police and advancing radical demands long touted by social movements. In particular, the slogan “Defund the Police,” raised by certain sectors of the movement as an end in and of itself and by others as a transitional element of an abolitionist program, was elevated to a place within the mainstream lexicon.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the growth and maturation of the struggles for Palestinian and Black liberation, the socialist and broader political left has found itself in a position to reevaluate the prevailing demands and tactics of these struggles, to take stock of the fact that the slogans of the movements have gained increased popular circulation, support, and criticism. For some, the inevitable pushback and revanchism exhibited by the political center of the US ruling class (expressed in both ruling political parties, the Democrats and Republicans), has occasioned a degree of caution, retreat, and conservatism. Kay Gabriel, writing for the Verso Books blog, notes:

Maybe because it is actually a radical demand—that is to say, targets some of the real causes of racial dispossession in the present—the center- and far-right have propagandized against Defund [the police] in increasingly shrill tones. These relentless attacks have caused some queasiness on the left. In April, Jacobin staff writer Meagan Day appeared as a guest on Doug Henwood’s podcast to suggest that Defund’s weak favorability in poll numbers suggests a strategic miscalculation. “I worry about the present standing of [Defund] a little bit,” she said, “because it seems that ‘defund the police’ has come to be conflated with ‘abolish the police’ in the minds of the majority . . . its popularity seems to have tanked. . . . The number one demand coming out of the largest protest movement in American history should be more popular than that.”

Whereas almost exactly one year ago, Day was arguing that “Bernie Sanders should embrace the demand to defund the police,” it now seems that Day is rather embracing Sanders’s conservatism on this score.

It is perhaps not coincidental that certain radical and abolitionist demands that imply a direct assault on the (bourgeois) state, and threaten a diminution thereof, elicit consistent hesitancy from certain left-wing currents and forces. Notwithstanding the inarguably eminent role played by Sanders’s recent electoral campaigns in, at the very least, translating the latent anticapitalist sentiment brewing in the United States into the political mainstream, Sanders opposes the Defund demand and has long included the institution of the police in his list of already existing “socialist institutions” in America. He has likewise publicly distanced himself from the BDS movement and the movement to abolish the state of Israel as a de facto apartheid system.

In contrast, a thoroughly anti-oppression, emancipatory, revolutionary, and, indeed, more effective strategy, would embrace the advantageous paradigm embedded within the Defund and BDS struggles, and, moreover, seek to further develop the manifest connections between the two struggles. In the words of Khury Petersen-Smith, cofounder of Black for Palestine:

The US, which is a colonial-settler state and an imperial power, looks at Israel, which is a colonial-settler state, and, from the start, says, “Okay, well, we’ve got something in common, and we should compare notes. We should help each other out.” And that relationship is extensive. On the one hand, it involves the billions of dollars in terms of military aid that the US gives to Israel. The bombs they’re dropping on Gaza are American bombs. . . .

But it’s not a one-sided relationship. American police departments in the United States train with Israel. . . . It’s not an exaggeration to say that every major police department in this country and a lot of police departments in small cities have relations with the Israeli military . . . and there are Israeli weapons that get deployed on the streets here against Black people rising up against racism. . . .

In so many ways, our oppressions are linked. But our resistances are also linked.

Petersen-Smith goes on to point out that the BDS movement “takes inspiration from other boycott movements throughout history, including the movement to boycott South African apartheid, as well as the boycott movements that were key parts of the Civil Rights Movement here and the Black freedom struggle in this place called the United States.” The struggles for Palestinian liberation and Black liberation have been mutually inspiring and edifying.  For the present, regarding the question of the struggle to defund the police, we should allow ourselves to be guided by the trajectory and radical perseverance of the BDS movement.

In fact, BDS is an entirely apt slogan and strategy to scaffolded the defund the police movement:

  • The police should be boycotted. Police should not be relied upon, solicited, or collaborated with. For instance, they should not be invited to participate in LGBT Pride or other events that will serve to whitewash, pink-wash, or otherwise woke-wash them.
  • The police should be divested from. State and private institutions should be called upon to withdraw financial and budgetary support from the police, and to redistribute that wealth to non-police, non-carceral social programs and services that benefit BIPOC and working-class communities.
  • The police should be sanctioned. Governments should be pressured to hold police accountable for the violence, injustice, and oppressions they wreak. Progressive and nonprofit organizations and institutions, such as labor unions and universities, should suspend membership and collaborative agreements with the police where they exist, and codify nonparticipatory censure of the police where they do not.

To be sure, a BDS movement aimed at the police would be just as protracted and difficult as the BDS movement against Israeli apartheid has been; public support and backlash can be expected to ebb and flow. But the wending nature of the struggle does not make it any less desirable or effective. Indeed, for those of us who view anti-oppression reform as a constitutive and necessary element of revolutionary abolition, a BDS movement aimed at the police is a strategy pregnant with material and ideological potential.


Keith Rosenthal lives in New York City and is the editor of Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings by Marta Russell from Haymarket Books.