The Police Aren't Part of Change in ChicagoRoundup
tags: Chicago, labor, Police, urban history, Black lives matter, Public Employees
Dan Berger teaches at the University of Washington Bothell and writes about activism, Black Power, and the carceral state. His latest book is Stayed on Freedom: The Long History of Black Power Through One Family’s Journey.
In the waning days of the 2023 Chicago mayoral election, the head of the city’s police union menaced that a victory by former public school teacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson would cause as many as 1,000 of the city’s almost 12,000 police officers to quit. And because subtlety has never been a strong suit of the Fraternal Order of Police, John Catanzara punctuated his don’t-threaten-me-with-a-good-time claim of mass resignations with the equally hyperbolic claim that a Johnson victory would create “blood in the streets.”
Though he backed away from it during his mayoral run, Johnson surely earned the ire of the FOP for his statement during the 2020 rebellion that defunding the police was “an actual, real political goal.” The FOP backed Johnson’s opponent, Paul Vallas, a corporate education reformer most known for undermining public schools around the country. A week before the election, The New York Times cast the race as a tale of two unions: “Chicago’s mayoral race pits the teachers union against the police union.” (Spoiler alert: The teachers union won.)
The Times had it right: CTU and the local FOP have different visions for the city of Chicago, and the country. It would not be a stretch to say that their approaches are diametrically opposed. Casting itself as the warrior-heroes keeping the city safe from annihilation, the FOP has defended several members accused of brutality or murder while its department protects the city’s elite. CTU, on the other hand, has been a nationally influential example of social justice unionism. Its 2012 strike united teachers, parents, and students in demanding safe and affirming schools where everyone is cared for and augured an inspiring—and infectious—fighting spirit among teachers unions.
Yet in After Black Lives Matter: Policing and Anti-Capitalist Struggle, political scientist Cedric Johnson (no relation to the mayor-elect of Chicago) attempts to convince readers that the FOP and the officers it represents not only have common cause with the CTU and members of the labor movement, but a necessary role to play in building a socialist future. Johnson perhaps understands how counterintuitive that sounds, rightly acknowledging that “[p]olicing continues to exist for the advancement of the interests of capital” and that a series of transformations to American cities and suburbs since World War II have rendered Black, brown, and increasingly white, working-class people disposable to the broader economy and thus susceptible to carceral violence. A fierce critic of neoliberalism, Johnson even says his book is “inspired and informed by the left-wing of contemporary antipolicing struggles.” But that solidarity is hard to find in this contrarian book, which derides the left wing of contemporary anti-policing struggles while posing that anti-capitalism can be advanced without challenging police power.
After Black Lives Matter begins by rehashing a tired and tedious argument that treats anti-racism as a barrier to social change. Johnson joins the bustling tradition of self-described leftists dismissing the Black Lives Matter movement as “innate liberalism and ethnic politics” that is antithetical to coalition building, while choosing not to find any meaning in the fact that the summer of 2020 saw millions of people across class and demographic lines joined together to rebel against a violent and oppressive police state. Though he acknowledges that the carceral system concentrates its violent regulation on the lives of Black and brown urban working class communities, he nonetheless describes a decade-old movement rooted in that premise as a handmaiden of neoliberal capitalism. When it comes to proving these claims, the book is not beleaguered by evidence. Indeed, while Johnson spends 13 pages discussing Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Senator who infamously described Black families as trapped in a “tangle of pathology” due to the outsized power of Black women, he does not even mention Vision for Black Lives, the statement endorsed by more than 50 organizations that is the closest approximation to a political platform for BLM.