Are reforms useful?

In public conversations, those of us who argue that the racism and brutality of the police/mass incarceration system are essential features of that system, often say that reform is not the solution. Some take that to mean that we believe that reform strategies never work. The reality is more nuanced than that and so, speaking only for myself, I’d like to offer some ways to think about it.

Reform is generally understood as making changes in a system to improve it. So if the police are in place to keep everyone safe and reduce conflicts, then suggesting ways they can do it better makes sense. If they are there to enforce the racial and class order, then reforms will be rejected the same way an immune system rejects an infection. The first question to decide is whether the system in question is broken or crooked?

Reforms are part of most movements. Winning affordable phone access for incarcerated people does not do away with the prison system. But it does make life within it more bearable, and the process of fighting for it humanizes inmates in the mind of the broader public. In that way it helps push open the door for future change. Winning a higher minimum wage doesn’t eliminate exploitation. The reformist fight for the eight hour day in the nineteenth century was led by anarchists, not a group given to incremental reform, but they understood it as a tactic that could build working class power.

Victories are almost always partial. They don’t resolve the issue they set out to address. But what they do is shift the terms of struggle and the balance of power so that further advances become possible. Emancipation didn’t do away with white supremacy but it opened up new opportunities both for the formerly enslaved and for the next stage of the freedom struggle. Needless to say the defenders of oppression also engaged in a fierce campaign to roll back any advances.

So the second question to grapple with is whether the reforms we are considering will push open the door for the next stage of the struggle or will they reinforce the system. An example of the latter would be the carbon trading market. It was put in place in response to grassroots demands to address climate change. It lets corporations credit themselves for not destroying a forest and then sell the pollution credits to other companies. Some have engaged in land grabs, displacing peasant farmers and claiming their land as a credit. It’s a scam disguised as a solution. That would be the kind of reform to reject.

Police reform proposals are not inherently bad ideas – if the police system is understood to be humane and benevolent at heart. More oversight and better hiring and training could be effective measures, for example, if we were dealing with misbehavior among lifeguards at public beaches. Hiring teachers of color really does matter for dark children in the school system. The reason these same policies backfire when applied to the police has to do with the nature of the police, not the specific reforms. Reforms have to be appropriate if they are to be effective. The police have an immensely powerful immune system that demolishes attempted reforms in short order.

The proposal to change the Minneapolis city charter is a reform. It doesn’t guarantee transformative changes, it just would remove a boulder from the doorway. There are a variety of visions among those who want the boulder removed. This is a recurring theme in history. In my native Puerto Rico the struggle to throw off Spanish colonialism brought together people fighting for freedom with those wanting US annexation. No matter their ultimate goals, the boulder of Spanish rule stood in the way. Once it was removed their alliance would come to an end.

In summary, when we are dealing with a system or structure that is essentially benign but causes some harm, reform can be a strategy. When dealing with an essentially oppressive system reform can be a tactic – if it weakens rather than strengthens the system we’re up against. In the time of the Haitian revolution, rebellious enslaved workers in the Caribbean rejected the reform proposals of the European powers (limits on work hours, on the age children must work and restrictions on punishments, etc) because they knew there was a better option. Freedom turned out to be out of reach at that time. What matters, though. What always matters, is preparing for the next stage of the struggle.

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