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The Police May Pull The Trigger, But It’s The System That Kills

Fifty years ago this year, I published my first book, entitled Rebels in Eden – an exploration of mass political violence in America focusing on the uprisings that had by then incinerated substantial portions of the inner city communities of Los Angeles, New York, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, as well as scores of smaller towns and cities.[i] Those riots were far more destructive than anything experienced in the protests following the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery by police and ex-police officers. The sixties uprisings killed several hundred people (almost all Black civilians), injured more than 12,000, and caused billions of dollars in property damage.

What Hasn’t Changed

Rebels in Eden was reviewed in popular journals like TIME and Newsweek and was widely read, along with a small flood of similar publications. But, what difference did any of this make? The haunting question, the one that remains unanswered even as anti-police demonstrations mobilize hundreds of thousands of protestors in the U.S. and Europe, involves the persistence of oppression. Why has so little significant change taken place in the half century since Detroit and Newark went up in flames? And how can social transformation finally take place?

Three key facts about racial uprisings in the United States in the sixties and at present are worth keeping in mind:

First, these outpourings of anger and hope are deeply political, although they are not highly programmatic or tightly organized. They are most definitely not the work of outside agitators, “a few mean and willful men” (President Lyndon Johnson’s words), or “antifa” (Donald Trump’s response to recent protests). Nor are they mere “commodity riots” driven by the desire to rip off retail stores. Despite the authorities’ tendency to deny their representative quality, they reflect the views and feelings of a wide spectrum of enraged and oppressed people. They express passionate demands for justice, fair treatment, recognition, and community control, as well as deep feelings of alienation from privileged white America.

Second, both the current wave of protests and virtually all the sixties riots were triggered by actual or reported cases of police brutality. Relations between inner-city communities and the police were poisonous fifty years ago and remain so now despite the integration of many urban police departments. Yet, policing is only one part of a larger problem that my book called “internal colonialism”: the systematic impoverishment, exploitation, humiliation, and neglect of minority communities by white governments and businesses. Indeed, to focus on police brutality as the primary matter of concern reverses cause and effect and virtually guarantees that the problem will not be solved.  (I will have more to say about this shortly.)

Third, many of these ills were described by the National Commission in Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission), whose famous 1968 Report outlined a series of reforms intended to help end the separation between “two Americas, one white and one black.”[ii]  One year later, the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence produced a series of studies that reached substantially similar conclusions. But the public officials in charge of these efforts never recognized that since the basic problem was systemic, reforms that didn’t go to the heart of the system wouldn’t solve it. Well-intentioned reform proposals were not enough. The people’s suffering would continue, as it has now done for two more generations.

The key issue, then, is what it means to say that the problem is systemic, and what range of solutions this implies.  Michelle Alexander, author of the classic study of mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, has recently offered three answers in response. In an eloquent New York Times article, Prof. Alexander argues that Americans need to face their own racial history and present racism. They must also “reimagine justice” (“Can’t we design alternative approaches to poverty, drug abuse, mental illness, trauma and violence that would do less harm than police, prisons, jails and lifelong criminal records?” she asks.) And finally, they must “fight for economic justice,” which she identifies with the principles and programs espoused by the former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. [iii]

All this makes good sense – yet, there is something missing in the prescription. What makes oppressive systems oppressive is that they are integrated, or nested “like Chinese boxes,” as Johan Galtung pointed out in a famous article on structural violence.[iv] Racism, police brutality, and economic injustice can be thought of as separate boxes, but they are part of one self-reinforcing system. And that system’s defining characteristic – the feature most resistant to change – is that it is based on the production of goods and services for profit, not to satisfy basic human needs.

This compulsion to turn a profit is inbuilt – a structural feature, not a matter of choice. Either you reduce your costs, including labor costs, or you lose out to competitors around the globe who can reduce them. As a result, American-style capitalism produces poverty and inequality with the same inevitable regularity with which it produces pickup trucks and hamburgers. Moreover, the production of poverty generates intense ongoing conflict among working people. It unleashes a struggle over who will get decent jobs and who won’t, which neighborhoods will prosper and which will become derelict, whose children will be educated and whose neglected – and who will be targeted for punishment by callous or frightened police.

Of course, racism plays a key role in deciding the outcome of these struggles. Where there is no leadership capable of mobilizing working people to change the profit system, ethnic and racial “tribes” fight it out along tribal lines. But let’s be clear about one thing: the police in Black or Latinx neighborhoods don’t act like armies of occupation simply because they are racist. They act that way because they are occupiers: forces administering poverty-stricken, disorderly areas on behalf of rulers who own pretty much everything worth owning in a proprietary society. In theory, one can imagine a capitalist nation that is not racist, i.e., one where poverty and inequality are distributed among workers on some basis other than race or ethnicity. In practice, I know of no such nation – certainly not the Britain that despises its Black, Asian, and Eastern European immigrants or the France of the banlieus.

The upshot is this: changing the system that murdered George Floyd and so many others will not happen by recognizing America’s racist heritage or by imposing new restrictions on the police, as important those corrective measures are. Recall that the great wave of protests and riots in the sixties culminated in reforms proposed by national commissions, some of which were actually written into law. There are many reasons that these reforms had so little effect, but one big reason is undeniable: America’s inner cities remained impoverished, exploited, and neglected – de facto war zones dominated by the struggle to survive. Promises of economic renewal made by every national administration since John F. Kennedy’s went unfulfilled. As the great Chicago community organizer Edward “Buzz” Palmer, once told me, “Everyone promised us jobs and income, but only one industry delivered, at far too high a price: the illegal drug industry.”

Strategies for Change

In short, separating social problems into categories labeled “racism,” “police brutality,” and “economic justice,” and trying to solve them by reform measures dealing with one category at a time, has proven to be a recipe for failure. We need to deal with the system as a system, not as a collection of unrelated parts. This suggests three possible approaches which one can label reformist, radical, and revolutionary.

Reformist approaches that deal with the system as a system require that reforms of police behavior and “consciousness raising” with regard to racism be closely linked to measures designed to improve the economic and physical health of impoverished communities. This is the approach implied by Michelle Alexander’s call to develop “alternative approaches to poverty, drug abuse, mental illness, trauma and violence.” For example, if police departments are “defunded” to some extent by eliminating funds used to purchase military-style weapons and equipment, the funds so saved can be used to train community residents to provide socially needed services for people in need. Or, if minor offenses are decriminalized and nonviolent offenders released from prison, as many experts recommend, this would permit (and require) that education and employment opportunities be provided either by governments or subsidized industries.

Another way to conceptualize this approach (actually originated in the sixties by Sargent Shriver, Lyndon Johnson’s point man in the “War on Poverty”) is to insist that all such reforms be part of a program for community development that aims to satisfy communal needs for jobs and income, health, education, and political participation. Mentioning the ill-fated War on Poverty, however, calls attention to the fact what while certain initiatives such as the Job Corps and Operation Head Start became long-lived additions to the federal arsenal of welfare programs, the effort to end poverty soon foundered on the shoals of an imperialist war in Indochina and capitalist norms prescribing “business as usual.” One’s attention must therefore be directed to more radical alternatives.

Radical approaches, in the view of some commentators, include the basic ideas advanced by Bernie Sanders and the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party, in particular, higher taxation of the rich, tighter regulation of certain businesses, more and better social services such single-payer health care, free education through college, and mobilizing the country to cope with climate change. While recognizing that certain conflicts of interest between social classes exist – a radical position in the American political context – the Sanders movement was careful not to challenge the foundational institutions of capitalism, including the profit-driven market, the sanctity of private property, and private ownership of virtually all major industries. More to the point of our present discussion, many Black and Latinx activists noted that the program offered little that was specifically directed toward solving the problems of minority communities.

What might have constituted a radical approach to those problems – a way to address them directly without necessarily calling into question the everyday norms of American capitalism?  Two answers come to mind: (1) delivery on the Great Society’s promises to rebuild and revitalize impoverished cities and rural communities, and (2) renewal of the principles and programs originally adopted in the 1930s by the New Deal. The first strategy would call for massive aid by government agencies and private companies to areas in need on the analogy of the Marshall Plan in Europe or the Tennessee Valley Authority’s activities in the American South. The second would reestablish the principle that where private enterprise cannot provide jobs, income, and economic development to a region or people in distress, the federal government will serve as the employer, income-provider, and developer of last resort. Both ideas are radical in the sense that they have the potential to produce rapid change of a change-resistant system. Neither, however, is revolutionary. The New Deal saved American capitalism from the ravages of Depression, and the Marshall Plan enabled Europe to rebuild a capitalist order following World War II.

Revolutionary approaches require consideration because it is not clear that the market-driven system, at this stage of its development, is capable of supporting a program of massive aid for impoverished and oppressed communities.  Over the past half century, socioeconomic inequalities in the U.S. have increased without letup, wage levels have stagnated, the conditions of life in poor urban and rural areas have deteriorated, and the economy has fallen into the hands of a handful of dominant technological and financial corporations. Equally important, the American system is imperialist, spending about one trillion dollars annually to ensure global military supremacy – a commitment that has been affirmed by the leaders of both major political parties.

Finally, a combination of military spending, tax cuts for the wealthy, and costly environmental crises (the latest crisis being the coronavirus plague) has raised the U.S. budget deficit almost to the level of its total GDP, making major new social programs highly unlikely.

Put more simply, this means that the failure to end poverty and racism in America is not fortuitous; the profit system simply does not prioritize satisfying basic human needs. The question then becomes how to transform this system into one in which crucial social and economic decisions are made by ordinary citizens, not by the owners of capital — and how to do this without the sort of violence that often shatters revolutionary hopes. Anti-capitalist sentiment is now growing very rapidly in America, particularly among the “millennial” generation.[v] If it becomes clear that the system which regularly produces racism, police brutality, and poverty is incapable of altering its priorities, we can expect this sentiment to generate new political formations and new strategies for revolutionary change.

Acknowledge racism?  Yes!  “Defund” the police?  Certainly.  But none of this will get oppressed communities where they want to go unless America’s capitalist order is transformed or redirected toward the satisfaction of human needs.


[i] Richard E. Rubenstein, Rebels in Eden: Mass Political Violence in the United States (Little, Brown, 1970)

[ii] Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Bantam, 1968)

[iii] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010). Her New York Times article, “America, This Is Your Chance,” (June 8, 2020) may be found at

[iv] Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research, 6:3 (1969)

[v] Max Ehrenfreund, “A Majority of Millennials Now Reject Capitalism, Poll Shows,” Washington Post, April 26, 2016.

Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017).  His book in progress, to be published in fall 2020, is Post-Corona Conflicts: New Sources of Struggle and Opportunities for Peace.

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