This interview from 2020 also appears in my book Lockdown In Hell World available here along with my forthcoming book of short stories A Creature Wanting Form.
On July 20 a group called Strike! For Black Lives is holding a day of action which you can read more about here. Among a number of other things they are calling for in the establishment of a more equitable and just society is a reminder that “every worker has the opportunity to form a union, no matter where they work.”
“Every worker in America must have the freedom that comes from economic security and equity in opportunity,” they go on. “We demand the immediate implementation of a $15/hour minimum wage, fully-funded healthcare coverage and paid sick leave for all.”
A second group who’ve echoed their demands and encouraged a number of other further steps beyond those is called No Cop Unions, a coalition of rank-and-file union members from around the country.
“No Cop Unions supports the July 20th Strike for Black Lives,” they announced in a press release this week, “and calls on union leadership at the local, state, and national levels to give further meaning to the action by disaffiliating from police, corrections officers, and immigration enforcement agent unions.”
I spoke with Kim Kelly of No Cop Unions to learn more about why cops should not by any means be considered workers, why major labor groups should get their asses out, and a number of other issues including the situation in Portland and why the left should consider arming themselves.
Kelly is a pal and a great writer who regularly covers labor issues (and metal) and has written a bunch of good stuff lately for Teen Vogue including What You Need to Know About the MOVE Bombing, The Deep Socialist Roots of the U.S. Labor Movement, and Everything You Should Know About Anarchism.
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What exactly is No Cop Unions?
No Cop Unions is a collective of union members and labor activists from all over the country. There are over fifty of us. We’re working together for two major goals: To get the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Associations, and also to get affiliates who have law enforcement in their ranks that aren’t getting as much attention to do so as well, like the CWA, AFSCME, AFGE… There are cops everywhere throughout labor movements. IUPA gets a lot of attention because that’s the only one under the AFL-CIO umbrella that is specifically for law enforcement, but they’re all over the place. The goal is to drop the cops. To eradicate law enforcement from the labor movement because they have no place there.
What happened with the AFL-CIO recently? They said they wouldn’t disaffiliate?
God, it’s been frustrating. The reason it kind of jumped into the spotlight was because my union, the Writers Guild of America East, passed a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to kick out IUPA. We were the first union under their umbrella to call for that, and there have been others since, which is dope. So we forced the issue. They had to address it. They were like, ok, we hear you, but: no. The current leadership of the AFL-CIO is very entrenched in Democratic Party politics. They’re very much reform-minded. I don’t think there’s anything radical left in the upper echelons of that structure. I think also there is this culture of appeasement toward the more right wing-leaning aspects of the movement. IUPA endorsed Trump. There are union members who are conservative, pro-Trump, who are probably even worse. That’s just the reality of being part of an organization with millions of members. I think there’s a hesitancy on the leadership’s part to offend or upset that faction. But the kind of people that would be upset by our kicking out the cops, I think their numbers are shrinking in the broader scheme of AFL-CIO members and the working class in general. I think this idea of the working class has been very politically convenient for a lot of politicians, that it’s a bunch conservative white guys in hardhats. Those guys exist, but they’re not the only game in town anymore. The working class is black and brown and female and queer and trans. It’s not just guys like my dad anymore. Thank god.
Instinctively to me it makes sense. But if you wanted to explain to someone why police aren’t workers and why they don’t belong in the labor movement, what would you say?
Well, they’re agents of the state...Police have never acted in solidarity with other workers. They’ve never been interested in protecting the rights of workers. They’re there to protect the interests of property and capital and power. They have never been on our side. Going back over the centuries, police have never stood beside us on a picket line, they’ve been there beating us and cracking our skulls. Some of the biggest events in labor history, like the Haymarket riots, were started by cops murdering striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago. When it comes down to the definition of a worker, bosses are management, and a cop is a boss with a gun. There’s nothing that they have in common with actual workers. I think because the police are a diverse workforce with people from various walks of life there’s this sort of inclination that people like to say, well, they’re workers, they’re working class. They’re just regular guys. Well, ok, if a regular guy iron worker murders someone, he’s gonna lose his job. Can you say that about these “regular guy” cops? You can’t, because that’s how the system is set up. It may seem reductive to go to an us and them framework, but honestly they started it.
There is some disagreement on that issue even on the left though right?
Sure. It’s interesting. No one can agree on anything anymore, whether or not we’re on the same team. But when it comes to the cops, I’m sure it speaks to the political circles that I travel in, but it’s very rare that I will see anybody defending the cops unless I travel into the realm of mainstream reporters, which is a whole other rancid kettle of fish. When it comes down to the idea of expelling the police being in any way negative, there is a valid argument against it on the labor side in that, since police are public sector workers, there is this notion that if we kick out the cops that would open up an avenue for right wing politicians who are already incredibly anti-union to use it as a way to attack other public sector workers like teachers. So that’s something we’re considering, but when it comes down to it we’ve seen how teachers have been treated and how police have been treated and we know who’s getting a better deal.
And this is just speaking for me. I don't have all the answers. But I don’t think that theory holds that much water. We’re already at a point where public sector workers are getting fucked, and police are already going to be mollycoddled and protected no matter what they do.
A lot of the stories we see, especially on social media, with police saying the most insane shit, that’s pretty much always the union head. The NYPD guy, and in Boston they have this police union magazine that’s written some of the most insane racist articles and shit. It feels like police unions are where a lot of the worst stuff from police is coming from.
Right because they’re the mouthpieces. You only really hear about police unions when they’ve fucked up, and when they’re in the press they’re always on the defensive because one of their guys has done something unconscionable. Here in Philly, good lord, the police union here, there was this cop called, literally Joseph Bologna….
He was the guy beating everyone up...
Yeah, and he actually faced some consequences, which is unheard of, and the police union had a rally for him. They made a t-shirt for him. It was this overwhelming display of support for one of their guys who beat up a bunch of college kids. The police union chief is always out there in the press saying shit, and it’s like, you guys aren’t even trying to not seem like villains here. The president of IUPA sent a letter to the head of the AFL-CIO after all this discussion about kicking them out, and it was a bunch of insane shit about how he was profiling police, saying it’s disgusting that anyone would say there’s racism in this country. The knee jerk reactions really don’t do them any favors. I don’t know who they’re hiring to do their PR because that person is not holding up their part of the deal.
A lot of the things we get outraged about, when they kill someone or beat the shit out of someone, it’s the unions protecting them from accountability. Like the guy who murdered George Floyd might be able to keep his pension I heard. As far as I know all police unions do is protect the violent ones from consequences.
Pretty much. I mean in every union contract the goal is to protect the workers, or in this case the cops, so it’s not weird that they’re trying to protect them. But the nature of their work and their behavior is such that they’re being protected from committing these egregious crimes against humanity. That’s not what a union contract should be for… The scale is completely different for them and any other kind of working person. And the way police unions use the deep rooted political power… they can get away with a lot. Their contracts are a big part of why killer cops end up back on the street, and why the public doesn’t get information about what happened. There’s a phenomenon called the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, which is a big part of the issue. Those get slapped into union contracts in a bunch of cities, and it gives police officers this whole bevy of other rights that no other worker is going to get that are specifically engineered to prevent them from facing consequences. That’s how we end up with the Derek Chauvins of the world getting their huge pensions, or killer cops back on the street. We’ve seen the NYPD appeal the dismissal of the guy who killed Eric Garner. Unions shouldn’t be used as weapons against the working class or people in general. They’re perverting the entire idea of what a union should be and what collective organizing should be. It’s just disgusting at this point.
I was going to say it’s like turning the idea of what a union is supposed to be for on its head. In theory you’re supposed to protect workers from power, and police unions do the exact opposite. They increase the level of harm the average person can face.
Right. One of the most hallowed tenants of the labor movement is that an injury to one is an injury to all. How the fuck do police unions fall into that? In the most basic terms it doesn’t make sense that they’ve been able to have unions in the first place. And there are other options for them. They could have their own associations, but having access to the rights of collective bargaining gives them so much power that they don’t need.
I think it was in Boston in like 1919, there were riots from police officers who tried to form a union, and the AFL-CIO was like, nah, it’s too dangerous to give these state agents extra privileges. We can’t trust them. Yeah, we can’t trust them, so why do we still have them around? You used to get it, now… I don’t know what kind of like Democratic pablum has rotted everyone’s brains at the top, but we don’t need them. They don’t care about us. They see us as targets not comrades.
So what do you want people in unions to do? What are the practical steps you’re asking people?
There are small things and big things. Individual members, on a basic level, talk to your co-workers about this issue and try to get them to understand where you’re coming from. Then take that to your elected union officials and reps. Try to push it as high as you can to get more people to pay attention to it. In terms of bigger ideas, we put out this press release this week in solidarity with the Strike for Black Lives, and we’re taking the approach of yes, and… We respect what their demands are, they’re great, but we have some other ideas. Some of the things we’re looking for, kicking out the cop union is obviously the big one, and then supporting divesting and defunding cops and prisons. It’s all interlinked. Defunding the police won’t do anything if the prison system is left to pick up the slack. We’re advocating for reinvesting those funds into what we’re calling life-affirming institutions like healthcare and education and mental health. All of the reasons people generally find themselves in bad situations, a lot of the time it’s not their fault. There are all of these horrible social, economic, and political reasons why people are placed in circumstances where crime and violence happens. Getting to the root of that and addressing those causes is going to actually help things. Giving the cops $70 billion more dollars so they can buy more insane military toys isn’t going to help. Investing in a community center or mental health services for unhoused people… there is so much the cities need that they are not getting because the cops get so much. Philly is running out of money, but the police budget is still astronomical.
Well if you don’t give the police stealth bombers and missiles then it’s going to be chaos.
Yeah the terrorists will have won! So prioritizing redistributing economic power, specifically to black, indigenous, and people of color, the ones who have been disproportionately harmed and also shut out of conversations around making this shit happen. Just try to make things more equitable and less murderous. That seems like the kind of thing where the labor movement would be like, oh, yeah. That’s a dunk. But here we are.
You would think so! Have you been paying attention to what’s going on in Portland with the border patrol or whatever?
I’m not a fan! I have a lot of friends in Portland living through this and it’s just terrifying. Because I spend too much time online I’m very fluent in the vagaries of the cancel culture free speech whatever bullshit, and the biggest story in the country is not Bari Weiss getting a different job where she stays rich and dumb. It’s the fact that there are rightwing death squads disappearing protestors in major U.S. cities. Not only the federal government’s implicit approval, but they sent them there. We’re just in the beginning as far as I’m concerned. This shit is going to be bad. I think people maybe don’t have the bandwidth to handle it because there's so much shit happening. Even if you’re a person who follows the news, there’s so much shit, all of it bad, it’s hard to focus on anything, which is why things like this are allowed to happen. So they’ve already sent the National Guard into mad cities in the country. Yeah they’ve pulled away for the most part, but what happens if like the mayor of Boston gets a hair up his ass? What happens if the NYPD decides, oh yeah, we want to invite our new friends over to play in our sandbox? Things are really bad.
And of course every conservative is like, it’s good when the federal government comes and takes over a state against the governor’s wishes. All the right wing people are like, no, fuck you, we love having the feds take over states, the very famous and well known conservative position to have.
I thought that they were anti-tyranny? That was their whole bumper sticker ideology. But maybe specific kinds of tyranny are chill? This is what I’m learning in real time alongside everyone else. Defend your rights and community and your property...but not like that.
When it’s the Antifa menace it’s ok.
And the whole Boogaloo thing factors in. There are people who maybe don’t have the same politics as us … I think there are humans who aren’t necessarily leftists or revolutionaries who also see this shit happening and are like, that seems bad? Maybe I should get involved? And some of them have guns. Man, 2020 has been garbage, but 2021 is gonna knock our teeth out. We don’t even know what’s coming.
My first thought was where are the 2A guys? This is what you’ve been waiting for man. The troops are in the streets. Isn’t this your literal fantasy? To be able to go fight those guys?
Those guys are cowards. They’re protecting statues and working on their bunkers. In Philly those guys are chilling in Marconi Park protecting a statue of Columbus that no one even threatened. And now the city has taken it down, which is a very funny sidenote. That’s the inherent flaw with that whole prong of ideology. They don’t mean it. They mean it when it comes to them and their property and their neighborhood. Like if Black Lives Matter comes to one of their neighborhoods, like we’ve seen in small towns around the country, that’s a problem. But if it’s some liberal bastion full of people they don’t like essentially being invaded by the government they’re like, well that doesn’t concern me.
They’re never going to come for me personally so not my problem. I know you are a supporter of the left arming themselves. I’m open to hearing arguments for that, although I’m really, really anti-gun. Let’s say we armed ourselves to push back against the feds taking over cities. Wouldn’t we just get immediately smoked? What is the point of even having my shitty little gun when they come in with the tank?
I know it’s a complicated topic, but please explain it all succinctly within two minutes.
Well I can give you my perspective at least. Nobody who isn’t already too far gone to reason with is thinking about mounting any kind of standing army or militia or pro-active offense against the state. That’s just asking to be blown to smithereens. In a lot of this discussion around arming the left it’s not an offensive posture, it’s a defensive one. For example, if twenty of us showed up trying to scrap with the cops, that’s twenty funerals. It’s stupid. But if we’re at a protest and twenty of us are there open-carrying, not causing any issues, just establishing a presence, the cops are going to act differently when they try to come toward the protestors we’re trying to protect. I say that because I've seen it in multiple situations in multiple cities. In Charlottesville before the real bad things happened, there were a bunch of us in a park with a perimeter established by this group called Redneck Revolt, which has disbanded by now. There were hordes of roving Nazis everywhere, but none of them came into that park because there were people outside of it like, nah. They were a deterrent.
The cops don’t respect anyone who isn’t a cop. It’s a dark thing to think about, but when you’re there and you're armed you're placing yourself closer to their level. So they see you as more of a person. You’re not as much of a target. And that gives them pause. Maybe it won’t keep them from brutalizing everybody, but it will make them think twice about it. It will make them maybe think a minute about their strategy instead of cracking everyone’s skulls. It’s more of a buffer than a threat the way I see it. There’s also the fact that a lot of these leftist gun organizations are white people. I think this is a way that people that have that privilege, who might not immediately be brutalized by the cops… When you can put yourself between black and brown people and the police, and they know they have to, if not respect you, but at least take a minute to kind of consider things, you’re going to make yourself more helpful.
I don’t have any grand delusions about any of this. I don’t think if shots were fired anything good would happen. You never want that to happen. If you show up somewhere with a firearm that is an automatic escalation, and you need to respect that and understand what that means. You should never want violence to happen. Your whole purpose being there is to make sure violence doesn’t happen. Maybe there are other people who see it differently, but I would not want to work with them. That’s dangerous and stupid.
People who hate guns... I totally understand. Why wouldn’t you hate guns in this country? Honestly being in Charlottesville shifted my perspective on it. It was like, ok, the only people protecting us that day were these other leftist people with firearms. The only time I felt safe was in that park. Obviously things went south, but it wasn’t their fault.
As much as it sucks that there are millions and millions of guns everywhere, I think understanding that they can be used in a way that isn’t necessarily bad would be good for the left to, if not embrace, but think about a little bit. The Black Panthers were right about a lot of things.
When you put it that way. Whether we’re armed or not, if they wanted to, they could still get our asses, but they might think twice I guess.
A couple extra seconds might save a couple lives.
Well I’m gonna go get a gun!
This stuff is really interesting to me because gun culture has been this impenetrable force of rightwing chuds for so long. The more I think about it I see nuance here that doesn’t ever get teased out because we have the insane NRA death cult and the opposite, the ultra-liberals who think anyone who’s breathed on a gun is bad.
OK while I’ve got you here what’s some newish face-melting riff shit to listen to?