Source: Wikimedia Commons

On Nov. 12, Montreal’s “progressive” mayor, Valérie Plante, revealed the city’s 2021 budget which includes plans to increase police spending by $14 million. Since Plante entertained the notion of defunding the police over the summer, many who fought against police brutality over the last few months now feel disappointed and betrayed. How did this come about? 

Mass movement against racism and police

This summer we witnessed the earth-shattering mass movement in the United States following the police murder of George Floyd in May. Millions of Americans were radicalized practically overnight and took to the streets against police brutality and racism in some of America’s largest protests in its history. The anger of the workers and youth expressed itself in slogans like “Defund the police” and even “Abolish the police”. Groups like Black Lives Matter put forward the idea of cutting bloated police budgets and instead investing that money into community and social services.

The heroic struggle against racism and the police struck a chord with workers and oppressed peoples everywhere, including Quebec and Canada. Montreal in particular saw several demonstrations against police brutality and racism with participants numbering in the thousands. These events had an incredible effect on people’s consciousness, sweeping millions of Canadian workers and youth into their orbit. At the peak of the movement in July, a poll showed that 51 per cent of Canadians were in favour of defunding the police.

Predictably, the political establishment came under pressure to appease the movement. Mayor Plante, when asked about defunding the police in Montreal, said in June that “This is a big, big conversation…” and “I think at this point there are a lot of good ideas coming.” Sidestepping the question, Plante promised instead to make body cameras mandatory for Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (City of Montreal Police Service, or SPVM) officers, despite her past resistance to its implementation. She said that “It’s all part of this tool box that we need to have a better grip on possible systemic discrimination.” As if it was only a possibility of discrimination and not an everyday occurrence!

However, the mass movement created pressure not only from the left, but also from the right. Unsurprisingly, the Fraternité des policiers de Montréal (Police Brotherhood) came out strongly against defunding the police in August, claiming that it would put public safety in danger. The showdown was set and the budget was an opportunity to see which side Projet Montréal (the governing party) would bend to.

Montreal’s reactionary 2021 budget

Since the summer, a coalition of 57 or so community groups have demanded the defunding of the SPVM by 50 per cent and reinvestment of the money back into their communities. However, when Montreal’s 2021 budget was released on Nov. 12, Plante revealed plans to increase police spending by $14 million, while at the same time cutting the housing budget by $13 million—precisely when homelessness and tent cities are mushrooming all around Montreal! This sparked off rage from activists, who staged a protest inside the building where the budget was being discussed, chanting, “No justice, no peace, defund the police!”. As one protester, Marhilan Lopez, said: “We have communities that don’t have enough health and social services, no investment, but there is a lot of investment in the police…”

All this came just two weeks after the police shooting of Sheffield Matthews in Montreal’s NDG borough. Matthews was wielding a knife during a mental health crisis and approached police in “a menacing manner”, which was enough for police to shoot him dead. Only two days later, on Oct. 31, a white man, Carl Girouard, murdered two people in Quebec City and injured five others with a sword, yet the police managed to safely detain him without injury. Do we need a better example of police racism?

In addition to increasing the police budget, we have seen the municipal government belittling the problem of police racism in Montreal. The president of Plante’s executive committee said on Nov. 18, “We don’t want to defund just for the sake of defunding. Anyway, we don’t have the same situation as our neighbours to the south.” This argument is only a rehashed version of the right wing’s denial of systemic racism in Quebec. Rather than siding with the oppressed, Projet Montréal has moved further to the right, echoing the arguments of the CAQ and François Legault.

You can’t have capitalism without the police

How is it that Valérie Plante, a supposedly left-wing mayor, went down this road? 

Malcolm X famously said that “you can’t have capitalism without racism.” This is becoming more and more self-evident to many people today. However, it can be just as well said that “you can’t have capitalism without the police.” 

The police doesn’t exist for itself, but serves a very necessary social function in capitalist society. At the end of the day, capitalism will always require the police to safeguard the interests of the ruling class. It is the police that are called to defend injunctions against striking workers. It is the police that are called to repress any demonstration against the status quo, whether held by workers, students or oppressed groups. Moreover, these institutions will necessarily reflect the worst prejudices present in society in general. This isn’t that difficult to understand. If your role is to repress sections of the population who get out of line, it makes your job easier if you already think less of them. Racist ideology serves the function of ideological confusion and scapegoating—diverting the anger of the working class and dividing the workers against each other. The police are simply the physical repression to complement the racist ideas. This all serves to protect the interests of the ruling class. Therefore, to effectively fight racism and the police, we must fight to overthrow the system that needs them both—capitalism.

And this gets to the root of the matter. Valérie Plante and the Projet Montréal leadership have no intention of breaking with capitalism. Because of this, they are forced into accepting the need for a police force, and thus bend to the police institutions’ pressure to increase their budget. This is why we should have no illusions in defunding the police under capitalism. Rather, those who wish to abolish the police must combine their struggle with the fight to overthrow the capitalist system that requires a racist police force to maintain itself. 

Only by the working class overthrowing capitalism as a whole and taking control of all of society’s wealth can we begin to meaningfully invest in our dilapidated communities and social programs. Instead of wasting billions of dollars sitting in idle bank accounts, we would be able to invest massively in education, health and housing programs. But as we can clearly see, capitalism is incapable of achieving this, and instead invests in the police to “solve” the problem of crime and poverty through state violence and oppression. The labour movement must fight shoulder-to-shoulder with oppressed peoples against the capitalist system with the goal of a socialist transformation of society, where the social basis of both the police and oppression will begin to disappear.