What shocked your misunderstanding about poor people

Why the police won't change

| Topic in ak 661: Police

The police were created to control the working class and poor people - not to protect them

By Sam Mitrani

Most debates about the police murders of unarmed black men have been based on the assumption that the police should protect and serve the population. It was finally created for this purpose. If only normal, good relations between the police and the population could be re-established, the problem could be solved.

Poor people are more likely to be victims of crime than any other, the argument goes, and therefore they need police protection more than anyone else. Maybe she has a few culprits in her ranks, but if the police weren't so racist, if they stopped police practices like Stop and Frisk (1), if they weren't as afraid of black people, or if they shot fewer unarmed men , it could be a useful agency serving us well.

The police were not created to protect the population or to prevent crime

This liberal way of looking at the problem is based on a misunderstanding about the origins of the police force and what it was designed to do. The police were not created to protect and serve the population. It was not created to prevent crime, at least not in the way most people imagine. And it certainly wasn't created to bring about justice. It was created to protect the new wage labor-based capitalism that emerged in the mid to late 19th century from the very threat that this system posed: the working class.

How the police came into being

Before the 19th century, there was no police force anywhere in the world as we know it today. The northern United States had a system of elected constables and sheriffs who were much more accountable to the people in very direct ways than the police are today. In the south, the "slave patrols" were the closest thing to a police force. These militias consisted of whites who hunted enslaved blacks who tried to flee, put down gatherings and rebellions, and often took over punishments on the plantations.

As the cities in the north grew and filled with mostly immigrant wage workers, the affluent elite that provided the city governments hired hundreds, and soon then thousands, of armed men to bring order to the new working-class neighborhoods.

Class conflict rocked American cities like Chicago in the late 19th century, which saw major strikes and riots in 1867, 1877, 1886, and 1894. In each of these riots, the police attacked the strikers with brutal violence, although the US Army eventually played a greater role in suppressing the working class in 1877 and 1894. In the wake of these movements, the police increasingly presented themselves as that thin blue line that protected civilization (by which they meant bourgeois civilization) from the chaos of the working class. This ideology of order, which developed in the late 19th century, resonates to the present day - with the difference that today, poor blacks and Latinos rather than immigrant workers are seen as the greatest threat.

In the 19th century in the southern United States, the slave patrols were the closest thing to a police force.

Of course, the ruling class did not get everything it wanted and had to give in to the immigrant workers on many points. This is why city governments refrained from banning Sunday drinking, for example, and why they hired so many immigrants, mostly Irish, as police officers. Despite these concessions, the entrepreneurs ensured that the police were largely removed from democratic control, that they developed their own hierarchies, codes and rules of conduct.

The police set themselves apart from the population by wearing uniforms, drawing up their own rules for recruitment, promotion and dismissal, training a special corps spirit and developing a self-image as the guardian of order. And despite complaints about corruption and inefficiency, it received increasing support from the ruling class. This went so far that in Chicago businessmen raised money and financed rifles, artillery, rapid-fire guns such as Gatling guns and buildings for the police out of their own pockets, and provided funds for the establishment of a police pension.

Armed arm of the ruling class

There was no time when the city police enforced "the law" neutrally or even came close to that ideal (any more than the law itself was ever neutral). In the north of the United States, throughout the 19th century, she mostly arrested people for the vaguely defined "crime" of breaking public order or for vagrancy. That meant the police could arrest anyone they saw as a threat. In the south, in the post-civil war period, it enforced white supremacy and arrested blacks on a large scale on the basis of fabricated violations in order to force them into the system of convict labor. (2)

The violence exercised by the police and their moral separation from those over whom they "watched" cannot be blamed on the brutality of individual officers. They are the result of a calculated policy aimed at turning the police into an institution that uses violence to solve the social problems that an economy based on wage labor brings with it.

For example, during the brief, violent Depression of the mid-1880s, Chicago was full of prostitutes working on the streets. Many police officers realized that these sex workers were mostly impoverished women trying to survive and initially tolerated their behavior. But the police leadership insisted that the patrolmen do their duty and arrest these women, impose fines and drive them from the streets and into brothels.

Similar to the strike wave of 1885. Here, too, some police officers initially sympathized with the strikers. But when the police leadership and the Chicago Mayor decided to crush the strikes, officers who refused to be fired. In these and a thousand similar events, the police were formed into a force to impose order on the working class and the poor, regardless of the individual feelings of the officers involved.

Can there be a democratic police force?

Much has changed since the police was founded - most notably the influx of blacks into northern cities, the mid-20th century black civil rights movement, and the creation of the current system of mass incarceration (3), in part a response to this movement was. These changes resulted in some new policing methods, but not a fundamental change in policing.

The police were created to reconcile electoral democracy with industrial capitalism by force. Today it is only part of the criminal justice system that continues to play the same role. Their main task is to enforce order against those who have the most reason to reject the system - there are a disproportionately large number of poor blacks in our society.

A democratic police system is conceivable - but that's not what we have. And it's not what the police were made to do, either.

A democratic police system is conceivable - one in which the police are elected and accountable to the people they watch over. But that's not what we have. Nor is it what the current police system was created for.

If there is one positive lesson from the history of the police, it is that when workers organized, refused to submit or cooperate, and troubled city governments, they could stop the police from engaging in the worst of their activities. The murder of individual police officers, such as on May 3, 1886 in Chicago or on December 20, 2014 in New York, has only strengthened those who call for harsh repression. But large-scale resistance could unsettle the police. That happened in Chicago in the early 1880s, when police broke the crackdown on strikes, hired immigrants, and tried to regain some working-class credibility after their role in the brutal crackdown on the 1877 uprising.

Police could be pushed back if protests continue after the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and countless others. If that happens, it would be a victory for all those taking to the streets today. And it would save lives - even if, as long as the system that uses police violence to control a large part of its population survives, any change in policing is aimed at keeping the poor at bay more effectively.

We should keep in mind that the origin of an institution is crucial - and the police were created by the ruling class to control the working class and the poor, not to help them. Nothing changed about that.

The article was published by LaborOnline on December 29, 2014. Translation: Jan Ole Arps

1) Stop and Frisk enables police officers in New York City to check, arrest and interrogate people regardless of suspicion. Stop and Frisk affects people of color and black Americans more than average. In 2017, 90 percent of those who were checked using Stop an Frisk in New York were black or latinx.
2) The massive rental of black prisoners to businesses and individuals in the southern states continued into the 1930s. Hundreds of thousands have been forced into this forced labor system, often through racist crimes. Today, privately run, profit-oriented prisons in particular offer prisoners as cheap labor.
3) There are 2.3 million people behind bars in the US, almost a quarter of all prisoners in the world. About 33 percent of those detained (but only twelve percent of US citizens) are black. Afro-American people, especially young black men, are checked by the police more often than average, and more often than average are arrested for offenses. In addition, the likelihood of ending up in jail for minor offenses such as unpaid fines increases if one is poor. The risk of poverty for black US citizens is almost 100 percent above the US average.