With the latest police murder of an unarmed black man in the U.S., I thought it appropriate to reproduce excerpts from two recent articles on the police. First, a few excerpts from an article by Sam Mitrani, a professor of history at the College of DuPage, regarding the historical role of the police. For the complete article, click here. Then some thoughts from Christopher Hobson on the need to turn the struggle against police violence into a broad based struggle for social justice, taken from the Utopian: Journal of Anarchism & Libertarian Socialism, December 2014, No. 13.
The True History of the Origins of Police: Protecting and Serving the Masters of Society
Before the 19th century, there were no police forces that we would recognize as such anywhere in the world. In the northern United States, there was a system of elected constables and sheriffs, much more responsible to the population in a very direct way than the police are today. In the South, the closest thing to a police force was the slave patrols. Then, as Northern cities grew and filled with mostly immigrant wage workers who were physically and socially separated from the ruling class, the wealthy elite who ran the various municipal governments hired hundreds and then thousands of armed men to impose order on the new working-class neighborhoods.
Class conflict roiled late-19th century American cities like Chicago, which experienced major strikes and riots in 1867, 1877, 1886 and 1894. In each of these upheavals, the police attacked strikers with extreme violence. In the aftermath of these movements, the police increasingly presented themselves as a thin blue line protecting civilization, by which they meant bourgeois civilization, from the disorder of the working class. This ideology has been reproduced ever since — except that today, poor black and Latino people rather than immigrant workers are the main threat…
There was a never a time when the big city police neutrally enforced “the law” — nor, for that matter, a time when the law itself was neutral. Throughout the 19th century in the North, the police mostly arrested people for the vaguely defined “crimes” of disorderly conduct and vagrancy, which meant that they could target anyone they saw as a threat to “order.” In the post-bellum South, they enforced white supremacy and largely arrested black people on trumped-up charges in order to feed them into convict labor systems…
Much has changed since the creation of the police — most importantly, the influx of black people into Northern cities, the mid-20th century civil rights movement and the creation of the current system of mass incarceration in part as a response to that movement. But these changes did not lead to a fundamental shift in policing. They led to new policies designed to preserve fundamental continuities. The police were created to use violence to reconcile electoral democracy with industrial capitalism. Today, they are just one part of the “criminal justice” system that plays the same role. Their basic job is to enforce order among those with the most reason to resent the system — in our society today, disproportionately among poor black people…
The Need for Utopia
No movement to curb police violence alone can curb police violence. The reason is that police are never more corrupt or brutal than the society they are rooted in and serve. Anyone with a reasonably open mind knows the profile of police, as a social group, the world over: fawning and subservient to those they perceive with power; careful and polite to the middle class (good clothes and speech); arrogant and edgy at best, brutal and trigger-happy at worst, toward those they see as their inferiors; enraged and violent when they feel defiance or opposition…
And everywhere, in all countries, the arrogance and brutality are worst toward whatever ethnic group is outcast and despised—one always is. In this structure police are the petty enforcers and in most cases are linked both to the local ruling elites and also to the local criminal bosses. But the particular groups they push around are supplied by the structure of the society.
So, the people the police brutalize are always those already brutalized. The Black body that is “rag and stone / is mud / and blood” (Clifton)* was already pushed down in school, in jobs, in the medical clinic, in the street. There is no police injustice that is not already social injustice. So to end police injustice against the African American, the Latino, the bums, the street people, the higglers, the petty criminals, the outcasts, has to mean ending social injustice.
And this means expanding the fight for street justice to one for economic justice, educational justice, health justice, immigration justice, and a just and equal social structure. And these goals, seemingly so utopian and so far beyond the possibilities of the moment, will arise naturally and inevitably if a new movement for justice gets off the ground. Then, as half a century ago, all the basic questions will be on the table and all questions open for discussion.
Many years ago the founding statement of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1960) declared that organization’s aim to be “a social order of justice permeated by love.” The words were written in a reform context—the struggle against segregation and for voting rights—but went beyond that context into a utopian context, as the then-young activists well knew. They are beautiful words still, in their simplicity and sweep.
Getting even to the beginning of a movement that can fight for this vision will not be simple. It will mean confronting the weariness and cynicism that bear down when protest follows protest with no tangible change. It will mean avoiding the seductive call for an easy change through the electoral system—through electing the right people to forget the people’s needs for those of managing the system (Obama!).
And it will involve interminable debates over goals, strategies, methods—between liberals, anarchists, remixed Marxists, and others—that can themselves be wearisome and alienating to ordinary people who don’t breathe politics and want to live their lives. But the words, and the utopian change they envision, are worth calling to our minds now. Nothing less than this is what we should be dreaming of, and working for.
*Lucille Clifton, from “4/30/92 for rodney king”
Christopher Z. Hobson