How Did America's Police Forces Get So Scary and Omnipresent?
I found the following article, posted at Alternet and written by Sam Mitrani, a history professor at the College of DuPage, absolutely fascinating. We've been discussing, in these pages and elsewhere, the behavior of "our" police forces and their frequent mistreatment of citizens, especially the poor, brown and less "deserving."
The underlying assumption is that the police exists to protect "us," an idea frequently promoted by the police themselves, whose slogan is usually some variant of this one:
(Notice the U.S. flag incorporated into this example, which adds a note of authoritarianism. The Nixon-era conversion of the U.S. flag from a national patriotic symbol to a dog-whistle call for obedience to authority will be treated later.)
"To protect and serve" — but whom? That's where the history lesson offered by Professor Mitrani comes in. Let's start with a time in the U.S. before we had organized city-run police forces. Mitrani:
The True History of the Origins of Police — Protecting and Serving the Masters of Society
The liberal way of viewing the problem rests on a misunderstanding of the origins of the police.
... 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.
What happened to change this? Capitalism and its dependence on the low-paid physical labor of immigrants, and later of blacks moving north after the Civil War — up the Mississippi through St. Louis to Kansas City and Chicago, and up the eastern seaboard to Washington, New York and Boston, among other places.
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. ...
"A thin blue line protecting bourgeois civilization from the disorder of the working class." Sound familiar? As always, of course, the situation evolved, but never strayed from the main purpose (my paragraphing):
Of course, the ruling class did not get everything it wanted. It had to yield on many points to the immigrant workers it sought to control — this is why, for instance, municipal governments backed away from trying to stop Sunday drinking and why they hired so many immigrant police officers, especially the Irish. But despite these concessions, businessmen organized themselves to make sure the police were increasingly isolated from democratic control.
The police, meanwhile, increasingly set themselves off from the population by donning uniforms; establishing their own rules for hiring, promotion and firing; working to build a unique esprit de corps; and identifying themselves with order. And despite complaints about corruption and inefficiency, they gained more and more support from the ruling class, to the extent that in Chicago, for instance, businessmen donated money to buy the police rifles, artillery, Gatling guns and buildings and to establish a police pension out of their own pockets.
You're probably stuck on the Gatling guns in the last sentence, but the phrase that caught my eye was the one I bolded: "identifying themselves with order." There's your tie to police authoritarianism and the cop authoritarian personality, so much in evidence today among too many police officers (my emphasis):
I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.
By Sunil Dutta
August 19, 2014
Sunil Dutta, Ph.D., is a 17-year-veteran police officer in Los Angeles.
... Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me.
Because, he goes on to explain, "officers are rarely at fault. When they use force, they are defending their, or the public’s, safety."
There's the sell again: "Defending the public's safety." According to Prof. Mitani's walk through history, there's a straight line from the immigrant (meaning labor) and racial struggles of the 19th century, which municipal police forces were created to shut down, and today's police practices in poor, brown and black towns and neighborhoods. The primary goal is now what it always was — to keep the victims of a predatory economy back on their heels and resigned to their place and their labor.
"There was a never a time when the big city police neutrally enforced 'the law'"
Mitrani again on a key point — what this implies about rule of law:
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.
The violence the police carried out and their moral separation from those they patrolled were not the consequences of the brutality of individual officers, but of policies carefully designed to mold the police into a force that could use violence to deal with the social problems that accompanied the development of a wage-labor economy. ...
Though some patrolmen tried to be kind and others were openly brutal, police violence in the 1880s was not a case of a few bad apples — and neither is it today.
In the interest of not quoting too much, I cut out a number of his examples in a number of places. Please do read the whole piece; he makes his case quite well.
"The police were created to use violence"
I'll close with what for me is his main point. This is hard to believe, and hard to grasp, but it's the only way to make sense of news that comes at us like a train. Chris Hayes could do "killer cop goes free" stories from now till the rest of his life, never run out, and in our hearts, every one of us knows it. There's an endless supply of "killer cops" and their stories, most hidden from view, never prosecuted unless there's an outcry, and rarely even then.
So why is there seemingly no way ever to curb the violence of the police? The answer's in front of us. Because:
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.
Every word a true one. Remember your Dickens, then remember that you can't have a world owned and harvested by men like David Koch and Jamie Dimon without an enforcement mechanism. I know this is not your TV's Law and Order vision of the world, but it is the world, and your TV is wrong. Here's what it looks like when white people resist — same result:
A cop, protected by the "law," protecting and serving. You can't see whom he's protecting (Jamie Dimon couldn't make it to this U.C. Davis demonstration). But you can see what he's serving (pepper spray), and to whom. Thanks to Prof. Mitrani for a great and instructive read.