The Police Were Created To Control Poor & Working Class People

| Educate!

Commission Bill Bratton with Police Chief Phillip Banks, III. Photo by Joe Marino for the NY Daily News

In most of the liberal discussions of the recent police killings of unarmed black men, there is an underlying assumption that the police are supposed to protect and serve the population. That is, after all, what they were created to do. If only the normal, decent relations between the police and the community could be re-established, this problem could be resolved. Poor people in general are more likely to be the victims of crime than anyone else, this reasoning goes, and in that way, they are in more need than anyone else of police protection. Maybe there are a few bad apples, but if only the police weren’t so racist, or didn’t carry out policies like stop-and-frisk, or weren’t so afraid of black people, or shot fewer unarmed men, they could function as a useful service that we all need.

This liberal way of viewing the problem rests on a misunderstanding of the origins of the police and what they were created to do. The police were not created to protect and serve the population. They were not created to stop crime, at least not as most people understand it. And they were certainly not created to promote justice. They were created to protect the new form of wage-labor capitalism that emerged in the mid to late nineteenth century from the threat posed by that system’s offspring, the working class.

This is a blunt way of stating a nuanced truth, but sometimes nuance just serves to obfuscate.

Before the nineteenth 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 nineteenth 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, even if in 1877 and 1894 the U.S. Army played a bigger role in ultimately repressing the working class. 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 of order that developed in the late nineteenth century echoes down to today – except that today, poor black and Latino people are the main threat, rather than immigrant workers.

Of course, the ruling class did not get everything it wanted, and 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, and established their own hierarchies, systems of governance, and rules of behavior. The police 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 des 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, buildings, and money to establish a police pension out of their own pockets.

There was a never a time when the big city police neutrally enforced “the law,” or came anywhere close to that ideal (for that matter, the law itself has never been neutral). In the North, they mostly arrested people for the vaguely defined “crimes” of disorderly conduct and vagrancy throughout the nineteenth century. This meant that the police could arrest 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 were the consequences of careful policies 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. For instance, in the short, sharp depression of the mid 1880s, Chicago was filled with prostitutes who worked the streets. Many policemen recognized that these prostitutes were generally impoverished women seeking a way to survive, and initially tolerated their behavior. But the police hierarchy insisted that the patrolmen do their duty whatever their feelings, and arrest these women, impose fines, and drive them off the streets and into brothels, where they could be ignored by some members of the elite and controlled by others. Similarly, in 1885, when Chicago began to experience a wave of strikes, some policemen sympathized with strikers. But once the police hierarchy and the mayor decided to break the strikes, policemen who refused to comply were fired. In these and a thousand similar ways, the police were molded into a force that would impose order on working class and poor people, whatever the individual feelings of the officers involved.

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.

Much has changed since the creation of the police – most importantly the influx of black people into the Northern cities, the mid-twentieth century black 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 which continues to play the same role. Their basic job is to enforce order among those with the most reason to resent the system – who in our society today are disproportionately poor black people.

A democratic police system is imaginable – one in which police are elected by and accountable to the people they patrol. But that is not what we have. And it’s not what the current system of policing was created to be.

If there is one positive lesson from the history of policing’s origins, it is that when workers organized, refused to submit or cooperate, and caused problems for the city governments, they could back the police off from the most galling of their activities. Murdering individual police officers, as happened in in Chicago on May 3rd 1886 and more recently in New York on December 20th, 2014, only reinforced those calling for harsh repression – a reaction we are beginning to see already. But resistance on a mass scale could force the police to hesitate. This happened in Chicago during the early 1880s, when the police pulled back from breaking strikes, hired immigrant officers, and tried to re-establish some credibility among the working class after their role in brutally crushing the 1877 upheaval.

The police might be backed off again if the reaction against the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and countless others continues. If they are, it will be a victory for those mobilizing today, and will save lives – though as long as this system that requires police violence to control a big share of its population survives, any change in police policy will be aimed at keeping the poor in line more effectively.

We shouldn’t expect the police to be something they’re not. As historians, we ought to know that origins matter, and the police were created by the ruling class to control working class and poor people, not help them. They’ve continued to play that role ever since.

  • jack black

    Actually the killing of the two cops in New York has resulted in the NYPD withdrawing their policing for most “victimeless crimes” and as a result arrest rates have gone way down. So much for the fear mongering in this article which asserts that killing of police only results in greater repression. There was also a number of killings in the early 1970s by members of the Black Liberation Army and others I believe, funny how this article neglects to mention those…

  • easywriter

    First came the brown shirts…and then…

  • Robert Riley

    Thanks for this article–informative and eye-opening.

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  • Dawn Wolfson

    Bratton’s statement mentions Eric Garner’s death (among other things) but not the killing of the two officers as the reason for the change in policy.

  • cruisersailor

    Serious police reform and oversight by civilian review boards are needed now.

  • tiger

    The police were created to control the elite’s property and that includes you!

  • DHFabian

    Well, police round up, disappear, and drive the poor underground because this is what the middle class demands. We’re still stuck with the generation that decided our surplus population — the jobless poor, and many of the unemployable — are undeserving of the most basic human rights of food and shelter.

  • DHFabian

    Actually, the police serve middle class America, driving the poor underground, out of the sight of middle classers. Whether black or white, urban or rural, brutality against the very poor is anything but rare.

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  • Kaecyy

    Thanks for this excellent article; I don’t know how I missed it until now.

    It is legitimate for everyone to resist the police. Everyone who knows anything about the police, knows that we should all be doing so. However, physical violence, against human beings, is deeply unfortunate and serves to alienate potential supporters, and divide the resistance— no matter how justified the violence may be.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJSehRlU34w

    That said, the 1973 film “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” is an incendiary, absolute must-see at the moment for everyone in reflection on freedom, Ferguson, civil rights and liberties, etc. As the man says, ‘‘This is not about hating white folks… this is about loving freedom enough to fight and die for it.” Food for thought, my friends.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxtMoaV42n8

    This isn’t about racism. It involves racism. This is about a (near total) lack of accountability of our police, our injustice system, and ultimately our government to the people. They are not doing their jobs. In the case of the police and injustice system, they are harassing the poor and minorities to death— white, black, whatever. But African Americans most of all— a fact that is incontrovertible by the statistics published by our own government.

    Institutional racists simply have no idea yet how much they’re being used, owned, and profited from by the same system that’s perpetrating the centuries-old World Civil Class & Race War on our African AMERICAN brothers and sisters, and destroying the ability of Earth to sustain human life for all of us.

    To paraphrase Supreme Commander Eisenhower, remember— ultimately every armored vehicle, every gun, every sonic weapon, every cannon, every chemical weapon canister, every bullet, every arrest, every incarceration, and every killing is a win for the war industry, the prison industry, the healthcare industry, the drugs industry, and the banksters, and a loss for every single one of us.

    Wake up, boys and girls— and that means you cops, too— your fingers are pointed in the wrong direction.

    If Citizens United or the methane plumes bursting from the ocean floor haven’t made it clear to you all that it’s time to revolt against the injustice that is threatening the fabric of our civilization, the waste that is threatening our survival as a species, and the corporate oligarchs and government quislings behind it, let me make it clear here, and what I believe we should start to do about it— through the lens of part of my personal experience of this corruption.

    I practice the sacred art of the Japanese sword in the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, perhaps the oldest remaining sword sect in the world, and I get stopped all the time by various combinations of security guards, troopers, stormtroopers (riot shields, etc), and gestapo (no uniform). For my WOODEN katana, no less— what is called in Japanese a bokuto… a fancy word for a stick!

    Usually the police are relatively cool and I actually have a good time talking to them, but both in my personal experience and with even a casual perusal of the historical and contemporary record, there are a LOT of bad apples in there, far, far more than the police can possibly have, IF they want to have even a shred of legitimacy as an institution.

    Obviously, they do not.

    Sometimes, they actually want to search you, or even see your genitals.

    In public.

    They claim to be searching for weapons, but I’ve had them not even touch my phone and camera and go straight for anything else, anything soft, I have in my pockets (so it’s best to have an erection, boys).

    This is criminal, police behavior.

    The police do this because a weapons search is actually a pretext for police to break the laws that govern them— and the social contracts under which we tolerate their existence— in order to search you for drugs. And this in turn is because of their filthy, vile, and corrupt World Civil Class & Race War on a Selection of Drug Users, which the US government has been expensively and ineffectively waging against our own people and the people of the world since 1937— with about one million POWs and counting in the USA alone.

    Even taken by itself, without their many other crimes against the public, this slow-burning genocide of a war invalidates the police totally as an organization.

    And so their questions and searches toward this corrupt and criminal end are deeply offensive to me— both personally and as an American, particularly one of Japanese descent— and particularly when they have already snuck up on me in force (like some kind of Pearl Harbor in reverse) and interrupted my religious practices because some xenophobe, some racist, some myopic, or some PTSD-wracked survivor of the Second World War has flipped their lid and called in the strike… ON A DUDE CARRYING A STICK. (Though this trouble does not eliminate my cultivation of compassion for those afflicted with these four terrible illnesses… three of which I have also suffered from myself.)

    Once the police have determined that I am in fact carrying a stick, and not a sword, it is obvious to anyone who believes in liberty— to any real American, for example— that apologies from the security forces and dismissal are in immediate order, and any further interruption of my religious practices, especially to feel me up and to gaze upon my genitalia, is at the least a violation of my religious freedom, my freedom from unreasonable searches, etcetera etcetera.

    My apologies for the fear of the ignorant public, but that’s why I meet them halfway, as an educator, and use the WOODEN STICK in public and not the metal sword, and I smile to the people I can’t avoid altogether. Hell, I’m so friendly, sometimes I even show the kids the basics of how to chop a man in half in the traditional Japanese way. (Kids love me.)

    The fact is, whether it’s Detroit or Denmark, the police everywhere in this world have such a long history of abuse, racism, murder, and corruption, they should all go the way of the SS and Kempeitai— they should be outright DISBANDED, and replaced by a totally new, unrelated, post-police organization geared toward the 21st Century— enshrining human rights and our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness above ALL else, and especially for those already marginalized, such as minorities, women, LGBTQ people, and those in poverty.

    The police forces we have today routinely disrespect, violate, oppress, and abuse all of the above, and many more. In their everyday abuse of power and neglect of their duties, they commit or facilitate as many crimes as they solve, if not more, and greater crimes at that— societal crimes, which though less dramatic and less immediately tangible, through their pervasiveness, their perversion, and their origin in the seat of government affect everyone and do more harm to more people than any single serial killer or terrorist cell ever could— yes, even the ones who fly planes into buildings.

    The police, the injustice system, and the prison industry are fingers of an iron fist slapping the pool of our civilization, creating waves of criminality and personal and social destruction across the entire surface and undercurrent of our society, drowning those who cannot afford to build a life above the tsunami of corruption devouring the victims of their corporatized and internationalized World Civil Class & Race War.

    This leads to historical and contemporary ironies such as the police unapologetically protecting America’s most powerful, influential, corrupting, organized, and dangerous criminals (who harm us all, including themselves)— such as the ones on Wall Street— while beating the crap out of dedicated, peaceful patriots exercising their Constitutionally enshrined rights (who harm no one)— such as the ones in Occupy Wall Street.

    Events such as the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937 in Chicago, by police, show us that historically, actions such as this are not an anomaly but rather the standard operating procedure of the police— which shouldn’t be that surprising, since after all, that’s the same year the current World Civil Class & Race War on a Selection of Drug Users began.

    “The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races,” said Harry J. Anslinger, original Prohibitionist and founder of Second Prohibition, in 1937. With First Prohibition just a few years gone, it was through the the delegalization of cannabis— perhaps the most industrially useful plant in the world and the safest in the entire pharmacopeia— that with the support of corporate oligarchs William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Mellon, and Pierre S. du Pont, Anslinger and his allies managed to ensure that the American people would always have an enemy in our own government.

    Of course it goes back much further than that. The genocide, the marginalization, the repression, and the disrespect of sovereignty toward the only REAL, real Americans— the Native ones (the rest of us are really only immigrants, and illegal ones at that)— is also an ongoing series of government and later stages police war crimes. Texas Rangers, anyone? COINTELPRO, anyone?

    Our police forces, who nominally work for us, and whom Americans really do pay and pay through the nose for the pleasure, are an occupying army with too much time, too many resources, too much power, too little to do, and no meaningful accountability— a combination that Mother History tells us is ALWAYS toxic for the surrounding civilian population. Roman Empire, anyone?

    One “bad apple” in any organization dealing with the public, particularly an armed and dangerous force like the police, is one far, far too many, and in our conditions only the tip of a vast iceberg— an indicator of perhaps hundreds more. The simple fact that it is nearly impossible to hold the police accountable for even the most outrageous and on video of their countless criminal acts (YouTube, anyone?), combined with the official unofficial Blue Code of Silence (“testilying”, anyone?), reveals what a medieval and obsolete organization the police, our courts, and our “justice” system really are— totally unsuitable to their legal duty and stated aim of “protecting” and “serving” the entire public equally, from Wall Street Wally to Occupy Otto to Janitor Joe.

    I’m sorry, but it’s the motherhumping 21st Century, girls and boys— the rich, the powerful, and the many have enough in their favor already, without an occupying army in their palm that busts everyone else’s chops, and delivers them into a selective punishment system rigged in favor of the affluent.

    It is also impossible for any civilized, intelligent, and educated person to accept the fact that in most if not all places in the world, the police are permitted to touch, molest, injure, incapacitate, or kill any of us with little chance of serious consequences, whereas to kill, to incapacitate, or even in many cases to even TOUCH a police officer, no matter how criminally the police may be behaving, in fact if not always law carries grave consequences, with a vast burden on the victim to prove police abuse before the rights of civilians to defend themselves against these frequently hostile, occupying soldiers are legally accepted.

    And that’s only if you’re (un)lucky enough to be taken ALIVE after the fact.

    Now look at the statistics of crime rates by race vs searches and arrests by race vs conviction rates by race vs sentencing rates by race. Among the entire world’s prison population— yeah, that includes China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, etc (AND YES, we in the USA do lock up more people than each and all of them, and everyone else as well)— among the entire world’s prison population, one in nine prisoners is an African AMERICAN male.

    Lady Justice ain’t blind, brothers and sisters, but she sure as hell is white, and she’s a flaming racist to boot.

    Ladies and gentlemen— in fact, we have no “justice” system. We have a selective punishment system. An injustice system. The police, our courts, and large swathes of our private industry (no state with a private prison industry has ANY claim to justice or legitimacy, nor will it ever), working in tandem and mutually protecting one another like a network of Japanese bunkers on a Pacific hellhole, are a legalized protection racket, parasitically feeding off our society while giving a few of us with paler skin and bigger bank accounts the thin illusion of security and safety.

    “They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” —Dr Benjamin Franklin, Founding Grandfather

    As a pledge-bound defender of “liberty and justice for all”, and thus a real goddamn American— except under truly exceptional circumstances, I can no longer willingly cooperate with, utilize the services of, or respect the police or any other armed or coercive branch, of any government, that is existing and operating without the consent and support of the people who are most at risk in our civilization, that has a history of abuse coupled with a lack of accountability, that enjoys a de facto monopoly in society on violence even when behaving illegally or with criminal violence, or that is participating in, facilitating, or profiting from ongoing societal atrocities, such as poverty, social inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, the destruction of the environment, or the 1937 to present World Civil Class & Race War on a Selection of Drug Users.

    Thus, as of today, I declare my independence.

    As of today, I pledge as my patriotic duty, insofar as practically, legally, or covertly possible, to no longer recognize or respect the authority or legitimacy of the organized, criminal organization known as the “police”, nor that of any other armed or coercive force of parallel, analogous, or allied disposition, such as the DEA, the NSA, the FBI, the CIA, the ATF, etc etc.

    In fact, I am exercising my democratic right as a proud American citizen, RIGHT NOW, and calling, loudly and clearly, for these obsolescent organizations to be disbanded immediately, and rebuilt from the ground up towards the humanitarian ends that I stated above.

    However, using my intelligence and my social aptitudes, to the best of my abilities I WILL respect and personally engage with the individuals in these corrupt organizations— many of them unprosecuted war criminals still at liberty, carrying weapons and the badge of government, yes, but also many of them good people with good hearts who have themselves been grossly disinformed and disserved by their government and society, as have we all— and in my engagement with these occupying soldiers I will try to educate and encourage them into reform, into disobedience, into resistance, or even into going the full Edward Snowden.

    You see, my friends, most actual cops I meet I really like, and I hit it off with them. We must all learn to love that which is outside ourselves, including our enemies. For this, too, is an important way for our rebellion to grow. And grow.

    And grow.

    I suspect that it won’t be too many years before we have a full on Underground Railroad going for these kinds of heroes, those brave enough to resist— I’m convinced that the more incentive and facilitation, internationally, that we can give whistleblowers to blow that whistle, the more of them will come out of the woodwork. And the better for everyone in the world.

    It will take organization. It will take resources. But it has been done, it can be done again, and I believe it will be done. (French Resistance, anyone?)

    Thus as an Eagle Scout and former POW, I will do my best, to do my duty, to the gods and our civilization, to help tune them in, turn them on, and drop them the hell out.

    I strongly suggest the rest of you do the same. Each of us, both alone and together— to the best of our abilities.

    If you’ve made it this far, then you’re probably sharp enough to see the truth in what I say, and surely smart enough to make a difference. Let us do so— in any way that we can, for the rest of our lives.

    My friends— just because something is the law, it sure as hell doesn’t make it right.

    Total Civil Resistance is one key factor we must utilize toward attaining the post-police force we deserve, for the money we pay, to protect and serve ALL of us. Total Civil Resistance, in addition to seeking change through the legal channels, and through engagement with our governments.

    As Father History has proven, the legal channels for change available to us are utterly inadequate, perverted by those already benefitting from legalized injustices, and our resistance must move beyond the rigged selective punishment system to non-cooperation, divestment, and direct action at the least, and on up to outright espionage and sabotage where and when appropriate, available, and effective.

    With our police and security forces, we have a situation like the Wehrmacht and the Imperial Japanese Army— it’s the organization that is evil and must be disbanded, but not ALL of the people in it. But for the rest, we Americans really do need a Nuremberg/ Tokyo-style war crimes tribunal to mark the end of, for a start, the World Civil Class & Race War on a Selection of Drug Users, and to hold accountable those who have perpetrated, profited from, and perpetuated this ongoing, slow-burning social and racial genocide, which has been tearing our society apart for nearly a century.

    Obviously, the same is true for the not unrelated War of Terror… it just hasn’t been true for as many years.

    Yet.

    “…with liberty and justice for all.”

    It rings proud, and great, but hollow. All of us Americans have pledged allegiance to a country that does not yet exist, and never has existed on the face of this Earth. And so it is our duty to fulfill that promise of our civilization, and to build that society— no matter what powers we must face, and what institutions we must tear to the ground to make way and achieve this.

    Anything less is the very definition of un-American.

    Brothers and sisters— please join the Rebel Alliance. The Empire is strong. We need every kind of help it is possible to give, from every person that can give it, in every place that they can give it— at home, in the workplace, on the streets, in secret, and out in the open.

    We want you, and we need you.

    I’ll see y’all in the future!

    —The Reverend Kaecyy Tay-McCarthy, Rebel Alliance, American Sector, Berlin

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    Want to learn more about the world, listening while you do what you need to do?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/globalnews

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/docarchive

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/fooc

    —Independent, non-commercial, ad-free news from a more global and objective perspective, including an outside, sympathetic look at the USA… without a dog in the fight. Frank, investigative, trustworthy— utterly unlike our own, mostly corrupted broadcast media in the US— the BBC asks hard questions of just about everyone but the Queen. If you’ve grown up with American broadcast media, be prepared to be shocked at how many important things are going on in the world that you’ve never been told about, and you otherwise never will be— the BBC has reporters on the ground in every region of the world, so dust off your world map. Bonus: almost zero reporting of celebrities… until they die.

    http://www.youtube.com/user/LastWeekTonight

    http://www.hbo.com/real-time-with-bill-maher

    http://www.cc.com/shows/the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah

    —Why, in the “Age of Information”, do few but our jesters speak the truth?

    http://www.bestoftheleft.com/

    —Don’t be fooled by the name. This is science-based common sense for a healthy society and a civilization with a future— with explicit and immediate activism opportunities, excellent debate of ideas and best practices, and many suggestions for acting and thinking yourself to a happier and more sustainable life.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vice_(TV_series)

    http://www.youtube.com/user/vicenews

    —I thought Vice were fun but awful when I first ran across one of their little hipster magazines in 2005 Brooklyn. Now they’ve grown up and become the spunky and formidable Vice News, sending those former hipsters into the face of the most challenging situations our species face today— incredible struggles we almost never hear about in the disinformation media, brought to vivid life on the screen and intelligently explained and engaged, all in 15 minutes. It doesn’t get hipper than that.

    Want further learning and activism opportunities?

    http://www.popularresistance.org/issues/

    —Common sense total civil resistance, united.

    http://350.org/

    —Help us save the Earth. So we get to have a future.

    Who me? I’m an independent individual acting where I see I can best apply my limited time and abilities. I’m not profiting from any of these organizations. I simply want to know what the hell we should do to fairly and humanely save and evolve our planet and civilization, before the game is up for the most deadly and interesting species on the planet. (Look in the mirror.)

    I come from time and space as a warning to the human race— you have begun your most desperate centuries. Halt greenhouse gas emissions; enact peaceful resolution and social justice as transnational absolutes; plan and behave both scientifically and humanely; eliminate nationalism, xenophobia, corruption, waste, and war; enshrine your biodiversity; reduce population; learn to love each other— or go extinct.

    Your time is up, earthling savages.