In the aftermath of most police shootings, the typical chorus of liberals chime in to condemn anti-blackness, while simultaneously declaring support for law enforcement. Such reasoning is made possible by a failure to appreciate the history or structural function of policing in the first place. This post will serve as a corrective to the false and contradictory idea that we can be both anti-racist and pro-policing at the same time.
The History and Function of Policing in the West
Civilization in the Western world was founded on colonization and enslavement. These systems of oppression were codified in law and required enforcement to establish proper order. But where there is injustice, there is resistance. When the first black slaves were brought to Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti/Dominican Republic) in 1503, they taught disobedience to the indigenous people. Revolts swept the region throughout the 1520s and 30s – endangering white desires for profit and domination. But a firm sense of stability was restored when the Spanish “established a special police [force] for chasing fugitive slaves” (Zinn, 1980: p.31).
The British in North America deployed a similar tactic. Slave patrols were implemented in the American South during the 1700s. The groups were composed of free white men, and sometimes women, who confined and controlled the movements of blacks (Turner, Giacopassi & Vandiver, 2006). More specifically, they were tasked with inspecting documents, catching runaway slaves, and guarding against revolts (Barlow & Barlow, 1999). Hmm … these duties and the population they targeted sound vaguely familiar, now don’t they?! That is because the modern-day police department traces its genealogical roots to the slave patrols. In fact, the first departments funded by the State were slave patrols (Walker, 1980).
That stated, the police came into existence as front-line soldiers and guardians of structural racism and class exploitation. Their job description consisted of making oppression more productive for the oppressors. White supremacy/anti-blackness were the laws they enforced on the oppressed. Profit extraction was the law they enforced on the oppressed.
Slavery Still Exists in the United States
It is worth noting that my discussion has used the past tense to discuss the function of policing. I will now switch to the present tense. Most people are willing to admit that the police have a dark history that needs to be recognized. Yet, acknowledging prior wrongdoings is often connected to a denial of current injustices. For example, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recently apologized “for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color”. Before we give a standing ovation, we should be suspicious of the author’s reliance on the past tense. The IACP posits that “in the past, laws adopted by our society have required police officers to perform many unpalatable tasks”, but then declares that “this is no longer the case”.
What magical moment enables people to speak of slavery in the past tense?
From history class to the box office, we are taught that the 13th Amendment of the Constitution ended slavery. This narrative is embarrassingly naive and demonstrably false with a brief glance at the law itself. The text of the 13th Amendment reads:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”.
The keyword here is except – meaning that slavery is permitted as long as the person is convicted of a crime. The 13th Amendment does not abolish slavery at all, it simply re-codifies slaves as ‘criminals’. Immediately following the ratification of the Amendment, massive numbers of black people were found guilty under new laws known as Black Codes – which made minor, everyday behaviors, such as standing on the street without a job, illegal (Davis, 2000). This enabled former slave masters to retain control over their slaves under the guise of ‘crime’.
It is no surprise, then, that prisons are disproportionately packed with black people. There is a prison-industrial complex whereby inmates are forced to work for corporations with no labor protections (Davis, 2000). Some prisons are warehouses of cheap labor for companies seeking to circumvent demands for a minimum wage and health insurance. Instead of outsourcing to Mexico, companies can extract enormous profit margins right here on American soil. A black woman who is ‘free’ must be paid $7.25 per hour; but if she is incarcerated because of a ‘crime’, she’ll be forced to work for next to nothing.
This process could not exist without the police, as they are the first line of contact for the criminal justice system. Policing is the maintenance of slavery.
Any serious analysis of policing involves a systematic assessment of power. There are only two classes of people, which have diametrically opposing demands: the slaves who want freedom, and their masters who want to maintain that oppression. These positions and demands are irreconcilable – meaning their differences can only be resolved by eliminating one of the groups. We cannot be against slavery and for the slave patrols. It is either one or the other. Showing support for law enforcement is, then, tantamount to an endorsement of white supremacy/anti-blackness, heteropatriarchy, and class oppression – all of which are upheld by the police. If we are truly against systems of injustice, we cannot support the groups (the police locally or the military globally) that maintain it!
“But All Police Officers Aren’t Bad…”
People routinely engage in a discourse about the difference between good cops and bad cops. From this perspective, there are a few rogue officers who tarnish the otherwise peaceful function of policing. Here, a structural analysis of the police is derailed by focusing on specific individuals. People begin to regurgitate the police-as-hero propaganda they learned on Career Day in elementary school. Conversation then becomes bogged down in declarations about how one’s mother, brother, or lover is a decorated police officer who rejects oppression wholeheartedly. All of that is nice, but it is completely irrelevant. The police are an oppression machine – so focusing on the interchangeable driver behind the wheel as opposed to what they are driving is both dangerous and naive.
If there were no oppression, there would be no need for the police as they are presently constituted. Taking an anti-police stance is not a personal attack – it is an indictment of a system of oppression that requires policing in the first place.
That stated, we must rid our vocabularies of the phrase ‘good cop’ – as it is an oxymoron. It does not matter that individual officers are ‘good’ if they exist in an overall bad system. Oppression with a smile is still oppression.
We should also use the phrase ‘police brutality’ more sparingly – as it is redundant and misleading. The two words here are synonymous: policing is brutal, and brutality is in line with policing. However, by adding the modifier brutality to the term police, we are saying that policing, in and of itself, is not brutal. This phrase makes the mistake of framing the most visible and visceral manifestations of policing as a deviation from the system – when they are embedded in the system. Brutality is standard operating procedure for the police. The problem is not simply police brutality – it is the police.
Anger Management: Body Cams, Sensitivity Training & Community Policing
In the aftermath of many police shootings, protesters take to the streets and speak of revolution. What they get instead is another batch of reforms. At bottom, reform is the master’s way of convincing the slave to stay oppressed under slightly different terms and conditions that give an illusion of freedom. Reform is the slave’s way of postponing the inevitable revolution for freedom (Farley, 2008). Criminal justice reforms are strategies of anger management (Wilderson, 2015): throwing a bone to the oppressed so they feel included just enough to not fight back.
Implementations like body cameras, sensitivity training, and community policing are lame attempts to sanitize the police. Filming police encounters does not challenge the structure of oppression, it legitimizes it. Consider the fact that we have seen several black people beaten and/or murdered by the police on film (i.e. Rodney King, Eric Garner, Keith Lamont Scott, etc) – but the officers were still exonerated. And the fact that the police need to be “trained” not to shoot a man 41 times (Diallo) or sodomize a prisoner with a plunger handle (Louima) proves they are beyond redemption, anyway.
The idea of ‘community policing’ – as described by Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine – erroneously assumes that the community and the police are groups that can exist in harmony. They have not, and they cannot. The police exist to patrol and control communities. We cannot simply merge the groups and hold hands. Either you have a sustainable community without policing (egalitarianism), or you have more policing of the community (various totalitarian regimes). It is one or the other, not both. Random residents working closely with the police does not change the function they serve – it simply entrenches their logic in the actions of regular citizens. Neighborhood Crime Watch, which further deputizes ordinary members of the community, is a prime example.
That aside, the purpose of community policing is to ‘bridge the gap’ and ‘build trust’ between the community and the police. But we are talking about structural oppression here, not getting a boyfriend and girlfriend back together after an argument. This is not simply about trust, this is about power. And what community policing fails to do is re-distribute power. We cannot work ‘with’ the police; we need to abolish the conditions that brought them into existence.
Towards a New Idea of Safety
By way of conclusion, we need to start imagining a society that does not need the police. We need to start imagining a society that does not need prisons. We need to dismantle the baseless association between the police/prison and safety. We must dispense with the Western logic of militarization and toxic masculinity in the name of ‘safety’. Law enforcement officials often argue that incarceration serves a purpose of deterrence: it dissuades other would-be offenders from committing crimes. Assuming that is true, we would expect that the states with the highest rates of incarceration would have the highest drops in crime, right? But this is not the case. The states that decreased their prison populations saw higher drops in their violent and property crime rates than the rest of the nation. Put simply: policing and incarceration are not synonymous with safety.
The only effective path to safety is building a society that provides for the basic needs (i.e. housing, food, employment, health care, etc) of all human beings and recognizes them as people. Anything short of that is domination.
Barlow, David & Melissa Hickman Barlow. 1999. A Political Economy of Community Policing. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 22: 646–674.
Davis, Angela. 2000. Are Prisons Obsolete?
Farley, Anthony. 2008. “Perfecting Slavery” Loyola University Chicago Law Review.
Turner, K.B., David Giacopassi & Margaret Vandiver. 2006. “Ignoring the Past: Coverage of Slavery and Slave Patrols in Criminal Justice Texts.” Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 17 (1): 181-195
Walker, Samuel. 1980. Popular Justice. Oxford University Press.
Wilderson, Frank. 2015. Interview with Jared Ball on iMixWhatILike
Zinn, Howard, 1980. A People’s History.