Everyone wants to live in safe communities but when individuals and communities look to the police to solve their problems they are in essence mobilizing the machinery of their own oppression.
This post picks up where I left off. Let’s wrap up chapter 2 “The Police Are Not Here to Protect You”.
The Role of Slavery
Early in the chapter, I learned that not all of the enslaved worked on plantations. This filled in one of the many gaps of knowledge from my K-12* . I suppose the Yankee narrative of education is one that seeks to minimize the connections between labor structures of the North and of the South.
In other words, keep teaching us versus them differences.
Over the sparsely populated country, where gangs of negros are restricted within settled plantations under immediate control and discipline of their respective owners, slaves were not permitted to idle and roam about in pursuit of mischief. … The mere occasional riding about and general supervision of a patrol may be sufficient. But, some more energetic and scrutinizing system is absolutely necessary in cities, where from the very denseness of population and closely contiguous settlements there must be need of closer and more careful circumspection.
The more dense the population, the greater the need for a “energetic and scrutinizing” systemic force. I can hear the echoes of the all too recent stop and frisk tactics.
The only limit on police power was that enslaved people were someone else’s property; killing one could result in civil liability to the owner.
Let that one sink in. Sit with it for a moment.
Right now precious few police are held to account for the violence they commit towards black people. The enslaving had reassurances, through civil liability that the police would not destroy their property.
The system protects property not people.
Once the United States of America abolished slavery and the Confederate States of America surrendered and rejoined the USA, policing took on a different shape.
Small towns and rural areas developed new and more professional forms of policing to deal with the newly freed black population. The main concern of this period was not so much preventing rebellion as forcing newly freed blacks into subservient economic and political roles. New laws outlawing vagrancy were used extensively to force blacks to accept employment, mostly in the sharecropping system. Local police enforced poll taxes and other voter suppression efforts to ensure white control of the political system.
This tactic looks familiar today. It doesn’t take too much to see the above statement informing the decision of city mayors to declare curfews during the protests.
Northern policing was also deeply affected by emancipation. Northern political leaders deeply feared the northern migration of newly freed rural blacks, whom they often viewed as socially, if not racially, inferior, uneducated, and criminal. Ghettos were established in Northern cities to control this growing population, with police playing the role of both containment and pacification.
No absolution for northern states.
I think back to my high school history class. We had a 2 or 3 week module in which the teacher divided the into 3 groups: a jury, those advocating for the north, and those advocating for the South. The goal of the North and south groups was to convince the jury that the other side was responsible for the Civil War.
As someone assigned to the north, our team researched the immediate lead-up to the war; The broad-sweeping military oriented state sponsored actions. I look back, and wish we would have learned about the work conditions throughout the country. What was labor doing in the North and in the South.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there were contentious labour issues in the north. And the northern politicians pointed to the moral stain of enslavement, so as to draw attention away from their systemic unrest.
Nothing rallies Americans like a good ol' fashioned American-induced war.
Political Policing in the Postwar Era
And not to be confusing, this section refers to the post-World War Two era. The United States hasn’t really had a “post-war” era, we’ve been at war for 90% of the time that we’ve been a country. And that doesn’t count our War on Drugs nor our War on Poverty.
This section quickly goes through the suppresive tactics throughout the north and south. One stand-out is that the police are now deploying counter-insurgency tactics which emerged from US* foreign policy.
- Agents Provacateurs
- “Militarized Riot-Suppression Techniques”
- “Heavy-handed crime patrol”
The result: a massive expansion of police powers and funding leading to mass incarceration and ever increasing Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT* ) team responses.
Look to the black and white video of the Civil Rights movement. Pay attention to the police and their equipment. Compare that to today’s default equipment for a protest. It’s rather chilling.
Nixon mobilized racial fears through the lens of “law and order” to convince Southern whites to vote Republican for the first time since Reconstruction. Following the disastrous defeat of Michael Dukakis in 1988 for being “soft on crime,” Democrats came to fully embrace this strategy as well, leading to disasters like Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, which added tens of thousands of additional police and expanded the drug and crime wars.
Vitale draws on Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis where:
Christian Parenti [shows] how the federal government crashed the economy in the 1970s to stem the rise of workers’ power, leaving millions out of work and creating a new, mostly African American permanent underclass largely excluded from the formal economy.
People are in the early stages of another economic free-fall. The conditions of the day are a greatest hits medley of the United States.
American crime control policy is structured around the use of punishment to manage the “dangerous classes,” masquerading as a system of justice. The police’s concern with crime makes their social control functions more palatable. The transition from the use of militias and military troops to civilian police was a process of engineering greater public acceptance of the social-control functions of the state, whether abroad or at home.
Yes, we all want to live in safe communities. But policing in its current form and mandate undoes our very safety.
Neoliberal austerity drains public services: schools, parks, libraries, and safety nets.
The “system stays in power by creating a culture of fear that it claims to be uniquely suited to address.”
We have a fundamentally broken policing system, because it serves a fundamentally broken system that “wallows in the pursuit of wealth at the expense of all else.”
I consider the last two sections of this chapter a must read. The quick overview of events since the civil rights encapsulates much of what we collectively hold in living memory. Yet it contextualizes the inter-related modern events.
With neoliberal austerity draining resources for social services, it’s easy to look back to the past to say it was better. In the past, our libraries, schools, parks, and social services were proportionally better funded. This nostalgia and recollection may easily fall victim to calls for making America great again.
All the while, we’ve been bolstering and growing the system of oppression and misery.