Police Were Designed To Protect Profit, Not People
Updated: Jun 13
As you may have read by now many American police departments were born out of slave patrols, and while this helps shed light on the form of America’s law enforcement culture it doesn’t actually explain why police were created in the first place. Other countries have cops, too, after all, and you don’t need to look hard to find police brutality the world over.
The cold, hard truth is police were not created to fight crime. Historians have never found a link between rising crime rates and the rise of police departments. The only links that exist are those to the rise of industrialization and modern capitalism.
As immigrants and freemen filled American cities in search of work in the brand new factories springing up in the wake of the industrial boom of the early 1800's, factory owners noticed a disturbing trend. Increasingly, workers started organizing and making unreasonable demands for things like an end to child labor, a living wage, and an eight hour work day.
Antebellum America was heavily influenced by Victorian notions of order and disorder, and you better believe (white) city fathers wanted to maintain order, as they themselves defined it. Specifically, they wanted an obedient and docile workforce that would toil in their factories without complaint.
It’s a simple formula: Capitalism requires workers, and workers must follow rules.
Police departments were created for this very purpose; as the enforcement arm of industrial capitalism. And in the first half of their existence focused their attention on what they called “riots” and today we’d call “strikes.” In fact, crushing strikes, and doing so as violently as possible (as to deter future labor activity) became the primary role of police.
Consider the creation of the Pennsylvania State Police. Modeled on the Philippine Constabulary, a colonial paramilitary occupying force, it was created for the singular purpose of putting down strikes in the Pennsylvania coal fields. The clashes between state cops and workers resembled those between armies. As one trooper said at the time, their role was to "ride in, scoop them up, and beat [the] hell out of them." By 1910 the department had earned the nickname, “the Pennsylvania Cossacks.”
“Preventative” tactics were used too, such as mass arrests on the grounds of maintaining public order. According to historian Sidney Harring, an authority on American policing, in Chicago alone, that meant the arrest of a million workers between 1875 and 1900. These workers were almost exclusively immigrants and minorities. Gradually as those immigrants “became white” and integrated, the occupying forces focused on African Americans. Meanwhile, factory owners played on racial tensions—such as the use of black scabs during strikes—to divide the labor movement.
Yet, police have primarily been a reactive force, and the tactics learned by police departments in the war on labor, would later be repurposed against women demanding the vote, African Americans marching for equality, and college kids mobilizing against war.
They literally wrote manuals on how to brutalize anyone considered a threat to the system.
Recently, both Democrats and Republicans have been talking about more accountability, saying that “defunding” is too extreme. But the political establishment is part of the same system, and it, too, functions to protect the interests of wealth.
As President Calvin Coolidge said in 1925: “the chief business of the American people is business.” It’s why we’re willing to sacrifice a generation to COVID-19 for the sake of the stock market. It’s why we’ve made mass incarceration a multi-billion dollar business. It’s why police are more interested in protecting property than people.
More accountability is good and needed, but it is rendered ineffective if the institution being held accountable was designed specifically to function in the way you are trying to stop.
We’re long overdue for a real conversation on how we distribute power and wealth in this country. As Martin Luther King Jr. knew well, to solve racism you first must solve wealth inequality. We need a fair system based on principles of ethical capitalism. And in that kind of system, policing as we know it simply doesn’t exist.
If we put America’s founding at 1776, that means the country did not have a single municipal police force for the first 62 years of its existence. If you go back to the founding of Jamestown, it becomes 231 years. Here’s a fun fact, not a single Founding Father lived long enough to meet a policeman. Policing is a very recent phenomenon in American history, designed for the express purpose of protecting capital, so we should stop treating it as though it were something immutable and created for the benefit of all.
The question we should be asking ourselves is not, “How do we fix the police?” But instead, “Why do we have police in the first place?”