From Popular Resistance
By By Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers
The system-wide challenges the United States faces with policing are entrenched and deeply rooted. When the historical and current practices of police are examined, it is evident police have been designed to uphold the status quo including racial injustice and class inequality. Whenever political movements develop to respond to racial and class unfairness, the police have undermined their politically-protected constitutional rights.
Police have used infiltration, surveillance, and violence against political movements seeking to end injustices throughout the history of the nation. It is the deeply embedded nature of these injustices and the structural problems in policing that are leading more people to conclude police must be completely transformed, if not abolished.
We advocate for democratic community control of the police as a starting point in addition to defunding the police and funding alternatives such as programs that provide mental health, public health, social work and conflict resolution services, and other nonviolent interventions. Funding is needed for the basic human needs of housing, education, employment, healthcare, and food especially in communities that have been neglected for years and whose low-wage labor has enriched the wealthy in this unequal society.
The Roots Of Policing Are Rotten
The needs of the wealthy have been the driving force for the creation of police. Policing developed to control workers, many who were Irish, Italian and other immigrants seeking fair wages in the North and African people who were enslaved in the South. Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D writes in "A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing that "Slave patrols and Night Watches, which later became modern police departments, were both designed to control the behaviors of minorities."
A. Southern Police Created to Protect Slavery
In the south, the driving force of the economy was slavery where people kidnapped in Africa were brought to the Americas as chattel slaves, workers who created wealth for their owners. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database lists 12.5 million Africans who were shipped to the Americas, 10.7 million of which survived the dreaded Middle Passage. Of that, 388,000 were brought to North America. African slaves were forced to reproduce for their owners and to sell.
From the start, African people revolted against slavery and fought to escape it. This 400 years legacy of racist injustice that helped form the United States is the history we must confront. The roots of policing in what became the Confederacy and later the sheriffs who enforced Jim Crow grew out of the containment of slaves, the most valuable "property" in the nation.
Olivia Waxman describes this history, writing that in the South, "the economics that drove the creation of police forces were centered ...on the preservation of the slavery system." She describes "slave patrols tasked with chasing down runaways and preventing slave revolts" as one of the primary police institutions.
Gary Potter writes in "The History of Policing in the United States," that "Slave patrols had three primary functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules." The purpose of slave patrols was to protect the wealth of the white people who owned slaves.
Potter writes, "the first formal slave patrol had been created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. During the Civil War, the military became the primary form of law enforcement in the South, but during Reconstruction, many local sheriffs functioned in a way analogous to the earlier slave patrols, enforcing segregation and the disenfranchisement of freed slaves."
Hundreds of laws were passed in the South around slavery and its enforcement but laws were also passed in northern colonies including Connecticut, New York, and others to control slaves. The US Congress passed fugitive Slave Laws allowing the detention and return of escaped slaves, in 1793 and 1850. Racist police made up the "kidnap gang" in New York City in 1830 who would capture Africans and bring them to a rubber stamp court that would send them to the South as captured slaves -- often before their families knew they were arrested. Throughout this history, there were people who fought police violence and abuse as is discussed in The Black New Yorker Who Led The Charge Against Police Violence In The 1830s.
The history of racist policing did not end with the abolition of slavery. Police forces were involved in enforcing the racist Black Code, the Convict-Lease System, and JimCrow segregation. The terrorism of white supremacist groups like the KKK, the burning of black schools and churches and lynching became the common realities of the south. White police often did not stop, or seriously investigate these crimes; some even participated. In the era of Civil Rights, southern police used violence against nonviolent protesters -- beatings, fire hoses and dogs.
This also occurred in the north. For example, Minnesota was infamous for arresting indigenous people on charges like vagrancy and forcing them to work for no pay. This spurred the formation of the American Indian Movement. Dennis Banks describes, "The cops concentrated on the Indian bars. They would bring their paddy wagons around behind a bar and open the back doors. Then they would go around to the front and chase everybody toward the rear. " They would be taken to stadiums and convention centers and forced to work for no pay. The police did not do this at white bars, only bars where Native Americans gathered.
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Kevin Zeese is co-chair of Come Home America, www.ComeHomeAmerica.US which seeks to end U.S. militarism and empire. He is also co-director of Its Our Economy, www.ItsOurEconomy.US which seeks to democratize the economy and give people greater (more...