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The History of Policing in the U.S.

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“Under capitalism, the main police function is to break strikes and to repress other forms of protest against the policies of the ruling class. Any civic usefulness other forms of police activity may have, like controlling traffic and summoning ambulances, is strictly incidental to the primary repressive function. Personal inclinations of individual cops do not alter this basic role of the police. All must comply with ruling-class dictates. As a result, police repression becomes one of the most naked forms through which capitalism subordinates’ human rights to the demands of private property.” — Farrell Dobbs, Teamster Rebellion (1972)

The Birth of American Law Enforcement

The youthful multi-racial working-class rebellion against law enforcement and racial oppression that began on May 25 following the public law enforcement murder of George Floyd has produced a significant debate around police reform, defunding the police, and police abolition. The history of policing in America is the history of state-sponsored violence and entrenched racism against Black workers, the broader working class, labor movement, social movements, and socialist forces.

The origins of policing in America coincides with the development and growth of American slavery and capitalism. To dismantle the edifice of law enforcement under capitalism and its various institutions, we must dismantle the capitalist system that utilizes these “armed bodies of men” to uphold their system of profit, power, private property, and prestige.

The early enforcers of the interests of the wealthy and planter aristocracy in the South were called paddy rollers or patterolls during Colonial America with a significant role in controlling the labor force of Europeans to the new world. The elite attempted to subdue and utilize the labor of the native indigenous population, but that failed due to constant war, deadly diseases, and the violence by the ruling elite that decimated the indigenous population. The ruling elite used indentured servants from Europe, but they were prone to run away, and there were too few indentured servants to fulfill the demand for tobacco production and other crops. The ruling elite needed cheap and plentiful labor to work the land.

In 1619, in Jamestown, Virginia, the first “20 and odd” enslaved Africans classified as indentured servants arrived. The arrival of African labor would redefine the mechanism of surveillance and social control in the new world, particularly following Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, where 80 white and Black indentured servants, poor and landless, rose against the planter class. The uprising, drowned in blood, pushed the southern planter class to develop a system of racialized social control and violence, justified by racist ideology. This led to separate laws and conditions for the white indentured servants and the chattel African slaves.

In the northern colonies, less dependent on slave labor, they instituted night-watch volunteer structures and private security to protect the property of the elite.

In the post Bacon’s Rebellion period, the slave patrols became the main force to keep law, order, and the chattel slavery economic system intact for the white planter class. The slave patrols, made up of three to six armed whites on horseback, made sure that slaves – the property of the slave master – would not run away, break up any unlawful gatherings, and dismantle any attempts of revolt and uprising by the slaves. No Blacks – free or enslaved – were safe throughout the colonies from slave patrols.

The system of slave patrols would survive up to the American Civil War but re-emerge in a different form at the end of the Radical Reconstruction period (1868-1877). The return of the former planter class to power in the South established Jim/Jane Crow racial segregation that dominated the South and Black life for the next 90 years with a brutal racist policing system supplemented by vigilante violence spearheaded by the Ku-Klux Klan (KKK) to keep Black workers and communities in their place of subjugation and inferiority.

The development of the labor movement in the late 1800s spurred the rise of a new and evolving law enforcement apparatus, particularly in the North and West. This had the explicit aim of breaking up strikes and criminalizing workers in the interest of the corporate elite, as part of maintaining their control over society. Throughout the United States, law enforcement agencies became more sophisticated in their methods of social control and surveillance. They used vagrancy laws, like the Tramp Acts, that allowed law enforcement officers to arrest labor organizers and thus inhibit workers from organizing. They introduced more brutal tools like extended batons and bigger paddy wagons to arrest more citizens. The seeds of a highly militarized law enforcement, surveillance, and treating the police as a distinct caste in society were planted in these early years alongside the development of American capitalism.

For many decades, strikes and other forms of mass resistance met with ferocious repression not just by regular police but also other forces including the National Guard and professional armed strike strikebreakers like the Pinkerton Agency. Hundreds upon hundreds died simply because they exercised their right to strike. This continued right through the 1930s. In 1932, President Hoover sent in infantry and tanks to smash the encampment of white and Black veterans in Washington, D.C., demanding their long-promised World War I bonuses. On May 30, 1937, the Chicago police shot 40 unarmed striking steelworkers outside the gates of Republic Steel, killing ten.

While the scale of violence against striking workers declined the postwar era, repression certainly continued. The leaders of the striking air traffic controllers in 1981 were famously photographed being marched to jail in chains. In 2006, ICE staged mass Gestapo-style raids at meat plants in the Midwest, followed by mass deportations of immigrant workers, with the aim of crushing the mass immigrant rights movement and because these workers were getting organized.

There has also been a vast amount of repression directed at the left. In late 1919 and early 1920, thousands of “foreign born radicals” were rounded up on the orders of President Woodrow Wilson’s Justice Department and hundreds were deported. After World War II, Senator Joe McCarthy, alongside the FBI under Chief J. Edgar Hoover, targeted members of the Communist Party in various professions.

In the late 1960s, the ruling elite and law enforcement establishment under Hoover developed S.W.A.T. (special weapons and assault team), an elite domestic paramilitary force to eradicate the Black Panther Party for Self-defense (BPP). S.W.A.T. would conduct 293 military operations against social movements, organizations, and activists. The vast majority were aimed at the BPP – 232 military operations to be exact. Those military operations by S.W.A.T. and the war zones they created left Black communities in utter fear. This act of unbridled state force was part Hoover’s insidious Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which was, itself, a continuation of law enforcement used by the ruling elite to neutralize the socialist left and the movements of social struggle.

These examples highlight the true nature of law enforcement in the United States that must be challenged by an all-mighty multi-racial working-class mass movement.

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