After seeing so many young black men and women shot and killed by police, thousands across the U.S. have begun to protest. And politicians at every level, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, are calling for reform of the justice system, and more police accountability. But these proposals don’t get to the root of the problem – the police themselves.
Police have not always existed. The modern police – permanent and salaried – were put in place in the mid-nineteenth century as a way to control working people. In the U.S. especially, the police were instilled with racism because their first job was to keep immigrant workers and black people in line. Before the 19th century, cities did not have police forces as we know them. The daily conflicts and problems of communities were settled by people themselves or through a system of elected constables and sheriffs. No city had a permanent salaried police force. The closest thing to a permanent police force was the slave patrols in the South whose job was to patrol the roads in search of escaped slaves.
Police were introduced as industry expanded. After the Civil War, mills and factories spread across the U.S., connected by the intercontinental railroad. The workers were mostly immigrants, the first from Germany and Ireland, later immigrants arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe, and Asia. Others were poor white and black people who immigrated from the South. These workers started to organize in the 1860s. From 1867 to 1877 workers revolted against terrible wages, bad housing, and overwork. They formed unions, led strikes, and began to challenge wage slavery. In 1877 a strike in the railroads spread from coast to coast, involving hundreds of thousands of workers. Even locally elected sheriffs and constables often sided with workers. The ruling class was terrified by these revolts. The wealthy elite began to demand a permanent police force that could reliably protect and serve the wealthy.
Racism was used to keep the new system of policing in effect. Many immigrant workers were hired to become the new standing police forces, trained to police other immigrants. The stereotype of the Irish cop comes from when Irish people were hired as police and used against other working class communities. Racism was used to divide and conquer the working class. And black people were put at the bottom, always the target of the worst racism. The racism of the police is not an accident – racism is necessary to the system of policing in the U.S.
In the decades since the 19th century, the racist violence of the police has sparked off revolts. Some of the biggest riots in the U.S. were caused by police violence against black people. In 1967 the police murder of a black worker in a club in Detroit led to a city-wide rebellion. In 1992 in Los Angeles, the police beating of Rodney King began nearly a week of rebellion. The face of the police has changed dramatically as more black and minority people have been hired. But that hasn’t changed the nature of the police. Three of the six officers responsible for the murder of Freddie Gray were black. When it comes to the police, the first and most important color is the blue of their uniforms.
After every revolt, calls are made to reform the police. But the police are put in place to defend a system. They are like an occupying army, which keeps some order day to day, but it is always an order imposed by the needs of the wealthy elite. The racism of the police is a means to divide and conquer, and maintain that order.
Police are a relatively new invention. If workers organize to take responsibility for the problems of our community and our society, there is no reason to tolerate the police.