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The first modern police force—the London Metropolitan Police—was established by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. He developed his ideas about law and order, Alex S. Vitale writes in his book The End of Policing, when he was “managing the British colonial occupation of Ireland and seeking new forms of social control ... in the face of growing insurrections, riots, and political uprisings.” The “Peace Preservation Force” was meant to serve as a less expensive alternative to the British army, which had previously been tasked with quelling Irish resistance. Appointed home secretary in 1822, Vitale writes, Peel would run the London Metropolitan Police along the same lines. Although the group claimed political neutrality, its main functions were “to protect property, quell riots, put down strikes and other industrial actions, and produce a disciplined industrial work force.”
Black and Arab Communities:
Boston adopted the London model in 1838, and New York established a formal police force in 1844. (This, it would seem, is what Attorney General Jeff Sessions was referring to when he invoked the “Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.”) But well before then, cities in the southern United States, such as New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston, “had paid full-time officers who wore uniforms, were accountable to local civilian officials, and were connected to a broader criminal justice system,” Vitale writes. These police officers were charged with preventing slave revolts. They had the authority to go onto private property to make sure enslaved people were not harboring weapons or conducting meetings, and they enforced laws against black literacy.
The motto “to protect and to serve”—adopted by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1955 and later used by others around the country—has been a highly effective public relations tool for the police, as it obscures the main function of their work, which since its inception has been to act in an adversarial manner toward the wider community. “Police often think of themselves as soldiers in a battle with the public,” Vitale writes, “rather than guardians of public safety.” This has held true through the last century and up to the present: in the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, in which the Chicago police killed ten protesters during a steelworkers’ strike; in the raid of the Stonewall Inn in 1969;
in the killing of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man whom the Sacramento police shot at 20 times on March 18, 2018, in his grandmother’s backyard. No matter what other responsibilities police have assumed, they have consistently inflicted violence on the most marginalized people in society and maintained the economic, political, and social dominance of the ruling class.
Americans largely revere police, who are endowed with the authority to use violence in defense of the people against the “bad guys.” Which Americans revere the police depends on which Americans are viewed as the “bad guys” and are therefore subject to that violence. Perhaps the “bad guy” is Arab (and therefore a terrorist), or Latinx (and therefore illegal), or a “lone wolf” (read: white) gunman who fires an automatic weapon into a crowd of people. As the past few years have shown, the “bad guys” are often presumed to be black. Although black people make up only 13 percent of the population, 31 percent of people killed by police in 2012 were black. That figure, which dropped to 25 percent in 2017, remains disproportionate. But these well-publicized injustices have not dented the general population’s confidence in police—which remains highest among white people.
Muslim and Latino neighborhoods:
One of the hallmarks of Donald Trump’s political rise has been his ability to tap into a persistent sense that only the police can protect the population from any number of threats, and that their most violent methods are the most effective ones. He famously began his presidential campaign by claiming that Mexico was sending drugs, crime, and rapists over the southern border, dredging up racist tropes that further inflamed white Americans’ sense of insecurity. Very early into his presidency, he acted on his promise to ban Muslims from entering the country, playing to the post-September 11 fear of the Muslim terrorist—even though there exists no evidence that Muslims are particularly likely to commit such devastatingly violent acts.
In speeches during the past year, Trump has actively encouraged police violence. In an address delivered before law enforcement officers at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood, Long Island, he said: “You see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon—you just see them thrown in, rough—I said, please don’t be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head, and they’ve just killed somebody—don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, OK?” In a later speech, in which he talked about eradicating the MS-13 street gang, he celebrated an increase of military-grade weaponry being sent to local police forces.
The fear of communism, meanwhile, contributed to the impoverishment of urban areas. From the 1940s, city policymakers and real estate agents found common ground, both campaigning against funding for public housing in urban areas, the former dismissing it as socialism, while the latter stood to lose profits. In fact, in Los Angeles, “a 1952 ordinance against ‘socialist projects’ virtually outlawed public housing.” As white flight diverted tax dollars to the suburbs, municipalities saw their budgets shrink and struggled to provide maintenance and improvement in urban areas. The draining of resources from cities, where largely black populations were residing, brought the unsurprising effect of an increase in violent crime. This, in turn, led to social unrest and what some would call riots but are perhaps more accurately described as rebellions.
Instead of attracting policy solutions, American cities became the focus of more fear. A 1961 headline in the Los Angeles Examiner even integrated rising crime into larger Cold War anxieties, warning that teen violence was “AS BAD AS [THE] H-BOMB.” In his bid for the presidency in 1968, Alabama Governor George Wallace promised to “help make it possible for you and your families to walk the streets of our cities in safety.” Politicians like Sam Yorty in Los Angeles and Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia ran for office on racist ideas around crime and promises to restore “law and order.” And law and order, we know, meant only more policing and more police violence.
End of policing:
Or rather the end of the way the United States currently does policing. “Policing needs to be reformed,” The culture of the police must be changed so that it is no longer obsessed with the use of threats and violence to control the poor and socially marginal. As long as the basic mission of police remains unchanged, none of these reforms will be achievable.”
To get there would require a shift in public opinion and a marshaling of the political will. As a country, we would have to decide once and for all that the harm police do is too great a price for the limited protection they promise. We would have to recognize the root causes of the problems we have been deploying police to address, and instead of increasing the number of armed officers and the quantity of deadly weapons at their disposal, we would need to direct our attention toward closing the gap in various forms of inequality.
“Everyone wants to live in safe communities,” Vitale writes, “but when individuals and communities look to the police to solve their problems they are in essence mobilizing the machinery of their own oppression.” Unless Americans can re-conceptualize safety, taking away its racist connotations and recognizing that we are safer not with more guns and violence but with adequate food, clothing, housing, education, health care, jobs, and income for all, we are doomed to continue calling the police for rescue from every conceivable threat, real or imagined. The myth of their goodness will feed the delusion of our security. We will create a sense of the natural in which they fit right in. We already have.
Source: newrepublic.com, By MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH June 5, 2018