On the social construction of policing

All Possums Go to Heaven @AndyinDC1

“In medieval Europe…the concept of a standing professional police force was virtually unknown. Instead, communities were organized so that they were all responsible for keeping the peace.”

  • On a world without police text

It’s easy to take for granted our current model of policing as self-evidently natural. It’s all around us, it’s heavily over-represented in our culture and media, and so it can seem organic, inevitable, and eternal.

Of course all societies have, and have had, police like us.

Except our pervasive, standing police force is historically contingent. In the US, our policing evolved directly from the need for a standing, coercive security force to monitor and suppress slave escapes and uprisings.

It’s easy to imagine that police serve a socially critical role, something to do with crime, and that without them we’d face serious questions about how to address crime non-coercively. This is certainly the basis behind the “thin blue line” propaganda.

But in reality, the police spend virtually none of their time actually addressing crime:

  • How Do the Police Actually Spend Their Time? text

Instead, police in the US primarily serve to extract revenue. “But today, in many municipalities, as much as 40% of the money governments depend on comes from the kinds of predatory policing that has become a fact of life for the citizens of Ferguson.”

  • Ferguson and the Criminalization of American Life David Graeber text

To be clear: the police don’t just ignore most things we socially construct as crime. They ignore the vast majority of crime, period. Wage theft, the largest form of theft, falls almost completely outside their purview and our mental conception of crime.

It’s telling that when cops break the law—which they do constantly — they rarely face any consequences. And when they do, those consequences are rarely as coercive or carceral as they treats us. If “discipline” is harsh enough for their crimes…

  • Miami officer facing discipline for wearing Trump 2020 face mask at early voting site text

In June, @JonahDispatch, who is objectively very stupid, wrote this piece on policing, apparently having googled “history of police” and jotted down some examples without having actually learned anything about policing as a system.

  • The problem with claiming that policing evolved from slave patrols text

In it, he makes what must seem to him like a reasonable point: “Indeed, there’s something uncomfortable to the idea that attempts to prevent rape, murder, robbery, etc., have some obvious racist intent behind them.”

The presumption is, of course, that whatever the historical roots of policing were, this is what policing is for now: fighting crime. But, as we saw above, this is not the primary function of police.

The police spend a tiny fraction of their time dealing with crime, & they only deal with a tiny fraction of actual crimes. They do not prevent crime, though they do investigate some crimes after they happen. Of those, they “close” a tiny fraction.

  • Police solve just 2% of all major crimes text

What Goldberg is doing is contributing to the ideological construction of policing — telling people that police fight crime, despite all the evidence that they don’t. So what are police for? Graeber noted in the piece I linked to earlier that they extract revenue from the public.

But more broadly: they exist to serve the capital class by coercively defending private property. Can’t let a little pandemic stop you from evicting babies into homelessness!

Once you acknowledge this reality, it’s easy to synthesize the two streams of American policing: that of the northern states, which was all about protecting commercial shipping, and that of the southern states, which was all about preventing slave uprisings. All about property.

The history of the latter is probably better well known. From Gary Potter:

Southern policing was a vile, authoritarian phenomenon, though it targeted only one segment of the population, Black southerners, allowing southern elites to imagine themselves paragons of liberty. (Sound familiar at all?)

  • The First Attack on Charleston’s AME Church text

But the history of northern policing is less well known. Police in New York City explicitly took their inspiration from London police, who in turn got their start as a semi-private force protecting warehouses and riverine commerce on the Thames, the Marine Police Force.

So let’s turn to Gary Potter again to synthesize these two streams

  • The History of Policing in the United States 2013 Gary Potter text

(Oh and PS, northern policing was incredibly racist too; it just wasn’t explicitly about race the way southern policing was.)

  • The So-Called ‘Kidnapping Club’ Featured Cops Selling Free Black New Yorkers Into Slavery text

So we see from this that policing isn’t about crime. It’s about defending private property and maintaining a specific capitalist “order” in which everyone goes about their routine producing surplus value for the capital class without too much fuss.

This is why I endlessly repeat: the state is the coercive arm of the capital class. Police function as private security for capital, just paid for by the public.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying: policing is not natural, timeless, or inevitable. It’s historically contingent and socially constructed. Which means we can reconstruct it—or deconstruct it—however we want.

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