The Function of Police in Modern Society: Peace or Control?
TRNN Top Stories of 2015: Scholar Sam Mitrani says the police were created to restrain the working class and the poor
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
The ongoing debate and protest around police brutality and how best to hold law enforcement accountable generally have one underlying assumption: the police’s role is to serve and protect the population. Police reform advocates are demanding reviewing police practices and increasing accountability through body cameras or civilian review boards with teeth.
But our next guest says we need to stop kidding ourselves, the police were created to control the working class and poor. And since the creation of the modern police force in the U.S. in the 19th century, police have been used to protect the interests of the elite.
Now joining us to discuss this is Sam Mitrani. He’s an associate professor of history at the college of DuPage. He is the author of The Rise of the Chicage Police Department: Class and Conflict, 1850-1894, just published in 2014 by the University of Illinois Press.
Thank you so much for joining us.
SAMUEL MITRANI, ASSOC. PROF. HISTORY, COLLEGE OF DUPAGE: Thank you, Jaisal.
NOOR: So we’ve been covering this ongoing debate and protest around police brutality and police accountability, and a lot of people have told us in Baltimore and around the country that they need police, because the same people that are being affected by police brutality also live in high-crime areas, where policies have created a cycle of violence and the war on drugs is raging, there’s mass incarceration. And these areas are dangerous. People are driven to violence and desperation. And they need police to protect themselves. How do you respond to those arguments? And why do you think it’s important to bring up the history of police when having these discussions today?
MITRANI: Well, I don’t think that people are wrong to say that we need police. We live in a very violent society with a lot of poverty, with increasing inequality, and all the problems that the society creates lead to more and more violence, the people who are ground up by the system. So I can totally understand people’s desire to be protected from those problems.
But I think the problem is the way that the police system that exists in this country was created isn’t actually to solve those problems. And I think the reason people say they need police is because that’s the only thing we can conceive of, it’s the only answer we’re given to the problems of crime, of violence, and really, I think, ultimately of poverty. But I don’t think the police are a very good solution to those problems. I think we really need to think about other kinds of systems. And I don’t think you could have a society like ours that grinds up so many people and that doesn’t defend itself with something like the police. But I think we need to understand where they come from.
NOOR: And so talk about where they come from, because I think a lot of people will be surprised to learn that the modern police force is only about 150 years old. There was no police force as we know it until the middle of the 19th century. Talk about where they came from and why they were instituted. And also I think people will be interested to know what form of police and law enforcement existed before the modern police force.
MITRANI: Well, I think there’s two different systems, if you’re talking about the United States, that existed in the 19th century. One was a system in the South which was really designed to control slaves, and it came out of slave patrols. In the North, in cities, you got police as a wage labor economy developed.
So I actually want to start by talking about the system that existed before, which is more or less a system of elected officials responsible for enforcing order. But they didn’t have a lot of separation from the population. So you’d have a constable elected in a small town, but that person would make their living by having their own farm. And they’d be called on when necessary. They could raise a posse. But the whole tradition of having a posse was a tradition of having the population itself be organized to deal with a specific, immediate problem–there’s a murderer loose, you know who did it, you have to catch the person.
That’s very, very different from the system we have now, with a military force of people whose professional training makes them separated from the population. They wear uniforms. They are full-time police officers. That’s something which really emerged as you got huge numbers of people in big cities, like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, starting in the 1820s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, who we re no longer linked to the elite.
At an earlier time in the cities, you’d have a whole idea that people could move up. You started off as an apprentice. You could become an artisan. There was a much smaller group of people who were totally separated from that path and the people who were separated from that path, but there was some idea of controlling, didn’t live that far from other people, who were much more embedded in the society. But by the 1850s especially, you got more and more people who really had very little chance of moving up, who were going to be workers their whole lives. And this is especially true of immigrants coming from Ireland, coming coming from Germany, coming from other parts of Europe at that time in the northern cities.
And so people who were business people, wealthy people, were really scared–oh, man, in this city, there’s a whole huge number of people over there. We don’t know what they’re doing. They’re totally out of our control. They don’t necessarily like what’s going on, because they’re paying them extremely low wages. Many of them are forced into prostitution. So in that situation, elites develop the idea of a police force to put some control on those people.
NOOR: And I think it’s also important to mention that slavery did exist in the North for decades into the 19th century. Slavery wasn’t abolished in New York State until 1827. And even then, if you were an enslaved person, you weren’t granted your freedom until you turned 18. And, of course, there was the Fugitive Slave Act as well. So I think it’s important to mention that this did exist in the North as well.
MITRANI: Definitely true. And also there’s plenty of racism against free people of color in the North during this time period, who had a better situation than slaves, but it’s not like they were treated equally to the white population, or even to the immigrants at that time. But in the cities like Chicago, their numbers are very small at the time period I’m talking about.
NOOR: And so talk about what was happening. Talk about the social turmoil, especially in the later half of the 19th century, in big cities like Chicago. And even in Baltimore, we had huge strikes here as well, and in New York, of course. So talk about what the turmoil revolved around and why the elites felt so threatened during this time period.
MITRANI: Well, there’s a basic truth, which is nobody really likes having a job. I mean, basically, having a job kind of sucks if what you’re going to do all day every day is go to work for somebody who pays you just enough to survive. You have no chance of owning your own business, which increasingly became true at all these cities–in Baltimore, for sure.
So people resented that, and they organized. And they had a preconceived idea that they were citizens of this republic, especially the white people who had been raised this idea, and they had the idea that they had the right to some better situation.
So coming out of the Civil War you had big organizing campaigns, big strikes, big conflicts over this new wage labor economy. In 1867 in Chicago there’s a general straight strike for the eight-hour day. Then, in 1877, there was a huge strike, which started on the railroads, and it reached big proportions in a bunch of cities across the country.
Actually, Baltimore is one of the cities where it get the most violent. And Baltimore at that time basically didn’t really have a modern police force. And so the strikers were put down with the National Guard. The National Guard came into Baltimore, shot down quite a few people–we don’t know exactly how many. Chicago already had a police force that had been created in the few decades before, with a lot of violence put down those strikes. And after that, the businesspeople who had been suffering from the strikes, who’d been struck, they raised from their own pockets enormous sums of money. In Chicago they bought the police Gatling guns, they bought them artillery pieces, they bought them muskets in order to make sure the population could be kept under control, because they were really scared.
NOOR: And this was a time when there was a class consciousness. So people were aware of this happening and they were actively organizing against it. Is that correct?
MITRANI: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Now, what’s interesting is, actually, this links back to the point you brought up earlier, because as this wage labor economy was developing, that was also the time when you had a big increase in crime and you had a big increase in the numbers of people who were more or less pushed out of the system, who had no easy place, no easy way to make a living. So you had more petty crime, you had more prostitution, you had more street crime of all kinds in the late 19th century then you had in the first half of the 19th century in all these big urban cities. And so people also felt the need for some protection from this kind of disorder at that moment.
So, in Chicago, at least in the 1880s, some liberal politicians made an attempt to make the police more serve the population a little bit, reestablish some legitimacy. They did this by providing some services, like taking people to the hospital. They really publicized the things they did that were needed. And they especially developed this new ideology of order, which said what everybody says today: we need the police. They’re the thin blue line protecting civilization from anarchy. And we can’t possibly live without them; otherwise, things will go out of control. And this is something that got reinforced, reinforced, especially after this Haymarket bombing in 1886, when there was another huge strike wave across the country and in Chicago. There was a bomb that went off that killed seven police officers. The aftermath of that: this idea of the police as the defenders of order and civilization against these crazy anarchists who are class conscious became implanted in a lot of the population’s mind. But there were still lots of people who resisted that, who organized, who organized in unions, who organized to resist police brutality (they didn’t use the term then, but that’s what they were resisting), and these people pushed the police back time and again.
NOOR: And I just wanted to say it’s interesting to kind of see those parallels between what’s happening today. And with the two police officers killed in New York City and huge backlash from the police unions, especially the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association headed by Patrick Lynch in New York City, you kind of see some of those parallels in relation to the mass movements that are arising all over the country demanding police accountability.
MITRANI: Exactly. I think it’s a deep problem that there’s no easy solution to. We have a society that rests on violence in 100 different ways, starting with the military overseas with all the people in prisons. And how to keep this huge, violent system in place? Well, you have thousands and thousands of men with guns who are armed and trained to do so. But you also have to make them legitimate.
NOOR: And so, tying this back to today, there’s a lot of well-intentioned, serious activists around this country that want to live in a more peaceful society, and they want police to be held accountable. What lessons of the past do they need to understand to move the conversation forward? ‘Cause right now we’re stuck in a system where people are trying to, some would argue, put Band-Aids over a gaping hole that is the issues we have with law enforcement today, the killing of unarmed black men around this country and the numerous cases of brutality that are ongoing.
MITRANI: Well, I’m not in a position to give advice to people who are activists, who are trying to their address problems right now their communities. I think people have to do whatever they can to protect themselves, although I agree with you that ultimately I think the problem is we live in this kind of society.
I think really that the needs of working-class people and of poor people need to be put first. This country has plenty of money that people shouldn’t be pushed on the streets, which need to have afterschool programs and very fully funded public schools all over the country that can get kids off the streets and give them a decent job. I think it, actually, everybody in the country should have the right to a job that provides enough money that you can live a decent life. This country is perfectly rich enough to have that.
That’s not on the table right now, unfortunately, but if you really want to talk about solving the problem of crime, you’ve got to address the problems that create crime. And I don’t think that the police do that. The police are a system that has violence to deal with the immediate problem created by a criminal right now in front of you.
So what I would say for activists is to push for all these issues and see how they’re related. I think that the more that the needs of working-class people, the needs of ordinary people can be pushed and put first, the more that we can demand the things that we actually need and not accept that the needs of business people and of bankers should come first, the more we have a chance of dealing with the problems in front of us. But that’s not so easy to do.
NOOR: Right. And I wanted to end with bringing up two points. One is the racial, the historical racial animosity law enforcement has to people of color, especially African-American people. And there were moments where police acted in solidarity with striking workers and the working class, and those police officers were either fired or removed from the police force in other ways. Can you briefly touch upon both those points?
MITRANI: Those are two very big points. The first point, I think, is central to the problem today. I think we had a situation where the police that I first started talking about, that developed in the 19th century, really developed in reaction to the development of a wage-labor economy with immigrant workers. But in the 20th century in the North–in the South the story is somewhat different–really the key story is a great migration of black people into the northern cities to form a key section of the American working class, and then to be the people who are the last hired, the first fired, who face all the problems created by the society first of all. And so the police have been used to keep that population in line, really since the 20 century. And you’ve seen this time and again with the rights in Chicago in 1919 through the ’50s, through the era of the black movement in the ’60s and ’70s, when in Chicago–I’m sure people know about the police murder of Fred Hampton, led by the state’s attorney, to really try to put a lid on that movement. I think the current system of mass incarceration is in part a reaction to that movement and an attempt to get young black people, especially young black men, off the streets. So I think that’s absolutely central to any discussion of this.
As for what people should do, I don’t have an answer for that question. It’s very difficult. I think people should do whatever they can, whatever they can find to do. I’m not living in that situation, so I certainly wouldn’t presume to give people advice on the question of people sometimes siding with workers, sometimes siding with strikers.
And on the one hand, police are workers. They’re hired to do a job. And that creates all kinds of problems for the police themselves, the same kinds of problems that other workers can face. They can face very difficult working conditions, etc. But the nature of their job kind counterposes them to the population every single day. And I think many police officers start a few people through a very negative, almost cynical lens. I don’t think most police officers don the uniform thinking, what I’m going to go do is brutalize people. No. But what you’re forced to do every day kind of counterposes you to the population. And I think in that context it’s too much to expect very many police officers to side with the population. It would take a real act of bravery for a police officer to do so, and they would face some real repercussions, although it’s happened before. The Afro-American Patrolmen’s League in Chicago is an example of that, when you had a big mass movement and the man named Renault Robinson challenged a lot of what was going on with police brutality in Chicago. I know this story in Baltimore less. But it’s possible. But I don’t think we can accept to be the rule, expect it to be the rule.
NOOR: Alright. Well, Sam Mitrani, thank you so much for joining us.
MITRANI: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.
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