Abolition Not Reform
Updated: Jul 20
The Origins of the Police and a World Without Them
Virginia Rodino unpacks demands to defund the police, arguing that the police are a violent and racist tool of class oppression that cannot be reformed and must be abolished altogether
Socialists argue that the police are the first line of defense for the ruling class. The first police force in the United States that employed full-time officers paid with public funding was created in Boston in 1838. It is no surprise that at the time, Boston was a large shipping commercial center and business owners felt compelled to protect their property from non-property owners, such as the Irish immigrants who lived in deprivation in the port city.
During the same time period in the South, police forces were created not for the protection of shipping interests, but for the preservation of the slave system. Slave patrols—organized groups of armed white men—enforced discipline on slaves in the antebellum South, chasing down runaways and quashing slave revolts. The first formal slave patrol was created in North and South Carolina in 1704. After the abolition of slavery, during Reconstruction, the slave patrols were transformed into sheriffs departments, enforcing segregation and disenfranchising freed slaves.
Describing this period, police studies expert at Eastern Kentucky University Victor E. Kappeler writes:
New England settlers appointed Indian Constables to police Native Americans…, the St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans…and many southern police departments began as slave patrols.
In 1704, the colony of Carolina developed the nation’s first slave patrol. Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who…were considered property….
The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.
Controlling Unions, Strikes, and Elections
When workers began forming unions to fight for improved working conditions and fair wages, the police served the interests of the factory owners. By the late 1880s, all major U.S. cities had police forces. This was because of fears of the unionizing of large waves of Catholic, Irish, Italian, German, and Eastern European immigrants.
At the same time, the police were used as a tool to wield political power. Olivia B. Waxman notes in a 2017 Time Magazine article that “the late 19th century was the era of political machines, so police captains and sergeants for each precinct were often picked by the local political party ward leader, who often owned taverns or ran street gangs that intimidated voters. They then were able to use police to harass opponents of that particular political party, or provide payoffs for officers to turn a blind eye to allow illegal drinking, gambling, and prostitution.”
Police departments have a 400-year-old history of racism that is built upon the capitalists’ need to control large, defiant crowds in order to protect their wealth, property, and position in society. Those in defiance have often been people of color, have often been immigrants, and have always been members of the working class.
Why not reform?
The police have become increasingly militarized and have been trained to escalate rather than deescalate explosive situations. Because of the militarization of the police, how the police are trained, and who the individuals are who join the police - ordinary people need to start to make the decisions about what safety looks like for their communities. We have to end this racist institution.
We are seeing a revolutionary turn in the present movement to defund the police. BLM has moved from trying to make the police “nicer”, to taking control of the capitalists’ tool of disciplining us.
In his book The End of Policing, Vitale (2018) observed that
“by conceptualizing the problem of policing as one of inadequate training and professionalization, reformers fail to directly address how the very nature of policing and the legal system serve to maintain and exacerbate racial inequality….
At root, they fail to appreciate that the basic nature of the law and the police, since its earliest origins, is to be a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo. Police reforms that fail to directly address this reality are doomed to reproduce it.”
As Brett Grant (director of research and policy for Voices for Racial Justice, a Minneapolis nonprofit) explained in a June 2020 CS Monitor interview, the campaign to defund the police represents nothing less than a chance to redefine the social contract. “We can’t just focus on the police if we’re talking about addressing systemic oppression and historical racism,” he says. “We have to talk about inequities across society. We need to connect the dots.”
Defunding is the revolutionary turn we need
Divesting from the police and investing in other social programs that communities want and need is a serious revolutionary step forward. It shows ordinary people that they can control the budgets for their states and municipalities and take over state apparatuses. Students on college campuses, parents and teachers in schools, and working families in communities across the country are eliminating one of the most powerful and reactionary institutions on the planet – the militarized U.S. police force. They are proving to themselves and others that it is possible to take complete control over significant parts of society, and that the existence of police is not an innate, unchangeable factor. By empowering ordinary people with the ability to dismantle this racist and corrupt institution, the cracks are forced even wider to reveal how unnatural the entire system is. We are seeing how we can control the wealth we produce.
Police forces are not a natural part of human nature or human society. They were created to protect capitalism. The struggle to abolish them is inseparable from the struggle to build a better socialist world.
Virginia Rodino is the co-chair of Maryland Green Party, Maryland coordinator of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and a member of marx21 (US).This article first appeared on the marx21 (US) Website. Reproduced with permission