The Police: Past, Present, & Future

 Image result for police

by Luke Pickrell
This article draws heavily from a much longer piece – “Origins of the Police” – by David Whitehouse. I’ve summarized some important points and added original thoughts, including quotes and bits of history from other sources. I’ve also added a “present” and “future” section to the discussion, in order to discuss contemporary points about the police and take a few haphazard shots at what be coming down the tracks. What follows in not a substitute for a close reading of Whitehouse’s work, which I consider a must-read.

Nothing can be properly understood without historical context, and the police are no exception. Whitehouse’s article lends important insight into such questions as: Why do police exist? Can the police be reformed? Are police a part of the working class? Can the police be won over in times of revolutionary upheaval? What is the relationship between the police and the capitalist state?

Throughout, Whitehouse stresses a Marxist perspective of the state and class. The police are the necessary guardians of a class society and exist as an armed wing of the state in order to control the revolutionary element under capitalism – the working class. This is their primary task, for as Farrell Dobs understood, “personal inclinations of individual cops do not alter their basic role…all must comply with the ruling of class dictates…If cops ever falter in their antisocial activity it’s because like guns they sometimes are subject to rust when not engaged in the deadly function in which they are primarily designed for.”

The police are not our primary enemy; they are one especially tangible (and particularly brutal) element with historical roots in the protection of private property and the control of workers. As the working class changes, so does the social control apparatus that must contain it.Those wishing to end police brutality must understand that such a goal is impossible so long as private property, and therefore class society, remains. One must be a radical, and get to the root of the matter. 


Development in Europe 

Medieval England.
When the serfs were forced off the land and became an urban proletariat, a force to police them became necessary.

Whitehouse traces the birth of the modern police force to “within the space of just a few decades – roughly from 1825 to 1855,” but he begins by charting much earlier history, starting with the market towns of the late medieval period when capitalism was finding its feet.

Feudal landowners were the dominant class, while serfs labored in the countryside. Most people had access to land and other means of production. Commodities were produced for exchange within the market, and money had not entered the scene as a universal commodity against which all other commodities are measured. At this stage class distinctions were not as pronounced, and there was greater social cohesion. As Whitehouse explains, “the towns didn’t need cops because they had a high degree of social equality, which gave people a sense of mutual obligation. Over the years, class conflicts did intensify within the towns, but even so, the towns held together — through a common antagonism to the power of the nobles and through continued bonds of mutual obligation.”

But this social cohesion could not last. “The feudal system of industry,” wrote Marx, “…no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new market. The manufacturing system took its place. The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class; division of labour between different corporate guilds vanished in the face of the division of labour in each single workshop.”

Capitalism took off with the “discovery” of the New World. Slaves and loot from the Americas provided some of the first capitalists with their initial wealth. Peasants were pushed off land. The means of production were grasped by fewer and fewer hands, and poverty increased. The guilds started to deteriorate and class distinctions become more apparent. Still, there were no cops. Instead the army and the constables (first used by British occupiers in Ireland) would arrest individual leaders and hang them. 

The French revolution of 1785 strikes fear into the British ruling class and emboldens the

The French Revolution.
It struck fear in the heart of the ruling class.

revolutionary layers of society. Trade unions and strikes grow between 1792-1820. Now, sending in the army doesn’t work because their use of violence is crude. There needs to be a new institution of social control.

The London police were founded in 1829 and tasked with dispensing non-lethal violence. They are based on the success and failures of the British colonizers in Ireland, who found it hard to impose direct rule via the military, as it stood out as an obviously oppressive force. Soon, cops were intentionally picked from the ranks of the oppressed population in order to give the state a sense of legitimacy and street credit. In shirt, to reduce public scrutiny.

London cops start as roaming bands that break up meetings and harass groups of workers walking the streets. Most people hated them. In response, the police are given secondary tasks such as directing traffic and responding to complaints brought to them. This elevates the police in the eyes of the middle class, who mistook the primary role of the police to be stopping the “evil vices” of society. This was an easier view for the middle class to hold, as they weren’t (and still aren’t) the ones being most directly oppressed or being bashed over the head during strikes.

Development in the U.S. North
Before the revolutionary war, settlers gathered for celebrations and rituals but “tended to reinforce the connection between the lower orders and the elite, not to break that connection.” As in Europe, personal supervision was strong within the master-slave and master-apprentice relationship that dominated society. As most people were already supervised during the day, there was no need for regular police force.

The closest thing to a police force was the nightwatch, who “looked out for fires, tried to guard against vandalism and arrested any Black person who couldn’t prove that s/he was free.” As Whitehouse explains, “The watch was not professional in any way. All of them had day jobs and rotated into watch duty temporarily, so they didn’t patrol regular beats — and everybody hated doing it. The rich bought their way out of it by paying for substitutes.” Still, “Colonial ordinance for a while that said that working people could be on the streets only when they were going to and from work.”

But as in Europe, these social relations were in constant flux. The working class grew in size and diversity, and mingled “competition, hostility, unity, fraternization.” Riots, strikes, and church burnings disrupt the peace. The New York police was formed shortly after New Years Eve, 1828, during which the night watch proved unable to control “a noisy crowd of about 4,000 young Anglo workers brought out their drums and noisemakers and headed toward Broadway where the rich lived.” The inability of the watch to control this crowd took place in full view of the wealthiest people in NY.


New York police, 1863.

Development in the U.S. South 

Badge of a Slave Patroller.
Just as with the Night Watchmen in the North, they were transformed into the first police force in the South.

The south looks different than the North primarily because the working class is based not around large industrial centers, but slave plantations. In Charleston, South Carolina, slave patrols haunted the streets, not watchmen: “Throughout all of the [Southern] states [before the Civil War], roving armed police patrols scoured the countryside day and night, intimidating, terrorizing, and brutalizing slaves into submission and meekness.”

But the social bond of master-slave was not unbreakable. Black slaves were allowed to “live out” during the off-seasons to earn a living and pay dues to their masters. As a result, slaves developed vibrant social lives and communities independent of the traditional social control relations on the plantation.

A changing working class necessitated a change in the form of social control, and the state stepped in where the master’s property ended. The Charleston Guard and Watch was founded and became increasingly professionalized in response to demands of white population. This body of (white) men was well ahead of the New York police when it came to repression – they were armed and patrolled twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Again, we see the police form in response to increasing social autonomy by the working class and the militancy (real and potential) of large crowds. In the South, that class is predominately black and so the police are entrenched in racist anti-black ideas. The ruling class created and uses racism to divided the masses.


The police today look a lot different than they did coming up in the 1800s. Today’s force is increasingly drawn from working class communities, just as the British occupying force was drawn from the Irish population. And yet something is still amiss. The police keep killing people at a rate of slightly over three people every day. Last year 1,115 people were killed. It turns out that the color of one’s skin color has absolutely nothing to do with what class one supports. David Clarke Jr., for example, a black man and the 64th Sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, made headlines during the Republican national convention when he called Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization. Just as a U.S President is leader of a global killing machine no matter the sex or color, so too is any cop a defender of private property, exploitation, and war – In short, a defender of capitalism.

This isn’t to say that the force is not a deeply racist institutions. Given its roots in controlling slave in the South, capitalists’ reliance on vigilantism to attack workers, and the central role that racism plays in American capitalism, how could it not be? The police are racist on an individual level and on an institutional level.

Characteristics and Tactics
As opposed to the nightwatch, today’s cops have only one employer and make a set salary. They also operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and are trained and regimented. (The police academy has become more rigorous since the 1960, when it was said a beautician required more schooling than a cop. Sticking with the theme flowing through all police history, the departments were forced to adapt – i.e. become more professional – in the face of growing unrest during that period. The masses acted first, then the cops responded).


Police in Watts, 1965

Today’s force has two defining characteristics. First, as a “dispersed form of surveillance and intimidation,” and all in the name of ‘fighting crime.’ Second, as a “concentrated form of activity to take on strikes, riots, and major demonstrations.” Police control outdoor spaces used by workers and poor for leisure, work, entertainment, politics, etc. Unlike the British army firing indiscriminately into crowds, today’s force is taught to inflict non-lethal violence primarily, and lethal violence secondarily (killing people is not good crowd control, and horrible PR). Now, “for every police murder, there are hundreds or thousands of acts of police violence that are nonlethal — calculated and calibrated to produce intimidation while avoiding an angry collective response.”

The modern police force is also semi-autonomous from the state. It’s a part of the “deep state” – an institution that cannot be changed in any way through electoral politics and would remain intact if some other hall of power was compromised (see also checks and balances in the Constitution). 

Part of the Working Class?
The police are not part of the working class, and the AFL-CIO should end its affiliation with the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA). Though drawn from the ranks of the working class, the police, unlike the army, have no history of joining movements against the state during revolutionary upheaval. This is in part due to the day-to-day work of a cop and the dominant ideologies within the force. Police, unlike the army, are taught to see the domestic front as the battlefield. They operate in a constant state of low-lying fear, and are often isolated from the general population. The very populations they’re drawn from becomes the enemy, the great chaos that must be held back by the “thin blue line” of law and order. They’re also taken better care of (higher salaries, better benefits, a bully of a union) than other workers. In sum, the police as an institution exist to control the working class. They will be on the opposite side of every picket line, clubbing workers, making arrests, and escorting scabs. 


The police did not start as something other than what they are today – a mechanism of violence used to maintain social control in the service of the capitalist class. Contrary to the image of a friendly neighborhood officer, there are no “good times” to which the police can return. This isn’t to say that certain demands cannot be made of the police, but all such demands must be used to rally communities together for the struggle ahead. The ruling class will throw pennies at us from time to time, or reign in a few loose cannons if deemed necessary to dispel social unrest. But these are tactics of class war, and should be seen as such.


Policing in the Age of Unrest and Disaster
We can expect the police to be increasingly brutal as capitalism enters another period of crisis and the U.S. capitalist class looks to loot whatever isn’t nailed down while Trump holds the door open. Militarized cops will be tasked with defending a system that is increasingly unpopular, and while policing is one of the safest jobs, individual acts of terrorism against police will likely increase. (Trotsky explains why individual acts of terrorism are tactical blunders when it comes to strengthening the working class).


Departments form around the country converged on North Dakota to beat back protestors in order to build the North Dakota Access Pipeline.

Strikes and seizures of the means of production are not an immediate threat to U.S. capitalism. What is threatening, however, is climate change and the destabilizing impact of natural disasters. This is a future in which environmental disasters, not working class revolt, disrupt the state’s control. (Given the state’s strength, a socialist movement may need an outside event – such as a major natural disaster – in order to pose a dual power threat to the state). The streets of of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina give us an idea of what we may see on a greater scale in the future.


Police patrol the streets of New Orleans days after Hurricane Katrina.

But this only one possible future. Whitehouse concludes: 

“We can make an alternative available again if we abolish the unequal social relations that that police were invented to defend. When the workers of Paris took over the city for two months in 1871, they established a government under the old name of the Commune. The beginnings of social equality in Paris undercut the need for repression and allowed the Communards to experiment with abolishing the police as a separate state force, apart from the citizenry. People would elect their own officers of public safety, accountable to the electors and subject to immediate recall…This never became a settled routine because the city was under siege from day one, but the Communards had the right idea. In order to overcome a regime of police repression, the crucial work was to live up to the name of the Commune—that is, to build a self-governing community of equals. That’s still pretty much what we need to do.”

The Big Picture
Capitalism is constantly revolutionizing the means of production, and therefore constantly changing the relationship between individuals in society. Capitalism eroded the old social relations and simplifies class antagonisms, splitting society more and more “into two great hostile camps.” The working class cannot help but change, and as it does, so too must the state in order to maintain social control. The history of the police, no matter the country, is therefore the history of the state adapting to a changing working class so as to always keep it under control.

Or more precisely…

As capitalism develops and all types of social relations are increasingly subjugated to the market, old forms of social control – i.e. family, church,master-slave, master-apprentice, – start to break down. The working class grows in size and militancy as class antagonisms become more acute as wealth is increasingly polarized, and people are gathered in closer proximity in towns and cities. Wage laborers have increased freedom of mobility and socialization as they go about selling their labor off a predetermined spot of land. A new form of social control needs to be developed as capitalism has destroyed the old forms of social relations and creates people who must sell their labor. This new and increasingly independent working class (with a growing lifestyle, culture) must be controlled and shaped, and in steps the state, in which the police are a part (alongside education, welfare, military). “The nature of the police” comes from the nature of the problem (i.e. form of the working class), and this is specific to time and place.

The rise of the modern police force has everything to due with the state stepping in to meet the needs of highly developed capitalist society. As Whitehouse explains, “The overall point here is that the invention of the police was part of a broader expansion of state activity to gain control over the day-to-day behavior of the working class. Schooling, poor relief and police work all aimed to shape workers to become useful to—and loyal to—the capitalist class.”

Finally, socialist must unite all working people against police terror. We must argue against individual acts of terror as a method to combat the police. We must always explain the role police play within the capitalist state, and constantly push for the end of class society through workers power as the only way to realize any alternatives to the police.


The Communist Manifesto – Marx and Engles
Teamster Rebellion – Farrell Dobbs
Origins of the Police – David Whitehouse
We Are Many: The Origins of the Police in the US
We Are Many: Lockdown America


Categories: History

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