Police brutality activists often say that police are supposed to protect and serve, and then denounce them for not doing so. But these assumptions about the purpose of the police are mistaken. From their inception down to the present, police forces have protected and served the wealthy few against the many, and the white against the rest. Unequal enforcement and violence aren’t aberrations: they are a necessary part of the job.
Historically, police forces were created to protect the property of businesses and the wealthy and enforce white supremacy. In cities they formed to repress the growing numbers of poor people that accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism, while on plantations and in agricultural colonies they formed in response to the threat of slave revolt.
In England, the first police force was funded by wealthy merchants to prevent theft on the commercial docks of London. This effort laid the basis for the establishment of the London Metropolitan Police, the first modern police force in the world, in 1829. In the U.S, police departments were established in the mid-1800s in the urban Northeast to control the riots and disruptive street culture of the immigrant poor, protect the property of the middle class, and enforce fugitive slave laws. In the South police evolved out of slave patrols, and focused on preventing slaves and free black people from aiding escapes or carrying out insurrections.1
In every case, the police were invented to defend the property and interests of the white ruling class. They prevented the exploited from disrupting capitalist society, whether through antisocial behaviors or conscious rebellion.
Today, despite the diversification of police services, the main activity of police remains street patrol. Street patrols enforce a range of ordinances to manage the poor and other populations seen as disorderly or insubordinate. They use race–and especially blackness–as a key identifier for potential targets. Police rarely focus on workplace abuses by bosses or “white collar” crime by the wealthy. Instead they protect commercial areas, and to a lesser extent, the property of the middle classes. Crucially, the most widespread form of oppression in capitalist society is not policed at all: our exploitation on the job, where the value we create for employers is stolen as profits. Exploitation of this kind is considered entirely normal and lawful, a crime hidden in plain sight.
Today as in the past, police protect the living, working and commercial arrangements that keep capitalism running, and those who benefit from them.2
Because the fundamental role of the police is to defend this unequal system, it is impossible for police to protect and serve everyone equally. Police departments direct their attention toward the racialized poor and away from the wealthy, and leave everyday capitalist exploitation untouched. As exploitation continues, the rich are made richer, and elites acquire even more power to direct police attention. “Equality under the law” is an empty phrase in this kind of society, much like “freedom of speech” when airtime is bought and sold by corporations.
Because police work for the government rather than any particular capitalist, policing appears to serve the public as a whole, and those targeted by police appear to be enemies of the public. Everyday policing vilifies the poor and nonwhite, and invites better-off workers to seek protection from the police alongside the ruling class. In the U.S. police this process of division has always been racist. Slave patrols united poor white yeomen with wealthy slave masters, while enforcing the subjugation of black slaves. In the same way, contemporary policing divides first-class citizens from second-class ones, in the name of universal rights.
Because the police maintain capitalist inequality, policing always requires the threat and use of violence. This is what sets the police role apart from all other state institutions. Unlike other bureaucracies, police have the authority to take away individual rights by force–including taking your life. Regardless of the legal limits placed on them, the police role requires the power to detain, beat, imprison and kill in the service of law and order.
Police are also violent in a second sense: as long as they do their job, everyday exploitation continues. When police enforce “equality under the law,” poor people are paid starvation wages while their bosses profit, they get evicted by the landlords who own their homes, and so on. No matter how nonviolent police forces become, this systemic violence will always remain. No amount of training, legal oversight, or reform can alter the fundamental violence of the police institution.
The only way to end police violence is through a revolutionary transformation of society, making wealth and resources freely available to all. Far from reforming the police while maintaining their current role, this aim requires abolishing the police altogether.
To explore how to abolish the police, see the Strategy section.
1. On the origins of the police in England and the U.S, see Miller, Wilbur. (1977). Cops and bobbies: Police authority in New York and London, 1830-1870. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Williams, K. (2004). Our enemies in blue: Police and power in America. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press; and Hadden, Sally. (2001). Slave patrols: Law and violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
2. See Neocleous, Mark. (2000). The fabrication of social order: A critical theory of police power. London: Pluto Press.