Hampton Think - June 11, 2020

The killing of George Floyd has put on full display the persistent and overt racism present in America’s law enforcement. The way in which he was murdered typifies the gratuitous violence that white officers use on a daily basis against black men. The police always deploy force disproportionately against minorities, and that force is often deadly. Black men make up only thirteen percent of the population, but they constitute a quarter of the people shot and killed by cops. This makes them three times more likely than white people to be killed by police, despite the fact that white people are more likely to be armed.

The brutal and oppressive racism in the police force has led activists and political leaders in recent years to call for police reform. Those calls have reached new levels following the murder of George Floyd. One example is Joe Biden who said on a live-stream last week “It’s time for us to face that deep open wound we have in this nation. We need justice for George Floyd. We need real police reform.” Other examples include the founder of Utah’s Black Lives Matter, Lex Scott, who recently called for certain measures such as “data collection, de-escalation training for police, implicit bias training for police, less than lethal weapons for police.”

These are reasonable measures and we should seriously consider them. However, it is important that we not place complete faith in the promise of reform and that we remain open to alternatives to law enforcement. The reason for this is that the police have major structural problems which may be too deep-seated for modest reforms to solve. The idea of reform assumes that a system functions largely as it should aside from a few noticeable flaws. Whatever those flaws are can be corrected, or reformed, by implementing simple adjustments to improve how the system functions. As this relates to police reform, it assumes that police are a vital part of law enforcement and that we can fix the problem of racism to ensure that policing is more just and fair.

There are two issues with this view, however, which exposes the limitation of police reform. The first is that it assumes police are somehow a natural fixture of modern society that play a necessary role in maintaining order. This just isn’t the case. In reality, today’s institution of policing is a rather recent historical development emerging out of modern changes of property relations and white supremacy. As a result, policing continues an outmoded legacy of social order which serves very little purpose for our modern society. This brings up the second issue: because the police are rooted in racist and classist modes of social order, white supremacy may be a built-in feature which cannot be expunged from the institution of police.

One has only to consider this history in order to realize that the police were never intended to serve and protect people. Instead, they were designed to protect the property and economic interest of white elites and slave owners. Two related points in American history exemplify this.

The first can be found in 200 year-old methods designed to control and repress slave populations. As historian Salley Hadden writes in Slave Patrol, “the new American innovation in law enforcement during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was the creation of racially focused law enforcement groups in the American south.” As the south began to industrialize, slave owners found new lucrative opportunities in “renting out” their slaves to employers in the city. This meant that slaves spent more time away from their owners who were used to monitoring their every move. White people grew fearful of the opportunities this provided for slaves to organize and revolt against their masters. As a result, the state instituted race-based forms of legal repression called slave patrols. These slave patrols, as Robert Wintersmith rights, “scoured the country side day and night, intimidating, terrorizing, and brutalizing slaves into submission.”

Today’s police also has its origins in 19th century class struggle and how American cities in the north used state violence to repress and control immigrants and the working poor. As historian Sydney Harring writes in Policing a Class Society, “The criminologist's definition of 'public order crimes' comes perilously close to the historian's description of 'working-class leisure-time activity.” As rural peasants migrated to urban areas looking for work, city and business leaders worried about the rise of “disorderly conduct,” which was essentially code for worker strikes, riots, and other kinds of collective activity. Cities stopped this kind of activity by hiring watchmen, which were groups of men who often resorted to extreme forms of violence in order to keep the peace. They slowly morphed into municipal police departments in the mid-19th century as states began to centralize power.

In general, the origins of the police reflects an oppressive history of white and propertied elites protecting their interests by controlling black people, immigrants, and the working poor. As a result, our modern society has been saddled with a paradigm of social order which reflects the interests of white supremacy and private property. Just consider how white cops brutally murdered George Floyd after receiving a report of him allegedly purchasing merchandize with counterfeit money. We like to think that, after two hundred years, today’s police academy reflects more modern values of justice and equality. While social institutions do evolve throughout history, however, they rarely abandon the legacy they were born out of. The structures of power that gave rise to the police simply reproduce themselves in new ways that make the paradigm of police violence more acceptable. In today’s context, this takes form in a racist discourse that justifies police brutality against the backdrop of “super-predators” and “thugs” that threaten social order.

Quite frankly, the idea that cops prevent crime is a myth that Americans should disabuse themselves of. Not only has the overall number of cops declined for the past five years, but the ratio of police per citizen has dropped for the past two decades. During this time, the number of violent crimes have actually gone down. This shows quite clearly that social order is not maintained by police. Instead, we need to recognize that social stability is rooted in racial equality regarding issues in housing, education, health, and employment. Just like the police, however, each of these issues continue an insidious and persistent legacy of racism which still haunts black Americans today. The best way to address these injustices is to take resources wasted on police reform and redirect it to rebuilding our communities.

Consider the fact that Minneapolis spent just over a third of its general fund ($163 million) on police. The general fund refers to discretionary spending which could very well have been spent on a more constructive community-based initiative. For instance, Minneapolis has the fourth highest unemployment gap between white and black residents in America. Imagine how that money could have be spent on closing that gap. It’s these kinds of investments which are necessary for erecting a fair and just society.

Ultimately, we need to adopt a new paradigm of social order, one that doesn’t rely on reforming the police. The problem of racism is far too entrenched and widespread for police reform to solve. Correcting this requires that we rebuild and restore the lives of black Americans which the police, up to this point, have only ruined.

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Ben Luongo teaches international human rights and international political economy at University of South Florida’s School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies. He previously worked as a campaign organizer and directed several campaigns for groups like the Human Rights Campaign and Save the Children. His analysis has appeared in the Foreign Policy Journal, Foreign Policy in Focus, International Policy Digest, and New Politics.