A People’s History of Police in the United States: Part 1

By Ryan Cook

Federal officers deploying tear gas during a Black Lives Matter protest
July 28, 2020, Portland, Ore.

“Law and Order”

To better understand modern policing in the United States, it’s important to trace its historical roots and the social and economic conditions that shaped it over time. While much has changed, much remains remarkably similar. Since the early days of settler-colonialism, organized patrols have been used in various ways to enforce “law and order” on behalf of the ruling class. This has been met with varying degrees of support and resistance.

Views on policing vary by community and along racial and class lines. While some communities have “defunded” their police departments by reallocating funding to social services, law enforcement continues to be the biggest expense in many communities. Despite what much of the right-wing news claims, most politicians have been resistant to calls for defunding. In July of 2020, congressman and former FBI agent Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) helped introduce the “Defund Cities that Defund the Police Act”. This law threatens to deny communities Federal funding for economic development if they decrease their law enforcement budget. Meanwhile, in December it was revealed that $108M of the $175M designated for mortgage and rent relief during the pandemic was instead given to the PA Department of Corrections.

In response to even the most modest reforms, an entire culture has developed around the support of “Blue Lives”. At least 39 off-duty police from around the nation were present during the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. With Capitol police seen bumping fists and even collaborating with right-wing protesters who could afford the trip, it is easy to see how powerful and diverse the supporters of state-sanctioned violence truly are. While mainstream right-wing politicians continue to embrace fascism, liberals are often willing to to increase the size of the police state to help fight “domestic terror” or solve the epidemic of mental illness and drug overdoses.

The prevailing belief of police as they exist today is that they are necessary to provide protection as a public service. Criticisms are common, but the media often reinforces a “bad apple” narrative that views policing as a force for good. Not much attention is given to the broader impacts of policing itself and how the criminal justice system often maintains a cycle of poverty and crime.

Throughout history, the main function of police has been the protection of property. While police sometimes provide protection for people, the law does not require them to do so. Recently, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit on behalf of survivors of the 2018 Parkland massacre in Florida. The sheriff’s office had no constitutional duty to protect students and the officer who hid outside could not be held liable for his inaction. The notion of police as protectors is also challenged by the fact that most crimes go unsolved. People experiencing homelessness, drug addiction, or mental illness often end up incarcerated rather than addressing the root causes of their circumstances. Funding for policing has increased despite a 69% drop in crime since 1993.

While policing has taken many forms over time, the practice of arresting and jailing people with the threat of deadly force remains constant. This sometimes “resolves” conflicts, but it often creates new ones that reinforce existing power structures. Rising inequality under capitalism and institutional racism have largely prevented meaningful change. It’s usually not the richest, whitest people facing the most injustice or state violence. For this reason, reforms typically expand the size and scope of law enforcement rather than transition away from carceral solutions. The state and its media constituency portray policing as an “apolitical” force tasked with upholding the law. Of course laws are “political” by nature and to this end, police have always been used politically for those in power.

Settler-Colonial Roots

During the early age of colonialism the “Discovery Doctrine” was developed by European Christians to seize land inhabited by Indigenous people. This exclusively established property rights for wealthy, white, Christian men. One of the first examples of this on the continental U.S. was the 1526 Spanish settlement known as San Miguel de Gualdape. The colonizers faced disease, starvation, and retaliation from the Natives whom they enslaved in previous visits. The approx. 100 African slaves they brought with them revolted and escaped. Some scholars believe they lived peacefully amongst the Native population afterwards.

In the 1600’s Puritans from England began colonizing North America. While the small separatist “Pilgrims” faced some persecution in England, the Puritans were a much larger sect who came to America to extract wealth from the undeveloped land and establish a new society dominated by their Puritan beliefs. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first large colony like this and was established in 1628 as a joint-stock company. At the time, the Pequot tribe dominated trade in the region. To take control of the market, the colonists massacred and enslaved their Native American competitors in the Pequot War of 1636. This practice of aggressive expansion continued throughout the colonies. The settlers grew their wealth and influence using “divide and rule” tactics to pit Native American tribes against each other and African slaves. In Jamestown, Virginia, White indentured servants rebelled alongside African slaves and free settlers of different races in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. This terrified the ruling class and led to laws designed to punish Black people with harsher standards and prevent future unity across racial lines.

19th-century engraving depicting an incident in the Pequot War

The Puritan culture was built on a foundation of white Protestant male supremacy. Social control was reinforced through compulsory Bible school, “blue laws” and strict patriarchal relationships. The Puritans’ believed in “predestination”, a Calvinist doctrine where all events have been willed by God. In theologist John Calvin’s words “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation.” This conflicted with Catholic views of scripture about freewill and the authority of the church. Quakers and Catholics were often sentenced to death for their beliefs. Women were considered “inherently sinful” and were held in subordinate roles. Puritans believed the soul consisted of an immortal “masculine” half and a mortal “feminine” half. Accusations of witchcraft and devil worship were used to punish women who resisted.

The colonies had established law enforcement systems mostly based on English “common law”. These relied on volunteer watchmen led by reeves and constables. Wealthy citizens were usually exempt from volunteer service or would hire others to take their place. As “shires” became known as counties, the title of “shire reeve” became sheriff. Sheriffs were common throughout the colonies and performed other unpopular roles like tax-collecting. In 1703, the Boston Watch began enforcing a curfew for all Black and Indigenous people.

In 1704, slave patrols were officially established in the Carolinas and eventually spread to the thirteen colonies. The slave patrollers were often selected from the colonial militias and were made-up of white men from various classes. This united wealthy and poor white settlers in their oppression of Black slaves. These police were the first counter-insurgency forces and were responsible for returning escaped slaves to their masters and preventing revolt. They enforced curfews, raided homes for weapons or plans, and used dogs to catch and terrorize slaves. States began passing laws requiring white citizens to capture and return slaves.

Wood engraving of the plantation police or home-guard examining slave passes on the levee road below New Orleans – F.B. Schell. 1863.

“Birth of a Nation” – The 1700’s

As the colonies grew, the colonial militias developed alongside the night watches of the North and slave patrols of the South. These continued the tradition of “social obligation” where all able-bodied men were expected to serve. Through both militias and vigilantism, Native land was taken despite the official restriction on westward expansion in the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Settlers continued to expand westward, killing Natives Americans and carving their initials in trees. Local officials were complicit in this genocide. Many survivors, dispossessed from their resources, land and culture, were forced into working for the colonizers.

The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763, giving England rule over all territory East of the Mississippi River while France retained control over colonial Louisiana in the center. English domination over the colonies was short-lived once the American Revolution occurred. The major force behind the Revolution was competing economic interests between the ruling classes of England and the colonies. Twenty percent of the colonists supported the British while many remained neutral. Recruits for the Continental Army came from mostly working-class backgrounds. Many were convinced to serve in exchange for land bounty grants in western settlements or other contracts like “a healthy slave”. They were offered regular pay, food, clothing and medical care. Slave-owners promised their slaves freedom if they fought but this was usually a lie. 20,000 escaped slaves fought for the British after they pledged to grant them freedom in exchange for service.

The Revolution encouraged the development of the first counter-intelligence agency that arrested, imprisoned and deported British sympathizers. This was known as the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies. After the Revolution, urbanization and industrialization began to increase. Washington’s policy statement “Indian and Land Policy” in 1783 refers to Native Americans as less-than-human and equates them with wolves or predatory animals. Northern states began slowly abolishing slavery encouraging many slaves to escape North on the Underground Railroad. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 required all citizens, even in “free states” to aid in their capture.

Nearly half the white settlers that came to America were under indenture. By the 1800’s they only comprised a small fraction of the population, while chattel slavery and wage labor became more common. Industrialization and population growth forced many workers to move into crowded cities in search of work. They struggled to make ends meet and had lives cut short from poverty, disease and violence.

The desperate conditions of people living in cities and rising inequality caused an increase in crime. Nearly 80% of the crimes in Philadelphia during the 1790’s were robbery. Most of these were necessities like shoes, coats or food. Women, restricted in the workforce and from owning property were often left penniless or driven into prostitution. Laws against divorce forced many abusive relationships to continue. Domestic violence and alcoholism were quite common. While Americans were still skeptical of a standing police force, the ruling class felt threatened by what they called the “lower sort.” Elites demanded more control over these communities of Black, immigrant and poor people. This becomes a significant motivation in the development of more organized police departments.

How the West Was Won – The 1800’s

The 1800’s were a time of rapid western expansion of the U.S. empire. Militias continue to crush rebellions, genocide Native Americans, and patrol for slaves. These organizations were often the sole law enforcers or used as an extension of police forces. Frequent clashes among settlers and the Seminoles in Florida helped form the basis for Andrew Jackson’s “Indian Removal Act” of 1830. Escaped slaves sought refuge among the tribes and their strength was determined a threat to national security. The Seminoles resisted their forced removal and fought many wars against their oppressors.

Meanwhile in London, the Metropolitan Police Service is founded and becomes a more centralized/organized model that becomes replicated throughout the world. The first uniformed police force in the U.S. was established in New York City in 1844, followed by New Orleans, Cincinnati, Boston, and Philadelphia. Middle and upper-class elites believed the main role of police was to reestablish political and social control. During rising economic and ethnic/racial tensions, these quasi-military forces were determined to be the best solution.

Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion in 1831 had led to a brutal retaliation by militia forces. Virginia denied free Black people trial by jury and sold them back into slavery or relocated to Africa. Slaves often resisted in any ways they could. John Brown, a white abolitionist, led another slave revolt at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Fear over slave uprisings spread throughout the country and was used to justify an increased focus on “law and order”.

The Civil War led to the emancipation of most slaves by 1865, but the states continued enforcing white supremacy during the Reconstruction Era. The 13th Amendment was passed but only abolished slavery in name, while still allowing it for those labeled “criminals”. The small gains of freedom for Black people was met with violent backlash by both the state and vigilantism. Confederate veterans formed the first KKK and lynching becomes a common form of terror used against Black people. The Klan is eventually suppressed in part by the Federal Government, but it eventually returns in two more waves.

In the late 1800’s, fear of working class rebellion was on the rise. The California Gold Rush was slowing down, the economy was in recession and well-paying jobs were scarce. This fanned the flames of ethnic tension among workers competing for resources. The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed, banning most Chinese immigration to the U.S. for 10 years. In 1885 the mayor of New Orleans demanded the arrest of any Black man who “did not want to work” after a large strike of laborers.

Portraits of the Haymarket Martyrs
by Walter Crane, November 1894

The Haymarket Affair in Chicago significantly shaped the country’s response to the labor movement, and especially socialists/anarchists. A worker was killed on the first day of peaceful demonstration in support of an 8-hour workday. On the second day, while demonstrators held a vigil, a bomb was thrown at police. In the aftermath of the blast, 7 police and at least 4 demonstrators were killed. At least 70 more demonstrators were injured. While no one knows who threw the bomb, anarchists were blamed and characterized as violent foreigners. Many workers suspected the bomber was one of the hired guards from the private Pinkerton Detective Agency. The agency was known for its violent strike-breaking methods and history of infiltrating unions but there is no evidence they were responsible. The incident and its portrayal in the press sparked a wave of xenophobia and anti-union sentiment that spread throughout the country. Labor unions were quick to disassociate themselves from anarchists. Police raids on dozens of demonstrators resulted in 8 convictions and 4 executions, many of whom were completely innocent.

With “Posse comitatus” still the law of the land, sheriffs had the power to summon assistance from citizens (as well as private forces) to assist in law enforcement. These were often used to suppress labor organizers and terrorize non-whites. The Thibodaux massacre in 1887 resulted in the murder of at least 50 Black sugar-cane workers in Louisiana. Private police forces were also heavily used for labor suppression. The Pennsylvania Coal and Iron Police were one such force created by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. These were particularly brutal towards workers and became less common as more taxpayer-funded forms of police departments developed in the years to come.

Part 2 to be continued in our next issue…

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