The Racist and Imperialist History of the Police

By Duncan Riley and Marco Dávila

The great problem with the police is not the supposed “bad apples,” rather, it is that the police exist as an institution to maintain a political and economic order that is profoundly racist and unequal. The first police departments in the United States were founded during the 19th century, growing out of two primary sources. In the large cities of the north, during the epoch of emerging industrialization and the subsequent massive increase in inequality, the big capitalists needed a regular and organized force to watch for signs of discontent and repress strikes. On the other hand, on the plantations of the south, slave owners needed patrols and guards to control their slaves and chase after runaways. As such, from these two economic necessities of the ruling class, distinct but interrelated, the police were born (Vitale, 37-39; 45-46). Considering this, when we talk about the police it is impossible to separate them from their role as the violent enforcers of the hierarchies of race and class in current capitalist society.

The police are also implicated in the long history of US imperialism throughout the world. Many of modern police tactics and doctrines were developed during the colonial war in the Philippines (1899-1913) in order to control the rebellious population and suppress the insurrection. After the war, these tactics were brought back home to the United States, where the police used them against political radicals and especially against the Black population (Vitale, 40-42). Later on, during the Cold War, this racist and repressive model was exported to military dictatorships in Latin America and to other authoritarian regimes across the world, helping those murderous governments to torture and abuse their own people (Vitale, 48). Consequently, the foundation of contemporary policing lies not in “public safety,” but in colonial domination and the use of force to hide social inequality.

As such, the problem is not that the police are “failing in their mission.” On the contrary, the police functioning exactly as they were designed, as an armed gang at the service of the politicians and the big capitalists. The violent racism of the police is, therefore, not an accident; it is an inherent facet in the structure of policing in our society. This cannot be exercised with mild reforms or new forms of training, as liberal politicians say. We can only stop police violence by putting a definite end to the police as an institution and constructing a new society wherein social tranquility prevails through community bonds and universal equality, rather than bullets.

This last point is key – we cannot separate the question of the police from the broader social question. To only abolish the police is not enough, we also have to abolish the world that created them. All the racism, all the violence, all of the atrocities that the police have committed, all of this was born from an economic and political system which cannot function without economic and racial inequality, capitalism. Thus, to finish with the police forever we also have to eliminate the hierarchies which they impose. We have to provide housing and food for everyone, so that there is no more poverty. We have to struggle against white supremacy, so that discrimination and racism vanish from the face of the Earth. We have to demolish the borders and destroy all the prisons and concentration camps which stain our Mother Earth. More specifically, we have to create a new world, a world that is socialist, liberatory, and egalitarian.

Vitale, Alex S. The End of Policing. Verso, 2018.

Less Use of Force and More Use of Reason and Intelligence

The lives of black people have really never mattered to us, that is what the police seem to say again and again with their acts of brutality and constant murders of Black men. At the same time, not all the fault is with the abusive police officer, it is also about the way they are indoctrinated, it is about the whole structure of policing in its totality. Not all of the blame falls on the police officer that tyrannizes, it also falls on the laws that encourage them to tyrannize. It is the fault of the justice system that protects them even when they have killed in cold blood. And it is the fault of conservatism that considers that there is nothing wrong with the daily conduct of that institution.

The doctrine of the police is very clear: do everything I order you to do or I will beat you, I will strangle you, I will kill you. And it is also that the police have been corrupt since their origins, they were born corrupt and continue to be corrupt. They are arbitrary, authoritarian, and xenophobic, their strength is the use of force over reason or intelligence. They are reactionary, and for decades they have had permission to commit murder “legally.”

In particular, the rebellion that has surged forth after the assassination of George Floyd has taught us all that the new generations are not willing to continue tolerating the bestiality of the police, and that, whether they like it or not, we will have to pass away from brute force and towards reasoning.

If it were not for that cell-phone video, today we very likely would not be talking about George Floyd. That man murdered in cold blood by the Minneapolis Police would be just another statistic. Because of that, today we must say to the police: we are watching you.

Justice for George Floyd!