We’re taught in school that the police perform a just and noble service—brave officers put their bodies on the line to prevent crime, protect us from violence and uphold our rights. But the real story of modern policing is different.
Before the rise of capitalism—and even throughout some of its early development—the police as an organised force did not exist. Communities meted out their own justice through a hodgepodge of night watches, small groups of volunteers or social practices like the “hue and cry” (in which small groups of citizens came together temporarily to apprehend an accused criminal). There existed no paid, permanent force that was integrated into and controlled by the state.
But by the early nineteenth century, societies across Europe and North America were undergoing profound changes. Urban centres were receiving an influx of wage workers as capitalist enterprises demanded ever larger pools of labour. Often these workers were peasants recently cleared from their lands or, in some parts of North America, newly freed slaves.
This population growth presented challenges as well as opportunities for the capitalist class. On the one hand, they had a plentiful supply of labour to be exploited in their factories. But on the other, they faced a population that was more concentrated than before, and which had a vibrant political life of its own. And these new workers were not used to accepting the discipline expected of waged labourers. They frequently resisted attempts by the capitalist class to build and fortify a social order characterised by extreme inequality and exploitation.
The earliest fully funded state police force in Britain, the Thames River Police, emerged in 1800 to enforce capitalist property relations on a working class that was largely unwilling to submit. Workers on the London docks would flagrantly disregard their employers’ “right” to the cargo they unloaded, pocketing bags of sugar, tea and whatever else happened to be on the ships. To the workers, it was only logical that they should be allowed to take some of the goods they spent all day hauling around. It wasn’t the bosses who did all the heavy lifting—why should they reap all the rewards?
But to the bosses, this was an offence of the highest order. Something had to be done to enshrine their exclusive right to property. So the Thames police would patrol the docks, patting down workers and confiscating any goods they tried to take home to their families. The unjust social relations of capitalism were not readily accepted by the working class, so laws needed to be drawn up to criminalise violations of the bosses’ sacred rights. And to enforce these laws, a permanent police force was required.
It wasn’t just small acts of insubordination, like taking a packet of sugar here and there, that the police were needed to stop. Over the course of the nineteenth century, workers increasingly engaged in riots, protests and strikes to assert their rights. These acts of resistance, particularly strikes, posed a direct and immediate threat to the profits of the capitalist class and thus to their whole social order. To put down this rowdy and rebellious working class, a reliable and fully funded force was needed that could not just inflict lethal violence as the army did, but which could perform the vital functions of crowd control and strikebreaking.
Unlike earlier night watches or volunteer groups, police were able to operate at all hours of the day, every day of the week. This allowed them to maintain a constant presence in working-class neighbourhoods, enforcing the rule of capital by force and identifying potential sources of rebellion before they erupted. They could penetrate into every part of society, acting as the eyes and ears of the bosses.
Police continue to play the role of keeping acts of resistance within acceptable limits. They sow fear and distrust through a million small acts of intimidation as well as outright violence. Police show up at every protest, strike and occupation, intimidating and, if necessary, violently repressing those who fight back. They have a presence at every picket line, and show up at protests to ensure that climate criminals, politicians and the wealthy can continue their activities without disruption. From Sudan to Myanmar, police have been on the front lines defending capitalism from resistance and revolution. Wherever struggle breaks out, you can be certain that the cops will be there, on the wrong side.
The cops also play a role in reinforcing structural disadvantage, with much of their activity targeted at marginalised groups. In the US, that means singling out Black people for traffic stops or petty criminal activity, and in Australia, Indigenous people for crimes of poverty like drinking in public or unpaid fines.
Police, then, serve the interests of capital. They protect private property and those who own it, whether that’s from petty theft or from mass struggle that threaten the bosses’ accumulation of profit. They do not protect the marginalised or the oppressed, but are a key enforcer of that marginalisation and oppression. Whether an individual cop is “good” or “bad” matters little—the institution exists to perform a social function, which is to maintain the status quo.
So when the police commit acts of violence and brutality, it’s no aberration or deviation from what is otherwise good and necessary work. When police brutalise protesters, break strikes, harass people sleeping on the streets or kill unarmed civilians, they’re doing what they’re meant to do. Until the whole capitalist system is uprooted, the cops will continue to be the enemies of anyone committed to equality and liberation.
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