Although police violence has always been pervasive in our society, today’s police forces are quantitatively larger, more intrusive, and more militarized. From the routinized, extra-judicial murder of people of color to the disruption of protest and the smashing up of labor strikes, the police are the state’s most visible domestic force of repression, superintending the system of mass incarceration commonly referred to as the New Jim Crow.
The Black Lives Matter Movement has exploded in reaction against this system and is propelling many pertinent questions to the fore. Why does racialized, violent policing exist? Why are the police militarized? Are individual cops workers? Can they be reformed, demobilized, or dissolved altogether? Are there alternatives to the police? Two important books examine these questions, albeit from different perspectives. While neither book is new, both have acquired a practical utility, and are worthy of examination in light of present circumstances.
Kristian Williams’s Our Enemies in Blue, provides a sweeping and compelling account of the rise of the modern, professionalized police force.
Williams’s main thesis is that the police are, and have always been, an antidemocratic force in society. They enforce the class and racial inequalities inherent in the capitalist system. “The police,” he argues, “represent the most direct means by which the state imposes its will on the citizenry. When persuasion, indoctrination, moral pressure, and incentive measures all fail—there are the police.”
Williams writes that the function of the police “can best be examined if we have an understanding of its origins, its social function, and its relation to larger systems like capitalism and white supremacy.” While individual police are drawn largely from the ranks of the working and middle classes, their role must be examined on a systematic level. Williams shows that their principal job is to protect private property and safeguard the status quo. That role trumps any commitment to stopping crime and ensuring safety.
Racism, Williams contends, has always been inextricably bound up with policing. The institution’s origin was in the slave patrols in the South. But racist policing did not end with the Civil War and abolition. Police today occupy low-income communities of color, treating residents not as citizens to be protected and served, but as potential enemies to be distrusted, harassed, and even killed. In essence, “Police and prisons have replaced patrols and plantations as the means by which white society maintains its control over Black people.”
In the North, the police were organized as a direct reaction to the rise of the industrial proletariat and its struggle for reform and even revolution. “The role of the police as union-busters and strikebreakers,” Williams writes, “was an outgrowth of their position in the class structure and their function regulating the behavior of workers for the convenience of the new capitalist economy.”
Williams shows that police not only repress but also regulate the working class. This involves more than just overt brutality like strikebreaking. The police also engage in surveillance and infiltration. Overall, Williams contends, “Police tactics, strategies, and organization have all changed as the forms of conflict have changed.” But their role has remained consistent throughout—the control and repression of workers and Black people.
Despite being drawn from the working class, police are not part of the labor movement. In fact, Williams argues, “Police associations organize along institutional rather than class lines.” Their method of bargaining is collusive, not collective. They do not challenge their bosses, but seek a better deal in the service of them. And their service is to repress the labor movement. In short, the police organize as police, not as workers.
Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop traces the genesis of the rise of the modern SWAT team. Such formations, which at one time would have been used only in extreme cases, became a regular feature of increasingly militarized police in the 1960s, particularly against the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, deployed in this period because of popular opposition to the domestic deployment of the US military. “This sort of force,” writes Balko, “was once reserved as the last option to defuse a dangerous situation. It’s increasingly used as the first option to apprehend people who aren’t dangerous at all.”
The Nixon Administration justified police militarization with racially coded law-and-order rhetoric. It claimed that SWAT teams were necessary to enforce order on a Black criminal underclass. In 1972 Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” and expanded SWAT teams exponentially. The government deployed them to conduct “no-knock” raids on people’s homes.
Ever since, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have pumped massive amounts of federal funding into military weaponry and armaments for local police. This facilitated the development of a culture of militarism in the police as expressed in “the law of the instrument”—“when you’re carrying a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” One result has been an epidemic of police murders, especially young Black men.
Balko argues that today’s militarized police violate the intentions of America’s “founding fathers,” their enlightenment values, and Anglo-American common law. He invokes these traditions as the basis for the return to earlier and supposedly benign forms of policing.
Both books are very valuable, and, perhaps, more timely than when they were first published. That being said, both have their weaknesses. Our Enemies in Blue is an invaluable exposition on the antidemocratic role of the police. But Williams’s anarchist conception of the relationship between the state and the police is problematic. He paints a picture of the state as a complex network consisting of bureaucracies vying for political power. He writes, “Policing is thus tied to a more general trend in government administration, the rise of bureaucracies.”
As a result, he thinks the police possess more autonomy than they actually do. He portrays them as acting on their own, while the state assumes a neutral character, passively mediating between two competing camps, police and municipal authority. This conceptualization fails to take into account the centralized nature of the capitalist state as an explicit organ of class rule, and the role police play in facilitating its reproduction.
Rise of the Warrior Cop, though indispensable in documenting the rise of police militarism, is seriously marred by the author’s libertarian romanticization of the founding fathers’ bourgeois democratic state as a bastion of liberty. There are several problems with this. First of all, the early American state, as Williams makes clear, was founded on genocide, racist slavery, and the exploitation of wage labor. The police came into being not to provide liberty, but to protect and enforce the new capitalist state.
As a result of his libertarian romanticization of the “founding fathers,” Balko does not oppose the police or the system they defend. “This is not an ‘anti-cop’ book,” he writes. In fact, he warns that “any hypothetical world where police were ruled unconstitutional would descend into chaos, probably rather quickly.” As part of nostalgia for the early republic, Balko falls into the trap of blaming immigration for the rise of “common, centralized police forces.” He states that these became necessary to “preserve order and enforce a common set of laws.”
Ultimately, Balko does not locate the problems of modern policing in capitalism and its state, but in a series of aberrations flowing from the misguided policies of bad leaders. In reality, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and others were not wayward purveyors of irrational policy, but were putting in place conscious strategies to enforce the inequalities of neoliberal capitalism and repress any and all resistance to it.
Both books advocate reform. Balko proposes legalistic measures meant to curtail SWAT abuses, such as abolishing federal funding of local police forces, limiting the legal scope of SWAT deployments, ending the drug war rhetoric, and decriminalizing drugs. Like Balko, Williams supports reforms. For example he supports civilian review boards. At the same time, he emphasizes that such boards must have enforcement power and be popularly controlled.
But Williams cautions that, “Token prosecutions, minimal reforms, and other half-measures” can also coopt movements. He contends reforms should ensure substantive change, bring justice to those family members directly affected by police violence, and assist in building the movement, not assuage it. He also raises a far more fundamental challenge to the police than Balko, writing, “If we accept that police forces arose at a particular point in history, to address specific social conditions, then it follows that social change could also eliminate the institution.” A new society that has rid itself of class and race inequalities would have no need of a state and its police forces. Importantly, he imagines the “possibility of a world without police.” That is a society worth fighting for.