Policing Can’t End Violence in the U.S., But Reparations MightBreaking News
tags: slavery, racism, violence, capitalism, policing
To understand how police violence drives interpersonal violence, we first need to understand why police exist. The institution of policing in America was designed to violently repress collective action that threatens the racial capitalist social order. Racial capitalism, a term coined by political philosopher Cedric Robinson, means that the racial character of capitalism predates capitalism itself, and that capitalism arose within European efforts to differentiate and subjugate racial groups (e.g., the Irish, Jews, Slavs, and Roma). Robinson’s scholarship investigates how European nations enclosed, colonized, and expropriated racial subjects within Europe itself; for instance, Irish people resisted Norman and English colonization over the course of nearly a thousand years, and Roma were literally enslaved in Romania for centuries.
As the colonizing force of racial capitalism spread throughout Europe, it was exported to other continents and racial subjects. Chattel slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, for example, could be considered a form of racial capitalism (or perhaps racial mercantilism). Colonization and slavery forced Black and indigenous people to become the labor force supporting European imperialist growth.
The concept of racial capitalism helps clarify the function of American policing. In the North, police forces were created to quash popular uprisings, including “collective bargaining by riot,” where workers would destroy property of employers offering lower wages. In New York City, the city watch was initially deployed to control the streets and sow division between groups of workers via racially targeted patrols (e.g., targeting Irish or Black residents). When Black people rioted to stop former slaves from being re-enslaved, the city watch responded to each uprising with violence and harsh punishments. The increasing frequency and intensity of riots intimidated city elites, and a municipal police department was created in 1845 to more efficiently defang these uprisings.
In the South, slave patrols were formed in the early 18th century to crack down on slave insurrections and capture escaped enslaved people. Southern white communities viewed slaves both as a captive labor force that was absolutely essential for economic development as well as a potential threat to the established social order. The earliest forms of policing in the South attempted to intimidate enslaved laborers into submission through violence. This was easier in rural areas, where there wasn’t much time or space for free social relations among workers—enslaved people on plantations lived where they worked and had incredibly demanding work schedules.
By contrast, many enslaved people in the majority-Black city of Charleston, South Carolina were hired out by their masters to work for local businesses; as a result, some were able to find independent housing, which allowed for more socializing. Whites in the majority-Black city of Charleston, South Carolina, were terrified by the prospect of revolt that they perceived in Black collective gatherings. When Black people formed a suburb of their own in the early 19th century, the city created a more professionalized police force. This unit enforced a curfew and ruthlessly terrorized Black residents. In 1817, white Methodists in Charleston announced their intention to desecrate a Black cemetery. As the police were not remotely interested in protecting the cemetery, more than 4,000 Black residents formed their own church to protect the burial ground. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was a site of slavery abolition organizing, and it remains the oldest church of its denomination in the South. Five years later, Charleston police raided the church, torturing and executing at least thirty of its members that they accused of plotting a slave revolt. Whites later razed the original church building.
This is the same Emanuel AME where, nearly 200 years later, nine worshippers would be gunned down by white supremacist Dylann Roof. While racial terrorism at the hands of individuals may initially seem divorced from police violence, it isn’t.Long after slave revolts helped abolish slavery, white supremacists conspired with the state’s violent arm to coerce and profit from Black labor through convict leasing and sharecropping.
Where Black communities succeeded in accumulating wealth on their own terms, like “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, white supremacists resorted to racist terrorism. The city’s police force deputized white lynch mobs to attack Black residents—as in, “Special Deputies” were literally told to “get a gun and get a n*****“—and raze Black businesses that threatened the white community’s control over the region’s capital.
Many white police officers (often out of uniform) joined the lynch mob. Meanwhile, police discouraged white property owners who tried to keep mobs from burning Black businesses to the ground. After the white rioters destroyed Black Wall Street, Tulsa’s police chief prohibited photographs of the wreckage as “a precaution against the influx here of Negroes and other critics seeking propaganda for their organizations.”
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