Blue Bloods: America's Brotherhood of Police Officers

Historians in the News
tags: racism, Chicago, Police, labor history, Law Enforcement, Fraternal Order of Police

History would suggest that unionism and policing are, at their foundation, incompatible. For one thing, the officers who founded the FOP made it very clear that it was not a union. In the volume The Fraternal Order of Police 1915-1976: A History, a work commissioned by the FOP itself, cofounder Martin L. Toole is quoted as saying, “We are banded together for our own enjoyment!” Founding officers rejected the name “United Association of Police because ‘that name sounded too much like Union, and Union sounded too antagonistic.’ ” These officers sought a way to bargain collectively over issues like wages and hours, without affiliating themselves with labor organizations.

And as labor historian Rosemary Feurer told me in an interview, until the 1970s “there was a feeling that police didn’t belong in the union movement. And now I think we have to realize that that is part of our history, from the stark reality that people were confronted with police brutality whenever they tried to assert their rights as union members.” Indeed, the most formative days of the labor movement were marked by police violence against workers. During the 1886 Haymarket Affair, police fired on the crowd during a dispute with striking workers. During the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain—the largest labor uprising in American history—thousands of West Virginians led by the United Mine Workers were in armed struggle against thousands of police and National Guardsmen. The local sheriff, Don Chafin, was paid by mine operators to beat, arrest, or intimidate suspected union organizers, a job which each year earned him more than 10 times his annual salary in bribes and helped him maintain a well-funded department. By 1921, his net worth was about $350,000. In the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre, police fired on a demonstration of steelworkers, killing 10 and seriously wounding many others, including a baby and an 11-year-old boy. A worker on the scene said that as the injured fell under the hail of bullets, it looked “as though they were being mowed down with a scythe.”

And the institution of policing as a means of violently controlling working persons’ right to economic freedom has deeper roots than even the labor movement itself. The need to attack workers in the name of private interests is historically intertwined, like a double helix, with the need to control, limit, and sanction Black autonomy.

“You will find that this question of the control of labor underlies every other question of state interest,” South Carolinian William H. Trescott told the governor of South Carolina in 1865. The end of the Civil War meant that millions of Black people were transformed from items of property, from which labor could be forcibly and freely extracted, to independent humans with, at least nominally, the agency to do with their labor what they pleased, for their own benefit. “Virtually from the moment the Civil War ended,” writes historian Eric Foner, “the search began for legal means of subordinating a volatile black population that regarded economic independence as a corollary of freedom and the old labor discipline as a badge of slavery.” In the absence of slavery as the means by which Black people could be made to stay in one place and work when and how White people needed them to work, the plantation class looked to the law to ensure that they would. Hence, the Reconstruction-era legislation known as the Black Codes was born. In Mississippi, being Black and not having written proof that you were employed was now illegal. In South Carolina, being Black and having a job other than servant or farmer was illegal unless you paid an annual tax of up to $100. Being in a traveling circus or an acting troupe? Illegal. In Virginia, asking for pay beyond the “usual and common wages given to other laborers” was illegal. In Florida, disrespecting or disobeying your employer was illegal. In some areas, fishing and hunting, or even owning guns, were now banned, as these activities could lessen Black dependence on White people for employment.

And who would enforce these new laws? The police. In some cases, Foner writes, these newly deputized men wore their old Confederate uniforms as they patrolled Black homesteads, seizing weapons and arresting people for labor violations.

Despite this history, those who lead America’s police unions raise a cautionary alarm—that teachers and other public sector workers should be wary of any attempts to curtail police power, lest they find themselves at the center of the next effort to limit union rights. In June, Patrick J. Lynch, who heads the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York, wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News drawing a direct connection between efforts to defund the police and a broader labor struggle. “Our brothers and sisters in the labor movement should be very careful. If they support a successful campaign to strip police officers of our union rights, they will see those same tactics repeated against teachers, bus drivers, nurses and other public sector workers across this country.”

But there’s a crucial difference. “How many unions are there where you’re assigned a gun and told you can shoot people?” Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner asked me during a phone interview. “I mean, they have superpowers. They are given superpowers over the lives and freedom of other people. Over the integrity of their bodies.” Krasner told me of two instances in his legal career when he defended women who, after finding their police officer husbands cheating and trying to divorce them, had been arrested by those same husbands. One was arrested twice. The other was arrested alongside her brother, who had tried to defend her. Both women were found not guilty despite police officers testifying against them on the stand. Krasner attempted to sue on their behalf, for monetary damages but also injunctive relief—for the police department to change its policies to require an arrest of a relative or spouse to be overseen by a supervisor.

Read entire article at Vanity Fair

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