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GRIID Class – The Function of Policing in the US and how we can work towards a world Without Police: Part I

January 18, 2022

For the first session, we read chapters 2 and 3 from Kristian William’s important book, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America.

Chapter 2, entitled, The Origins of American Policing, provides readers with a broad overview of policing models that existed in Europe centuries ago. The author presents this information to not only demonstrate how much the idea of policing and public safety has evolved over the centuries, but to make the point that the US has had a fairly distinct model that is rooted in the system of slavery.

Williams talks about the origins of the Slave Codes, which were legislative acts throughout the US in the late 18th Century and 19th Century, as a mechanism of controlling Black people, especially those who were enslaved. After a period of Slave Codes, Slave Patrols were introduced, which the author believes is part of what the current US model of policing was based on.

In Chapter 3, The Genesis of a Policed Society, Williams then shifts his focus to what was happening in the northern cities, like New York and Boston. Slavery was outlawed in the North, even though the North still profited from Chattel Slavery. What was unique about the early formations of policing in Northern cities was what the author refers to as political machines. Williams uses Tammany Hall as an example of the political machine that used police officers to engage in corruption, to intimidate electoral outcomes and to maintain political power.

The author makes the point that during this period there was the development of the notion of “dangerous classes,” a reference to groups of people who were to be demonized, along with the demand for order. The demand for order can be seen in how the political machines used their police forces to control gambling, alcohol and the sex trade, both by profiting from it and using it to extort funds from political opponents. In addition, the policing of vice industries also justified a massive increase in arrests, thus making the argument that cops were necessary to “protect society.” 

As always these class discussion are quite lively and there is never enough time to fully explore all of the aspects and nuances of these topics. 

Next week, we will be reading more from Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, specifically chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 is entitled, Cops and Klan, Hand in Hand, which deals with the historical legacy of policing’s relationship to White Supremacist groups. Chapter 5, The Natural Enemy of the Working Class, deals with how police forces have always been used to not only policy working class people, but have been used by the Capitalist Class to suppress worker demands and worker uprisings.

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