Sandra Bland asked me: Why do we have a police force?

Sandra Bland was a political dissident martyred in US police custody. Her death opens questions about policing in general and why police forces are necessitated. It is clear that the modern police force is a political instrument and an artefact of the Industrial Revolution and concluded that policing is one of those examples of big government gone wrong. 

I never met Sandra Bland and had never heard of her while there was breath in her body. But the martyrdom of Sandra Bland, which must be classed as the martyrdom of a political dissident, had been but a matter of time. There were many recent cases of police brutality, some hitting the news, others buried. Now that she is gone, Bland will most likely be seen as a warrior for justice, occupying a similar space in the Pantheon of Black Americans to that of Rosa Parks.

Her legacy is now being tenaciously fought over within the body politic of the US. This will be conducted within the proctrated dispute over the place of blacks in a society whose founders were a ‘whiter shade of pale’ and where race is still a live issue. But as someone not so much interested in events as in ideas, Sandra has evoked a different set of questions in me and in particular one question: why do we (I am from Ireland and live in England but the question is universal) have a police force at all, at all?

At its heart, modern policing is a political institution. Both police and politics derive from the same root, the Greek word polis, literally ‘city’ but carrying a broad range of meanings relating to political co-habitation. It is important to stress that policing is a political institution and not merely an independent body tasked with enforcing an agreed set of rules. A brief history lesson and some examples clearly shows this to be the case.

Before the industrial revolution, there were some corporations affiliated with rulers that could be called ‘police.’ But the idea that one organization, authorized by government, could have a monopoly on enforcing rules and keeping the peace only came about in the early 19th century. This took root in the United Kingdom.

On both the British mainland and in Ireland officers were commissioned to manage a rationalization of industry. In Ireland this took the form of ensuring that the peasants, who conveyed agricutural produce to the British mainland, were kept in check. In Britain this took the form of keeping the heaving masses in their place and mediating the flow of labour from the squalid dwellings of the new proletariat into the burgeoning factories. On the Emerald Isle, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who inspired the ‘Peelers’ or London Metropolitan police, achieved noteriety as a force that preferred the survival of mammon over Man. Laissez-faire economic ideals trumped the lives of starving peasants.

As social divisions levelled out, the police force in Britain and Ireland came to look less like a paramilitary force of the industrialists. But the idea of modern policing took shape, abetted by Britain’s standing in the world as an Imperial power, the industrialization of all parts of the Earth, and globalization which required a common set of rules on an international scale.

For one part of Ireland, during much of the 20th century, the overtly political nature of the police force remained nonetheless. In the Northern Irish statelet, forces like the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the infamous ‘B-Specials’ were reminiscent of the RIC of the 19th century. They enforced class structures and when Northern Ireland moved to power-sharing, the force was re-branded and compelled to reflect the new arrangement. This demonstrates clearly the political nature of policing.

In the US, demographic, social, and political shifts have also led to differing ‘hues’ of the police force. More blacks serve now on the police force than did 50 years ago and there is a thriving black middle class in the US with Republicans and Democrats vying for the Afro-American vote. But there is also a large underclass of blacks who find it difficult to integrate into the Anglo-Saxon designed order. Rates of incarceration for this demographic are far higher than most of the general population.

What is also sobering about the US is the sheer volume of those of all demographics in prison. And yet, despite the massive increase in police resources, the arsenal of technology that security services have at their disposal, and the explosion of new agencies, the US remains a highly dangerous place to live. Also, it is striking that police services in the US have been used to enforce the inequalities that have become particularly marked in the last 20 years as a result of neo-Liberal, ‘trickle-down,’ economics. Police often fulfil a role the RIC used to have … they turn up to throw families and individuals out on the street, enforcing the rule of the banking oligarchy.

Where crime has dropped over the last few decades, as in New York City, it has done so with the help of the wider community and with stopping problems ‘at source,’ i.e. putting manners on would-be troublemakers. This points to the reasons why there were no police forces before the 19th century. Power, and force, were vested in the community. There were strong social ties and no reliance on an organization commissioned by government. Matters were dealt with ‘in-house.’

Policing is often cited as necessary to prevent crime but, in spite of any good intentions, this has shown to be a bogus argument. That is because, as demonstrated, policing has never been about crime but about politics. Furthermore, policing highlights all the faults of unnecessary government intervention. It suffers from the ‘observer effect.’ Once the government dispatches paramilitary services to control crime and keep the peace on behalf of industrialists it in fact becomes a participant.

Now government essentially has one function … to promote unity amongst those to whom it has granted political power. That was never, before modern policing, understood as the government having a monopoly on force, but rather as a monopoly on the means to instil unity. In other words, a constant policing of those who the government depends on for power is not a crime-solving policy but rather a policy of imposing dominion over others. The problem is that those ‘others’ are meant to be a support base, not rebels to be quashed.

Sandra Bland’s case should be placed within the context of modern policing. Going back to the Peterloo massacre police services have always sought to avoid making martyrs but their coercive role sometimes surfaces and exposes the reality of policing. Her martyrdom reveals that there are deep fissures in US society. Use of security services, courts, and correctional institutes, to ‘solve’ crime has only benefitted the architecture of big government. It has allowed political questions to be dodged, the proles to be kept at arm’s length, the oligarchy to be expanded, all the while leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of many Americans.

Simply disbanding the police force would be chaotic but a gradual de-securitizing is eminently possible. That is not to say that the racial problems in the US, or problems anywhere else in the world where blanket policing occurs, will dissipate. But the problems will be put in their correct context which is a political one.

Currently, I am researching a book on Carl Schmitt. I have already authored one book Mysteries of State in the Renaissance. My Amazon page is here.

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