Who Do the Police Protect and Serve?

To Protect and ServeThe generic slogan of American police forces is, “To protect and serve.” It has long been a slogan that has annoyed me. And I’m not alone. Most liberals bristle at it. In particular, it is never clear just who it is that our police officers serve. When an officer shows up on the scene, he is less likely to help out than an average person. His presence usually fills those involved with a feeling that the officer will find some reason to start arresting people.

For example, suppose a fight breaks out at a party. The police are called. They will arrive long after the fight is over. Those involved in the fight will likely have left. But the officers might notice that illegal drugs are being used at the party. So the people at the party aren’t being protected. The people at the party aren’t being served. Liberals like me have always thought the slogan was nothing more than a sick joke. My friend Jim Hogshire always says, “I can’t imagine a situation in which I would feel safer with a cop around.” When I first heard him say that, I thought he was being hyperbolic. But over the years I’ve come to agree with him completely.

Last week I read a great article by Sam Mitriani at Alternet that greatly clarified my thinking, The True History of the Origins of Police — Protecting and Serving the Masters of Society. The mistake that we liberals make is to assume that the police slogan applies to us. But it doesn’t. The police are committed to protecting and serving the power elite. If they do from time to time manage to protect and serve us plebeians, it is just because the interests of the power elite temporarily overlap with ours. There is nothing more to that.

As Mitriani explained, in the 18th century, there were “elected constables and sheriffs” who were directly responsible to the people. (In the south, ever the shining light of modernity, they had slave patrols.) It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the modern police force came into being. And it certainly wasn’t for the purpose of protecting the masses from marauding gangs intent on raping and pillaging. No, it was to keep the working classes in their place — namely working 12 hours per day, seven days per week for slave wages. The American Dream!

Class conflict roiled late-19th century American cities like Chicago, which experienced major strikes and riots in 1867, 1877, 1886 and 1894. In each of these upheavals, the police attacked strikers with extreme violence. In the aftermath of these movements, the police increasingly presented themselves as a thin blue line protecting civilization, by which they meant bourgeois civilization, from the disorder of the working class. This ideology has been reproduced ever since — except that today, poor black and Latino people rather than immigrant workers are the main threat.

The thing in the article that most struck me, however, was the way that the law was applied. The idea of police neutrally was always a shame:

Throughout the 19th century in the North, the police mostly arrested people for the vaguely defined “crimes” of disorderly conduct and vagrancy, which meant that they could target anyone they saw as a threat to “order.” In the post-bellum South, they enforced white supremacy and largely arrested black people on trumped-up charges in order to feed them into convict labor systems.

But that wouldn’t happen today, right? Right?! Of course it would. One of the shocking things that I’ve learned over the years is that the police don’t have a very good idea of what the law actually is. They have this feeling that if they don’t like what you are doing, it must be against the law. And the truth is that local, state, and federal legislatures have really helped them out in this regard. Basically, anything that an officer claims is illegal is illegal.

This is the ultimate authoritarian cudgel: have a lot of laws on the books that are never used — except when you threaten the power elite or their representatives. And this is why I get really angry when people talk about how unions are violent and how they have ties to organized crime. The police have always been the ultimate weapon of the power elite to stop workers from unionizing. And they were very violent — involved in, among other things, the assassination of labor leaders. Yet in the modern imagination, it was the the unions and their representatives who were violent. Somehow workers are just violent by nature and all the good business owners are are lambs who want nothing but a peaceful and equitable settlement.

From the murder of Anna LoPizzo to the Columbine Mine massacre to the murder of Eric Garner — the police have always been around to protect and serve the interests of the power elite. That’s why the phrase “to protect and serve” has no object. Americans wouldn’t be too keen to know who and what the police are paid to protect and serve.

This entry was posted in Politics by Frank Moraes. Bookmark the permalink.

About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

Leave a Reply