A People’s History of police in the United States

Posted by

By Christopher C.

Karl Marx said in The Communist Manifesto, “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” The origins of the police, in the United States and in all countries, is no exception. The police have a role to play in class struggle, just like any other institution. In the case of the United States, that role has to do with protecting the property of the minority capitalist class, a class that victimizes and exploits the rest of us.

It scarcely needs explanation as to why uncovering this role is necessary. The American police force has a bloody history of murder, robbery, and extortion. Video after video have been uncovered showing police brutalizing ordinary people, and the perpetrators have nearly always acted with complete impunity. To an ever-growing number of working class people, it is clear that the police are not on our side. It is clear that something must be done about it.

The task of standing up to the police can seem like an impossible one, but it is important to remember that the police force as we know it is a fairly recent invention-just over two hundred years old. This means that the police have not always existed. They exist for a specific purpose, and it is possible to create a society in which that purpose does not exist. Creating that society necessitates an understanding of why the police came to exist in the first place.

In the mid-1800s and on into the early 1900s, the police began their transition into a professional force that would evolve over time into the police force as we know it today. The police emerged as a way to protect the capitalist class from the working class crowds that had begun to organize collectively during the period of industrialization. The divisions and conflicts between this new class of workers and their bosses were becoming more and more distinct in this period. I will focus mostly on strike-breaking and crowd control, as that was the original role of the police.

The industrial revolution was a major turning point in the history of the United States. It had a tremendous influence on people’s day to day lives, from their living conditions to their relationships to the means of production. The rising capitalist class stood to make huge gains, chiefly monetary, but this would necessitate the creation of a massive new labor force. This, in turn, caused a huge influx of immigrants. In the 1880s alone, five and a half million immigrants entered the country. Most moved to the cities, working long hours for very low wages. Their working conditions were cramped and dangerous.

But because workers were crowded together in large cities and factories, they were able to meet these exploitative conditions with resistance. This could mean anything from rioting to organizing political meetings. The most organized and effective form of resistance was the labor strike. Between 1889 and 1915, it is estimated that 57,000 such strikes took place across the United States.

The police force, as a permanent and professional body able to coordinate quickly, was a response to these strikes. There was a very real fear on the part of bosses that wealth and means of production would be expropriated by so-called unruly mobs of workers.

In the North, between 1884 and 1894, the Buffalo police department was transformed by the city’s commercial and manufacturing elite. During this period of massive immigration to Buffalo and increasing labor unrest, the day-to-day operations of police work were taken over by capitalists. Both the Superintendent and Police Commissioner were occupied by members of this class. Under this new leadership, the Buffalo police force was molded into an incredibly coordinated paramilitary body. It quadrupled in size, while the population of the city proper had merely doubled. Regular patrols were established, divided along lines that tended to aggravate ethnic hostility. The police themselves were put through special schools of instruction that turned them into a unified force.

When asking the city council to fund this project, Buffalo’s Police Superintendent Emmanuel Phillips said, “experience during the labor troubles of the past summer convinces me that I cannot too strongly recommend…the necessity of introducing the control wagon system…as it enables us to concentrate a large swath of officers at any…point a few minutes after an alarm is given. As the aim of the department was to prevent a row from starting, the prompt appearance of a large force of officers had a desired effect” [6]. Increasingly, “preventing a row” meant using violence against workers in the protection of scabs. It is also worth remembering that industrialization had drastically altered the nature of work. It was now a good deal easier to replace workers with scabs.

The great railroad strike of 1877 was a 45-day strike that erupted in Buffalo and several other cities across the country. It was supported by one hundred thousand workers, which meant that federal troops were called to put it down. These troops killed an estimated one hundred people. The militia members were part-timers, many linked to the working class. Some militia members sided with the workers during the strike. This meant that controlling post-strike activity fell to local police departments. Now specialized, police were more distanced from the workers and were controlled directly by local businessmen. From the beginning, the police functioned as the armed wing of the business class.

After the events of 1877, anti-strike work was fully incorporated into urban policing. This was fully demonstrated in Buffalo during the longshoremen’s strike of 1884. The police demonstrated their full-scale anti-strike plan. They called in massive numbers of reserves, closely surveilled strike leaders, and maintained a large force near the strike area. This would become standard operating procedure throughout the decades. A version of this tactic is still in place today.

In addition to breaking up strikes, the police force was also charged with patrolling cities and making sure the working class was acting in accordance with the “industrial discipline” required by the bosses. Workers were forbidden, under threat of violence, from drinking, gambling, and staying out past curfew.

In the Midwest, where industrialization occurred rapidly, the birth process of the police was also accelerated.  As Sidney Herring points out in Policing and Class Society, “the Great Lakes-Ohio Valley region was the center of far more than its fair share of police innovation in the late 19th century. Civil Service laws were first extended to police in Milwaukee in 1884….” This innovation, among others quickly spread to the rest of the country as the ruling class saw how effectively they could suppress crowds.

Just like other cities, Milwaukee had grown rapidly in the late 19th century. It was the third most industrialized city, and tied with New York City for having the highest population of foreign-born citizens. Because of these factors, Milwaukee was among the most militant and class-conscious cities of the era. The workers there even had their own political party. This made the role of police in Milwaukee an overtly political issue, which had an impact on the ways in which they operated. That is, the organized working class faced an organized ruling class. A series of battles waged in the political-electoral arena resulted in a series of weak and ineffective police chiefs. The ruling class eventually found it necessary to hand over the reins to John Janson, who assumed office in 1888. He became the first professional police chief, and remained in office for thirty years.

Because of the Republican mayor’s plan to set the police outside of public control, Janson had near-total autonomy in his position. At one time, a socialist mayor demanded Janson’s resignation for the brutalization of female garment strikers in 1910. Janson’s response was “go to hell.” The police force was completely insulated, serving a specific set of class interests outside of what was even legally permitted at the time.

Janson transformed the police force into a highly professional body that perfectly matched the needs of the business elite. The strong Milwaukee working class was able to keep the police in check to some degree, but the capitalist class was not above using undemocratic means to bolster the power of their protectors. When the working class aldermen voted down a measure that allocated funds for a police mounted patrol, which were known for their ability to shut down strikes, the businessmen raised the money themselves.

A large group of organized socialists in Milwaukee put pressure on Janson and the police, helping to educate other workers about their role in society. One of the most important accomplishments of the socialists was the passing of a 1906 anti-scab resolution, in response to an ironworker’s strike. Despite the victory of the legislation, Janson and the police force continued to protect the scabs.

The Milwaukee socialists also championed a fundamentally different role for police. They envisioned a police force that would not attack workers, but rather come to their aid. They fought for the restructuring of the police as a public service institution that would clean streets, inspect factories, and deliver water. They even proposed changing the name to “safety men” and drastically reducing Janson’s salary. The police had played some of those roles prior to their professionalization, and desired a return to that period. Ultimately, the socialists were unable to muster the political power necessary to affect these changes, but the resistance they offered helped to shape the conversation. They showed that the police were not a naturally-occurring force that existed in response to societal problems such as crime. As Herring says, ”rather than being a value-free institution that somehow evolved naturally from common social problems, police departments took a form suitable to the bourgeois class….” The pressure of the socialists caused the ruling class to make important changes in the structure of the police force, but these changes served only to strengthen their stranglehold on the working class. The lesson is clear: a strong working class does not mean a weak capitalist class. In fact, a strong working class will inspire the capitalists to organize along tighter and tighter lines, adopting ever more painful strategies.

The history of the police in the South is inextricably related to anti-black racism. This was true in the North and elsewhere as well. Under capitalism, racism is always a part of how the police force functions. This manifested in a particularly virulent way in the South. It is entirely accurate to say that the police in this region as slave patrols. These patrols were mostly decentralized, volunteer-based groups in 1671. These groups eventually evolved into a permanent, paid, uniformed force that carried guns and bayonets. This had everything to do with the emerging needs of the white Southern elite, which were to control the population of black people who had moved to the cities.

To keep pace with the industrialization of the North, Southern slave owners sent slaves to urban cities to work in factories for wages. This began with the slaveowners arranging jobs for the slaves and taking all the wages. Soon, the owners found it more convenient to allow slaves to look for work themselves, make their own money, and give a portion of it back to the masters. This now meant that slaves, who had never been allowed much time unsupervised, were able to live outside of their masters’ homes, marry, and develop social connections with their coworkers.

A black suburb emerged outside of Charleston, South Carolina. This caused the South’s white population to fear insurrection. They increased the powers of the Charleston watch and instituted more regular patrols. This was now orchestrated by the city rather than individual plantation owners, as was the case with the early slave patrols. Just as in the North, this body of armed men was meant not to solve crimes, but to keep in check the collective threat the workers posed to the bosses.

The racist origins of the police force were still evident. They enforced curfew only for black workers in order to bring white workers to the side of the bosses, and monitored churches and market squares exclusively in black neighborhoods. It was thought that these places were used for plotting resistance. In 1822, the police did discover plans for an insurrection. They professionalized and militarized even further, borrowing some of the technological and tactical advances that had been made in other cities. The police in Charleston, as in the rest of the United States, began as and remain an essential part of the capitalist state.

There are many more examples that would point to the same central idea: the modern police force was born out of a class interest to control vast crowds of people who began to see their interests as common and their destinies as connected. The ruling class cannot survive this; they aim to squash even the barest hints of working class solidarity. The police are not workers. They developed and emerged in the crucible of struggle against the working class and in favor of the bosses. They were implemented as a tool of class rule and continue to serve that role in society. In order to win victory for the oppressed, workers must fight the police as a unified and disciplined force, just as the police have done to them for centuries.

In discussions of police brutality, the major media outlets typically frame the issue as a question of individual “bad apples,” a few dirty cops among the clean. The origins of the institution outlined above put the lie to this interpretation. There is a very real, systemic cause behind police brutality: class conflict. The police are an institution rooted in the capitalist state, so our analysis must begin there.

Mainstream opinion may at times concede that police have been guilty of serious errors, but it will invariably fall back on the notion that the error can be fixed with more training, better funding, or corruption probes, This points squarely in the direction of reform, rather than abolition and reconstitution. What the mainstream will not admit is that class and race are rooted in the structure of society. While individual acts of police violence are often the most visible markers, and often the most sensible targets, they are ultimately bound up with a far more systematic and conscious project engineered by those in power. Historically, class struggle has shaped the police force and been shaped by it.

Today, this role continues. The police play a crucial role in reproducing capitalism by disciplining and regimenting the working class. Within that broader project exists an explicit system targeting a racially-defined labor force. The two functions are inextricably linked to one another. The police are not only custodians of the legal order, but the social order as well. They enforce not only class exploitation, but racial oppression.

This has been true since their founding. The evolution of the police has reflected not so much concessions to opposing forces as a need to keep up with the constantly-changing configuration of capital. Police violence, for example, has always been the rule. It was only limited with the advent of less violent methods of social control, such as the concessionary welfare state implemented after the Second World War. The neoliberal order has stripped such concessions to the bone, meaning that police brutality has reemerged on a massive scale. The question now is how the police function in this new order.

The center of capitalism is the accumulation of profit. This can only be achieved through the exploitation of the laboring classes. Under capitalism, the primary laboring class is the working class or proletariat. Controlling this class, either by force or the fear of starvation, is a necessity. As long as capitalism has existed, this has been the primary purpose of the police.

But the neoliberal era has dramatically altered what the police look like and how they accomplish this task. Starting in the 1970s (the beginning of the neoliberal era) there was a response to a series of economic crises. Suburbanization in the United States lead to consumer expansion. Consumer goods such as televisions, cars, and the like drove the economy of the United States. The glutting of markets with these goods lead to a crisis of profitability. This, in turn, lead to a massive restructuring of the economy on the part of the capitalist class. They shifted away from a Keynesian economy based around state intervention to a free market economy without state intervention. This began to impact the ruling classes worldwide. The idea was that social services would be privatized. The state would only be used to “open up markets” through imperialism, control the workers through policing, or rescue the system from periodic crises.

One of the most important effects of neoliberalism was de-industrialization. Production was shifted to areas with low rates of unionization and lax labor laws. This was devastating to urban areas in the United States, especially in places with high concentrations of black laborers. In Detroit, the center of automotive manufacturing, one third of the population was living in poverty by the 1980s. By the end of the 1980s, six million African-Americans were living in Ghettos. The social consequences of this restructuring were devastating to the working class and the oppressed.

Concurrent with de-industrialization was the rise of Ronald Reagan, who further exacerbated the crisis. He introduced unprecedented cuts to social services, which lead to two million people facing homelessness by the end of his presidency. He cut job training programs, education, welfare benefits, and food programs. All these cuts had a disproportionate effect on black populations living in the cities.

Reagan launched a racist propaganda campaign to justify this program, invoking the myth of the welfare queen living off the system. He further criminalized being poor and black in the United States, shifting the blame onto individuals rather than the system as a whole. Neoliberal ideology, spearheaded by Reagan and his Chicago boys, (a group of economists from the University of Chicago) attempted to analyze the beach by looking at a single grain of sand.

Part of this individualist ideology was the “broken windows theory” of policing, coined by George Kelling and James Wilson  for The Atlantic in 1982. This became the standard of policing around the country. The central premise of the theory is that social disorder causes crime, so preventing crime must mean regaining control of the community. Broken windows policing argued that smaller crimes (such as breaking windows) will lead to larger, more violent crimes, and thus more social disorder. The logic implies that a community with broken windows is indicative of a community that requires police intervention.

It is important to note the racist origins of this theory. The phrase “broken windows”  is derived from Edward Banfield, an academic at the University of Chicago. He has made a career out of proposing solutions to the above-mentioned urban crisis. He felt that the state made inequality worse. The individual, in his view, was responsible for their economic circumstances. The urban poor, he rationalized, lacked ambition. “Lower-class culture,” he wrote, “is pathological.” He was in favor of the urban poor drooping out of school at ninth grade and going into work at low-wage jobs. This was all Banfield felt they were equipped to do.  The state’s role, he argued, should be limited to “intensive birth control guidance” for the urban poor. Broken windows theory stemmed directly from this view. Urban poor neighborhoods were to be patrolled and occupied, since their populations were inherently prone to crime.

William Bratton, who served two terms as the New York City Police Commissioner, was the first to implement broken windows theory on a large scale. He worked closely with Kelling, who coined the term, and decided that it was a necessity in urban areas. Bratton was hired by Rudy Giuliani, who was himself introduced to the theory by the Manhattan Institute, a neoconservative think tank. Together, he and Bratton launched what they called “zero-tolerance policing,” explicitly an attempt to regain control over the city’s economy. They launched a racist social campaign against the city’s working class and homeless populations. Ironically, this campaign was dubbed the “quality of life initiative.” Under this campaign, the police focused primarily on catching graffiti artists, litterbugs, and those who made too much noise. It was assumed that these behaviors would serve as gateways to more extreme crimes. This bares a striking resemblance to the laws against drinking and gambling described above.

Zero-tolerance policies, it is important to say, were far more brutal. In the 1990s, homeless people established modern-day Hoovervilles under bridges in the city. The police were tasked with destroying these settlements, as well as collecting and intimidating truants. Police repression occurred at every level, primarily targeting workers who needed to survive by unorthodox means, such as sleeping rough.

Under neoliberalism, cities were transformed into sites for the accumulation of profit. New investments were injected into these areas. At the moment, cities produce about seventy percent of the consumer goods that are currently on the market. In order to extract these profits, driven by the financial sector, the police step in to repress the working class and open up spaces for investment. Gentrification is a particularly striking example of this, leading to the proliferation of business districts that provide services for professionals and consumers rather than workers.

Workers and the homeless tend to gather in public places, which leaves little space for business and consumer spaces. This is why the police have been so concerned with criminalizing, segregating, and hiding the poor. Profits from luxury consumption pivot on this social cleansing. Law and policing have figured decisively in the success of this project.

So-called “order maintenance strategies” like broken windows policing, quality of life campaigns, and zero tolerance policies cannot be seen as separate from the economic order of neoliberal capitalism. In conditions of urban polarization, and poverty, policing is a necessity so that cities can be transformed into playgrounds for capitalists. It is obvious that the police under neoliberalism function much the same as they did in the beginning of capitalism. The working class must be disciplined, driven into the margins, and oppressed. Police paint themselves as peacekeepers, but nothing could be further from the truth. The police exist to maintain a fundamentally violent and inegalitarian order. If we oppose such an order-and we ought to-then we must also oppose the police.

Christopher C is a Marxist-Leninist activist and writer.




  1. Harring, Sidney L. Policing a class society: The experience of American cities, 1865-1915. Rutgers Univ Pr, 1983.
  2. Williams, Kristian. Our enemies in blue: Police and power in America. AK Press, 2015.
  3. Alpert, Geoffrey P., and Roger G. Dunham. Policing Urban America. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1997.
  4. Morn, Frank. ” The eye that never sleeps”: a history of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Indiana Univ Pr, 1982.
  5. Kaplan-Lyman, Jeremy. “A Punitive Bind: Policing, Poverty, and Neoliberalism in New York City.” Yale Hum. Rts. & Dev. LEJ 15 (2012): 177.
  6. Harvey, David. A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University Press, USA, 2007.
  7. Steger, Manfred B., and Ravi K. Roy. Neoliberalism: A very short introduction. Vol. 222. Oxford University Press, 2010.
  8. Tigar, Michael. Law and the Rise of Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.
  9. Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. Vintage, 1966
  10. Farrell, Audrey. Crime, Class and Corruption. Bookmarks, 1995.
  11. Gilje, Paul A. The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763-1834. The University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
  12. Steinberg, Allen. The Transformation of Criminal Justice: Philadelphia, 1800-1880. 1st edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
  13. Wade, Richard C. Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820–1860. Oxford University Press, 1964.
  14. Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. Schooling In Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. Reprint. Haymarket Books, 2011.
  15. Bacon, Selden Daskam. The Early Development of American Municipal Police: A Study of the Evolution of Formal Controls in a Changing Society. Two volumes. University Microfilms, 1939.
  16. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The communist manifesto. Penguin, 2002.
  17. Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich, and Todd Chretien. State and revolution. Haymarket Books, 2015.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s