Introduction There is currently a country-wide uprising in reaction to police violence against African Americans and other oppressed peoples. The demand being made by the millions of people who are participating in this uprising is, at its root, a moral/ethical demand. The people who are making this demand are responding to an element of the social system under which we live which is based in immorality. There are two issues of principle driving this moral outcry: (1) The foundation stones for the current immoral use of institutional violence against oppressed people in this country is, first of all, the systematic genocide committed against Native Americans by the invading Europeans, and secondly the kidnapping of millions of Africans and the development of the slave system. The progenitors of modern-day policing, today’s policing in the USA, that is, organized institutional violence, are genocide and slavery. Starting from the premise that organized institutional violence against the people of this country is systemic, that is, basic to the identity of this country, it is the thesis of this paper that abolishing policing is a revolutionary demand, which, by definition can only be achieved through a change of social systems.
Historical Background Chattel slavery was a form of war, and a system of organized violence/policing developed by the European colonizers of North America against dozens of nations and peoples mainly from the west coast of Africa. The purpose of prosecuting war against these nations and peoples, and of policing them, was to make money. The logic used to justify this perpetration was that these Africans were criminals because they were not “civilized” (BBC, 2014).
When the United States was formed, the most important defining characteristic of the new government was what it inherited from the old government — the system of chattel slavery. This system’s use of organized violence formed the basis for policing in the new government. Indeed, the majority of people under police supervision in the US for uncivilized behavior were these kidnapped Africans (Kappeler, 2014). In this regard, these people (enslaved Africans) represented the baseline for the policing of anti-social behavior and the example for everyone else (Gilmore, 2020). There are two moral principles which the chattel slavery system defied: (1) Humans should not be kidnapped and enslaved. (2) When humans are enslaved, it is our responsibility as enslaved peoples to fight to create a new social system that does not include slavery and the organized institutional violence necessary to prosecute the slave system.
From Chattel Slavery to Jim Crow The revolution to overthrow the system of chattel slavery, called the Civil War, was replaced by a new form of slavery known as Jim Crow. The Jim Crow system codified slavery as the principal way of policing in the US (Blackmon, 2009). This codification came in the form of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution which had it that slavery was illegal except for the condition that a person was a criminal (Blakemore, 2020). On the basis of this Amendment, all Americans of African heritage were determined to be criminals or potential criminals (Blackmon, 2009). This new system remained the model for policing in the US, by virtue, again, of the mass character of the system — the largest group of people under police supervision were Americans of African descent — people who had been kidnapped.
According to Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D., Associate Dean and Foundation Professor of the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, “The institution of slavery and the control of minorities… were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing” (2017). The only difference I have with Professor Kappeler’s presentation is his use of the white supremacist term “minority” to name enslaved Africans. Indeed, since enslaved Africans made up more than half the population of many Southern states, Kappeler is not referring to the quantity of Africans, he is using the term in the way the dominant culture in this country uses it today- to establish that Americans of African heritage and People o Color generally are minor, of less value, a lower quality of humans, than White Americans. This perspective undergirds the white supremacist ethic which says that it is OK to shoot unarmed Black men in the head while they walk down the street. It violates the moral principle that all humans have equal value.
Kappeler goes on to explain that Slave Patrols and Night Watches under the chattel slave system became modern police departments. Each was designed to control the behaviors of People Color. “New England settlers appointed Indian Constables to police Native Americans, the St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans in that frontier city, and many southern police departments began as slave patrols” (2017).
The Morality of Today’s Uprising I have participated in three rallies against police violence in the last two months. At my first the most oft heard outcry was “prosecute these police.” Two weeks later a more far-reaching demand was the most prominent: “Defund the police and give some of the PD tax money to social programs.” The third rally, two weeks ago featured the demand of this paper: “Abolish the police.”
In an article written or the New York Times, entitled, “Yes, We mean Literally Abolish the Police, because Reforms wont Happen,” activist Mariame Kaba anticipates the thesis of this paper with this argument: “There is not a single era in United States history in which the police were not a force of violence against black people. Policing in the South emerged from the slave patrols in the 1700 and 1800s that caught and returned runaway slaves. In the North, the first municipal police departments in the mid-1800s helped quash labor strikes and riots against the rich. Everywhere, they have suppressed marginalized populations to protect the status quo” (2020).
Malidoma Some, a medicine man of an indigenous people from West Africa, a matriarchal society (woman-led), came to the United States and experienced white supremacist society for the first time. This was his observation about police, a force which does not exist in his community back home:
“A true community does not need a police force. (2017). The very presence of a law enforcement system in a community is an indication that something is not working. And the presence of the police is supposed to make it work. A community is a place where there is consensus, not where there is a crooked-looking onlooker with a gun, creating an atmosphere of unrest.”
The mass incarceration system (Alexander, 2012) is the latest iteration of slavery in the US. The United States imprisons more people than any other country in the history of the world (The Sentencing Project, 2019). In these, now, privatized corporate-owned prisons, the inmates, the vast majority Black and Brown, labor to make products for the market. They do not get paid. This is called slavery. The police are the front line of the mass incarceration system.
We, the people of our communities, can easily take the billions of dollars devoted to this violent institution and find ways to address crime without the police.
The Counter Arguments of the Slavers and their Descendants The white supremacist slavers who founded this country argued firstly, that the indigenous population that inhabited this land before they came were sub human and needed to be exterminated, and secondly that Africans were sub human and that they were only good for slaving for White Americans (BBC, 2014).
The current ruling group relies on the organized systematic violence of the police departments and other white supremacist groups. In response to criticism of Neo-Nazi’s in South Carolina who rioted in Charlottesville and murdered a protester, Trump concluded that they are some fine people (Gray, 2017).
In numerous recent court cases which involve attempts to prosecute police or white supremacists for hate crimes, defense attorneys are routinely arguing that “their president told them to do it” (Tracy, 2020).
Conclusion First term Congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, is a revolutionary, and she echoes the thesis of this paper when she said “… I lost my own father to the Corona virus. I see the pain and havoc it is wreaking on Black communities in Minneapolis. We must recognize that these systems of oppression [like the white supremacist ‘health care’ system] are linked. As long as our economy and political systems prioritize profits, without considering who is profiting and who is being shut out, we will be perpetuating this inequality. So, we cannot stop at the ‘criminal justice system’. We must begin the work of dismantling the whole system of oppression wherever we find it” (2020).
Indeed, the current calls for the abolition of policing in the United States are calls for revolution. They are calls for a new social system. The people making these calls, all over the country, by the hundreds of thousands, are aware that such a demand is as far as one can go under the current white supremacist-capitalist system. You cannot abolish the protectors of capital under capitalism.
So it is with the system of policing. We cannot abolish the main instrument for the protection of capital under capitalism. We must have a new social system created by we the people.
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