On June 6, one of us attended a memorial vigil for George Floyd. The opening speaker first thanked the local Police Department for keeping the vigil safe and then went on to distinguish between the majority of police officers who do their job helping and protecting people and the few who are racist and violent.
His remarks echoed those made by Barack Obama on May 29, in his public statement on the killing of Mr. Floyd, when he wrote of “the majority of men and women in law enforcement who take pride in doing their tough job the right way, every day.”
We think that making this distinction is a mistake. It is a mistake not because it underestimates the number of police officers who are racist and violent, but because the problem of racist policing is not one of individual actors. It is a mistake because the role of the police in society must be understood, not individually but structurally.
Like an organ in a human body, a Police Department is part of a structural whole. It functions to perform a certain task in the body politic; it is an organ in that body. Seen this way, each police officer is then like a cell in that organ. Before we can identify any problem in that organ, we must first understand the job that organ performs.
In the case of the police, the answer might seem obvious. Their function is to protect the citizenry from crime. At least that’s what we’re told. But as any good student of biology or politics knows, it won’t help to ask what an organ is said to do. It is better to observe what it actually does.
To merely accept the claim that police forces, since their inception, have protected law-abiding citizens from crime involves the neglect of several crucial factors. It neglects the long history of police abuse and the specific intentional abuse of people of color; it neglects the role that the police have played in breaking strikes, in silencing dissent and in keeping the social order safe from resistance or change. It also neglects the early history of policing in the United States that took the form of slave patrols in the 1700s and the enforcement of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In his influential work on prisons, the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault pointed out the following: We say that the prisons fail at their task, yet we keep them going. Perhaps we should be asking not why the prison fails but instead what it actually succeeds at.
That is the question we should be asking of the police. Not why do they regularly fail to perform their duties correctly and thus need reform, but rather, what duties are they succeeding at?
Once we ask that question, the answer is entirely clear. They succeed in keeping people in their place. They succeed in keeping middle-class and especially upper-class white people safe, so long as they don’t get out of line. They succeed in keeping people of color in their place so that they don’t challenge the social order that privileges middle- and upper-class white people. And, as we have recently witnessed in many violent police responses at protests, they succeed in suppressing those who would question the social order. [Continue reading…]