The end of the idea of police as peace-keepers

Whether or not policing is abolished, as has been seriously proposed, a cherished concept of policing has probably taken a mortal hit.

The weeks since the nine minutes of a cop’s knee on George Floyd’s neck have made it much harder for anyone to seriously entertain the idea of policing as neutral peace-keeping. That’s the view of policing held by most white and financially comfortable people. Black and poor people, not so much.

With the spotlight as never before focussed on police racism and violence, some pretty radical reforms have been suggested and taken seriously. But beyond outlawing chokeholds for starters, or defunding, is .abolishing police altogether. In the world of cancel culture and tearing down monuments that’s one of the boldest proposals of all.

So far I haven’t seen any accounts of what exactly that would mean, how it would be possible to have a society without police. Aren’t police as basic a part of life and society as roads, or food, as government itself.? Isn’t maintaining law and order fundamental to any notion of a good society? Abolishing sounds like an anarchist fantasy.

It’s a shocking, and frightening idea—at least to those of us who have lived comfortably enough with policing. We don’t like it of course when we get a traffic ticket, and it’s upsetting to hear about police corruption in cities, but basically we are grateful for policing. In fact cop shows are some of our favorite TV, and on those shows we love it when a cop gets rough with a punk we know to be guilty. Who hasn’t gotten off on Dirty Harry style of policing? Perhaps not black people?

If it’s not clear what a society without policing might look like, what has become clear and widely publicized is the logic of abolishing: that policing as we know it is a product of an inherently unequal society in which the greatest inequality is found in racist legacy of slavery.

What has become clear to many is that policing is not neutral but rather is done in behalf of some against others. The concept of police as neutral peace-keepers is naïve, contradictory, and self-serving.

Think about it: if you were going to establish society that systematically produces haves and have-nots (of any color), one that in its earlier stages included slavery in its business model, one of the first things you’d need would be police to maintain stability in what would be an inherently unstable situation. To protect the haves from the have-nots. And indeed in news stories about the origins of modern policing (it’s always instructive to find out that what to us has always been didn’t always exist) we learn that one of the earliest forms of organized policing in the U.S. was slave patrols needed to catch runaway slaves. (If profiling is frowned upon now, it was the whole point then.)

And of course slave patrols were indeed, from the point of view of the slave-owners and the society based on slavery, in the peace-keeping business in that they were enforcing a legal slave system and making sure that the misery of millions of slaves didn’t upset the applecart.

.Police work looks to me like a very hard and scary job, often done in unfriendly streets at night. Ive always been glad to have someone else doing it. But what’s being questioned is whether it’s a job that anyone should have to do, or be doing. The hardness of the job is related to the dubious nature of it: frontline of the struggle between haves and have-nots in an inherently , systematically unequal society.

So here’s our post-George Floyd situation: knowing what we now know (or can know, ought to know) about the real role of the police, how can we not abolish policing as we know it as inherently contradictory and problematic? And yet we can’t imagine a world without it.

Is anything radically different from current policing consistent with a society and economy system society producing inherently unstable, systematic inequality? A true revolution in policing could only come with a currently unimaginable revolution in our inequality.

Footnote: “haves and have-nots” is pretty vague. It would be interesting to know what percent of our citizens are more afraid of than comforted by the police.

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