A Quick Look at Police, Property, and Privilege
This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
by Rayyan Chami
The police exist to protect property in a society where there are people so poor that they question the right of some people to “own” things that everyone needs to survive, i.e. the “ownership” of land, industry, transportation, etc. from which is derived the power to exploit others and profit from their labor. To examine the role police play in modern society, one must understand the economic motives fundamental to their existence. And, as the police are a tool of the State, it is necessary to examine the relationship of government to property. Essential to a complete understanding of policing is the impact of deeply entrenched and institutionalized racism, which manifests in the systemic violence police inflict on Black Americans.
Government and wealth have always been close allies. Our government is the creation of wealthy landowners and businessmen. Most of the fifty-five men who wrote the Constitution were lawyers, most had wealth from manufacturing, moneylending, exploiting enslaved labor, land, or shipping. George Washington was the wealthiest landowner in the country. James Madison owned extensive plantations, as did Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin had a fortune of $11 billion in today’s dollars. Historian Charles Beard, in his book, An Economic Analysis of the Constitution of the United States, observes that four groups were not represented at the Constitutional Convention: men without property, indentured servants, women, and slaves. For a long time participation in government was severely restricted to white males, not in servitude, who owned a sufficient amount of property. The “founding fathers” were aware of class inequalities, and it was clear which side they were on. According to third president James Madison, the main author of the Constitution, the purpose of government is “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”. He remarked that if elections “were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure,” fearing the popular sentiment to divide use of the land among all the people. John Jay, the first Supreme Court justice of the United States, declared, “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” Indeed, the raison d’être of a strong, centralized government, is, as articulated by Madison, to suppress the conflict inherent in an unequal society, which he states stems from “the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” It is important to note that property “ownership” is not a natural right, but simply a person’s claim to control a piece of land, which obviously nobody created and everyone needs for sustenance, the claim to the land resulting from either violent conquest, inheritance from a past conqueror, or money paid to the conqueror or his heirs.
Madison put much effort into entrenching and stabilizing inequality, developing an idea akin to modern-day gerrymandering: establish “an extensive republic”, so that the poor majority will be divided throughout the territory and unable to collectively organize a majority faction, “… it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other… The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread… through the other States. A rage…for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union…” The founders did not believe the problem was inequality, but how to maintain inequality and their privilege. Government and law are the perpetuation of domination and control of rich over poor, cementing unequal property relations, and punishing acts of desperation and survival caused by want of resources. Government and law are not concerned with poverty or inequality, except as to protect the privileged classes from its negative effects. A clear example is the harsh criminal code that was developed in seventeenth-century England to control the vast numbers of dispossessed people flooding through towns after their lands were seized for capitalist profit-making. These people lived in constant fear of punishment for the crime of being homeless, “vagrancy” laws, laws that called for death to those who stole as little as thirteen pence. The law was used to control an abused and rebellious population and to make them into a new workforce for capitalist enterprises, to put these formerly self-sufficient people to work for others. As explained by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in The Many-Headed Hydra, this “culture of fear” was “indispensable to the creation of labor-power as a commodity.” Prisons became sources of free labor, indeed labor eventually became the punishment itself. The only way to avoid criminal prosecution in the first place was to become a worker. This “culture of fear” and inability to live self-sufficiently is the basis of present-day capitalism as well. To quote Adam Smith, “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of rich against poor, or, of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” Now, over time, those in power must make concessions to the poor to prevent revolution, like the 8-hour workday, Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the civil rights laws of the 1950s and ’60s – the concessions achieved through popular resistance movements, such as strikes, that pressure politicians from outside the electoral system. Therefore, today’s government is an amalgam of institutions and laws, which include protections for the poor and for the environment – all grudgingly legalized to quell the peoples’ anger – but its protection of dominating interests over the rest of the population remains its most essential component. Having revealed the origins of government in the maintenance of property, the function of the police is quite clear, being the enforcers of the law, and the status quo.
The modern-day police force emerged from the industrial revolution and its creation of a class of impoverished, dispossessed people forced to toil for others in factories or on land they didn’t own, in exchange for money. These people, former artisans and farmers, forced out of business by large-scale enterprise, referred to this new condition as “wage slavery”. The poorer the people, the more willing they were to work for less, but also, the angrier they were at the lack of freedom resulting from the control of a few individuals over things necessary to everyone’s survival. This new dispossessed class of people, crowded into cities, was a danger to the privileged position and power of the wealthy owners. These wealthy elites, who dominated government at the local, state, and national level, realized the necessity of a group to manage, with force, the poor classes of people in order to maintain the oppressive conditions and continue exploitation, and they developed a professional class of “law enforcement officers” to do just that. As we have seen, the law protects the interests of rich over poor. The police are the violent force necessary to continuously maintain this artificial and oppressive order. This economic situation is called capitalism, where individuals are permitted to possess, and therefore keep others from using, “the means of livelihood of all”, as socialist activist Hellen Keller stated. Without the threat of violence, people would never allow others to exercise sole control over resources. The fundamental problem is private ownership of the means of goods production, which enables the few who are the owners to exploit the rest of the people. This is all sanctioned, advocated, and maintained by the government, the police, and, by consenting to it, every citizen.
Black Americans, historically the poorest and most oppressed group as a result of slavery and racial discrimination, have the perspective to see the system’s oppression more clearly. Black Americans originally came into conflict with a precursor to the police force, the slave patrols. Oppression in black communities continued after emancipation to this day, a result of racism and the threat posed to the “owner class” by an impoverished and collectively abused people. When slavery was made illegal, racist beliefs about the inferiority of Africans encouraged cruel treatment by police, trying to keep the newly freed slaves “in their place”. White society had developed derogatory prejudices about people of African origin from the idea of African society as lesser than European society and their development of a system of human property based on race, centered around people of African origin as enslaved labor. These stereotypes persist to the present day, manifesting in theories like the completely discredited claim that blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites or the idea of blacks as “lazy”. The idea of black “laziness” is particularly shameful, as it originated in times of slavery, when black slaves would resist exploitation by refusing to work, often against the threat of violence. White slave-owners could not fathom the idea of blacks resisting unjust treatment, and developed the idea that people of African origin were inherently “lazy”, further degrading them and dismissing their acts of resistance. This idea was so pervasive that an eminent psychologist of the 1800s, Samuel A. Cartwright, published research attributing the resistance of slaves to following orders as a mental illness, which he dubbed, “dysaesthesia aethiopica”. Cartwright’s other contribution to psychology included diagnosing “drapetomania”, the mental illness that caused slaves to run away. These ideas have never disappeared from American society, and are a fundamental cause of police brutality against Black Americans.
Intense policing of black communities, racially and economically motivated, has served to perpetuate intense poverty, therefore inducing acts of illegal desperation, used to justify further policing. Black Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites, making up 34% of the United States prison population in 2014, although blacks are only 13.4% of the population in the United States. According to the NAACP, “A criminal record can reduce the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent. The impact of a criminal record is twice as large for African Americans.” A quote from black author Richard Wright’s The Ethics of Jim Crow sums up the situation, “A friend of mine who ran an elevator once told me: ‘Ef it wuzn’t fer them police ‘n’ them ol’ lynch mobs, there wouldn’t be nothin’ but uproar down here!’”
- Beard, Charles. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.
New York: Macmillan, 1935.
- Chomsky, Noam. Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and the Global Order.
New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999.
- Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations. 1776.
- Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States.
New York: HarperCollins, 2015.
- US Census Bureau (census.gov)
- NAACP (naacp.org)
- Levine, Bruce E. Resisting Illegitimate Authority.
California: AK Press, 2018.
- Kappeler, Victor E. A Brief History of Slavery and American Policing.