Some years ago, I was on the street outside of one of the drop ins used by poor and homeless people in Toronto’s Downtown East. It was a pleasant summer day and, there being no need to stay indoors, many of those using the facility were eating their food outside. Suddenly, a tow truck went by, pulling along a police car that had been in a collision. Dozens of people immediately started clapping and cheering at this sight. Let me connect that incident to a private and impromptu conversation I had with a judge at around the same time who candidly told me that, ‘the justice system is class based and the police are its gatekeepers.’ From the incident outside the drop in I have just described, you might conclude that those homeless people and the judge shared the same view of things, though I suspect the homeless understood it better than he did. The spontaneous celebration I witnessed on the street that day reflected a deeply ingrained and harshly reinforced understanding that the police are the natural enemy of poor and working class people, particularly those who experience the racial oppression that is fundamental to this society.
The murderous and racist brutality of the police in Minneapolis, manifested in the killing of George Floyd, has now ignited a social explosion across the US. This uprising, moreover, takes place at a time of broader upheaval, as the global pandemic unleashes an economic downturn of historic proportions. The period ahead, will be marked by mass unemployment, rising poverty, increased homelessness, widespread hunger, intensified racism and a political agenda of austerity and social cutbacks. The communities impacted by these factors and those who take the route of social mobilization and organized resistance in the face of the crisis, can expect an increased use of the police to maintain the particular and selective brand of ‘public order’ they are in the business of imposing.
Given all this, I want here to try and set out a basic explanation of just what the police, as an institution, represent in this society. Since I want this to be helpful to people just beginning to participate in social struggles, I shall try and present things as clearly as possible, with a selection of my own dealings and experiences with the police over the years. A major part of these dealings took place during the nearly three decades that I spent as an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).
In England, the smooth running social order in which the landed aristocracy could exploit and oppress the peasants, was referred to as ‘the king’s peace.’ During the period, from the late 1400s to the very early 1600s, that the Tudor monarchs sat on the throne, the powers of the state were centralized and used to control a population of people who had been thrown off their land. This was done to open up capitalist forms of agriculture and to compel the peasants to become waged workers in the modern sense. This was a question of the state ‘keeping the peace’ in order to facilitate the creation of a new social and economic system and to keep a lid on the unrest that this massive social dislocation involved. Chapter 28 of the first volume of ‘Capital,’ by Karl Marx, sets this out in more detail.
As the Industrial Revolution got underway, in the 19th Century, and a developing factory system increased the need to control a growing and restive urban working class population, the authorities looked for a more vigorous and effective method of maintaining public order. This intensified need to keep exploited and oppressed communities in line led to the formation of police forces. In 1829, the London Metropolitan Police were formed and a body came into being that could amass significant repressive strength when necessary but that also had the ability to ‘patrol and control’ working class communities on an ongoing basis. This was an enormous advance for the the capacity of the state to impose its will and dictates. Acts of frustration or survival that poor working class people might engage in could be responded to much more immediately but, just as importantly, entire communities would now know that the enforcers of state power were never far away. It is worth noting that a rudimentary police force came into being in Toronto just five years later, in 1834. In the Canadian context, apart from this form of urban police initiative to control working class populations, a particularly sharp contribution to the racist nature of policing is to be found in the RCMP. Its forerunner, the North West Mounted Police, was formed to advance the dispossession of the Indigenous people living on the western plains and, as a colonial police force, it was modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).
The Police and their Peace
It would be entirely accurate to say that the role of the police in this society is fundamentally about warding off threats to the property relations that capitalism rests on. That means protecting physical property but also defending the exploitative forms of activity that this property is put to and (getting back to the concept of the peace) it requires the preservation of an orderly society. That last concept has to be understood as orderly in the way a society based on injustice views the term. Hence, a person without food has no claim to the protection of the police but the owner of a supermarket full of overpriced groceries can count on them to arrest the hungry person who steals food. Workers whose jobs are dangerous and underpaid have no right to police protection but, if they go on strike, their employer can call on the police to escort strikebreakers across their picket line. The system of law and order the cops enforce is that of an exploitative ruling class.
The police are summoned to constrain and suppress, if necessary, movements of protest and social resistance, as is happening in the US at this moment. There are also a whole range of particular and specialized activities some of them engage in. The basic day to day function of most police officers, however, is to patrol communities. In affluent neighbourhoods, they keep an eye out for threats to safety and well being. In poor and racialized communities (where they focus their efforts) they act very differently. In these places, they assert the very kind of social control function that the 19th Century founders of modern policing had in mind. In the neoliberal city that has emerged over recent decades, moreover, the geographical space between rich and poor has diminished. Communities are in the process of gentrification and, in those situations, the police function as the shock troops of redevelopment, assisting the incoming wealthy residents and businesses to contain and drive out the poor.
How directly the police discharge this function can’t be overstated. In the Downtown East of Toronto that I organized in for decades, the affluent homeowners and business interests know they can rely on the police and the latter develop strategies and tactics to meet the needs of those they really ‘serve and protect.’ I was cycling past a public park some years ago and saw a cop giving a ticket to a man sitting on the grass with a couple of bags beside him. The cop was on a motorcycle and left just as I was approaching. I discovered that he had just given a ticket to an elderly homeless man for ‘camping in a park without a permit.’ Now, this man was fully dressed and resting his head on one his unopened bags. He obviously wasn’t camping but the cop had simply selected this offence and applied it to him because, as he told him, ‘the businesses across the street don’t want you here.’
Hundreds of thousands of such incidents take place in major cities every day. At a protest we once organized to challenge a restaurant owner who was trying to get a nearby homeless shelter closed, a senior police officer told me that he felt his most important role wasto keep the core area of the city free of ‘vagrants’ in order to preserve a good climate for local businesses. Now, that isn’t written down anywhere and, in fact, the notion that the police should try and interfere with the legal rights of those who are poor so as to uphold the economic interests of the rich is actually at odds with the officially mandated duties of the police. However, that is exactly how they work in reality.
A homeless man I know got roughed up and arrested because he yelled out at a couple of passing cops that they were part of the ‘rich man’s army.’ He was right and they knew it as well as he did. In 2000, as I spent a night in the cells in the 52 Division of the Toronto Police, arrested on a charge related to a protest, I got a fascinating demonstration of the ‘class based’ nature of policing, as the above mentioned judge described it. During the night, a man was brought in swearing and struggling and was put in one of the cells. He continued to shout his head off so the cops came back to deal with him. They were unbelievably polite and even deferential. From their ongoing conversation with him, I discovered that he was a retired school principal who had gone to a restaurant where he he managed to get very drunk. He started beating up his wife and, when staff tried to intervene, positioned himself behind a table and hurled plates and cutlery and anyone who approached. When the police arrived, he punched one of them in the face. Brought to the station, he was placed in an individual cell because the police didn’t want to put such a respectable gentleman in the drunk tank. He was not charged with any criminal offence but only given a minor ticket and released to his wife’s care as soon as he had had a little nap and come to his senses. The class instincts of the system of policing worked to ensure that someone who wasn’t supposed to be in its net was swiftly set free.
Myth and Reality.
The things I have just described are not supposed to happen and any police spokesperson would deny that any such events took place. However, it would be wrong, in my view, to conclude that that explanation lies in 'police wrongdoing,' in the sense of the conduct I have described being a distortion of how things are supposed to work. The capitalist state and its institutions need a fair measure of legitimacy and cops can’t patrol the streets in cars that have, ‘To Serve and Protect Bourgeois Property’ written on them. That’s exactly what they do but, in order to do it effectively, the legislature, the courts, the media and others have to look the other way so as to afford the police enormous latitude. The police feel their have a right to total impunity but what they get is easily close enough for the system to work.
In this climate, though there are periodic scandals and crises when they are too crude and obvious, the police can indeed function as the ‘rich man’s army,’ oppressing and intimidating poor and racialized communities day in and day out, while being officially required to impartially enforce the law. A Somali taxi driver came into our office, holding a thick wad of tickets. He was told by the cop who issued them that ‘I know you didn’t really do any of these things but I’m raising money for my country.’ A young Black man I met in a drop in told me he had been put up against a wall by two cops and, when he protested that he had done nothing wrong, was told by one of them, ‘I know but we were bored and thought we’d harass a n...’ A homeless man told me of the beating he received at the hands of two particularly notorious cops. As they inflicted it, one of them gave him an ongoing set of predictions on the injuries each blow from their sticks would cause. In each of these cases, the police involved were guilty of professional misconduct and, indeed were committing crimes, but, in reality, they were exercising their function of social control on the targeted communities this oppressive and racist society wants pacified and contained. It just prefers to leave the ugly details to the professionals.
Though it is the nature of the police function that is decisive and not the thoughts and motivations of the cops themselves, the question of how their they view what they do is not without interest. I have found cops to be quite simple people, suited to the role they play. I don’t mean by this that they are stupid. They can be very cunning and manipulative, have a clear minded ability to take control and intimidate people and they are certainly tenacious in the pursuit of their objectives. However, the function they have to discharge is a odds with a serious capacity for critical thought and cops have a very narrow and authoritarian view of things. In their minds, law and order (with the emphasis on the latter) are inherently good and those who challenge them are simply bad people. They view themselves as noble and heroic in a way that is almost child like. During the preliminary enquiry that took place before a jury trial three of us faced, over a supposed ‘riot’ at the Ontario Legislature, a cop took the witness stand against us. He had been at the event and, during the course of it, started beating someone on the ground with his club. One of my co-accused tried to prevent this and the cop lost his footing. He testified that he felt hands grabbing him and, as he put it, ‘This is an officer’s worst nightmare because you know the crowd wants only to take your life.’ Video footage that was played shortly thereafter showed clearly that no one came near him while he was on the ground except for a press photographer who helped him up. No doubt this rather hapless witness was hoping to help get us all convicted but I don’t actually think he was lying. I think he really did see the whole event as an evil mob that he was protecting society from and, if he fell on the ground, he would fully expect such wicked wrongdoers to pose a threat to his life. Those in the ranks of the ‘rich man’s army’ accept or disregard the fundamental injustices of the society whose order they impose and see the authority they uphold as sacred and beyond challenge. They also view their brutal role as the enforcers of inequality and injustice as a noble mission. It is hardly surprising, then, if their line of work attracts the kind of people who don't think too deeply about things.
As I began by saying, the period ahead will be shaped by the huge crisis of the capitalist system that is now unfolding. There will be a major effort to ensure that working class people pay for this crisis, in the form of intensified exploitation, greatly reduced living standards and cuts to vital public services. To the extent that workers and communities resist, they will deal with the police as the security detail for an agenda of austerity. In the US, as people take to the streets to challenge police racism and brutality, much is being made of cops who ‘take the knee’ to show their supposed sympathy for racial justice. There are reports of cops attacking protesters shortly after their staged kneeling performances are over. As we build movements of resistance, we can’t have any illusions in what the police are and who they serve and protect. Our goal must be too mobilize a fight back from among the millions of people impacted by the crisis that is too massive and too powerful for this system or its cops to hold it back. We must fight to win.