History of Violence

by Brian Crawford
Protesters who have taken to the streets in response to police killings of African Americans have been met with a para-military force employing nearly every weapon in its arsenal. Protesters, journalists and bystanders have confronted volleys of pepper-spray, rubber bullets, teargas, shields and police batons. And while protestors were getting attacked, the rest of the world got to watch it broadcast on live television.
Consistently, (at least before the Murder of George Floyd) mainstream discussions of violent acts committed by police revert to arguments defending policing as an institution, suggesting instead that individual acts of police brutality are isolated incidents. But on the contrary, violence including lethal attacks perpetrated by the police are not isolated, nor does it represent defects in training or departmental policy. The police use violence and the threat of violence to bring “order” to society. Police are not a benevolent force in the community; historically, policing as an institution has played a definite role in class society, as an instrument of state power and wealthy interests wielded against the working class.
There is an abundance of evidence throughout the history of American policing that demonstrates that capitalist production is dependent on  violence, leveraging both literal violence and threats of violence to keep people in line. A legal framework gives the violence legitimacy. Police are tasked with enforcing laws both local as well as constitutional, but the same officers are shielded from accountability when violating an individual’s constitutional rights. Working class and minority communities are the most policed and most likely to experience police violence particularly when they participate in mass actions such as protest or strike activity.
Rising crime rates are used to justify increased police funding and manpower. But as the legal scholar Sidney Harring writes:
. . . the imposition of a chaotic and disorderly economic and class system gives rise to serious problems in social order, to which the bourgeoisie responds by creating new social institutions. These institutions, in effect, help to legitimate the new social order by rendering a value service to all classes in the society.1 
Protecting the interests of private property has been the role of police from the advent of modern policing until this very moment.
Capitalism demands that one class sell its labor in order to survive. The means of survival is bound up in another purchasing that labor in return for a wage. Those who cannot or refuse to conform to these terms starve or find other means of survival on the fringes of society. As Friedrich Engels wrote, “The development of industry upon a capitalist basis made poverty and misery of the working masses conditions of existence of society. Cash payment became more and more . . . the sole nexus between man and man”.2
Long hours and poor working conditions were commonly endured by workers in the early 19th century. Wages did not cover the bare necessities. Housing was of poor quality and overcrowded. Both skilled and unskilled workers were united in their discontent. Among the working masses “low wages,long hours, and irregularity of employment were reducing them to the edge of poverty.”3 The unskilled labor engaged in strike actions centering on wages and hours. The work day averaged 12 to 14 hours, and most workers were lucky to get $12 a week.
By the early 1820’s the demand for a ten hour day spawned the first city-wide labor organizations: Philadelphia Mechanics Union of Trade Association and New England Association of Farmers and Mechanics and other Workingmen. A New England labor leader charged that workers had lost their rights to “monopolized wealth”.2
The development of police departments coincided both with advancements in industry and increases in the size of the urban population. The former required a larger labor force, and the latter provided it. Increased exploitation was the impetus for greater levels of organization in the workplace. This in turn led to the rise of working-class organizations dedicated to making demands of the company, intensifying class conflict. Business in all industries sought to maintain low production costs, usually through the reduction of wages. Workers responded with strike actions which represented not only the immediate demands of workers at a given company, but also the interests of the working class as a whole. Evidence of this class consciousness can be seen during the upsurge of strikes in the late 19th century in Buffalo, Chicago, and Pittsburgh where solidarity with striking workers was citywide.
In order to meet the challenge, policing needed an upgrade from the old night watch system which was inadequate in the expanding urban areas and did not suit the needs of the ruling class. Boston’s publicly funded force was at the disposal of commercial shipping. Established in 1838, socializing the cost of the force was rationalized as a collective good. New York followed in 1845 with their police force. New York officers were political appointees, controlled by political parties or in large cities by political machines. This system spread nationally. Working class influence was limited when it came to matters of policing.
Capitalist development brought with it inequality, which in turn motivated workers to organize on a broader scale. Strike actions increased greatly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Industry was confronted with a rebellious workforce. The police department emerged as the weapon the state would wield in the class conflict. As the scholar of crime and punishment, Gary Potter put it: “. . . economic interest had more concern with social control than crime control.”4 Using their position in class society, businesses greatly influenced politics, and politicians controlled the police.
As an institution, the Police Department earned its bona fides during the strike wave of 1877 which commenced when the B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) Railroad imposed three wage cuts in less than a year on railway workers. Major cities on the B&O line were shut down. From Baltimore to St. Louis manifestations of working- class consciousness crossed sectors in response to increased exploitation.
Strikebreaking became the responsibility of police departments. Anticipating a strike action, nearly all the force would be called up and put on alert. Buffalo’s longshoreman strike of 1884 is indicative of the role police played. Police would invariably attack striking workers, while the company’s replacement workers (scabs) received police protection. Police were also deployed to guard the factories. Greater numbers were required to cover large areas and perform multiple tasks during strike actions. Police provided protection for scabs, fought striking workers and many times essentially became scabs themselves.
Prior to the upheaval, the police had yet to be accepted as essential to city governance. Much of the ruling class considered them to be lazy, drunk, and undisciplined. Nevertheless, the ruling class was terrified of the sudden upheaval which took place only six years after the Paris Commune, and police departments proved adept at crowd control and restoring “order” in multiple cities during the B&O strike. This was a situation where the term class war can be taken literally, as there were pitched battles between workers and police. Chicago’s police force mercilessly opened fire into crowds of strikers and their supporters. The toll at the end was 35 dead. Pittsburgh bolstered its force, and one hundred died at the hands of the police and militia. Just as European Capitalists found pleasure in the slaughter of the Paris Communards, so too did their American counterparts approve of the violent repression of class- conscious workers. Harring writes that in Chicago “. . . police secured for themselves the respect of the ruling class and their allies and secured for the police institution a place in the complex arena of community power as well-trusted, coercive weapon of the bourgeoisie.”5
Given the widespread community support for strikers, police would frequently engage in collective punishment. After the Haymarket Square Incident of 1886, the police went on a reign of terror beating and arresting militants and labor leaders. Such was the case in many instances, Harrington observes “the police institution often went far beyond the law in the protection of manufactures’ interests- workers were attacked in their homes, political freedom was suppressed, and countless beatings and killings took place. The bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie dominated the legislative process and accordingly created a legal framework that elevated their property rights over human life.”
In the South, the labor force was also the property of the ruling class. Southern policing’s origins arise from the slaveholder’s need to secure the return of their “human property” and to assist in subduing slave rebellions.
In the relationship between master and slave, the latter were afforded no rights.  Slaves rebelled, and ran away rather than live life as chattel under a brutal system which sought to strip them of their humanity. In response, slave patrols were established to track them down, punish them, and return them to bondage. Slave patrols formed a basis for racial solidarity among the white population, as primarily working class patrolmen were joined by southern plantation owners who had a vested interest in participating in hunts to recapture slaves. Insurrections, such as the Stono Rebellion and Denmark Vessy in South Carolina, or Nat Turner in Virginia justified the cruel repression of the slave patrol in the eyes of the slavocracy. Once captured, what followed was beyond brutal. W.E.B. Dubois wrote “Crucifixion, burning, and starvation were legal modes of punishment.”6
In the colonial period, both northern and southern colonies passed legislation regulating slavery. Slaves codes restricted slaves’ freedom of movement, marriage (especially prohibiting interracial unions), ownership of arms and gathering in groups. Slaves who planned or participated in insurrection, who escaped, fought back or engaged in other acts contrary to their legal status would face the auction block or harsher punishment up to and including death. Be it tobacco or later “king cotton”, Black labor produced the wealth of the nation, and needed to be pacified to maintain the existing economic and political order. All American industry profited, from the plantation owners to Wall Street.
Black labor, once enslaved, legally became free with the ratification of the 13th amendment. But in actual fact, Southern Blacks were unfree despite constitutional amendments giving them legal standing. The Old Confederate states quickly adopted laws as a response to Black political power, eventually reversing political advances made during Reconstruction. Police actively engaged in the suppression of Blacks through everyday harassment and humiliation as well as beatings and lynchings. It was not unusual for members of law enforcement to be members of the Klu Klux Klan. Ritual executions or lynchings were common. By the count of the NAACP there were over 4000 lynchings between the 1880s and 1920. This is surely an underestimate. These activities could not have taken place on such a scale without the consent, indifference, or participation of Southern law enforcement and the state itself. Southern policing is inextricably linked to the suppression of the Black masses and the defense of private property belonging to the owners of large plantations and later southern industrialists.
The Blacks exodus known as the “Great Migration” found African Americans fleeing hell on earth for northern cities that were in need of labor. Black workers were forced into segregated areas of these cities, and experienced harassment and brutality at the hands of police. Rebellions in major cities during the 1960s were waged in response to police violence. San Francisco’s Bayview/Hunter’s Point is home to many Blacks who landed in the Bay area during the Great Migration. In 1966, the police murder of an unarmed teenager sparked three days of violence. The 16 year old was driving what was reported to be a stolen car. He ran from the scene when the car stalled and was shot by an officer as he fled.National Guard troops joined SFPD and California Highway Patrol to put down the community response. The repression was brutal. Sharpshooters even fired into the Opera House where children had taken refuge. It was the era of Vietnam, and the war had come home. Tanks rolled through the neighborhood as “One of the country’s most prominent Black communities was left shaken”.7
All struggles waged by the oppressed and the working class are confronted by police, from  the Black Liberation movement, striking workers in the late 19th century to coal miners in the 1920s. Invariably, when the working- class fights oppression and exploitation these armed men are deployed. The ruling class sees working-class organizations, from labor unions to socialist parties as their class enemy, and the police are the troops they send to fight for them. During the Cold War, the broad left was treated as a monolith, and police actions equally targeted the peaceful protests of the Civil Rights movement and more militant organizations such as the Black Panther Party.
Perhaps most famously, during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the whole world witnessed what became known as a police riot. Chicago P.D. viciously attacked anti-war protesters. Left forces received a hearing and questions of oppression and imperialism were being raised. The state demanded “law and order”. It was accomplished by disinformation, infiltration and assassination. Prominent figures of the left were imprisoned or killed.
It was no coincidence that these anti-war protests were treated with such brutality by the CPD in 1968. Militarization has long been a part of modern policing. Police are a para-military force based on military discipline and organization. As such it also inculcates a sense of being at war: in the eyes of the police, the people of working-class communities are enemy combatants. Communities which have been decimated by outflows of capital and resulting job loss find little aid or comfort from the city government; instead armed men are sent to see that they suffer in silence. Relations between these communities and police often turn confrontational, and neighborhoods are treated as occupied territory. The Federal Government assists in this war acting as arms -dealer. The Department of Defense 1033 program provides local police departments surplus equipment for the purpose of urban warfare . Massive budgets in every city, large and small are disproportionately dedicated to law enforcement.
Presently, in this technological age capital still invests in policing above and beyond even these lavish budgets provided by city governments. Firms such as Google, Palantir, and Target contribute to police foundations; as these foundations are legally considered to be non-profits, the departments can avoid publicizing the source of the funding. Police foundations argue that they are a “necessary” response to cuts in police budgets. In actuality, policing still comprises a third or more of most US city budgets. Contributions by these firms allow departments to purchase high-end tools such as surveillance software and military-grade weaponry. At the same time, police departments are not just beneficiaries but customers to these firms, which also seek to influence police policy.
Policing in the 21th century also involves a greater degree of collaboration between various agencies at all levels of government. This is a product of the global war on terror. Law enforcement’s spokespeople argue that enhanced communication and collaboration is important to respond to threats. This argument has been used to justify the infiltration of mosques, the suspension of legal rights, reactionary immigration policies and a steep increase in the militarization of police. Absent an actual military threat, police resort to their one true implacable enemy: the working class and social movements.
Attacks on movements such as Standing Rock, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter are consistent with the mission of policing. If there were any doubts regarding the true nature of policing as an institution in America, the brutal treatment of protesters from New York to Seattle, laid such doubts in the grave and buried them.
Suppression of elements which might actually build mass politics in the U.S. is one of the primary functions of the police as an instrument of the state. Overcoming this history of violence requires a political struggle rooted in mass politics which understands the nature of the state and its institutions. This is fundamental to understanding the role policing plays in class society.


  1. Sidney Harring-Policing A Class Society
  2. Friedrich Engels-Socialism:Utopian and Scientific
  3. Bernard Mandel-Labor, Free and Slave
  4. 4.Gary Potter- Police Studies Online E. Kentucky University
  5. ibid (1) Harring
  6. W.E.B. Dubois -Suppression of the African Slavetrade
  7. SFBayview Online Archive


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