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The Structure of Policing

Why Labor and Police are Fundamentally at Odds

Like the state of California, higher education institutions in the United States appear, based on branding, to be a location of progressive politics. But just like California, this veneer of progress is so thin that a nick - a Black Lives Matter protest, a student sit-in, a picket line, or just sitting in the library - is enough to reveal the grisly and violent inner workings of racial and capitalist domination. Rather than think of the university as a “bubble,” or a place of exception, it’s more appropriate to think of it as a site of amplification.

Higher education is a testing ground for new neoliberal forms of social control, for harvesting student tuition and exploiting the labor of workers. These two major functions of the university as a business have caused students and workers to make common cause, facilitated by the often-shared spaces of labor organizing. This has created new conditions for organizing against both the university and wider structures of stratification. It's out of these conditions that we see the rise of COLA organizing across the UCs, and why this organizing has been met with violent repression (physically and administratively).

While much has been discussed about the demand for a cost of living adjustment (COLA), the next few blog posts will be dedicated to understanding #6 in our list of demands, the disarming of UC police. First, we'll briefly touch on the general history of police so that we all understand the roots of policing in American society.

Brief History of Police

American police have their roots in slave patrols and strike breaking. Below you'll find a segment of the UAW 2865's call for the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from police unions and associations.

This call, pushed by the union's now defunct Black Interests Coordinating Committee, argues that although police may organize themselves into unions they are fundamentally at odds with labor. Check it out:

Present Day (2015)

We have seen this vested interest [of police in upholding oppressive systems] manifest itself very visibly over the past year. By calling themselves a union, police have utilized union resources to defend brutality and anti-Blackness. Police unions channel resources towards upholding racist practices in a few key ways:

  1. Lobbying to oppose independent oversight by civilians and other governmental entities.
  2. Campaigning for political actors who support limited police accountability.
  3. Defending officers’ crimes of racist brutality in court. 

These elements have clearly shaped the context that enabled the tragic circumstances of Freddie Gray’s death and speak to the contemporary moment in which Black lives are considered less important than job protection for police. Advocated for by the police union, The Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBoR) aims to protect the rights of officers above the needs of the community. In cases where police misconduct is reported, such as in instances of “rough rides,” police officers do not have to answer questions until 10 days have passed and a lawyer has been consulted. Subsequently, the overall review process outlined by the LEOBoR empowers a hearing board of fellow officers to have final approval over any penalties imposed upon accused officers—this has resulted in the preservation of employment for nearly all accused officers despite the 3,048 complaints have been filed against 850 Baltimore PD officers (30% of its police force) since 2012. If complaints do manage to make it past this extra layer of due process, union legal resources are used to defend the officers against charges of racist misconduct in court. By unconditionally insulating officers accused of brutality from facing consequences, police unions maintain the status quo of racial violence that upholds the exploitation of Black communities in particular, as well as other communities of color.

Historical Evidence:

We recognize that these are not isolated incidents, but arise from a long history of policing as a profession. Police unions in particular emerge out of a long history of police intervention in labor politics and its complicity in racial violence. The modern U.S. institution of the police has roots in the repressive demands of powerful white capitalists. Overseers and slave patrols in the South evolved alongside the growing need to maintain “order” in early urban areas in the North. In fact, armed “night watches” mirrored policing practices by being a front line of defense against Native American raids on colonies. Policing in the U.S. has always served the needs of colonialism, racism, and capitalism by protecting the property of those who would steal land and exploit the labor of others. Neither the property of indigenous people nor the products of the labor of both workers and slaves has ever come under protection of the institution of the police. It has only ever been the property of the powerful that the police protect. Maintaining this system of relations is the so called “order” that police have sworn to defend.

In fact, early attempts by labor to organize and fight for rights and better pay and working conditions have historically been met with violence. These instances are many: from picket line fights to police enforced lock-outs; from crackdowns on rallies, like the Thompson Square “riot” of 1874 at a rally for the unemployed in New York City, when police indiscriminately brutalized men, women, and children; to massacres committed by private police, like the two dozen men, women, and children killed in the Ludlow Massacre; and by public police, notably during the Haymarket Massacre we commemorate every year on May Day.

Modern examples exist as well: police played a significant role in defending Jim Crow segregation. We have all seen the images and video of police siccing dogs on Black protesters, shooting them with water cannons, or billy clubbing them. Racist violence was not confined to the pre-Civil Rights South; Philadelphia police bombed the headquarters of Black radical organization MOVE in 1985, killing 11 people, including children. Recall also the assassination of Fred Hampton, leader of the Black Panther Party, by the Chicago PD in collaboration with the FBI. Very recently, the nationally-coordinated effort to crack down on and ultimately destroy the Occupy movement involved police departments across the country working in unison to stop the most effective modern social movement in opposition to economic inequality. American police as an institution have historically been and continue to be the violent supressive force used to maintain a white supremacist capitalist system on settler colonial land. If labor is to ever truly exert its power and challenge the corporate rule of the U.S., we will need to break the illusion that the police are part of the family of unions that make up organized labor.

Continuing History

The 2015 call for the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from police unions is just as important today as it was then. We've seen the continued expansion of militarized police and criminalization of student protests on campuses across the United States. For more resources you can check out this Police Disarm Guide.

Now more than ever its important to think about what safety looks like, for whom, and how we want to build a safer and more just community space for all workers.

Remember, a world without cops or their guns is a more just world for students and workers alike.


[1] CCNY Student Council (Oct, 1934), “Protest Italian Fascism! Nip American Fascism in the Bud!”;prevRouteTS=1574361710333

[2] Sloan, John J. 1992. “The Modern Campus Police: An Analysis of Their Evolution, Structure, and Function,” American Journal of Police 85; Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2015. “Campus Law Enforcement, 2011–12.”; Rodríguez, D. 2012. “Beyond ‘Police Brutality’: Racist State Violence and the University of California.” American Quarterly 64(2): 301-313; Brucato, Ben and Luis A. Fernandez. 2013. “Socio-Technical Developments in Campus Securitization: Building and Resisting the Policing Apparatus.” Counterpoints 410: 79-104. Earl, Jennifer, Sarah A. Soule and John D. McCarthy. 2003. “Protest Under Fire? Explaining the Policing of Protest.” American Sociological Review 68(4): 581-606.

[3] Kopple, Barbara. 2006. Harlan County, USA. Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment.

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