As the topic of defunding the police begins to make it into more and more of our country’s respectable parlors, the inevitable first question is something like, “But who’re you gonna call when someone’s breaking into your house?” The answer, of course, is, It depends on who you are and where you live. In the urban enclaves and suburbs that are graced with 401Ks, health insurance, and a Whole Foods Market, no one thinks twice about calling the police. In those neighborhoods, the slogan “serve and protect” tends to more or less overlap with reality. But in the neglected regions of capital, with their payday loans, eviction notices, and McDonald’s, the police are an occupying army, agents of the interests of the bankers and landlords who don’t live anywhere near there. James Baldwin, the brilliant Black witness to U.S. white supremacy who grew up in Harlem poverty, wrote that in his neighborhood he learned early that his people “hardly ever” called the cops, for it usually led to a brutal reminder that the police didn’t work for the poor. So the question of who to call when the police are defunded is really only a thing on the owning side of town.
Last week, the Martin Luther King County Labor Council voted, by a relatively close margin, to expel the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild. The Council stated that there “can be no justice without racial justice” and found SPOG guilty of failing to “be working to dismantle racism in their institution and society at large.” The Council, like a growing number of witnesses to the deliberate, casual murder of George Floyd, asserted that we can no longer plausibly refer to police officers like Derek Chauvin as bad apples. We must understand them as the fruit of the malignant and resilient seeds that were planted as long ago as the third or fourth tobacco crop in Virginia.
This assertion is of course true, as an unrelenting avalanche of victim testimony, eyewitness accounts, commission reports, the reporting of celebrated writers like Baldwin, Ishmael Reed, Ida B. Wells, and Sonia Sanchez, and now close to three decades of cell phone videos all make clear. That it has taken this long for the polls to finally show a majority of Americans believing that racism is systemic is a testament to the power of white supremacist ideology. But now as we begin to make new laws and draw new boundaries within the labor movement, we should take a moment to consider what it really means to call racism institutional and remember why our institutions have needed their racism.
Race has become such a naturalized part of U.S. culture and politics that the labor origins of racial division have been all but forgotten. References to slavery as some version of the nation’s “original sin” in our curricula and our popular media (like the 1619 Project) leave most Americans believing that racial hierarchies arrived in the Americas fully codified instead of inchoate and evolving. The early English capitalist exploitation of the fertile land of the New World was carried out by laborers imported from both Europe and Africa, and those laborers were subject to varying degrees of indentured servitude and bondage. But those degrees were not initially or only determined by race. Both Africans and Europeans were sometimes freed after serving their terms of servitude and working conditions were equally brutal for both. Those brutal conditions and the lack of distinction between Black and White workers led to labor solidarity across racial lines in the numerous workers rebellions from 1660 to 1680 (the most significant of which was Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676).
Recognizing that hyper-exploitation of a large working class that perceived itself as a class with common conditions and interests created the conditions for perpetual resistance and rebellion, the owning class began making moves to divide workers. From 1680 to 1710, the notion of whiteness begins to appear in English colonial law and custom as a property right for the propertyless. White workers are afforded privileges that no enslaved person has and are told that even free Blacks have no rights that even the lowliest white worker is bound to respect. At the same time, hereditary chattel slavery for Black Africans becomes firmly institutionalized. Whiteness and White privilege become the tools deployed to convince European workers that because of their skin color they have more in common with the owners on the veranda sipping mint juleps than they do with the Africans with whom they share laboring and living conditions.
The alchemy of turning genuine class differences into false racial ones (what the historian Theodore Allen calls the “invention of the white race”) has proven to be an extraordinarily effective social control device across U.S. history. It is certainly one of the main reasons why U.S. working class struggle and upheaval have never metamorphosed into long-term working class political organization. White working class acceptance of Black enslavement, the failure of northern White labor to make common cause with southern newly freed Black labor during Reconstruction, organized labor’s collaboration with Jim Crow and New Deal racism in the early 20th century, and the distance between White labor and the Black Freedom movement in the latter part of the century are all testament to the power of White supremacy to keep working people pitted against each other.
Ruling class production of racial narratives has continuously recreated and reinforced this division across U.S. history. The myth of the Black rapist led to the White working class Ku Klux Klan and lynching. Racist suspicion of Black workers virulently infected the U.S. labor movement in the early 20th century and derailed any genuine labor solidarity. Despite the fact that affirmative action disproportionately benefited White people, the narratives surrounding those programs always colored them Black and routinely presented working class Black people, not ruling class people, as the biggest impediment to working class White people getting ahead. Since at least the middle of the 20th century, race baiting (from Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” to George Bush’s Willie Horton ad to Bill Clinton’s Sister Soulja attack to Barack Obama’s disavowal of his preacher to Donald Trump’s effervescent racial stream of consciousness) has been virtually de rigeur in U.S. presidential campaigns as a way to keep White working class voters looking away from the actual arrangements of power and voting against their own material interests.
So it is not just coincidence that virulent, bone-deep racism has become an essential part of police culture. The myth of the Thin Blue Line that separates the civilized from the bestial is almost inconceivable without race–people with an unshakeable faith in their racial superiority make the best overseers. The police are the labor hired by the owning class to keep the laboring classes divided and incapable of becoming a revolutionary class. It is not an accident that modern police forces have their origins in slave patrols in the south and anti-immigrant union busting in the north—the black and white sides of the same labor control coin.
It is thus an ironic moment in U.S. labor history when cops start to form unions in the 1950s and 60s. The perceived need for collective bargaining suggests an understanding that the police do not share the position of the owning class that employs them and at least a tacit recognition that their status is not all that different from that of the communities they menace. In this context, it is not difficult to understand why lax oversight and weak disciplinary procedures are so important to the police at the bargaining table. They understand, as police historian Sam Mitrani has put it, that their job is “to protect wage-labor capitalism from the threat posed by that system’s offspring, the working class.” They also understand that when that protection becomes too violent or exposes the fundamentally racist arrangements of U.S. capitalism, their bosses are not going to have their backs. And ultimately, their bosses understand this too. Every time we hear the ridiculous claim that unions have too much political power, we should remember that every bargaining table has two sides and that capital always has more power than labor. If the owners were genuinely interested in police accountability to anything other than wealth and property, police contracts would look a lot different.
So the vote of the King County Labor Council to expel the police cuts a lot of different ways. It is, all at the same time, an attempt by organized labor to atone for and exorcise its own long and deep racism, a recognition that those hired to bust labor shouldn’t necessarily be welcome in the house of labor, and yet another instance of labor taking the bosses’ bait and dividing against itself. Kicking out the police will have a variety of effects within the labor movement, but one thing we can be sure of is that it will probably not affect police behavior. It’s not a surprise that the vote was close—the equivalent of a 5-4 decision.
The coming noise around police reform may bring some small adjustments—more jail for the obviously murderous, some demilitarization, and some rerouting of money away from police and toward social services. It will also undoubtedly bring repeated assaults on collective bargaining rights. What it will probably not bring is any fundamental rearrangement of the conditions that make the police so frightening in so many communities. That will not come until we change who the police actually work for. Genuine “community policing” means not just hiring people from the community but also empowering the community to bargain with police and hold them accountable. This kind of change is far more likely to originate with organized labor than with government.
The police kill about a thousand people in the U.S. every year. They kill Black people at more than twice the rate, per capita, than they kill white people, which is a testament to centuries of deliberate racist division. Race divides the dead, but the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum unites them. It is in the labor community that any real conversation about fundamental police reform has the best chance of succeeding. And that conversation should probably focus less on how racist the police are and more on how they’re killing their own.