SURJ’s Call to White People
by Hilary Moore, SURJ Leadership Team Member
Article updated August 28, 2020
Millions of people world-wide have taken to the streets to express outrage at the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020. “Defund the Police,” a demand from the Movement for Black Lives, has set imaginations ablaze as communities mobilize to successfully pressure cities to defund and disband police departments, as seen in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Dallas.
“Defund the Police” is a response to decades of divestment from public health infrastructure, education systems, and good housing. This deliberate gutting of social institutions is directly related to the ballooning of police budgets and proliferation of prisons. Punishment and control have become the State’s automatic response to its failure in meeting basic needs.
Policing in the United States is inseparable from white supremacy and capitalism. It functions to enforce systems of economic power, social hierarchy, and political obedience. From its origins in “slave patrols,” to its extensive overlap with far right and white supremacist organizations. These are only a few reasons that policing cannot be reformed. Plainly put, policing is not broken; it functions exactly as it was created.
At Showing Up for Racial Justice, we refuse to accept the lie that communities are safer with more police. Because we know that violence is inherent to policing. The ever-increasing militarization of police does not keep communities safe, as seen in the police-instigated violence of launching tear gas and firing “less lethal” rounds at protestors, nor the record-breaking deployment of 75,000 national guard troops in 31 states. And we all know that the violence of policing doesn’t stop when the shift is over. Families and partners of police officers are nearly twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence.
Police protection is a myth. Poor and working class white people know this all too well. We have seen our loved ones who use drugs locked up and abused by police. We have seen police do nothing or blame us when there was violence in our homes. And some of us have been thrown out of our homes by police and sheriffs. The point is, there are many of us who are ready for policing to end. There are many of us whose lives depend on joining together to create something new.
That is why SURJ is asking white people to withdraw consent from policing now. Join us in the movement to Defund the Police. This means building real safety by claiming our right to basic needs — healthcare, housing, education — and investing in Black, Indigenous, people of color, and poor and working class communities.
Links to Far Right Groups
In June 2020, Political Research Associates published an article titled, Police, Paramilitaries, and Protests for Racial Justice. “The biggest threat posed by [far right] groups, in the current moment,” writes PRA, “may be that of collaboration, alignment, and involvement with law enforcement. In some cases, this has included police who are allied to or members of explicitly racist organizations such as the Klan.” Vigilantes have often played an important, even semi-institutionalized role as enforcers of hierarchy and power in the United States. This includes lynch mobs but also company guards cracking down on organized labor. This overlap with far right and white supremacist organizations is one important reason we cannot reform the police.
Police collaboration with far right groups can include the sharing of information and resources or assisting in operations. One notorious example is the Greensboro Massacre of 1979. Here, an undercover agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and a paid informer of the Greensboro Police Department (who had previously informed for the Federal Bureau of Investigation) worked to bring Nazis and Klan members together and urged them to confront a planned anti-Klan protest. The ATF agent also supplied some of the weapons they brought. The result was the shooting and killing of five communist organizers in daylight on television. Although warned about the confrontation in advance, local police did nothing to prevent or stop the murders. A more recent, albeit less stark example of collaboration includes reports of officers working with members of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a neonazi, white nationalist organization, to identify anti-fascist counter-protestors. This came after neonazis stabbed counter protestors in 2016 at the Sacramento state capitol. The same report found that officers tried to protect members of the neonazi group by redacting their names from public reports. In other cases, members of the far right Patriot movement were documented in helping police arrest anti-fascist activists.
Police alignment with far right groups can refer to a shared aim to control and suppress the political power of Black and people of color communities, even as tactics, positions, and degrees of social acceptability, at times, differ greatly. One infamous example is in 1964, when Sheriff’s Deputy Cecil Price arrested three civil rights activists who were investigating the burning of a Black church in Mississippi. He then delivered the activists to a deserted area with Klansmen waiting. They were shot and buried. Price served four years in jail. This is one example, although this historical alignment between the police and the Ku Klux Klan is robust. According to Kristian Williams, author of Our Enemies in Blue, “Like the Slave Patrols, the Klan was organized locally, operated mostly at night, drew its members from every class of White [sic] society, enforced a pass system and curfew, broke up Black social gatherings and meetings, searched homes, seized weapons, and enforced its demands through violence and intimidation.”
Related to shared aims, involvement can mean shared membership between law enforcement and white supremacists, militias, and other far right formations. For example, in 1991, a class-action litigation declared that a “neonazi, white supremacist gang” existed in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lynnwood department. Similar cases have been documented in Richmond, Cleveland, Florida, and Texas. In June 2020, an Orange County, California Sheriff’s Deputy was placed on administrative leave for wearing patches associated with the far-right militia group, Three Percenters. These examples are only a few of the cases documented.
In other instances, involvement can refer to the infiltration of far right groups into institutions such as prisons, military, and law enforcement. For the past several decades, ties between law enforcement, far right, and white supremacist groups have tended to be stronger at the local rather than federal level. While military branches have instituted measures against far right infiltration, the decentralized operations of police departments means nearly all attempts to regulate or intervene are largely unsuccessful. In fact, an internal intelligence assessment written by the FBI in 2006 reported alarm over far right and white supremacists groups’ “historical” interest in “infiltrating law enforcement communities and recruiting law enforcement personnel.” It is not illegal for officers to hold far right or white supremacist group affiliations. In some cases, officers are outed but never fired, as in San Francisco in 2016. Other times, when officers are fired for their affiliation, they are later rehired in other law enforcement departments, as in the 2006 case in Nebraska.
Notably, a number of tensions exist between law enforcement and the far right. Movements for justice must take this into account. First, far right and white supremacist groups differ widely in their views of the State, from those that want to function as vigilante adjuncts to the police to those who want to bring down the existing State apparatus. This means that the relationship between the State and these groups are not always supportive or even passive. According to Matthew N. Lyons, writer and historian, oppositional tensions are important dynamics to account for. He writes, “Federal agencies have sometimes tolerated or even supported rightist vigilantes when doing so has aligned with their goals, but at other times they have regarded them as a threat — or a useful scapegoat.” Second, there is discontinuity amongst advocates of explicit white dominance and advocates of color-blindness between law enforcement agencies, at different levels of influence, and within the police. In other words, there is not one single story in how these institutions relate to far right and white supremacist organizations. This nuanced reality sometimes points to places where movements can apply pressure, without losing sight of the influence and aim of different State apparatuses. As Lyons clarifies, “Federal security forces in the United States exist, fundamentally, to defend ruling class power.”
Policing Origins in Slave Patrols
These links above are far from surprising when we consider the history of policing. Fundamentally, we cannot talk about policing without talking about slavery. Policing in the United States began during the colonial period by importing the practice of “watch patrols” from England. Kristian Williams, author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, argues that these “watch patrol” practices were adapted to the particular conditions of an economy built upon slavery in the American context, setting the stage for policing today. Plantation owners were white and few, and their wealth relied on forcing hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans to labor on the land brutally taken from Indigenous people. They looked for new methods to secure their vulnerable power and privilege.
As enslaved Africans revolted and fled plantations, slave owners sought to control the labor of the people legally considered their property. New inspiration came from the tactics of Caribbean slave owners, particular in Barbados, eventually resulting in “slave patrols.” In the late 1600s, slave patrols were the first dedicated militia, mostly made up of European indentured servants, whose job was to re-capture enslaved Africans who had run away and forced them back onto their owner’s plantation.
In the 1680s, responsibility and maintenance of slave patrols was legally extended from plantation owners to the entire white population. This, in some states, enabled any white person to apprehend and punish those they believed to be runaway slaves. Patrols carried guns, whips, and binding ropes and later were equipped with horses. At first, slave patrols worked at night or infrequently. But given the rise in rebellions, slave patrols became an around-the-clock institution needed to disrupt the organization of rebellions. This means the function of slave patrols soon shifted from re-capturing fleeing slaves to preventing large scale revolts of enslaved Africans.
To enforce political obedience, a number of measures were taken to police the communities in revolt. For instance, Indigenous people and enslaved Africans were required to carry identification passes. Patrols were now authorized by courts and militias to search the homes of those enslaved. They specifically sought to break up social gatherings, particularly religious meetings. Rape was a common tactic to control Black women whose organizing power was a threat to the emerging government. Some slave patrols would apprehend free Black people only to then sell them into slavery.
Resistance grew pushing elites to incorporate increased measures for control into the slave codes. In the early 1700s, European indentured servants began fleeing with enslaved Africans to start maroon societies, in swamps or marsh areas, that were difficult to reach. Soon, slave patrol laws included “disciplining disorderly white people, especially vagrants.” In order to prevent situational class unity, a range of federal, state, and local laws granted white immigrants the right to become citizens, while expressly denying civil rights or the right to own land to immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America or Africa.
How the United States became a modern policed society is complex. Other conditions include industrialization, increasing demands for order, governance moving toward municipalities, and emerging social anxieties. As Williams describes, “With the birth of modern policing, the state acquired a new means of controlling the citizenry — one based on its experiences, not only with crime and domestic order, but with colonialism and slavery as well.” From rebellions of enslaved Africans, to Alabama communists during the Great Depression, to the Battle of Blair Mountain, police have always been a law and order apparatus to secure the wealth of the ruling class and suppress the political power of Black, Indigenous, communities of Color, as well as poor and working class communities. Hence, policing has never been about community safety. Instead, policing is about controlling labor and protecting the property of the wealthy, and most often white, few.
We Keep Us Safe
The history of policing and its current overlap with far right and white supremacist organizations are just two reasons why we must Defund the Police. In practice, we can reduce the scope, size, and role of police in our communities. As the Movement for Black Lives declared, “We need those resources in schools, toward our health, and for our futures.” Local governments are already responding to this demand, in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Dallas. City Council members have pledged to develop safety plans through community-led processes.
Luckily, questions about policing-alternatives are not new. Many brilliant thinkers and organizations have a wide range of options to build from. Now is the time to keep the pressure on. We must create more political space for alternative initiatives to emerge, ones that can re-imagine and reinvest in a transformative model of community safety.
Hilary Moore is an anti-racist political educator, freelance writer, and member of SURJ’s Leadership Team. For more, visit hilaryamoore.com.
Are you ready to join the Defund the Police movement and invest in community safety? Three things you can do: