Police protect property, not people

What the history of American justice can tell us today.

May 30, 2020, protesters face off with Military Police in Washington DC, Lafayette Square. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

In America, it’s more acceptable to smash skulls than windows, it’s better to throw bodies to the ground than flags, taking lives is preferred to taking products, and 400 years of violence against people looks better than 4 days of violence against property.

Prosecutors in Minnesota said they would not “rush justice” when arresting and charging George Floyd’s murderers, but hurried to set curfews and call the National Guard when vacant property was at risk.

There’s a reason why authorities are reacting more forcefully to protests than they are to the murder of George Floyd. Getting to the source of the brutality that killed Floyd means recognizing the truth of the American justice system: it exists, and always has existed, to protect property more than lives — especially Black lives.

A Brief History of Policing in America

The first American Police forces were established in 1636. They were not funded by the government, not bought with taxes, and sheriffs were not democratically elected. That’s because the Police weren’t a public service, they were a private benefit.

And in many ways, they still are.

Make no mistake, the first Police in America were hired to protect property. Police in early American history worked under a system called ‘stipendiary justice,’ a fancy way of saying they worked for a fee. A fee to do what? Protect property.

In parts of New England, these stipandry Police were called ‘Indian Constables’ and were hired by landowners to guard property from Indigenous people. In Pennsylvania and New Amsterdam (now New York), these Police forces were called ‘Watchmen’ and they were hired by companies to protect emerging city developments from possible unrest. On the western frontier, these groups were called ‘Committees of Vigilance,’ and they could be paid to drive Indigenous people off prospective property with whatever force they felt necessary.

In the South, these forces were often called ‘Nightwatch,’ or ‘Overseers’ in the day. What did Overseers oversee? Plantations. Plantations worked by enslaved people. They could be hired for a ‘stipend’ to protect slave holders — and their property — from their most important investment: Black lives.

Make no mistake, these private ‘stipendiary justice’ organizations evolved into our modern day Police forces. As more immigrants and colonizers came to America, population went up in urban centers, and government felt an increased need for Policing. In 1885, New York organized the first government funded police force in America. The force focused on N.Y city and the smaller communities within it, they were a given the task of ‘keeping the peace’ in diversifying communities. This shift wrote our conception of a Police force and what they are expected to do, it has not always been a given.

As more cities across America established Police forces of their own, they absorbed the ‘stipendiary justice groups’ that already existed for private hire. By the late 1800’s, the Overseers of America were now on government payrolls, despite serving practically the same function: protecting property from the unrest among Black folks.

Make no mistake, when slavery met it’s official end, the American justice system continued to value property before Black people. The 14th amendment, which was meant to grant full citizenship to Black folks in the United States, was mostly used to grant full citizenship to corporations in the United States.

Early corporations used the 14th Amendment to gain what is called ‘corporate personhood,’ the idea that huge companies have the same Civil rights and Liberties people are entitled to. Since its ratification, more corporations have cited the 14th amendment in court than Black folks when fighting for their rights, meaning more cases have been heard about these corporate rights.

Make no mistake, protecting property continued to be the central goal of justice in the United States well after emancipation. The Pinkerton task force, established in 1850, was the first detective agency in America. Like Overseers, they were also a privately hired group meant to protect property and the money that came with it. As the United States became more industrial, labour movements began to form. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, workers began organizing for their rights — and Pinkertons were hired to stop them.

Pinkertons infiltrated unions, provided guards in factories, and busted workers with any union sympathies. Pinkertons protected corporate property like railroads and factories from the ‘threat’ of workers unions and of emancipated Black folks.

Pinkertons still exist as a private agency today, and continue to infiltrate unions. But their power pales in comparison to their descendant: the FBI.

Early Pinkertons laid the foundation for the F.B.I. Pinkertons were repeatedly employed by the U.S government for different tasks since the Civil War, and eventually the Federal Government used their model to establish the F.B.I and the C.I.A. All these agencies have the same goal: protecting Property.

What This Means for Justice Reform Today

When the history of American Policing is laid out, it becomes slightly clearer why American values are so skewed today. Skewed to respond to broken windows more than broken bodies.

Public reactions skew this same way, as people on Twitter call for protesters to stop their violent tactics. But the history of American justice has written the definition of violence, the definition of looting, of destruction, of murder.

Violence has been used against Black folks in America for the last 400 years, their cultures and homes have been looted, and their lives have been destroyed. But this cruelty is unnamed. These actions only greet their definitions when they are turned onto vacant, corporate property.

Police would rather stifle the actions of protesters than acknowledge the skewed history of their justice system. This means America as a whole would rather expend energy and force to stop the immediate destruction of property rather than change the injustices at the root of this destruction.

Journalism student at the University of King's College, Halifax N.S Canada. Writer, music enthusiast, and cautious defender of the Oxford comma.