In my first blog post in this series, I urged you to consider the larger system of policing rather than focus on individual police officers who you may know and to recognize how policing was originally created for “labor control” and the preservation of a “social hierarchy.” We can now turn to how policing evolved after the civil rights movement at the same time as it kept focusing on these goals.
In the late 1960s and after, there was a backlash to the civil rights movement and US Presidents from both parties, like Nixon and later Clinton and now Trump, championed “law and order” rhetoric in order to win elections and build support to avoid a “soft on crime” accusation. This heightened rhetoric on crime had its foundation under the Johnson administration, even though he was also the president who declared a “War on Poverty” in 1964 and supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1965, Johnson declared a “War on Crime.” That year, the Law Enforcement Assistance Act “first established a direct role for the federal government in local police operations, court systems, and state prisons” (Hinton). This legislation set the stage for a massive increase in funding and support for police departments and the distribution of “purchased bulletproof vests, helicopters, tanks, rifles, gas masks and other military-grade hardware for police departments” (Hinton).
The increased attention to crime and the increased funding for the militarization of the police were not in isolation. Starting in the 1970s, neoliberalism grew, which focused on the individual and privatization rather than the collective, public service, and the public good. When it came to policing, the public was convinced to support its expansion at the same time as the public was convinced to support cuts to social services.
Black feminist and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains that in the 1970s and 1980s, a narrative became popular that the reason “people are suffering from this general economic misfortune is because too much goes to taxes” so elected officials focused on cutting support for social services. At the same time, she says, a parallel narrative focused on crime as the main problem that needed to be addressed, even though it was not a growing problem. In other words, the public, especially the white public, became convinced that their taxes should not go to social services, education, affordable housing, mental healthcare, summer programs, jobs programs, and other pillars of the public good. Instead, policing and prisons expanded, still in keeping with policing’s historical goals of “labor control” and the preservation of a “social hierarchy.”
In addition, legal scholar Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow explains that as part of the backlash to the civil rights movement, the Reagan Administration announced a War on Drugs in the 1980s even though “illegal drug use was on the decline” (6) and when illegal drug use was comparable across races, not higher among African Americans (7). The War on Drugs was always intended to maintain a racial hierarchy. Furthermore, Alexander adds, “The resistance within law enforcement to the drug war created something of a dilemma for the Reagan administration. . . . Huge cash grants were made to those law enforcement agencies that were willing to make drug-law enforcement a top priority” (73). Then, she explains, “By the late 1990s, the overwhelming majority of state and local police forces in the country had availed themselves of the newly available resources and added a significant military component to buttress their drug-war operations” (74). Funding for police departments increased significantly, and police departments had unprecedented access to military weapons. Media representations of Black people as criminals and the similar rhetoric of politicians served to rationalize this funding.
Furthermore, police officers were encouraged to use racial profiling tactics, like stop-and-frisk, and were rewarded for increasing their arrest rate. This pattern led to Black people being disproportionately targeted, surveilled, arrested, and incarcerated, the “new Jim Crow” of Alexander’s title. She describes the criminal justice system as a system of “social control” and “racial control” (237), which echoes the history of policing I described earlier as a method of “labor control” and as a method to preserve the “social hierarchy.”
In 2014, white police officer Darren Wilson murdered unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Wilson was not indicted. In the investigations that followed, it became clear that Ferguson had become financially dependent on the disproportionate targeting of Black residents. As legal scholar Justin Hansford explains, “the Justice Department reported that Ferguson’s officers targeted residents as ‘sources of revenue,’ a practice disproportionately aimed at African-Americans.”
While the widespread media attention on Ferguson in 2014 and 2015 and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests provided a real opportunity for systemic change in policing, that did not happen, which explains how we arrived where we are, in June 2020. Hansford writes, “We had just one year of progress on police violence before the backlash kicked in.” In particular, he says, “Consent decrees with police departments in Baltimore, Chicago and even Ferguson followed groundbreaking, scathing federal investigations of racism and other misconduct by officers. . . . But then the backlash came. The federal government retreated from reform. A conservative Supreme Court continued to uphold and protect racialized policing and the use of unnecessary violence even after the federal investigations reinforced the complaints of community members. The Trump Justice Department largely limited oversight of police departments, and that played a significant role in erasing the short-lived push toward accountability.” Furthermore, in Ferguson, “the number of killings by the police in 2017 and 2018 rose to earlier rates.”
Now, with the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there is clearly a resurgence of mainstream media attention on policing and on Black Lives Matter protests speaking out against systemic racism. There is an opportunity for change now. However, the obstacles to change have been growing over the past few years, which my next blog post will consider.
-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer, which includes a four-part series “For Those Who Say, How Can We Defund the Police” and a new resource page on Policing & Racism.