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On Cops

Rob Goyanes

Conor Williams, Untitled, 2015. Ink on parchment paper. Image courtesy of the artist
We would rather sleep than talk: we know
what belongs to a watch.

—DOGBERRY, Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare

Early colonial policing in the northern United States looked a lot like British policing. Composed of “watches,” the groups were able-enough-bodied volunteers or conscripts designated with making the rounds, usually at night. They watched for fires, kept up sanitation standards, had an eye out for witches, and delivered the “hue and cry”—the alarm system for criminal activity (yelling, mostly).

They were often drunk, and when things weren’t dangerous, they were probably bored. Some watches, though, took the job more seriously and with ethical import. These nobler types pursued violent culprits, and they let you know when the British were near.

Things were different in the Southern states. Besides the common watchmen of countryside hamlets and towns, slave patrols were developed to exercise control over the vast geo-socioeconomic swath of institutionalized slavery. These patrols maintained the spatial order of the day: the monitoring, trafficking, and bondage of minorities. They busted up slave meetings, apprehended runaways, and acted as highway authorities on the rural roads and waters of the antebellum.

During the New Deal era, the Federal Writers’ Project sent out unemployed writers to collect the narratives of 2,300 former slaves. It was an effort to capture the stories before they were lost, and a seventeen-volume folk history was produced. W. L. Bost was a North Carolinian slave, who was eighty-eight years old and semi-free when a woman named Marjorie Jones interviewed him in 1937:

Lord child, I remember when I was a little boy, ’bout ten years, the speculators come through Newton with droves of slaves. They always stay at our place. The poor critters nearly froze to death. . . . Us poor niggers never ‘lowed to learn anything. All the readin’ they ever hear was when they was carried through the big Bible. The Massa say that keep the slaves in they places. They was one nigger boy in Newton who was terrible smart. He learn to read an’ write. He take other colored children out in the fields and teach ‘em about the Bible, but they forgit it ‘fore the nex’ Sunday…

Then the paddyrollers, they keep close watch on the poor niggers so they have no chance to do anything or go anywhere. They jes’ like policemen, only worser—‘cause they never let the niggers go anywhere without a pass from his massa.

The slave patrols that Bost described existed before the development of a centralized, bureaucratically organized police force in the United States. These patrols, inherited in part from the codified rules of Barbadian slave law, are contrary to the standard view of the singular slave owner reigning over his plantation.1

Slave patrols are perhaps the earliest instance of modern American policing: well-organized tactical units for controlling entire populations, with a high dependence on records and documentation to enforce the moral systems of the day. Though the differences are vast between today’s cop and the early slave patrol, the parallels are very much worth considering. Systemic violence against blacks and other minorities, legacies of hatred and prejudice, imbalance of power and resources, the struggle—it’s useful to pull this historical thread. It’s important to note, too, that police, throughout the global history of their existence, spend most of their time regulating traffic, whether it’s by foot, hoof, or wheel.2

The number of cops in the United States is approaching one million and Cops is the longest running program in United States television history.

The abstract notion of the contemporary cop didn’t become standard until the start of the twentieth century. The professional cop, the one with the uniform who reports to his precinct and is paid with citizen taxes, didn’t appear until the early mid-1800s with the arrival of mass industrial capitalism and the bloom of urban populations. The first police force was formed in Boston in 1835, the second in Albany in 1845.

The reasons for this appearance are not necessarily rooted in an increase in crime, but rather are a result of technological and cultural changes. New advances in firearms, the arrival of the telephone and automobile, and the rise of the city lead to this new form of policing. Increasing economic striation—both job specialization as a principle and the need to police increasing amounts of wealth and private property—also shaped today’s cop. Alongside these technological and economic changes came a biopolitical line of thinking, a logic of population measurement and control that started dominating social and political theory.

However, the heart of policing remained the same: maintaining social order, no matter what it is.

A new model of professional policing emerged in the 1930s while the United States was in the throes of its Great Depression. Besides staggering unemployment, it was widely reported that a crime wave was sweeping the nation, though this fact is disputed.3 During this, the federal government started to get more deeply embedded in the process of policing as a result—as the perceived threat of crime grew (in tandem with other real and perceived threats of the time), so did the tools and means with which to fight it.

Under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was founded, and policing was forever changed to include centralized reporting systems such as fingerprint files, forensic laboratories, and bureaucratized specializations. Hoover, in his bid for power, labeled criminals “vermin of the worst type” who needed to be found out and eradicated. These developments helped lead to a new typology for policing, one aimed at sanitizing society of vile, villainous elements (a new typology for criminals, too). And in the pre-civil rights/Jim Crow era, this led to deeper divides between minorities and police. This new conception of policing, combined with prevailing attitudes about gender, propagated the idea of police as hypermasculine agents for good, heroes who maintained the straightness of society, who rescued kitties, and fought crime. It was a utopic view of the police, rooted in a deep fear about the direction of society, and in the understanding that we cannot defend ourselves always at all times against violence and wrongdoing.

Trust in this model of policing was shaken by the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, when the veil was removed and police were exposed as agents for protecting the interests of the powerful. Since then, reform has become the standard model for police, which calls for ranks to be diverse and integrated into communities, periodically cleansed of corrupt elements, and dedicated to protecting and serving citizens.

The beating of Rodney King in 1991 was the first mass-distributed footage of police brutality. It brought into question the policing of black communities and the violent treatment of minorities. Nearly a quarter century later, in 2015, ubiquitous cameras and social media and the growing use of cop body-cams has laid bare the rampant use of excessive force and racial prejudice by many police, doubly disconcerting at a time of their increasing militarization. Serious (see: radical) reform is clearly needed—minorities, particularly young black men, are being murdered not only now, but have been for a very long time.

Right here in Miami, where historic Overtown was originally Colored Town, the land deeds spelled out segregation when they were drafted in 1896 at the time of incorporation. Southern blacks and Caribbeans came to lay down Henry Flagler’s railroads, and this community was policed harshly by Dade County cops. They were also routinely terrorized by the military that were based nearby. A “dual system of justice” was in effect, one that tolerated crimes against blacks committed by the police.4 This dual system still exists today, and it incarcerates millions of young black men across the United States based on mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession.

For many, the police are a feeling. They’re a twinge in the stomach as the red and blue hits the iris, a real or imagined breathlessness at the approach of uniform. If the police are meant to protect the citizens, then a lot of cops need serious policing.

There are, of course, police who do good work, those who prevent and solve crimes that are of a serious public interest to everyone. Those who proclaim that All Cops Are Bastards probably don’t have a solution to the still-fundamental problem of security in a violent society—after all, not only cops are bastards. Citizens across categories also continue to arm themselves, so that what we have effectively is an arms race in this country.

Still, as the videos will continue to illustrate for a long time to come, many cops are acting on a historical tendency embedded in American police culture: treat non-white males as inferior, and thus, as the enemy.

If a cop asks you out, say yes. Here’s Why: 1. Who doesn’t love a man (or woman) in uniform?
—“15 Reasons to Date a Police Officer,”

My friends James and Barbara own an old Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. You can see where the signage POLICE used to be on the trunk of the car. We were in Key Largo recently and went to a bar where a drunken patron bumped into me, who thereupon bought me another Corona with a lime in it. As I sat in the backseat on the way home, I remembered when I was fifteen years old riding my bike in downtown Miami, dressed all in black and watching the cops do these big group bike riding exercises (it was in advance of the Federal Trade Agreement of the Americas summit and the concomitant protests).

As I stood across the street from them, I snapped photos, catching the too-obvious symbolic implications of a big group of police in front of a Starbucks. One of them came over to me. And then a dozen came over to me. They took my camera and went through the photos, asked me questions about whether I was associated with any of the local anarchist organizations, ran my name in their name-running machine. They all lined up in front of me, though I didn’t feel too intimidated, since some of them were laughing and seemed generally in a good mood. I was, after all, only dressed in black.

One of the cops went through my backpack, and started to look through my notebook. It makes me cringe to think of what he saw—vague poetic musings on the state of the world, the state of my own godless teenaged self, assumptions about his position of power and of authority in general. After leafing through the pages, he told me that I still had time to seek help for the dark things I was thinking and feeling.

Indeed, the totality by which a social order is maintained is a great rainbow of human activity. And I am lucky to be on a certain side of it.

Rob Goyanes has work forthcoming in the Paris Review Daily and Interview magazine. He is still building a book about a paper airplane.

1 Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 9-11.
2 Mark Greif, Seeing Through Police, n+1 22 (Spring 2015).
3 Samuel A. Walker, A Critical History of Police Reform: The Emergence of Professionalism (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1977), 3-10.
4 Paul S. George, Policing Early Miami’s Black Community (Cocoa: Florida Historical Society, 1974), 434–37.