Our Enemies in Blue

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Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America is essentially a synthesis of existing work on police, although most previous works on the police have not looked at the origins of the police and whom they serve, rather choosing to describe specific elements of their job without looking at their underlying role in maintaining the existing power relations in society. It is this thesis-that the police, as an institution, are both an enemy of popular movements in this country as well as ordinary people and that the police are representatives of the state and the elites that support them-that sets Williams book apart from others on the subject. While this analysis is not particularly surprising, even a cursory look at how your local police department functions could lead one towards this thesis it is rare that such an assertion, it is rare for such an analysis to be presented as clearly and with as much supporting evidence as used by Williams in his book.

In order to prove his analysis, Williams looks at the origin of modern police systems over the past two-hundred years. Williams shows that the modern police system is a relatively new institution, albeit with roots extending back several hundred years, born out of a period of intense social conflict in the 1800s. The origin of the police system is traced to the development of political machines and industrial capitalism as Williams demonstrates how the police were developed to serve the interests of both the state and the elite segments of society that continue to benefit from the continued existence of the police force. This origin as an institution designed to defend the class interests of the elites leads Williams to the conclusion that the police are not working-class, an assertion that is at odds with the claims of many progressives who have argued that the police are working-class. Williams also shatters the myth that the police were developed in response to widespread crime, instead showing that the creation of the police has led to higher crime and the criminalization of large segments of our population as law enforcement shifted from reaction to prevention.

Williams adeptly attacks a variety of policing practices including the formation of so-called Police Paramilitary Units (PPUs) such as SWAT teams, community policing, and racial profiling, all of which have gained widespread usage throughout the 1980s and 1990s. By elucidating the origins of modern police departments in the South with the slave patrols of the 1800s and interweaving the history of racism, resistance to the civil rights movement by the police, and statistics relating to racial profiling, Williams provides convincing proof that police, as an institution, are inherently racist arguing that police and prisons have replaced the slave patrols and plantations as the country’s way of controlling minority populations. Similarly, Williams explains the origins of the SWAT team in the drug war of the 1980s and explains how police departments have used federal dollars to create a militarized police force, both in terms of weaponry and organization. So-called community policing efforts are also revealed by Williams to be an updated means of achieving social control, arguing that the goal of the community policing is to infiltrate communities and use their institutions to assist the police, creating a climate where the police use these institutions to expand their control while remaining unresponsive to the concerns of the community. Williams demonstrates that community policing leads to more advance forms of social control where homelessness is outlawed, political speech is limited, and technologies such as video surveillance networks are adopted.

Like many historical works, Our Enemies of Blue provides a plethora of detailed information about the origins of the police as an institution and their practice, but falls short when the question “what do we do about it?” is raised. Williams certainly comes from a perspective almost unheard of in works pertaining to the police, namely that the police are not necessary for the proper functioning of human society, but as Williams admits, the models he suggests are limited and that a full exploration of how society could function without police would merit its own book. However, Our Enemies in Blue succeeds in doing what Williams set out to do and he has successfully created a book that makes it clear that the police are an enemy of ordinary people in this country and that it is not enough to reform the institution, but based on its origins as a racist, sexist, and classist institution, it must be abolished.

Kristian Williams, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, (SoftSkull Press, 2004).

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Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org