The Progressive Movement To Abolish The Police

In the history of bad ideas, the latest progressive brainstorm — defund the police — is among the most idiotic of them all.

Abolishing police and prisons were ideas first floated in our ivory towers.  They have now gone mainstream.  For instance, according to Vox:

Amid the anti-police brutality protests across the country, a once-obscure slogan is gaining traction: Defund the police.

The Working Families Party, an institutionalized progressive movement anchored on the left flank of the Democratic Party, especially in New York, and the Sunrise Movement, a climate-focused left-wing youth organization, tweeted the call on May 31.

A three-word slogan is not a detailed policy agenda, and not everyone using the slogan agrees on the details. . . .

And lest you think this just a few historically ignorant Marxists screaming from their basement or their cloistered ivy-league offices, take note of Minn. state legislator Aisha Gomez, who is now circulating her own policy proposal, “Police Abolition.”  Powerline has the story.  Ms. Gomez takes the Marxist screed to the next level:

Beloved Community,

This is why we talk about police abolition.

There is no reform that can fix this system. No training or body camera or coaching or diversification effort or outside investigation or toothless oversight body that can fix this.

The rot in police departments is the rot in our political and social systems, crystallized and heavily armed. It is a reflection of our country, built on the enslavement of African people and the genocide and dispossession of Native people, reliant on exploited immigrant labor to enforce the racialized social order and help the powerful accumulate wealth. . . .

The police exist to uphold this social order, with deadly force when necessary. Like they did on 38th and Chicago last week, with a knee on George Floyd’s neck as he said he couldn’t breathe and begged for his life. . . .

The origins of policing in the U.S. are in slave patrols that hunted liberated enslaved people and quelled uprisings. . . .

We can and must intentionally walk away from a system of state violence that murders and terrorizes Black and Brown men to uphold white supremacy and capitalism.

We can and must orient ourselves to a world beyond policing as it is currently designed, where we build real safety for all members of our community, or we will stay caught in the same cycle of state sanctioned murder of Black men in the streets, outrage, and failed reform, on and on, that we’ve been in for decades. . . .

Do read Mr. Hinderaker’s commentary.  As he points out that:

The fact is that every single person who has any ability to change Minneapolis’s police department is a member of the left wing of Gomez’s own DFL Party–Governor Tim Walz, Mayor Jacob Frey, and every member of the Minneapolis City Council (with the exception of one Green Party member). And the principal obstacle to reform, here as elsewhere in the world of government, is the police officers’ union. But the public sector unions are, far and away, the principal funders of Gomez’s DFL Party.

Suffice it to say, there is nothing that our progressive left can’t charge as racist in origin, making up the history out of whole cloth as they go along.   The NYT did it with the 1619 Project, claiming that America was wholly created on the back of slavery and thus we are an evil nation to our core.  For that level of historically revisionist fabulism, one can get a Pulitzer Prize in 2020.  Ms. Gomez is apparently tossing her hat into the mix for next year’s prize.

To say that the origin of policing in the U.S. was slave patrols shows a woman completely ignorant of history or who simply does not care.  The origins of policing in America and the world at large are as old as man has been a social animal, congregating in groups and making laws to govern their conduct in society.  When colonists first arrived in America from Britain, they brought with them the British common law legal system, complete with sheriffs and courts.  That system had developed over half a millennium and none of it had anything to do with chattel slavery.  On the contrary, policing, by whatever name one calls it, is a necessary component of civilization.

Indeed, in the 17th century, during Britain’s period of civil wars, there was a great deal of ink expended on the philosophical question of how best to organize a just society.  On one side of the question was the absolute monarchist, Thomas Hobbes, who famously outlined his case in the text, Leviathan.  At the other end of the political spectrum was John Locke, the man who articulated the philosophy of liberal democracy in his Second Treatise of Government.  Both men, citing history, agreed that the bedrock of society was an executive that had the police power of government to enforce the laws with appropriate punishment, up to and including execution.  The two men also agreed that, absent this executive wielding those powers, mankind existed in a “state of nature.”  As Hobbes put it, the life of man in such a state is inevitably “nasty, brutish and short.”

So for Ms. Gomez to claim that policing existed in America only to police slaves is simply dark fantasy.  That said, there are three examples from colonial American history that speak to real-world examples of life without police.  None has anything to do with slavery.

The first example was the tribal society of the American Indians.  James Adair, a native of Scotland, spent forty years among the tribes of the the South-Eastern Woodlands, writing a book about their societies and culture (free online at Google Books) in 1775, The History of the American Indians.   Adair found all of the woodland tribes to be similar in structure, beliefs and philosophy.  These were groups of people who congregated together for safety and created societies to rule their lives, complete with laws and a means to enforce those laws with a police power.  But outside of those small, individual societies, what ruled was lawless tribalism and horrific brutality with constant warfare as tribes would seek to conquer others or to exact revenge.  Indeed, according to Adair, the desire for blood-soaked revenge was the single most animating feature of the tribes.  It was Hobbes’s “state of nature” but once removed from the individual level.  And that has virtually always been one of the defining characteristics of tribal societies.  That is something to consider as the progressive left tries to break this country into tribal components.

The second example, more on point, was in the area of colonial society called the “back-country.”  Each of the original thirteen colonies had coastal settlements governed by executives, sheriffs and courts.  As more colonists arrived, particularly the massive Scots-Irish immigration beginning in early to mid 1700’s, they moved into the unpopulated areas of the colonies, occupying settlements far inland.   Each of the thirteen colonies referred to these in-land settlements as their back-country.  One of the defining characteristics of these areas was that they lacked support from the major coastal cities.  They were left on their own to defend themselves from Indians, to police themselves and to punish criminals.  It was, in essence, people living in Hobbes’s “state of nature.”  These were precious few slave owners among these back-country people, even in the deep South.  By the mid-1760’s, they were begging the coastal governments to extend sheriffs and courts to the back-country.

In the absence of sheriffs and courts, the people of the back-country took to developing a formal vigilante movement that came with its own significant problems of lawlessness and violence.  That movement in the Carolinas was given the name “the Regulator Movement.”  The royal governments crushed the Regulator Movement prior to the Revolution, but they also made the movement unnecessary by finally extending the rule of law and policing power into the back-country.

The problem of vigilantism in the absence of policing authorities was most dramatically demonstrated in the Pennsylvania back-country with the 1763 Paxton Boys incident.  In that incident, a group of Scots-Irish settlers lynched a group of peaceful Connestoga Indians and then marched on Philadelphia because of the lack of any support from the royal government of the colony.

The Indian tribes, the Paxton Boys, and the Regulator Movement all highlight another aspect of policing that Ms. Gomez and her ilk are ignoring.  In the absence of law and order, people inflamed by injury or crime will almost always impose brutal penalties themselves.  As Glenn Reynolds often says, “the police aren’t there to protect us from criminals; the police are there to protect the criminals from us.”  Perhaps the progressive left ought to consider that reality before they get what they wish for.  Or not.  I’d love to see the proggies try to get away with another riot in an area with no police authority and people left permanently on their own to freely defend themselves and their property.