On the 25th of May 2020, George Floyd entered a Cup Foods in Minneapolis. He then allegedly attempted to pay for a package of cigarettes using a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. He reportedly left the establishment with the stolen tobacco. The staff called the police. The officers Thomas Lane and Alexander Kueng arrived first at 8:08 pm. Kueng found Floyd sitting in a car outside the store. Lane pointed his gun at Floyd and ordered him to place his hands on the steering wheel, Floyd obeyed. Lane next ordered Floyd out of the vehicle and onto the ground where he handcuffed him. The officers body cameras captured this arrest.
Then at 8:14 pm, Lane and Kueng walked Floyd to their squad car. Floyd stiffened and refused to enter the vehicle. He complained that he was claustrophobic.
Derek Chauvin and Tou Thao arrive in a separate squad car. Chauvin had worked with Floyd previously when they worked security at the El Nuevo Rodeo nightclub in Minneapolis. Chauvin had reportedly been a loose cannon while at the nightclub. Chauvin had also reputedly fought with Floyd during the year he worked at the nightclub. David Pinney has since retracted this claim and said that Floyd was another man.
When we next see Floyd he is on the ground at 8:19 pm. Chauvin had thrown Floyd to the ground handcuffed and placed his knee on his neck. Meanwhile Kueng held onto Floyd’s back while Lane held his legs. Thao stood watch for eight minutes while Floyd complained that he couldn’t breath and slowly died.
Violence exploded in Minneapolis the next day.
But did it have to end that way?
Where did the modern police come from?
Originally policing was a community affair in colonial America. People volunteered to work part-time under the supervision of a Constable for the Night Watch. The job of a Constable wasn’t itself an in demand job either. The job was low-pay and they were only paid fees for warrants. Few people wanted the job. Constables were further responsible for land surveying and for providing calibrated weights for measurements. The Night Watch mostly patrolled for prostition and gambling in 1636 Boston, but they also watched for free slaves. The Night Watch would later spread to New York and Philadelphia in later years.
In the end the Night Watch didn’t contribute very much towards impending crime. Nobody wore a badge and even if they had, many Watchmen were famous for drinking on the job. It further didn’t help that Watchmen duty could be a punishment in itself. Some localities tried to make the service compulsory but it only encouraged the wealthy to outsource the job to paid thugs.
The story was different in the south with the Texas Rangers. The Rangers were founded for the protection of the colonists and they were paid for their services. Yet this protection soon escalated into violence when in 1841 Captain Jack Hayes led a war against the Comanche Indians. The violence continued as the colonists continued the movement of the Texas capitol from Houston to Austin. Then in 1846, the commissioner Samuel Walker ordered the Rangers to join the war with Mexico. The Rangers became notorious for their actions against Mexico that even the military found distasteful.
But the arrival of the metropolis in the 20th century changed the equation. Volunteers and fee for warrant constables were no longer a sustainable option for policing. The threats were also evolving, sort of. Immigrants started to flow in from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Italy. They had unique traditions that were bound to clash. Businesses further wanted to maintain order without the hassle of negotiating with unions. Corporations solved this by exercising their political influence to create law enforcement forces within their local governments. It is ironic that the law enforcement unions they despised have accumulated considerable influence in recent decades. Then in 1838 Boston the first true police organization arrived with officers paid to work full-time. Boston was at that time a major shipping hub and companies had a strong interest in protecting their goods. The Boston strategy further gave corporations a convenient method for transferring the cost of security to the public.
In the meantime the southern states still had an interest in protecting their interests in slaves and the police provided a convenient method for legitimizing their treatment. Congress formalized this racism in 1850 with the Fugitive Slave Act. This law placed the responsibility of arresting free African-Americans suspected of fleeing the south in the jurisdiction of law enforcement.
Within the next forty years every major American city had a police department. This political situation only created further problems because at that time police captains were often picked by a local political party. These parties had loyalties to businesses that could be in the undertaking of activities that were occasionally illegal. The police were also a convenient tool for intimidating political opponents. This corruption became a real problem after Prohibition outlawed all alcohol in the United States. President Hoover even appointed the Wickersham Commission to investigate how local political influence could be removed from law enforcement.
The rise of the drug war coupled with recent court rulings have only amplified the authority of the police in the last forty years. The drug war authorized the police to conduct broad searches for illicit substances and they regularly did in impoverished minority communities. The government provided billions of dollars in military equipment for the cops. The courts later affirmed the authority of law enforcement and handed down brutal sentences for offenders.
Is law enforcement here to protect you or the establishment?