It’s all too easy to rely on mainstream media for our sense of how racism operates.   We are socialized to do so.  However, mainstream media is run by Whites and their limited experience or perspective directly affects what they cover, and how they cover a given topic.  All too often, they cover events in Black neighborhoods from the perspective of an outsider.  While they may use Black reporters, the White editors lack of certain experiences leads them to select topics which are the most convenient to cover.  They can report on statistics about poverty, high unemployment, crime and now the difficulties in getting a mortgage.  What they fail to cover is the policies which direct how police view and treat those neighborhoods.

As a result of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings, many whites have become aware of the ongoing pattern of police killings of unarmed Black men and women.  The term DWB, or Driving While Black, has now become fairly widespread.  Notice the next time one of these killings occurs that the media will probably not mention how many times such a killing has taken place in the last month or year.  Some media will make that connection, but I suspect that you have not seen media accounts that connect such killings to the counterinsurgency strategy that is applied by local police and the federal government to Black neighborhoods.  Counterinsurgency strategy?  You may find it incredulous that I mention counterinsurgency strategy.

However, while you may not have heard of it used in US neighborhoods, you may have heard of one of its tactics, labeled as “the broken windows” approach to policing.  This approach to policing Black neighborhoods was made famous by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton in New York City.  What the media failed to explain, in its coverage of this tactic, is how it stems from two historical trends that begin in the 19th century.

With the rise of industrialization in the 1900’s, the ruling elites in the north could no longer rely on the church and the family for social control and deference.  Industrialization produced wide wealth gaps and social strife.  The poverty and overcrowding of the poor led to an increase in drunkenness and other acts of public disorder, including demonstrations and riots. Rather than address the underlying issues that caused the social strife,

“local elites preferred to blame the crisis of urbanization on the moral shortcomings of the poor, and the idea of ‘dangerous classes’ was born…The particular population identified with the dangerous classes varied by locale. ..In the northern United States, it was the immigrant lower classes; in Boston, the term especially applied to Irish Catholics.”[1]

To the elites, “drunkenness and vagrancy seemed to threaten the standards of diligence and self-control central to Protestant morality and crucial to an economic system dependent on regularity, predictability, and a disciplined workforce.”[2]

These elites turned to the mechanisms of the state and created municipal police.   The first civilian police force was the London Metropolitan Police established in 1829.  Importantly, the founder was Sir Robert Peel who modeled it

after a militarized colonial force: the Irish Constabulary (aka the “Peace Preservation Force”), a police force that Sir Robert Peel himself had created in Ireland in 1814 when he was chief secretary for Ireland. The Irish Constabulary was a heavily armed instrument of the English colonial state created to suppress anticolonial uprising and other outbreaks of rural disorder. When creating the London Metropolitan Police as an alternative to the army, Peel’s inspiration was this colonial force. [3]

In the US, during these years, crime was not actually increasing, in spite of the rhetoric.  “In Boston, for example, crime went down between 1920 and 1930 and continued to drop for the rest of the nineteenth century.” Yet, arrests increased. “Most were related to victimless crimes or crimes against the public order.  They did not involve violence or the loss of property, but instead concerned public drunkenness, vagrancy, loitering, disorderly conduct or being a ‘suspicious person.’”[4]

The reliance on military experience was evident again when the US began to “professionalize” its municipal police forces at the turn of the 20th It too turned to the experience it military had in subduing captive populations, either in the newly acquired  US colonies of the Phillipines, Cuba, Puerto Rico or during the prolonged military occupations of Haiti (21 years), Cuba (4 years), Nicaragua (15 years)  and the Dominican Republic. (9 years).

The experiences gained there certainly informed the views of August Vollmer, the first police chief of Berkeley, CA (1905).  He formed his views while serving in military occupation of the Phillipines.  He drew heavily on that experience.  “He was among the very first to mount his entire force and create mobile squads, create police intelligence divisions, establish police training schools, and develop a range of new technologies that were later picked up by many other departments (Wilson 1953).”[5] So influential were his changes, that by the 1910s police departments around the country, from Los Angeles to Chicago to Detroit, brought him in as a consultant or as temporary chief to modernize their departments.[6]

He taught at UC, Berkeley and Chicago universities. In 1921 he became president of the IACP (International Association of Police chiefs).  He consistently referred to his experience in the military. In addressing a group of police officers, he noted: “For years, ever since Spanish-American War days, I’ve studied military tactics and used them to good effect in rounding up crooks. After all we’re conducting a war, a war against the enemies of society and we must never forget that” (Vollmer quoted in Parker 1961, p. 144).”[7]

In the Philippines, Vollmer had used mobile mounted troops to surprise and surround dissident groups who had been identified by the intelligence unit.  This combination of rapid deployment units and the widespread use of systemically gathered “intelligence” is one of the hallmarks of counterinsurgency strategy.  A conversation with anyone living in a Black neighborhood will elicit descriptions about the level of intelligence gathering that goes on there.   As one Fresno, CA police official said: “If you’re twenty-one, male, living in one of these neighborhoods, been in Fresno for ten years and you’re not in our computer—then there’s definitely a problem.”[8]

The reliance on intelligence is a key component of COIN (counter-insurgency) theory.  It stipulates that individuals who do not accept the status quo must be identified.  During the FBI counterinsurgency program Cointelpro of the 1960’s, a major emphasis was placed on inserting informants among the Black Panthers and other organizing groups in the Black neighborhoods.  In their actions against another group of “insurgents” in 2001, the FBI infiltrated the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberations Front.  Their informant taped 40 conversations for a total of 88 hours of audio recording.

How many Whites have experience living in neighborhoods that are targeted for counter-insurgency?  How many teenagers in White neighborhoods are pulled over by police, searched and required to provide their names and contact information that is then entered into a data base?  These are not stories you hear in White neighborhoods.

By dint of not being White, Black neighborhoods fit the characterization of being a dangerous class, an outlier to the White culture.  You have only to review data on where the police spend their time in your municipal and you will see that the bulk of the self-generated calls from police and the stops occur in Brown and Black neighborhoods.  Clearly the nineteenth century category of dangerous classes still exists.  So also does the military approach that was first developed as the US army sought to keep order among occupied populations at the turn of the nineteenth century.  As William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead, it is not even past.”

As communities discuss how to move forward in dismantling institutional racism, they must examine how COIN is operating in their municipality.  If they are committed to creating equity for all their residents, they would either have to reject the policy of policy via COIN or they would have to extend it to White neighborhoods.  If they do the later, they would also have to create a mechanism to track the extent to which it is occurring in all neighborhoods.  I am sure that wealthy and white neighborhoods will never submit to having their neighborhoods policed via COIN strategies.  As long as Whites allow the police to use COIN as a policing approach in Black and Brown neighborhoods they are keeping in place an oppressive system – one they will never permit in their own neighborhoods.

[1] Williams, Kristian, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, 2007, p.67

[2] Ibid., p 68

[3] Go, Julian, “The Imperial Origins of American Policing: Militarization and Imperial Feedback in the Early 20th Century.”  American Journal of Sociology, Vol 125, No.5, March, 2020https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/708464

[4] Williams, Kristian, Our Enemies in Blue, p. 69

[5] Go, Julian. Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid

[8] Williams, Kristian. Fire the Cops!: Essays, Lectures, and Journalism . Kersplebedeb Publishing. Kindle Edition. 2014