The media coverage of the decision to exonerate the policeman who killed an unarmed black teenager has focused on the ‘night of rage’ in Ferguson, Missouri. Tragedies like Michael Brown’s in Missouri and Trayvon Martin’s in Florida – like other cases – raise uncomfortable questions about the strained relationship between American police and local communities.

In the UK, it is easy to situate incidences of police brutality into a narrative about the decline of familiar neighbourhood policing and erosion of traditional civil liberties. But it’s hard to take this assumption of policing by consent for granted in the American past, as a look back to the mid-1800s will show.

American cities relied on what seem to us antiquated models of policing well into the nineteenth century. Boston, for example, had two separate day and night police departments until well into the 1850s. Philadelphia instead separated its police forces over space between 29 separate municipalities, giving each neighbourhood of the modern city its own force. New York elected local constables by ward, limiting each policemen’s writ to where he was known to the local community. And the first thing any newly-elected mayor did was fire every single officer and appoint a new force from among his supporters.

To us, such a system might seem patronage-ridden and incompetent. Many city-dwellers thought the same way. These non-uniformed, part-time, and often poorly respected constables were usually unable to contain the violent riots that plagued American cities in the nineteenth century. Reformers, often drawn from the ranks of the city elite, called for a new, professional gendarmerie often modelled on Sir Robert Peel’s innovations in London. In the 1840s and 1850s, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia all introduced uniformed professional policing.

But to the supporters of old-fashioned policing, these reformers’ plans seemed tyrannical, authoritarian, and unjust. Drawing from traditional republican fears of European-style standing armies, they derided these modern police departments as centralized, remote militias designed to reinforce the power of the state and well-connected elites. To many communities, the old model of policing guaranteed respect for civil liberties while defending riot, protest, and disobedience in public as an integral part of urban democracy.

To nineteenth-century small-d democrats, law and order and local democracy seemed like mutually exclusive prospects.

Take San Francisco. In 1856, claiming its government corrupt and unable to maintain law and order, the city’s native-born elite forced out the city’s predominantly working-class Irish Catholic government at gunpoint. This self-proclaimed ‘Committee of Vigilance’ ruled the city for four months and even held trials – and executions. In the name of honest government and municipal order, the Vigilantes were happy to withdraw democracy from undeserving voters and institute a reign of terror.

Despite their approval, Eastern elites never resorted to Vigilance Committees. But when New York’s Irish Catholics rioted during the American Civil War and attacked the city bourgeoisie in opposition to conscription, the government responded by occupying the city with soldiers who had just fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. When the nation’s railroad workers downed tools in 1877 – with the support of local police – political and corporate elites sent in troops who had once been fighting the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan. Bullets and bayonets forced Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Baltimore back to work. Rather than fighting violent racists in the South, the army would keep an eye on the Northern working class.

Early Americans took an expansive view of democracy as popular control of public space, through community police, riots, and strikes – not just depositing a ballot every few years. Policing, rather than being an instrument of maintaining order, was more an agent of popular government. This meant keeping the constables who policed it as close to the people as possible. 1850s reformers knew that, by divorcing these new, centralised, remote police forces from popular control, they were curbing popular government by reorienting power from the people to the state.

Lost in the media reporting of Ferguson, which privileges burning cars, and a debate over whether to defend arson and riot, is this debate over popular power in a policed community. With militarised municipal police and state militia patrolling the streets of Ferguson, the nineteenth-century institutionalisation of racial and class conflict into law enforcement, honed under Jim Crow and the urban North, seems to have survived the Civil Rights era. Despite the apparent anachronism of eighteenth-century policing, understanding the radicalism of early American democracy can help us make sense of the strained relationship between American police and their communities. And with state police power growing and the privatization of public space, it has greater relevance than ever today, for Ferguson, and for ourselves.

Image from Wikimedia Commons: “Sixth Regiment Fighting its way through Baltimore,” an engraving on front cover of “Harper’s Weekly, Journal of Civilization,” Vol XXL, No. 1076, New York, Saturday, August 11, 1877.

Charlie Thompson is in his third year of PhD study at the University of Sheffield. His thesis deals with centralization and its discontents in mid-nineteenth-century America.

Tags : American historydemocracynineteenth-century historyPhiladelphia history
Charlie Thompson

The author Charlie Thompson

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