It was only the New Deal that, among many other civilizing gifts to the public, changed the role of police and militia from agents of labor control into, more or less, guardians of property and ordinary order. As late as 1932, it was nothing unusual to see a governor — a Democrat no less — turn a machine gun on farmers protesting low prices. This happened just a few miles from Ferguson, Missouri, in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
The idea that the cop is Officer Friendly would have seemed outlandish to our forebears. Police were agents of repression in service of the rich, and everybody understood that.
This was true of both formal and informal police. It was most obvious with the “paterollers” of the upper South, white men conscripted to serve a few nights each month as cavalry to terrorize blacks and catch runaway slaves.
But it was also the case with formal police forces, once these began to be enrolled. Every boss knew that if he could not keep his workers in line with low wages, payment in scrip, company stores, eviction, blacklists and strong-arm men, he could call the mayor or governor to have the police or the militia shoot them, or their families.
Police were kept on a payroll in order to have them available to brutalize workers. The rest of the time they filled their days serving eviction notices for landlords and collecting bribes from whorehouses.
There is no instance known to me when police or militia refused to act as the bosses’ enforcers. Legislators chipped in by passing laws that excluded workers from civil rights protections.
It was usual to ride down workers and their wives and children with cavalry, and not unusual to place cannon in the streets to intimidate them.
In the South, the sheriff was also expected to organize and lead lynch mobs.
If the local arms of law and disorder were inadequate, in exceptional circumstances the regular army was available. In fact, President Washington used regulars against protesters because that was the only force he had available. Later, the militia was usually sufficient.
Despite what it says in the 2nd Amendment to the Bill of Rights, the United States has never had — nor even attempted to create — a well-regulated militia. When used in war, the militia has performed poorly, usually running away (as recently as 1942); and in peace it has done nothing much beyond murdering women and children. Chivington’s Colorado “Volunteers” were a particularly noisome example.
Since the New Deal, however, bosses have not been able to call the governor and have him send out troops to shoot workers. The governor who changed this was Frank Murphy of Michigan, who called out his National Guard to protect workers who were under attack from police and mobs of company goons. It was the first time in American history that the militia were used to protect ordinary citizens instead of bosses. It was a startling change for the Michigan National Guard, which President Wilson had sent to Murmansk in 1919 to shoot Russian workers. The Russian workers fought back and over 500 Michigander militia were killed, most left behind in unmarked graves.
Murphy was punished by losing the next election, but his precedent has generally held. Nowadays, regular troops are even called out to uphold the rule of law, as President Eisenhower did at Little Rock; or sometimes when real disorders occur.
There is backsliding. Murphy’s adherence to lawful principles was shocking and unwelcome to the oppressing classes, who screamed, through their corrupt newspapers, for him to have the workers shot. At times, as at Kent State and Ferguson, large police or militia forces are deployed in order to create riots — as admitted, memorably, by Mayor Richard Daley who said his Chicago cops were there to create disorder. And the frightened right-wingers still want to go back to the good old days when Douglas MacArthur used panzers against unemployed veterans. Gov. Rick Perry has game wardens armed with machine guns in Texas.
But for the most part, the trajectory of policing over the past 70 years had been toward professionalism, training and enforcement of actual laws. The memorandum did not reach all districts, and racism is still in control in too many places, from the biggest to the smallest.
Still, the pictures of a masked cop training his rifle on women in the streets last week was shocking, because we do not know our own history. We have come that far. Or maybe we only thought we had.