Policing in America: “Keeping the Jigs in Line”

By Mike Ely
Let me start with a personal story far from the urban ghettos:

I once lived in the “black belt” of West Virginia — from Gary Holler to Welch to Bluefield — where there were a string of coal camps containing interspersed black communities. And in a small coal camp on the Elkhorn river (population under 1,000) i was talking to the town cop in an afterhours semilegal speakeasy joint.

And he said to me (simply): “My job is keeping the jigs in line.”

It was that conscious.

And, it  was not like there was no actualcrime in this little town that might preoccupy a cop. And it was not like the real crime in town was somehow concentrated among the Black folks.

There was a copper stealing ring of white coalminers who delivered their goods to the local junk guy. There was lots of breaking and entering. There were meth rings. There was tons of wife beating and other domestic abuse. There were illegal strikes all the time. There was arson going on for insurance purposes (where desperate people burned their cars or homes). And there was the usual madness of working class life, like people shooting each other’s dogs over disputes. etc. And most of this (obviously) involved white people (if only because they were the majority of the town).

But for this cop (and for countless cops like him across the U.S.) his main job was “keeping the jigs in line.”

And (because i was white) he thought it was natural, and understandable, and obvious enough that he just said it — unapologetic and without any shame. It was his job. He knew it. The mayor who hired him said it. And it was widely understood — including(certainly the black youth knew his main job was terrorizing them.

And that is a huge part of what policing in the U.S. is about — and has always been about. In cities, in rural areas, in small towns, everywhere in this place called America.

Different Experiences Creating the White Blindspot

i think part of this is that the actual experience with police is so different, that perceptions of what is possible are sharply different.

Many middle class white people feel “relieved” to see police. They nod at police as they ride through the street, or when they come onto the subway car. They feel safer. They certainly don’t feel threatened. And why should they?

At the same time poor people, alienated youth, black people, immigrants (especially the undocumented) become tense. The arrival of cops means the situation might suddenly explode in unpredictable directions. They feel under hostile scrutiny. They feel challenged. They sense that if they respond in kind they might be humiliated in public. In many cases their mothers warned them that a confrontation with the police can lead to death, and to get ready to swallow their pride and put on a passive, non-hostile poker face.

Many white people have no idea how many Black mothers train their sons to survive police encounters. There is role playing and repeated warnings. Mothers tell their sons when they hear of police murders, just so their sons understand that they can end up dead. “Remember to let them see your hands. If you are asked to go for ID, say “I’m reaching for my wallet” very loud. and try to make sure witnesses hear you too.”

So when a young black man is murdered by some psycho white cop, the assumptions are very different. Black people widely say “we know what happened here, it happens all the time.”

And many middle class white people “can’t imagine” that a cop would carry out a street execution and (in their own racist view) assume “he must have been doing something suspicious or threatening.”

And basically, the assumptions of Black people are perceptive. And the disbelief of white people are ignorant (and often willfully ignorant in a very racist way.) And the murderous hostility of cops (including black cops, btw) toward black youth is often very conscious, and very open when you get in close.

These are generalities, and there are lots of exceptions (i.e. white people who are conscious of police as pigs and occupiers of black communities; or black people who are so hostile to the Black youth that they welcome police brutality.)

There are also complex consciousnesses: especially the naive sentiment in many black communities (especially among the more conservative) that they want both more police “protection” and less police murder (as if that is likely!) In its own way, this is a form of demanding equality — a non-radical demand for “being treated like everyone else” — a demand that the police stop viewing the black community as enemy territory and start acting like they are there to “serve and protect.”

In an ultimate sense, the police are defenders and instruments of a class society — its property relations, its normal functionings, its mores etc.)

But in the U.S., those property and class relations have always been utter entwined with “the color line” — because race has been used as a way to trap millions of people in castelike special exploitation at the bottom of the class ladder (first as slaves, then as sharecroppers, then as working poor, and as nonworking poor as well.)

Anyone who doesn’t understand that function of police can think about this thought experiment:

A friend said to me “what would it take to house the homeless?”

And (in a deliberate provocation) I said “call off the police for 24 hours.”

We live in a city with thousands of empty apartments, with huge hotels downtown and throughout the area, with rich people living in mansions with guest rooms and basements and spare couches. What stops homeless people from sleeping in these empty spaces everynight, having warmth in the bitter Chicago cold and a decent shower? Fundamentally only one thing: the police enforcing property laws.

The hotel rooms (even when empty) “belong” to someone — the hotel owner. They are not available without money. For a homeless woman with children to connect with such an occupant-less room is (in this society)a form of theft — and would immediately be cause for police response (including violence).

Of course, the thought experiment is magical:

a) the police don’t disappear for 24 hours
b) the homeless are not organized to take over empty spaces
c) under capitalism, there would be chaos of many kinds if the ordinary laws of society were simply suspended.

But the fact is that on any bitter Chicago night there are far more warm empty apartments than there are fearful suffering homeless people — and yet all the weight of society (including the police) function to separate the homeless from the homes, and the hungry from the food, and the impoverished from their basic needs.

The laws (ordinary, accepted, almost invisible everyday laws of functioning) defend an awful property system of inequality and heartlessness.

And the hostile patrolling of Black communities, and the constant drumbeat of police murders, are tied to that as well — is a manifeatation of the police function of “defending law and order.” (I.e. whose law, and what order?!)


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