Facebook user, Anthony Welichko posted the picture above with the following message about “The Safe Harbor Initiative.”
“To all law enforcement who see this line, know that the residents of this home appreciate your service and dedication to keeping the peace. Know that when you enter the neighborhood and see these lines that you are not alone or without “back-up”. We do not need the media to make our voices of support for our police and emergency services heard ( though it would be nice). Lastly, if you are in my neighborhood and mean to harm a member of law enforcement, know that decision may be hazardous to you health as someone has that officers back!”
This initiative fits in with rising rhetoric that there is a “War on Police.” Nevermind that there is no such thing as a war on police. This rhetoric is a countermobilization of white citizens responding to the effectivness of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in shaping the broader political agenda, in part by increasing scrutiny of police practices, including their decisively racist outcomes. The response of white citizens when police come under criticism is to redouble their public, visible, and unquestioning support for the institution of police and all its officers.
In August of last year, Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an 18-year-old Black man, Michael Brown. Just as Black residents of Ferguson rose up in response to the killing—and were subsequently joined by thousands across the country, under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter—police on the Ferguson police force and elsewhere were wearing bracelets reading “I Am Darren Wilson.” This contingent was also joined by white citizens in Ferguson who were ready to demonstrate their allegiance with and support for the police. The Twitter hashtag #HandsUpDontShoot—referencing the claims of eyewitnesses that Brown had his hands up when Wilson shot him—was answered by police supporters with #PantsUpDontLoot. A billboard bearing the latter phrase was erected near Ferguson.
When Black resident of Staten Island, Eric Garner, was strangled and killed by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, he repeatedly sputtered, “I can’t breathe!” This inspired a hashtag demonstrating affiliation and solidarity with Garner: #ICantBreathe. Just as in the case of police supporters demonstrating solidarity with Wilson, this time they retorted #ICanBreathe.
After Corporal Eric Casebolt assaulted a teenage Black girl at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, a nationwide controversy emerged. Video depicting the incident revealed the over-the-top racism and violence of officers attacking teenagers of color. That didn’t stop white citizens from demonstrating their support for police.
In my article, “Fabricating the Color Line in a White Democracy,” I concluded:
In 1721, the first agency in the United States that looked anything like modern police was given its mandate: prevent Black insurrection. This mandate has remained core to U.S. police ever since. Nothing more profoundly explains the persistence of racial outcomes of policing than this genetic moment, as throughout the nearly 300 years since, all reforms to the institution have managed to retain this imperative, when not in directive then certainly in practice. […]
Police, by virtue of this mandate, is the strong blue thread that weaves together the white race and the state, forming a barrier to full political inclusion of non-whites. (Brucato, 2014, pp. 48)
The understanding of the state at work, here, is based on Joel Olson’s idea of the white democracy, which describes the racial order in the United States as a democracy for whites and tyranny for all others. This is a distinctly political reading of histories provided by David Roediger, Theodore Allen, Noel Ignatiev and others, that shows working class whites surrender or subordinate their class identity to forge a cross-class alliance with the capitalist class. In exchange for defending the rule of capital and the racial order, whites earn their citizenship and its accoutrements, a component of what W.E.B. DuBois referred to as the material and psychological wages of whiteness.
What I argued in the article quoted above is that this has crucially important consequences for the relationship between white citizens and police. The white race and U.S. police are both political institutions that were historically created and are contemporarily reproduced through interaction and mutual reinforcement. The U.S. police institution was uniquely founded in concert with an active tradition of white citizen vigilantism.
Slave patrols were first used from 1704 until 1861. Together with agencies tasked with enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, these organizations were the primary influences on U.S. police. In the colonies, the earliest police organizations were imported from the Caribbean, and so were modeled after the Spanish paramilitary organization, Santa Hermandad. Though quasi-police organizations like the Boston Watchmen predate the slave patrols, the latter are both, as Walker and Katz have written, “a distinctively American form of law enforcement” and are “actually the first modern police forces in the country.”
The first slave patrols were tasked with capturing runaway slaves and were staffed by conscription and by volunteers. Conscripted men of means often sent their indentured servants in their stead, so in practice the patrols were mostly comprised by poor whites whose national origins placed them in the lower stations of colonial society. Over time, the patrols developed into formal bureaucracies that influenced the first modern police organizations that inherited from the slave patrols their style of organization, exclusive law enforcement function, and relationship to centralized oversight. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act enrolled not only the police in northern states but also all white citizens in the business of slave-catching and preventing the political organization of Blacks. The imperative for white citizens to detain anyone suspected of being a slave, the voluntary nature of the earliest slave patrols, and the local and informal character of the first police agencies, combined with a tradition of white terror enacted by vigilantes to enroll white citizens broadly in the policing of the color line.
From the founding and up to the Civil Rights era, a strong tradition of citizen vigilantism both influenced the conceptualization of the American social order and how it would be policed. Most criminologists who tell the story of vigilantism begin by naturalizing and fetishizing police. As a result, they attribute the growth of vigilantism to a weak police institution. This reads history backwards. In the early 19th century, white citizens had little conception of or experience with formal police institutions. Vigilantism was no mere adjunct to minimal policing. While it may be tempting to describe these as separate institutions or to describe their growth as coproductive or interactive; in fact, formal policing and vigilantism are two aspects of a singular institution that is historically and sociologically common in the United States.
With the expansion of the police institution, vigilantism is no longer necessary. However, the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman shows the tradition persists today. The public display of support for police by white citizens—particular after a controversial incident of police brutality or murder—is a crucial way they demonstrate that police is the strong blue thread that weaves together the white race and the state.