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Tuesday, June 02, 2020

The birth of the police union out of the destruction of American apartheid


Robert Sobel’s biography of Calvin Coolidge contains background on the event that catapulted Coolidge into celebrity: his attempt to bust the Boston Police Union. Coolidge was the governor of Massachusetts in 1919, and Boston was a hotbed of political activity – two anarchists from the region, Sacco and Vanzetti, would later impress themselves – their trial for armed robbery and murder, their execution - on the whole decade, creating a cause that brought hundreds of thousands out into the streets throughout the globe. In 1919, the AFL had been busy unionizing police departments. ”… thirty seven cities, including Washington D.C., Los Angeles, St. Paul,  and Vicksburg had police unions, most of them affiliated with the AFL.”

Coolidge, to tell a long story short, busted the Boston police union when they staged a walkout. It was a thorough victory. The AFL stopped trying to unionize police departments. Various Senators, Democratic and Republic, indicated that the threat of imminent Bolshevism was terminated.
That wasn’t the end of the police union, however. It is generally agreed that the next step came in the sixties. As described by Charles Salerno in Police at the Bargaining Table, the civil rights era jumpstarted police unions for two reasons: a., civil disobedience and protest showed police that there was a greater space for union activity than in the past; and b., the police responded to protests on campus and the struggle for civil rights by a sort of institution-wide panic. Policing had meant enforcing the bounds of apartheid, and upholding a white bourgeois social order. As apartheid began to crumble and the student movement made the white bourgeois social order seem weak and perverted, police unionization was  forged in opposition to these things. Salerno goes into a sort of cop romantic revery about the whole thing:

“To witness the wanton destruction and disruption of the schools, not by people unable to attend them, but by those who were fortunate enoghyt to be students, showed the police that nothing was held to be sacred anymore. The police were called onto campuses to restore order and suppress unruly crowds. They witnessed acts of vandalism, disrespect for authority, a severe lack of discipline, open defamation of the American flag, total disregard for law, open profanity, widespread usage of drugs, and physical attacks upon the police.”

Salerno’s narrative is suffused with the cop self-pity and thinly disguised white nationalist sentiment, but it probably accurately reflects the feelings and recollections of the almost all white urban police force:

“All these events had a traumatic effect on the police psyche. They would no longer sit in a corner and lick their wounds. They began to strike back and to take the offensive in an attempt to salvage their dignity and their pride. The Civil Rights Movement and the gains made by minority groups through civil disobedience served as examples to the police. Since they were an occupational minority and an extremely visible one as well, they began to organize into militant or semimilitant groups.”

And thus, out of a highly politicized reaction to the threat to the white order, the police union received its jolt of life – sorta like Frankenstein’s monster, made out of a grotesque hodgepodge of sentiment and organized power. The point is that racism is not just accidental to modern policing, but the glue that held together the unionization of police forces throughout the country.
This is a small but significant footnote in the rightward drift of American society since the sixties and seventies.  

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