The deep history of police

This article was originally published in ROAR Magazine and is reprinted here under a Creative Commons license. Click here to read the original.

In “Sound of da Police,” KRS-One raps about continuities between overseers on slave plantations in the antebellum South and police in New York City in the early 1990s, punning on the words “overseer” and “officer” and swirling them together. Near the end of the track, KRS-One measures the timespan of American policing in generations, rapping,

My grandfather had to deal with the cops

My great-grandfather dealt with the cops

My GREAT grandfather had to deal with the cops

And then my great, great, great, great, when it’s gonna stop?!

The pileup of “great, great, great, great” tells a painful and repetitious history. It communicates rage, and exhaustion, at violent oppression gone on too long. With every mention of a generation that suffered policing, with every additional “great,” KRS-One’s condemnation of police gains strength. But how many “greats” are we talking about? When exactly did policing begin?

Two tales of US policing

One answer, aligned with “Sound of da Police,” traces policing to slave patrols in the American South. These patrols began forming around 1700 to surveil and control enslaved Black people. Comprised mainly of white males, patrols searched slave lodgings, hunted runaways, stopped slaves on roadways, and broke up meetings of slaves to prevent them from organizing conspiracies and revolts. Patrols were known for their brutality. They regularly beat, terrorized, tortured, raped and humiliated both enslaved and free Black people.

According to ex-slave Lewis Clarke, slave patrols were the “offscouring of all things…the scum of stagnant pools…the meanest, and lowest, and worst of all creation.” It was precisely these slave patrols that morphed into publicly funded police departments in the South. The transition, as some say, was seamless. Criminologists Melissa Hickman Barlow and David E. Barlow write that by 1837 police in Charleston amounted to one hundred officers, and that their primary function was slave patrol.

Boston’s night watch, for example, was established in the 1630s. Watchers worked sunset to sunrise, on the lookout for fires, bears, thieves, Indigenous people and runaway slaves. If someone was out after dark, watchers could stop and “examine” them, to suss out their purpose and to whom they might belong. Watchers eventually carried badges, rattles and billhooks, which they later traded for batons.

By 1838, Boston lawmakers had added a day watch to the night watch, calling the day watch “police.” In 1854, in the era of the Fugitive Slave Law, police and night watch combined, making The Boston Police Department.

A longer view

All this starts to answer the question of when policing began in what is now called the United States. It does not answer the question of when policing began in human societies.

Answering this question requires looking beyond the last four hundred years —with its virulent interlacing of policing, racism, capitalism and white supremacy— to the last 5,000; the period that sees the rise and spread of class societies wherein the resources and labor and lifeforce of the many are funnelled toward the enrichment, elevation and aggrandizement of the few. The few (a.k.a. elites) achieve this funnelling by some combination of state, economy, religion, warfare, empire, custom and law. It is through these tools that scaled-up domination blooms and booms.

Disband the Police, by Roger Peet via JustSeeds, used under a Creative Commons license.

Police, emerging at different times and in different places in this 5,000-year stretch, can be defined as armed, compensated individuals who enforce rules and protect accumulated property by way of violence, threat of violence, or some other penalty. On this definition, the place where policing first appears in the historical record is ancient Egypt.

Ancient Egypt is typically dated from around 3,000 BCE, with the kingship of Narmer, to 30 BCE, with the death of Cleopatra and absorption by Rome. This timespan is large, more than 50 percent of the history of class society. Although punctuated by dynastic changes, imperial disasters and seasons of disunity, for much of this time Egypt was an absolute monarchy, ruled by a pharaoh. State ideology revolved around maat, variously translated as “order,” “justice,” “truth,” “stability” and “correct being.”

In practice, as Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley explainsmaat meant that everyone must benefit the pharaoh. Order was vertical order. Execution of maat ensured that the top five percent of Egyptian society — the pharaoh and his administrators, high priests, etc. — controlled almost all wealth. Pharaohs squeezed their subjects. They seized their cut of every crop, herd and catch. Using corvée, slave and paid labor, they devoted massive resources to building pyramids, palaces and private waterways, monuments to themselves.

Seize him!

One image of policing from ancient Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty (2450 to 2325 BCE) can be found in the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, two servants of the pharaoh who, among other things, managed his team of manicurists. The scene takes place beside what seems to be a stand of produce, which could be in a marketplace or storehouse for the state. A naked youth reaches for some of the produce, but is apprehended by a monkey on a leash. The leash is held by a policeman, who shouts at the monkey, “Seize him! Seize him!” Behind the policeman waits a second monkey, also on a leash, and the policeman holds a baton, topped with a carved wooden hand.

Though the monkeys might surprise us, it was common for Egyptian police to train animals, both monkeys and dogs, for capture. Batons and staffs were standard, though depending on when and where they were stationed, police might be armed with spears.

What of the youth apprehended by the monkey? What would have happened to him? He might have been punished with one hundred blows, or one hundred blows plus five open wounds. In addition, he might have been ordered to pay a penalty in value of two or even 10 times what he stole. He might have had his ears or nose lopped off, and been sentenced to hard labor as part of a work-gang, in mines owned by the state or on one of the pharaoh’s extravagant building projects. Or, if the state had no use for him, he might be killed, impaled on a wooden spike.

Something so small as pilfering apples could brand one an enemy of the state — an agent of isfet, “chaos,” the opposite of maat. Whatever the punishment, the state deemed it necessary for the preservation of maat, disregarding the conditions that would have caused someone to steal in the first place.

The job

Much changed in ancient Egypt between the kingship of Narmer and Cleopatra’s death. We can nevertheless sketch a number of duties police performed, some predating the image of the policeman and monkey and youth, others coming after. Each duty, in one way or another, helped sculpt and maintain Egypt’s pyramidic structure.

Police guarded palaces, temples and royal tombs — all places where wealth was hoarded. They escorted slaves to and from worksites and oversaw them as they toiled. They monitored roadways and the transport of state revenues, such as grain, gold, cattle and people. Police operated prisons, kept rap sheets and tortured witnesses. They patrolled borders and frontiers and rounded up and executed rebels. They worked as detectives and bailiffs in the courts, which served as feeders of fresh labor to the state. They assisted with the collection of taxes and beat farmers who came up short or could not pay.

When a corvée laborer ran away, not wanting to fight in the army or wither in the mines, police would take the runaway’s family hostage, while hunting the runaway down. When the state uprooted entire populations from outlying or colonized areas and forcibly resettled them to work in the Nile Valley, it was police who stopped and searched them, checked their papers and dragged them back when they tried to flee.

Many of these duties were performed by police in the Twelfth Dynasty (1938 to 1755 BCE). This dynasty was founded when Amenemhat, a vizier, seized the throne in a coup. On the heels of instability and civil war, Amenemhat sought a renaissance, a return to Egypt’s heyday — he wanted, in short, to make Egypt great again. This involved the creation of a standing army, and aggressive expansion into Nubia. It also involved obsession with security, on both foreign and domestic fronts. Policing was put on steroids. War captives were marched in from all directions, for labor and for worse, and housed in barracks that were surveilled day and night. Exploitation hit a peak.

Describing life under the Twelfth Dynasty, Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson writes: “Resources — human as well as material, native as well as foreign — were there to be exploited for the benefit of the crown. People were merely another commodity, to be shipped from place to place.” Police were essential in this commodifying and shipping, and as these surged, as inequality grew and grew, as Egypt’s grip intensified, policing intensified too.

When is it gonna stop?

Policing in ancient Egypt was not a blip. Versions of policing occurred in other stratified societies, as for instance Mesopotamia, Mauryan India, Han China, and the Roman Empire, to name a few. At all events, police are muscle employed by the state, who impose the state’s claim to order. They do so according to guidelines, written or unwritten, spoken or unspoken, regarding who should get what and how much of it, and who should exist for whom.

Yes, some laws are conducive to the well-being of some people. Yes, policing does sometimes stop certain harms. However, an overwhelming function of policing — over millennia — is the making and protecting of gross inequality and obscene concentration of wealth and power. In the present as in ancient Egypt, police defend the system that pays them. So long as that system dominates, exploits and oppresses, so long as it preys upon instead of cares, both that system and its police will need to be abolished.

Since the image of the Egyptian policeman with his monkey detaining the youth was created, 175 generations have passed. We are 160 generations removed from the police state that was engineered by the Twelfth Dynasty. The formation of slave patrols in the American South is 13 generations away. One generation has passed since KRS-One shouted, “when it’s gonna stop?!” In even this one generation, policing has gone on too long.

Author Bio:

Stephen David Engel is a deep historian, activist and PhD candidate in History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz.