Nearly every so-called race riot in the United States since 1935 has been sparked by a police incident. Studies of the origins of violence in these goes way back

How can videos of police assault prompt anyone to berate protesters for saying the police should maybe get less money? 

How can videos of cops tear gassing city blocks prompt anyone to demonize those saying we should spend less on militarized cops and more on schools and housing? 

How can videos of police beating peaceful protesters prompt anyone to tell protesters they haven’t properly focus-grouped or poll-tested their jeremiads of despair? 


Nearly every so-called race riot in the United States since 1935 has been sparked by a police incident.

In 1905, Pennsylvania did something unprecedented: It founded America’s first state police force.

The new institution, which was more highly militarized than previous law enforcement systems, was created for one reason: The state government wanted a more organized and efficient way to break strikes. The new force approached that mission with zeal — and violence. In 1909, members of the Pennsylvania State Police killed several strikers during the Pressed Steel Car Strike, a strike by workers who built railroad cars; after a crowd broke one state trooper’s leg, police were given orders to shoot to kill. A report by the New York World recorded similar orders that were given during the Philadelphia Car Strike, a transit strike that turned into a general citywide strike the following year. “The police response was not an effort to terrify but an attempt to kill,” the World reported.

Today, as protests against police brutality in the United States gain momentum, calls to abolish the police have become increasingly popular. But while those demands have been shocking to many, they’re far from new. The sentiments behind police abolitionism date to the earliest establishment of the police as a government institution, and were deeply rooted in late-19th and early-20th century organized labor, the force the police were created to rein in. It’s a forgotten part of American history, but as the relationship between the police force and civilians reaches a point of new tension, it’s increasingly essential to remember.

“The origins of modern policing are rooted in an era of pretty intense labor conflict,” said William P. Jones, a historian at the University of Minnesota. (A disclosure: As the chair of the Forward’s unit of the NewsGuild of New York, I’m a member of the organized labor movement.) While the origins of the police can be traced back for centuries — in America, the police have roots in patrols intended to catch escaping slaves — the first official police forces arose in the mid-1800s, as the norms of life for the working class dramatically shifted.

You start having these large masses of people who aren’t under the direct authority of a particular person, the way serfs were, or slaves were,” said Alex Gourevitch, a professor of political science at Brown University. Eventually, the newly independent workers began striking for better working conditions. As the strikes became larger, employers became concerned that the private security they hired — frequently referred to as coal and iron police — was insufficiently equipped to protect the employers’ interests. “They start realizing they need to pay taxes for a well-armed police that has the legal authority and the weapons to suppress these strikes,” Gourevitch said.

“In the late 19th century, labor conflict was, in the view of many, the most pressing threat to the social order, to the status quo,” said Jones. “That was the impetus for the development of state police forces and city police forces.” The perceived threats posed by the newly-created independent working class didn’t just have to do with employers’ sense that they were losing control; they were closely tied to xenophobia. “Labor conflict itself was deeply wrapped up in debates over immigration,” Jones said. Anti-labor rhetoric “was often very clearly tied in the mainstream press to the idea that German and Italian immigrants were bringing radical ideas into the country and represented a threat not just as workers, but as foreigners.”

That fear of the foreign was manifested in the composition of the new police forces. When the New York State Police, the country’s second state police force, was created in 1917, its first commissioner, George F. Chandler, hand-selected its members based in part on how well they fit the image of “physically perfect,” “distinctively American type of men” — meaning, in large part, “Anglo-Saxon.”

So the battle lines were drawn: On one hand, the police, created to quash worker rebellions and enforce a status quo that privileged the wealthy and assimilated; on the other, the nationally and ethnically diverse workers, newly aware of their growing power as a group and focused on obtaining further rights and liberties.

Workers often brought weapons to the picket line, both to stop replacement workers from taking their jobs, and to fight back against the police,” Gourevitch said. “One of the interesting historical parallels between now and that is that most strikes began non-violently, and then the police would show up and start attacking them, and they sometimes would become quite violent affairs.”

This pattern seeded deep opposition to the police in the organized labor movement: “That’s why you start seeing movement to curtail or constrain the police and, amongst certain left-wing groups, change the state itself,” Gourevitch said.

Surprisingly, that movement briefly found sympathetic ears in the American government. Beginning in 1912, the congressional Commission on Industrial Relations examined working conditions throughout the U.S. Its final report, issued in 1915, not only endorsed the finding that the violence surrounding strikes was most frequently a factor of a disproportionate response by law enforcement, but expressed some affinity for the growing belief among workers that the police force was a fundamentally unjust institution.

Violence is seldom, if ever, spontaneous, but arises from a conviction that fundamental rights are denied and that peaceful methods of adjustment cannot be used,” the report noted in a section titled “The Policing of Industry.” “The sole exception seems to arise in the situation where, intoxicated with power, the stronger party to the dispute relies upon force to suppress the weaker.”

“Violence and disorder during actual outbreaks usually result from oppressive conditions… Throughout history where a people or a group have been arbitrarily denied rights which they conceived to be theirs, reaction has been inevitable,” it added. “Violence is a natural form of protest against injustice.”

Over the next two decades, the Commission’s findings would help lead to a positive shift in the relationship between the working classes and the federal government. It laid the groundwork for much of the pro-labor legislation passed in the 1930s, a change that eventually led to a significant — although far from complete — de-escalation in the conflict between organized labor and the police. But it didn’t change the growing American investment in the police, a force that would dramatically expand throughout the 20th century.

Watching contemporary protests unfold across the United States, the resonance between the current moment and the early years of the conflict between the police and organized labor is clear. “Violence can only be prevented by removing the causes of violence; industrial peace can rely only upon industrial justice,” the Commission on Industrial Relations wrote. Today, calls to disband the police are more organized than in the past; the language has changed, as have the parties leading the charge. But the rallying cry against the police is the same: “No justice, no peace.”


In only a few short weeks, the protests have built up enough pressure to force New York and Colorado state lawmakers to pass police accountability initiatives, and Connecticut and Minnesota are on their way to holding special legislative sessions to consider doing the same. 

Public officials in (among others) Minneapolis, New York, Denver, Boston, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Houston are now responding to protesters’ pressure by considering a wholesale reevaluation of bloated police budgets. 

Hell, protesters have brought so much pressure to bear that even congressional Republicans — the single most retrograde group of politicians in the entire nation — feel the need to pretend to support police accountability.

Today, America’s political class is accustomed to being merely a thermometer of fleeting public opinion. That political class is now openly hostile to — and bewildered by — the concept of a grassroots movement being a thermostat that changes policy and popular perception. Indeed, with an obsessive focus on polls, the critics of “defund the police” seem unable to cognitively fathom the political value of any cause that aims to be more than a thermometer. To them, public opinion is not dynamic, it is instead frozen in place forever and any mass movement trying to change it must be committing electoral suicide.

And yet, we know that’s false.

We know, for instance, that the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century wasn’t some consultant-driven, focus-grouped affair. Like every other successful grassroots movement in history, it was messy and boisterous and provocative. And in the end, it correctly ignored that era’s officious tone police. The result: the movement shifted public opinion and made real legislative changes with all sorts of righteously polarizing slogans that made lots of voters and politicians uncomfortable. 

More recently, we’ve seen a similar dynamic with Black Lives Matter. 

“Support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm,” the New York Times reported this week. “By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.”

Only a few years ago, many politicians considered the very phrase “Black Lives Matter” to be too controversial and divisive. Today, even Republican Sen. Mitt Romney is marching in protest and declaring that he believes black lives matter. He’s marching because the once-vilified BLM movement was a thermostat that successfully changed the temperature on the thermometer.

That’s exactly what today’s protests are now doing when it comes to police policy.