What Will Replace the Police? Ten Historical Examples

The future of local police departments has become a top election issue. Rasmussen released recent polls showing that Americans pay close attention to debates about law and order.  For instance, 50% of likely voters want to see harder crackdowns on urban unrest, while only 38% support continuing protests in cities.  Overall, 72% are concerned about recent reports of urban violence.  Over 60% of Americans said their feelings about the protests will have an effect on their November voting.

Perhaps we have found the Democrats' Kryptonite.  Conservatives have noticed for quite some time that the left never showed adequate concern about far-left extremism (listen here).  The far left has greater numbers and, unlike the far right, is entrenched in major institutions like colleges.  The far left hopes to claim the anti-police violence as a historic win for its side (see here).  Democrats can't claim that the Floyd protests had nothing to do with rioting.

Protests have become linked in Americans' minds with riots.  The organization seen as leading these demonstrations was Black Lives Matter (BLM), whose premier issue was defunding or abolishing the police.  BLM leaders like Alicia Garza never hid their intent.  Most BLM activists rejected talk of mere reform as too weak and compromising.

Attempts by skittish Democrats like Jim Clyburn to disown anti-police slogans can't undo the effect of many fellow Democrats' embracing of a group whose trademark demand is shutting down police.  While some Democrats insist that "defunding" means simply reinvesting in alternatives to standard policing, Americans remain wholly unsupportive of replacing their local police departments with social workers, mental health respondents, charities, community elders, or healers — all stand-ins put forward by advocates of taking away police funding and firing cops.

The Democrats have wedded themselves to Black Lives Matter and Antifa.  Let's consider the widely ridiculed video broadcast at the Democratic National Convention, a montage of anti-police rallies.  A compilation of recent Black Lives Matter and far-left protests plays in the background.  Cross-dressing Billy Porter, sporting high heels and draped in a cheap split-trained cape reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn's famous gown in Sabrina — sings a Buffalo Springfield classic from 1967 — "Stop, Hey, What's That Sound?"

Perhaps to offset Porter's effeminacy, the producers chose to include images of 75-year-old Stephen Stills, now plump and avuncular, dressed in a crumpled blazer and what looks like thick bifocals, floating around with his guitar like a straggler lost on his way to the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock.  The washed up septuagenarian and the gender-nonbinary curio float through the protesters like a drug-induced nightmare from The Big Lebowski.

What would alternatives to police look like?

Thanks to the left, we're stuck with police abolition movements.  At least 13 cities have moved to defund the police, including small Norman, Oklahoma, and metropolises like New York and Austin.  According to Forbes, 34% of Americans support defunding while 53% oppose it.  Democrats must explain what the world will look like without local police departments.  They say people will be kept safe by less violent experts: counselors, neighborhood organizers, clergy, artists, doctors, etc.  They suppose that enforcement can be transferred into these community hands.

The Democrats' not so novel idea has been tried.  Many times.  Whatever rules a society promulgates, someone will break them, and communities need agents of enforcement, deterrence, and restitution.  Absent a perfect deity to administer justice directly, we settle for flawed humans monitoring and limiting the behavior of other flawed humans.  Past generations have tried to soften the harshness of policing by suggesting less overtly brutal agents of enforcement.  Let's see which of these historical examples most resembles what will happen in America.

The Spanish Inquisition

Inquisition courts began long before the fifteenth century, but they took a special form under the leadership of Torquemada.  Cecil Roth's Spanish Inquisition describes the history of this institution and the anti-Semitism with which history remembers it.  After the establishment of a "Holy Office" in the late 1400s, the inquisitorial courts were not technically under the supervision of the crown.  Neither were they subservient to the Vatican.  Their investigation of crimes against the Christian faith, as well as their determination of penalties, developed all the worst aspects of standard policing with none of the public accountability.  In a 2005 history, Joseph Perez characterizes the Inquisition as "a religious institution at the service of the state."[1]  This means tribunals, torture chambers, spies on every corner — the first Deep State.

The French Terror

In rejecting the Bourbon order, French revolutionaries, particularly the Jacobins, wanted to do away with the guards and prisons associated with kings and aristocrats.  Several alternatives arose, such as the famous "Committee of Public Safety."  The most famous iteration, however, became "the Terror," a massive and decentralized form of discipline based on a "familial" model.  According to Colin Jones's review of Jean-Pierre Gross's research into the Terror, the Jacobins emphasized the Revolution as "a 'familial event,'" which other historians astutely perceived as a "band of bloodthirsty patricidal brothers."[2]  Few people today think of the Terror as a family gathering, associating it rather with the guillotine and mass executions before screaming mobs.

The Gestapo

Seventy-five years ago, shortly after losing his office to the Labor Party, Winston Churchill said in a speech, "No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free sharp or violently worded expressions of public discontent[.] ... They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed [as] in the first instance."[3]  While Churchill was forcefully condemned for likening socialists to the Gestapo, his point still holds.  Secret police such as the Gestapo or Stasi arise, we must remember, as alternatives to standard policing, and often with the same high-minded ideals.  The idea behind such units was to enforce laws without the public feeling openly savaged.

The Harper Valley PTA

Less ominous but still troubling is the possibility that Democrats will replace police departments with snooping prudes like the ones described in the sixties classic "Harper Valley PTA."  In the song, "The note says, Mrs. Johnson, you're wearing your dresses way too high."  While the song's fun treatment of hypocrisy made for comedy gold in the 1978 film version starring Barbara Eden, we should remember the eyewitness accounts from communist countries like Cuba and East Germany.  Often community associations in such countries had structures similar to the Harper Valley PTA, but their snooping into people's personal lives could end with imprisonment or loss of their children.

The Scarlet Letter

Before you rush to reassign police duties to community elders and "healers," reread Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic about seventeenth-century Massachusetts.  While Hawthorne's heroine Hester Prynne is not accused of being a witch, the same community that forces her to wear a scarlet A lives in our collective memory as the site of witch trials.  When you try to avoid the brute force of police action with the seemingly gentler touch of community counselors and advisers, you can easily end up with mob rule.  The mob is not always a bunch of strangers dragging people to the guillotine.  A mob can also comprise gossiping and priggish neighbors who know so much about you that they know how to condemn and punish you.

Ingsoc

Winston Smith, the main character in George Orwell's unforgettable 1984, works for an entity that wants to instill love with no visceral discord.  The book closes, after all, with Winston saying he loves Big Brother and embraces all the rules and regulations of the dystopian state.  To arrive at such a feeling of love, he is monitored by government agents, stripped of his privacy, trapped in "Room 101," and ritually tortured until he has a massive breakdown.  When we want to replace the police with something else, we must ask, what is it we want to be rid of?  The uncomfortable visible signs that we are being policed?  If so, the danger is that our replacement will work with propaganda and secret torture — "re-education" — to fix problems. We end up with Ingsoc, the political party in charge of Smith's nation.

The Manson Family

The leftists who decry police brutality often romanticize community.  They do this even as they follow the lead of Marx's Communist Manifesto and reject nuclear families.  Black Lives Matter, for instance, rejects "patriarchal practice," seeks to "disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement," and envisions family as the "global Black family."  These heady redefinitions of "family" as the community model, put forward in conjunction with calls to dismantle the "police function," are not new.  Cults have carried out these ideas in the past, with one of the most famous being "The Family," controlled by murdering psychopath Charles Manson.

The Symbionese Liberation Army

When leftists talk about defunding the police, remember that they don't want the police's work to disappear; they want to transfer that work elsewhere.  There is always the possibility that the transferred duties will include armed and violent enforcement.  Like the Manson "Family," the Symbionese Liberation Army had strange racial and sexual obsessions — but this bizarre cult grew directly out of a movement to abolish prisons and police.  They did not do away with weapons.  Rather, they stockpiled weapons for their own use.  They used their arsenal to kidnap and imprison Patty Hearst in 1974.

The Ku Klux Klan

One of the most difficult truths about Jim Crow history is the rationale behind founding the Ku Klux Klan in 1865.  After the Civil War, some Southerners came to hate what they saw as a police state.  They viewed themselves as victims of Northern occupation and hated having Union troops police their communities.  They believed that none of the institutions filling the Confederacy's vacuum were protecting them, so they started clubs as an alternative.  The alternative ended up being racist terrorism.

Jonestown

Calls to defund or abolish the police always spring from utopian dreams.  To dream of a world without the local police department is to dream about another plane of existence, where people magically coexist, cooperate, and treat each other well.  Experiments based on this utopianism fill the dustbins of history, but none left as poisonous an aftertaste as Jonestown.  Charming and handsome, fanatically religious, and heavily supported by San Francisco Democrats, Jim Jones led hundreds of followers to Guyana.  He promised to found a loving community devoid of conflict, racism, or oppression.  When things didn't work out, he convinced hundreds of Jonestown's residents to kill themselves and their children with poisoned Kool-Aid.

A world without cops: dream or nightmare?

We do not have to depend on the imagination to envision a world without a local police department.  The things that we need police for — security, enforcement, investigation, discipline — do not go away when you eliminate local constabularies.  These tasks slide into the hands of other social forces, which almost always function without transparency, due process, or consistency.  They are never less violent or more merciful to those who break a society's value system.

Because Democrats cannot, in any realistic scenario, uncouple themselves from the "Defund the Police" movement, they have nowhere to go but down, all the way to the bottom of the sea.  The question is whether they will take the rest of us with them or not.  One thing will determine whether they sink alone or sink us, too — who wins the November election.

Robert Oscar Lopez can be followed at bobbylopez.me, on Twitter, or through his online podcast, The Big Brown Gadfly.


[1] A. Katie Harris, Review of Joseph Perez, The Spanish Inquisition: A History. Sixteenth-Century Journal, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Summer 2007), 611.

[2] Colin Jones, review of Jean-Pierre Gross, Fair shares for all: Jacobin egalitarianism in practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) in Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Aug. 1998), 624.

[3] Winston Churchill, quoted in Richard Toye, "Winston Churchill's 'Crazy Broadcast': Party, Nation, and the 1945 Gestapo Speech." Journal of British Studies, Vol. 49, No. 3 (July 2010), 655.

Image: Johnny Silvercloud via Flickr (cropped).

The future of local police departments has become a top election issue. Rasmussen released recent polls showing that Americans pay close attention to debates about law and order.  For instance, 50% of likely voters want to see harder crackdowns on urban unrest, while only 38% support continuing protests in cities.  Overall, 72% are concerned about recent reports of urban violence.  Over 60% of Americans said their feelings about the protests will have an effect on their November voting.

Perhaps we have found the Democrats' Kryptonite.  Conservatives have noticed for quite some time that the left never showed adequate concern about far-left extremism (listen here).  The far left has greater numbers and, unlike the far right, is entrenched in major institutions like colleges.  The far left hopes to claim the anti-police violence as a historic win for its side (see here).  Democrats can't claim that the Floyd protests had nothing to do with rioting.

Protests have become linked in Americans' minds with riots.  The organization seen as leading these demonstrations was Black Lives Matter (BLM), whose premier issue was defunding or abolishing the police.  BLM leaders like Alicia Garza never hid their intent.  Most BLM activists rejected talk of mere reform as too weak and compromising.

Attempts by skittish Democrats like Jim Clyburn to disown anti-police slogans can't undo the effect of many fellow Democrats' embracing of a group whose trademark demand is shutting down police.  While some Democrats insist that "defunding" means simply reinvesting in alternatives to standard policing, Americans remain wholly unsupportive of replacing their local police departments with social workers, mental health respondents, charities, community elders, or healers — all stand-ins put forward by advocates of taking away police funding and firing cops.

The Democrats have wedded themselves to Black Lives Matter and Antifa.  Let's consider the widely ridiculed video broadcast at the Democratic National Convention, a montage of anti-police rallies.  A compilation of recent Black Lives Matter and far-left protests plays in the background.  Cross-dressing Billy Porter, sporting high heels and draped in a cheap split-trained cape reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn's famous gown in Sabrina — sings a Buffalo Springfield classic from 1967 — "Stop, Hey, What's That Sound?"

Perhaps to offset Porter's effeminacy, the producers chose to include images of 75-year-old Stephen Stills, now plump and avuncular, dressed in a crumpled blazer and what looks like thick bifocals, floating around with his guitar like a straggler lost on his way to the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock.  The washed up septuagenarian and the gender-nonbinary curio float through the protesters like a drug-induced nightmare from The Big Lebowski.

What would alternatives to police look like?

Thanks to the left, we're stuck with police abolition movements.  At least 13 cities have moved to defund the police, including small Norman, Oklahoma, and metropolises like New York and Austin.  According to Forbes, 34% of Americans support defunding while 53% oppose it.  Democrats must explain what the world will look like without local police departments.  They say people will be kept safe by less violent experts: counselors, neighborhood organizers, clergy, artists, doctors, etc.  They suppose that enforcement can be transferred into these community hands.

The Democrats' not so novel idea has been tried.  Many times.  Whatever rules a society promulgates, someone will break them, and communities need agents of enforcement, deterrence, and restitution.  Absent a perfect deity to administer justice directly, we settle for flawed humans monitoring and limiting the behavior of other flawed humans.  Past generations have tried to soften the harshness of policing by suggesting less overtly brutal agents of enforcement.  Let's see which of these historical examples most resembles what will happen in America.

The Spanish Inquisition

Inquisition courts began long before the fifteenth century, but they took a special form under the leadership of Torquemada.  Cecil Roth's Spanish Inquisition describes the history of this institution and the anti-Semitism with which history remembers it.  After the establishment of a "Holy Office" in the late 1400s, the inquisitorial courts were not technically under the supervision of the crown.  Neither were they subservient to the Vatican.  Their investigation of crimes against the Christian faith, as well as their determination of penalties, developed all the worst aspects of standard policing with none of the public accountability.  In a 2005 history, Joseph Perez characterizes the Inquisition as "a religious institution at the service of the state."[1]  This means tribunals, torture chambers, spies on every corner — the first Deep State.

The French Terror

In rejecting the Bourbon order, French revolutionaries, particularly the Jacobins, wanted to do away with the guards and prisons associated with kings and aristocrats.  Several alternatives arose, such as the famous "Committee of Public Safety."  The most famous iteration, however, became "the Terror," a massive and decentralized form of discipline based on a "familial" model.  According to Colin Jones's review of Jean-Pierre Gross's research into the Terror, the Jacobins emphasized the Revolution as "a 'familial event,'" which other historians astutely perceived as a "band of bloodthirsty patricidal brothers."[2]  Few people today think of the Terror as a family gathering, associating it rather with the guillotine and mass executions before screaming mobs.

The Gestapo

Seventy-five years ago, shortly after losing his office to the Labor Party, Winston Churchill said in a speech, "No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free sharp or violently worded expressions of public discontent[.] ... They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed [as] in the first instance."[3]  While Churchill was forcefully condemned for likening socialists to the Gestapo, his point still holds.  Secret police such as the Gestapo or Stasi arise, we must remember, as alternatives to standard policing, and often with the same high-minded ideals.  The idea behind such units was to enforce laws without the public feeling openly savaged.

The Harper Valley PTA

Less ominous but still troubling is the possibility that Democrats will replace police departments with snooping prudes like the ones described in the sixties classic "Harper Valley PTA."  In the song, "The note says, Mrs. Johnson, you're wearing your dresses way too high."  While the song's fun treatment of hypocrisy made for comedy gold in the 1978 film version starring Barbara Eden, we should remember the eyewitness accounts from communist countries like Cuba and East Germany.  Often community associations in such countries had structures similar to the Harper Valley PTA, but their snooping into people's personal lives could end with imprisonment or loss of their children.

The Scarlet Letter

Before you rush to reassign police duties to community elders and "healers," reread Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic about seventeenth-century Massachusetts.  While Hawthorne's heroine Hester Prynne is not accused of being a witch, the same community that forces her to wear a scarlet A lives in our collective memory as the site of witch trials.  When you try to avoid the brute force of police action with the seemingly gentler touch of community counselors and advisers, you can easily end up with mob rule.  The mob is not always a bunch of strangers dragging people to the guillotine.  A mob can also comprise gossiping and priggish neighbors who know so much about you that they know how to condemn and punish you.

Ingsoc

Winston Smith, the main character in George Orwell's unforgettable 1984, works for an entity that wants to instill love with no visceral discord.  The book closes, after all, with Winston saying he loves Big Brother and embraces all the rules and regulations of the dystopian state.  To arrive at such a feeling of love, he is monitored by government agents, stripped of his privacy, trapped in "Room 101," and ritually tortured until he has a massive breakdown.  When we want to replace the police with something else, we must ask, what is it we want to be rid of?  The uncomfortable visible signs that we are being policed?  If so, the danger is that our replacement will work with propaganda and secret torture — "re-education" — to fix problems. We end up with Ingsoc, the political party in charge of Smith's nation.

The Manson Family

The leftists who decry police brutality often romanticize community.  They do this even as they follow the lead of Marx's Communist Manifesto and reject nuclear families.  Black Lives Matter, for instance, rejects "patriarchal practice," seeks to "disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement," and envisions family as the "global Black family."  These heady redefinitions of "family" as the community model, put forward in conjunction with calls to dismantle the "police function," are not new.  Cults have carried out these ideas in the past, with one of the most famous being "The Family," controlled by murdering psychopath Charles Manson.

The Symbionese Liberation Army

When leftists talk about defunding the police, remember that they don't want the police's work to disappear; they want to transfer that work elsewhere.  There is always the possibility that the transferred duties will include armed and violent enforcement.  Like the Manson "Family," the Symbionese Liberation Army had strange racial and sexual obsessions — but this bizarre cult grew directly out of a movement to abolish prisons and police.  They did not do away with weapons.  Rather, they stockpiled weapons for their own use.  They used their arsenal to kidnap and imprison Patty Hearst in 1974.

The Ku Klux Klan

One of the most difficult truths about Jim Crow history is the rationale behind founding the Ku Klux Klan in 1865.  After the Civil War, some Southerners came to hate what they saw as a police state.  They viewed themselves as victims of Northern occupation and hated having Union troops police their communities.  They believed that none of the institutions filling the Confederacy's vacuum were protecting them, so they started clubs as an alternative.  The alternative ended up being racist terrorism.

Jonestown

Calls to defund or abolish the police always spring from utopian dreams.  To dream of a world without the local police department is to dream about another plane of existence, where people magically coexist, cooperate, and treat each other well.  Experiments based on this utopianism fill the dustbins of history, but none left as poisonous an aftertaste as Jonestown.  Charming and handsome, fanatically religious, and heavily supported by San Francisco Democrats, Jim Jones led hundreds of followers to Guyana.  He promised to found a loving community devoid of conflict, racism, or oppression.  When things didn't work out, he convinced hundreds of Jonestown's residents to kill themselves and their children with poisoned Kool-Aid.

A world without cops: dream or nightmare?

We do not have to depend on the imagination to envision a world without a local police department.  The things that we need police for — security, enforcement, investigation, discipline — do not go away when you eliminate local constabularies.  These tasks slide into the hands of other social forces, which almost always function without transparency, due process, or consistency.  They are never less violent or more merciful to those who break a society's value system.

Because Democrats cannot, in any realistic scenario, uncouple themselves from the "Defund the Police" movement, they have nowhere to go but down, all the way to the bottom of the sea.  The question is whether they will take the rest of us with them or not.  One thing will determine whether they sink alone or sink us, too — who wins the November election.

Robert Oscar Lopez can be followed at bobbylopez.me, on Twitter, or through his online podcast, The Big Brown Gadfly.


[1] A. Katie Harris, Review of Joseph Perez, The Spanish Inquisition: A History. Sixteenth-Century Journal, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Summer 2007), 611.

[2] Colin Jones, review of Jean-Pierre Gross, Fair shares for all: Jacobin egalitarianism in practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) in Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Aug. 1998), 624.

[3] Winston Churchill, quoted in Richard Toye, "Winston Churchill's 'Crazy Broadcast': Party, Nation, and the 1945 Gestapo Speech." Journal of British Studies, Vol. 49, No. 3 (July 2010), 655.

Image: Johnny Silvercloud via Flickr (cropped).