By Andrew Byler

Abstract: The third and final section of “Business as Usual” looks at policing in the first two decades of the 21st century. By highlighting the lobbying power of the private prison industry, this section frames policing and arrests as a form of recruitment for the prison industrial complex and its beneficiaries. Considering how local tax bases support police departments across the country, Section Three shows how self-interest guides police support for gentrification and expanded municipal wealth. The section concludes with a recap of the larger project and a call for reimagined public safety that values civic over commercial interests.

A 21st Century Coalition

In recent decades, I argue, police have served two main functions in advancing economic development and serving local business. The first, rounding up prisoners to fill private prisons and work as convict laborers in factories and farms across the country, hearkens back to Reconstruction-era convict-leasing practices. In this role, police departments work as recruiting services and directly serve massive private prison organizations like CoreCivic and retailers who can buy cheap goods made with underpaid prison labor. The second function is less horrific conceptually but perhaps more pernicious in practice than the first and involves the policing of gentrifying urban neighborhoods. Neither gentrification nor the over-policing of poor and non-white communities are new phenomena, yet they have coalesced in recent decades to devastating effect. In this role, the police are the footsoldiers of the gentrifying class, harassing and arresting the members of existing poor neighborhoods as they are priced out of local housing markets. In this analysis I will highlight that, unlike in the late 19th century when sheriffs would get direct payments for their leasing out of convicts, financial incentives for policing the underclass in the 21st century is more subtle, as the rising property taxes of a gentrified neighborhood translate to larger budgets for police departments. This ordinary revenue stream can reduce police forces to Chamber of Commerce boosters, as a robust local economy and wealthy tax base are in officers’ best interests. Certainly gentrification and the prison-industrial complex are related and the police’s participation in both overlaps, but for this analysis I will deal with each phenomenon separately.

In her landmark 2011 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander explicitly connects the current carceral state to the convict-leasing practices discussed earlier in this paper. She elaborates how, after being charged some fraudulent fine – “vagrancy,” “changing employers without permission,” “riding in a train without a ticket” – for recently-freed African Americans, “[t]he only means to pay off their debts was through labor on plantations and farms...or in prisons that had been converted to work farms. Paid next to nothing, convicts were effectively enslaved in perpetuity, as they were unable to earn enough to pay off their debts. Today, many inmates work in prison, typically earning far less than the minimum wage.”[1] Although an expansive history of prison labor is beyond the scope of this study, a quick snapshot of the industry’s rapid expansion will show how many police departments prioritize the wants of American private corporations over the needs of its citizenry.

In her 2010 article “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History” Heather Ann Thompson discusses the rise of the prison-industrial complex in the United States. From increased rates of incarceration as a result of the Johnson administration’s War on Crime to the roughly 1.5 million Americans currently imprisoned, Thompson highlights ways in which private industries have exploited prison labor. 

“By the close of the twentieth century” she writes, “Supreme Court justice Warren Burger’s 1985 wish to transform prisons into ‘factories with fences’ had been fulfilled, with over 80,000 inmates holding ‘traditional jobs, working for government or private companies and earning 25 cents to $7 an hour.”[2] More recent statistics from her 2016 book Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy show that over 700,000 currently incarcerated people have jobs, many of which pay as little as twelve cents an hour and few of which offer safe working conditions.[3]

Unlike its Reconstruction-era counterpart, where sheriffs shipped off their prisoners to avoid the cost of housing them, the current prison-industrial complex features a web of privately-owned prisons and detention centers that charge state and federal governments fees to detain inmates. As Michelle Alexander writes, “Prisons are big business and have become deeply entrenched in America’s economic and political system.”[4] The two largest private prison corporations CoreCivic – a shinier brand name than their former ‘Corrections Corporation of America’ – and GEO Group both have over $3 billion in assets and powerful lobby groups that maintain an easy relationship with lawmakers. In addition to the prison owners, Alexander discusses a “Whole range of prison profiteers” that outfit prisons with goods and services.[5] Once a public service designed to dissuade criminals and house as few inmates as possible, by incentivizing convictions with lucrative contracts, private prisons flip the script on punishment, crime, and policing in America.

Between a robust industry for private prisons and little to no regulation on cheap prison labor, there is more money than ever to be made arresting, convicting, and incarcerating Americans. Individual officers and departments are not free from these market pressures. Though private prisons are often framed as solely responsible for mass incarceration in the 21st century, it is important to remember that correctional officers do not make arrests; the expansion of the private prison industry has required increased policing, arrests, and convictions to fill privately-owned prison cells and private prison work orders. As this discussion has shown, police have historically served private businesses interests as readily as they serve public good.

The final analysis of this paper will revisit Douglas Blackmon’s concept of “monotonous enormity” and apply it to current funding for police departments. While many scholars focus on the “dark side” of cash asset forfeiture and Homeland Security grants for SWAT tanks and helicopters, it’s important to remember that, for an institution with a legacy of serving commercial interests, even routine local tax revenues can drive inequality.

Municipal Budgets and Badges

Police departments are pricey. Officers are generally well-paid employees with union protection, and police equipment is expensive. A cursory survey of several municipal budgets (New York City, NY; Amherst, MA; Newton, KS) shows “public safety” to be their largest expense, and police department budgets the highest expense within that category. Simply put, most police departments and their staff are paid out of the money municipalities generate from taxes and service charges. Certainly there are other factors – federal police grants, for instance – but by this logic, poorer towns and cities must consolidate policing services, while wealthy municipalities can afford to expand department budgets through raises or new hires. Hence, it is in an officer’s best interest to promote a vibrant local economy with high property taxes and the cultural amenities attractive to residents able to pay them. In keeping with their history of commercial service, I argue that police promote gentrification less out of individual racial or class animus but out of self-interest; by its financial bottom-line, a gentrified neighborhood is more appealing to the police serving it.

Of course, I am not the first person to connect police practices with gentrification. There are many articles and editorials citing an increase of police surveillance in black and brown neighborhoods as harbingers of “urban renewal.” The Economic Opportunity Institute draws data from Seattle and San Francisco to show how “When new, wealthy residents move into historically poor neighborhoods, arrests and citations in those neighborhoods for trivial offenses increase dramatically, and on racial lines.”[6] Articles by Michael Jones and Jessica Buxbaum elaborate the effect an elevated police presence can have on “native” urban communities. “I’m going to have a T-shirt made,” one Oakland, CA resident proposed, “that says ‘I’M NOT A CRIMINAL, I’M JUST FROM HERE.’”[7] Across the Bay, Author Jessica Buxbaum looks at incidences of police brutality in “up-and-coming” parts of San Francisco to assert that “Gentrification’s political consequences are two-fold: not only does the issue conspicuously displace people of color, it also turns them into perceived intruders within their own communities.”[8] As with my earlier discussions of convict leasing, whenever a powerful institution like the police disproportionately targets communities of color, the social dominance white Americans have sought since 1865 plays an important factor. As an American institution, police are necessarily informed by White Supremacy and any 30-second survey of police brutality will show a legacy of violence towards men and women of color. Many departments’ complicity in gentrification qualifies as such violence. 

Yet what my analysis hopes to highlight is that, from slaveowners’ hiring fees and sheriff’s paybacks to federal anti-riot funding for the War on Crime, police have always been paid to protect commercial interests. In this narrative, their participation in gentrification, as well as their role “recruiting” prison laborers is not surprising. 

In her article on mass incarceration, Heather Ann Thompson offers historians a reminder: “It is important, therefore, not to place too much causative weight on any single event, process, or phenomenon.”[9] Their allegiance to commercial interests is only one feature of policing in America. Cultures of heteropatriarchy, Islamophobia, and a fear of Mexican and Central American immigrant communities are perhaps more influential in shaping officers’ perceptions and guiding department policy. But if prison abolitionists, police reformers, and historians are going to “fix” this institution, we have to understand the more ordinary ways 21st century policing drives privilege and inequality. The three sections of this project offer guideposts to better understand how American policing has served the limited interests of an owning class. Hopefully this historical overview can empower scholars and activists to realize a new model of public safety that prioritizes civic support over commercial protection.

In-Text Citations

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (New York: The Free Press, 2010), 152.

[2] Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History.” The Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (December 2010): 720.

[3] Heather Ann Thompson, (Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. New York: Pantheon Books, 2016).

[4] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (New York: The Free Press, 2010), 218.

[5] Michelle Alexander, 230.

[6] Louis Lin, “‘Order Maintenance’ Policing and Its Role in Gentrification.” Economic Opportunity Institute. (August 29, 2017): 1.

[7] Michael Jones, “3 Signs That Gentrification Is Coming to Your Neighborhood.” Salon. (Sept. 22, 2017) : 8.

[8] Jessica Buxbaum, “The Undeniably Clear Path from Gentrification to Police Violence.” Carbonated.TV. (Oct. 20, 2016): 1.

[9] Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History.” The Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (December 2010): 734.

Works Cited

Abu-Jamal, Mumia. Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2017.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The Free Press, 2010.

Allison, William and Robert C. Wadman. To Protect and Serve: A History of Police in America. London: Pearson Publishing, 2003.

Blackmon, Douglas. Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Buxbaum, Jessica. “The Undeniably Clear Path from Gentrification to Police Violence.” Carbonated.TV. Oct. 20, 2016. 

Du Bois, W.E.B. Some Notes on Negro Crime Particularly in Georgia. Atlanta: Atlanta University Press, 1904.

Flamm, Michael W. Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Hinton, Elizabeth. “‘A War Within Our Own Boundaries’: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the Rise of the Carceral State.” Journal of American History 102, no. 1 (June 2015) 100-112.

“History.” The Official Website of the Boston Police Department. 2017. 

Jones, Michael. “3 Signs That Gentrification Is Coming to Your Neighborhood.” Salon. Sept. 22, 2017. 

Kerner, Otto et. al. “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” Washington D.C. February 29, 1968.

LeFlouria, Talitha. Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Lin, Louis. “‘Order Maintenance’ Policing and Its Role in Gentrification.” Economic Opportunity Institute. August 29, 2017. 

McClennan, Rebecca. Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776-1941. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Morgan, Jennifer L. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Mumford, Kevin. Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

“Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act: Public Law 90-351; 82 Stat. 197.” Washington D.C. June 19, 1968.

Oshinsky, David M. “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: The Free Press, 1996.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death, A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

“Private Prisons.” American Civil Liberties Union. Nov. 7, 2017. 

Spruill, Larry H. “‘Packs of Negro Dogs’ and Policing Black Communities.” Phylon (1960-) 53, no. 1 (Summer 2016) 42-66.

Thompson, Heather Ann. “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History.” The Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (December 2010) 703-734.

Thompson, Heather Ann. Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. New York: Pantheon Books, 2016.

U.S. Const. Amend. 13. 1865.

Waxman, Olivia. “How the US Got Its Police Force.” TIME. May 18, 2017. 

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Jan 11, 2024
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