Josephine Butler on the Police
I started drafting what I thought might be my first op-ed based on my current interests in Josephine Butler (1828–1906) and her campaigns against regulated prostitution in France. But as I was writing, I realized that some of what I was saying may be better kept for the article I’ve been hammering at for the better part of a year. At the same time, I still wanted to take a moment to lay out some of the things I’ve been thinking about regarding my own research’s connection to the current protests against police brutality.
Butler is most famous for her campaigns against the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1870s and 1880s Britain, as well as her participation in W.T. Stead’s ‘Maiden Tribute’ exposé and her later campaigns against regulated prostitution in the British colonies. Her interest in these issues remained rooted in her feminism, one inscribed within both the promises and problems of the time in which she lived. Her attention to the plight and vulnerability of working-class women and her pointed critique of the sexual double standard existed alongside her condescension toward the very women she sought to help and her commitment to English nationalism, imperialism, and white supremacy. Her campaign against regulated prostitution, however, was only one piece of a broader argument she levied against police authority more generally.
She alluded to her skepticism about police power throughout her letters and published writings, but her most forceful critique appeared in a small, sadly neglected, pamphlet titled Government by Police (1879), published as she campaigned not just in Britain, but all over the continent. Government by Police uses the Paris Préfecture of Police as the example with which to warn against encroaching police powers in the United Kingdom. Britain and France, of course, had different political traditions. The former remained a constitutional monarchy, while the later was finally solidifying itself as a republic. Key to Butler’s critique — and what resonates so forcefully for myself — is that for Butler, that difference didn’t matter in the face of the police: “police rule in each has so established itself as to become a standing menace to liberty, and an embarrassment and even a rival to the Governments which aim at its reform, or at the restriction of its functions” (6). For Butler, the precise form of government was irrelevant if you allow the police to challenge its functioning. The growth of police power undercuts the ability of any form of liberal governance to actually reflect the will of the people.
Butler attributes this problem to centralization of authority and to “bureaucratic” tendencies that eviscerate the power of local authorities to govern themselves. She argues that “Modern Police Government in its worst forms combines the evil of extreme centralization with the activity, in every corner of the nation, of a vast and numerous agency of surveillance, whose very presence tends by slow degrees to enfeeble the sense of responsibility in the citizens in regard to the order and well-being of society” (7). In this regard, Butler evokes, a hundred years before Foucault, the fear of an institution capable of inserting itself into the lives of every single subject or citizen. This surveillance ultimately reduces the very notion of civic participation more broadly. In this sense, the very idea of police power is antithetical not simply to democracy as a formal political structure, but to democratic practice as well. At the same time, Butler’s fear of “centralization” can’t help but seem discordant to this twenty-first century ear, knowing the power of local authorities to maintain apartheid in the United States and the evisceration of governmental expertise as the Trump administration seeks to dismantle the “deep state.”
That said, I remain drawn to her critique, which is essentially that the police are antithetical to liberalism and liberty: “The more absolute a government is, the more will the police be developed; whilst the freer the country is, the more it will follow the principle that everything which can possibly be left to take care of itself should be so left, and the more carefully restricted will be the function of the police” (16). Police abolitionists have long argued that defunding the police would enable a reinvestment in community infrastructure — social work, mutual aid, healthcare — that we have devolved to the police.
Butler’s argument was not independent of her own ideological predispositions. Ultimately, she does not suggest police abolition, but rather devolution to local control: “the police in a free country must…be placed under the strict control of a body of distinctly popular constitution, independent of the central executive…” (52–53). Though this suggestion evokes contemporary civilian review boards, it also speaks, I think, to a faith that it would be she and her class that would remain in charge. As always, she remains both ahead and deeply inscribed in her own time and place.
Not too long ago, I heard an interview with Patrick Yoes, president of the National Fraternal Order of Police, about the firing of Daniel Pantaleo five years after he murdered Eric Garner. Yoes, playing the all-too-standard role of police union defending unconscionable police behavior, declared that “The police are the key to a free society.” Butler’s work shows us that Yoes has it precisely backward. Having watched video after video of the police brutalizing, gassing, and shooting peaceful protesters over the past week and change, I can’t help but agree.
Originally published at https://www.andrewisraelross.com on June 3, 2020.