African Americans have a very long, very complicated history with law enforcement. The same is true of other racial and ethnic groups, especially the people who inhabited this land long before it became “America.” Still, no group is associated more with police repression than are Black folks. (One need not be a psychiatrist to know what images come first to most people’s mind when they think about police brutality.)
According to historian Gary Potter, Boston created America’s first full-time, publicly funded police force in 1838. Businessmen wanted to protect — at taxpayers’ expense — the goods that flowed in and out of that famous harbor. But that’s only part of the story.
The fraught relationship between Blacks and the police is due in large part to the fact that the history of law enforcement is inextricably tied to slavery. Modern police departments have their origin in groups of (primarily) white men who were hired to capture enslaved Black people who had the audacity to try to gain their freedom. In short, the police “force” started because white people wanted to protect their investments. In the North those investments were products. In the South they were people.
Of course, to be fair, laws and customs that protected human trafficking were not limited to the South. For example, the U.S. Congress passed fugitive slave laws in 1793 and 1850. Further, several northern colonies created laws to forcibly control enslaved Black bodies. Even after slavery was abolished, the Constitution allowed for exceptions as part of the criminal “justice” system.
Given this context — and the brutality that has continued to today — it may surprise some to learn that the vast majority of African Americans are not anti-police. Indeed, I cannot emphasize forcefully enough that being anti-brutality is not the same as being anti-police. African Americans call the police more than any other racial group.
While some might argue that this is true solely due to the realities of crime, the fact remains that this would not be the case if we genuinely had a congenital aversion to law enforcement.
We recognize that blue lives are often wrapped in Black skin. Police officers are our fathers and mothers. They are our sisters and brothers. They are our cousins and friends. We pray for their safety. We cheer their promotions. We help track down those who harm us (though we could be better at doing so). We support their charities. And we mourn their deaths.
On the rare occasions in which I have encountered Black folks who actively wish police officers harm, there is always a story. A personal one. A painful one. They and/or their family members have been targeted — unjustly in some cases. And even when extra scrutiny from law enforcement has been merited, the tactics that have been employed have often been overly aggressive.
Police officers have power that even the president of the United States doesn’t have. With few exceptions, the president has to get permission to take the life of an American citizen; police officers don’t. Most officers have the moral character and personal restraint to avoid abusing this incredible power. Too many do not.
White Americans need to understand that our concerns about the police are not parochial. (Even if they were, we would be justified given America’s history.) The fact is that the things that best serve the interests of Black Americans are — and always have been — those that best serve the interests of all Americans. That includes police reform.
I’ve thought about all of this as I have experienced the trial of the former police officer who murdered George Floyd. Much of the witness testimony has been heart-rending. Men who I have not met — but know very well — are openly crying as they express regret at not having “done more.” Watching Floyd’s murder over and over again exacts a heavy price. But not doing so would cost even more.
Recently, my son asked me why I named him “Justin.” I told him that I did so because the root of his name is “justice.” (Besides, his mother mercilessly vetoed my attempt to name him after me.) As I endure this trial, I keep seeing my face in place of George Floyd’s. Then, unbearably, I see my son’s. Justice demands accountability. Justice demands a guilty verdict. Justice demands sending a message to America that Black lives, even those of drug-addicted and imperfect people, matter.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.