For 60 nights, anti-racism protesters have demonstrated in cities across the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd, decrying police brutality. Tensions escalated in Portland, Ore., after the president sent U.S. agents, mainly drawn from Border Patrol, to supposedly protect the federal courthouse in that city. The president’s deployment of a highly militarized force with no known training in crowd control has inflamed the situation, leading to clashes between protesters and agents (who threw tear gas, stun grenades and pepper balls into the crowd) and lighting a fuse under demonstrations in other cities.
The thing is, such behavior on the part of law enforcement in this country isn’t new. The death of black people at the hands of the police also isn’t new. For well over a century, black people have been terrorized by those who wear blue. Breonna Taylor, Dreasjon Reed, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks are just the latest victims in a long line of black people that police violence has consumed.
This most recent string of police killings has led to calls to “defund the police.” The argument is simple: the current system isn’t keeping black people safe. Chicago community organizer Jessica Disu made this point four years ago when she told broadcaster Megyn Kelly, “We need to abolish the police, period. Demilitarize the police, disarm the police, and we need to come up with community solutions for transformative justice.”
This solution cuts to the heart of the issue and addresses the ugly truth about American policing: It was never meant to keep black people safe. It was designed to uphold white supremacy by surveilling, capturing, assaulting and killing black people.
Policing in America traces its roots back to the institution of the slave patrol. First formed in South Carolina in 1704, white men in every county had to give one night of service to their local patrol each month. Some colonies ordered their local militias to select patrollers from all the white men in the region within a certain age range. In other areas, only landowners served on the patrol.
Regardless of how patrollers were chosen, their job was the same: to ride the roadways at night, often accompanied by hunting dogs, to monitor enslaved people.