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In The Wake Of Chauvin's Conviction, A Look Back At The Origins Of American Policing


Earlier this week, the white police officer involved in the killing of an unarmed Black man was convicted in a Minneapolis courtroom.


PETER CAHILL: (Reading) We the jury in the above entitled manner as to count one - unintentional second-degree murder while committing a felony - find the defendant guilty.


In a case that was followed around the world, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all three counts for the murder of George Floyd. People gathered all across this country cheered when they heard the news.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The verdict shows that it's a new age for policing. I think it changes policing a lot, and it shows that they can't get away with it anymore.

KELLY: George Floyd's name is on a list, a very long list of a centuries-old history of Black Americans dying at the hands of police. But his case is one of the rare occurrences in which the officer responsible was held to account.

SHAPIRO: To help give context to this long and complicated history, Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei of NPR's history podcast Throughline set out to learn the origins of policing in America. They begin in the South.


KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: In this country, for the years that cover the 1600s to the mid-19th century, the most dominant presence of law enforcement was what we call today slave patrols. That's what made up policing.

RUND ABDELFATAH: This is Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a historian at the Harvard Kennedy School.

MUHAMMAD: And perhaps the most revealing aspect of the way slave patrols functioned is that they were explicit in their design to empower the entire white population with the duty to police movements of Black people. So the tying together early on of the surveillance, the deputization, essentially, of all white men to be police officers or, in this case, slave patrollers and then to dispense corporal punishment on the scene are all baked in from the very beginning.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: These Southern slave patrols were eventually disbanded after the Confederacy lost the Civil War. But the violent control of newly freed Black citizens continued.

MUHAMMAD: A number of Confederate states began to pass these megabills, these crime bills that we call today Black codes. And they try to cover just about everything they would need to maintain absolute control over Black folks as, quote-unquote, "freedmen" and "freedwomen." But the 13th Amendment abolished slavery except as punishment for a crime. So in some ways, the genius of the former Confederate states was to say, oh, well, if all we need to do is make them criminals and they can be put back in slavery, well, then that's what we'll do. And that's exactly what the Black codes set out to do.

ABDELFATAH: The South was slow to formalize policing. So in the decades following the Civil War, these codes were enforced by vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan. This is partly what sparked the Great Migration, when millions of Southern Blacks went North in search of better and safer lives. But what very few of these migrants could have known was that Northern cities had been developing their own professional police forces.

MUHAMMAD: And part of the context for early modern policing was that the immigrant population of Europeans, particularly the Irish, were generating a similar kind of social anxiety, xenophobic, nativist, racist reaction. The early emphasis on people whose status was just a tiny notch better than the folks who they were focused on policing. And so the Anglo-Saxons are policing the Irish. The Irish are policing the Poles. And so this dynamic that's playing out is that police officers are a critical feature of establishing a racial hierarchy, even among white people.

ARABLOUEI: This is the system Southern Black migrants were met with when they arrived in Northern cities, where they quickly learned they were no safer up North than they were down South.

MUHAMMAD: When a white person throws a Molotov cocktail into a new Black homeowner on a street that had previously been all Irish or all Polish or all German, the police come, and they arrest the Black family and defend the white mob. This happens over and over again. They are policing the racial norms of white supremacy from the very beginning in the North.

And so what do these Black folks do who are observing all this? They begin to write about it. W.E.B. Du Bois is writing for the NAACP magazine. He has essentially a police blotter, which systematically details all the examples of police brutality directed against African Americans everywhere. The National Urban League begins to do systematic survey research. And they overwhelmingly see that police officers are doing, essentially, stop-and-frisk policing in the 1920s. Other researchers looked at this all over the country and began to come to the same conclusion - that these big cities had a systemic, massive policing problem.


MUHAMMAD: The thing about police that just is so blatant is that they are the most visible representation of the state in most people's lives, especially for Black people. So for example, in 1935, one of the leading Black sociologists publishes a really poignant statement about what police officers represent to the Black community. He says, too often, the policeman's club is the only instrument of the law with which the Negro comes into contact. This engenders in him a distrust and resentful attitude toward all public authorities and law officers. He's saying, look. Police officers are directly responsible for telling Black people how much their lives don't matter in this society.

The irony about police professionalization that is occurring by the 1930s and will carry us into the 21st century is that part of police science begins to draw on crime statistics and sociological research about the innate or cultural tendencies of Black people to criminality, which then legitimate racist notions of Black people as a race of criminals. Part of this professionalization is to say, those are the only real criminals we have to worry about.

And so the question that has to be asked in the wake of George Floyd - and I think this question is being asked and answered by more white people than I've seen in my lifetime - is, do white people in America still want the police to protect their interests over the rights and dignity and lives of Black and, in too many cases, brown, Indigenous and Asian populations in this country?

SHAPIRO: That was Khalil Gibran Muhammad speaking with Throughline hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. You can hear Throughline wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.