by Reggie Shuford
Here’s a hard but undeniable truth: America has a short memory and a long tradition of revising history.
As we celebrate the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in an annual reflection on his legacy that, at this point, feels as American as apple pie, it’s worth remembering that some members of Congress who opposed commemorating this day and honoring Dr. King are still in office and still making laws today.
Americans don’t just have a selective memory about the legacy of individuals, but also of institutions. How else to explain the deference and reverence so many Americans have for the police, an institution borne of slave patrols and Jim Crow laws?
As Americans, we are told that the police are there to serve and protect our communities. Why, then, does so much of the struggle to win justice and defend civil liberties involve police trying to stifle these movements?
When Dr. King and other leaders of the civil rights movement boycotted buses in Montgomery or took up residence in Chicago or marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma or stood in solidarity with sanitation workers in Memphis, they were met not just with violence from outright racists like the Klan, but also from uniformed police.
In those moments, we see that the police do serve and protect — most often, the existing power structures of white supremacy and systemic racism that have plagued this country since its founding.
Indeed, we saw further evidence of this on January 6, 2021, when armed insurrectionists stormed the United States Capitol building, causing lawmakers to shelter in fear of their lives and, to date, the death of five people.
It was impossible to watch the siege on the Capitol and not think of how differently the police likely would have reacted had Black Lives Matter protesters even attempted to visit Congress.
Or to wonder how deeply the police were complicit in allowing the attack to happen. Or how many law enforcement officers and military veterans actually participated in the attack.
But what is clear is that little has changed about American policing since the days of Dr. King, aside from the technology that lets us witness the frequency and ferocity of police violence against individuals of color. As more reports emerge of police taking selfies with insurrectionists and panic buttons mysteriously being removed from lawmakers’ offices, it’s clear that many police saw their role that day as one of serving and protecting the existing power structure, and the grievance and bald-faced lies of President Trump.
Similarly, the police played a prominent role in the only successful coup in American history, the deadly massacre of 1898, that occurred in my hometown of Wilmington, N.C. That insurrection was likewise based on lies and centered around an election.
That other police, acting in good faith, risked their lives to protect members of Congress and our democracy, even as some of their colleagues conspired with the coup attempt, makes that individual heroism even more powerful. To be sure, not all police are bad. But the institution is a rotten one.
That’s why we continue to call for divestment from police departments and reinvestment of those resources into programs that will truly serve and protect all communities.
There’s no reason that police should be first responders in mental health crises.
Or that they should be tasked with monitoring mere traffic violations that can often turn deadly for Black and brown people.
Police don’t belong in schools, and they don’t need military-grade weaponry.
As such, we must continue, with renewed fortitude, to push for divestment from the police.
Despite the whitewashing so common across American history books, don’t believe anyone who claims that Dr. King would be calling for anything less, if he were alive today.
Reggie Shuford is the executive director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.