The anniversary of George Floyd’s death should compel us to reflect back on the social uprisings that erupted to reform policing and advance racial and social justice. The guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin, while rare, nevertheless was a ray of hope that justice is possible. The contentious quest for “police reform” has a historical backdrop. In the U.S., law and order always implied force and violence. American Law and Order films reinforce the perception and reality that violence is intrinsic to policing. This is an American reality with historical context.

Traditional societies do not need deputized police. Social harmony functions with nonviolent means and restitution as corrective measures. Social mores and customary laws expressed in mythology, folklores, proverbs and belief systems serve as the glue of social contracts for common good. Even today, most traditional communities do not rely on a police force. The moral compass imprinted in their hearts and minds safeguards social harmony. I grew up in a society where an entire clan/group pays restitution in a loss of life. An alleged victim invokes, “In the name of the law, follow me to the judge.” The accused has no choice but to follow the accuser to the judge. Customary laws and social mores evolve over a long period in homogenous and traditional communities.

The United States population being a mobile and transient society requires law and order to safeguard it from chaos and conflicting interests. The police’s role to protect the community is important. Violence as a law and order tool is in the American DNA. Annually, about 1,000 civilians die in the hands of police. The majority are people of color. This reinforces the dominant culture’s perception that people of color are criminally inclined. American socio-political architecture validates such perceptions as reality. Founded on Judeo-Christian values, U.S. society should abide by the golden rule of reciprocal relationship. Created in the image of God, people deserve dignity and protection as an “inalienable right” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

American policing evolution compels us to see through a historical prism to understand the deadly police-civilian encounters. Historically, policing in the United States was framed on contradictory, binary goals: those who need protection by virtue of their skin color, whites; and those considered natural predators, Blacks and Natives. Strict laws with deadly consequences foiled slave revolts and served as a form of divide and rule, keeping Blacks subjugated. Scientific and theological claims that Africans and Native Americans are inferior failed. However, law and order using violence remained constant — intrinsically connected to an oppressive past. The police became the primary gatekeepers “by any means necessary.”

In the South, the ratio of enslaved Africans was higher to white slave-masters and settlers. Enacting “unjust human laws” with dire consequences on Blacks became necessary for the slave-masters’ survival. Poor white civilians considered it a patriotic duty to squelch slave revolts and apprehend run-away slaves. Financial incentives to bounty hunters exposed African Americans as victims of violence at the hands of rogue groups and individuals claiming to keep law and order. Free or enslaved Africans became fair targets, snared in a bounty hunters’ dragnet. The “Secret Arrest Warrant,” which made Breonna Taylor a collateral victim on March 13, 2020, has roots in such antiquated bounty hunter practices. The USA and The Philippines are the only two countries using bounty hunters in the 21st century.

Mob justice, lynching and extrajudicial killings during the Jim Crow era against people of color are legacies of antebellum practices. On Feb. 23, 2020, father and son vigilantes killed Ahmaud Arbery. They almost got away with it. The Ku Klux Klan, created to maintain the antebellum privilege of whites, had free rein, terrorizing African Americans with impunity for decades. Catholics and Jews were targets, too. Sheriffs and public officials participated or gave tacit permission for the reign of terror to continue unabated. The rise of hate groups and recent attacks on synagogues, resulting in the loss of lives, have a direct connection to this legacy. The dominant culture has been unwilling to make a radical departure from the legacy of the dark past.

It is unfair to equate the current policing system to the hate groups. However, we have ample evidence of hate groups’ infiltrating our law enforcement and military, infecting the system. The majority of police officers do excellent jobs, true to their oath “to protect and serve.” Unfortunately, bad apples in their ranks added to an institutional legacy of abuses that paint police unfairly. Policing reform should envision minimizing the dangers police encounter, too. Many die in the line of duty as heroes. Unfortunately, people of color have generational memories of law enforcement abuses, targeting them for their skin color. Even today, “Sun Down Towns” still exist, posing a danger to people of color. “Driving While Black” is another antebellum legacy haunting African Americans. Stopping and questioning any African American minding their business by the deputized police or white civilians was considered a patriotic duty. Such abusive past practices still cast long shadows, triggering generational trauma for African Americans.

It is a historical fact that police have been enforcing unjust local and federal laws, targeting people of color. Policies designed to exclude African Americans included redlines, housing covenants, development of suburbs, construction of highways through poor and Black neighborhoods, urban white-flight, etc. The outcome of such wrongheaded discriminatory policies on autopilot are squalid urban living, abject poverty, family stress, hopelessness, substance addictions and delinquent behaviors affecting urban neighborhoods. High crime rates concentrated in such neighborhoods need more police protection, not less. Unfortunately, police presence in these areas act like an occupying army, triggering historical and generational trauma, which erodes community trust. Black males’ encounters with police trigger “fight or flight” instinctual reactions with deadly outcomes. We cannot fully understand such dynamics unless we evaluate them through a historical lens. The quest for police reform, therefore, is not anti-police, but rather a call for a paradigm shift from past abusive legacies that are still operational. The new policing vision should be inclusive of all stakeholders, prioritizing community welfare and the common good.

On May 25, 2020, the agonizing death of George Floyd in the hands of police piqued the world’s conscience, inciting social uprising. Historical contexts give us a more objective look at current policing practices, triggering the memory of abusive legacies. Common-sense police reform will be socially, cultural, politically and financially less taxing to citizens. As a nation, our moral standing in the world should not be an excuse for despotic leaders to abuse their own citizens, emulating our shortcomings. In the post-truth syndrome, stating the obvious needs courage, more so to be a counterculture and prophetic voice. Prophetic voice gives hope to the abused and invites the abuser to redemptive conversion, as all are children of God.

Fessahaye Mebrahtu