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Common Reading 2020-21: Listen. Learn. Act. The 1619 Project Podcast & This is My America

This year's theme, Listen. Learn. Act., is dedicated to learning about Black peoples and their experiences especially in the US

Profanity Warning

Some profanity is used on this page of the Listen. Learn. Act. guide. In particular, the F word is used in quotations and in the title of a song by rap group N.W.A. from 1988. In addition, the novel, This is My America, includes some profane language. This language may offend some people; however, it also points to emotional reactions people have in the face of unjust acts or brutal violence that can end in death. In light of freedom of speech, the librarianship ethic of resisting censorship, and holding space for people to express their emotions, we have chosen to leave the profanity as is.

From Slave Catching to Modern Policing

Slavery and the Origins of American Policing

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D., Associate Dean and Foundation Professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University writes, "The birth and development of the American police can be traced to a multitude of historical, legal and political-economic conditions. The institution of slavery and the control of minorities, however, were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing." Read more:

An 1839 woodcut depicts a slave patrol capturing a fugitive. Source: Anti-Slavery Almanac/Public domain

An 1839 woodcut depicts a slave patrol capturing a fugitive. Source: Anti-Slavery Almanac/Public domain

Slave Patrols as Origin Story?

Not all scholars agree that modern policing can trace its origins to slave catching.

In an article on the Conversation, Connie Hassett-Walker, Assistant Professor of Justice Studies and Sociology, Norwich University writes "There are two historical narratives about the origins of American law enforcement" (numbers added below):

  1. "Policing in southern slave-holding states had roots in slave patrols (Source: "Ignoring the Past: Coverage of Slavery and Slave Patrols in Criminal Justice Texts"), squadrons made up of white volunteers empowered to use vigilante tactics to enforce laws related to slavery. They located and returned enslaved people who had escaped, crushed uprisings (Source: "Did African-American Slaves Rebel?" by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) led by enslaved people and punished enslaved workers (Source: "Ignoring the Past: Coverage of Slavery and Slave Patrols in Criminal Justice Texts") found or believed to have violated plantation rules."
  2. "The more commonly known precursors to modern law enforcement were centralized municipal police departments (Source: "The History of Policing in the United States, Part 1") that began to form in the early 19th century, beginning in Boston and soon cropping up in New York City, Albany, Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere."

In either case, Hassett-Walker adds in her expert opinion, "these factors – controlling disorder, lack of adequate police training, lack of nonwhite officers and slave patrol origins – are among the forerunners of modern-day police brutality against African Americans." (emphasis added)

The "Goodness of Policing" An April 24, 1851 poster warning the "colored people of Boston" about policemen acting as slave catchers.

In a conversation about policing and political control, Harvard Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad says "...there's no way to separate the goodness of policing from the messiness of the context in which it's born." Listen to the interview at the Throughline episode link below to learn more.

As this April 24, 1851 poster illustrates, police even in Northern cities like Boston sometimes acted as slave catchers.


Image is in the public domain

Podcasts on the Origins of Policing in the US

In the Throughline episode below, Harvard Kennedy School professor, Khalil Gibran Muhammad addresses the origins of modern policing in Northern US states: 

"And part of the context for early modern policing by the late 1840s was that the immigrant population of Europeans, particularly the Irish, were generating in their own way a similar kind of social anxiety, xenophobic, nativist, racist reaction to what African Americans certainly were used to in the South with slave patrols and what antebellum black folks had been used to who were free in northern cities in terms of being surveilled and controlled."

Is Modern Policing in Need of Reform?

According to a Gallup poll from July 2020, 58% of Americans believe policing in the US needs to be reformed, and according to a Reuters' article, "'Most Americans, including a majority of President Donald Trump’s Republican Party, support sweeping law enforcement reforms such as a ban on chokeholds and racial profiling after the latest death of an African American while in police custody', according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released on Thursday." 

After the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the U.S. national conversation has turned once again to police reform. According to this news release from Nature: "Many have been arguing for years about the need for better data on the use of force by the police in the United States, and for rigorous studies that test interventions such as training on how to de-escalate tense interactions or mandating the use of body-worn cameras by officers. Those data and studies have begun to materialize, spurred by protests in 2014 after the deadly shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death by chokehold of Eric Garner in New York City." (emphasis added) 

What do Police Officers Think?

A Pew Research Center survey from 2017 provides a snapshot of what police think: "Behind the Badge: Amid protests and calls for reform, how police view their jobs, key issues and recent fatal encounters between blacks and police." 

Here is just one of the many survey data results from the Pew Research Center Study "Behind the Badge" from 2017:

Roughly two-thirds of officers say they favor the use of body cameras (graph from PEW research study)

CQ Researcher provides an Overview

Read the "Police Under Scrutiny: Can law enforcement restore public trust?" by Christina L. Lyons from CQ Researcher at the link below. 

Policing and Immigration

Riots, Militarization, & Police Reform

Riots and Riot Police

L.A. Riots in 1992

According to an NPR article, When LA Erupted in Anger: A Look Back At The Rodney King Riots (2017), the L.A. Riots of 1992 were a reaction to the news that "four Los Angeles policemen — three of them white — were acquitted of the savage beating of Rodney King, an African-American man. Caught on camera by a bystander, graphic video of the attack was broadcast into homes across the nation and worldwide." The riots were especially violent in South Los Angeles where "[t]ension had already been mounting in the neighborhood in the years leading up to the riots: the unemployment rate was about 50 percent, a drug epidemic was ravaging the area, and gang activity and violent crime were high. [...]"

National Guardsmen cross the street near Barbara Kruger’s mural on the fourth day of the Los Angeles riots in 1992.(Gary Leonard)

National Guardsmen cross the street near Barbara Kruger’s mural on the fourth day of the Los Angeles riots in 1992. (LA. Times/Gary Leonard)

Although the photograph shows National Guardsmen, the police were also outfitted with military gear: "The LAPD at the time was almost an occupying force, particularly biased against people of color, says lawyer and civil rights activist Connie Rice. 'What we had was aggressive paramilitary policing with a culture that was mean and cruel, racist and abusive of force in communities of color, particularly poor communities of color,' Rice says in an interview with NPR's Grigsby Bates."

From the Watts Riot of 1965 to September 11, 2001 and Beyond

Equipping of police with military gear and tactical training in the U.S. dates back before the 1990s. 

According to an International Business Times article, Police Militarization History Stretches Back To Civil Rights Movement, "Experts say there is a long history of militarization of the police, dating back to race riots that broke out in a handful of U.S. cities in the 1950s and 1960s. Some believe that the seeming success of SWAT teams deployed to curtail the 1965 Watts Riots -- a six-day race riot sparked by conflicts with the Los Angeles police that resulted in 34 deaths -- gave way to the trend of arming and equipping police forces with battlefield weapons. A massive expansion of police militarization came after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, where law enforcement agencies stressed the readiness of local police forces, in the event of another domestic terror incident."

Police in Ferguson use a variety of crowd-control equipment including teargas following the killing of teenager Michael Brown in August. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Police in Ferguson use a variety of crowd-control equipment including teargas following the killing of teenager Michael Brown in August [2014]. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images via The Guardian

Police Reforms

Start exploring this topic by reading an overview of the issues from Gale's Opposing Viewpoints database:

Demilitarizing the Police

According to an ACLU report, War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing, "every year, billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment flows from the federal government to state and local police departments. Departments use these wartime weapons in everyday policing, especially to fight the wasteful and failed drug war, which has unfairly targeted people of color."

Additionally, according one study in the peer-reviewed research article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), used data from SWAT deployments to study the issue. The author concluded, "militarized police units are more often deployed in areas with high concentrations of African Americans, even after adjusting for local crime rates and other community traits. But I find no firm evidence that SWAT teams lower an agency’s violent crime rate or the rates at which officers are killed or assaulted. Using survey experiments, I show that citizens react negatively to the appearance of militarized police units in news reports and become less willing to fund police agencies and less supportive of having police patrols in their own neighborhoods." (emphasis added)

Read the study:

The Call for Body Cameras

After Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, police reform conversations in the US were focused on police wearing body cameras. Here is an article in The Atlantic from December of that year:

Since that time numerous polls and studies have been done to determine if body-worn cameras would be an effective tool for police accountability.

More research on body-worn cameras:

Community/Civilian Oversight

The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) is a non-profit organization dedicated to "creat[ing] a community of support for independent, civilian oversight entities that seek to make their local law enforcement agencies more transparent, accountable, and responsive to the communities they serve."

What is meaningful civilian oversight? 

Read the article below to learn more:

Act logo from the Common Reading ProgramGet Involved!
  • Read about the Civilian Review Board of Eugene
  • Join the Civilian Review Board in Eugene
  • Check if your home community has a Civilian Review Board

What does "Defund the Police" really mean?

According to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, "'Defund the police' means reallocating or redirecting funding away from the police department to other government agencies funded by the local municipality. That’s it. It’s that simple. Defund does not mean abolish policing. And, even some who say abolish, do not necessarily mean to do away with law enforcement altogether."

Why is Reform So Hard?

Listen to this episode from the New York Times' The Daily that explores systematic barriers to disciplining officers:

In this interview from the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, Rashawn Ray and Adrianna Pita discuss shortfalls in the ways law enforcement is held accountable for misconduct. Listen to the full episode or read the brief article, both linked below:

Extrajudicial Killings, Combatting Extremism, Remembering Victims

What is Lynching?

According to Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia, "'lynching' refers to the practice of killing people by extrajudicial mob action. Lynching differs from ordinary murder or assault because it is a killing that is committed outside the boundaries of due process by a mob that enacts revenge or punishment for a perceived offense. Lynching derives its name from Colonel Charles Lynch, an 18th-century judge and Virginia landowner who had a habit of holding illegal trials of local lawbreakers in his front yard; Lynch would whip the accused while they were tied to a tree in his yard." (emphasis added)

Read more from Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia:

Learn about the history of lynching in the US from the Equal Justice Initiative:

White Domestic Terrorism

In the novel, Tracy's family is the victim of a cross burning, a typical terror activity of members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). 

According to the EJI report (link, above), the "earliest seeds of violent white resistance to Reconstruction were planted in Pulaski, Tennessee, in late 1865, when six Confederate veterans formed the Ku Klux Klan." 

Oxford's A Dictionary of Contemporary World History, the Ku Klux Klan is defined as "A US terrorist organization with a complex system of secret and ceremonial hierarchy established in the defeated states of the south in 1866. It had the aim of intimidating African Americans and preventing them from exercising their legal rights as US citizens to vote, hold property, run for office, or enjoy equal access to economic opportunity. Following the publication of the definitive book by D. W. Griffiths, Birth of a Nation (1915), the Klan re-emerged in altered forms while displaying its distinctive symbols—burning crosses, white robes, and hoods. Klan violence and murder spread across the entire country in the 1920s, when it boasted four million members." Read more:

Police's Role in Combatting Extremism

According to an August 2020 report from the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, "The government’s response to known connections of law enforcement officers to violent racist and militant groups has been strikingly insufficient." Read the report:

In fact, there have been documented cases in which law enforcement officials are actively involved in extremist organizations or active in condoning or covering up their behavior. According to a June 1, 2020 article posted on Just Security, an organization based at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law, Danielle Schulkin analyzes documented evidence of links between law enforcement and White Supremacist groups:

Remembering Victims

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

In 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama, the Equal Justice Initiative opened The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial commemorates the names of victims of lynching in the United States.

Content Warning: This video contains gruesome images of murder and violence.

See photos from the opening of the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice at the following links:

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Books on Policing & Reform

Reacting to Racial Profiling

Racial Profiling in America

According to their article, "The Environmental Context of Racial Profiling," in the peer-reviewed journal The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science authors Warren and Ferrell explain "Racial profiling describes the practice of targeting or stopping an individual based primarily on his or her race rather than any individualized suspicion. Such profiling came under considerable public scrutiny beginning in the 1990s when the media drew substantial attention to racial profiling in traffic stops." Furthermore, according to the Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society, 2008, "Some suggest it occurs when police routinely use race as a negative signal that, along with other signals, causes an officer to react with suspicion."

Racial Profiling Undermines Trust

According to the Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society, "It seems reasonable to expect that citizens who believe that police use race in determining whom to place under suspicion will be more likely to hold unfavorable attitudes toward police. For example, Weitzer and Tuch reported that in 1999, 82% of African Americans believed that racial profiling is a widespread phenomenon [....] Although the belief in racial profiling is likely to undermine trust in the police among all citizens, it is likely to have a stronger effect on the African American community given their negative historical and sometimes contemporary experiences with the police."

"The Talk"

Black parents in the U.S. have "the talk" with their kids about how to handle themselves in an encounter with the police. 

Content warning: This video contains strong emotions. 

From Black Codes to "_____-ing While Black"

The "black codes" were laws that governed the behavior of Black people after slavery. As Bryan Stevenson points out in his 1619 Project essay, "Mass Incarceration:" "New language has emerged for the non-crimes that have replaced the Black Codes: driving while black, sleeping while black, sitting in a coffee shop while black. All reflect incidents in which African-Americans were mistreated, assaulted or arrested for conduct that would be ignored if they were white."

Reacting Through Art

In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, rapper Ice Cube reflects on N.W.A.'s 1988 song, "Fuck Tha Police": 

"Over the years, Ice Cube has echoed Ren’s viewpoint.Rolling Stone Magazine, July 2020 | "American Uprising" Black Lives Matter 'That song is still in the same place before it was made,' the rapper said in 2015. 'It’s our legacy here in America with the police department and any kind of authority figures that have to deal with us on a day-to-day basis. There’s usually abuse and violence connected to that interaction, so when ‘Fuck tha Police’ was made in 1988, it was 400 years in the making. And it’s still just as relevant as it was before it was made.' [...]. [Ren]: 'It was like, if you black, you young, you in the hood, you in the ghettos of America, you just get fucked with. What you hear on the record is all the frustration, all the times getting harassed, getting pulled over for no reason at all, getting disrespected, having them try to disrespect your parents all because of your skin color.'” (emphasis added)

Rolling Stone Magazine, July 2020 | "American Uprising" Black Lives Matter by Kadir Nelson

Read the interview:

For more on art, activism, and resistance, check out the page in this guide on Black Creativity.