April 28, 2021


The other day, I got into a little spat with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project, because she peddled to CBS the idea that modern policing has a “direct lineage” to slave patrols because, “in certain parts of the country,” slave patrols were deputized to catch slaves. She’s right about that—to a point. And we’ll return to that point in a second.

But in the course of our spat, she said that “no one has ever argued that global policing or policing as an idea was invented in the American South.” This was a strange thing for her to say, because she actually claimed to have read my column on this subject, which begins:

“Policing itself started out as slave patrols. We know that,” Rep. James Clyburn declared in an interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier.

As I noted, Clyburn was hardly alone. But here’s a more recent example, from last Sunday’s This Week. Angela Rye, the former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, said (emphasis mine):

The Columbus Police Department isn’t about one bad apple. It’s about an entire department. So we have to talk about qualified immunity without fighting with buzzwords, but really talking about how we solve for a system that by design from its inception was designed to capture and return and enslave people back to their masters. If we can’t uproot what was intended, we will forever have this problem, and we have to be willing to have honest discourse.

I particularly love the “honest discourse” shoutout.

Let me type this slowly so everyone can understand: The Columbus Division of Police, established in 1816, was not founded as a slave patrol. Ohio was not a slave state. In 1841, it passed a law that runaway slaves were automatically free once they made it to Ohio. Similarly, the Minneapolis Police Department, founded two years after the end of the Civil War, wasn’t built upon slave patrolling and has no “lineage”—direct or tangential—to slave patrolling.

The police officer who shot a black teen about to plunge a knife into another black teen was not in any way connected to slave patrolling. Derek Chauvin was not living down to the legacy of slave patrolling. Even Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison conceded to 60 Minutes this week that prosecutors couldn’t find any evidence that Chauvin was racist or that his crime was racially motivated. If you know anything about Ellison, you’ll know he wanted to find such evidence.

Even the connection to slave patrolling in southern cities is, at best, literary. Does anyone actually believe that Rodney Bryant, the chief of police in Atlanta, sees himself as part of some great unbroken chain in the long tradition of slave patrolling? Of course not. And not just because Bryant is black, or because cops are not trained and educated in slave patrol tactics, but also because slavery has been illegal in the United States for 158 years, three months, and 27 days.

(This goes for Houston, Charlotte, El Paso, Nashville, Memphis, Raleigh, Lexington, Kentucky; most of the big cities in Virginia, Baton Rouge, and Tulsa—just some of the cities with black police chiefs.)

Modern policing—or even policing qua policing—owes far less to slave patrolling than NASA owes to Hitler’s rocket program. And yet no one talks about the troubling Nazi roots of modern space exploration, or asks Elon Musk if he’s exorcised the ghost of Werner Von Braun from SpaceX.

I have seen this slave patrol thing brought up countless times in interviews, and not once have I seen an interviewer say, “Really?” never mind, “What the hell are you talking about?” It’s as batty as any conspiracy theory, and it’s a deliberate attempt to heap innuendo on policing in lieu of making an intelligent argument.

And that’s what frustrates me to no end. It’s the job of journalists to call out B.S. when it’s being thrown in their faces.

That assumes that journalists actually know anything about the history of policing — or know anything at all, in some cases. When Ben Rhodes famously said, “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing,” like most of the “reporters” he fed stories to, he didn’t know the half of it.

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