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Khalil Gibran Muhammad Discusses the Significance of Calls to Defund the Police

“We have run out of options in terms of reform, in terms of thinking about what the police can do for themselves.”

Part of the Series

Protests in defense of Black lives and calls to defund the police continue across the U.S., from Los Angeles to Minneapolis and New York. We speak with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Suzanne Young Murray professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, about the significance of this moment and the history of policing in the U.S. “We haven’t seen a moment like this in at least half a century,” Muhammad says. “It’s hard to know for sure where we’re going to go from this moment, but it’s clear that when we look at the history of policing, we have run out of options in terms of reform, in terms of thinking about what the police can do for themselves.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. It’s been more than two weeks since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a global uprising in defense of Black lives. The protests, seen in major cities, small towns across the U.S., show no sign of abating.

As calls to defund the police grow, protesters are beginning to see results. Last weekend, the majority of Minneapolis City Council pledged to abolish the police department in Minneapolis. In New York, state lawmakers have voted to ban the use of chokeholds and repeal a law that shields the disciplinary records of police officers from the public. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to cut police funding by $150 million. Residents are now demanding he go much further.

Well, for more on the significance of this moment and the history of policing in America, from slave patrols to the present day, we’re joined by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the former director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He’s the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.

Professor Muhammad, it’s great to have you with us. If you could talk about this moment in time, both the uprisings, not only in this country, but around the world, and also the history of policing, that you so profoundly document?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Thanks, Amy. Thanks, Amy and Juan, for having me on the show.

Listen, we haven’t seen a moment like this in at least half a century, both here in the United States with protesters taking to the streets to demand, once and for all, not just police reform and accountability, but the prospect of a new vision of a relationship between state authorities and the health of a community. And the health of a community depends on everything, from the public goods and social services that people need, but also safety. And safety can come in many forms.

So, as far as what we’re seeing, we’re seeing a moment that is akin to the challenge that rocked the world in 1968 with global movements for various forms of anti-capitalist and anti-imperial and anticolonial organizing that took place both in the Global South and in many of the metropoles of the Global North.

And, you know, it’s hard to know for sure where we’re going to go from this moment, but it’s clear that when we look at the history of policing, we have run out of options in terms of reform, in terms of thinking about what the police can do for themselves. I liken this to asking the police agencies of this country to reform themselves is as ridiculous as asking the fossil fuel industry to solve our climate change crisis.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor, in your book, you talk about the 400 years of legacy of the development of these methods of policing, going back to the slave patrols in the mid-19th century. I’m wondering if you could take our listeners and viewers through some of that history?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Absolutely. So, of course, people intuit and commonsensically understand that as a system of violent control over human beings, slavery required the use of violence to control people. And so, for the entire period going back to the mid-1600s into the early 1700s, colony after colony, from New York and Massachusetts to South Carolina and Virginia, passed a series of Black Codes or Negro Acts, various laws that were designed to empower everyday white citizens with the responsibility and, let me be clear, the duty to serve in an official capacity to surveil, monitor, to track and, when caught, to dispense corporal punishment against enslaved African people in the colonies. It was the largest bureaucracy dedicated to a form of policing that we recognize today. And it was everywhere in the colonies.

By the time the nation was born, in 1790, while there were gradual abolition laws that took root in many Northern colonies, the antebellum experience of free Blacks was little different. What went from a slave patrol became the responsibility of a growing cohort of modern police officers. And this problem, from slavery to freedom, simply changed uniform and changed the instruments and tools of keeping track of people of African descent, and it expanded in the United States of America.

But there’s another part of this history that I think is really important, and that is that policing, in the broadest sense, was always about policing the essential workers of this society. And this is true in societies in countries all over the globe. And what do I mean by “essential workers”? Meaning the people who, at the bottom of the society, their freedom has always been constrained by more privileged and more elite, and in this country, whites.

Now, whites, of course, range in class. And so, one of the ironies is that both poor whites in many parts of the country were policed, especially when they challenged political authority, when they challenged economic inequality, but at the same time, they were able to join police forces. By the 1840s and 1850s, we see the Irish Americans beginning to both make their way in America, but also begin to join the police force. They direct their sense of belonging in the United States for policing. [inaudible] both a reflection of a racial and class hierarchy and also a way of giving power to groups that feel like they don’t have access to the top of the American economy.

So, policing is a reflection of a tremendous disorder in our economic system. It is a reflection of racial hierarchies that are deeply entrenched in our society. And when we see FOP or union leaders represented by working-class white men, partly, they have been empowered to define the profession as their own, not as a reflection of liberal democratic norms and universal ideas, but it is their profession. So, for me, to talk about the history of policing is also to talk about the history of white supremacy and racial capitalism in the United States of America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: [inaudible] that I’m wondering, because this does not only affect — although it has largely affected the African American community, but it’s also been — this method of using law enforcement and policing as a method of domination has also been used with other people of color, specifically Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans. In 1862, President Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors who had gone to war against the U.S. in the midst of the Civil War. And they were hanged as criminals and as murderers, not as enemy combatants. And I’m thinking of the Texas Rangers, who were largely created to control and dominate Mexicans, who were called “bandits,” because they were defending their land. And even with Puerto Ricans, from Albizu Campos to Oscar López Rivera, all the freedom fighters were always branded as criminals and dealt with as criminals within the justice system. I’m wondering, this whole issue of the territorial expansion of the country necessitating even more police repression on these populations of color, your sense of it in your historical studies.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Listen, Juan, I mean, the summaries and examples you just gave are incredibly important, because, to take it back to the very beginning, my colleague, Kelly Lytle Hernández, who has written about the U.S. Border Patrol and its origins in policing the movement of Mexicans coming to the country because the country wanted them here to work — but she also describes that the infrastructure of American colonial settlement, the very basis upon which the country literally expanded, as you say, the territorial expansion, was the jail. And she goes back to the very beginning, in the 1700s, to what is now the city of Los Angeles, which used to be the Tongva Basin, which used to be populated by Indigenous populations. And she said it was precisely the introduction of the physical jail as the instrument of control and domination, but a domination that was always rooted in harnessing the labor power of people, not to exterminate or to exclude them altogether, but to ensure that their labor would be extracted for the purposes of work, and then everything else would be controlled, that their freedom would be constrained.

And that story is the story of every group in every part of the country whose labor power was the most important contribution that they would make. Their civil liberties, their civil rights, their human rights, their humanity itself, was optional, was secondary. Their right to political dissent was secondary. So, you can look at Chinese immigrants in San Francisco in the 1880s and see the same story. You can look in Chicago in the midst of the labor upheavals of the 1890s, with foreign-born immigrant whites demanding fair treatment in the workplace, and see the same story. You can look at Texas and look and see the story of the Texas Rangers, which enforced literal white property theft of Tejano and Mexican descendant landowners, people who not only had once been part of Mexico before the Mexican Revolution and before the annexation of Mexico by the United States in 1848, but people who were law-abiding, respectable citizens in their communities. And white settlers showed up and essentially accused them of false crimes, criminalized them, and Texas Rangers enforced that. So, across time, across space and across groups, policing has a tortured history of being enforcers of various forms of domination.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, this is so interesting. This is so interesting, Khalil, because you, before you were a Harvard professor, you were the head of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which was established by Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, who was an African American Puerto Rican, bringing together all of these different cultures. I’m wondering if you now can go back, as you have, talking about the history of police repression, and talk about the history of the resistance to it?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Yeah. So, the resistance is fascinating, because for every slave patrol was an individual or group of individuals who sought to subvert the system. And, of course, the most famous of those who fought against it was Harriet Tubman. And while often we think of her as a kind of caricature person who stands outside of history, she embodied the earliest forms of resistance to the system itself, but also to challenging the very violent instruments of that system.

We can look at the resistance of laborers, who armed themselves to fight against private security and police officers at the gates of companies in various cities of Massachusetts in the 1870s, in steel country in the Midwest, and the rise-up of populist, anti-capitalist organizing of socialist leaders in the turn of the 20th century. White workers and Black workers, in some cases, side by side, fought together to change the very understanding of their rights as economic beings and as citizens of this country. And most certainly, we can look at Northern cities as places where African Americans showed up, beginning in World War I, and completely transforming the understanding of work and citizenship in this nation by virtue of the Great Migration. And in time after time, instance after instance, African Americans demanded equality at the workplace, demanded equality in the homes, and they fought against white police and white citizens in that effort.

We saw commissions beginning in, really, the 1890s around white police agencies focused on immigrants, and then we saw the same thing occur in the Great Migration period, beginning in Chicago, as the result of an anti-Black riot in 1919. These commissions came to the same conclusion over and over again. For over a century, from Chicago to the consent decree in Chicago in 2017 around the Laquan McDonald shooting, you have the arc of a hundred years of history saying the same story, which is that some precipitating act of violence by a police officer is only the tip of the iceberg of a submerged story of hundreds, in some cases thousands, of people being subject to various forms of everyday forms of abuse and trauma by the police. And that resistance, in the form of those commissions, is Black folks speaking to their condition.

Of course, the Black freedom movement gave us the Black Panther Party and other radical groups that essentially centered police brutality as the key issue for securing Black dignity and citizenship in this country and other places, and they were subject to the full weight of the federal government in repressive tactics, including COINTELPRO and other mechanisms, including assassination, which, in the most high-profile case, killed Fred Hampton in 1969 in Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaking Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation. Asked if he believes there’s systemic racism in law enforcement, this is his response. It’s not playing. But let me ask you this. Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad, you’ve talked about the resistance through history. How does what we’re seeing now — it looks like we have William Barr.

ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: I think there’s racism in the United States still, but I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist. I understand the distrust, however, of the African American community, given the history in this country. I think we have to recognize that for most of our history, our institutions were explicitly racist. … Since the 1960s, I think we’ve been in a phase of reforming our institutions and making sure that they’re in sync with our laws and aren’t fighting a rearguard action to impose inequities.

AMY GOODMAN: “I don’t think that the law enforcement system is [systemically] racist.” Professor Muhammad, your response?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Well, I mean, I was actually more impressed with some of the concessions he made in that speech than this fine line he draws between individual rotten apples and the system itself.

I’d like your listeners and viewers to think about this this way. This would be the akin of saying that Americans’ prisons are not built to dehumanize, given everything we know what goes on inside of them, despite the fact that people who show up to work every day are not necessarily evil people. That’s the problem we’re having around this conversation around policing. Policing, as a system, has been a system of control that sorts people and decides who gets to live and who gets to die with even the mere accusation of criminality. That is not true in white affluent communities. It is not true in communities where political elites are. We just saw a parade of criminality in the Trump administration, and all we kept hearing is federal prosecutors say, “We’re not sure we can win this case. We’re not sure we can bring the case.” We didn’t see Michael Cohen be subjected to pepper spray or flash grenades or a knee on his neck.

So, there is a double standard of justice in America, that police are enforcing white supremacy, and they’re enforcing economic hierarchy. And until we come to terms with that, in the way that we should be coming to terms with what happens inside of our prisons, we’re going to continue to see the resistance take to the streets and demand justice and transformation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Khalil, I wanted to ask you about a particular aspect of the role of the press and the media narrative in the issues of policing and police abuse. For most of the country’s history — and I’ve done quite a bit of studying of the history of the press in America — the press functioned almost as an intelligence operation for the dominant white community. During the colonial period, as much as a third of all of the content of American newspapers was intelligence to the white settlers about what the African American or the Native American communities were doing. But even up to the ’60s, the press were largely white, and even the rebellions of the ’60s, they reporting from a white perspective, as the Kerner Commission noted. But in recent years, as the press themselves have become diversified, we’re seeing both in the mainstream media, and of course now with citizen videos, this enormous change in the narrative as to what the role of the police is. I’m wondering if you think that that, along with the public resistance movement, will have a more lasting effect in terms of redirecting or changing the nature of policing in America.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Juan, it’s a great question, and I certainly appreciate even your sharing your own research and brief history of media in the past. I think it’s important.

So, if the question is “Can we see this moment for the democratization of media itself?” obviously, by virtue of social media and the fact that citizens can aggregate and spread news in ways that they could not before, I do think this is a fundamentally different moment. The gatekeeping of information and distribution of knowledge has broken down in many ways, both for good and for bad. But on the good side of the ledger, there’s no question that this is a moment of possibility, because there is a crisis of legitimacy in our democratic institutions, most obviously in the executive branch with the White House.

But it is also true that news agencies around the country, no matter who’s in charge — a Black person or white prison or a Latino or Asian American — have been deferential, over the past, to official accounts. And the crisis of legitimacy for police agencies has led many of those news directors, no matter who they are, to begin to think, like, we can’t trust the official record. In the case of Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd, he lied on the police record. So, the deference that has been assumed up to this time now is breaking down.

The ability to shoot in real time the killing and execution of people by police, or the brutality directed by police, as is the case in Buffalo and many other places as police use brutality to stop protesters from protesting against brutality, means that this crisis of legitimacy will be resolved. The only question of what the resolution looks like is: How long will people stay in the streets demanding change?

AMY GOODMAN: Khalil Gibran Muhammad, finally, defund the police. Do you see a comparable movement in history? And how this has changed the narrative?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: The defund-the-police moment is an incredible adjustment to the issue of abolition, that has mostly been about activists seeding the notion that these institutions are fundamentally broken. Organizations like Critical Resistance, that Ruth Gilmore and Angela Davis began many decades ago, have helped to develop the theory of change, of which abolition in our prison system and in our police have been developed.

Defund takes the core idea of abolition and says, “If we were to start over, what would we decide police should be doing versus not be doing?” Now, I’m already picking a middle position between the notion that we simply wipe out police altogether, which is one abolitionist version of it. But defund, as it is being articulated in places like Minneapolis, is really a conversation of: We’re going to start over, and we’re going to start over by putting together a list, from everything from nuisance calls to wellness checks to claims of violent crime, and we’re going to decide what the police ought to be doing. And once we see what’s left over, then that’s the percentage of the budget that the police, a new version of the police, will keep. The rest will go to other public services.

We can use violence interrupters, who are public health workers trained in the community, by the community, for the community, to in fact deal with conflict resolution. This is how it works in nearly every other country where police have not been militarized and given unlimited resources and power to police their own citizens as if they were soldiers in occupied territory. People resolve conflicts inside of healthy, functioning communities. So people in this country need the same training and resources to be able to do similar things. That’s what defund is about.

I’ll say one more thing about this. And that is that police unions are a problem. So, those on the left cannot be ambivalent about the need for opening up collective bargaining agreements where police unions are concerned, because they are a major impediment to the reforms and the defund or whatever version of new policing is going to emerge out of this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Khalil Gibran Muhammad, I want to thank you so much for being with us, professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, Suzanne Young Murray professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.

When we come back, we look at the story of Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old Buffalo peace activist who’s continuing remaining hospitalized after being pushed to the ground by two Buffalo police officers. Now President Trump has attacked him on Twitter. Stay with us.