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Robert F. Williams, president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP in the 1950s and early 1960s, and his wife, Mabel Williams. Photo: Collection of the Freedom Archives

This article was originally published by Oregon Humanities, as an excerpt from "Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America" by Kristian Williams.

Alternatives to Police in the Black Freedom Movement

There is a question that haunts every critic of police—namely, the question of crime, and what to do about it.

Since the 1960s, the right wing has made crime a political issue and identified it with poor people and people of color. Because the left has largely refused to make crime an issue, it's also failed to challenge this characterization.

Successive waves of politicians—of both parties, at every level of government—have learned to stoke the public's fears of rape, murder, drive-bys, carjackings, school shootings, and child abduction, as well as rioting and terrorism, and present themselves as heroes, as saviors, as tough-talking, hard-hitting, no-nonsense, real-life Dirty Harrys who will do whatever it takes to keep you and your family safe. The solutions they offer typically have the appeal of simplicity: more cops, more prisons, longer sentences. The unspoken costs come in the form of fewer rights, limited privacy, greater inequality, and a society ever less tolerant of minor disorder. These political tactics are nothing new, of course, but the scale of their effect—2.2 million inmates in 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics—is unprecedented. And unless the left can do better, we have to expect that these same solutions will be the ones offered in the future.

The fact is, the police do provide an important community service: protection against crime. It is not their chief function, and they do not always do this part of their job well or fairly—but they do it, and it brings them legitimacy. Even people who dislike and fear police often feel that they need the cops. Maybe we can do without omnipresent surveillance, racial profiling, and institutionalized violence, but most people have been willing to accept these features of policing, if somewhat grudgingly, because they have been packaged together with things we cannot do without: crime control, security, and public safety.

Because the state uses this protective function to justify its own violence, the replacement of the police institution is not only a goal of social change, but also a means of achieving it. The challenge is to create another system that can protect us from crime, and can do so better, more justly, with a respect for human rights, and with a minimum of bullying. What is needed, in short, is a shift in the responsibility for public safety—away from the state and toward the community.

The thought that community-based measures could ultimately replace the police is intriguing. But if it is to be anything more than a theoretical abstraction or a utopian dream, it must be informed by the actual experience of history. One place to look for community defense models is in places where distrust of the police and active resistance to police power have been most acute­—in other words, the Black community.

Civil Rights with Guns