They Called Her Moses

A humble gravestone marks the final resting place of abolitionist, wartime spy, and social activist Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) in Fort Hill Cemetery, 19 Fort Street in Auburn, New York. Born Araminta Ross, a slave in Maryland, Harriet escaped to the free states in 1849, where she helped hundreds more escape slavery through the Underground Railroad. During the American Civil War, she served as a scout and spy for the Union Army. After the war, she advocated for women’s suffrage. She died of pneumonia in 1913 at the age of 90 or 91.

Police Departments do not Have a 400-Year History of Anti-Black Racism

  • Modern police and police departments didn’t exist in the American colonies or the United States from 1619 to (at the earliest) 1838, a span of approximately 219 years.
  • Modern uniformed police departments were first established in Northern cities in free states and were based on British policing models, not Southern slave patrols.
  • Modern policing has nothing in common with slave patrols; their purpose, methods, and the legal rights and protections for the people involved are completely different.

Over the past few weeks, activists and pundits have made unbelievably inaccurate and outrageous historical claims about law enforcement in the United States. These assertions aren’t new, but they have entered the mainstream in a way we haven’t seen before. Fact-checking be damned. For instance, in an article not labeled as an opinion piece, USA Today writer Wenei Philimon claimed “Police departments have a 400-year history of racism”. This blanket assertion is supported with so little evidence or specificity, it wouldn’t receive a passing grade in a high school history class. 

“Dating back to the 1600s, the U.S., then a British colony, used a watchmen system, where citizens of towns and cities would patrol their communities to prevent burglaries, arson and maintain order. As the slave population increased in the U.S., slave patrols were formed in South Carolina and expanded to other Southern states, according to Sally Hadden, a history professor at Western Michigan University who researches slave patrols,” Philimon, a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism, writes.

Already, the inaccuracies are glaring. The colonies that would become the United States were not entirely British in the 1600s, but were originally formed by several European countries. France, Sweden, Netherlands, and Spain all made claims on this territory (New Netherland, including what would become New York City, didn’t fall completely under British control until 1674). Each colony was governed by its own laws and methods of maintaining order.

But even if we take this writer’s version of events at face value, what does preventing burglaries, arson and maintaining order have to do with racism, anyway? Never mind. Philimon glosses over the first 100 years of her 400-year timeline and goes directly to slave patrols.

“Slave patrols lay at the roots of the nation’s law enforcement excesses, historians say [Philimon only cites one historian who says this], helping launch centuries of violent and racist behavior toward black Americans,” she claims. This pernicious myth has been repeated in several academic books and articles and even at the National Law Enforcement Museum, although there is no direct link between slave patrols and modern police forces, especially (and most obviously) in the North.

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Community Policing Can Work

Problems with policing in the United States are real, but fantastic ideas like abolishing police will make everyone less safe.

In the wake of protests and unrest over the death of George Floyd and other instances of police brutality, activists, pundits, and politicians have floated various ideas to curb violent or potentially violent interactions with police, many of which are, for lack of a better term, unrealistic. De-funding police, abolishing police departments, and not arresting nonviolent offenders are among the most wild suggestions. The predictable consequences of these ideas would be much higher crime rates, unsafe neighborhoods, vigilante justice, or a proliferation of private security firms only accountable to their employers.

When I was running for mayor of Rockford, Illinois, I advocated a return to community-oriented policing, and I think that combined with better and more frequent training and demilitarization can solve a lot of the issues with police brutality. Rockford was a large Midwestern city struggling with a post-industrial environment. It had a high crime rate. Gang violence, robbery, and drug trafficking were common. Relations between police and the local community, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, were strained. An incident in 2009 in which a police officer shot and killed a young black man named Mark Anthony Barmore in the basement of a church further eroded relations.

I haven’t lived in Rockford for several years, so maybe things have changed, but back then the mayor would play lip service to community policing every once in a while and bicycle patrols would appear downtown for a few weeks. It was kind of like playing whack-a-mole. By focusing on one area, it was difficult to respond to crime in other areas. Rockford’s problem was not too many police, but too few. It was impossible for its centralized police force to effectively cover such a large area. Response times to a call could be as long as 40 minutes.

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States Sue to Include Equal Rights Amendment in the U.S. Constitution

Three states have sued to force the federal government to recognize the Equal Rights Amendment as an adopted amendment to the Constitution, because denying reality is what we do now when we don’t get what we want.

This week, Virginia did not become the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, as supporters claim, because the deadline to ratify the 1972 ERA expired on June 30, 1982–37 years ago. Additionally, five states that initially voted to ratify the ERA later rescinded their ratification prior to the deadline. In 2017, 2018, and 2020, Nevada, Illinois, and Virginia held symbolic votes to ratify the expired amendment.

Now Democratic state’s attorneys from those three states are suing to force the federal government to recognize the Equal Rights Amendment as an adopted amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Both the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have stated the 1972 ERA has not, and will not be adopted. According to NARA, “The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has concluded ‘that Congress had the constitutional authority to impose a deadline on the ratification of the ERA and, because that deadline has expired, the ERA Resolution is no longer pending before the States.'”

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Pragmatism vs. Ideology in Lincoln (2012)

An intellectual debate between opposing philosophical approaches plays out in Steven Spielberg’s presidential biopic.

Director Steven Spielberg’s biopic of President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment during the closing months of the American Civil War was a critical success, with strong performances by Daniel Day Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones. Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of resolute and idealistic Thaddeus Stevens was the perfect foil to Lincoln’s more pragmatic and folksy personality.

Thaddeus Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) was a U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania, who served from 1849 to 1853, and again from 1859 to his death in 1868. Stevens was a staunch abolitionist and leader of the Radical faction of the Republican Party, who sought total legal and social equality for African Americans, including redistribution of Southern lands to freed slaves.

President Lincoln and Congressman Stevens had the same goal. Both wanted the Thirteenth Amendment passed, which would forever outlaw slavery in the United States. That required a two-thirds majority vote, and Lincoln wanted the amendment passed in the House of Representatives before the Confederacy surrendered, which was not a matter of if but when. In order to get the necessary votes, Lincoln needed bipartisan support from conservative Democrats as well as Republicans. Stevens, however, refused to compromise and moderate his tone.

In one scene of dialog from Lincoln, Lincoln and Stevens meet in a smoke-filled kitchen to hash out their differences. Lincoln needs to get Stevens on his side, but Stevens seems uninterested in compromise. This conversation is a perfect contrast between ideology and pragmatism. Pragmatists are willing to meet their opponents halfway, while ideologues will only accept a total and complete triumph of their ideas.

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Unfortunately, Just Mercy Was Based on a True Story

This film about one of the most egregious modern cases of racism and injustice mostly sticks to the facts.

One thing I didn’t like about Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) was that it invented events to make its antagonists more menacing than they really were. It’s a habit in Hollywood to insert or amplify racism in historical films, which is weird because there are plenty of actual historical examples of racism to make movies about.

Case in point: Just Mercy (2019), written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham and directed by Cretton, based on the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Just Mercy follows the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was wrongly convicted of the 1986 murder of a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama and sent to death row. Years later, attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) successfully appealed McMillian’s conviction and won his freedom.

McMillian, who was having a very public affair with a white woman named Karen Kelly, was hosting a fish fry at his home with his wife, Minnie (Karan Kendrick), surrounded by about a dozen witnesses, when the murder occurred. Despite this, Sheriff Tom Tate (Michael Harding) arrested him for the crime. And despite not yet being convicted, he was sent to death row while awaiting trial.

Judge Robert E. Lee Key, Jr. (yes, that was actually his name) moved the trial to a different county where it would have a majority white jury. The judge overrode the jury’s decision of life imprisonment and imposed the death penalty. McMillian sat on Alabama’s death row from 1988 to 1993, when the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled he had been wrongfully convicted.

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Only Patriots―Or Traitors

How political opposition to the American Civil War led to a bloody confrontation at the Coles County courthouse.

The year was 1864, and the month of March was just coming to a close. The watershed battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg had long passed, and it seemed as though the American Civil War would never end. The presidential election was still over seven months away. On March 28, 1864, tensions between soldiers on leave from the 54th Illinois Volunteer Regiment and antiwar Democrats erupted in what became known as the Charleston Riot. When the smoke cleared, eight men lay dead and twelve writhed in agony.

Why did animosities erupt in central Illinois that fateful spring of 1864? One historian theorized that antiwar Democrats (copperheads) who fought Union soldiers around the Coles County courthouse in March believed they were exercising their “inalienable right of revolution,” and that, in his words, “when the normal remedies of the ballot box and the courts failed, a few were willing to emulate the founders of the Republic and take up arms to protect their rights.”[1]

Did radical Republicans and Unionists, as Robert Sampson suggested, push Democrats into violence? The answer, of course, is complicated.

After seven Southern states seceded in the winter of 1860-61, newspaper editors and politicians in southern Illinois reacted strongly against President Abraham Lincoln’s call for a volunteer army to put down the rebellion. Early in the war, the Cairo City Gazette declared, “we are opposed to our Legislature voting one cent to aid in equipping troops to be sent out of the state for the purpose of prosecuting the unnecessary war inaugurated by the present administration.”[2]

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No Safe Spaces: Powerful but Incomplete

Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager deliver a powerful rebuke to radical campus activism, but fail to explore its root causes.

I watched Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager’s new documentary No Safe Spaces (2019) in a nearly-sold out theater in Alexandria last night. While it was a decent summery of the latest threats to freedom of speech and expression, and the audience loved it, there were some glaring omissions that left the film feeling incomplete.

If you’ve been paying attention over the past several years, you’ve noticed the rise in political activism on both the right and left has led to some alarming developments, including riots, street clashes, and an effort to “de-platform” opposing views on the Internet. No public space has been at the forefront of this conflict more than college campuses.

No Safe Spaces highlights two of the most dramatic episodes of campus activism and political correctness run amok: Bret Weinstein and the 2017 Evergreen State College riots, and the 2016 riots at California State University that targeted conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro.

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