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Watch the harrowing video of Rayshard Brooks being shot in the back by Atlanta police and the conclusion is inescapable: These people should not be allowed to carry guns. The same can be said of the police in Louisville, Ky., who killed Breonna Taylor as she slept in her own bed, the Minnesota cop who killed Philando Castile, the officer in North Charleston, S.C., who killed Walter Scott, and the Cleveland cop who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The list of African Americans shot and killed by police is a shameful legacy that stretches back generations.
In a time when doctors, nurses, and hospital cleaners have to beg for protective equipment and bus drivers and postal workers are expected to risk death to keep our cities functioning, the demand to divert funds from often obscenely militarized police forces to health, education, housing, and other public services is irresistible. But perhaps it is also time to consider a corresponding measure that would fundamentally change the relationship between law enforcement and those being policed: taking away their guns.
Night watchmen in the North American colonies, like their counterparts in Europe, went unarmed, their ranks drawn from the communities they patrolled. Even as these volunteers were gradually replaced by professional police forces—first in Boston in 1838 and then in New York, Chicago, and other cities—they carried no weapon more deadly than a short club. It was slavery and the enforcement of racial subjugation that first led US police to carry guns. While Northern cities maintained a civilian watch, Charleston and other Southern ports instituted slave patrols—armed bands whose purpose was to terrorize the enslaved population into submission and return runaways to their enslavers. Texas Rangers, who were charged with patrolling the border with Mexico and enforcing the theft of land from Native Americans, also carried firearms.
The relationship between armed police and racism wasn’t confined to the South or the West. In 1851, Boston abolitionists attempted to free Thomas Sims while he was being held under the newly enacted Fugitive Slave Act. Boston police equipped themselves with borrowed cavalry sabers to disperse the demonstrators enraged by a court decision to send him back to Georgia. While slave patrols in the South were reborn after the Civil War as police departments to enforce black codes and Jim Crow laws, police departments in the North increasingly took on the role of strikebreakers confronting a militant and largely immigrant workforce, whether on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side or in the steel towns of the newly industrial Midwest. At first, police were merely authorized to provide their own weapons. It wasn’t until the 1890s that New York’s reform mayor, William Strong, and his police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, outfitted the NYPD with pistols. Police needed guns not to protect themselves or the public but to defend capital from the claims of labor.
Disarming the police won’t solve racism. Nor would it have saved George Floyd or Eric Garner or, lest we forget, Arthur Miller or Michael Stewart, but it is a step toward diminishing cops’ wholesale impunity.
Over 90 percent of London’s Metropolitan Police, whose creation in 1829 is regarded as the model for America’s professional forces, remains unarmed. While police brutality can kill even without a gun, the extreme rarity of police shootings in Britain should give Americans pause. As should the reality—no mere utopian dream—of a huge, economically polarized, multicultural city where policing remains by consent rather than by superior firepower.
Addressing the epidemic of US gun violence will require confronting our culture, with its glorification of violence, and our history of colonial depredations. But we have to start somewhere. Why not seize this moment to remove the daily threat of death by police that haunts African Americans and their families? Why not remove one factor from the brutal calculus of ordinary American violence? Let’s act—not just to save money but also to save lives—and disarm the police.