William Barr’s Police-Fueled War on Civil Rights

William Barr’s Police-Fueled War on Civil Rights

William Barr’s Police-Fueled War on Civil Rights

The attorney general’s obsession with protecting the police is a throwback to the crackdown on protesters in the 1960s.   


Over the past few months, US Attorney General William Barr has expressed a deep contempt for Americans demanding accountability from police. Speaking to recipients of the Department of Justice’s Award for Distinguished Service in Policing on December 3, Barr demanded that Americans show “the respect and support that law enforcement deserves.”

Withholding that deference could have serious consequences, Barr warned. “If communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”

Barr’s call for citizens to celebrate law enforcement followed comments he’d delivered to the Fraternal Order of Police’s national convention in August. He told the group that individuals who complain about police brutality usually lack evidence for their claims; no one should ever ignore an order from a police officer, even if that order is illegal; and activists seeking to reform the criminal justice system only embolden criminals and sabotage law enforcement.

Barr could have just as easily uttered these sentiments in the 1960s as in 2019. Indeed, his comments echo another speech at a national police convention, one in 1964 by William Parker, the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department at that time and one of America’s most influential voices on law enforcement.

“The law applies to everyone, and no one is permitted to violate it regardless of what their excuses are,” Parker told the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). “Detractors of the police establishment seized upon the cry of ‘police brutality’ as their most effective tool,” he insisted, a weapon in their “propaganda attacks upon the agents of duly constituted authority.”

The object of Parker’s scorn was the civil rights movement. Today, Barr criticizes Black Lives Matter without naming it, and he condemns the crop of progressive prosecutors elected to office across the country in recent years.

The attorney general’s narrative of a war on police in 2019, it would seem, has evolved very little from the charges police levied against America’s activists for racial equality in the 1960s.

The civil rights activists fought for a variety of causes, including fair housing, desegregated schools, equal employment, and welfare rights. While its campaigns for nondiscriminatory policing are barely remembered today, the movement produced an impressive record of protesting law enforcement misconduct that prefigured Black Lives Matter over five decades ago.

Civil rights groups ranging from the radical, direct-action Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to the more moderate and legalistic National Association for the Advancement of Colored People challenged police authority with protests, petitions, and lawsuits. Black citizens’ accounts of the verbal and physical abuse they endured at the hands of police officers were nothing new, but the civil rights movement injected them with a new urgency.

Police responded with criticisms of the movement that bordered on the defamatory. In Los Angeles, Parker contended that groups like the Congress of Racial Equality “direct their attack upon this local department today and that local department tomorrow and another one the next day.” Black citizens deployed charges of police misconduct “primarily as a weapon to stir up emotions and often as an excuse for challenging the police,” Parker claimed.

William Barr seems to have taken a page directly from Parker’s playbook in his recent denunciations of prosecutors and protesters. In August, Barr excoriated “an increasingly vocal minority that regularly attacks the police and advances a narrative that it is the police that are the bad guys rather than the criminals.” Barr might insist that “vocal minority” is a reference to individuals who unfairly demonize law enforcement, not African Americans. But the racism of his coded language is so thinly veiled to be laughable.

Honolulu police chief Daniel Liu accused the civil rights movement of promoting a similarly dangerous defiance of police authority. Writing in 1965, Liu deplored protesters “involved in an exercise of resistance and violence against police officers assigned to ensure compliance.” Quinn Tamm of the IACP was blunter in a speech the same year: “We are tired of the cry that because one segment of our population has been deprived for 100 years, the balance of society must accept a hundred years of anarchy.” For Tamm, African Americans may have endured unrelenting oppression (which, of course, spanned more than just one century), but they still had to obey the law, even in instances where it was written or enforced in unconstitutional ways.

Barr echoes these attacks on the movement with his recent criticisms of the “increasing toleration of the notion that it is somehow okay to resist the police.” Citizens have no right to ignore illegal orders from police, he insists, but should always “comply first, and, if warranted, complain later.” Like police officials who condemned civil rights groups, Barr is unconcerned about officers who violate protesters’ constitutional rights to public assembly and political speech.

Like Parker, the attorney general considers complaints about excessive force unjustified. Citing critics who “automatically start screaming for the officers’ scalps, regardless of the facts,” Barr contends that incidents of police brutality “are very much the exceptions, not the rule.”

Detractors of racial justice movements have long advanced misleading “both sides” arguments to discredit protesters of police misconduct. In the 1960s, law enforcement officials even claimed that civil rights activists were as dangerous as white supremacists who murdered black citizens and activists. John Sorace, a police captain in Nashville, maintained that the SNCC and the Ku Klux Klan were just two sides of the same coin. “One hate organization is trying to balance out the other,” Sorace insisted. To contemporary ears, it sounds like an outrageous comparison, but it was one that police made frequently.

Officers offered no apologies for this disturbing moral and legal relativism. It was a rhetorical move not unlike President Trump’s infamous defense of “fine people on both sides” in August 2017 following a white supremacist’s murder of anti-fascist protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. Law enforcement claims that Black Lives Matter or “black identity extremists” are waging a coordinated assault on police also bear a striking resemblance to such distorted “both sides” reasoning.

In recent months, Barr has highlighted one more menace to law and order: reform-minded progressive district attorneys. In the attorney general’s eyes, DAs like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, Chicago’s Kim Foxx, and San Francisco’s newly elected Chesa Boudin “style themselves as social justice reformers,” but their attempts to eliminate cash bail and reduce drug convictions are “undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.” The legal system is turning on itself, Barr would have us believe.

Law enforcement officials in the 1960s also perceived an internal threat to the legal system: a “judicial takeover,” which Parker charged “tragically weakened” police. The LAPD chief and his colleagues lambasted a wave of US Supreme Court decisions that limited police powers and acknowledged the rights of criminal defendants, including Mapp v. Ohio and Miranda v. Arizona. Many police viewed these rulings as provocations to civil disobedience, claiming that judges and protesters were working hand in hand to undermine law enforcement.

The intellectual debt Barr owes to police attacks on the civil rights movement is undeniable, whether the attorney general is aware of it or not. Both narratives seek to vilify critics of police misconduct as coddlers of criminals and enemies of the law. Both narratives utilize shrill dog whistles to attack African Americans who demand equal treatment. And perhaps most dangerously, both narratives insist that those who criticize or question the police surrender their right to be served by law enforcement agencies.

This argument—that the only individuals who deserve protection are those who celebrate law enforcement officers and refrain from questioning them—is at the heart of both “war on the police” story lines, today and 50 years ago. Ultimately, it’s a destructive and antidemocratic story that violates any notion of civilian control of law enforcement. We’d all do well to reject it.

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