Historian breaks down why AG Barr’s ‘anti-democratic’ rhetoric recalls crackdowns on civil rights activists in the 1960s
Proponents of police accountability — from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to the NAACP to the Rev. Al Sharpton — have repeatedly stressed that they aren’t anti-law enforcement. But as Attorney General William Barr sees it, an anti-police mood is sweeping the U.S., and historian Joshua Clark Davis points out the parallels between Barr’s rhetoric and a crackdown on dissent in the 1960s.
Davis, in an article for The Nation, notes that when Barr spoke at a December 3 event honoring recipients of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Award for Distinguished Service in Policing, he asserted that Americans must show “the respect and support that law enforcement deserves.” And Barr had a threatening tone when he added, “If communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
Barr, Davis explains, “could have just as easily uttered these sentiments in the 1960s as in 2019.” And Davis (who teaches at the University of Baltimore) draws a parallel between Barr’s remarks and what Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker had to say during a speech in 1964, when he asserted, “The law applies to everyone, and no one is permitted to violate it regardless of what their excuses are. Detractors of the police establishment seized upon the cry of ‘police brutality’ as their most effective tool.”
1964 was an historic year in the United States. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who defeated Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater by a landslide in the presidential election. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading civil rights marches.
“The object of Parker’s scorn was the civil rights movement,” Davis explains. “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.”
Davis goes on to write that 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.’”
Another parallel between the Donald Trump era and the 1960s, according to Davis, is a disdain for reformers within the legal system and the courts. In the 1960s, Parker was highly critical of the Warren Court for decisions that he believed “tragically weakened” police; similarly, Davis notes, Barr has accused reform-minded district attorneys such as Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and Chicago’s Kim Foxx of “undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.”
Davis wraps up his piece by emphasizing that “war on police” narratives — whether it’s Parker in the 1960s or Barr in 2019 — ignore the fact that law enforcement isn’t above the law.
“Ultimately, it’s a destructive and antidemocratic story that violates any notion of civilian control of law enforcement,” Davis writes. “We’d all do well to reject it.”