Anybody who’s somehow still wondering how America’s police force has gotten to this point—how the institution that’s supposed to serve and protect us has instead turned into a paramilitary force that too often murders black people and openly brutalizes peaceful protesters—should watch last night’s episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The whole thing’s up on YouTube, and we’ve embedded it below, so there’s no excuse not to check it out.
Oliver tracks how American police forces have always been in support of systemic racism, from their early origins as runaway slave patrols, to their active participation in lynching and other white supremacist violence, to how they’ve historically enforced all manner of racist policies and laws. He also shows how cops have become increasingly militarized over the last 50 years, not just in terms of equipment but in how they’re trained to think and act. And this isn’t a partisan problem, as Oliver points out—Democrats are every bit as guilty of growing and perpetuating this system as Republicans. In fact, early on in the episode Oliver explicitly calls out Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo for their responsibility for the violent response to New York protests, which makes Oliver the only late night host to focus on the local officials who oversee police brutality and to acknowledge that Donald Trump and his administration are not solely responsible for it.
The point is this isn’t a recent development. Black communities have lived through all of this since slavery was abolished, and yet it’s something that white people have rarely been forced to confront or acknowledge. Oliver presents a damning case for the historical racism of our police forces, presenting them as an organization founded in white supremacy, and that believes not in protection but dominance.
After establishing all of this, Oliver then explains the movement to defund the police, and how it’s not about fomenting anarchy but rebuilding our protective institutions into something that works with and in their communities instead of trying to rule them through fear and violence. After the last few weeks of brutality, and Oliver’s history lesson throughout the episode, it’s hard not to think that the defund movement seems like a great idea at this point.
If you haven’t watched it yet, here’s the full episode. It’s a succinct but thorough examination of the issues surrounding America’s police forces, and yes, it’s also really funny.