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OPINION: Not a Heritage to Celebrate

During the course of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' speech at the National Sheriff's Association winter conference, he declared that "the office of the sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement." Photo courtesy Flickr/Gage Skidmore

During the course of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' speech at the National Sheriff's Association winter conference, he declared that "the office of the sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement." Photo courtesy Flickr/Gage Skidmore

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Andrew J. Williams Esq.

At the National Sheriffs' Association winter conference in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 12, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered what should have been a puff piece. Instead, we heard his thoughts on both the twisted history of law enforcement in America and his own priorities. During the course of his speech, Sessions went off script and declared that "the office of the sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement."

As the Marshall Project noted, "Anglo-American" was entirely absent from the pre-written speech journalists in attendance received. What heritage is Sessions extolling here? Slavery. Many of the original organized law-enforcement agencies were southern slave patrols and "slave catchers."

The "Anglo-American" heritage is the heritage of Jim Crow. Who was the primary enforcer of the segregation of African Americans? The sheriff. Who was it that enabled twisted men like Bull Connor and Ross Barnett to lead the fight against civil rights? Anglo-American law enforcement. Who protected the Ku Klux Klan, a murderous band of monsters hiding in white bedsheets? The local sheriffs. When protestors in Alabama dared to rally to proclaim that they were equal, who was it that led the vile, brutal attack on the march? Sheriff Jim Clark. He was so dedicated to the Anglo-American law-enforcement ideals that he issued an order calling all white males over 21 to be deputized for the purpose of beating black marchers.

But surely times have changed; isn't Jim Crow a thing of the past? As Ecclesiastes said, "There is nothing new under the sun." "Anglo-American law enforcement" has helped create the world's largest prison stateā€”a racist, classist, violent assault upon humanity. The United States has the world's largest prison population with the highest incarceration rate. People are locked up, used for legal slavery to profit the capitalist system and spit back out into a society that has rejected them. Who stands at the gate of this monstrous and bloody system? The sheriff and his offshoots. Each day we are now privy to the reality that black and poor people experience with law enforcement. Pre-textual stops, harassment and violence are more commonplace than anyone wants to realize. Who is on the front lines of the brutal encounters with these disenfranchised and occupied communities? The "Anglo-American law enforcement heritage"-honoring officers.

Let's be clear: There are many individual sheriffs and deputies who try their best to help society and enforce the law fairly. They are to be commended. However, these individuals alone cannot correct the sins of the system itself. It is a fallacy of liberal idealism to think the problem arises from and can be solved by individuals.

Jeff Sessions insists that this heritage is a benefit to the country. The white sheriff is the "people's protector who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to the people," by which he means Anglo-Americans, aka white people. Under his leadership, the Department of Justice has begun rolling back the meager reforms his predecessor had put in place. Sessions wants to escalate the drug war, which is an entirely failed endeavor. He wants to arrest his way out of the opioid crisis while oblivious to the people's suffering. Some have been surprised that he would lead the DOJ in this manner. His speech should put their bewilderment to rest.

The "Anglo-American law enforcement heritage" is one of violence, racism and exploitation. This is a heritage to be scorned, a dark mark to be expunged. This is not, contrary to what Attorney General Sessions thinks, a heritage to be celebrated.

Criminal defense attorney and armchair philosopher Andrew J. Williams Esq. lives and practices in Mississippi.


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