Juneteenth Is an Occasion to Celebrate the Rule of Law

Demonstrators gather during a protest to mark Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in Texas, amid nationwide protests against racial inequality, in Washington, D.C., June 19, 2020. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
If the momentum behind policing reform is channeled responsibly, as it was in previous civil-rights struggles, then Americans will support it.

On the 19th of June in 1865, Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, with a group of Union soldiers and news that the Civil War was over and that all former slaves were now and forever free. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had formally abolished slavery in the Confederate states two and a half years earlier, it hadn’t been widely enforced in Texas because of the relative scarcity of Union troops in the region. This final nail in the coffin of the secessionist cause is now celebrated in 47 states and the District of Columbia as “Juneteenth.” Texas senator John Cornyn (R.) is in the process of advancing legislation that would make it a federal holiday.

After the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement to global prominence, Juneteenth has drawn more attention this year than ever before. Today’s celebrations of black liberation from the chattel slavery of the Old South come at a time when the relationship between law enforcement and the African-American community is trending downward. Given the widespread public uproar against the way American policing is carried out in communities of color, there is one particular part of the Juneteenth story I would call the reader’s attention to — the delay between the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on the 1st of January 1863, and its practical execution in Texas on the 19th of June 1865. After President Lincoln’s Proclamation, many slave owners moved to Texas, the most remote slave state, in order to prolong their theft of black labor. There weren’t enough Union soldiers in Texas at the time to enforce the new law in a meaningful way, so the Lone Star State became, for a brief time, the last refuge of antebellum evil in the country. The first Juneteenth, of 1865, marked the date on which Union forces finally had sufficient control over the last Confederate strongholds to enforce a law that had been passed by the United States government years previously, and to liberate in practice people who had been legally free for over two years. In other words, the Juneteenth story demonstrates, probably better than any other, the indispensable necessity of good and trustworthy law enforcement.

It has become fashionable in certain circles on the left to suggest that policing should be abolished altogether in favor of “community-led alternatives.” This seems to be completely inimical to the spirit of the Juneteenth holiday. Each of the major advances for African Americans living in the United States since the Civil War have been manifest in hard-won legislative victories for which many martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement suffered and died. Without government-backed agencies wielding the monopoly on violence in their jurisdiction, this legislation is nothing more than ink on a page. The men and women in uniform are the ones who give legislation teeth and enforce its enactment on the ground. Major General Granger’s triumphal entry into Galveston is enough to demonstrate that, but there are a myriad of other examples one could point to throughout American history — such as President Eisenhower’s deployment of the Arkansas National Guard to enforce the 14th Amendment and desegregate Little Rock Central High School. If the United States is to be a nation governed by laws and not by men, then agents will always be required to enforce those laws. The alternative is to abandon democracy, debate, and deliberation as means of resolving our differences.

The real problem for African Americans in this country is the gap that exists between laws and their enforcement. The corollary of what I wrote above concerning the impotence of law without enforcement is that legislative assemblies can pass as many measures protecting young black men from discrimination as possible, but if these measures are ignored by police, or if police drag their feet in enforcing them, they might as well not be on the books at all. Once again, Juneteenth provides a good, albeit tragic, example of this. After Union forces were removed from the South and the reins of power were back in the hands of the local white population, the federal laws protecting black people were routinely ignored and long, sordid history of lynchings, Jim Crow, and the Ku Klux Klan commenced. A justice system so thoroughly rigged against the safety and prosperity of African-Americans did not deserve either their respect or their obedience. That is what makes the unwavering proceduralism of the Civil Rights Movement so remarkable: When revolution would have been justified, its leaders chose to pursue legal reform. The evils of segregation and Jim Crow were ended by law rather than warfare, and racist policing combated by institutional reforms that resulted in lynchings and employment discrimination being consistently treated in the gravest criminal terms by law-enforcement officers. When their own interests were threatened, African-Americans did not respond like the Southern slavers, declaring war upon a national system arrayed against them. Instead they followed an Alabaman pastor down the roads and thoroughfares of peace that were mapped out in the New Testament.

The result was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the whole raft of civil-rights legislation since, which, despite what pessimists might argue, has done so much to improve the lives of black Americans during the last half-century. Throughout the entirety of the Civil Rights Movement, both its leadership and its rank-and-file members retained an indestructible, almost unbelievable, commitment to the rule of law that found its greatest expression in the practice of civil disobedience, wherein the penalties of the law are willingly incurred by the lawbreaker in order to make the point, in the most peaceful and dignified way possible, that the laws of man are not the laws of God. A commitment to policing goes hand in hand with a commitment to the rule of law. That is why Black Lives Matter activists should focus their efforts on the reform of American police forces, not their destruction or removal. If we cannot have police then we cannot have laws, and if we cannot have laws, then God help us.

The Civil Rights Act has sometimes been criticized as an encroachment of the federal government upon the free association of private actors. This federalizing of local activity sits uncomfortably with many libertarians and with some conservatives, too. However, it seems to me, as a conservative whose animating political concern is the dispersal of power to the most local level possible, that the best way to think about the ’64 Civil Rights Act, as well as the federal centralization that happened during and after the Civil War, is as a kind of involuntary forfeiture of local autonomy, required of Southern legislatures as recompense for their abuse of the increased moral responsibility that comes with the exercise of government power. A similar forfeiture might be required of police forces across the country, including greater federal oversight and the stripping of legal privileges such as qualified immunity. The peaceful, procedural tactics of the Civil Rights Movement encouraged Americans to demand this federal response of their neighbors (the Civil Rights Act received 80 percent Republican and 60 percent Democratic support in Congress) by way of a moral witness that convicted the conscience of the nation and completely discredited the claims of their opponents.

Policing disparities in the United States are not as stark or grave an issue as that of Jim Crow, but the comparison remains instructive. If the current momentum behind policing reform is channeled in a similar manner to that behind previous civil-rights issues, it is more likely that the broader American electorate will again side increasingly with the voices of change. If, on the other hand, policing itself rather than bad policing continues to vilified, then the rule of law will be next in line for cancellation. For how can the ends remain credible when the means have been prohibited? They can’t, and when that domino falls, God knows what’s in store.


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