Many of us woke Saturday to learn of Congressman John Lewis’ death the evening before. In a lifetime of battles for racial justice, “the Conscience of Congress” was losing what he called “the greatest battle” of his life on Friday, even as people across the state were engaged in their own battle over civil rights – the police accountability legislation to be voted on in a Special Session of the General Assembly in a matter of days.

As members of the Judiciary Committee, which has cognizance over judicial matters and whose co-chairs crafted LCO #3471: An Act Concerning Police Accountability, we listened for 12 hours as the divide over racial justice seemed to grow wider.

More than 150 citizens signed up to speak at the Legislature’s first-ever virtual public hearing, held on Zoom from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday. With a few exceptions, the “nays” had a direct connection with law enforcement, while, again with few exceptions, the “yays” were people who have been touched by excessive police force directly or indirectly. There was no denying the gulf of race – again, while there were exceptions, the color line was crossed but a few times: the Latino cop who testified against it, and a few white activists who testified in favor.

At times, the rancor was palpable: there was some shouting, some interrupting, a lot of head-shaking and eyeball-rolling, especially when one legislator likened the Black experience to that of the Irish. (For the record: this state legislator from Chester is of Irish descent and knows that, devastating as the Potato Famine was, voluntary emigration can’t come close to being abducted from one’s homeland and enslaved. And inexcusable as the “No Irish Need Apply” policy was, being denied a job cannot compare to being lynched.)

We both saw the sorrow, and the resolve, in our colleagues’ eyes when we heard comments that ranged from tone-deaf to gaslighting. One person on Friday’s hearing even likened cities to “plantations.”

Uncomfortable as it is, all of us must understand that professional policing evolved from the volunteer “Watch” along at least two branches: deeply racist southern “Slave Patrols” dating to the 1700s, and the labor-busting centralized municipal police force formed in Boston in the 1830s. The notion of the police as “peacekeeper” is a relatively new one. Lest we forget, by the time the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Blacks were taking a stand in large numbers across the South, and as a result, state militias were instituted to put an end to slave uprisings. Slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and it was the militia’s job to enforce that police state. (Sally Hadden: Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas.)

Why does history matter? Because it must inform our understanding of the present. And an uncomfortable truth is that modern-day police departments had as part of their formation, the history of state militias. And what this New Haven state representative is saying is that this is part of our history. Black folks saw the state militia as power, violence, and death.

So, where do we go from here? Back to the drawing board, starting with the recorded history of this country. Democracy, as is often said, is messy. As lawmakers, we get in the ring of ideas and duke it out. We listen – even if through clenched teeth – because it’s our job to hear every side of an argument. But we also know that change is needed – not just in Minneapolis and other cities where recent high-profile black deaths at the hands of white officers have taken place. One person testifying used her allotted three minutes to read the names of Black and Brown Connecticut residents killed on Connecticut streets by police officers in the last couple of years – and she ran out of time. So yes, we have a problem, which to their credit, several members of law enforcement acknowledged at the public hearing.

To be sure, there are thorny, complicated issues to be worked out – whether or not to eliminate qualified immunity protection, to name one of the most hotly debated issues.

We genuinely feel for the good cops being tarnished by the bad ones, and we know that the police can be an instrument of public safety. But it makes no sense to deny that certain communities are aggressively policed with disparate treatment of people because of their skin color. Even the two writers of this op-ed have had dramatically different experiences with the police, with skin tone being the only significant difference between us.

Our Judiciary co-chairs, Democrats Sen. Gary Winfield and Rep. Steve Stafstrom, have worked tirelessly on this proposal for months. They have done so with input from ranking members, Republicans Sen. John Kissell, Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, and many others. And we’re not done yet. We all understand that no piece of legislation will ever please everyone, and that reaching for perfection can be the enemy of the good. Just the same, our jobs as lawmakers is to legislate justice because no less than people’s lives, careers, reputations and our government’s credibility are at stake.

So, perhaps it’s fitting to return to Congressman Lewis, who said, “Now we have black and white elected officials working together. Today, we have gone beyond just passing laws. Now we have to create a sense that we are one community, one family. Really, we are the American family.” It’s time to unite Connecticut, finally with liberty and justice for all.

Rep. Robyn Porter represents Hamden and New Haven. Rep. Christine Palm represents Chester, Deep River, Essex and Haddam. They serve together on the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.

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