A new Washington Post-Schar School poll reports that a big majority of Americans support the protests that have been held across the country since the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody — and they say that police forces need to do more to treat blacks equally with whites.

Eight-one percent said police need to reform to ensure equal treatment for whites and blacks, the poll said. Other findings include: 87 percent of Democrats said they support the protests, as do 76 percent of independents and 53 percent of Republicans.

One of the calls made by protesters is for reform in police departments, including calls to defund them, meaning to divert money from their budgets to social, health and educational programs. And some are calling for the dismantlement of departments, including in Minneapolis, where nine of the 13 city council members have called for finding other ways to keep residents safe.

With police reform front and center in the national debate, it’s a good time to learn about the history of policing in the United States. Here are resources on the subject from the nonprofit Zinn Education Project, which offers free downloadable lessons and articles on history organized by theme, time period and grade level. The lessons are based on the approach to history highlighted in Howard Zinn’s best-selling book, “A People’s History of the United States,” emphasizing the role of working people, women, people of color and organized social movements in shaping history.

You can check back here on the project’s websites for additions that will be made to the list below.

As part of our People’s Historians Online series, we hosted a special session with Keisha N. Blain on the “Roots of the 2020 Rebellion,” focused on the history of policing. Many teacher participants reflected that what they learned about the origins and practices of policing is vital to make sense of current events, but is not in their U.S. history textbooks.

Therefore, we offer resources below to teach outside the textbook in middle and high school classrooms about police throughout U.S. history. There are many more books, articles and films on the topic — these are just a few student-friendly suggestions.

To get started, we recommend the “Throughline podcast on the history of policing in the United States” with Harvard professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad.


Throughline: American Police: The origins of policing in the United States, starting with slave patrols. Features Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.”

Democracy Now: Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing Interview with Stuart Schrader, author of a book by the same name.

Lessons and textbook critiques

How Chicago’s Public Schools Are Teaching the History of Police Torture by Thai Jones. An article about Chicago’s citywide curriculum that requires the history of police torture be taught in all eighth- and 10th-grade public school social studies classes.

The Murder of Sean Bell: From Pain to Poetry by Renée Watson (Rethinking Schools)

Remembering Red Summer — Which Textbooks Seem Eager to Forget by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca (Zinn Education Project)

Books for high school students and adults

Chokehold: Policing Black Men” by Paul Butler

The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale

Teaching for Black Lives edited by Dyan Watson, Jesse Hagopian, Wayne Au

Young adult novels and graphic novels

All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds

I Am Alfonso Jones” by Tony Medina

The Hate You Give” by Angie Thomas

Say Her Name” by Zetta Elliott

Also see books for children and young adults on the Social Justice Books Incarceration list, including a young readers’ edition of “Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.


Student Athletes Kneel to Level the Playing Field by Jesse Hagopian (Rethinking Schools, 2017)

‘We will overcome whatever [it] is the system has become today’: Black Women’s Organizing Against Police Violence in New York City in the 1980s by Keisha N. Blain, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, Vol. 20, Issue 1 (Fall 2018): 110-121.

Primary Documents

“#7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people, other people of color, and all oppressed people inside the United States.” — from the Black Panther Party 1966 10-point platform.

The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States by Ida B. Wells-Barnett 1895. (To compare to the current annual list of murders — or lynchings — by police.)

SNCC Digital Gateway Often missing from lessons on the civil rights movement are the demands to end police brutality and violence by other white supremacists. Many stories at the website of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) highlight the role of the police and organizing to defend communities.

This Day in History Series

Selected stories of police brutality and protests of the police, including a 1941 protest of police brutality in Washington, D.C. See This Day in History stories about the police.

Art: Mural of Oscar Grant. By Robert Trujillo, Trust Your Struggle Collective.

Campaign Materials

We Came to Learn: A Call to Action for Police-Free Schools A report from the Advancement Project offers the history of how school police became institutionalized in the public education system in the United States, documents the negative impact on students of color, and offers a guide for how to take action. Learn more and download.

Documenting National Organizing toward #POLICEFREESCHOOLS by Christopher Rogers. A growing list of campaigns and resources to inform ongoing organizing in schools in defense of black lives.


Fruitvale Station” by Ryan Coogler about the murder of Oscar Grant.

Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner on HBO.

Slavery by Another Name” by Sam Pollard, Catherine Allan, Douglas Blackmon, and Sheila Curran Bernard about false arrests of African Americans to feed the convict leasing system.

When They See Us” by Ava DuVernay about the false arrest and imprisonment of five teenagers known as the Central Park Five. (Also see 13th.)

Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee veteran, lawyer, and Teaching for Change board member Tim Jenkins gives a 90-second history lesson about who the police “protect and serve.”

More to read: