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The Abbreviated History of Blacks & Law Enforcement

October 16th, 2020

Context is critical in order to fully appreciate the tensions manifesting during the recent international protests sparked by the death of George Floyd. Let’s spend some time considering the historical trajectory of the relationship between the police and Black Americans. 

Slave patrols were the earliest form of American policing in the south. Prior to the Great Migration, 90-95% of Black Americans were located in the southern region of the United States. Under the conditions of racial hierarchy, an entire policing model was engineered in response to racist beliefs and goals. During the antebellum period, slave patrols constituted the primary expression of southern law enforcement. 

Slave patrols interacted with slaves for two purposes: 1) to investigate and subvert any attempts to escape or rebel and 2) to catch “fugitive” slaves and return them to bondage or murder them. Been in The Storm So Long by Leon Litwack describes the responsibility of slave patrols this way: a) they were responsible for slave control off the plantation (This is akin to law enforcement’s current function as a regulatory body outside of the “private space”. Cops still don’t police private property except in response to distress calls or in exigent circumstances.); b) they were in charge of investigating rumors of insurrectionary plots (similar to the investigative function cops maintain today), seizing runaways (arrests), breaking up clandestine slave gatherings (keeping the peace), & punishing Black people who were off the plantation without approval or who were engaged in conduct the patrolmen found displeasing. 

Litwack argues that slaves feared the slave patrolmen as “legal terrorists who went out of their way to inflict brutalities and humiliation on any Black people they encountered.” (Been in The Storm So Long, pg 28). These policing functions and the response they engendered from Black Americans echo the concerns articulated around policing today. In his book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, Harvard historian, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, explains that almost all white men were required to serve in slave patrols. In fact, slave patrol rosters were used to craft the militias/regiments from which those serving in the American Revolution and the Civil War were enlisted. This history reveals how in the nascent stages of our modern policing model, law enforcement became heavily associated with the bondage of Black Americans and how state sanctioned authority over Black bodies was legally conflated into whiteness.

After slavery, Convict Leasing resurrected slavery-like conditions by criminalizing every aspect of Black life. Once seized, Blacks would be taken to a designated townsperson, found guilty, & sentenced to hard labor on a plantation or for another private entity. In Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize winning book about convict leasing, Slavery By Another Name, he says this: “Cottenham had committed no true crime. Vagrancy, the offense of not being able to prove at a given moment that s/he is employed, was a flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the 19th century by Alabama & other southern states. It was capriciously enforced by sheriffs & constables, adjudicated by mayors & notaries…it was reserved almost exclusively for black men.” Blackmon’s book also details other horrors perpetrated by law enforcement during the convict leasing era. The book goes on to detail that in addition to racial animus, the enforcement of these laws was motivated by 1) the desire for free labor and 2) to intimidate Black men away from political participation. 

Jim Crow effectively codified many of the underlying motivations behind convict leasing, including prohibitions hindering political participation. This period in American history was undergirded by extreme domestic terrorism in the form of lynching against Black Americans. Read the stories of Mary Turner & the Colfax Massacre. Not only did the police fail to protect Blacks from this extrajudicial violence, they often helped facilitate it. This point cannot be overstated. Throughout America’s history, Blacks have been victimized by racial terror that the police not only failed to protect them from but also actively participated in. This trend continued into the Civil Rights Era. 

During the Civil Rights Era, it was police who brutally disrupted peaceful marches, it was police who vigorously enforced segregation, it was police who helped cover up the murders of prominent civil rights leaders. There's a book and a podcastabout it. Throughout more than a century of fighting for equal rights, law enforcement was never on the side of freedom or equality for Black Americans. They were, more often than not, ordered to and invested in upholding a racist social hierarchy.

After civil rights, the Black Power Movement attempted to actualize the self-determination rhetoric whites had been saying would result in their full liberation. Black communities opened schools, gave away meals, & armed themselves to mobilize against the racial terror that cops had failed to offer protection from (and often participated in) for decades. Police (and society at large) were not receptive to these efforts. In fact, the only time the National Rifle Association has ever supported a ban on assault rifles, is when the Black Panther Party went to the California State Capitol with them. The initiatives and their leaders were repeatedly vilified in media and the movement was hyper policed under covert operation names like COINTELPRO. Under Hoover’s leadership and at his direction, the Federal Bureau of Investigation used deception and other troubling tactics to sabotage the Black Power Movement.

Immediately following the BPM, the War On Drugs emerged. Unwarranted disparities in crack & powder cocaine (see my TEDxToledo talk here), an explosion in the prison population of disproportionately Black & brown people, the desecration & devastation of poor minority communities ensued. The police were the frontlines of these efforts. Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ava Duvernay’s “13th” documentary on Netflix have marshaled the details of these stories and made compelling arguments that indict how the criminal justice system relates to racially marginalized communities. These are the realities that have characterized the relationship between Blacks and the police. 

There has never been a period in the history of this country where cops were allies of the Black community and the freedom struggle they faced. Further, the police continually deny this history and the way it has influenced the framework of existing police structures. That kind of gaslighting doesn’t set the stage for trust and amicable future relationships. And while slave patrols were exclusive to the south, it’s important to bear in mind a few things: 1) prior to the Great Migration (1910-1970), over 90% of Blacks lived in the American south & 2) the south wielded significant political power well into the 20th century and significantly influenced how regions and states perceived Blacks. Collectively, national law enforcement has done nothing to deconstruct the ideology and norms that fueled, framed, and informed policing in racist ways for most of our nation's history.

So there you have it. The historical relationship between Blacks and cops in a nutshell. This history is further informed by the disproportionate killing of Black people by police. All of this bubbles to the surface during the killings like we’ve seen repeated throughout the last decade. Without some effort by police to center anti-racism as a core principle and a guiding force in their policies, we will continue to see these eruptions every time the cops kill unarmed Blacks and without substantive changes, this will inevitably happen again.