Tag Archives: slavery

US Police Roots Spring from Slavery

New Orleans     We would all love to simply believe that the police are there, and have always been there, as the slogan goes, “to serve and protect.”  Jill Lepore, the noted Harvard historian and frequent New Yorker indefatigable and invaluable contributor, in a recent piece in that magazine detailed in brief the history of American policing, and it was not a pretty story.  She starts with the transfer from Britain to the US of the police as the “king’s force,” but finds that once on American soil, the roots are all wrapped around the poisoned tree of slavery.

It began with a something akin to a neighborhood watch in Boston in 1631, New York in 1658, and Philadelphia in 1705, where rich men hired poor and elderly men to take their turns.  These watches and incipient militias were married with slave patrols whose purpose was the brutal and rigid enforcement of slave codes in the states that began with those passed in Virginia in 1680, which make it “lawful …to kill said negroe or slave so lying out and resisting” being recaptured or breaching the code.  Slave patrols began in South Carolina in 1702, Virginia in 1726, North Carolina 1753, and so on.  “New Orleans was distinctive in having la police: armed City Guards, who wore military-style uniforms and received wages, an urban slave patrol,” as Lepore terms it.

Lepore also cites the role of slavery in police history that underscores the claims of Boston creating the first modern urban police force in 1838, citing instead that it was a reaction to a call in 1829 by a Black abolitionist David Walker for violent rebellion, provoking mob attacks on abolitionists and fear in many cities and states.  North Carolina created something they called a “police” force, but meant slave patrol in response to Walker’s call.

The story doesn’t get better.  In the unorganized territories, US Marshals, where they existed, only enforced federal laws, opening the door for vigilante committees to handle local matters often violently through lynching and tar and feathering.  After the Civil War, the US Army was the police force in the West, engaging in more than 1000 combat operations against Native peoples.  Modern police tactics instituted by August Vollmer in 1909 as chief of police in Berkeley, California, imitated military experience in the West and in actions in US colonies.  Vollmer-era police enforced Jim Crow laws passed since Reconstruction, the new editions of old slave codes, all of which criminalized being Black.

It goes on and on.

We need police.  We need their service and protection.  Our members in lower income and minority communities actually want more police, not less, and don’t pretend that a neighborhood watch is protection.  Nonetheless the systemic infection of racism, dating to slavery and slave patrols and moved forward through Jim Crow, wars against crime, and other rationalized and politicized campaigns against minorities and immigrants, has to be leeched out in order to create a policing system that in fact is fair and equitable, protecting all, and targeting none.


Reparations Qualifications and Confusion

New Orleans        As a Nikole Hannah-Jones fan, I followed her arguments carefully and approvingly in a recent piece in the New York Times as she demolished one quick fix after another that would achieve increased racial equity as she built up to her conclusion that reparations were the only essential, correct path.  As she worked her way up the mountain, she brushed aside voices that would say, their ancestors were innocent or they were recent immigrants by saying, “Reparations are a societal obligation in a nation where our Congress sanctioned slavery.  Congress passed laws protecting it and our federal government initiated, condoned and practiced legal racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans until half a century ago.  And so it is the federal government that pays.”  That makes sense and sounds right to me.  Everyone was affected, and everyone pays.

Hannah-Jones then argues that, “Reparations would go to any person who has documentation that he or she identified as a black person for at least 10 years before the beginning of any reparations process and can trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery.”  Later, she adds that, “The technical details, frankly, are the easier part.”  Compared to the politics, surely, the devil is also in these details, if we are to finally achieve racial equity, but her formulation leaves me confused about the narrowness of the qualifications she lays out here.

            We can all agree that “racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans [endured] until half a century ago.”  Why then would it be necessary for a potential claimant for any reparations benefits to be able to document and prove that they can “trace at least one ancestor to American slavery”?

The first slave ship from Britain landed in America with a cargo of 150 Africans in 1684, 336 years ago.  Slave documentation was largely nonexistent.  First names were common.  Last names often didn’t exist or were taken from the owner’s name.  Even at the time of the Civil War this was a fraught situation.  In the South and along the border states slavery was still practiced, while African-Americans were technically free in the other states.

Records and lineage to slavery should not be a dis-qualifier.  The discrimination was race and color-based, universally practiced, and state sanctioned.   To achieve any degree of equity, anyone with records to whatever magic date could be agreed ended state-sanctioned discrimination should qualify for some portion of any reparations.  A credible argument should be made that those state-sanctions continue to this date in many areas (healthcare, morbidity, housing and banking access, etc.), so any easier qualification might be to extend potential benefits to anyone black or African-American who is a citizen of the United States at time of passage and effective implementation.

To achieve racial equity, the approach needs to be encompassing, not limiting.  All boats need to rise, even if some might get more benefits than others based on more direct lineage to slavery’s practice.  To heal a nation, there needs to be no division.  All were harmed.  When we finally do right, we should do right by everyone.  That’s not technical, it’s just true.

Everyone was affected, everyone pays, and everyone benefits.