Racial justice protests are happening across the country during this Fourth of July weekend to challenge acts of police brutality perpetrated against Black people. These much-needed actions highlight not only modern-day police abuse but also the sordid history of white supremacy and racial violence in this country. Instead of celebrating a false narrative of American struggle for liberty and justice for all, we should be out in the streets protesting against the continued killings by the police of Black people and we should wrestle with this country’s true history of racial violence and oppression that has led us to this much needed reckoning.
The murders of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are the most recent additions to a far too numerous lists of victims of U.S. racial violence, the legacy of the nation’s white supremacist origins that remains part of its life blood. Today when we have Black people killed by the police or self-appointed white vigilantes, many will yell that the system is broken. But this displays a fundamental flaw in any analysis of what the purpose of policing has been since its inception.
Racial violence is embedded in the fabric of this country’s history. From Columbus first bringing enslaved Africans to the Caribbean (1490s) in the newly “discovered” lands; to the Spanish-controlled settlement first using slave labor on the mainland of North America (1526) in what would later become South Carolina, bringing in 100 enslaved Africans, all who shortly after revolted and escaped; to British colonial enslavement/indentured servitude (1619) starting in Jamestown that by the 1660s grew into the system of chattel slavery that would remain in this land for following 200 years. Racialized control and violence (branding, rape, separation of families, whipping) over Africans, later to be re-classified by many different names, has been the common thread of history for Black people in this country and hemisphere.
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The subjugation of Black people was codified in the founding of this nation. As part of the U.S. Constitution, Article 4 section 2, known as the Fugitive Slave Clause, states a “person held to service or labor” (read labor as enslaved African) “flees to another state [is] to be returned to his or her master in the state from which that person escaped….” This was later codified in the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, which passed Congress and was signed by George Washington to give direction the constitutional statute. To enforce such federal and local laws, a policing system in the South was slowly established. Slave patrols of white volunteers were created to enforce the laws of slavery — from punishing enslaved Africans for “breaking” plantation rules to rounding up Black people who they believed to have escaped, and crushing uprisings when enslaved Africans revolted in order to “protect” the private property of the master class.
When slavery ended, only after a bloody civil war, new laws were erected post-Reconstruction to re-enslave Black people. In addition to a lopsided sharecropping arrangement that kept Black people forever in debt to the plantation owners, new vagrancy laws and Black codes were established and the prison leasing system was born. As many as 200,000 Black people (mostly men) were arrested by the police, tried and sentenced by the courts and sent back to plantation life. This conspiracy of interest by white plantation owners, business people and white elected officials known as “Redemption” was both born as a way to gain cheap labor and to strip Black people of their voting and citizenship rights recently gained from the 14th and 15th Amendments. When the police were not enforcing these laws in uniform, many in the South were a part of white terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan that killed, lynched, maimed and harassed Black people in the name of white supremacy. This continued to be the norm for Black life for close to another 100 years in the South. With the codification of Jim Crow laws, the police saw it as their duty, custom and culture to uphold these laws.
Although most forms of vigilante-style racial violence have been lessened from the period of overt slave catching, bounty hunting and terrorist lynch mobs, the notable exceptions still exist. Many Southern states have gone out of their way to extend the definition of “self-defense” from the castle doctrine of protecting one’s home or protecting oneself from imminent threat with a proportional response, to “stand your ground laws,” which allow the use of deadly force for perceived danger. White people have felt empowered to use these laws to stop Black people, like the slave catcher of the past, and interrogate them. When these Black people don’t respond well to being forced to stop by strangers, these white men have shot them and claimed the defense of standing their ground even when they are shooting unarmed Black people. Similar to lynch mobs, these individuals feel it is their right to control and terrorize Black people. Clearly, these laws were meant to give whites the feeling of acting “under the color of law” when confronting mostly young Black men.
The modern over-policing of Black communities started with the Great Migration North in the early 1900s onward, the pushing of Black people into certain communities, and white flight, followed by a decrease in most city services except for one city agency which increased its presence — the local police. There were plenty of police patrolling the neighborhoods of the urban slum. The primary contacts the state had with its Black citizens was through cops on the beat who, through the use of racialized violence, enforced the rules and laws of the street and corner life.
Places where I grew up myself included dilapidated apartments and high-rise public housing where there was never enough work, health care or space but always enough cops looking to make arrests and to control the movement of Black people. Most urban uprisings of the second half of the last century were connected to incidents of police brutality in the community. During this period, the aggressive tactics of the police gave us the form of police brutality and racialized violence we see today and the creation of the modern prison-industrial complex, where Black men in particular make up 6 percent of the U.S. population but 33 percent of the overall prison population. The killing of Black people, the most horrific form of this violence, became a staple of white police enforcement and intimidation. Prior to phone cameras and a news media interested in covering such stories, most of the time these deaths became a memory for a mother, wife, brother, sister and child — but not the country.
Yesteryear’s white supremacy still informs the rules of engagement. The police both historically and contemporaneously serve to control the physical movement of Black people, support a system of controlled labor through arrest policies and attempt to create an atmosphere of fear by wielding an overwhelming use of force. In other words, the system is not broken but working as intended when first introduced as a slave-catching mechanism to prevent enslaved Africans from escaping the conditions of servitude in plantation life. That system has developed into the professionalized and militarized system of control we have today that, instead of working for plantation and slave owners, has morphed into a system protecting the private property of the larger capitalist class while policing Black movement and aspirations.
There needs to be a rethinking of policing in this country, one that includes the calls for defunding and abolition, but also takes on the question of who has power and control over whatever policing apparatus is with us. That power should be in the hands of the community being policed.
The Fourth of July is best used by mobilizing and organizing to tell America that it is time to reexamine its past and develop a new community-centered approach to ending racial violence and police brutality in this country.