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United States Policing and “Gun Rights” Began With Slave Patrols

Guns were used to suppress and kill Black and Indigenous people long before the Bill of Rights was written.

(Photo: Fstop Images / Getty Images)

In the chapter “Slave Patrol,” Dunbar-Ortiz provides the historical context for how militias that killed and oppressed slaves and Indigenous persons became the precedent for the militia cited in the Second Amendment. The following is the full-chapter excerpt.

Following the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles and the development of Cop Watch groups in cities around the United States, along with the widespread incarceration of Black men in the 1990s, what had long been known by scholars, but rarely acknowledged in media or history texts, became increasingly clear on a national level: The origins of policing in the United States were rooted in slave patrols.

In a study of slave patrols in Virginia and the Carolinas in 1700-1865, historian and law professor Sally E. Hadden writes: “People other than masters or overseers had legitimate rights, indeed, legal duties, to regulate slave behavior.” Black people escaping to freedom were hunted down to prevent labor loss to their white slavers, and also to send a message to those enslaved who might be strategizing to lose their chains through rebellion or insurrection.

Because chattel slavery was uncommon in the 1500s in England itself, the existing legal system that colonists brought to the early British colonies in North America did not suffice, so nearly all law related to slavery was forged in the colonies, borrowing from existing practices in Spanish, Portuguese, and English Caribbean plantation colonies, and specifically borrowing the use of slave patrols from the Caribbean and adapting them to local conditions on the continent.

The Virginia militia was founded for one purpose: to kill Indians, take their land, drive them out, wipe them out.

The 1661 and 1688 slave codes in the British Carib bean colony of Barbados extended the task of controlling enslaved Africans from overseers and slavers to all white settlers, in effect shifting private responsibility to the public. Any enslaved person outside the direct control of the slaver or overseer required passes and was subject to questioning by a slave patrol, as well as by any member of the European population; free Black men were denied such power. This collective racial policing was in addition to the traditional English constabulary that investigated and detained European residents for infractions of laws.

British slavers from Barbados moved in large numbers to the South Carolina colony after 1670, and brought the slave patrol practice with them. By 1704, the South Carolina colonial government had codified slave patrols and embedded them within the already existing volunteer militias, whose principal role was to repel Native Americans whose land they had appropriated. Members of slave patrols were drawn from militia rolls in every locale. The South Carolina structure of slave patrols was adopted in other colonies by the mid-eighteenth century and would remain relatively unchanged until the Civil War. Following US independence, this structure and practice was applied to what became the Cotton Kingdom, following the US wars against the Muskogee peoples that ended in their forced relocation to Indian Territory.

Virginia was the first of the thirteen English settler colonies in North America, but there were fewer enslaved Africans there, and they were more widely dispersed than in South Carolina, as Virginia settlements were long surrounded by resistant Native communities. The Virginia militia was founded for one purpose: to kill Indians, take their land, drive them out, wipe them out. European settlers were required by law to own and carry firearms, and all adult male settlers were required to serve in the militia. Militias were also used to prevent indentured European servants from fleeing before their contracts expired, in which case they were designated “debtors.” Despite militia vigilance, many escaped on ships in ports.

During the 1660s and 1670s, Virginia settlers turned from indenturing Europeans to importing enslaved Africans, and by 1680, the enslaved were required to carry passes. Of course, slave uprisings increased, and in 1705, the Virginia colony enacted its first slave code and established slave patrols. Militia members, focused on attacking Indigenous towns and fields to expand the Virginia colony refused to participate in slave patrols, so the colonial authorities imposed harsh punishments to control the enslaved Africans, such as death for even mentioning rebellion. Colonists prohibited the enslaved Africans from holding meetings or learning how to read. In 1727, the Virginia colony enacted a law requiring militias to create slave patrols, imposing stiff fines on white people who refused to serve.

After 1650, slavers in Virginia began expanding deeper into the territory of the Tuscarora Nation, and were the first English settlers in what became the North Carolina colony in 1729. During the first three decades of Virginia settler incursion, the colony’s militia was used solely to attack and burn down Tuscarora towns, incinerate their crops, and slaughter the families who resided there. By 1722, the embattled Tuscaroras joined the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) and migrated north for protection from settler terrorism, while some communities remained in severely deteriorating conditions.

In 1715, North Carolina’s slaver government began requiring passes for enslaved individuals who were in public spaces doing errands or rented out as craftsmen, as many were escaping from bondage to Spanish Florida or marooning in the swamps of Cape Fear. Militias were used for pursuing Africans escaping to freedom, but did not form specific slave patrols as a separate category. In 1753, fearing increasing slave rebellions, the North Carolina colony established what they called “searchers,” not drawn from the militias but authorized by courts; later they would be called “patrollers.” They were exempt from militia duty as well as from jury duty and taxation, and two decades later, actually were paid salaries.

Public patrols of varying types were established in all the slave colonies, but, significantly, any individual, including free Blacks or Natives, could claim a reward for capturing a person escaping from slavery, a practice that continued until the end of the Civil War. If weapons were found with the captive, the catcher could collect compensation for the weapons or keep them.

After Independence, rapid expansion of slavery into newly conquered Native territories brought a concurrent increase in slave patrols, but the basic structure remained. An 1860 judicial hornbook, The Practice at Law in North Carolina is an example:

The patrol shall visit the negro houses in their respective districts as often as may be necessary, and may inflict a punishment, not exceeding fifteen lashes, on all slaves they may find off their owner’s plantations, without a proper permit or pass, designating the place or places, to which the slaves have leave to go. The patrol shall also visit all suspected places, and suppress all unlawful collections of slaves; shall be diligent in apprehending all runaway negroes in their respective districts; shall be vigilant and endeavor to detect all thefts, and bring the perpetrators to justice, and also all persons guilty of trading with slaves; and if, upon taking up a slave and chastising him, as herein directed, he shall behave insolently, they may inflict further punishment for his misconduct, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes.

In Slave Patrols, historian Hadden argues that the notion that slave patrols were made up of impoverished white men, as portrayed in Gone with the Wind and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is false. She cautions against conflating entrepreneurial individual “slave catchers” and slave patrollers. Whether rich or poor, all Euro American males were required to serve in militias and slave patrols, but the commanders of the patrols were property owners and slavers. Impoverished whites were not trusted and would be unable to compensate a slaver for the property loss entailed in a death or injury incurred during an attempted capture.

“Patrollers” were exempt from militia duty as well as from jury duty and taxation, and two decades later, actually were paid salaries.

Writing about slavery in the Cotton Kingdom during the decades before the Civil War, historian Walter Johnson points to the central role horses played in subjugating runaways. Horses were a symbol of power for slavers, not only for show and racing, but as a physical symbol of racial power. “The words ‘slave patrol’ summon to mind a vision of white men on horseback, an association so definitive that it elides the remarkable fact that the geographic pattern of county governance in the South emerged out of circuits ridden by eighteenth-century slave patrols.” It was not only the advantage of height and speed that a horse provided in pursuing a person on the run, but also the nature of the animal itself, its own power, the fear the huge, galloping animal could evoke, and the severe bodily harm it inflicted when it trampled a person or when the patroller tethered a bound captive to the horse.

Another tool was the widely distributed “wanted” flier that alerted the public to be on the lookout, which attracted Euro Americans from hundreds of miles away to hunt freedom-seekers for bounty. And of course, slavers used dogs. Resistant Africans marooned in the swamps, or if fleeing rested there, where horses could not travel and most settlers were afraid to enter. Bloodhounds were trained from pups to identify and hunt Black people. “‘Loyal’ to their masters (or those to whom their masters hired them) and able to travel more rapidly than any human being across even the most difficult ground, these weaponized dogs were implacable enemies, driven by a purpose beyond that of even their owners.”

And above all, there were the guns. Historians Ned Sublet and Constance Sublet write:

Unlike England, Virginia was a gun culture. “Whereas in England, only men with estates valued at above one hundred pounds sterling were allowed to own guns,” writes Kathleen M. Brown, “English men in Virginia at all levels of property ownership were expected to own them….” Guns and slavery were intimately associated with each other; all slave-raiding relied on guns, and all slaveholding relied on armed repression.

By the early 1820s, slave-worked plantation agribusiness in Tidewater Virginia waned as the soils were degraded from mono-production and over-production, and investments moved to the Mississippi Valley. Nevertheless, slave patrols actually increased in Virginia, where the main commercial “crop” of the plantations was the enslaved person’s body, as farms turned into breeding factories to produce slaves to be sold in the Cotton Kingdom. Thomas Jefferson bragged to George Washington that the birth of Black children was increasing Virginia’s capital stock by 4 percent annually. It is estimated that in 1860 the total value of enslaved African bodies in the United States was $4 billion, far more than the gold and silver then circulating nationally ($228.3 million, “most of it in the North,” the authors add), total currency ($435.4 million), and even the value of the South’s total farmland ($1.92 billion).

Like slave patrols in the Deep South, the Texas Rangers — formed primarily to kill Comanches, eliminate Native communities, and control colonized Mexicans to take their land — also hunted down enslaved Africans escaping to freedom. They began to operate in the 1820s, even before the population of slavers in the independent province of Texas had seceded from Mexico in 1836, when Mexico formally outlawed slavery. With the new border in place, enslaved Africans in Texas could escape into Mexico, often with the help of armed Seminoles and Kickapoo, who had fled to take refuge in Mexico rather than remain in Indian Territory, where they had been forced to migrate when the United States annexed their lands east of the Mississippi. They created a community west of Rapiers Negros far inside Mexico, and a place for them to live freely. When the United States Army and Marines invaded and occupied Mexico, departing only when Mexico had ceded half its territory to the United States, these maroon communities were vulnerable. Slave hunting escalated, by the Rangers as well as by individual bounty hunters.

The Thirteenth Amendment abolished legal chattel slavery, but the surveillance of Black people by patrols continued, as the occupying Union army took no concerted action against the patrols in most places (depending on the army commander), forcing formerly enslaved Africans to remain and work on plantations. Even with military vigilance, “patrolling” Black people continued as a form of organized terrorism, perpetrated especially by the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded for that very purpose nineteen months after the Civil War ended. The intensive military training and experience over four years of fighting in the Confederate Army produced a militaristic character to the formation of police forces and patrol techniques under Reconstruction; in addition, the Freedmen no longer even had the protection of being valued as property and collateral by former slavers, allowing for extreme forms of revenge violence against them.

When Republicans were elected to state offices, they attempted to reform local militias requiring all males to serve, regardless of race, but few Anglo-Americans would serve with Freedmen. Freedmen did serve in the state militias, but they also developed their own local volunteer militia groups. Former slavers spread rumors that Freedmen were forming insurrectionary armies to kill white people. White elites formed agricultural cooperatives to maintain economic dominance over Freedmen, a goal one group made clear: “a united and systematic plan with respect to the regulation of our colored population.” They also created their own forces to intimidate other Anglo-American farmers and merchants who attempted to trade with Black farmers, often putting white merchants out of business.

It is estimated that in 1860 the total value of enslaved African bodies in the United States was $4 billion, far more than the gold and silver then circulating nationally.

Most ominously, elite white Southerners formed volunteer militias under the guise of private rifle clubs. By 1876, South Carolina had more than 240 such clubs. This allowed thousands of Confederate combat veterans, along with former Confederate guerrillas, to mobilize quickly. Of course, the KKK was the most ominous terrorist organization to emerge from these efforts, its purpose being to subdue the Freedmen and control black labor when slavery ended. But the KKK was not alone. Either by their absence in many places or their actions in others, some of the US Army officers in charge made these developments possible. One that stands out is US General E.R.S. Canby, a Kentuckian who was occupation commander of the Carolinas. Canby refused to make use of his own soldiers, and instead relied on white Southern law enforcement to maintain order. He had to have known what would happen. Like many US Civil War commanders assigned to the occupation army of the former Confederacy, in 1872 he soon reassigned to the Army of the West, where he commanded troops to round up several dozen Modoc families in Northern California who refused to be forced into an Oregon reservation. The Modocs waged a year-long resistance to the Army’s counterinsurgency, finally killing General Canby. One of the reasons troops were pulled out of the South prematurely was to fight in the dozens of wars the United States was initiating against Indigenous Nations in the Northern Plains, the Southwest, and the West.

The Thirteenth Amendment abolished legal chattel slavery, but the surveillance of Black people by patrols continued.

As Hadden points out, Southern settlers had long relied on “self-help” measures to enforce slavery leading up to the formalized slave patrols, which had continued where possible during the Civil War. What was different after the abolition of slavery was the tons of technologically advanced guns and ammunition, and the tens of thousands of militarily seasoned and violent men who made ideal candidates for the Klan. Particularly, when the Confederate war hero Nathan Bedford Forrest joined the Klan, it gained a chivalric image that attracted other war heroes. Congress enacted laws forbidding secret groups, but the laws were rarely enforced.

Elite white Southerners formed volunteer militias under the guise of private rifle clubs.

In fact, the United States never broke with the slaveocracy, as exemplified in the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest. He lost his parents and economic security at seventeen, but became a slave trader, land speculator, and finally a wealthy slaver with his own large plantation. He was the epitome of the “self-made” man that was the vaunted ideal of white supremacy. In the Civil War, Forrest was a cavalry officer for the Confederate Army, infamous for having led the massacre of hundreds of Black Union soldiers in 1864, a war crime. Yet President Andrew Johnson granted Forrest a presidential pardon in 1868.

The Klan, illegal as it was, operated like a huge slave patrol, requiring Freedmen to have written permission to travel from the plantations where many continued to work. The Klan established curfews for gatherings of African Americans, as well as limits on the number who could gather. The Klan burned homes, confiscated the guns of Freedmen, and, of course, inflicted punishment similar to slave patrols’ beatings, but also had far more freedom to torture and murder, since the Black body no longer carried monetary value that the murderer would have to compensate for. Of course, Black people resisted, as they had resisted the slave patrols. However, the Klan was a private terrorist organization, not a public force, and had no legal status or accountability. Some Klansmen were put on trial, but none was ever convicted. Occasionally, the US Army would declare martial law, but as one army commander said in 1871, “The entire United States Army would be insufficient to give protection throughout the South to everyone in possible danger from the Klan.”

The language of slave patrols is still employed in police work in the twenty-first century.

From the perspective of African Americans who survived the organized violence, there was no distinction between patrollers, Klan, and white policemen, whether rural, in towns, or in the cities. In nineteenth-century criminal digests, arrests made by slave patrollers before the Civil War continued to be used as legal precedents in the 1880s.

Hadden notes that the language of slave patrols is still employed in police work in the twenty-first century, “patrol” being the most obvious, but also “beat.” More disturbingly, techniques were folded into police practices, such as surveillance methods like the stakeout. And until the 1960s pushback, police had little supervision and routinely brutalized and confined suspects without consequences; even in the twenty-first century, when police torture or murder Black people, juries rarely find the involved officers guilty of any crime.

In the first four decades of the twentieth century, around 6 million African Americans left the South. With World War II, 1.5 million more left the South between 1940 and 1950, many to work in the war industry in California. More than 300,000 Black Southerners migrated to the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas during that decade. And, during the Depression and droughts of the 1930s, a wave of some 400,000 mostly Anglo Oklahomans, Texans, Arkansans, and Missourians poured into California, followed by another wave to work in the war industry in the 1940s.

In 1950, William Parker became chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for the following decade and a half, ending after the 1965 Watts Uprising. The LAPD was already virtually all white and solidly racist, with mainly Mexicans making up the oppressed and controlled target community.

With the goal of controlling the increasing African American blue-collar population in South Central Los Angeles, Parker began recruiting Anglo veterans from the South and Southwest who had settled in Southern California after the Dust Bowl migrations or military service. The new technology of television brought the series Dragnet to homes all over the country, extolling the LAPD and attracting recruits, as well as influencing other urban police forces all over the country. During this time, the LAPD became the most notorious racist police operation (“police culture”) in the country, with nearly every aspect of the Southern tradition of slave patrols woven into the system. A similar police force was formed in Oakland, where many Black veterans and war-industry workers had settled. At the same time, the Civil Rights movement was making widespread gains, with school integration mandated by law and growing Black resistance to police violence in the South, in Northern cities, and in Los Angeles and Oakland.

In an article for The Atlantic, liberal writers Saul Cornell and Eric M. Ruben make a strong argument for the slave-state origins of modern gun rights. Certainly, any inquiry into the institutionalization of slave patrols in those colonies/states reveals the connection with the Second Amendment. However, this does not explain why the N.R.A. and gun rights are so popular in other parts of the country. Armed slave patrols comprise half the story in the Second Amendment; the whole story implicates more than the slave states. While the “savage wars” against Native Nations instituted brutal modes of violence for the US military, and slave patrols seamlessly evolved into modern police forces, both have normalized racialized violence and affinity for firearms in US society.

Copyright (2017) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, City Lights Books.

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