Are Police Obsolete? Part II: The Relationship between Police Departments and Slave Patrols
Written by Chris Roberts
U.S. History of Police Departments
The first police departments in the northern United States, Philadelphia (1833), New York, and Boston, all are based largely off Sir Robert Peele’s model and his nine operational principles. The particular situation in the States was the abundance of intra-ethnic strife between different European groups such as the Dutch, the Irish, and others. However, this was an external push factor that led to the implementation of those police departments, much in the same way the thieves in England were an external push factor. But it still was a subsidiary force in their creation, as the internal end of protecting white supremacist profit and dehumanization of Africana people via the slave trade still was the internal end of the profession in the United States, as it was in England. Many of the historians of the police in the United States would like to tell a narrative of the Northern departments a la Gangs of New York, a dedicated force of public servants dedicated to order and peace in their community amidst organized crime and mass riots. Those same historians will then juxtapose the Northern departments as therefore distinct from the overtly racist Ku-Klux-Klan minded gunslingers of the South, who openly sought to use the police concept to subjugate the “Negroes.” The fact of the matter is, that both the North and the South despised and ignored the Negro. The Black scholar W.E.B. DuBois explained profoundly the ethos of the Northern despise of the “Negro” particularly during the Civil War in his text Black Reconstruction:
To the Northern masses the Negro was a curiosity, a sub-human minstrel, willingly and naturally a
slave, and treated as well as he deserved to be. He had not sense enough to revolt and help Northern
armies, even if they were trying to emancipate him, which they were not. The North shrank at the
very thought of encouraging servile insurrection against the whites. Above all it did not propose to
interfere with property. Negroes on the whole were considered inferior beings whose very presence
in America was unfortunate (56).
If it was indeed as DuBois articulates (which I assert it was), one must reach the conclusion that if such a fervent belief in the inherent inferiority of Black people consumed the white U.S. consciousness in the 1860s, there is no reason to believe that roughly thirty years prior when most of these Northern police departments were created and professionalized that such belief wasn’t just as, if not more prevalent.
Therefore, the sub-human treatment of Black people by the police, government, law, and military was not an example of individual bad actors in Northern cities among an otherwise abolition and freedom minded mass of concerned white folk. Rather the protection of such sub-human treatment was necessary for the exacerbation of profit and construction of the United States as a global superpower that the enslaved African be present in the country. That said the entity most adept to protect the ability for white supremacy to treat Africana people in that manner was the police profession. The founders of the country never envisioned or wanted the “Negro” to be an equal contributor and member of the American republic. The “Negro presence” was particularly abhorrent to one of the most Northern, “forward-thinking” devout adherents to the idea of “America.” Benjamin Franklin, American polymath, politician, and founding father long held concept of the new country as an Edenic refuge and destination for white people. To understand this concept of Edenic one should look to the work of philosopher Benjamin Cocker in his following description:
… commencement of an Edenic race in an Edenic centre, the calling into being of a specially endowed and Divinely instructed man, the covenant man, who was the figure of Him who was to come, that is, he was the type of Christ, the Teacher and Redeemer. The Edenic man appears as the instructor, the teacher of the prehistoric races. This is “the seed” through which God will elevate and bless the Turanian, the Khamite, the Negro. The Caucasian race, fix it as you may has always been the missionary race, the civilizing race, the educating race, in every age (110).
With the Edenic centre as the United States, this concept of the white man as the instructor of the prehistoric can also be read as the slave patrol defense of “promoting honor and industry” among the enslaved. In each case, the white savior is required to punish, correct and bring those farther from him (also read as farther from Him and Eden) closer to him. Benjamin Franklin expressed “a longing that an ‘Edenic’ North America might become a production hub for the world’s “purely white people,” according to Singh. Given Franklin’s positioning of America as Eden, it was not, nor ever would be, in the eyes of such founders “fit” for those who do not bend to the benevolent guidance of the white saviors of the desolate of the world, among whom the “Negro” was the peak. The fate of those who refused to bend to the Edenic whims of the white ruling elite was to be broken, they would be “corrected,” and the institution of such correction was the slave patrol, the police profession. This subsection has sought to establish beyond reproach that the Northern conceptualization and professionalization of the police is rooted in the belief espoused, per Singh, by Benjamin Franklin that “The majority of Negroes are… cruel in the highest degree… [Franklin doubted that] mild laws could govern such people, which is to say that he affirmed the whiteness of police” (Singh. 2014).
In the 21st century, we find ourselves square within the scope the same white supremacist police entity; it has just adjusted its appearance. It is as Malcolm X said, “racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year.” The current model can be found in police departments such as, but not exclusive to, Cleveland, Oakland, Chicago, New York, and Ferguson. Though those are the ones listed, it is important that we understand, as Malcolm X also said, “everything under Canada is the South” so these new models of racism via policing are not the exceptions of the U.S., but they are the norm.
U.S. History of Slave Patrols
The planter class of enslavers, the ruling white elite in what began as the Thirteen Colonies, and eventually became the United States existed in a state of constant fear. According to historian Sally Haden in Slave Patrols, "Southern whites feared their slaves and needed mastery over them...though they tried to be vigilant, many whites lived in almost a 'crisis of fear' from one rumor of rebellion or insurrection to another" (6). Due to this they developed a public law enforcement entity of volunteers, and later employees, whose task it would be to ensure the order and proper behavior of the enslaved. In his turn of the 20th century work The Spawn of Slavery W.E.B. DuBois described this public law enforcement entity as “a system of rural police, mounted and on duty chiefly at night, whose work it was to stop the nocturnal wandering and meeting of slaves, it was usually an effective organization, [to] which all white men belonged” (DuBois. 1901a/1982). These rural police were known as slave patrols, and it is my assertion that they served as the teleological bedrock of what we know today as the police apparatus in the United States.
Sally Haden states that patrols “were not created in a vacuum, but owed much to European institutions that served as the slave patrol’s institutional fore-bearers” (Haden. 2003). Haden continues by revealing that “in the South, the ‘most dangerous people’ who were thought to need watching were the slaves – they were the prime targets of patrol observation and capture. The history of police work in the South grows out of this early fascination… Most law enforcement was by definition, white patrolmen watching, catching, or beating Black slaves” (Haden. 2003). This background is important because we must understand the tactics of the police in their dehumanization of Black people today as not the isolated province of rogue cops, rather core components to the policing profession in the United States. The particular police system in South Carolina owes much of its structure to Barbados, as the majority of its first settler-colonialist came from there, with enslaved Africans in tow of course. Hadden states “Once a Caribbean patrol system existed that could be elaborated on, colonists in the Carolinas and Virginia developed their own distinctive slave patrols in the 18th century” (Haden. 2003). Given this information from Hadden, it now becomes clear that in the history of the United States and the Caribbean, the profession of slave patroller predated the profession of police officer, and therefore obviously played a major role in the Southern policeman archetype. These patrollers emerged initially as community members who all rallied around the collective desire for the “pursuit, capture, suppression, and punishment of runaway slaves” along with the “promoting of honesty and industry among the lowest class who are our slaves” (Hadden. 2003). In this South Carolina example one sees the double edged sword of the slave patrol, on one edge it “corrected” the flesh and on the other edge it “clamped” the mind, both truths contoured the Africana person into a state of, what Michael Tillotson calls, perpetual agency reduction.
This reduction of Africana collective agency was a vital component of the slave patrol profession because equally as important as devaluing Africana life on Africana terms, the slave patrols served to protect whiteness, and position that protection as a collective responsibility, which reaches back to the Hegelian aim of the police as “care for the particular interest as common interest.” For the slave patrols, the particular interest was the dehumanizing of the African because that particularity was made a common interest by the way such dehumanization, reinforced whiteness. Nikhil Pal Singh defines whiteness as:
a status conferring distinct—yet conjoined—social, political, and economic freedoms across a vertiginously unequal property order. A conscious assemblage, it was designed to extend, fortify, individualize, and equalize the government of public life in a world dominated by private property holders whose possessions included other human beings and lands already inhabited yet unframed by prior claims of ownership (1).
These slave patrols operated for centuries killing, arresting, and dehumanizing Africana people on a regular basis. These law enforcement officers were legally empowered to whip, search, strip, rape, and beat Black people, Black women in particular. According to the history books, the slave patrols ended their practices after the Civil War for the most part, however, I assert that the slave patrol merged with the existing police profession, which was a different manifestation of the same teleology. The police profession today still values white supremacy and negates Africana humanity. Haden reminds us that the “…language used to describe slave patrols also permeated police activities long after patrols were gone. The ‘beat’ originally used as a geographic means of organizing slave patrol groups in South Carolina and other states, became the basic area that policeman supervised” (Haden. 2003). Additionally, we learn from the work of Haden that the “stakeout” tactic became professionalized in the police force due to it existing as a common practice in slave patrols.
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