“The real danger comes from highly organized Establishment forces – the local police, the National Guard, and the United States military…It is the uniformed men who are dangerous and who come into our communities every day to commit violence against us, knowing that the laws will protect them.” – Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide.
After catching up on the latest episode of the Melissa Harris Perry show, I scrolled through to some later episodes looking for something a friend had mentioned to me in passing. I was unable to put my finger on exactly what she had said. But I knew that it was important being that she is my partner crime, which meant that it was mandatory that I find it. I clicked passed the discussion with Ava DuVernay, passed the artists as activists’ conversation and finally arrived at my destination.
There it was. A whole 11 minutes on the history of policing in America.
I watched it. And was not surprised at the gratitude I felt toward Harris-Perry for giving a brief overview and situating it in the context of the present condition of fraught relationships between police officers and the communities that they serve. However, even as I heard her spill out the details of early police formations in colonial America, I couldn’t help but become fixated on the termslave patrols. The word cut into me like a dagger and served as a heart-wrenching reminder that so very little has changed.
All of this – the endless murder of unarmed, innocent Black men, women, queer, trans, youth, elders, and immigrants at the hands of police officers the “servants of the public” has been happening for a very long time now. Our deaths at the hands of the state, America’s governing powers, has consistently taken place since the very first of our Ancestors arrived on this stolen land. None of this is new.
When the Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, and American colonizers decided to capture, transport, and enslave over 12.5 million of African people, they did not anticipate that the people would resist and fight to reclaim their stolen freedom. In fact, the people put up such a strong effort of resistance to their forced captivity that European and American colonizers had to develop another mechanism by which to prevent resistance. Hence, the introduction of slave patrols, whose sole function was to oppress, control, punish, and surveillance Black people living in the Americas.
Making its first appearance in the 1530s, slave patrols appeared in the regions now known as México, Cuba, and Perú (Nirhani). Santa Hermandad (the Holy Brotherhood) was a volunteer militia that was responsible for catching fugitives in Cuba. Established in Spain and then spreading out to the Spanish colonies, Santa Hermandad was later replaced with expert hunters who regularly utilized brutal tactics, including the use of ferocious dogs, when tracking enslaved Africans. Eventually, what began as a volunteer militia transformed into a formal military type structure that spread to every Caribbean island by the 1640s (Nirhani). The primary goal being to keep enslaved Africans in physical, emotional, and institutional subjugation. Doesn’t this sound familiar? Eventually, the methods of control implemented in the West Indies would catch the eyes of leadership in the Southern colonies of the United States.
By the mid 1500s the very regular, forced transportation and enslavement of African people across the Atlantic Ocean was well underway. In 1619, the Dutch kidnapped Africans and transported them to Jamestown, Virginia, these were the first enslaved Africans to touch American soil. As the colonizer’s lust for power grew, so did the number of enslaved Africans. As a result, fear began to settle in. Fear that they would lose control of the people who were making them obscenely wealthy. Fear that the people would reclaim what was theirs – their freedom. As a result, it is not a surprise to see that around this time is when slave patrols formed in the United States, which adopted tactics from both the patrols in Spanish colonies and the Night Watch in the Northern colonies of the U.S.
It was informal at first. In the beginning, any citizen could control, punish, or apprehend a Black person as identified in a 1686 South Carolina statute (Reichel). Eventually this responsibility was given to the militia, which consisted of all white men. In 1704, South Carolina passed an act that gave the militia authority to ride from “plantation to plantation” and apprehend any African who did not have a permit from his enslaver. In 1721, South Carolina determined that the entire militia was to be made available for the surveillance of enslaved Africans particularly to prevent any instances of uprisings. They were mandated to “prevent all caballings amongst [Black people], by dispersing of them when drumming or playing, and to search all [Black] houses for arms or other offensive weapons,” (Reichel). Fast forward to 2015 and we see peaceful protestors criminalized for speaking out against anti-Black state sanctioned violence, a Black man tackled to the floor and brutalized for legally carrying a firearm, pictures of Black men used as shooting targets during police training, and Black people killed simply for breathing. The excessive amount of surveillance of Black communities of today only mirrors the violence of the past.
Sometimes, it is hard to sit with that.
Black people in America have been fighting for their right to life for over 400 years. For 400 hundreds years this has been our struggle. Meaning that the American judicial system, the military, the police force, and political leadership has refused to recognize our right to life, liberty, and prosperity. The four have forever been intertwined. It if a terrifying reality to come to terms with. In America, we, Black people, are still being treated with absolutely no concern for our human rights. The action of the police today – the terrifying surveillance of communities of color from East Oakland to Ferguson to Staten Island and everything in between, the murder, the non-indictments, the state support – it all looks a lot like the embers of the enslavement period reigniting for a second round. A period that many claim we have moved on from in post-racial enthusiasm.
I can’t help but wonder – if we decided back in 1865 with the passing of the 13thamendment that the enslavement of African people for the financial benefit of the elite is unconstitutional, why is it that the American police force bare similarities to slave patrols of South? America has failed to acknowledge how the very dark vestiges of its past are turning into full-blown manifestations of what is domestic terrorism. How else do you explain Ferguson police dressed in military garb, equipped with military weapons, treating residents of Ferguson as if they are war criminals? Why is it that NYPD has the authority to stop and frisk a person simply because of the color of their skin. Why are police officers in Texas able to ask anyone at will if they have papers simply because they look like they do not. Life under constant surveillance of the white supremacist power structure hardly resembles freedom. Every fiber of the American framework is embedded with insidious notions of white supremacy that have deadly consequences for people with Black and Brown skin.
If slave patrols are the precursors to what is the modern day American police force, shouldn’t we be concerned that antiquated tactics implemented in the 1600s are still being used in 2015? Why are we still employing people to monitor and track Black people? Black communities? Latino communities? Immigrant communities? Why are Black men and women criminalized for breathing, while murderers under the protection of the state are made into American heroes? If we can recognize that the system is broken, then why are we still using it? If the American police force is broken and continues to steal our loved ones and devastate our communities, why do we push forward and argue that the solution is more police training, more police cameras, more police? Perhaps our energies should be put toward imagining what this country would look like without police instead of giving them opportunities to become more like their predecessors.