Law enforcement has not failed. It is doing exactly what it was designed to do—confine, control and, if necessary, kill Black bodies. U.S. policing does not date back to the founding of our republic, our Constitution or independence from Britain. Its roots were planted in 1704 in South Carolina, when plantation owners responded to slave revolts by conscripting private slave patrols. More than 1000 slave rebellions took place across the South from 1704 to 1861 when South Carolina fired its secession shot at Fort Sumpter.
After Emancipation, more than 1000 formerly enslaved people were elected to public office. Others started businesses, fraternal orders and institutions. Black flourishing led to White resentment. To rub alcohol on the wound, White farmers lost the unpaid labor of more than 4 million people of African descent overnight. The solution to the South’s economic dilemma was embedded in the 13th Amendment.
Slavery was outlawed, except in the case of imprisonment. Thus, the Black body was criminalized. Legislators lowered the bar of criminality to transform common offenses into criminal acts. Known as Black Codes, new laws declared that a boy who sat on a park bench too long could be picked up and thrown in prison for vagrancy—often without trial. The prison was often the same plantation from which he had just been freed.
Thousands of formerly enslaved men and boys disappeared into the prison system across the South. Family members were usually not notified, and the actual time prisoners were held was often not recorded. Black men and boys simply vanished into chain-gangs and cotton fields where they were never paid, rarely fed, and often buried where they dropped. In Worse Than Slavery, David M. Oshinsky, argues that the system of peonage was even worse than slavery because there was a steady stream of Black bodies to replenish the southern labor force. Unlike slavery, the state did not pay for the enslaved and had no need to care for him in any way, because behind him was a steady stream of imprisoned Black bodies. And the instrument of the American justice system principally responsible for providing that stream was officers of the law.
Government-run policing evolved in the North as well. 1838, Boston merchants transferred the cost of their security to government, arguing it was for the common good. The city conscripted its first police for the express purpose of protecting White citizens from the new influx of “non-white” immigrants (Irish, Italian, et al). As the Irish, Italians and other immigrants were accepted, focus shifted from them to containing and controlling Black communities forming in the north in the wake of the Great Migration— that 100 year stretch when Black men, women and children fled the terror of the South in search of safety and employment.
In the shadow of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1972. The drug war offered post-Civil Rights Act justification for brut police control over Black communities. It also justified the second wave of disappearances of Black men and boys from Black communities into the prison system. Jim Crow was resurrected for the modern era through mass incarceration. And again, police officers were the primary agents responsible for feeding the beast.
Law enforcement in the United States was never meant to police people deemed White. Policing in the U.S. has not produced true law enforcement. It never was meant to. Rather, the seed of our current law enforcement system has produced the same fruit from the same tree—era to era—to ensure White supremacy and flourishing. Thus, it is not enough to call for reform. We cannot get new fruit from the same lynching tree. We need a new tree.
What might a thriving public safety system look like? What would it take to shift from dependence on an agency crafted to protect human hierarchy, to a system that actually makes us safer?
A multi-faith group of leaders came together in a public town hall to provide faith-rooted vision at this critical moment, to help America dream a new way to embody law enforcement that supports the shared belief that justice is for all. Find the full conversation on Facebook, convened by Freedom Road, LLC and the #HousePower Network; and tomorrow we will publish their insights in Taking Back the Dream: A dozen visions unfold.