Slave Patrols and the Origins of Policing

On October 26, 2015, a video of a South Carolina school officer assaulting a 16-year-old Black girl named Shakara went viral. The officer grabbed her, threw her from her desk, and dragged her across the classroom.  Shakara now has a cast on her right arm, a swollen neck, back, and shoulder, and a carpet burn on her forehead. All for refusing to put her phone away during class

It is the recent exposure of abuses such as this that helped catapult the Black Lives Matter movement, but racial profiling and police brutality are not a new phenomenon. The current state of emergency in which people of color are disproportionately the subjects of policing and violence is historically, culturally, and institutionally embedded into American society.

For many, this is a hard truth to swallow due to the belief that the role of the justice system is to protect and serve. In actuality, policing in southern states was originally not about public safety. During the Pre-Civil War era, white men were appointed to serve as “slave patrols" and their function was to police enslaved Blacks. These patrols would barge into the homes of Blacks, seize their belongings, and beat or flog them. They would also question, search, and harass Blacks if they saw them on the street. Sound familiar?

Post slavery, white southerners felt an even greater need to police Blacks for fear of losing authority. Several of these slave patrols transformed into Southern police departments who enforced laws such as Jim Crow. Others became the basis for racist terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan aimed to reduce Black access to the political system by intimidating Black voters and politicians with violent tactics such as hunting, whipping, beating, and lynching. Essentially, policing was present to enforce order among Blacks and ultimately protect the interest of whites.

Here is where some of you may be thinking that these racist police departments and organizations are injustices of the past, but as long as the institutions of the past have not been dismantled- the past is the present. As recently as 2015, Alabama City suspended police officers for being members of a white supremacist group, the League of the South. What’s worse is that supposedly, members of their police departments not only knew of their racist affiliations, they also agreed with them. Unfortunately, Alabama City isn’t the only case where police departments have been exposed for hiring KKK members. 

When members of a white supremacist group can so easily infiltrate a system that is meant to serve justice for all, it becomes crucial to think critically about whom the criminal justice system is actually protecting and serving.  Only then does it become evident why we continue to witness the dehumanization of Blacks and Browns with hardly any repercussions. 

I often ask myself whether it is logical to expect the police to play a role they were never meant to play. Policing in the U.S. was created for no other reason than to maintain social classes and enforce racial hierarchy. In truth, the criminal justice system is not broken; it is functioning exactly as it was intended to. And this is why we say Black Lives Matter: to challenge the hegemony in the U.S. that never thought so to begin with. 

Photo credit: The Rev. Meg Riley, senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship, from her article "Up to Our Necks," in UU World (Winter 2014). Photograph: Ferguson, Mo., August 11, 2014, (cc) Sarah-Ji. Graphic design by Tina Gleason.