This is the second in a series of pieces intended o connect this current moment to our nation’s history and for some, to answer the question, “Why is this such a BIG deal?”
Today we are going to connect the outrage and activism around the murder of George Floyd by a police officer to the history of law enforcement in our country. When trying to fully understand the weight of the death of George Floyd, if that’s possible, it is important to learn about how the Black community, while still enslaved, encountered law enforcement and the precedent those encounters set for the next 300 years.
Modern policing in the US reflects practices that the colonists brought from England, but not only those practices. One of the earliest forms of policing in the south was slave patrols. Slave patrols were designed to control the movements and behaviors of enslaved populations.
According to historian Gary Potter, slave patrols served three main functions.
“(1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside the law.”[i]
First formed in 1704 in South Carolina, slave patrols – which were known to brutalize and terrorize slaves AND were sanctioned to do so by local authorities – lasted for 150 years.
Slave patrols ended with the end of slavery, but the impact and even some of the practices did not end at that time. And nothing appears to have been done to repair or build trust between law enforcement and Black people in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation.
It is important to know aboutslave patrols because they illustrate the historic connection between law enforcement and the racism of slavery AND they illustrate the historic role of law enforcement being directed to protect the economic interests of slave owners over the human dignity of enslaved populations.
So when you hear someone say in reference to law enforcement, “this system is not broken, its doing exactly what it was designed to do,” you now know that they are likely calling back to the history of slave patrols which were specifically designed to control Black people.
And that’s why it is such a BIG deal.
Know it. Understand it. Change it.
National Law Enforcement Museum, Slave Patrols: An Early Form of American Policing
Gary Potter, The History of Policing in the United States, EKU School of Justice Studies. https://plsonline.eku.edu/sites/plsonline.eku.edu/files/the-history-of-policing-in-us.pdf