The Historic Role of Police Brutality in the Black Community and African American Oppression By Roland Sheppard
The development of law enforcement in colonial America was similar to that of England during the same time period. Law enforcement in colonial America was considered a local responsibility. As in England, the colonies established a system of night watch to guard cities against fire, crime, and disorder. In addition to night watch systems, there were sheriffs appointed by the governor and constables elected by the people. These individuals were responsible for maintaining order and providing other services. Nalla and Newman have described the following as problems plaguing colonial cities that were considered the responsibility of police: controlling slaves and Indians; maintaining order; regulating specialized functions such as selling in the market and delivering goods; maintaining health and sanitation; managing pests and other animals; ensuring the orderly use of streets by vehicles; controlling liquor, gambling, vice, and weapons; and keeping watch for fires.
While night watch groups were established in the northern colonies, groups of white men organized into slave patrols in the southern colonies. These slave patrols were responsible for controlling, returning, and punishing runaway slaves. The slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order in the southern colonies. These slave patrols are generally considered to be the first “modern” police organizations in this country. In 1837, Charleston, South Carolina, had a slave patrol with over one hundred officers, which was far larger than any northern city police force at that time (Walker, 1999). . . .
The Police Originated from the first slave patrols in 1704, which first got established in the South and lasted until 1861. Their original role was to catch run away slaves. An important part of Black history is the destruction of Reconstruction, which lasted for a decade after the Civil War, and the establishment of Jim Crow in the South and racial segregation in the North. Reconstruction officially ended with the “Compromise of 1876.”
Reconstruction was lead by the Radical Republicans who had a majority in Congress. They were advocates and fighters for racial equality. Their position was that the former slaves, or freedmen, who were homeless, landless and not educated, had to be rewarded for their loyalty to the union and needed to be made whole to have equality. The Radical Republicans tried to enforce the Confiscation Act of July 1862. This act included giving land to the former slaves – 40 acres and a mule. They also set up the Freedmen’s Bureau, designed to provide education, health and welfare for Black people in the transition from slavery to freedom.
President Andrew Johnson, who came into office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, defended the former Southern slavocracy and violated the law of the land as passed over Johnson’s veto by the Radical Republicans in Congress. Johnson’s argument was that Congress was illegal, for it did not include the former Confederate states, who committed treason by forming the Confederacy.
In response to Johnson’s refusal to enforce the law of the land, the Radical Republicans tried unsuccessfully to impeach him. They lost by one vote. If Johnson had been impeached, Benjamin Wade, who was an advocate for 40 acres and a mule, Black and women’s suffrage and radical reconstruction, would have become president.
On April 14, 1866, Thomas Nast drew a cartoon of “The Grand Masquerade Ball”featuring large sketches of many of the celebrities of the day. Andrew Johnson is pictured kicking out the Freedmen’s Bureau with his veto, with scattered black people coming out of it.President Johnson ended the Freedmen’s Bureau and opposed all actions to give freed male slaves the right to vote. He refused to enforce the law when former slaves were prevented from exercising their rights by the violent Southern police forces and the Ku Klux Klan, which was formed in 1865. He also supported the Black Codes passed by several Southern states.
These codes said that unemployed Blacks were vagrants, who could be arrested and hired out to the highest bidder and forced to work for that person for a prescribed time. Employers were also given the right to physically punish these workers. These codes also made it illegal for Blacks to bear arms.
It was illegal force and violence, or terrorism, by the police and Ku Klux Klan along with the restoration of former slave owners’ property rights by the Democratic Party and non-radical Republicans that laid the basis for the overthrow of Black Reconstruction after the Civil War and the institutionalization of legal segregation, Jim Crow. Blacks were and are indiscriminately lynched and framed up to enforce this segregation.
The major historical role of the police
From that time to the present, the Black community has been a virtual police state. Police violence has been and is a necessary institution of the ruling class of the United States to enforce the ongoing resegregation and gentrification of society and to intimidate the Black minority and other oppressed and exploited minorities in this country from revolting against the racist polices of the government.
The police continue to use extra legal means to subjugate the Black Community, as Malcolm X stated in speach at the Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (1964):
. . . The community must reinforce its moral responsibility to rid itself of the effects of years of exploitation, neglect, and apathy, and wage an unrelenting struggle against police brutality.” Yes. There are some good policemen and some bad policemen. Usually we get the bad ones. With all the police in Harlem, there is too much crime, too much drug addiction, too much alcoholism, too much prostitution, too much gambling. So it makes us suspicious about the motives of Commissioner Murphy when he sends all these policemen up here. We begin to think that they are just his errand boys, whose job it is to pick up the graft and take it back downtown to Murphy. Anytime there’s a police commissioner who finds it necessary to increase the strength numerically of the policemen in Harlem and, at the same time, we don’t see any sign of a decrease in crime, why, I think we’re justified in suspecting his motives. He can’t be sending them up here to fight crime, because crime is on the increase. The more cops we have, the more crime we have. We begin to think that they bring some of the crime with them. So our purpose is to organize the community so that we ourselves since the police can’t eliminate the drug traffic, we have to eliminate it. Since the police can’t eliminate organized gambling, we have to eliminate it. Since the police can’t eliminate organized prostitution and all of these evils that are destroying the moral fiber of our community, it is up to you and me to eliminate these evils ourselves. But in many instances, when you unite in this country or in this city to fight organized crime, you’ll find yourselves fighting the police department itself because they are involved in the organized crime. Wherever you have organized crime, that type of crime cannot exist other than with the consent of the police, the knowledge of the police and the cooperation of the police. . . .
Massacres, tortures and assassinations of Blacks have continued unabated. These acts of terrorism have been carried throughout this nation by the police, the government under the rule of both the Democratic and Republican parties, the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, the White Brotherhood, the Pale Faces, the ‘76 Association etc..
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s effectively eliminated Jim Crow. Today, it does not legally exist, but we are witnessing the drive of the ruling rich to make de facto Jim Crow the rule of the land. In fact, the public schools in this country are more segregated today than they were in the 1960s.
As the ruling class and their Black and white politicians are leading a war on those in poverty, they are turning prisons and the welfare system, workfare, into institutions of forced labor, de facto slavery. At the same time they are systematically destroying affirmative action and re-institutionalizing unequal opportunity for the Black masses. Police violence is as necessary to this process of re-subjugation of the Black community as it was for the destruction of Reconstruction.
Malcolm X explained that police brutality also induces periodic “police riots” to further intimidate the Black community. Outspoken critics of police brutality are very often victims of the police and police violence. This violence goes hand in hand with the increase in hate crimes across the land.
Mumia Abu-Jamal and Kevin Cooper are a prime example of “legal lynching” by the police forces of this country. Police violence and hate crimes and hanging nooses in the Southeast Sewage Plant in San Francisco and many other jobsites are part of the overall attack upon the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement.
Mumia has been on death row and in jail for almost two decades. He was and is an outspoken critic of the police and was framed for the murder of a policeman. To add insult to injury, while Mumia sits in jail, the confessed killer of the policeman is free to roam the streets!
In order to stop this process of de facto resegregation and police violence, it is necessary to stop support to both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, the party of the Confederacy that overthrew Reconstruction through force and violence, and their control of the racist federal, state and city governments – and to once again return to the effective mass action strategy of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in opposition to the government. Historically, mass actions, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington etc., are the only activities that have proven to be effective.
For more information, read the UCLA Civil Rights Project’s report.