American Policing: From Slave Patrols to Derek Chauvin

The roots of policing have determined its evolution, and our current state of affairs.

Photo by Aztreyx Chávez on Unsplash

Origin stories are important; they provide the conceptual framework that informs not just the basis for existence, but the possibility, or lack thereof, for change.

And what is the origin story of American policing?

The word “patrolmen” comes from the earliest forms of policing in the United States: slave patrols. The sole purpose of these groups, this policing, was to control movements of the enslaved — through violence, terror, and general presence. Once slavery ended, the system of enslavement, and policing, adapted through the introduction of Black codes. Black codes were reiterations of slave codes — they were policies, laws, and rules that regulated and criminalized Black people. Black codes in conjunction with the 13th amendment, which stated slavery was effectively abolished, except in cases of punishment, was legalized white supremacy — a means of continued subjugation under the guise of keeping the peace, or preventing crime, or as we now refer to it: law & order.

Black codes morphed into Jim Crow. Jim Crow codified discrimination; every part of life was regulated — housing, jobs, voting, opportunity. This level of intervention and control required social and cultural means; social and cultural mechanisms included signage, funding, and, of course, policing.

If it was the law, then law enforcement was involved. If it was the law, then law enforcement by definition enforced it.

Now, Jim Crow officially ended, as in formally, and in certain sectors, with a series of legislation, among them the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act. These were passed, mainly, in the 1960s.

So, after 400 years, arguably 500 years, of direct, formalized, codified control — policing — of Black bodies, and other communities of color (ref: Juan Crow), have we changed our system of policing? Have we been able to undo hundreds of years worth of damage in the past 70 years?

The short and simple answer is: no.

The lack of legally written, codified, regulation doesn’t magically erase the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of people — whether that is the general public, white people in particular, or, for the purposes of this article, the police. It doesn’t erase generations of social training. Not to mention that “the end” means nothing if there is no recuperation of loss, there is no overhaul of the system; in fact, “the end” was actually left open-ended.

What happened? What happened in the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, right after legislation reversed these aforementioned discriminatory regulations, these precedence? What was the whitelash? The rebuttal . . .

The War on Drugs. Sentencing reform — aka mandatory minimums. The Crime Bill — where building prisons, imprisoning more people, was essentially incentivized. Stop and frisk. Mass incarceration.

The cycle of control — through policing — the core concept of creating a system that focuses its energy on policing, policing only certain individuals and communities, in order to stifle, impede, or outright forbid certain movements, has never been confronted. It has been modified.

We can connect the dots from slave codes to Black codes to Jim Crow to the War on Drugs to the present. We can see that the 13th amendment left slavery in-tact, so long as one was incarcerated, so long as one was deemed a criminal. And what better way to criminalize, or create criminals, than through laws that targeted even the most mundane of actions— like drinking out of the wrong drinking fountain.

This is why history and an analysis of our legal system, of policing, needs to include more than an analysis centered on the impact today. Any sort of criticism that fails to look at tradition, evolution, or origins, fails to give us the totality of any given law, or crime.

Photo by Ronit Shaked on Unsplash

Case in point: a recent bill was introduced in Kentucky that would make it a crime to insult or taunt police officers. At its most basic level, an insult is disrespect. Making disrespect, specifically disrespect targeted at police, sounds eerily like a Black code on “proper” respect — and as a result, it is an invitation to arrest someone even on the most mundane of “insults”, say an eye roll. And whose eye rolls do you think would be targeted? Which insults would be the most insulting?

What about Georgia’s new round of voter (suppression) laws? One law in particular is being scorched as inhumane, unthinkable: it is now illegal to give out food and water to those waiting in line to vote. Since the longest lines for voting are located in communities of color, for Georgia mainly Black communities, I imagine the general public and media shock is hinged on a failure to remember that drinking out of the wrong drinking fountain was once a crime too — though given that these laws have been dubbed Jim Crow 2.0, perhaps some people are making the connection over what and who will/is criminalized in this particular context.

And the Derek Chauvin trial? How did we end up here?

This trial — the scope, the crime, the anxiety, the tension — is not born out of this single event, or even the past 10 years of names and incidents (Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor . . . ).

It is a consequence of our policies and policing since colonizers landed on this continent. And it is born out of the fact that at every juncture of potential healing and change, our country has chosen white supremacy, and continues to do so.

Slave patrols were required. There was no way to avoid it, it was a white man’s duty to police Black people.

The Derek Chauvin trial shows that we are, in some ways, no better than our beginnings.

Tradition in any other context is seen as just that: tradition, “the way its been”, “how my daddy did it”, our culture.

400 years ago, men like Chauvin, however reluctant, participated and were rewarded for the same behavior he displayed in May 2020. They participated and were rewarded for the same behavior 300 years ago, 200 years ago, even just 70 years ago.

And because we fail to examine tradition, or culture, or the way its been, because we fail to acknowledge, let alone examine, our origin story, our history, we are here. We are here, in March 2021, so entrenched in Black criminality that being accused of using a fake $20 bill is a death sentence for a Black man — and his executioner? A cop who owed more than $30,000 to the IRS. Our legal system, our policing — its origins, its history, and its evolution — made that possible.

We cannot understand the present, without understanding the ways in which we got to this present. If you want to understand Derek Chauvin, or now Kim Potter, if you want to understand current legislation, go back — go all the way back.

Educator, Gardener, Writer — IG @canonreclaimed

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