The first government-licensed police agencies in America were 18th century slave patrols, which were authorized to arrest both fugitive slaves and “disorderly” people of all descriptions.
Historian Philip L. Reichel recalls that slave patrols “had full power and authority to enter any plantation and break open Negro houses or other places where slaves were suspected of keeping arms … to punish runaways or slaves found outside their masters’ plantations without a pass … [and] to whip any slave who should affront or abuse them in the execution of their duties….”
Reichel points out that in 1778, the Georgia slave patrol’s duties were expanded to include arresting “all white persons who cannot give a satisfactory account of themselves and carry them before a Justice of the Peace to be dealt with as is directed by the Vagrant Act.”
From its inception, American “law enforcement” has been in the business of harassing harmless people, demanding that they present their “papers,” and violently abducting them if they cannot give a proper “accounting” of themselves to those who presumed to own them. Victims of 18th century slave patrols might be mystified by the accoutrements of contemporary police, astounded by the technology they can employ in the service of official coercion, and horrified by their capacity for unprovoked violence, often of the lethal variety. But they would recognize their role to be largely indistinguishable from that of the “patter-rollers” used to round up human beings who decided to flee from captivity.
Once it’s understood that contemporary police are the direct descendants of 18th and 19th century slave patrols, spectacles like the one that unfolded yesterday in Austin, Texas make perfect sense.
Blogger Chris Quintero, who captured this abduction on video, reports that the female victim had been jogging when members of the local patter-roller detained her and demanded that she present a “pass” from her master. The officers had gathered at a busy intersection to mulct students for the supposed offense of “jaywalking,” and were feasting heartily on their victims when the jogger happened by. After one of the officers laid hands on her, the young woman — not knowing that corpulent stranger was a cop — jerked her arm away. This insolent “affront” to the slave-keepers led to the woman being shackled and hauled off screaming by a phalanx of well-nourished tax-feeders.
In one of the most finely wrought — and well-deserved — exercises in vituperation committed to print, Former slave Lewis Clarke described slave patrols as “the offscouring of all things; the refuse … the tooth and tongues of serpents. They are … the scum of stagnant pools, the exuvial, the worn-out skins of slave-holders. They are the meanest, and lowest, and worst of all creation.” Clarke described how officers of the slave patrols, “like starved wharf rats,” would prowl the streets in search of victims.
Technology advances, but the institutional character of law enforcement remains as constant as the North Star.2:15 pm on February 21, 2014 Email William Norman Grigg