Black History Month

Policing in America has been an institution of oppression

By Andre Smith

The concept of modern policing and “blackness” is wrought with a history of institutions that were initially organized to support the oppressive system of slavery and then as the tools of segregation.

Andre Smith
In our recent history, police interactions with young African Americans have been the impetus that has set off protest and unrest.

It is a history that is often overlooked, and when young reform-minded prosecutors display distrust in police agencies, their positions are often supported by the historical mistreatment of citizens of color by police agencies.

A brief glimpse into American policing via the lenses of “blackness” will display that policing in America has been an institution of glaring oppression.

Modern policing has its beginnings as a means to protect property, not people. In 1749 London, Magistrate Henry Fielding empowered fellow citizens to protect property along London’s busy ports. The institution was formally organized as a police agency in 1829 by London’s Sir Robert Peel. The members were uniformed, unarmed and tasked with protecting property.

America’s impetus for the formulation of policing was also grounded within the context of protecting property – human property.

In 1715, America enacted its first slave code. The laws defined the socioeconomic and physical space of “blackness.”

An example of the codes are as follows: A slave could not leave a “master’s” property without a ticket; a free person of color discovered unescorted after curfew could be detained or fined; and slaves in groups of four or more were subject to punishment. The patrollers policed specific geographical areas called “beats,” and they were authorized to stop, search, whip, maim and even kill slaves caught off the premises of the plantation without a pass.

The patrols were organized to enforce the slave codes in the South, and these organizations predated the formal founding of police agencies in Boston (1838) and New York (1845). These patrols or supplementary forces were America’s earliest police agencies.

The post-slavery and Reconstruction period witnessed law enforcement utilized as a tool of oppression within the context of the peonage system.

Mose Ridley and Will Gordon left their homes for work as on any ordinary day in Bronson, Fla. It was the summer of 1901, and their duties were laborious. Ridley and Gordon were no different than any other working-class men of the period, except they were men of color. Their work was labor-intensive and at times caustic at Deen’s turpentine farm.

Little did they know that, weeks earlier, a man by the name of ç and two other armed men left the state of Georgia after securing arrest warrants for five African American men who were allegedly formerly employed by Clyatt. 

Clyatt and his two associates reached Deen’s farm with warrant in hand and a Bronson deputy sheriff in tow. The deputy sheriff never read the warrant, but simply arrested two African American men toiling on Deen’s farm after they were pointed out by Clyatt. Clyatt put irons on the two men, Mose Ridley and Will Gordon, and proceeded to transport them to Florida.

There were no court proceedings for the extradition of the two men, who were forced to work with no wages as a punishment for their alleged crimes.

Clyatt did not claim that these five fugitives had stolen from, swindled or assaulted him or anyone else. He claimed that the five African American men committed the crime of gambling, and that these men then fled across the Florida state line to Georgia. Their punishment was forced labor on Clyatt’s private property. 

The above description was an example of peonage, a form of involuntary servitude based on alleged debt or indebtedness.

By 1915, at least six former slave-holding states held statutes that compelled men to labor against their will. It relied on a corrupt intertwined local law enforcement and judiciary officers. It was the re-establishment of the black codes for the enslavement of able-bodied young African American men. It was a biased criminal justice system that harshly punished nonwhites, with nonwhites receiving double the prison sentences as whites.

The system relied on the convict work farm system and spurious prosecution of local ordinances such as “vagrancy.” It was common for local Southern law enforcement to arrest young African American men and charge them with the violation of commonly spurious local infractions, the act of vagrancy or some other minimal infraction, which amounted to unemployment.

Overall blacks were more likely to serve more incarceration days for the infraction of “vagrancy” than whites. The men were sometimes brought before local magistrates who issued fines that could not be met by unemployed men or simply were sentenced to long bouts of imprisonment.

Once imprisoned, the men were leased to local farms or businesses as bonded labor. During this period, the men were not paid, and many were forced to work beyond the period of their sentences. 

The Supreme Court ruled against Clyatt and his helpers in Clyatt v. United States (1905).

Our brief examination excludes “Jim Crow” laws that were enforced zealously by law enforcement, or police officers willingly participating or tacitly allowing the lynching of African Americans.

In the 1960s, the impetus to organize the Black Panthers was in response to a deadly interaction involving the Oakland, Calif., police and a young African American. In the 1980s, the Supreme Court had to redefine “use of force” in the cases of Tennessee v. Garner (1985) and Graham v. Connor (1989), both cases involving police deadly interactions with African Americans. In our recent past, New York city incorporated a “stop and frisk” policy specifically targeting young African American men.

We can conclude this brief examination with an easily acceptable premise: Policing in America has been an institution of glaring oppression.

– Andre Smith is the Chair of the Social Science Department of Social & Behavioral Science at Harris-Stowe State University.

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