There has always been something fundamentally flawed about the relationship between the police and black people in this country. This troubled relationship actually pre-dates the establishment of organized policing. It stems from the Southern Slave Patrols (first established in South Carolina in 1704) that enforced the Fugitive Slave Laws enacted by Congress. This early form of policing, according to Dr. Gary Potter in his book “The History of Policing in the United States,” had one objective: “control the behaviors of minorities.”
Unacknowledged Racism in DNA of Modern Policing
This objective found its way into the creation of formal police departments. As Turner, Giacopassi and Vandiver (2006:186) wrote: “… the literature clearly establishes that a legally sanction law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrols should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.”
Racism, thus, is in the DNA of modern American policing; an unacknowledged tendency that serves to protect the white ruling class from the black underclass. This was evidenced at the end of WWI when black veterans returned to the home front, heads held high as Southern historian W.J. Cash noted, believing they had earned an equal place in American society. When denied equal employment and living conditions, this new era of black men triggered riots across both the North and the South. White police departments quelled those riots with brutality and unchecked violence.
Racial Inequalities Fuel Riots
Race riots and racial tension continued into WWII when, while America was fighting a war on two international fronts, President Roosevelt had to call out 6,000 troops to put down the Detroit race riot of 1943 that left 34 dead (25 blacks, 9 whites). Seventeen of the blacks were killed by a predominantly white police force.
The three decades of rioting, lynching, and racial hatred between 1920s and 1940s gave birth to the non-violent “Negro civil rights” movement of the 1050s and ‘60s which is turn spawned the “black militancy” movement of the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
Jim Crow was dead. Black power was alive, personified by the clenched fist of Stokely Carmichael.
Nixon’s War on Crime Targets African American Communities
Former President Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” (the white ruling class) was afraid of the perceived threat posed by black militants, such as the Black Panthers. Segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace rose to national prominence in the 1960s and early ‘70s, much like former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke did in the 1990s, by playing to the racial fears of the white ruling class.
President Nixon tried to calm the fears of the silent majority with a declaration of “war on crime.” He flooded state coffers with Law Enforcement Assistance Administration funds specifically designed arm and militarize the nation’s state and local law enforcement agencies. Some sources report that there were as many as 700 race-related riots in the United States between 1964 and 1971 in this country. LEAA funds were designed to not only respond to the riot threat but to arrest as many young black men as possible to prevent future rioting.
Courts and Prisons Flooded with Black Men
The result was that the nation’s court and prison systems by the early 1970s were suddenly overwhelmed with black men facing “justice” in these two historically white-ruled components of the nation’s criminal justice system. The result: courts handed out more probation sentences to white defendants while simultaneously imposing harsher prison sentences on black defendants, mostly young males; and prison systems, especially in the South where the slave plantation, chain gang mentality reigned, were overwhelmed with angry young black men who were easily radicalized by a growing “black militancy” in prisons across the country.
Race riots suddenly exploded throughout the nation’s prison system, most notably the infamous Attica riot in 1971.
Prisons Become Criminal Training Camps
The nation’s prison system in the 1970s—which had become brutal dens of violence, homosexual rapes, rampant drug abuse, and an emergence of organized gang activity—began to spit out thousands of young, institutionalized men into the black community where an increasing supply of heroin and other addictive drugs had suddenly become readily available.
Some believe the emergence of the drug culture in the black community during this era was created by the government—if not created, then certainly tolerated—as a means to control black people.
Whatever the reason, crime in the 1970s soared while black militancy subsided.
Crime Rates Soar
Not only did crime soar in the black communities, it moved out of the “ghettos” into white neighborhoods prompting a “white flight” from urban cities into safer suburban areas. It appeared that the police had one primary responsibility—keep crime in the black urban neighborhoods and out of the “white suburbs.”
This policing solution worked for a while until cocaine flooded the nation’s drug market in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. It found its way into the white communities where the money fueled its demand. “Coke addiction” became prevalent among young white professionals while the lesser but more addictive “crack” cocaine saturated black communities.
In the 1980s, a series of articles appeared in the San Jose Mercury News by reporter Gary Webb who linked the CIA to selling crack cocaine in black communities in Los Angeles in order to fund its illegal operations in Central America. U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) charged that a “mastermind plot” was underway by the CIA to destroy “inner-city black America.”
Former President Ronald Reagan responded to the “cocaine crisis” (which gained national prominence following the cocaine overdose death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias) with a declaration of “war on drugs.” This war declaration diverted attention away from the CIA/crack cocaine conspiracy and shifted it to “crime control.”
Crack/Cocaine Sentencing Disparity Disproportionately Hits African American Community
Once again a “law-and-order” war was initiated, directed primarily against black people. White defendants caught up in the criminal justice system for cocaine offenses received minor prison sentences (more often than not, probation or commitment to treatment programs) while black “crack” cocaine defendants received harsh, mandatory sentences under the federal Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.
The Reagan drug war inevitably increased police presence in “inner-city black America” with strict enforcement of drug laws while predominantly white suburbia was given a free pass. The police appeared in these areas only when a call for assistance was made.
Prison Industrial Complex Thrives During War on Drugs
The “war on crack” forced the nation to embrace a “prison building” boon subsidized with laws, such as Three Strikes, designed to incarcerate more people, most of whom, as expected, were black and Latino. America’s prison system became a corrupt industry comparable to the nation’s corrupt “military industry complex.”
There was plenty of money to be had in “prison building.” Scores of state legislators were more than willing to line their pockets with bribes in exchange for prison building contracts. Law-and-order was good business—and state lawmakers passed as many “get tough on crime” laws they could in order to insure there would be a continuing demand for more prison beds; to be given, of course, to black men.
The result: America today, which has only 4.4 percent of the world’s population, houses roughly 25 percent of the world’s inmate population—a population overly represented by black men.
Black Fear Used in Presidential Campaign
The so-called wars on crime and drugs made black men the “face of crime.” This was evidenced in 1987 when former President George H. Bush used the infamous William “Willie” Horton ads, a black convicted murderer, to ride his way into the White House.
The Willie Horton ad was a reflection from the past. Throughout our history, the faces of black men have always been used to stoke the fears of the white ruling class. This reality created, and it remains so today, a demand that the police “protect and serve” the white ruling class while controlling the minorities in our society, primarily black men.
The crime/drug wars were actually permission by the government for the police to fight these social wars, primarily against poor, minority communities.
Police Killings Disproportionately African American
A tragic, though inevitable, byproduct of the War on Crime is that a disproportionate number of the thousands of people shot and killed by the police each year are black men—and in too many cases the fatal police shootings are unnecessary, if not racially influenced.
The nation’s police should not be “at war” against any of its citizenry. Last year we reported about “Black Fear, Militarized Police and Police Shootings.” An observation made in that post applies here:
“Most people assume we have militarized our police in this country to protect us from terrorism. That’s not true.
“Our militarized law enforcement has actually been created to respond to local in-border threats – violent gangs, social unrest, and, yes, even minor civil disobedience. The problem is that cops are not trained to be military combatants. Thus, unfortunately, because law enforcement is not always professionally trained or because they collectively see power of the badge as a shield against black fear, the country is increasingly witnessing unnecessary (and sometimes criminal) lethal responses from our white law enforcement officers against black people.”
Escalating Trend Towards Violence
The recent fatal shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota by white police officers and the horrific response by a black military veteran against white Dallas police officers bring us to the tragic conclusion that there is an escalating civil war between the police and inner-city black America.
What else can be concluded when white police officers in Louisiana garner national publicity for the patently unnecessary fatal shooting of a black man posing no threat to them and the very next day a white police officer fatally shoots a young black man posing no threat to the officer in front of the man’s girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter.
Even the Governor of Minnesota had to conclude that a white person would not have been killed under similar circumstances.
Truth and Reconciliation Needed
Nothing will bring an end to this civil war, which has been fought constantly since 1704, until the white ruling class first acknowledges the reality of inequality and injustice, from arrest to incarceration, within the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the response from the right-wing nuts to blame President Obama and Black Lives Matters for the murder of five Dallas police officers, seems to argue against this very basic first step.
Systemic reforms are necessary throughout the criminal justice system. If we hope to address the increasing violence, we must immediately demand reforms that will insure that the police fulfill their legal and moral obligation to serve and protect every segment of society, and avoid the knee-jerk reaction to further militarize our police and occupy neighborhoods of color. The police are our first responders. When we call them, we need them. However, it is past time that they become a welcome, trusted part of the community.