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'They Think We Are Animals': How America's Police State Controls Black People

Racism in America's police force is linked to cops' role as keepers of the status quo in an unequal society.

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If your job was to herd, whip and sell people like animals then you must see them as such or risk your sanity. From the auction block, jokes and imagery of Africans as savage heathens and apes, swept through cotton fields and upward into the halls of power. Racial ideology, the belief that a physical difference between humans determines their place in society, rose from the material practice of slavery. In his 1781 book  Notes on the State of Virginia , Thomas Jefferson equated blacks to animals, writing that they don’t feel love or pain. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote “Those numberless afflictions…are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them.”

The continuous association of blacks to monkeys created a culture of violent policing of brown bodies. In his 1845 autobiography, abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote of an overseer named Mr. Gore who used his whip like a tongue as if to speak with leather. One day he lashed a slave named Demby who ran into a creek and refused to come out. Douglass writes, “Mr. Gore then…raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he stood.”

Slavery By Another Name

After the Civil War ended, African Americans had a brief season of freedom during Reconstruction. But the sight of their former slaves walking the streets terrified Southern whites. In the book and PBS documentary,  Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of African-Americans from the Civil War to World War II , reporter Douglass Blackmon explained how the Southern ruling class, which wanted the return of free labor, created the Vagrancy Laws. If blacks couldn’t be owned they could be jailed and forced to work. Historian Talithia LeFouria said it meant that, “Anything from spitting or drinking or being found drunk in public or loitering in public spaces could result in confinement.”

Before the war, images of blacks in newspapers were of lazy watermelon-chomping coons or blissful mammies or silent Uncle Toms. After the war they changed into lewd jezebels and fierce brutes. The shift came as slavery gave way to the convict-lease system. Racial ideology still pivoted on the concept of blacks as animals, once safely shackled, now free and dangerous.

Nearly 900,000 black people were arrested and channeled into the convict-lease system, where once incarcerated they were “sold” or “rented” to industries. In this era, police took over for slave catchers and prison guards for overseers as the reactionary force used to turn back history.

Stop and Frisk

“When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and sexual prowess,” James Baldwin wrote in  The Fire Next Time (1963). If you read black writers of the past one truth becomes clear: an “unofficial” stop-and-frisk policy has always been in effect, though the entire nation.

It’s terrifying, humiliating to have a stranger’s hands pawing your limbs and their eyes peeling away your privacy, trying to find some illegal object on you. It takes a while for your body to feel like yours again. And decades after Baldwin wrote those lines, stop and frisk of blacks and Latinos has gone from unofficial racism to official policy. Nearly four million New Yorkers have been stopped and groped by the police between 2004 and 2011. Nine out 10 were innocent. And 87 percent were black or Latino.

Stop and frisk is a policy that legitimizes race-based control. The change came in 1993, at the end of the crack era, when Mayor Giulani was elected and paranoia of black and Latino youth hung in New York. Just four years earlier, the city convulsed when black teens were accused of and falsely confessed to raping a Central Park jogger.

 
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