News & Politics

The NFL's Ongoing Kaepernick Controversy Shows Much of White America Is Still in 'Slave Patrol' Mode

There’s a long history of whites trashing blacks when they protest the systems whites have put in place to keep them down.

Photo Credit: Brook Ward/Flickr

The slave patrols live. 

Just ask any of the people at Nike who answer the phones and are dealing with an avalanche of angry white callers throwing the N-word around and complaining about Nike treating Kaepernick with respect.  Trump, Pence, and billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News are ginning up even more racist hysteria on a near-daily basis.

But this doesn’t come out of thin air.  There’s a long history of whites trashing blacks when they protest the systems whites have put in place to keep them down.

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Policing people of color, which our history teaches was a “government function” handled by the southern states back in the day, was actually a largely civilian effort, although it depended on the support and constant encouragement of political leaders within government.

So, too, today’s largely civilian, male, and white “slave patrols” are on the lookout for anybody who may support Colin Kaepernick in his protests of police killings of unarmed black people. And those civilians, being called to arms by Trump and Pence with lies that Kaepernick doesn’t “respect” the flag or the national anthem, are flooding into the public square, from Twitter to retail stores.  

At the core of modern American policing (particularly in the South), and at the creation of the Second Amendment, we find the slave patrols that were the first militia of the southern states.  They’re also essential to the modern neo-confederate and white supremacist efforts to demonize black people whenever they stand up for their rights.

In Georgia, for example, a generation before the American Revolution, the colonial government passed laws in 1755 and 1757 that required all white men 17-47 years old to be members of the Georgia Militia, and for those armed Militia members to make monthly inspections of the quarters of every slave in the state.  The law defined which counties had which armed militias, and explicitly required armed militia members to keep a keen eye out for slaves who may be planning uprisings.

As Dr. Carl T. Bogus wrote for the University of California Law Review in 1998, “The Georgia statutes required patrols, under the direction of commissioned militia officers, to examine every plantation each month and authorized them to search ‘all Negro Houses for offensive Weapons and Ammunition’ and to apprehend and give twenty lashes to any slave found outside plantation grounds.”

It’s the answer to the question raised by the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained when he asks, “Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?”  If the movie were real, it would have been a purely rhetorical question, because every southerner of the era knew the simple answer: well regulated militias kept the slaves in chains.

Sally E. Hadden, in her book, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, notes that, “Although eligibility for the Militia seemed all-encompassing, not every middle-aged white male Virginian or Carolinian became a slave patroller.” There were exemptions so “men in critical professions” like judges, legislators, and wealthy white students could stay at their work.  Generally, though, she documents how most southern men – including physicians and ministers – had to serve on slave patrol in the militia at one time or another in their lives.

And slave rebellions were keeping the slave patrols busy.  

By the time the Constitution was ratified, hundreds of substantial slave uprisings had occurred across the South.  Blacks outnumbered Whites in large areas, and the state militias were used to both prevent and to put down slave uprisings.  As Dr. Bogus points out, slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the gun toting mostly civilian militias.

As I’ve written before, the Second Amendment was written the way it was – mentioning “state” instead of, as in its original version, “country” – to allow the southern states to keep their militias intact, and those militias were overwhelmingly slave patrols.

As a result, for the two-plus centuries since then, American police – and, in the 19th century, American slave patrollers – have largely had carte blanche to execute black men who they think are “out of line.”

In the 21st century the publicly-known (and partial) list of the victims of this white and “blue” violence runs long: Akiel Denkins, Gregory Gunn, Samuel DuBose, Brendon Glenn, Freddie Gray, Natasha McKenna, Walter Scott, Christian Taylor, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Yvette Smith, Jamar Clark, Rekia Boyd, Shereese Francis, Ramarley Graham, Manuel Loggins Jr., Sean Bell, Ronald Madison, and Kendra James (among others).  

Not to mention Treyvon Martin, killed by the most notorious recent civilian volunteer “slave patroller,” George Zimmerman.

None of the killers of any of these human beings are in prison for that crime.  All of the killers were afforded great deference and privilege – something that wouldn’t have happened if they’d been European cops – because of our uniquely long history of slave patrols.  

Our history is also filled with stories and anecdotes about times black people protested this treatment – the story of the response to the brutal murder of Emmit Till is probably best known in the 20th century. There was also the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a protest known now as the Selma to Montgomery march.

Protest has now moved from the streets to social media, and then into the venue most visible to white men in American public life: the NFL’s football fields.

Predictably, this inflamed the older white men who run the GOP – particularly President Trump and Vice President Pence – who are regularly shouting out to today’s somewhat less organized but no less enthusiastic “slave patrollers,” encouraging them to “police” the unruly African Americans among us.  

At the top of Trump and Pence’s hit list is Colin Kaepernick, who began the protests against these police killings.

But in order to sanitize the naked racism of Trump, Pence, and their lickspittles at Fox News, they had to add a twist to the story: the lie that Kaepernick “hates” and “doesn’t respect” the flag and the national anthem.  Fox has even gone so far as to have (white) soldiers’ widows come on and respond to leading questions about Kaepernick “disrespecting” their dead husbands.

But Fox and Trump/Pence have it all wrong, as they well know.

If you’re going to protest police killings of black people during the national anthem, the most respectful way to do it, according to many veterans, is to take a knee.  Kaepernick got the idea from special forces veteran Nate Boyer, who suggested to him that he should consider going to his knee to respectfully protest the police killings, rather than just sitting on the bench.  

“Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect,” Boyer told a reporter he’d told Kaepernick. “When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.  … [P]eople take a knee to pray. So for me it was a common ground, at least, to start from.”

Kaepernick loved the idea and adopted it, and now this respectful, almost prayerful protest has spread across the NFL.  And Trump and Pence are cynically using it as new and useful shorthand for “uppity black people” that they can use to call out the modern-day slave patrol.  

What’s so breathtaking about the entire thing is how often the media in America allows Trump’s and Pence’s slanders of Kaepernick to go unchallenged when its repeated in speeches and rallies.  Trump, Pence, and hard-right media have clearly adopted the model, “When one lies, it should be a big lie, and one should stick to it.”

But Americans are figuring it out.

Just as African Americans have been economically disenfranchised since the founding of America, the white billionaire owners of the NFL are continuing that tradition by denying Kaepernick an opportunity to practice his craft.  Now Trump and Pence are encouraging the NFL to extend that economic segregation, that redlining, to any other players who may join the protest.

Nike has now stepped up to embrace Kaepernick, in what many Republicans are calling a “crazy” marketing campaign, which has brought this all to the top of the news again.  But is it crazy?

Maybe.  Or maybe it’s just crazy enough to finally wake white America up to what’s been happening for centuries to our black brothers and sisters.

 

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Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and author of more than 25 books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.