US Politics and the Economy

Police Terror: The Legacy of Slavery

By Chris Kinder

Police murders of Black and brown young men has sparked a mounting outrage throughout the U.S. and the world. The Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown, in which Brown was shot while his hands were up, and his body was left lying in the street for almost five hours, led to immediate mass protests. Ferguson’s overwhelmingly white police force treated the protestors of Brown’s murder with utter contempt and terror. The cops pointed weapons, shouted racist epithets, and threatened protestors with armored vehicles, sparking protests even in the mainstream bourgeois press. Brown’s brutal murder—as well as several subsequent police killings in the St Louis area—sparked a national mobilization of thousands in October.

The Ferguson events fed into a growing awareness of police shoot-first-ask-questions-later atrocities. Police shootings are just the most damning edge of a criminal “justice” system that is racist and corrupt to the core. The death penalty and life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), stop-and-frisk policies, blatant frame-ups and barbaric brutality; as well as mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, are all disproportionally targeted on Black and brown men through racial profiling.

Add to this the militarization of police, which was highlighted in a June 2014 ACLU report titled, “War Comes Home, the Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” In recent years, police forces across the U.S. have been gobbling up surplus materials from the Iraq War at low cost, pushed on them by the defense department, Homeland Security, and the manufacturers of “security” utensils of all sorts. These can range from armored vehicles “hardened” against land mines, to the latest in sub-machine gun technology.

Special bodies of armed men

But while this militarization and criminal actions of police are certainly shocking, are they surprising or “excessive,” in terms of normal police practice? Or are they just the latest manifestation of a capitalist imperialist state in the agony of its groaning decline? Police are just the first line of defense of a system, which has always been racist, capitalist and colonialist/imperialist. “Special bodies of armed men” were identified by Marx, Engels and Lenin as the essence of the state; and the state only exists because there is an irreconcilable conflict between classes in society. One must rule the other; hence the need for militarized use of force against the working class and all oppressed and exploited groups within it.

Although much of the equipment and technology being used today is obviously modern, American policing has always exhibited a link with the imperialist military. Use of the National Guard to smash the Watts uprising of 1965, against a Teamsters wildcat strike in Ohio in 1970, and in the killing of antiwar protestors at Kent State in the same year; and now in Ferguson, are just some examples. Thirty-eight Black Panthers were murdered in the 1970s, many in cold blood, by police using overwhelming force and working hand-in-hand with federal agencies to set up (and in other cases frame-up) their victims. Police have long been an occupying army in Black ghettos, and they still are in Black and brown areas today.

But the origin of policing in the U.S. goes back much further, and its history illustrates its true nature clearly. The question to ask is, what were police and their antecedents created to do exactly?

Slave patrols

Like all the other European mercantile colonialist states, Britain used slavery and indentured servitude in the “new world” to acquire the great wealth used to build capitalism, in a process that Marx called primitive accumulation. In the Seventeenth Century, there was a period in which the “transportation” of criminals, indentured servitude and the enslavement of Native Americans were virtually indistinguishable as sources of labor in the colonies. The first Blacks from Africa were treated as indentured servants or “apprentices for life;” but by the mid 17th Century slaves became a racial caste, as the labor force of preference became Blacks brought from Africa, particularly for use on large plantations.

The economies of the southern planter colonies were based primarily on slavery, as well as on the maritime and related port industries, which were needed for trade in goods produced by the slaves. White settler colonists (farmers), merchants and tradesmen of various sorts also proliferated. In the North free labor was generally predominant, but the mercantile economy profited and grew rich from slavery. Slaves, being essentially prisoners for life, needed guarding; and in order to protect their human property, slaveholders developed policing. The first slave patrol in the British North American colonies was established in Carolina Province in 1704, and they continued to be the primary policing agency in the slaveholding states right up through the Civil War.

“Beware the pattyrollers”

Slave patrols, called paddy rollers (or pattyrollers) by the slaves, patrolled the roads, checked for and pursued escaped slaves, and had the power to come into slave quarters on the plantations to conduct searches for fugitives or stolen goods. Slaves being sent on errands, such as to procure supplies in town, had to have passes issued by their overseer or master to show to the patrollers; otherwise they might be beaten, whipped or even killed. The slave patrols tended to have great extra-legal authority to take whatever measures they deemed necessary, a pattern that persists today as police have the power to play judge, jury and executioner, particularly in Black and brown neighborhoods.

Interviews with former slaves, compiled in a Federal Writers Project book in the late 1930s called On Jordan’s Stormy Banks, contained personal stories from those who were children on slave plantations in the last years of slavery: stories of good masters and bad, small farms and large, even stories of longing for the relative security of plantation life as a child compared with horrendous conditions in the South since the Civil War. But every single one of the interviewees had the same warning—“beware the pattyrollers.”

Slave patrols in the Old South were sometimes independently set up by the planters (state authorized private policing), but often were organized directly by the state as militias. Although state militias fought in the Revolutionary War, and would fight the British again in the War of 1812, their main function was to patrol slaves, repress their revolts, repress any other revolts (such as Shay’s Rebellion in 1786) and slaughter Indians.

Slavery—mainstay of the U.S.

Indeed, maintaining slavery was a chief motivation for the formation of the U.S. in the first place, as Thomas Jefferson made clear with the following line in the Declaration of Independence: “He [King George] has incited domestic insurrections among us....” This was a reference to the crown’s threat to incite a slave revolt if the colonists didn’t fall into line! The promise given in the constitution of 1787 that the federal government would “call forth a militia” to protect any state facing “insurrection” was critical in getting the slave states to stay in the Union. The same point was reiterated in the Second Amendment, which provided for “the right to bear arms” directly in connection to the need for “a well-regulated militia.” Needless to say, the “right” to bear arms was never meant to include Indians or slaves, whether chattel or wage!

 The role of the slave patrols expanded considerably with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, an antebellum “compromise” between slave states and “free,” which required non-slaveholding states of the North to return escaped slaves to their masters. An older, 1793 Fugitive Slave Act was also on the books, but it was loosely enforced, and allowed free states to pass laws requiring trials for accused fugitives. Now, slave catchers could come into northern states and grab “fugitives” with impunity—sometimes they were actually freedmen—and return them or sell them back into slavery (as portrayed in the book and movie, Twelve Years a Slave).

Conductors on the Underground Railroad, as well as those sheltering runaway slaves, were committing a federal crime. The entire ruling class of the U.S., not just the Southern planters, profited hand-over-fist from slavery, and the Fugitive Slave Act showed once again how they were all complicit in the preservation and policing of slavery. These slave patrols, militias, slave-catchers, etc. were the police in the antebellum period. Urban constabularies did not even exist, until they began to be set up in the 1840s.

The German coast revolt

The largest slave revolt in U.S. history shows the intimate connections between slavery, policing, and militarization. The revolt took place in 1811 among slaves of the hugely profitable sugar plantations along the German Coast, just upriver from New Orleans, only a few years after the Louisiana Purchase had brought this area into the U.S. The slaves were keenly aware of the slave revolution in Saint Domingue (Haiti), which had just secured independence from France; and they had the benefit of a German Coast tradition that allowed the slaves to congregate on their own in New Orleans on weekends, where leaders could meet in secret to plot revolt.

Some 500 slaves rose up, armed themselves as best they could, killed slave owners they could find, and started a long march down along the Mississippi to New Orleans, a several-day journey undertaken mostly at night. They benefitted from the fact that much of the local militia had been sent off to try to grab West Florida from the Spanish, whose colonial possession at that time extended all the way along the Gulf Coast to Louisiana. Unfortunately their advantages weren’t enough, as the slaves were totally untrained, lacked sufficient arms, and had lost the element of surprise due to the mistake of having let one of the slave owners escape early in their march. They were brutally crushed before getting to the city (many escaped by fleeing into swamps or returning to their plantations).

The governor of Orleans Territory used the experience of this revolt to whip the French planters into line to support and participate in a “well regulated militia,” something they had been reluctant to do under an American governor earlier. Now, the elite were eager to promote this militarization, which included stationing of U.S. troops in the Territory for protection against both slaves and Spanish colonial rivals. The city of New Orleans passed laws against slaves being able to rent rooms or congregate in town; while the federal government offered slave owners compensation for lost slaves or other “property.” As British troops soon advanced on Louisiana in the second war with Britain, the planters, Frenchmen and local militia rallied to General Andrew Jackson’s call to defend “liberty” mainly because they feared the potential of another slave revolt, inspired by British promises of “liberation.” (The British had pursued the same tactic in the Revolutionary War in the South, by offering freedom to any slave who would fight with them against the rebels.)

Following the revolt, many captured slave rebels were given mock trials organized by the planters themselves as well as by territorial officials; most of them were then beheaded and their heads displayed on pikes set up along the road into the city as a warning to others. One can only be reminded here of how Ferguson cops left Mike Brown’s body in the street for hours, and later drove over the memorial people had erected for him. The German Coast slaves, however, never forgot their heroic revolt, and at the start of the Civil War, they were among the first in the South to abandon the plantations and seek freedom near Union army encampments.1

The Civil War, and beyond

In the Civil War, the Confederacy scooped up most males of fighting age for its army, but it couldn’t forget the slave patrol function, particularly since slaves increasingly sought to flee to the North during the war. Boys and old men were recruited into a Home Guard to patrol for runaways and for deserters from the army, which was a much bigger problem than the myths about Confederate soldiers indicate. Indeed there were huge areas of the South—the more mountainous regions and generally impoverished areas with no plantations—where there were no slaves at all. Poor whites generally had no love for the privileged planter class, and some of these areas produced bands of men who migrated north to fight with the Union, as well as places of refuge for Confederate deserters.

With the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863—but mainly after the final defeat of the Confederacy in 1865—slaves left the plantations in droves, forcing many planters to break up their estates into smaller units. Lack of labor wasn’t their only problem however: many discovered that it was only the slaves who actually knew how to raise cotton! The plantation economy in the South collapsed drastically; agricultural production would take decades to fully recover. Meanwhile, as former slaves were roaming free and riding the rails (those few that were still operating) looking for paid work, the Southern states immediately began attempts to put Blacks “in their place” through criminalization, a process which persists in full force today.

“Black Codes”

In 1865-66, Southern states adopted “Black Codes,” laws specifically designed to intimidate Blacks, such as bans on vagrancy, changing jobs without permission of previous employer, riding freight cars without a ticket, etc. This quickly led to the beginnings of a re-enslavement policy that would simmer all through Reconstruction and flame into full force afterwards: convict leasing. Meanwhile, violence, lawlessness and chaos raged throughout the South, as the Home Guard continued to pursue deserters, and former Confederates formed vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Almost all the violence in this period was committed by whites. A myth of Black violence was carefully promoted over time to hide the white chaos, and support criminalization and re-enslavement of Blacks.

The federal government was conflicted about how to handle the defeated states. Vice President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, took over after Lincoln’s assassination, and pursued Lincoln’s policy of moderation: Southern states could be readmitted to the Union if they rejected secession and ratified the 13th amendment of December 1865, which rejected slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This language fit with Southern plans to subordinate Blacks through criminalization, and thus contributed to re-enslavement.


Radical Republicans and abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, who warned against counterrevolution well before the end of the war, insisted on a thoroughgoing reconstruction enforced by the federal government. Supported by the Northern capitalists and most of the population, the Radicals obtained two-thirds Republican majorities in Congress in 1866 elections, and moved on their plans, which included sending troops to the South. The election of Ulysses S. Grant as president in 1869 continued these policies.

Reconstruction, based on the 14th and 15th amendments and use of Union troops, helped abolish the initial round of Black Codes, and ensure that Blacks got to vote, which led to Black delegates in state legislatures. Blacks also got public schools, which were equally funded with white schools. Union troops were specifically assigned to combat the Klan, and a federal Freedmen’s Bureau was set up to help Blacks get jobs. The Bureau recommended going back to plantations and farms to seek rentals, or paid work. In some cases, units of the military guaranteed paid labor contracts to former slaves in certain areas to cultivate the land; although these programs were denounced by abolitionists as little better than serfdom.

Sherman’s promise: “forty acres and a mule”

All of this worked well enough so that in a little more than ten years, the former slaves and their families were approximately as well off as the poor whites. The second revolution in the U.S. appeared to be consolidating, at first. But Reconstruction had plenty of weaknesses. First of all, the “40 acres and a mule” promise made by General Sherman during his march to the sea was fulfilled only in a few places, such as the Georgia Sea Islands, which white owners had abandoned during the war. The Freedman’s bureau worked on getting abandoned land to Blacks as well, but there was never a broad federal policy to supply land to Blacks, much less to expropriate existing white owners. While about a quarter of Black farmers had their own land by 1900, most of this had been purchased; and throughout the last decades of the 19th Century, Black landowners were constantly threatened by fraud and outright vigilante violence to get them off their land.

The white Southern ruling class kept up efforts to undermine Reconstruction every step of the way. On the plantations that remained (which were considerable, despite many that were broken into smaller units), they managed to undermine ideas of wage-labor or tenancy by Blacks. Within a few years after the war, they established a share-cropping system which forced Black farmers to accept annual contracts that tied them to the land, preventing them from selling their labor elsewhere when the opportunity arose. The key was that the landlord extracted the entire product (usually cotton) directly from the cropper, and paid bare subsistence to him in the form of food and shelter. This generally represented all of the cropper’s “share” from sale of the crop! The similarity to chattel slavery could hardly be clearer.

Besides sharecropping, the main tactic for re-enslavement took place through the criminal “justice” system: convict leasing. Just as in antebellum days, much of the policing and judgmental system existed with only the barest connection to the official “legal” system, yet it all worked in tandem. While more serious crimes would be handled by state courts, the vast majority of so-called “crimes” were petty violations of one of the endlessly expanding Black Codes. These were handled by local magistrates and sheriffs, many with only tenuous connection to an official appointment, and most of whom were connected to some small-time white employer looking for cheap labor.

The convict labor racket

The racket worked like this: just about any white person could stop a Black person on the street, challenge him (or her), and haul him before a local magistrate on some charge that was based on broadly written code, or even on pure invention. A hearing, complete with conviction and fine, could be over within a couple hours. Lawyers were never involved, and trials were discouraged by intimidating the victim to “confess judgment.” This was the antecedent of today’s “plea bargain” rigmarole, which entraps so many people of color and poor people now. As in today’s racket, “confessing judgment” would be encouraged by threats of even more severe punishment than what the victim already faced, such as being sent to work in a mine where the death rate was extremely high.

Unable to pay the “fine”—which could include fees to officials or even to “witnesses” for their “services”—the victim’s labor would immediately be bought by some small-time agent, right there in “court,” in exchange for his paying the victim’s “fine.” Sometimes these “agents” were front companies for big enterprises that had a constant need for forced labor. The agent would then immediately sell or “lease” the convict to some farmer who needed to clear his land, or a local industrial establishment that needed labor. The purchaser got to keep the victim for a certain amount of time, until his debt was paid off. The forced worker might receive token pay in the form of scrip good only at the company store.

While the “court” system complied with laws against slavery by setting a time limit that the convict had to work, this limit could, and usually was, extended for months or years as the employer added his own charges to the “debt,” to pay for medical services, broken tools, room and board, or money owed to the company store. This system was used during the 1860’s, but was heavily ramped up as Reconstruction wound down, in the mid- late-1870s. This coincided with a rise in iron and coal production and related industries in the South, and with farm expansion into new, previously unsettled and uncultivated areas, all of which raised the demand for cheap labor.2

Reconstruction axed

It is noteworthy that while big plantation owners and farmers benefitted from the convict labor system, most of them relied mainly on sharecroppers to do their work. In the post war period, a growing coterie of smaller businessmen and poor white farmers in non-plantation areas who had never had slaves, and often resented the wealthy plantation owners, were the chief beneficiaries of re-enslaved Black labor. This system, along with rampant vigilantism, fed into a hardening of anti-Black racism among masses of whites.

Reconstruction wound down over several years, then came to an abrupt end with the so-called “compromise” of 1877. Conservative Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was elected amid widespread ballot stuffing and intimidation of Black voters in the South, in which racist terrorist groups like the Klan and White League played a big role. The “compromise” came into it because Southern Democrats, who were mostly white, and who had come into power in state legislatures largely through similar vigilante intimidation of voters, accepted Hayes’ election on the basis of his promise to remove Union troops from the South, which he did.

The Radical Republicans and abolitionists were defeated mainly due to the change in strategy by the big capitalist industrialists who controlled the Republican Party. Their interest no long lay in defeating their planter-class rivals: now it lay in investing in Southern industry to benefit both from the cheap labor of re-enslaved Blacks, and from the expanding extractive industries in the South such as coal and other mining operations, which provided needed resources for growing Northern industrial development.

Blacks are still victimized to this day by the betrayal and failure of Reconstruction, due to the pattern of criminalization that was established, and to the illusions, which were sown in the federal government as the friend or ally of Black people.

Racism explodes nation-wide

In the wake of their 1865 defeat, Southern elites had pumped up white racism among all classes in the South, and eventually in the North as well, in order to retain their control. In the 1870s and ’80s, “Social Darwinism” and other racist claptrap added an ideological layer to the effective criminalization of Blacks, making them increasingly seen as unfit for citizenship. They were allegedly shown to be unable to handle the freedom they had been given, which most Southern whites thought to have been an historic mistake. In this context, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in with a decision in 1883 gutting the both the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the 14th and 15th amendments, by rendering civil rights into a local, not federal, issue.

Legal segregation then proceeded apace. Funding for Black public schools was slashed to virtually nothing, by putting local authorities in charge of fund allocation—a “neighborhood schools” policy; and new Black Code laws were passed that mandated separation of whites and Blacks in public facilities. This “separate but equal” mythology was endorsed by the Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling. During all this time, racist vigilante action against Blacks escalated without control, except for a few instances in which Blacks exercised armed self-defense. More lynchings of Blacks took place in the South in 1892 than in any other year, in excess of 250. Finally, by about 1900, all remnants of Black civil rights, including the right to vote, had been completely obliterated in the South.

The racism of this long era—from 1877 through the 1960s—infected the entire country by demonizing Blacks, but also affected Chinese, brought in for cheap labor building railroads, as well as Mexican farmworkers, Japanese during World War II, and other immigrants. Racist vigilante “justice” also exploded in the North as well as the South, with massive white “race riots” that often wiped out entire prosperous Black communities and towns on slim provocations. These peaked in 1919. Effective, if not legal, segregation also permeated the North in housing and through other forms of discrimination.

Racism and labor

Pervasive racism also hobbled the labor movement. The foundation for this was laid in the antebellum South, in which employers provoked white worker anger by bringing slaves into growing industries, particularly in the 1850s, which kept workers’ wages down. This pattern continued after the war, with employers managing to break workers’ strikes, and staff entire industries using Black forced labor. In a few situations, such as the docks of Charleston and other ports, the longshore workers, having once been slaves, became strong and proud union members. Overall however, the racial divide weakened the labor movement in the South, which remained a cheap labor, non-union area right down to today.

But there were exceptions. The Knights of Labor were notoriously pre-disposed toward compromise with employers, even to the extent of admitting industrialists into the union! But they also admitted Black members, and apparently did quite a good job at organizing Black sugar cane workers in Louisiana, in the area close to the German Coast, where the 1811 slave rebellion had taken place. In 1887, some 10,000 mostly Black but including many white plantation workers went on strike for better pay, and to abolish the company (plantation) scrip form of payment, which forced workers owing money to the store to stay on the job to pay the debt.

The Thibodaux Massacre

Lasting for three weeks, and with winter frost approaching, the strike was threatening to ruin the crop; so the Governor, also a sugar planter, called out the army and militia to break the strike. This resulted in displaced strikers seeking refuge in the City of Thibodaux, where they soon became the target of white racist mobs. State district judge Taylor Beattie, a former slave owner, ex-Confederate, and member of the Knights of the White Camellia, organized vigilante groups which took the strikers by surprise, and proceeded to massacre probably close to 100 of the Black workers before they could defend themselves. The Thibodaux Massacre was one of the bloodiest in U.S. labor history.3

The unity of Black and white workers manifested itself elsewhere however, including in the Great Strike—really a mass labor uprising—of 1877. Called both “extensive” and “deplorable” by the liberal Nation in July of 1877, this upsurge started out as a strike of railroad workers in West Virginia against an escalating round of wage cuts by a cabal of railroad bosses. It very quickly mushroomed into spontaneous strikes in cities all across the Northeast, involving nine states and most industries (many of which were also cutting wages). Traitorous “leaders” eventually emerged to slow down and kill the strike in the end, but for over a week, general strike, and even the prospect of communist revolution loomed.

Workers, unite!

Many observers were surprised with how quickly the lines separating workers of different national and ethnic identities melted away. In Chicago, masses of Irish packinghouse workers brandishing their meat cleavers marched defiantly down Archer Avenue toward Halsted, closing down lumberyards and other businesses, and forcing employers to raise wages. In St. Louis, workers shut down almost all industries, leaving a bakery open so people could eat. When Black river boat workers from East St. Louis came to a meeting and asked if they could join the strike—perhaps anticipating the racist rejection they were used to—the assembled workers roared a hearty “yes!”4

Policing in the service of protecting the capitalist ruling class, already much in evidence in the North, showed its militarized fangs in 1877. In St Louis, masses of police, led by police cavalry and foot cops bearing bayonetted rifles, and backed up by ranks of soldiers also with fixed bayonets, marched on the strikers and proceeded to beat everyone in their path. The pattern was set: northern police, having adapted the militarization and other tactics of the paddy rollers and state militia of the South to the modern tasks of repressing the working class, had been defined as the first line of defense of the capitalist system. Standing by while white racist mobs burned Black communities in the 1920s and beyond, repressing and even killing antiwar protestors, rounding up communists and murdering Black Panthers, was all just part of the job. The multi-ethnic workers of 1877 got it right: from its police repression to exploitation and imperialism, this system can only be dealt with by a mass, and revolutionary, workers upsurge.

Other resources for this article include: James S Allen, “The Negro Question in the USA,” 1936; Philip S. Foner, “From Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor,” Vol. 1 of “History of the Labor Movement in the United States,” New York, 1947; Philip S Foner, ed., “The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass,” four volumes, New York, 1950; and Eugene D Genovese, “Roll Jordan Roll, the World the Slaves Made,” New York 1972.

1 Daniel Rasmussen, American Uprising, the Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, New York, 2011, gives a detailed description of this revolt.

2 Douglas A Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name, the Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, New York, 2009, tells the story of Black re-enslavement in riveting detail.

3 Ellen Baker Bell, “Thibodaux Massacre,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, 2011.

4 Philip S Foner, The Great Labor Uprising of 1877, New York, 1977.