U.S. Politics and the Economy

Fugitive Slave Act of 2015

By Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

September 1, 2015—Under the ploy of fighting the surge of recent murders, Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced last week that she will ask the DC City Council to significantly expand surveillance and police powers to track ex-offenders. The provisions, outlined in a Washington Post article will give police the power to “search individuals on parole or probation and immediately detain anyone found in violation of the terms of release.” If these recommendations are enacted it will amount to a 21st Century version of the Fugitive Slave Act.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 (amended in 1850) guaranteed the rights of a terrorist (slaveholder) to “re-kidnap” escaped Africans. The U.S. Congress passed a legal mechanism for Africans to be under surveillance, tracked and forcibly returned to American concentration camps, commonly known as plantations. An estimated half-a-million people escaped to gain freedom, a ratio of about one in five Africans—mirroring the contemporary rate of Black incarceration in the 21st century. Many Africans left the United States altogether for safe havens that included Canada and Mexico.

With one-out-of-five Black men victimized by a hyper-vigilant criminal justice system and a Black community assigned the role of filling vacant “for-profit” prison cells, this initiative amounts to an extrajudicial open season on the Black family.

If Mayor Bowser’s 2015 Fugitive Slave Act is implemented, it would bring back the repressive and racist 18th Century philosophical and applied notion that once a “slave,” always a “slave.” The Washington, DC version will be “once an offender, always an offender,” devaluing and dismissing the basic principle that an offender found guilty and serves their time are never free from their debt to society. The Mayor’s new draconian initiative trashes our constitutional rights and doesn’t allow for second chances. Let’s not forget that it took America 150 years to incarcerate its first million, but just 12 years to incarcerate its second million.

Increasing, the police’s ability to search and detain parolees or those on probation will add another layer of terror to the already terrorized Black community. Added to this travesty of justice will be the collateral damage to family members caught in the crossfire.

In a recent press release from the Stop Police Terror Project DC, Eugene Puryear charges, “the Mayor has sought a massive expansion of police powers to detain and arrest those on probation or parole. They claim they will focus only on ‘violent criminals.’ This raises two questions, first: where is the evidence that this population of people is uniquely responsible for said murders? Secondly, why, if it is just ‘a few,’ do we need blanket legal changes that criminalize and target wide swaths of Returning Citizens trying to rebuild their lives?”

In addition, to what extent can we link the Mayor’s initiative to gentrification and ethnically cleansing Washington, DC so that the new millennial whites tired of commuting and returning to the city can be protected from “Black crime?” This campaign, while promulgated by a Black female, is reminiscent of the racist Reagan/Nixon Administrations “War on Drugs” that was really a war on the Black community.

The Mayor espouses the need for an increased police presence in the Black community, yet her solution is to harken back to a time of shame and institute her own brand of the Fugitives Act. She has not stated concrete plans to move a segment of the Black community out of poverty and into educational and work opportunities. She is not giving the already demoralized Washington D.C. Black community a sense of hope, fairness and justice, but instead, she is attempting to implement a policy that does the opposite. Will New York, Detroit, Ferguson, Baltimore or California be next?

As community activist and Program Director for WeActRadio Kymone Freeman points out: “The fact is, our young people are faced with over 50 percent unemployment and caught in a cycle of poverty and violence. It has been said that when poverty knocks on the door, love goes out the window. The United States measures poverty by an outdated standard developed in the 1960s, which means that the admitted 28 percent of children living in poverty in DC is much, much higher.”

The essential question is, what do you think the Black community should do if police are given the power, through this initiative, to break into our homes, placing those we love in harms way?

Black Agenda Report, September 1, 2015