Stop Shooting Us! African Americans and the Police Powers of the State in Perspective

“Stop shooting us!” was their mantra on the night of September 21, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Several protestors also had this phrase on the cardboard placards they carried. Their level of unease was evident as one woman collapsed into the arms of another lamenting through her tears, “stop shooting us.” These were the images that recently appeared on television detailing the demonstrations that have been on-going in Charlotte, North Carolina following the shooting of an African American man named Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer. The recent events in Charlotte go well beyond the death of Mr. Scott.

Historically, the relationship between African Americans and the police powers of the state has been fraught with conflict, tension, and inequality. Slave patrols were conducted by police authorities to apprehend runaway slaves in the eighteenth century as supported by the Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Slave owners were empowered by the government to recover their “property” with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793 that was used to enforce this Clause. The relationship between blacks and the police powers of the state became more intense with the Compromise of 1850 that led to the passage of another Fugitive Slave Act. This Act created a class of Federal commissioners for the purpose of apprehending black runaway slaves by issuing warrants for their arrest and return.

Commissioners were also authorized to deputize white citizens to serve as members of a posse to aid in the enforcement of the law. Following this Compromise, both free born blacks and fugitives from slavery such as Anthony Burns, who escaped from enslavement to Massachusetts, were impressed back into servitude having been apprehended by individuals empowered by the U.S. government. In 1854, President Franklin Pierce ordered that Burns be escorted to the docks in Boston by Federal troops. Three years later, Roger B. Taney writing as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) stated that black people enslaved or free had no rights that could be protected by the U.S. Constitution because blacks were not considered citizens under the law.

State and local governments that, utilizing the broken windows theory of policing, currently target menial infractions, such as selling loose cigarettes, have revealed in their practices a striking parallel to the Slave Codes and Black Codes that were deployed during the era of enslavement and Reconstruction respectively. Slave Codes were passed by the mid-1600s in the American colonies that limited the civil liberties of African servants and these codes helped to facilitate the rise of racial slavery in North America. Black Codes were implemented to control the movement of the formerly enslaved by mandating the arrest of black people for crimes such as vagrancy or loitering during the Reconstruction Era.

The gains for black freedom that came with the Reconstruction Amendments after the American Civil War, including emancipation, citizenship, and voting rights, were largely circumvented after the Compromise of 1877. This retreat from black freedom ushered in decades of extralegal violence referred to by some as "racial terror lynching" as coupled with the rise of segregation and the re-enslavement of black Americans through the convict lease system. In the 1890s, an estimated 100 African Americans were lynched per year in the U.S. amid the rise of Jim Crow. This racial terror lynching leveled against African Americans that took place primarily between the years 1890-1954 was often committed by white vigilante mobs some of whom were agents of the state who in many instances failed to provide protection to black citizens from angry mobs. The Federal government also failed to enact anti-lynching legislation at this time.

Kenneth O’Reilly in his text Racial Matters: The FBI's Secret Files on Black America (1989) notes that Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigation) officials stated in 1910 that they had “no authority to protect citizens of African descent in the enjoyment of civil rights generally.” Southern states invoked their police powers to justify segregation by declaring that it was a matter of public safety to keep blacks and whites separated.

A new Jim Crow has emerged in the post-Civil Rights Era characterized by the continued hyper-surveillance of black bodies and the criminalization of race more generally. In 1977, there were roughly 300,024 people in U.S. prisons. The majority of those incarcerated before 1977 were white men but this statistic has been dramatically reversed. With the passage of the Violent Crime Control Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the incarceration rate of black men has gone up 300 percent. The number of inmates in prisons and jails in the U.S. has increased exponentially to 2.2 million. African American and Latino men make up the majority of those currently incarcerated in the U.S. “Stop Shooting us!” is a lamentation that articulates the historical suffering of a people.

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