Racist Police Brutality Part I: History of The American Police State

uncle sam[Because I want to give important elements of this issue the attention they deserve, this will be a two-part series on racist police brutality in the United States. This article will address the history, role and sociopolitical function of American police as they relate to Black people. The second article will explore traditional methods we’ve used to confront police brutality, and offer new or alternative  ideas. ]

With the escalation and reemergence of racist police brutality in the United States, the media, civil rights groups, and concerned Black citizens find themselves discussing and organizing to confront the American terrorist police state. By “police state” I refer to the law enforcement, legal, and political power structure and how they work together to use terror, fear, propaganda, murder and captivity to oppress and control dissent and political organizing among the masses. This agenda reveals itself on American streets, within Congressional legislation, imperialist foreign policy, and within the prison systems of this country.

eric garner chokehold
Members of the NYPD place Eric Garner in a fatal (and illegal chokehold).

The Trayvon Martin murder and Eric Garner’s murder-by-chokehold, along with the unjustifiable slayings of MIchael Brown, Renisha McBride,  and Jonathan Ferrell, (all committed by white men in or out of uniform), bring us back to conversations about racist violence against Black people in the United States.

As Hip Hop legend Jay Z has said, “Men lie and women lie, but numbers don’t.”  Nor do numbers lie concerning Black death by white hands. According to the 2012 “Operation Ghetto Storm” report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, statistics taken between January and June of that year demonstrated that a “Black person was killed every 36 hours by white police, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes.”

Disturbing data like this compels the intelligent and concerned among us to ponder why Black lives in so-called “post-racial America are still criminalized and devalued. All across this country, Black people seething with righteous indignation are protesting and discussing how to protect ourselves from agents of the American police state (the second part of this series will focus on this issue.)

ghetto storm
2012 report on police murders of Black people by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement

Concerning this question of resolution, I’ve heard and read intelligent and well-meaning Black folk offer the same traditional approaches we always hear regarding police brutality: Marches, demonstrations, rallies, protests, teach-ins, filming police, police sensitivity training, clinics on how to cooperate with and peacefully engage police, and the like. While I am not completely resistant to these strategies, I am admittedly  skeptical. I am inclined to believe that our wholehearted and patriotic devotion to such methods reeks of naivete.

Somehow we have come to believe that murderous and repressive police  are acting outside of their official duties. And this is where we are wrong. The first intelligent step toward ending or at least effectively neutralizing police brutality is to understand the sociopolitical role and function of police in the United States.

Understanding the true role of police in our nation requires that we know the true history of police forces in this country. Mainstream scholars of police history spin the narrative that America inherited its idea of policing from Britain in the form of constables and night watchmen. According to most accounts, early forms of public policing began first in Boston (1636), then New York City (1651), and then Philadelphia (1705). As populations grew and territories became more industrial and based on specialized labor, other cities adopted volunteer and later professional and more organized police departments.

This history is factually accurate, but does not explain the political and sociological function of police in modern society. For this, we must dig a little deeper and examine the development of police institutions in the early South. As you will see, this history helps us understand why police brutality is a mandated, deliberate, and organic part of our society. 

The advent of police departments, if we trace its southern origins, began with slave patrols in the colonies and later states of America. As revealed in the article, “The History of Policing in the United States: Part I,”

Slave patrols had three primary functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules. Following the Civil War, these vigilante-style organizations evolved in modern Southern police departments primarily as a means of controlling freed slaves who were now laborers working in an agricultural caste system, and enforcing “Jim Crow” segregation laws, designed to deny freed slaves equal rights and access to the political system.

Writing in an article for Rebel Press,  Auandaru Nirhani reminds us that:

The US police force was modeled after the British Metropolitan Police structure; however, the modus operandi –especially when policing poor working class, migrant, brown and black neighborhoods- in the present, resembles the procedures of the 18th century Southern slave patrols, which developed from colonial slave codes in slave-holding European settlements in the early 1600s.

Actual slave patrols badges worn by patrolmen during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Actual slave patrol badges worn by patrolmen during the 18th and 19th centuries.

We should add that white vigilantes and their organizations also played a role in “policing” Black people.  In 1865 for example, former Confederate soldiers formed The Ku Klux Klan to intimidate and brutalize newly-freed slaves and derail the political and social progress afforded Black people during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. Vigilante groups like the Klan, the White League, and the Red Shirts hung Black folk, burned Black churches and Black homes in an effort to deter us from voting, organizing politically, and enjoying the rights of U.S. citizens.

In short, white citizens deeply feared the threat of Black power and Black rule so they aimed to solidify white male control of the United States. Often times, these racist vigilante groups worked closely with established law enforcement agencies and more often than not, counted sheriffs, police officers, elected officials, attorneys, and judges as members.

Not just the legal establishment, but political powers-that-be worked in conjunction with police and vigilantes. In the 18th century, the state of Georgia passed legislation requiring that plantation owner and their white male workers join the Georgia Militia. This militia was required to do monthly patrols of slave plantations looking for weapons among slaves and to repel revolts or escape attempts.

While many of us can cite our Second Amendment rights, we don’t often think about the motives that led to the amendment. The “white founding fathers” of the United States, especially those from the South, were slave owners who lived in constant fear of Black insurrection. It is no surprise then that these men passed the Second Amendment authorizing the right to bear arms for the maintenance of militias. In school we were taught that the second Amendment protects citizens from corrupt government forces (a fact we should strongly consider in any discussion of police brutality!) But never forget that a key role of this amendment and its support of armed militias was to monitor and control slaves, and prevent or repress slave revolts in the the South.

In conclusion, as far as we are concerned, the broken bones, bruises, spilled blood, paralysis and death we suffer in addition to the tear gas, pepper spray, stomping, chokeholds, bullets and billy clubs unleashed on Black bodies throughout contemporary America are nothing but modern-day manifestations of racist slave patrols.  Acknowledging this fact brings us to the logical conclusions that 1. Black people are to a large degree, perceived and treated by state agents as neo-slaves, people whose labor, mobility, and freedom is subject to control. 2. We are therefore seen as physical and political threats by the established order, which both explains why we continue to be unfairly criminalized and subject to physical attack by law enforcement agents (and even white vigilantes) on any given day. 3. While decent and fair-minded police officers of all racial and ethnic origins do exist, the police department is an institution that “serves and protects” certain class and race interests, and their repeated acts of brutality against us are not incidental or arbitrary, but constitute a mandated, deliberate and organic part of the American social order.

The sooner that we understand this, the better we’ll be. Our tactics will also improve, as we discard bourgeoisie notions that speaking properly, dressing better, teaching police officers to be “sensitive” or educating ourselves, will in any way deter the American police state from spilling our blood. WE are not the problem. The racist and belligerent American police state that unfairly criminalizes and murders our people is the problem. Up to this point, Black people have experienced great physical and emotional pain. Perhaps it’s time to physically defend ourselves in an organized fashion.


* Please sign our petition to honor murder victim Daryl Washington and to raise awareness of gun violence in our communities!

 Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker. Agyei earned his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree of Professional Studies from the Africana Studies & Research Center at Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree of Afro American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where he is enrolled in a doctorate program.  If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization or school, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

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