Policing In America: A Deadly Disease Rooted in Slavery [Who Killed George Floyd? Part II]

Policing is part of America’s origin story and its history of enslavement, kidnapping and trafficking Black people.

George Floyd Memorial, South Minneapolis, May 2020. (Chad Davis / Flickr)

This article is the second installment in a three-part series that asks what can we learn from officer-involved killings, which on their own can appear isolated and disconnected from larger social conditions and cultural dynamics.  In our series, “Who Killed George Floyd?,” we look at police violence as symptomatic of broader social and cultural injustice, racism and anti-Blackness, including in one of America’s most liberal communities. (Get caught up on Part 1: Who Killed George Floyd? Hidden Truths About Midwestern Racism.)

This piece also goes hand-in-hand with “Who Killed George Floyd? (with Dr. Patricia Jones Blessman, Tasha Green Cruzat, T. Mychael Rambo, Roderick Ferguson, Pamela Alexander and Dr. George Woods).” Listen below:

The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin reveals a legacy of horrors involving policing and societal hierarchies and racism in the United States. 

In my prior work on the 13th Amendment and also the intersections of sex and slavery, I write about slavery police patrols and laws that normalized the surveillance of enslaved Black people. The fact is, policing is part of America’s origin story and its history of enslavement, kidnapping and trafficking of Black people. 

Police patrol violence emerges from the culture of slavery and dates back to slave patrols of the 1800s. (Flickr)

The origins of police, “police patrols” and policing emerge from slavery, and today’s culture of police violence emerges from the culture of slavery. During the antebellum period, failure to produce a permission pass to the local slave police patrol could result in severe physical punishment. Children and women were not spared. In his 1857 memoir, Twenty-Two Years A Slave, and Forty Years A Freeman, Austin Steward detailed early police violence.  He recounts: 

“Slaves are never allowed to leave the plantation to which they belong, without a written pass. Should any one venture to disobey this law, he will most likely be caught by the patrol and given thirty-nine lashes. This patrol is always on duty every Sunday, going to each plantation under their supervision, entering every slave cabin, and examining closely the conduct of the slaves; and if they find one slave from another plantation without a pass, he is immediately punished with a severe flogging.” 

Here’s a sample of what North Carolina wrote into its 1825 slave patrol legislation:

“They shall have the power to inflict corporal punishment, if two be present agreeing thereto; One patroller shall have power to seize any negro slave who behaves insolently to a patroller, or otherwise unlawfully or suspiciously…”

Tragically, this sounds contemporary and too familiar. 

The legacy of surveilling, arresting and punishing Black people for being Black dates back before the nation’s founding and throughout its genesis. It dates back long before Daunte Wright and Philando Castile were killed at traffic stops; it precedes George Floyd’s murder by hundreds of years.    

I interviewed T. Mychael Rambo, a highly visible community advocate and professor, for this series. He thinks these issues go beyond police. There is a cultural milieu to policing that implicates ordinary citizens. “We have found that white folks have been given license over Black and Brown bodies with impunity to behave in the way that [Derek Chauvin] behaved,” he explained, “and so, yes, we walk in solidarity with our allies and with our accomplices that are white, but the overarching reality is that they can walk away without any sense of impact or addressing, complications of anything because of color, because of race.” 

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Consider fugitive slave laws, for example.  These were federal laws that provided for the hunting down, capture and “return” of enslaved Black people to their “owners.”  The first Fugitive Slave Act was enacted by Congress in 1793, followed by one even more harsh and cruel in 1850.  

Even before the federal government passed such laws, New York enacted a 1705 law “designed to prevent runaways from fleeing to Canada, and Virginia and Maryland drafted laws offering bounties for the capture and return of escaped slaves.” These laws relied heavily on white citizens policing Black bodies. 

Fugitive Slave Acts denied Black people the right to contest their capture. Their enforcement relied on the complicity of white people turning in Black people whom they sensed did not belong. Fugitive slave laws were among the cruelest legal tools that slavers and bounty hunters harnessed during the antebellum period, to incite fear in Black people. Aided by the strength of federal law and judicial enforcement, these laws were especially terrifying because they indiscriminately imposed the costs of slavery on all Black people—whether free, indentured or enslaved. 

Enacted by Congress in 1793, The Fugitive Slave Acts allowed for the capture and return of runaway enslaved people within the U.S. (Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson)

Clearly, Black people bore the brunt of these laws. Fugitive slave laws brought about destruction and disharmony in the lives of Blacks, to be sure. Black people hid or fled towns and cities to escape bounty hunters who often captured and kidnapped them. In addition, such laws scarred entire communities. In some instances, the terror also extended to the white communities that wanted to live in equality with Blacks: White people who aided Black people in hiding from bondsmen and bounty hunters were harassed, whipped and could be (and sometimes were) lynched.   

The threat and anxiety of kidnapping and capture were not assuaged by living in a “free state” or being born “free”—nor did a state’s prohibition of slavery inoculate Black people from surveillance and abduction into slavery so long as the state recognized fugitive slave laws. Moreover, even when bounty hunters were not afoot in search of Black people to retrieve and return to enslavement, police surveilled and arrested Black people seemingly for appearing not to belong in a place. 

The extent of police—and not bondsmen—arresting Black people was significant. Although scholars are not able to pin down exact numbers, Richard Wade writes in Slavery in The Cities, that it was “strikingly high.” For example, “police records in New Orleans for fifteen months in 1858-59 list 913 arrests of ‘runaway slaves. … Since no special crackdown had been ordered and newspapers noticed no increase in the problem [of runaway slaves], it is reasonable to assume that this was a routine catch.” In other words, police harassed and kidnapped Black people who were not enslaved, sending them to lives of enslavement. 

Similarly, in Baltimore, Black people were routinely arrested on suspicion of being a “runaway” or because they were not in possession of their “papers.” Police regularly transformed the latter into slaves, branding them “fugitive slaves”—whether they were of that status previously or not. Even after the precipitous decline in enslaved Black people dwelling in Baltimore, local law enforcement charged hundreds of Black residents with being “without proper security.” This type of surveillance and punishment directed at Black people predated the abolition of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, setting in motion a pattern of race-based policing, arrests and criminal convictions of Black people, seemingly just for being Black people. 

A warning to runaway slaves dated April 24, 1851. On display in the Museum of African American History in Boston, Mass. (Public Domain)

Notably, these were problems of Northern states too—especially for Black people who defied enslavement by escaping. According to one reporter, “free [B]lacks” in Vermont “were still being kidnapped and sold out of state” with impunity even after the constitutional abolition of slavery, because the state’s legislature failed to take action to prevent it. Fugitive slave laws aside, the strategic use of law enforcement as a vehicle for the punishment of Black people was already in practice decades before slavery’s abolition. 

In fact, by some account, in urban settings, policing intensified as a means of outsourcing “discipline” on Black people. Richard Wade writes about slave owners simply making “out a slip for the number of lashes” for their property to be whipped. This system, where the “offending slave is sent to the workhouse with a note and a piece of money, on delivering which he receives so many stripes, and is sent back again,” demonstrates that police and local governments were already in the service of maintaining slavery through accommodating private interests in surveilling and punishing Black people. 

Today, many speak of police harassment when driving while Black, walking while Black, shopping while Black and more. In reality, the roots of this stalking, surveillance and punishment have to do with simply being Black in America.  

Click below to head to the “Who Killed George Floyd?” podcast episode landing page, which contains a full transcript, background reading and more:

Get caught up on Part 1 of the “Who Killed George Floyd?” series:


Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a prolific thoughtleader on matters of constitutional law and health policy. In addition to Ms. magazine, Dr. Goodwin's commentary can be read in The Atlantic, The New York Times, the Nation, CNN and The L.A. Times, among others. She holds the Linda D. & Timothy J. O'Neill chair in constitutional law and global health policy at Georgetown Law School and serves as the co-faculty director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. She is the executive producer of Ms. Studios.