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Policing the Color Line | The Nation

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Policing the Color Line

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The immediate causes of the civil unrest in Cincinnati this past spring are clear enough: White cops had been abusing and killing black civilians. But why such police racism; was it too few officers of color, a weak civilian review process, racist media?

About the Author

Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti, a Nation contributing editor and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of...

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Or was it genetic? Is racist terror embedded in the political DNA of American policing? After all, the basic patterns of harassment that triggered the mayhem in Cincinnati are some of the oldest and most consistent in US history. Typically the story of policing starts with the village-watch systems of the colonial Northeast, then moves to the formation of the first municipal constabularies in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

But the real origins of today's "Five-O," "Rollers" or "Po-Po" lie with the slave patrols of the Old South. By the time of the Civil War, every county of the South deployed patrollers--or "pattie rollers" as African-Americans sometimes called them. These protocops, ubiquitous posses of armed white men, were the frontline defense against slave rebellions. They worked only at night, riding from plantation to plantation, stopping black people, searching their homes for contraband and whipping any slave caught traveling without a written pass.

As the immediate agents of a white supremacist state, slave patrols imbricated violence and racism into everyday life. They were crucial to the reproduction of slave society and slave labor power, and served as ideological invigilators in the construction of a paranoid and hate-fueled caste system that persists to this day. The patrols were central to southern society, but only now do we get the first book-length examination of this antebellum gendarmerie. Prior to Sally Hadden's Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas there were only a few short monographs from the turn of the century (which Hadden addresses) and a few chapters in a lost and barely read book, Police and the Black Community, by Robert Wintersmith (which, surprisingly, Hadden does not address).

Along with the obviously racist dynamics of modern policing, patrollers left us some specific concepts, like the police "beat." Pattie rollers had "beats"--defined areas of operation--and worked in small mounted groups called "beat companies." While the patrollers' main task was controlling African-Americans, this also required the control of whites. In many Southern counties all white men were forced to serve in the patrols, and in some counties all white men were required by law to stop and check the passes of any black people they met on the road at any time. This was nothing short of state enforced racism.

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