Slave patrols were a common feature of life in Southern slave states. White men in the community were required to periodically participate in routine patrols to look for runaway slaves. They were empowered to question any black person they saw and could arrest or beat or otherwise abuse any who couldn't convince them they were legitimately present is whatever public place they were found. As DeVega writes, "Historically, racism and racial violence have done work through the control of public space." And that was part of the function of the white patrols. Slave patrols not only provided law enforcement against escaped slaves. They also functioned as an instrument to occasionally terrorize and generally spread fear among all blacks, slave and free, in the areas where they patrolled.
As DeVega indicates in this following quote, they also provided an institution through which poor whites could share momentarily in the power of the slaveowners whom they often envied and gave them an emotional stake in the slavery system:
What does it mean to be deemed inexorably and permanently "suspicious?" What does it mean to be forever "suspect?" What does it mean to be marked as a "threat" from "the womb to the tomb?" It means to be "black." This is the new/old Curse of Ham as seen in the social and racial imagination of people like George Zimmerman and his enablers in the local police department.The Ku Klux Klan type terrorist groups of the immediate post-Civil War years were in some ways a continuation of the function of the slave patrols. But the antebellum slave patrols were official posses, operating under the cover of law, while the postwar terror groups were unofficial, though often tolerated by sympathetic white authorities.
History echoes. Ultimately, George Zimmerman reminds me of those white men riding on the slave patrols, eager, petty tyrants who are looking for any excuse to put their boots on the throat of a black person in order to raise themselves up a bit higher. They live to control public space, and how different bodies exercise their freedoms and liberties in it.
Maybe I just broke a rule about evoking slavery in discussions of twenty-first century American social and political life. But sometimes a little line-stepping is healthy, necessary, cathartic, and appropriate. [my emphasis]
In another post, DeVega embeds this segment from a documentary called Slave Catchers and Slave Resistors (2005); it discusses the colonial origins of the slave patrol:
The full version includes a segment starting around 1:22:35 that connects the slave patrol tradition to the postwar terrorist groups like the KKK:
In that segment, historian Sally Hadden says:
The Klan is an extension of slave patrols. In most direct, obvious ways, it's white men on horseback who go out, typically at night to terrorize African-Americans. It is racial oppression continued from one generation to the next. They've changed the names from "patrols" to "Klan", they've put on sheets, but the activities and the purpose remains pretty much the same.Tags: barack obama, confederate heritage month 2012, ku klux klan, neo-confederate, slave patrols, slavery, white racism