Frederick Foote

A brief History of the African-American People and Law Enforcement in the United States of America

The history of African-American people and law enforcement in the US demonstrates a remarkably consistent pattern of law enforcement domestic terrorism against African-American communities. US law enforcement has enforced African-American slavery; coerced African-American into convict labor systems that were more heinous than slavery; supported and participated in lynching and anti-black riots, and engaged in a pattern of harassment, humiliation, brutality, and murder that has gone largely unchecked by government or law.

Slavery Era
Since, at least, the year 1619 African people were imported into the British colonies and the United States against their will. These Africans were indentured servants or slaves. As indentured servants they had few legal rights. As slaves, they had almost no legal rights or access to the courts or justice systems. A major role of law enforcement during slavery was to ensure that the enslaved remained enslaved and that the escaped slaves were returned to their owners.

Post Slavery Era
During the numerous anti-black riots from the 1860s to the 1920s law enforcement rarely protected blacksiii and the judicial system rarely prosecuted whites for their assaults on blacks.iv There were twenty-six white race riots in the summer of 1919 alone.v Police often sided with and joined with the white rioters.

Lynching was a common form of domestic Again, whites were rarely arrested in a black lynching, even where the culprits were known to the community and the law enforcement officers. Law enforcement officers were often part of the lynching process.vii

The Civil Rights Era
During the civil rights movement from the 1950s through the early 1970s, the FBI conspired to undermine civil rights organizations, and local law enforcement felt free to attack Black demonstrations and organizations with impunity.viii The police assassination of Fred Hampton and the many law enforcement attacks on the Black Panther Party are examples of these persecutions.

In the south, the law enforcement structure was almost wholly in the hands of white racist. It was a vicious and uncompromising brand of legal terrorism augmented by the Klu Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations protected by the Southern legal system and the studied indifference of the federal government.

The Post-Civil Rights Eras
During the post-civil rights eras, law enforcement continued to act with relative impunity when they attacked, abused, or murdered African-Americans. Law enforcement officers were immune from punishment for the vast majority of their attacks on African-Americans. This was a form of state terrorism that re-enforced African-American community powerlessness against the very government that was supposed to protect us.

The War on Drugs
This terrorism accelerated with the war on drugs which disproportionally targeted black, brown and poor communities.ix The police had incentives for locking up attacking and abusing members of the black community. Funding for drug task forces were often based on the number of arrest made.xxi The number of arrest made became a standard for police officer evaluation. The greater the number of arrest the higher the prestige and promotional opportunities for the arresting officers.xii

The Mass Incarceration of Black and Brown Males
“[The] Adult correctional systems supervised an estimated 6,851,000 persons at year end 2014.”xiii While African-Americans are about thirteen percent of the US population they are about thirty-six percent of the correctional system population.xiv The burgeoning prison population was a godsend for law enforcement, correctional officers, judges and courts. Politicians rode the law and order theme into office again and again. Federal and state governments developed a criminal justice system biased for conviction and created punitive correctional systems with few redeeming qualities.

The Tools of Mass Incarceration
The judicial system was re-invented as a conviction system in the period from 1960 to 1990 using inflated mandatory sentencing rules and plea bargaining to coerce confessions.xv Those convicted were, again, disproportionately black, brown, and poor peoples.

Plea bargaining is a form of overbearing intimidation that leads some innocent parties to plead guilty. Guilty pleas are extracted based on the prosecution threatening extreme sentences if the defendant chooses to go trial.xvi At trial the state has the preponderance of resources. The police can and do hide the truth and lie with the support of their fellow officersxvii and the complicity or indifference of the judges.xviii Prosecutors violate the disclosure and procedural rulesxix with the same impunity as their brothers and sisters in blue.xx It is estimated that about 95% of all felony cases that are not dismissed are plea bargained. The right to a jury trial is a modern myth.

At the same time, resources provided to defense counsel are, in many cases, insufficient to provide an adequate defense.xxi Therefore, it appears many defendants were convicted with ineffective assistance of counsel.

The long-term effects of the war on drugs tilted at black, brown and poor communities have resulted in devastation for many of these communities and lost lives and productivities from millions of young black and brown men. The human waste involved in this mass incarceration process is incalculable.xxii

There is no single period in US history where law enforcement has not represented an oppressive presence in and a threat to the African-American community. This is true in every region of the country.

When one adds to this litany of historical abuses, law enforcement’s oppressive, excessive, and humiliating pedestrian stop and frisk practicesxxiii and stop and search of drivers and their vehiclesxxiv one can view the US black communities as being under continuous law enforcement assault.

i Black Codes, ii Vagrancy Laws, Poll Taxes, Financialization and the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Mississippi, The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1880-1950, iv Forgetten White Race Riots and What We can Learn From Them, v A History of “White Race Riots” In America, vi Even More Black People Where Lynched in the US Than Previously Thought, vii Police and State Involvement with Lynching, viii COINTELPRO, ix The Drug War as Race War, xx Distorted Financial Incentives for Law Enforcement,


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