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Examining Southern Policing’s Origins in Slavery

Police in Washington block a road to the White House during recent protests after the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd. (Adobe Stock)
Police in Washington block a road to the White House during recent protests after the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd. (Adobe Stock)
June 22, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. - Modern day police departments in the southern United States can be directly traced to the institution of slavery, some 300 years ago, according to a religion studies professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

And Julia Robinson Moore, who teaches courses on religions of the African diaspora and racial violence in America, says a hard look at these origins is critical to today's reform efforts.

She explains the policing of black and brown people has origins in the suppression of slave revolts.

"What I have found in my studies of the South is police departments actually used to be called slave patrols, and that started as early as the 1700s," she points out. "You can really document them in South Carolina."

Moore notes that slave patrols chased and returned runaway slaves to their owners, and functioned to deter rebellion.

She says the patrols were initially citizen-led, but over time became incorporated into city and state systems and funded by taxpayers, eventually morphing into modern day law enforcement.

But as activists around the state call for defunding police and spending the extra money on improving education and social services, Robinson says she advocates instead for reform, especially during officer training.

"But just because those connections are there, it doesn't mean we defund the people that, for the most part, have been trying to protect and serve us," she states. "Race has never been talked about fully in police departments."

Moore adds the current protest movements around police violence affect all Americans, whether they realize it or not.

"For those people who think that racism really doesn't hit their world, we're in a globalized society, and what happens in one corner of our nation is going to affect other corners," she stresses. "And we see this with the COVID-19 crisis and the fallout that's happened."

State lawmakers have yet to propose police reform legislation, but all three North Carolina Democrats in Congress - Reps. Alma Adams, G.K. Butterfield and David Price -- have co-sponsored a bill to ban police chokeholds and limit use of military gear and weapons only to federal law enforcement agencies.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC