March 8, 2019 Written by Sylvia Gail Kinard, Esq.
In 1704, volunteer slave patrols began in South Carolina and quickly spread throughout the antebellum South. By 1793 these practices had been codified in the Fugitive Slave Act, which created an affirmative duty for all white citizens to assist in the recovery of an escaped slave. Slave patrollers not only recaptured runaway slaves but monitored and enforced discipline upon “negros who did not know their place.”
As numerous historians have noted, slave patrols and night watches later morphed into modern-day police departments, designed to control the behavior of minorities. My late father was from Greenville, South Carolina and I was reminded of these patrols, while pondering a spate of “only in America” racial encounters. The spirit of the patroller is indeed alive and well and not only in some of our nation’s police departments. It seems that some of our white countrymen, are also answering the dubious call to enforce discipline upon “negros who do not know their place.”
This self-deputization of ordinary white citizens into an erstwhile auxiliary patrol force has been crawling under the radar for quite some time, reaching its nadir on February 26, 2012. That was the day when the world woke to the horrific news that George Zimmerman had shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, 17-year old black male. Trayvon Martin would be 23 right now. But he won’t be. Won’t ever be.
Somehow, Zimmerman, felt that as a VOLUNTEER member of a neighborhood watch group in Sanford, Florida, he had the authority, right and responsibility to follow the teen, confront and then kill him. Trayvon, who had accompanied his father, on a visit to the senior man’s fiancé, was gunned down after purchasing a bag of Skittles and an Arizona ice tea from a local convenience store. The teen was not engaged in unlawful activity, was walking back to his future step-mother’s townhouse, and had not and did not threaten Zimmerman in any regard before Zimmerman confronted him.
None of these facts seemed to matter much at the subsequent trial. Zimmerman’s case made too much of his membership in the Neighborhood Watch Patrol and not enough of the fact that he, as an armed adult male had stalked an unarmed teenager and started a fight that he was only able to end by shedding an innocent’s blood.
The Zimmerman case is a tragic foreshadowing of what has now become commonplace – the self-deputization of ordinary white citizens. These individuals or “Deputies” believe themselves empowered to selectively enforce the nation’s laws against “negros who do not know their place.”
These Deputies do not express their racial bias through garden-variety hate crimes. No, these Deputies cloak their racial animus under the guise of legitimately acting to enforce laws they believe have been violated. As if. As if, they are modern day slave patrollers, ever vigilant, always looking to ensure that black people mind their manners and stay in their place. But, who made you the boss of me (or any other person of color)?
Just a sampling of random acts, reveal the vigilance of these Deputies. Consider the following. Deputy Anonymous Neighbor called the police on 12-year old Reggie Fields, because he accidentally cut a few feet of grass while he was mowing a customer’s yard. Deputy Alison Ettel a/k/a “Permit Patty” called the police to report an eight-year old girl selling bottled water to raise money to go to Disneyland. Deputy Adam Bloom called North Carolina police on a black woman and her son who were using a private pool in the Glenridge community that she lived in.
Deputy Sarah Braasch called campus police on her Yale schoolmate Lolade Sioyonbola who was sleeping in a common room of their dorm. Deputy Starbucks Employee called police to remove two men from a Philadelphia coffee shop who were there waiting for a friend. These Deputies seem more like mall cops, providing a “presence” to remind black people that somebody is always watching. And an anonymous Deputy in Georgia called the police on Corey Lewis, because he was babysitting two white children in Georgia.
The recent case of “Cornerstone Caroline,” Theresa Klein, who wrongly calls the police on a 9-year old she accuses of sexual assault is particularly troubling in the way it shadows the issues that lead to the 1955 lynching of 14 -year old Emmett Till in Mississippi, because he allegedly whistled at a white woman.
The truly insidious aspect of these Deputies is how confident they are that the “system” will back them up and support their declarations of judgment on the fly. Like circuit court judges of the Wild West: they are the law. Unlike post-antebellum, night riders, who used the cover of darkness to hide their terrorism against black families and communities, these modern-day patrollers ply their trade in shopping malls, at community pools and on the nation’s sidewalks. They are armed only with the self-righteous assurance that they are doing their part to ensure that the balance of power, remains firmly in white hands.
These Deputies are in fact vigilantes who are not enforcing the nation’s laws, but breaking them. Unfortunately, this racism is a throw-back to our 1619 roots. A genetic flaw that lays dormant until some triggering incident, like the cultural anxiety cited by conservative media host Laura Ingraham. According to her, it is a fear triggered by “massive demographic changes (that) have been foisted upon the American people.”
She’s further opined that “In some parts of the country it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.” As Tonto said to the Lone Ranger “Who is this WE Kemosabe?” This cultural anxiety drives behavior that beseeches a return to an America – where some people are excluded, not because of the content of their character, real or imagined criminal behavior, but because of the color of their skin. An ugly America.
We’ve seen this ugliness before. It was March 6, 1857. In the now infamous Dred Scott decision, United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, noted that “The negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” I am certain that as he wrote this decision, Chief Justice Taney could not have envisioned a future where a white, male nominee to the United States Supreme Court, would be questioned during confirmation hearings by two esteemed African-American Senators. What these Deputies don’t realize is that, yes, we have come a long way baby and we ain’t going back.
We’d all do well to remember that nobody “owns” America – an idea and concept that remains revolutionary, fresh and is always evolving forward. French historian Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this way back in 1835, when in writing “Democracy in America” he noted that “America is great because she is good, if America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” And that is the conundrum that the country refuses to face. How to be great if we will not do good to all of our citizens? As noted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “(…T)here must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country.” We cannot do good if cultural anxiety or just plain ole’ fashioned racism, gives rise to an invisible police state where ordinary white people perceive a call to duty to keep black people in check.
According to a 2017 analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate groups have been steadily increasing in this country for the past three years. I would venture to say that many of these Deputies would deny any affiliation or affinity with the KKK, neo-Confederates, Skinheads, neo-Nazi’s or White Nationalists. Yet, they share a deep belief with these groups and their patron saint, Chief Justice Taney, that Black Americans are inherently inferior to Whites. Unless and until this notion is torn out by its roots, spontaneous outbreaks of the Deputy spirit will undermine the peace of our shared society.
This outbreak of racist Deputy behavior is disturbing because it reveals the degree and the extent to which average Americans feel threatened by the changing racial demographics of the country. So, instead of embracing this change, they have become determined not to let it happen on their watch, university hallway, sidewalk, mall, community pool or neighborhood patrol. You don’t have to be a Globalist to understand that racial vigilantism is not in the country’s best interests.
Dr. King ominously warned that “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” To share this republic, equitably and peacefully is a challenge that we cannot fail, without risking our future and our democracy. While government must continue to safeguard important legislative advancements that ensure an equitable society, each of us must daily answer the call to root out racism where and when we see it. We cannot afford to look the other way or to accept implausible explanations of reprehensible behavior. We must see the evil and call it out for what it is.