What Assemblyman Isaac Bryan means when he says that Los Angeles policing derives from Southern slave patrols

Back in March we assembled a collection of my opponent’s media appearances from 2018 to 2022 wherein he spoke about policing and public safety.

One particularly striking claim Mr. Bryan asserted (before he was elected Assemblyman) — not his original idea, of course, but which has circulated in American public policy research since at least the 1980s [ojp 1982][ojp 1988] — is that “[the] history [that] Law enforcement in the South began as slave patrol […] is engrained in our law enforcement” [CNN 2021]. Especially since summer 2020, many commentators emphasized this interpretation of American history [eku 2013][naacp][aba][theconversation]. It’s also been disputed [aei][nypost]. In a June 2020 appearance on CBSLA [0m19s YouTube], Assemblyman Bryan phrased his claim as “The original police were also slave catchers. […] That origin and that history still manifests itself in our policing practices today.” And in a June 2020 podcast [6m28s YouTube] he expressed it as “The early history of law enforcement in this country is very intertwined with slavery. The early slave patrol and slave catcher badges mirror the sheriff badges of today.”

This strong claim initially surprises many Angelenos, but we think it deserves a careful hearing and thoughtful interpretation.

The 2012 PBS documentary “Slavery by Another Name”, narrated by Laurence Fishburne and based on the 2008 Pulitzer-prize winning book of the same title, which is free to stream from the following page, helps connect the dots on what Assemblyman Bryan might have meant by this historical claim:

Slavery by Another Name Ep1 [1h 24m 41s] PBS | 2012-02-13

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon, 2008

In particular, two facts presented therein trace modern echos of the old slave patrols:

  1. Amendment XIII to the United States Constitution, abolition/emancipation, ratified in 1865, carved out an exceedingly important exception to the otherwise universal abolition of slavery. The original language was:
    1. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
    2. In practice, this meant that prisoners (regardless of the severity of the conviction) could legally be treated worse than slaves, forced to work life-threatening jobs like primitive underground mining, with a hefty profit derived from their labor. This was called Convict leasing.
  2. In 1867, 1.7 years after Juneteenth 1865, U.S. Congress found it necessary to explicitly outlaw peonage, otherwise known as debt slavery, with the Peonage Act of 1867. Nevertheless, for decades thereafter, this law was ineffective at eliminating illegal practices that were economically equivalent to peonage.
    1. The historically-documented reality (as covered by Blackmon and PBS) is that, between approximately 1865 and 1939, it was common for black men to be accused of debts and then trapped into long stints of hard/dangerous labor, at a great profit to the accusers.

A follow-up to the PBS work, Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary “13th,” which covers much of the same material, and is available free below, in our opinion is also worth checking out.

13th | full feature [100:03] Netflix | 2020-04-17

How should we interpret this distressing concern about American policing?

We propose it be acknowledged that — while we staunchly support the American system of free enterprise, indeed the engine of economic opportunity that is capitalism — American capitalism has a well-documented history of using exaggerated criminal accusations to steal time and labor from vulnerable groups, especially black men. Thus, we champions of free enterprise must always remain on guard against the tendency for our professional protectors (the police) to be used deviously as a profit-driven form of Violence Capitalism, also known as Racial Capitalism.

As a rule of thumb, we want to be particularly vigilant and cautious whenever justifications that reference safety are mixed with schemes of profit.

As likely would Ronald Reagan, and anyone with a dash of libertarianism, we join our opponent Assemblyman Isaac Bryan in his concern over the targeting of vulnerable groups, especially the coercion of labor, or confiscation of property by means of city or state law enforcement. Whenever and wherever it occurs, it is corrosive to a healthy system of free enterprise.

However, we adamantly disagree with Mr. Bryan that “defunding police in its entirety” [CNN 2021] is a viable or smart way to guard against that very corrosive tendency.

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