Freddie Gray and the Legacy of Slavery in Baltimore Policing
Historian Gerald Horne says the police culture that allows violence with impunity grew out of the slave patrols, which like today, used force to defend the economic order.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
With the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, some people are suggesting the murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, it seems rather clear that the police, not only in Baltimore but with many examples of similar occurrences across the country, that police in many parts of the country feel they can use violence against people of color, arrest people of color, sometimes for just running away, as what took place with Freddie Gray, use violence against people with impunity. They believe they can do so because so far, they can.
Well, to discuss some of the historical origins of this, we’re now joined by Dr. Gerald Horne. Dr. Horne joins us today from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History in African-American Studies at the University of Houston. Amongst his many books is The Counter-Revolution of 1776.
Thanks for joining us, Gerald.
GERALD HORNE, CHAIR, HIST. AND AF. AMER. STUDIES, UNIV. OF HOUSTON: Thank you for inviting me.
JAY: It’s not just that police believe they can get away with things with impunity. It’s not that there’s never a cop that gets charged, it’s not that there’s never a cop that gets indicted. But of the hundreds and thousands of cases every year of police brutality and murders by police of citizens and non-citizens, very, very few are actually held accountable. Why?
HORNE: Well, I think it goes back to the title of the book that you just referenced. That is to say, it goes back to the founding of the United States of America. A well-known U.S. president once said that we cannot escape history, and the history of the United States that many have been trying to escape is that it had its origins as a slave holder’s republic. The leading founders of that republic, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, et al were all slave owners. Not only that, but the Africans did not take kindly to being enslaved, and so they rebelled against the slave holding republic.
And that helped to create a culture that has yet to be interrogated or even questioned, even by historians, that basically set forth that people of color, Africans in the first place, African men not least, were the enemies of the republic. That’s one of the reasons why oftentimes in cafeterias in school rooms you’ll see unease by school administrators if black youth are sitting together in the same place, as if they’re planning to overthrow the school system. So until we begin to investigate and interrogate that particular conundrum that I’ve just laid out, we’re always going to have more Freddie Grays.
JAY: I think it’s very important, something I’ve been saying and writing about on The Real News, I actually like to stop calling police police, and call them what they also like to be called sometimes, which is law enforcement officers. It’s about the laws that they enforce and the whole political structure that that represents, which essentially are laws to reinforce a set of social relationships. I mean, slaves weren’t slaves because they wanted to be, obviously. Slaves weren’t slaves just because somebody paid money and bought them. Slaves were slaves, it’s because there were a whole legal, judicial system that forced people to remain in slavery. And when they wanted not to be, violence was used against them.
I mean, there was laws, as you know better than I, even against learning how to read and to write. Even a white person could be punished for teaching a slave to read. And if a slave was caught reading, I think it was 39 lashes it was in North Carolina, where you are now.
And it’s the same thing now, that there’s a whole system of laws that reinforces who has wealth, who doesn’t have wealth, how wealth gets distributed. And that gives rise to these urban centers of chronic poverty, and obviously the problem, the objective in this legal system, isn’t to end chronic poverty. It’s to make sure people don’t resist in either spontaneously in a criminal way, or certainly in a political way.
HORNE: Well, precisely. You may know that the origins of urban police department lies precisely in the era of slavery. That is to say, slave patrols, which were designated to interrogate, to investigate the enslaved Africans who were out and about without any kind of investigation. If you fast-forward to 2015, you still see more than remnants of that particular system. It’s still rather questionable to some if they see a black person, particularly a black male walking in a certain neighborhood, and therefore they will be asked to produce identification.
For example, the recent Justice Department report on Ferguson, Missouri revealed that the police authorities oftentimes stopped black persons walking down the street if they were not walking on the sidewalk. Now, of course, I’ve been to Ferguson and Ferguson doesn’t have many sidewalks. So that law was basically a pretext to harass black persons in particular in order to drag them into court, in order to empty them of their resources by forcing them to pay fines, to hire lawyers. And the fines of course go to perpetuate the city administration.
In microcosm what you saw in Ferguson you often see in cities across the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
JAY: I’ve talked to some black cops in Baltimore, and one of them told me that in the locker room, when they’re getting ready to go on their shift, some of the white cops joke–and most of the white cops don’t live in Baltimore. In fact, many of the cops, white cops, don’t even live in Baltimore County. They live in other states, and they’ve been hired and they come in here to work during the week.
But they crack jokes like, okay, time to go back working at–to the zoo. And you know, zoo or animals in cages. And it’s, I think a lot of the policing, especially in the areas of great poverty, it’s very much like an extension of prison culture. That the role of cops is to make sure people feel intimidated so they won’t act out, which is the way guards act in prisons.
HORNE: Well, that kind of dehumanization and degradation that you’ve just described you should also know has been a part of colonialism in Africa. That is to say that with regard to the research I did when I was living in Zimbabwe, which was then known as Rhodesia during the era of colonialism, you’ll find the principle that in order to colonize and terrorize and subjugate a population, you first have to dehumanize them. You first have to degrade them.
This may be something of a stretch, but if you go back to the Rwanda genocide of 1994, you’ll find that a pretext and a precursor for that genocide was going on the air waves and describing those to be killed as cockroaches and lice. In fact, you had similar kinds of statements made recently with regard to the xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
So this is something that we have to take very seriously. It seems to me that in the first place the state of Maryland, the city of Baltimore, should be looking at residential requirements for their police officers. It seems that the police officers would serve the community better if they were in closer touch with the community. And in fact if they lived in the community. And certainly living miles away is not a step forward towards sound police-community relations.
JAY: Well, it depends what your objective is. If your objective is to make sure that poor people don’t act out, particularly in a political way but even in any other way, if your objective is not to deal with chronic unemployment, in fact if your objective is you want a pool of people willing to work for $7 and $8 an hour–and we have to understand, it’s very important that it’s not, when we’re talking to these chronic impoverished areas, maybe Gilmor Homes where Freddie Gray came from has a particularly high unemployment rate. But much of poor Baltimore is poor working poor Baltimore.
We did a story, the strike at Johns Hopkins University. We interviewed a guy who’d been working at Johns Hopkins Hospital, I should say, not the University. I guess it’s all under the same roof, but at the hospital. Somebody who’d been there for about 14 years. This guy cleaned up in the surgical room after surgeries, and had to take special medication to try to be resistant to HIV and other kinds of infection. And the guy’s making–I believe, if my memory serves me right, is about $13.50 an hour after 14 years of this.
And there’s, if you want that kind of labor force around and your objective is to make sure people are willing to work for such cheap wages, yeah there’ll be social consequences of that. And the kids, unemployment in many of these areas amongst youth is 40 and 50%, sometimes higher. So the role of police is to make sure that this doesn’t change.
HORNE: Well, what you’re describing is a chain of inequality and a chain of inequity. And what we have to figure out is how to break the links that comprise that chain. We’re marking this month the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the U.S. war in Vietnam, which ended with the United States being expelled ignominiously on April 30th, 1975.
The war in Vietnam was part of a larger project. That is to say, it was part of a larger class project against unions at home, and against socialist countries like Vietnam abroad. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the United States was expelled from Vietnam, that war against unions did not cease by any means. And in fact, it’s continued and helps to shed light on why it is that that gentleman you spoke to at John Hopkins University Hospital is making so much after working–.
JAY: And he’s in a union. That’s a unionized job, too.
HORNE: Well, the fact of the matter is is that even unions have been suffering, who are in the war against unions. That is to say, it’s not only against unorganized workers. It’s against organized workers, too.
And I think that pumping up the strength of unions is one way to intervene in this chain of inequality that you’re describing. And then of course, the civilian complaint review boards that have teeth is another way. Obviously we have to remove the impediments to voting. We have to organize more neighborhood associations and tenants’ associations so that people can struggle against high rents. I think there are many ways to intervene, and perhaps we should be talking about all the ways we can intervene to break this chain of inequality.
JAY: I mean, there’s an obvious thing the city of Baltimore could do. I can’t remember the exact stat, excuse me. But I think it’s as much as one in four, one in five houses in downtown Baltimore are boarded up. There’s a kind of ethnic cleansing that’s been taking place. But you would think an obvious thing for the city to do would be create some kind of enterprises that would train people to renovate houses. Renovate–and the city’s the biggest landlord. The city owns most of these boarded up houses, although Johns Hopkins owns a great deal, and then other real estate speculators own a great deal of houses. But the city owns a substantial number of them.
Train people to renovate the houses, and then make this into affordable housing. And that would go a long way to dealing with unemployment and decimation of neighborhoods. But if you did that, you’d be in conflict with the interest of all the real estate speculators who want to gentrify and want people to get the hell out of these neighborhoods so they can gentrify. I mean, the problem right now is the school system in Baltimore in many areas is so lousy they can’t get people to move in and gentrify at a faster pace. The banks would be a concern because everybody will make more money out of gentrification.
So it would be a real battle. But there’s clear public policy that could be implemented that would deal with the problems that lead to the Freddie Grays and the type of policing we have, and the amount of crime and the murder rate. I mean, one of the reasons police get away with a lot in Baltimore is because the murder rate’s so high. It can be up–you know, 200 to 240, even 300 some years, people getting killed. And that gives rise to people saying they want more and more policing. And if you have to be a hammer to deal with the crime, well then, I guess we want the hammer, when clearly the real solution would be get rid–you know, start eliminating the social conditions that give rise to this kind of chaos.
HORNE: Well, speaking of getting rid of the social conditions that give rise to the murder of people like Freddie Gray, I’ve mentioned issues like organizing more unions, organizing more tenants’ associations, organizing more block associations. But with regard to the specific question on the table, that is to say police murder, particularly of young black men, what we need is an organization that has membership, that holds conventions, that has dues, that has an outreach arm, a media arm, that will in other words put flesh on the bones of an organization like Black Lives Matter.
And perhaps as a throwback to the kinds of organizations we had in the 1930s when the International Labor Defense made the Scottsboro Nine, nine black youth falsely accused and headed for the electric chair on accusations of sexual molestation of two Euro-American women. They turned that into an international issue. But that did not happen magically. It happened because of organizing, and because of having organization.
Those organizations have withered on the vine in recent decades as part of that project that lead to the demise and decline of class-based organizations. But certainly if we were to get out of the present valley in which we find ourselves, we have to organize in addition to more.
JAY: All right, thanks very much for joining us, Gerald.
HORNE: Thank you for inviting me.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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