This post was originally published under another blog series Unfamiliar Faces: Lost to History. Due the current climate I have revised this post and re-categorized it under Black History Fun Facts.
Originally Published: July 14, 2015
Revised May 29, 2020
The tragic murder of George Floyd, who sadly joins the ranks of several unarmed black men killed by the police, has sparked outrage, protests, and unrest. Images and footage of the officer, Derek Chauvin (who had 18 prior complaints against him according to the Minneapolis Police Department’s Internal Affairs), kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he repeated the too familiar phrase, “I can’t breathe!” is both horrifying and heartbreaking.
In response to the looting taking place by protesters of Floyd’s death, American President Donald Trump went on to call the looters “Thugs,” commenting that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The phrase comes from a 1967 quote used by Miami’s police chief, Walter Headley, in 1967, when he addressed his department’s “crackdown on … slum hoodlums,” according to a United Press International article from the time.
From the killing of Emmett Till in 1955 that sparked the Civil Rights Movement, to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killing those four little girls in Birmingham Alabama in 1963 (Addie Mae Collins, 14, Cynthia Wesley, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Carol Denise McNair, 11). From the 1965 Watts Riots that broke out over Marquette Frye, to the police officers who beat Rodney King in 1991 and the riots that broke out over their acquittal. From the killing of Trayvon Martin, Micheal Brown, Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor and many others, Black people are frustrated and crying out for redemption.
Today, we look at the racists’ roots in American policing.
Slave Patrols had three functions: to chase, apprehend, and return the enslaved who had run away to their “owners,” to organize terror to deter slave-revolts and to maintain discipline for slave-workers who were subject to violence if they broke plantation rules. These organizations evolved into southern police departments whose job was to control the freed slaves who were now working as laborers and to enforce the Jim Crow segregation laws that denied freed people certain human rights.
“Early American police departments shared two primary characteristics: they were notoriously corrupt and flagrantly brutal. This should come as no surprise in that police were under the control of local politicians. The local political party ward leader in most cities appointed the police executive in charge of the ward leader’s neighborhood. The ward leader, also, most often was the neighborhood tavern owner, sometimes the neighborhood purveyor of gambling and prostitution, and usually the controlling influence over neighborhood youth gangs who were used to get out the vote and intimidate opposition party voters. In this system of vice, organized violence and political corruption it is inconceivable that the police could be anything but corrupt (Walker 1996).” – Dr. Gary Potter
Slave Patrollers were white men who rode around on horseback carrying guns, rope, and whips, ready to capture the enslaved. Their job was also to enforce the pass system, a pass, or ticket, signed by the slave master that authorized the enslaved to travel. Without this pass, an enslaved person could be beaten, and beatings sometimes happened even when the person had a pass, eerily similar to black men and women who are beaten, choked, gunned down, and stepped on even when they have done nothing wrong.
In her book, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, Sally Hadden writes, “a mounted man presents an awesome figure, and the power and majesty of a group of men on horseback, at night, could terrify slaves into submission.” Many members of the black community still refer to large police vehicles as “patty-wagons,” a play on the former “paddyrollers,” which was also a nickname for Slave Patrols.
Run, nigger, run; the pateroller catch you, Run, nigger, run, almost dawn. Run, nigger, run; the pateroller catch you, Run, nigger, run, almost dawn.
As K. B. Turner , David Giacopassi & Margaret Vandiver remark in Ignoring the Past: Coverage of Slavery and Slave Patrols in Criminal Justice Texts, “the literature clearly establishes that a legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.”
Policing, in general, has a long history. So, it is not historically accurate to claim that policing came from slave patrols in and of itself.
“Policing—enforcing the law, preventing crime, apprehending criminals—has a very long tradition of existence. I don’t know where it started, but for our purposes, we can note that Augustus Caesar, born in 27 B.C., created the cohortes urbanae near the end of his reign to police Ancient Rome. Policing in England takes rudimentary form with Henry II’s proclamation of the Assize of Arms of 1181. In the 1600s, England established constables and justices of the peace to oversee them. The Metropolitan Police Act created the first recognizable police force in the U.K. in 1829.” – Jonah Goldberg
On its face, the idea of policing is not a bad thing, and we can even go so far as to say it is needed. Whether we refer to it as policing or not, communities need people who can protect them from people wishing to do them harm. The problem occurs when the laws being enforced are also laws that dehumanize certain groups of people or when the crimes being prevented are humans rebelling against unjust systems and when the criminals being apprehended are murdered in the process. The need for just policing is not the argument. The argument here is that modern American practices of policing are similar to the activities of slave patrollers.
Thanks a lot for the opportunity to introduce myself, and I hope I do your space proud. So here goes.
When I was a child, I asked one thing of God. I asked that I never live a boring life. I just know the minute I made that prayer that God leaned back, smiled, and said: “Okay, buckle up Mr. Adventure!”I guess you really need to be careful what you ask for. You just might get it. My name is William Ablan (not my real name, of course). I write under a pen name for one reason. About seventy-five percent of what I write about happened, and doing so under a pen name gives me the chance to put some distance between me and it. More on that later.
Okay Mr. Adventure, what was your childhood dream?
I was raised a cowboy, and I can do all the cowboy stuff to include riding, roping, branding, and so on. I’m the son of a rancher but realized at an early age that wasn’t the life I wanted. My eyes were fixed on the stars, and I wanted to ride a rocket into space (still might someday). I took my degree in the second most useless thing in the world and then couldn’t find a job.
Aww. That sucks. What then?
Two months later they called, and I spent the next twenty years being a police officer. As I said, I wanted adventure, and I got it. I worked not only the streets but undercover narcotics, plainclothes investigations, protected VIPs, been an Undersheriff and a Chief of Police. I can’t say I regretted my time working in Law Enforcement. During that time I’ve been assaulted several times, stabbed twice, and shot at a few times. It opened my eyes to the dark side of the human race.
It also showed me that there’s good in everyone. Sometimes, you have to dig to find it, but it’s there. Sometimes the last person on Earth you’d think would be at your side are the ones trying desperately to save the life of a stranger, or going into a dangerous situation and doing something heroic. Or something as simple as being vulnerable to try to talk to someone. The good is there, and when people let it out, it’s dazzling.
With, you being a former law enforcement officer, I have to ask. What do you think of police brutality in the black community? How would you solve this problem?
Any brutality isn’t good. I think I’m ill-equipped to answer that question. The towns and counties I was a police officer in had no black community. That said, it still happened, maybe not to blacks, but certainly other races. I knew Hispanic cops that got themselves in a bind being racist against whites, and the reverse is also true. But I also knew Hispanic cops who brutalized their own and the same concerning whites. The first time I was around a lot of blacks was when I was in the military. I never had any problems and count a huge number of blacks among my best friends.
What’s the answer? I wish I knew. Part of me says better training and better screening of potential police officers. I suspect the truth is simply being a better human being. I only know one way to get that, and that involves God.
William, what are your thoughts on race in general?
The genealogy stuff factors in with my views on race. I don’t get it. From what I’ve been able to learn, my ancestors got ran out of almost every decent country around, got here, and ran into more of my ancestors who did their best to scalp them. Somehow they managed to get along long enough to produce me. I’ve got blood connections to almost every people who have ever walked the Earth with the possible exceptions of China, Japan, and India (and it wouldn’t surprise me too much to find out it’s folded in there someplace).
Now an admission I wish I didn’t have to make. My parents were rather racist, especially against whites (and here I am, half white) I found their views disgusting. They openly expressed hate, and I thought that’s not logical. By their thinking, I’m having to hate part of me. I guess I’ve extended that thinking to all people since I have a pretty good idea of what became me.
Let’s talk about writing a bit. Why did you start writing?
I started writing because I’m into genealogy. I always heard stories about some of my ancestors, and with very few exceptions, none of them left more than the barest records of what they’d done and who they were. In some cases, the stories I heard weren’t true.
I can understand that for sure…
An example is my great, great grandfather. The story I heard was he was in the Confederate army, had been captured, and spent the war in the Union POW camp in Allentown. Now, granted, the POW system back then was a mess, but if you spent four years someplace, you would think your name would turn up. I could never find anything from the Confederate Army reference him either. Then one day, I got an unexpected break. Turns out he was never in the Confederacy, but in the Union Army. And he was an officer to boot. Where did the other story come from? Near as I can figure that since he was from North Carolina, they made it up so he wouldn’t get beat up! Later, he and his family came out west with the Mormon’s, and he was a General in their militia. I’d love to have known his stories and heard what he had to say.
What a story.
So, that’s why I started writing. I’ve not only been in places where history was being made but in some cases, helped shape it. I didn’t want my great, great grandchildren trying to figure out who I was. I’d leave a record for them.
But writing it down involved taking a step away from myself. Some of the events were still pretty raw and I had to report the best I could. I invented a character and inflicted my adventures on him. And a really funny thing began to happen. I discovered writing was healing.
I take it you are religious William…
Yes. I’m a Christian. Now why I’m a Christian involves what I could know I’m capable of being. In the Bible, we read the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee stood in the temple telling God how cool he was, and that he did this and that. Basically, he was telling God that God was lucky to have him on his side. The Tax Collector didn’t do that. The Bible tells us he stood there, admitting again and again that he a sinner. The Bible tells us it was the Tax collector who went away justified before God because he was being honest with God.
Well, I was the Pharisee. As a Police Officer, I saw it my duty to protect the world, and while I never abused anyone, took bribes, or such, I was viewing myself as the perfect person. It’s easy to do. What I didn’t realize is there was a monster in me.
One day, I ran into it. We were in Saudi Arabia, a few short days from invading Iraq. We had a Platoon Sgt who was horrible at best, incompetent at worse. He thought you pushed combat troops the same way you push recruits (you don’t, in case you’re wondering). He went down with us saying he wanted to get the purple heart. By day two, we were all willing to help him.
So, we’re breaking down and getting ready to move up to the border when he comes up and starts screaming at me about something. To this day I can’t tell you what he said. All I know what something in me said, “Screw him!” as he turned and started walking away, I suddenly felt a hand on top of mine. A friend of mine was whispering in my ear, “Will, he’s not worth it.” My pistol was halfway out of its holster. My friend had stopped me from doing something incredibly stupid. Had he not been there, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.
You got some stories in you William!
I got a glimpse of the monster in us, and it terrified me. I realized I was no better than some of the people I’d sent to prison for murder. It was a very humbling encounter. That night, I prayed, maybe for the first time in ages. I asked God that if he got me out of this intact, and my mind sane, I’d serve him. And I thanked him for putting someone in my life for stopping me from killing that man.
It was six months before I started trying to keep that promise. Today, I can’t imagine ever having been the guy who almost killed a man.
Enough heavy stuff.
Okay. Let’s switch it up a bit. Tell us more about you, what foods do you like? Music? That stuff.
I’m a huge fan of hamburgers.
Lol! Yes to hamburgers!
While I love County-Western music, and Rock, I spend most of my time listening to Classical music, especially when I’m writing. I’m into some of the newer stuff that has a classical sound to it (think the soundtrack to Tron by Daft Punk).
Umm.. no idea who that is but carry on.
And if there was a single artist I could shadow, it would be the country artist Charles Russell. I’d enjoyed spending an afternoon with him riding across the open plains. He wrote about and painted the land he loved. I guess it’s his passion I’d want to tap into.
What genre do you write in?
I write what can best be called Police Adventure. I published my first book last year. It’s called the Cross and the Badge, and to a large degree is about learning to live with the pains of the past. My next book is a direct sequel called “Dead Friends.” I’m aiming for a release date of 1 Sep.
Congratulations on the new release! I don’t think we discussed what you are doing now.
My wife and I live in a not so little town anymore called Greeley, Colorado. Some of my fondest memories is time spent with her. Like when we’d be coming back late at night from a gig she’d played (she played in a Country-Western band), stop under a star-filled sky, and talk until dawn.
I’ve children and grandchildren and could acquire great grandchildren here real soon. I’ve threatened my grand kids with death if they do that to me anytime soon. I’m too young to be a Great Grandfather.
And I like to introduce myself as a Writer who moonlights as a Systems Administrator. I’ve been working in Information Technology for over twenty years now. People consider me an expert (definition of an Expert – Someone who knows nothing about everything…)
…in Virtualization, Information Security, and Disaster Recovery. I must know something about it. I also teach it.
If you had a superpower that could chance the world, what would it be?
It’s odd that one of your questions would be about having a superpower and using it to change the world. I think I discovered I had a superpower while I was a police officer. It was the ability to change lives, often times for the good. Granted, there are people I sent to prison. I thank God we have prisons to put some of those people in (some of them were a lot dangerous or crazy or whatever. Suffice it to say, they killed people and enjoyed it). But often times I was able to intervene in things and get people the help they needed to get them off the path that led to those places. I guess if the superpower had a name it would be called “caring.” I found myself being a mentor, a counselor, and an encourager. As I see it, I’d been placed in a unique position, and I’d be a fool not to try to help people out.
While I hung up my guns over twenty years ago, I still find myself helping people. As part of my church, I find myself working closely with veterans, gang members, and people life has beat up. And I suppose in some crazy way, that answers one of your questions about what love is. I know there’s the love I have for my wife, children, and grandchildren, but this is the kind of love Jesus has I suppose. The kind of love that tells someone that they’re important and not something to be feared or cast aside. I always remember that one of the miracles he performed was with a leper. A leper was someone who should never be touched. Before Jesus healed him, he touched him. He acknowledged that person as important. To me, that was a true miracle.
So, you don’t need to be able to fly, or have knives come out of your wrist to change the world. Sometimes you just need to stand up and try.
Thank you William for spending this time with us. We enjoyed you!
William R. Ablan is a graduate of Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado where he majored in Astronomy and Physics. Because of the tough job market, he spent the next twenty years in Law Enforcement where he’s worked as a Police Officer and Deputy Sheriff. He’s also held several important positions to include Undersheriff, Chief of Police, and Regional Emergency Manager for the San Luis Valley. He’s also an eight-year U.S. Army combat veteran where he served as a Military Policeman where he worked undercover narcotics and investigations. He’s been decorated several times for heroism and performance in both Law Enforcement and the Military.
He’s currently the author of “The Cross and the Badge.” His second book, “Dead Friends” will be released September 1, 2019. It’s what he calls, Autobiographical fiction in that the majority of the cases happened, but he’s taken some literary license with the facts to turn them into a work of fiction.
Will hung up his guns in the 90s, and has work in the Information Technology field since. He’s considered an expert in Network Security, Cloud Technologies, and Virtualization.
He resides in Greeley, Colorado with his wife Julie and works with veterans through his local church. He has children and grandchildren, and currently lives in dread of possibly becoming a great grandfather.
We’ve known “What” since stepping foot off slave ships. We’ve known “What” since the crack of the whip. We’ve known “What” since Lynch mobs and sharecropping. We’ve known “What” since overseers, paddy rollers and colored signs. We’ve known “What” since the back of city buses and Jim Crow. We’ve known “What” since crack, ghettos and foster homes. Indeed, if there is anything black people are familiar with, it is what. The question is therefore not what, the question is why? Why the haunting images of public executions of black men? Why does the protests of Black Lives Matter mirror that of the Civil Rights Movement when we should have moved passed this? How is it that what happened 50 years ago and DIDN’T work, will somehow work today? Have we not marched? Have we not protested? Have we not already sang freedom songs and willingly gone to prison? Why are black people at the bottom of every single ethnic group and society there is? Why have we been here for nearly 400 years and have yet to produce the economic standing of nations who have been here not even half that time? The question is not what, the question is why? Why are things always so black and white? Why is it always black against white?
In the book of Exodus there is a story. This story is about the Israelites. Pharaoh said to kill off the Hebrew boys for fear that the Hebrew population would grow and that they would overrun the Egyptian population (Ex 1:9-16). More so, they will do unto the Egyptians what the Egyptians have done unto them. Fears of uprisings among African Americans can be traced back to the days of Nat Turner. To think this fear has been lost or has gone away is not to have been alive. You see “Why?” has been around for centuries and on the tongues of every prophet. “Why?” is in the blood of every black man and woman walking this earth today. It is in every breath we take, and every move we make. “Why” is in our very DNA, our living souls breathing proof of the covenant we made so long ago. Do not tell black people that they should not be angry when our sons blood cries out to us from the ground. Instead, ask “Why?” Do not ask What, Ask Why because why is the key to everything. Why is understanding that what is happening out there is bigger than any man. “Why?” is understanding there is a reason black lives do not matter in this land. “Why” is understanding the story of Israel, the covenant they broke, and its connection to the black man and woman in America today. You see, “Why” is the key when you are the people of the book, when the police is Pharaoh, and America is Egypt.
Just thought I’d share this article as a current events type deal before heading out for today. Though I don’t really get photography as an art far as all the technicalities are concerned (I mean, there are good pictures and then there are…good pictures), I do love the camera myself and I do think photography plays an important role in the unfolding of historical events. Had it not been for photographers, we would not have the opportunity to relive some of the most profound moments in history with such intimacy. As for my thoughts on the specific events rocking the country, I will have to come back with another post when I have more time, however I am led, we will see. Till then stay in tune:
Devin Allen is a self-taught photographer and Baltimore native. His images from the protests following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody have received thousands of likes and shares on social media. As the situation continued to unfold in his hometown, Fusion caught up with Allen to learn more about his work and the gaps in the narratives being reported on the news versus those being experienced on the ground.
Fusion: So how old are you and how long have you been doing photography?
Devin Allen: Well, I’m 26, and I started photography [about] 3 years ago, in 2013.
Fusion: What got you started?
Devin Allen: Basically, hanging in the city, we don’t have a lot to do…one of my friends actually got me into doing poetry, so I had my own poetry night. But I suck. I can write poetry but I cannot perform. So I had to find a way to give people that poetry feel, but visually, so I started making T-shirts. From there I got into photography. I would take pictures and put them on T-shirts and eventually, I fell in love with it and that became my major outlet since then.
Fusion: How long have you been in Baltimore?
Devin Allen: All my life.
Fusion: Your whole life, so you’re local?
Devin Allen: Yes.
Fusion: What stands out to you about Baltimore when you are taking pictures? What makes Baltimore so interesting to you?
Devin Allen: It’s just real. Baltimore is a real city. It don’t cut no corners. You know, when you get around certain people or certain places it don’t feel real? You know, like everything seems perfect? Baltimore is not that. It’s a beautiful place, it’s like a rose in concrete to me. It’s a beautiful place, but most people don’t see it like I see it. I was born and raised here, so I see the negative, I see the positive. I see the good and the bad. I’ve been on both sides of the fence – both the good side and the bad side. So that’s what it is for me – it’s a beautiful place, and it’s real.
Fusion: When you say you’ve been on the bad side, what do you mean? What is the bad Baltimore that you know and what is the good Baltimore that you know?
Devin Allen: Well, growing up here is very stressful. You can get caught up in a lot of things if you don’t have a strong environment [around you]. Growing up, I got caught up in a lot of foolishness because of friends, where I hung at, and umm…I was raised by my mother and her family, I was raised good, but I just had affection for the streets. I had a lot of friends in the hood who’d run the streets all day, I hung with a lot of people. I lost a lot of friends. I buried both my best friends back in 2013. Both of them were murdered. I lost both my best friends, so they’re like my inspiration. I was just doing whatever, you know, to get the day passed. I tried the school thing, didn’t work. Got a job, but you know it’s hard to stay the narrow with so much stress and negativity. Drugs everywhere, crack-infested, heroin-infested. It’s very difficult, but [an] easy city to get caught up in. As far as being on the bad side, I hung with drug dealers and I ran the streets with some bad people, you know?
Photography actually got me away from that because both my best friends were both murdered; one was murdered on a Friday, and my other best friend was murdered on a Saturday. The only reason I was not with them was because I had photo shoots both days. And that kind of bridged the gap between the streets and my art, and I chose my art over the streets.
Fusion: What would you say about your interactions with the police growing up in Baltimore?
Devin Allen: (Exhales.) Well, I have been subjected to racial profiling. You know, I have had friends beaten by police. I have had police plant drugs on me because they’ve been mad that they didn’t find any.