Like a lot of people I know, it took me a while to watch the full video of Walter Scott’s murder at the hands of police officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina. The news appeared on my social networks embedded with a blurry image of the white police officer aiming his gun at Scott, dressed in a green sweatshirt, who can be seen running a few feet away from Slager. You don’t need to watch the video to know what happened; the headline informed you of the heartache. In a matter of seconds, Walter Scott had become one of the black men killed by a police officer every 28 hours in this country.
But what struck me in watching the horrific video were those few seconds where Scott turns to run away as Slager grabs and points his pistol, aiming at Scott’s back. Before the video revealed the deadly truth, Slager claimed that Scott “tried to grab his taser,” and that he “feared for his life.” Thanks to a happenchance filming of the incident, we now know that this is all false. So, what was it that made Slager feel so threatened by an unarmed black man who quite obviously posed no threat, who was actually running away from him? After watching the video, Walter Scott’s brother, Anthony Scott, said that he knew that his brother “was running for his life. Not to be shot down. Not to be tased anymore.” What was it about Scott’s act of running away that so profoundly threatened Slager, that stirred him to point his pistol at the fleeing man?
As a historian of slavery in the Americas, I couldn’t let go of that image. I had seen that scene before: a white sheriff “going after” a runaway black man in a grassy field, surrounded by tall trees weighed down by that ghostly Spanish moss. Hauntingly enough, South Carolina is precisely where the scene began in the United States, when South Carolina became the first state in 1704 to create slave patrols, groups of white men from all classes — dirt poor and wealthy — that were formed to control and monitor runaway slaves and free blacks, the precursor and foundation of the modern police department in the South.
The first African slaves arrived on South Carolina’s coasts in the late seventeenth-century to work the rice fields of the Lowcountry. Over the course of years, the black population of South Carolina gradually began to outnumber the resident whites. According to one statistic from 1699, there were 7,500 whites in South Carolina, compared to 8,500 blacks. With the increasing black population, high incidents of runaways, and fears of foreign-induced slave rebellions, South Carolina white planters passed “An Act to Settle a Patroll” on November 4, 1704 institutionalizing the slave patrols. As per the Act, the function of the slave patrol was “to prevent such insurrections and mischiefs as from the great number of slaves we have reason to suspect may happen when the greater part of the inhabitants are drawn together…”
Armed with whips, chains, and horses, the slave patrol became the white paramilitary force of the slave system whose profession was to terrorize the enslaved labor force of the Carolinas. In fact, the patrols played an incredibly important historic role in fortifying the institution of white supremacy in the South, given that many non-slaveholding poor whites and yeoman farmers were among their ranks, whose supremacy became validated and reinforced through their service in the patrol. Riding on horseback on groups of four or five, the duty of the slave patrol was to uphold the slave codes (first passed in 1691), which included breaking up assemblies of slaves and blacks, catching runaway slaves, searching through slave quarters randomly, or monitoring the pass system to keep slaves and free blacks off roadways. By 1837, the Charleston Police Department had 100 police officers whose primary function was slave patrol.
The slave patrols were not disbanded after the abolition of slavery in 1865. During Reconstruction, the period immediately after the Civil War, several groups merged with former slave patrols to manage the newly free black population of the South. Throughout, the state militia, federal military, and Ku Klux Klan took over what had previously been the responsibilities of the slave patrols. Together, the police force continued to maintain the rule of white supremacy up through Jim Crow to Walter Scott’s lifeless body on the grassy lot in early April 2015.
So what did it mean that hundreds of years before Slager or Scott were born into this world, that in the outskirts of the Ingleside Plantation, a mere ten minute drive from the corner of Remount and Craig Roads in North Charleston, the scene of the crime, that an all-too-similar scene once played out of a white slave patroller aiming his gun at a black man’s back who was trying to make his way back home through the woods off the main dirt road? Dreaming of freedom, Frederick Douglass wrote his fears in his autobiography that “At every gate through which were to pass, we saw a watchman — at every ferry a guard — on every bridge a patrol. We were hemmed in upon every side. Here were the difficulties, real or imagined — the good to be sought, and the evil to be shunned.”
What Officer Slager felt threatened by — that act of running away — is the historic consequence of centuries of white supremacy beginning with the arrival of those first African slaves to the coasts of South Carolina and militarized through the creation of the slave patrols in 1704. It’s the same threat expressed by George Zimmerman, the vigilante murderer of Trayvon Martin, who complained to the 911 dispatcher that “those [expletive], they always get away.” Walter Scott, echoing Frederick Douglass, “was running for his life.”
Yesenia Barragan is a PhD Candidate in Latin American History at Columbia University, where she is writing a dissertation on freedom and the abolition of slavery in nineteenth-century Colombia.