Frederick Douglass in Baltimore

by Corey Robin on May 3, 2015

It was hard this week not to think of Frederick Douglass while watching the news from Baltimore. So I wrote a column about it.

Across the street from Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall, where violent protests erupted last Monday afternoon, stands Frederick Douglass High School. It was from that school that students emerged at 3 p.m., only to find themselves in the crosshairs of the police. The school is named after the famed abolitionist who spent 10 years a slave in Baltimore. Anyone familiar with Douglass’ most famous work—”Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself“—cannot but feel a bitter irony in that juxtaposition of Douglass High and the riots of the past week. For once upon a time, Baltimore offered Douglass a glimpse of freedom, which “laid the foundation and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity.”

There was, in short, something about the city itself, with its forcible confrontation of difference, that made a difference. Especially in the life of this black slave: “A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation.”

Historical comparison, across the divide of two centuries, is a risky business. But it’s hard not to reread Douglass’ “Narrative” against the grain of this week’s events in Baltimore and the decades of urban poverty and police brutality that preceded them. Though urban life has experienced a revival across the U.S. in recent years, that revival is premised not on a mixing of racial and economic categories, a meeting of different peoples and nations of the sort described by Douglass, but instead on a grim machine of racial absolutism and economic separation.

Even more jarring is Douglass’ contrast between the coercion of the countryside and the relative (I stress that word) freedom of the city. So tyrannical was the regime of the plantation and its satellites that Douglass resorted to the most political of metaphors to describe it. The plantation is “the seat of government for the whole twenty farms” surrounding it.

Today’s city—if you’re working class or of color—is also policed heavily. But where the plantation’s police—the overseer, the slave patrols—did their damnedest to wrest every last ounce of labor from the slave, today’s police keep watch over the unemployed or semi-employed. In the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray—whose death while in police custody sparked the riots—grew up, one in four juveniles is arrested and the unemployment rate is 58 percent. The plantation’s police extracted labor; the city’s police preside over its disposal.

As Alex Gourevitch shows in an article in Perspectives on Politics due out this fall, urban police departments are a relatively new phenomenon. Throughout much of European and early American history, men and women were policed by their lords, owners or employers. But with the abolition of feudalism, slavery and other systems of bonded labor, some of that policing function was assumed by the state, especially in cities, where newly freed workers tended to migrate. In fact, most urban police departments in the U.S. were created in the second half of the 19th century. Their targets were, overwhelmingly, these workers, often operating at the margins of the economy. (With time, their targets became striking workers, operating at the very centers of capitalist production.)





Rich Puchalsky 05.03.15 at 5:05 pm

As an anarchist, it often surprises me how much certain elements of the state are taken for granted as ever-present, ahistorical functions of it, even among people who do not think of themselves as reactionary supporters of law and order. What’s the last thing a right-libertarian thinks of as the final, remaining part of the state, the “watchman state” that should persist after all the other parts of it go? The military and the urban police. From the left, the response to the recent episodes of police brutality in the U.S. have to do with tinkering around the edges — retraining, belt cameras, demilitarization, etc. — without people thinking about just why urban centers need an occupying force in the first place.


Brett 05.03.15 at 5:43 pm

From the left, the response to the recent episodes of police brutality in the U.S. have to do with tinkering around the edges — retraining, belt cameras, demilitarization, etc. — without people thinking about just why urban centers need an occupying force in the first place.

I generally do like having specialized agencies charged with investigating murder, fraud, rape, and so forth.


Rich Puchalsky 05.03.15 at 6:34 pm

That’s not actually what urban police agencies do. Or, at least, it’s probably not the majority of what they do.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 05.03.15 at 8:20 pm

Are you trying to tell me that CSI isn’t a documentary, Rich?


In the sky 05.04.15 at 1:26 pm

On a tangent, here’s my prediction: given the disparities in educational outcomes etc, in the next twenty years it will again become acceptable in the US for people to argue that blacks are generally inferior. It will be phrased along the lines of “serious cultural problems”, but it will come back and be held broadly and spoken of frequently.


Barry 05.04.15 at 2:32 pm

“…in the next twenty years it will again become acceptable in the US for people to argue that blacks are generally inferior.”

It already is, in the sense that one party is quite OK with it, and the alleged liberal media only calls them upon it when the language is too harsh to cover it up.


TM 05.04.15 at 2:39 pm

5: What are you talking about – this isn’t some hypothetical future, its the current state of affairs. Yes it may get even more blatant but just read a recent NYT comment section to see how little holds even liberals from reacting with open racism when they feel their white privilege threatened.


In the sky 05.04.15 at 4:30 pm

Barry, TM: it’s currently on the edges. Thankfully it’s not acceptable in political discourse today for a public figure to say “Look, the black people themselves are the problem. The structural inequality that sees X million black men in prison is caused by those same black men. It’s their fault, not ours; and we owe these criminals nothing.”

That isn’t an acceptable thing to say even though millions of people think it. I don’t see the current “polite” situation sustaining, and I suspect we’ll see something much nastier in future: in years to come, we’ll look back at 2015 and wish public discourse were still so polite.

And I think events like those in Baltimore will be hasten that change.


Norwegian Guy 05.04.15 at 5:57 pm

If you consider how crime, minorities, and immigration are discussed in many European countries, the American public discourse is very polite.

Here, statistics showing that certain minorities are overrepresented in prisons are usually taken as evidence that these people are more likely to be criminals. Cultural inferiority is pretty much assumed, even by parts of the left, though concepts of racial inferiority are only found on the extreme right fringes. The main obstacle to integration is considered to be the minorities themselves, not the majority society.

But it’s hard to gauge how bad the situation for African-Americans are, compared to minorities in other countries. In one week in NYC, I saw more non-white police officers than I’ve ever seen in Europe, and there’s a nontrivial number of blacks in positions of authority in the US.

By the way, has anyone come up with an explanation for the recent increase in unrest in the USA? In the last decade, there has been riots in some European cities, like Paris in 2005 and London in 2011, but US riots looked like a thing of the past, with the 1992 LA riot the last one I could remember. I doubt police brutality disappeared between 1992-2014, so I assume something has happened.


Steven 05.04.15 at 8:57 pm

Among other things, like securing personal safety for citizens incapable of forming private protective associations, urban police broker and enforce the terms of social cooperation necessary for citizens to pursue differing conceptions of the good in public spaces where they are bound to clash. In this way, they make life in the urban, pluralist democracy possible, and they arose as a necessary response to the tensions of urban pluralism. The problems arise when the reasons that underlie the terms of their cooperation are ones that citizens cannot access from a position of relative equality. This, this is one of the main problems in Baltimore.


TM 05.04.15 at 9:58 pm

NG 9: One feels increasingly that the US is really two countries, a modern affluent country with civil rights and so on, and a third-world grade police state. The level of segregation would be breath-taking if we weren’t so used to it. The blatant racism of of the justice system just defies ordinary imagination, which is perhaps why most of us continue to ignore the evidence before our eyes.

The following is what you would expect to read in an Amnesty International report from a bona fide third world dictatorship. These completely unprovoked torture-like human rights violations happen at a time when the eyes of the world are on Baltimore, and the local police and justice system with relish took the opportunity to demonstrate that they can be even more disgusting than anybody thought (and that nobody cares about the black mayoress, whose power to stop any of this is nil) – that is what we need to, and fail to understand about the Jim Crow police state.


Ogden Wernstrom 05.05.15 at 11:48 pm

Norwegian Guy 05.04.15 at 5:57 pm:

In one week in NYC, I saw more non-white police officers than I’ve ever seen in Europe, and there’s a nontrivial number of blacks in positions of authority in the US.

Beyond NYC, Baltimore may have the highest proportion of black officers of any major-city police force in the USofA. It does not stop them from (apparently) poor treatment of the black population. Part (most?) of that, I think, is an economic-class tribalism – the black officer has a stable middle-class job, and may identify more strongly with that middle class than with the poorer black neighborhoods.

Police officers of color – even black ones – in the US frequently admit that they’re more afraid of people of color, more likely to treat them as suspects, and so on. It has more to do with the institutional culture, training, the stories that are told, etc. than it has to do with the officers’ own racial identity. I think a lot of officers will tell you that they act a certain way while on-the-job because it is expected of them and trained into them…though it might be harder to get them to admit that about race.

The number of blacks in positions of authority is non-trivial, but my guess is that it is usually well-below proportional to their numbers in the population.

The election of an African-American President of the US has not signalled an end to racism. In fact, The Republican Party gains among the white working class since 2008 appear to be evidence to the contrary. Plus, if this were a different thread, the working class gains must be evidence that The Republican Party is a socialist organization.

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