Cops in Baltimore, the tough city by the sea



Photo source: GoBlue85 – CC BY-SA 4.0

The city of Baltimore sits on the Chesapeake Bay. The largest city in what was the most northerly slave state before the Civil War in the United States, it was a bustling seaport with its own slave market and bustling human trafficking. In pre-war times, its population numbered large numbers of liberated men and women – blacks who had been granted their freedom, who were born in freedom, or who had purchased their freedom. The state of Maryland contained several large plantations and thousands of slaves. It was a city that divided the north from the south, with fierce defenders both for and against slavery in its legislatures, in its churches and among its population in general.

The large number of released men and women meant that authorities could not assume that every black man or woman was a slave and therefore subject to laws regarding slave behavior. The other white residents couldn’t make that assumption either. This fact seems to have changed very little in the way black people were controlled before their emancipation. Indeed, the authorities’ methods of control before the war in Baltimore did not give freed blacks the same rights as whites in the courts or on the streets. Among other things, blacks could not testify against whites or challenge them in court. This meant that they could not collect debts owed to them or take legal action if their property or people were harmed by a white person. Their status was at best that of second-class citizens.

In a new book titled Mobtown’s Men: Baltimore Police in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation, author Adam Malka examines the nature and history of policing in Baltimore during the period described. The scenario he describes is one that puts the city’s black inhabitants at the whim not only of the uniformed police, but also at the whim of every white-skinned man a black person might encounter in their daily activities. Using anecdotal stories from the newspapers of the day, statistics regarding arrests and incarceration rates, and a historical understanding that draws a distinct line between the police and white supremacy in the United States, Malka’s text allows to understand why black people in Baltimore and the nation continue to be watched as they are.

The reasons he cites include, but are not limited to, the concept that the modern policing approach to black American residents is only an extension of the slave capture patrols that existed before the defeat of the United States. confederation in civil war. In fact, Malka argues that post-emancipation black policing is based on liberal ethics as described by John Locke. In other words, an ethic that places ownership of property as the foundation of all other rights; it is the possessed individual whose rights are paramount. In a society where black women and most men could not own property, this conveniently put the white man owning property at the top. Malka goes further, accepting the concept that in the rapidly developing capitalist economy of the 19th century, white workers who owned neither land nor homes still had their labor to sell. This work was their property. Slaves did not have such a commodity since their labor belonged to the slave owner who owned them. When black men were released, they could theoretically sell their work.

Malka describes white vigilantes tracking down blacks accused of crimes and handing them over to loosely organized police forces before the emancipation proclamation. He says mobs intend to murder real and imagined criminals, mostly blacks. The text discusses the support for the vigilante style of policing until it turned against the bankers and their class after the Bank of Maryland defaulted on the accounts of working-class white Baltimorians in 1835, causing thousands of them to lose their savings while the owner class not only moved on, but got richer in the process. The rich had no problem supporting the mob policing until the mob turned on them, which they did – burn down the homes of the rich and wreak havoc on the neighborhoods of the rich. It was these riots that gave Baltimore its name “Mobtown”. It was also these riots that prompted the city’s ruling classes to create a uniformed and trained police.

When emancipation came, white Baltimore began to see crime all over black neighborhoods and wherever black men congregated. The reason was simple. In their minds, black freedom was criminal. The fact that black men are becoming en masse employees on Baltimore’s docks and in its factories has angered many white workers and their bosses. The fears were multifaceted, but ultimately all were based on the racist idea that black men were unable to handle freedom because they were black.

The way it worked in practice was simple. Black men who did not work were considered to be breaking the law. Of course, the majority of working black men could lose their jobs at any time due to threats from white workers, racism from management, or high unemployment. Since the laws were no longer specific to a man’s skin color, the powers that be – liberal and conservative – could claim that the laws applied to all men equally. The truth is, black men have been arrested and incarcerated at a much higher rate in proportion to their numbers in the community. Indeed, many times they were arrested and imprisoned in greater numbers overall. Like the author, this reviewer intentionally uses the word “man / men”. The profile of women from all walks of life in the nineteenth century was hardly taken into account, much less it was worth keeping statistics.

Baltimore continues to struggle with its legacy of white supremacy. The same is true for the rest of the United States. This despite the fact that many of those in power in Baltimore are African American. The fact that black men continue to be viewed as criminals by many members of the police apparatus generally means that the law is applied more harshly to them than white men who commit the same acts. The fact that many of Baltimore’s police officers are white and hail from the suburbs and countryside of Maryland makes these officers feel like they are supporting a society designed for them. In other words, the essence of white vigilantism is still too present in the 21st century; in Baltimore and the United States.


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