Under The Radar: Still Not Free, Ferguson to Buffalo Circa 1864


By Francis White

"If any free negro, or mulatto, in any county of this State, who is able to labour, shall be found spending his or her time in idleness and dissipation, or having no regular or honest employment or occupation which he or she is accustomed to follow, it shall and may be lawful for any citizen to apply to a justice of the peace of said county; and upon affidavit to obtain a warrant to arrest such person and bring him or her before some justice of said county..."

"It shall not be lawful for any free negro, mulatto or person of mixed blood, descended from negro ancestors to the fourth generation inclusive (though one ancestor of each generation may have been a white person) to play at any game of cards, dice, nine pins, or any game of chance or hazard, whether for money, liquor or any kind of property, or not, with any slave or slaves; and any free negro, mulatto or person of mixed blood as aforesaid, so offending, shall, upon conviction before any court having jurisdiction, receive a whipping, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes on his or her bare back."

"No person shall grant permission for any meeting or meetings of the negroes of others, or people of colour, at his, her or their houses, or on his, her or their plantation for the purpose of drinking or dancing, under the penalty of forfeiting twenty dollars on conviction of such offence, in any court having jurisdiction thereof, unless such slave shall have a special permit in writing or otherwise from his or her owner for that purpose."

These are actual laws that were on the books in the state of North Carolina in the late 1800's.

Laws in states like Illinois required black citizens to carry a certificate of freedom, or "free papers" with them at all times. In 1864 wealthy black Chicago businessman John Jones famously appealed to the governor of Illinois to repel their Black Codes, so that he and other black citizens could have the right to vote in that state.

Laws like these commonly referred to as "Slave Codes" or "Black Codes" were common throughout the United States during slavery and into the reconstruction period. Although the Southern states' Black Codes were more severe than the Northern ones, some type of Black Code officially existed (or unofficially existed) everywhere in this country. The North's racism wasn't officially on the books as much as the South's. However, the law couldn't control discrimination against blacks socially or economically.

Black people in the United Sates have always had problems with unequal treatment period, but they've particularly had a very difficult time with law enforcement.

Clashes with law enforcement during the movements for social justice for black people in the 1960's and 1970's was a common occurrence. In the 1990's Rodney King's beating sparked riots the likes of which this country has never seen in modern times. The city of Chicago famously enacted "anti-loitering" or anti-gang laws in 1992 which were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court a few years later. More recently, reports of unarmed black men being shot/killed by law enforcement are quite common.

Why have people of color had a difficult time dealing with law enforcement in this country for over 100 years? It goes like this; law enforcement is just doing their job. Law enforcement enforces the written law, the written law is made into law by law makers, law makers are elected to their positions by whatever faction of a society controls the vote.

What happened and what is happening in Ferguson is just a continuation of a deeper conversation, and a much deeper history. The laws of a society reflect the ethics, the values, and beliefs of that society. Because this nation still struggles with the ghosts of its past - the ethics, values, and beliefs of this society still says that black life is not worth as much as the life of anyone else. We need to deal with this collectively as a nation in order to reach our full potential.

In Buffalo events are happening this week in connection with national movements to bring awareness to this issue. Later today (Monday August 25, 2014) organizers will converge on the offices of U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul, Jr in Buffalo NY. Later this week on Thursday there will be a larger event, a day of solidarity march in Niagara Square which is also in Buffalo.

I won't say "hands up, don't shoot" because black people in America have been saying this for more than 100 years and it hasn't been working. What I will say is "my hands have been up for more than 100 years, in the name of everything that is holy man, please stop shooting".