When George Zimmerman pursued, confronted, and killed Trayvon Martin, he was acting in the spirit of the slave patrols of the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s and the many forms they have taken since the Civil War and into our own time.
During slavery times, slave patrols were the main institutions of force plantation owners used to keep black slaves in bondage. As Theodore W. Allen says in the introduction of his book, The Invention of the White Race, “Some people want to be masters, but no one wants to be a slave.” As slavery developed in Virginia in the 1600s, there arose a problem: the slaves kept rebelling. Without a forcible means to keep them enslaved, the slaves would have none of it. The solution was in the European colonists and their descendants, many brought over themselves as bond servants.
In the armed uprising known as Bacon’s Rebellion, European and African bond servants fought side by side against the planters. Then starting in the late 1670s, after that rebellion was finally crushed, the planters promulgated a series of laws that divided the lower class population into two groups. The Africans and their descendants became bound as hereditary servants – slaves. They had no rights: they could not own property or vote; they could not marry; they had no civil rights; they could be bought and sold, and they could not leave.
The European colonists were designated as “white” (this was the invention of the white race): though they had no economic advantages they were allowed to own property, marry, and move from one place to another; they had legal and civil rights; and they could carry guns and join militias (think Second Amendment). Through this piece of social engineering, the “white” population, mostly poor subsistence farmers, were forged into political and social allies of the plantation owners, putting an end to any potential unity with their “natural” (in an economic sense) allies, the African-descended slaves – to the disadvantage of both the “whites” and the blacks. This saved the newly-born system of slavery in what would become the United States and allowed its development and entrenchment as the social and economic system in the South.
Slave patrols were a key part of this system. They were made up of white men, many from the lower class but under the command of the plantation owners and their agents. They kept watch over
both enslaved and free blacks, of both genders and all ages. Slave patrols
“apprehended runaways, monitored the rigid pass requirements for blacks traversing the countryside, broke up large gatherings and assemblies of blacks, visited and searched slave quarters randomly, inflicted impromptu punishments, and as occasion arose, suppressed insurrections.” [Law and Violence in Virginia, by Sally E. Hadden, Harvard University Press, 2001]
This was dangerous work. An escaped slave, if captured, could look forward to being whipped, tortured, castrated, hobbled, having hands or feet amputated, or killed. He or she would fight desperately, and though the patrols had dogs and guns, this was mortal combat. Slave patrollers had to be dedicated and committed to their work, not just because they were paid, but as defenders of society, of their way of life.
This mentality, of the fundamental need to control and circumscribe the black population, was pervasive throughout, far beyond the slave patrollers themselves. From a societal point of view, the only reason for the “white” population to exist was to control the slaves. Without them it would have been just the planters and their slaves, which would not have lasted for even a single day.
Every white man, woman, and child, with few exceptions, was fully committed and ready to act to keep the blacks “in their place.” They identified themselves with those in power – as many of their descendants do to this day – ironically rendering themselves powerless, poor, and subservient. The white subsistence farmers formed the majority of the slave patrols and later, the bulk of the Confederate armies. They bravely fought to carry out their social responsibility; they were doing their duty.
With the military defeat in the Civil War, the slave patrols continued in new forms, some only slightly modified from the original: the terrorist Ku Klux Klan, the lynch mobs, and major aspects of the police, the school system, and the justice system.
The slave patrol mentality, too, lived on and prospered, millions of ordinary white people believing it to be their sacred duty, individually and collectively, to monitor, interfere with, harass, humiliate, contain, arrest, and on occasion maim and kill blacks in order to “keep them in their place” and by doing so, reaffirm their own status as “white.” Slave patrol thinking is easily assimilated: immigrants and even African descendants who “pass” can adopt it readily – all it takes is the realization that you are now “white.” Even some blacks internalize it, as part of their roles as police, prosecutors, or judges.
More recently, with the gains of the 20th Century Civil Rights movement, much (but not all) of this mentality has gone underground, even into the unconscious, as people refuse to acknowledge publicly or even to themselves, consciously, that they carry within them that same slave patrol mentality. They make up all kinds of justifications for their actions, that on the surface do not involve race or racism at all.
Hence “stop and frisk,” the targets of which are overwhelmingly black and brown people, is justified as preempting crime or to control gangs. School suspensions of black, but not white, children are so that we can have orderly classrooms. “Stand your ground” laws are necessary so that individuals can protect themselves without bearing legal responsibility for whatever they do. Police and prosecutors focus drug enforcement on black youths rather than equally culpable whites – we’re fighting a war – as blacks continue to be incarcerated at catastrophic levels.
We don’t know if George Zimmerman that night was driven consciously by slave patrol thinking or if it was all below his consciousness. What is clear is that his actions were those of a 21st Century slave patroller.