The System Was Never Broken (it was built this way)

by | 5 Jun 2020

The unravelling developments in the United States of America (USA) amid the death of George Floyd are unsettling. The terminology ‘public order’ is used by popular political narrative to host and then employ a variety of techniques to deflect from the justified concerns surrounding social and racial justice. Frantz Fanon said: “When we revolt its not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe”.[1] The capitalist structure reproduces an illusion of uniformity, while it actually benefits and operates from emphasising and racialising difference. Property, against this background, is the dominant factor for the capitalist society. Capital can only be capital when it is accumulating. For this to unfold, it depends on structural poverty, wage robbery and the perpetuated illusion called pursuit of happiness. This capital must be accumulated by producing it and moving it through the various relations of severe inequality among races. Police violence, to this end, had always protected capital in all its forms. As this article will elaborate, police forces are interlinked to the historical Slave Patrols and Night Watchers. Police violence, therefore, was and is heritage of private property, the guardian of capitalism. This article will be unable to capture the gamut of racialised capitalism, history of slavery in the USA, colonialism, public order and legal violence. This would go beyond the scope of this article. However, it intends to touch upon the various facets of racialised violence in the USA. To this end, this article will argue that the police is the guarantor of contemporary white hegemony’s capital to flourish and the law (in its different revelations) the vehicle for that very violence. Racial differences and structural poverty are inherent to the legal and societal order, where property is ‘a cultural and legal creation that, like a bundle of sticks, encompasses various entitlements to control resources.’[2] The slave was part of that property and the abolition of slavery in 1865 marked the transition in an era of retributive violence, manifested and maintained by the police. In the following, the article will discuss the creation of property and the use of early policing to safeguard capital.

Dominating through property, protecting through police

In early stages of colonial plunder, in 1619, Dutch traders sold twenty Africans to the nascent authorities of Virginia. Virginia, in consequence, was the first British mainland colony to establish slavery. Techniques and rules were developed to transfer and apply to other mainland colonies. While planning the colonial expropriation, plunder and pillage, plantation owners looked at possibilities to extract as much fortune as possible with rice or tobacco. To enable the industrial plunder of the lands, that human labour was needed. By the early 1700s, a comprehensive system of racially directed law enforcement was well on its way to being fully developed. Control and violence was driven by possible mutiny. Interestingly Illan rua Wall writes in an earlier article:

When disorder breaks out, the suspicion begins to spread. The state apparatus focuses in on the protest organisers and organisations. The state of enmity that existed for the suspect populations is extended to those who enact their dissent. The difference, however, is that the general disorder begins to tear the fabric of normality wherein the populace is anaesthetised to the affective order of sovereignty.

The obvious parallels to current violence in the USA are striking when thinning of that comprehensive system that was put in place to encounter mutiny. Informal, so called night-watch system was set up to police, while private security created to protect commercial property in the northern colonies. Meanwhile, in the southern colonies, policing was built around slave economy- the racialised social order was engineered, where ‘whiteness’ was (and is) the frontier. Property is the fixation point of that radicalised social order. Not only was property law the primary means of appropriating land and resources, but property ownership was central to the formation of the proper legal subject in the political sphere and it ‘othered’ and subjugated those who served. The techniques of ownership are the vehicle of dispossession, created in the early colonies and touching upon the economic, cultural, political, and psychic spheres of the postcolonial life. As Brenna Bhandar writes: ‘

The transatlantic slave trade, and the appropriation of indigenous lands that characterised the emergence of colonial capitalism on a worldwide scale, produced and relied upon economic and juridical forms for which property law and a racial concept of the human were central tenets.[3]

The making of empire, nation, and capitalism required that the enslaved were attached to status of property, while becoming part of the capitalist development of wealth and poverty. Slaves were not only working on property, they were property. Robert Knox elegantly puts that the abstract ownership emerged against the backdrop of two radicalised figures, namely indigenous peoples and African slaves. Knox furthers that:

These categories were mutually constitutive, insofar as notions of abstract property were affirmed through the dispossession of natives and the ownership of slaves.

Bhandar, to this end, amplifies that private property is not about the use as such, but a ‘metaphysical’ idea of entitlement – an entitlement which is follows the premise that only certain people would have the capacity/authority/agency to own and dispose of property.[4]

As I have introduced earlier, police forces in the United States have been linked to the institution of Slave Patrols and Night Watchers during the era of slavery. These white men were entrusted to observe the movement and behaviour of slaves. By doing so, they assisted in the system of enslavement and the creation of racial order. Law was and is crucial in the legitimacy of violence and division: the 1705 Virgina Slave Code or the 1723 Maryland Law not only sanctioned whipping and mutilation by the slaveholders, but they wanted to prevent the emergence of a shared platform, where white colonialists and black slaves could unite and echo their grievances against aristocracy, as this was the case with the Bacon’s rebellion. Legitimised violence of patrols operated with impunity and the employment of brutal tactics such as castration, maiming, and lynching. The latter became a constant phenomenon of handling and policing, setting out the prescriptive parameters for African Americans to roam in the public space and any transgression would be encountered with brute violence. And here, the use of slave passes became hallmarks of surveillance.[5] Slave patrols, slave passes passes, the Ku-Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws: these were social order that held people of colour to less-than status, the necessary corollary to white supremacy. Transgression was punished – the state of violence metamorphosed into the dominating mindset of the police forces in the USA . The African American is still the unwanted body. As Marijn Nieuwenhuis wrote in an article from 2015:

Awareness of this vulnerability has come to increasingly inform the policing strategy for the governance of unwantedbodies. Governance seems no longer interested in only the physical punishing of bodies. It now wants to control, monitor and, when necessary, cut off the supply of the medium that forms the elementary condition of life itself.

The created racialisation had ever lasting consequences in the development of policing, intrusion and setting the parameters of public order of an unwanted body in the USA.

The origins of racialisation of the African American population and the reverberating violent consequences in the public space

The end of slavery in 1865, had two consequences. First, political violence. The sudden enfranchisement of African Americans threatened white hegemony’s control over politics in local matters. The enfranchisement triggered former slaveowners to engage and instigate an environment of violence and intimidation against African Americans. An entire community architecture was necessary to exert political violence and repression to quash the intellectual mobility of African Americans.[6] Second, the economic violence. With the emancipation of African Americans, they had to be paidmarket wages. White landowners were not willing to pay these wages and engaged and encouraged violence against African Americans as well as other social practices to prevent an increase in wages and mobility. [7] A “state-finance-racial violence nexus” emerged, political/and economic governance were conflated with racial violence. The capital accumulation is in state of a continuous development through dispossession by

calling forth the specter of race (as threat) to legitimate state counterviolence in the interest of financial asset owning classes that would otherwise appear to violate social rationality, from the police-killing of immigrants and African American youth (in the name of safety for the white and prosperous), to the letting die of the racialised poor, to the social deaths transited through the precedent of Indigenous dispossession for profit.[8]

White hegemony has invoked, created and fostered laws in the public space to control African Americans at the peripheries: mass incarceration, lack of access to health care, wage robbery, voter suppression – and police violence. Racial categorisation and vilification is inherent to the public order, as echoing consequence of the of end slavery: African American will be the targeted ‘things’ that need to be demonised and labeled as violent and sexual predators.[9] African Americans were and are rendered to continuous racialisation for being morally indebted and reduced in their heritage as slaves. They are in a permanent state of punishment, while being perceived as ‘unassimilable into White settler society.[10]


As Sabine Broeck holds, enslavement provided the ground for social, political and structural fibre of the colonial making. The enslaved was transposed out of ‘difference ‘and ‘otherness’ into the ‘thingness.’ The African American was and is still the ‘thing’ in this public order, a threat to the political and economic infrastructure of white hegemony.[10] Law and policing helped to maintain the status quo and intimidate the thing that dared to question hegemony. This article demonstrated how property was and is the socio-political host of police violence to sustain by white supremacy: ‘maintained by terror, surveillance, and the letter of the law.’ Cornel West holds that the ‘initial black struggle against degradation and devaluation in the enslaved circumstances of the New World was, in part, a struggle against nihilism. In fact, the major enemy of black survival in America has been and is neither oppression nor exploitation but rather the nihilistic threat – that is, loss of hope and absence of meaning.’[11] Property is a tool of domination, but also differentiation, the portal to access to a wider set of benefits. But the system in the USA was built in the way to racialise, to differentiate and sustain the white hegemony. Law, to this end, fortified the difference and continues to perpetuate the nihilistic threat.


[1] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, New York: Grove Press, 2008, p.201.

[2] Spencer Overton, Racial Disparities and the Political Function of Property, 49 UCLA L. Rev., 2002, p. 1561.

[3] Brenna Bhandar, Colonial Lives of Property Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership, Duke University Press, 2018, p.6.

[4] Brenna Bhandar, ‘Disassembling Legal Form: Ownership and the Racial Body’, in: Matthew Stone, Illan Rua Wall Costa Douzinas (eds), New Critical Legal Thinking: Law and the Political, Birkbeck Law Press, 2012, pp.120.

[5] see also: Nancy Kang “As If I Had Entered a Paradise”: Fugitive Slave Narratives and Cross-Border Literary History African American Review, Vol. 39, No. 3 (2005), pp. 431-457.

[6] Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen, The Political Legacy of American Slavery, The Journal of Politics 78, No. 3, 2016, p. 625.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jodi Melamed, Racial Capitalism, Critical Ethnic Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, (2015), pp. 78

[9] Devair Jeffries, Rhonda Jeffries, Marxist Materialism and Critical Race Theory: A Comparative Analysis of Media and Cultural Influence on the Formation of Stereotypes and Proliferation of Police Brutality against Black Men, Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, Volume 5, Number 2, 2017, p. 3.

[10] Kris Manjapara, Colonialism in Global Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 10.

[10] Sabine Broeck, The Legacy of Slvaery: White Humanities and its Subject, in: Human Rights from a Third World Perspective: Critique, History and International Law, José Manuel Barreto (ed)., Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, p. 113.

[11] Cornel West, Race Matters, Vintage Books, New York, 1993, p. 23


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