This month, PBS became the first station on television to air Slavery by Another Name, a new documentary dedicated to highlighting how the Emancipation Proclamation did not actually end slavery in the United States. As it was written, Lincoln’s famous abolishment said that slavery was illegal except in the event of someone committing a crime. Which meant that Southern states, reeling from the loss of their slaves, quickly enacted legislation making the most minor of offenses illegal. The movie’s executive producer, Douglas Blackman, explained in a recent interview with NPR:
“It was a crime in the South for any farm worker — though the law was really only ever applied to Black people — to seek employment from a new employer without permission from the person you worked for at the time. And so it was a crime to look for a job in the South, no matter how badly abused you were at the hands of whoever employed you at the time.”
To many, it may sound ridiculous. America is, on paper, a free country, where slavery is illegal, segregation is over, and people of every race are free to live their lives. That’s a fine fairytale, but then there’s the truth.
For a brief glimpse at what reality still consists of for many Black Americans, one need only look to Seattle, where a recent crime making headlines could have been pulled directly out of 1895.
In November 2010, Josh Lawson and Christopher Franklin, two young African-Americans, were arrested in Seattle after a robbery victim reported that two “tall, skinny” Black men had perpetrated the crime. Regardless of the fact that Lawson and Franklin didn’t fit the full description of the suspects, police arrested them and roughed them up before hauling them off to jail. There was only one problem: Lawson and Franklin were innocent. The cops didn’t seem to mind, however, especially not one officer, who told Lawson and Franklin that he was “gonna make stuff up” in order to make the charges stick.
Eventually Lawson and Franklin were released without being charged. But the men are now suing the Seattle Police Department for excessive force and unlawful arrest. If they win, it will be a blow for justice, but the battle is far from over. Lawson and Franklin lucked out and got their offending cop's guilty admission caught on his dashboard camera. One wonders how many young Black men remain locked in prison thanks to their crooked arresting officers being just a little bit sneakier and smarter. Neo-slavery, indeed.
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(Photo: REUTERS/Marcus Donner)