Posted on October 23, 2021

Buffalo Might Elect a Mayor Who Thinks Police Came from Slave Patrols

Zaid Jilani, Inquire, October 21, 2021

In a couple weeks, Buffalo may elect the first openly socialist mayor of a city of that size in generations.

India Walton, a nurse and community organizer, surprisingly won the Democratic primary for mayor earlier this year — scoring an upset over the four-term incumbent Mayor Byron Brown.

Brown refused to bow out, choosing instead to run a write-in campaign in the general election. This has created an unusual dynamic where the incumbent Democrat is running as an independent against the progressive challenger who captured the party’s nomination. {snip}

{snip} It’s not clear who’s on top in the Buffalo contest because while Brown leads in the polls, he’s relying on people to, in the words of his campaign, “write down Brown.” Winning a write-in campaign’s no easy task.

Brown’s focusing that campaign on policing, arguing that Walton’s views on criminal justice would imperil Buffalo residents. He points to Walton’s plan to cut funding for the police department, arguing that this would result in a smaller police force:


Walton has spent much of the months since the primary toning down her rhetoric on policing (“No justice, no peace. Fuck these racist ass police!” she chanted along with demonstrators nine months before winning the Democratic primary.)

Shortly after winning the primary, she did affirm that she believes in eventually eliminating police, but she doesn’t see that as realistic right now.

“I am an abolitionist. But I am also realistic enough to know that it can’t happen in one fell swoop. Because we have not built the infrastructure to maintain safety in our communities,” she told The Intercept.

On criminal justice issues, her campaign has largely focused on proposing policing alternatives, arguing that her cuts to the police budget wouldn’t result in layoffs but rather free up resources for social services that could replace certain policing duties. There isn’t too much independent polling in the race, but what does exists suggests that public safety is the leading issue for voters. It’s not surprising, then, that Walton has taken pains to adopt more moderate rhetoric on policing issues over the past few months.

However, an interview she gave to Reply Guys Podcast five months ago sheds a little bit of light on what she thinks about the institution of policing. In that interview, she makes a pair of claims:

Policing in this country you know while we’re talking about apples and bunches and bushels, policing in this country is in the soil, right? Like, police are an evolution of slave patrols that were invented, um, you know, after the abolition of slavery, and during slavery, to reclaim back when black people were considered property, right? And then when we look past Reconstruction, the reason why there are so many people of Italian American descent in police forces is because you know there used to be this class solidarity but at a certain point it was like, hey at least you’re not them, right? Like you can be, you can have this position of power and if you keep those people in line then you’ll be okay.

First, she claims that the institution of policing was largely created to be the successors of slave patrols. Second, she seems to believe that Italian Americans largely took their jobs as police officers out of a sense of superiority during the post-Civil War period; they were willing to subjugate African Americans if it meant they could have a “position of power” as police officers.

The idea that policing emerged from slave patrols is a long-time left-libertarian Internet meme that has in recent years has been endorsed by a growing number of people. Massachusetts Democratic Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley seemed to offer up a version of it earlier this year:


New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio also offered his own version of this history as part of his police reform plan, saying that “racialized policing in New York City is a tragic part of that larger history of over 400 years of oppression, which runs from slave catching and kidnapping in the 19th century in a direct line through to more contemporary practices of unconstitutional stops and frisks of black and brown individuals.”

This version of history is usually told by people trying to delegitimize the institution. If something has problematic roots, it must be problematic in the present.

But the modern institution in policing actually has little relationship to slave patrols or Jim Crow.

For one, some form of policing has basically always existed in modern civilization. As sociologist and former Baltimore police officer Peter Moskos has noted, Hammurabi’s concept of the rule of law was devised 3,800 years ago. Governments have spent thousands of years using force to enforce those laws. Yes, policing slaves — slavery was a global institution that lasted for thousands of years — was part of what these government enforcers did, but it was hardly their only purpose.

Police as a modern institution were created in 1829 in London by Sir Robert Peel, a couple decades after the British outlawed the slave trade and just a few short years before the country abolished slavery altogether.

America’s first police department was operational in 1845 in New York Citydecades after the state had abolished slavery. They based their policing on Peel’s model.


Is Walton’s preference of police abolition actually in place anywhere? You could argue that police have effectively been abolished in some remote regions of the world, but that hardly means that nobody is enforcing any kind of order. Warlords and gangs typically play that role.