A Slave Patrol in Waiting

You hear it again and again. If you ask a “gun enthusiast” why he needs to own an AR-15 — and nobody’s hunts with an AR-15 — he will tell you that “the American people need to arm themselves against big government.” Yet within my conscious lifetime, there has never been an example of an American gun enthusiast, or organization of gun enthusiasts, leading a rebellion against the United States government. No NRA member has ever defended an innocent citizen against the police. No NRA member has ever shot it out with the “deep state.” As far as I know, no NRA member defended any of his neighbors against being evicted by the corrupt banks.

One possible, and reasonable, explanation is that gun owners, being largely conservative, are satisfied with the status quo. But while that may have made sense during the Reagan and Bush administrations, it made no sense between 2008 and 2016, when most conservative, white Americans quite literally believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim terrorist born in Kenya who was made president by Bill Ayres and George Soros with the express purpose of destroying America. Even when it became clear that Obama, while no Muslim, did in fact do immeasurable damage to his country — fertility rates and life expectancy among working class white Americans plummeted during his administration — there was no armed rebellion. Most “gun enthusiasts” simply waited for November of 2016 and pulled the lever for Trump.

So why are conservative, white Americans stockpiling military grade weapons?

Part of it, I believe, is suicidal nihilism. Most conservative, white Americans, subconsciously, want to kill themselves. Trump’s cult is partly a death cult. There is a connection between the opiate epidemic in rural America, random mass shootings, the denial of climate change, and the extraordinary passivity of Americans in the face of government repression. Americans love to call the French “cheese eating surrender monkeys” but can you imagine anything in recent American history like the way the gilet jaunes put the fear of God into Emmanuel Macron and forced him to repeal his regressive gas tax? Similarly, can you imagine anything in Europe like the epidemic of random mass shootings we have in the United States? American gun enthusiasts don’t shoot it out with the cops. They shoot it out random six year olds in grade schools.

Inevitably, if I ask a “gun enthusiast” about the latest mass shooting — and I believe there was one in New Orleans last night — he will come back and say “yeah. Well what about black people shooting one another in Chicago.” This, he believes, is the knock out blow to my argument, but ultimately it makes no sense. How exactly does pointing out that “those black people in Chicago are using guns to shoot each other” an argument against gun control? Isn’t rather an argument for more and better gun control? For federal gun control? If people are shooting each other in Chicago, isn’t that an argument for getting rid of guns in Indiana? If people are shooting each other in Camden, New Jersey isn’t that an argument for tightening gun laws in Pennsylvania?

The other argument “gun enthusiasts” always use against gun control is that “laws don’t work. If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns.” The problem is that they never make the same argument about immigration. “Why have immigration laws? The harder you make legal immigration, the more likely you make it that the only people who get to come to the United States will be criminals.” I have, in fact, heard some conservatives admit the obvious about the drug war. Prohibition doesn’t work. But when it comes to darker skinned people coming to the United States from Mexico and Central America, they want strict anti-immigration laws, even if they don’t work, and an expensive, militarized border, even though it will easily circumvented by organized criminals willing to bribe corrupt border guards.

In his book, Black Reconstruction in America, the great African American historian W. E. B. Du Bois challenged the conventional wisdom that “Reconstruction” — the period of federal control of the south after the United States Civil War — failed because black people weren’t ready for democracy. Quite the contrary, blacks joining the Union Army in 1864 and 1865 finally broke the stalemate between the Confederacy and the United States, and allowed Lincoln to defeat the slave power and pass the 13th and 14th Amendments. Indeed, without the contributions of African Americans what little democracy we do have in the United States probably wouldn’t exist. Black Americans have taken the lead of every progressive movement from 1865 through the Civil Rights Movement to the current agitation against police brutality. Working class white Americans are another story. Unlike the French or Russians, we’ve never had a genuine revolution. Unlike the Spanish or Italians we don’t have a tradition of anarchism and mutual aid. We haven’t even been able to push our ruling class into giving us something as modest as the National Health Service. That is no accident. As Du Bois explains, white Americans do not consider themselves oppressed proletarians. On the contrary, we’ve always seen ourselves as an auxiliary to the ruling class. We may not have their money, fine houses, Ivy league colleges, or ear of the government in Washington, but we’ve always been willing to help them suppress discontent. We are a slave patrol in waiting.

The system of slavery demanded a special police force and such a force was made possible and unusually effective by the presence of the poor whites. This explains the difference between the slave revolts in the West Indies, and the lack of effective revolt in the Southern United States. In the West Indies, the power over the slave was held by the whites and carried out by them and such Negroes as they could trust. In the South, on the other hand, the great planters formed proportionately quite as small a class but they had singularly enough at their command some five million poor whites; that is, there were actually more white people to police the slaves than there were slaves. Considering the economic rivalry of the black and white worker in the North, it would have seemed natural that the poor white would have refused to police the slaves. But two considerations led him in the opposite direction. First of all, it gave him work and some authority as overseer, slave driver, and member of the patrol system. But above and beyond this, it fed his vanity because it associated him with the masters. Slavery bred in the poor white a dislike of Negro toil of all sorts. He never regarded himself as a laborer, or as part of any labor movement. If he had any ambition at all it was to become a planter and to own “niggers.” To these Negroes he transferred all the dislike and hatred which he had for the whole slave system. The result was that the system was held stable and intact by the poor white. Even with the late ruin of Haiti before their eyes, the planters, stirred as they were, were nevertheless able to stamp out slave revolt. The dozen revolts of the eighteenth century had dwindled to the plot of Gabriel in 1800, Vesey in 1822, of Nat Turner in 1831 and crews of the Amistad and Creole in 1839 and 1841. Gradually the whole white South became an armed and commissioned camp to keep Negroes in slavery and to kill the black rebel.


As both a working-class, white American, and a revolutionary socialist who wants to put an end to capitalism, it’s not easy for me to read these words. Am I really, at the most basic societal level, just a potential cop, a stooge and a puppet waiting for the rich to tap me on the shoulder so I can pick up my gun and shoot people who are a threat to ruling class power? It is of course dangerous to cherry pick socioeconomic formations from the past and apply them to the present. Du Bois is speaking of a very specific place and time, the antebellum south. While New Jersey had legal slavery as late as 1804, and slaves who were grandfathered into the system even after slavery had been abolished as late as the eve of the Civil War, it never had a population of slaves large enough to require the kind of elaborate slave patrols Du Bois describes. What’s more, I’m neither southern, nor Anglo Saxon. I’m a New York City “ethnic white” of Polish and German descent who was not only labeled unassimilable and racially inferior by the Immigration Act of 1924, but actually has an ancestor who served in the Union Cavalry during the Battle of Gettysburg. Is the modern NYPD really a direct descendant of the old South’s slave patrols? Are those Irish and Italian American cops in North Jersey and Staten Island really playing the same class role in 2019 that those Scots Irish rednecks in Virginia played in 1860?

I think the answer is yes and no. Imagine, for example, that the United States was a racially homogeneous country like Norway or Scotland, where almost everybody was pale skinned and northern European. Would the police be as effective as a class army as they are in the United States? I don’t think they would. Part of the reason Anders Behring Brevik was able to murder so many Norwegian leftists is the fact that Norway doesn’t have a ubiquitous militarized police force the way we do in the United States. In bigger, more diverse, multicultural societies like France and the United Kingdom, they do have large, repressive class armies mislabeled as “city cops” but they also get occasional push back from the working class. British and French workers will, on occasion, push down a police barricade or break through a line of mounted riot cops. Only in the United States is the working class utterly, and completely passive.

I was never stopped and frisked in New York City during the Bloomberg administration. I’ve never had a police office look at me as the racial enemy. Here in suburban New Jersey, where I look like just another 50 year old white man, the cops are polite to me and call me sir. But I do know what it’s like for the police to see me as the class enemy. During the Bush years, when we actually had an antiwar movement, and I went on countless antiwar protests, I could see it in their eyes. “This idiot obviously forgot 9/11.” I stopped being their fellow white American, or even their fellow American, and turned into a hippie who didn’t realize that 300 of their brothers died in the World Trade Center and that “freedom isn’t free.” Once, during a small protest just outside of West Point back in 2007, I watched the police stand by and laugh as a gang of right-wing bikers waded into the crowd and roughed up anybody who seemed remotely vulnerable, old men and women, men who weren’t traditional masculine, women who weren’t traditionally feminine. It got more intense in 2011, during Occupy Wall Street, when the propaganda in the corporate media started to take hold. The Occupy encampment in Zuccotti Park had been surrounded by massive numbers of riot police since day one. But as the weeks dragged on, and the New York Post repeated their stories about occupiers being rapists and dirty hippies, the attitude of the police became palpably more hostile. You could feel them chomping at the bit, waiting to bust heads. On November 14, when they finally got permission to evict the encampment, their code word was “Normandy.” They were ready to storm Omaha Beach. We had literally become an alien invader in our own country.

Sadly, after the Occupy eviction, many working-class white Americans did not continue to protest Wall Street. Instead they retreated into white supremacist conspiracy theories and xenophobia, looking for their own alien invaders to evict. They settled on Central American refugees, desperate people on the run from social conditions made inevitable by death squads set up by the CIA in the 1980s. As Du Bois says, “to these Negroes he transferred all the dislike and hatred which he had for the whole slave system.” Working class white Americans had transferred their justifiable hostility against Wall Street and the corrupt financial oligarchy, against the rigged primary of 2016 and the Clintons, towards any number of fanciful targets, but above all to the racial other the ruling class set up as a scapegoat, terrified political and economic refugees demanding political asylum. They not only pulled the level and voted for the fascist Donald Trump, they convinced themselves that it had been an act of rebellion, against “the deep state” or “George Soros” or “the globalists,” when in fact, like those antebellum rednecks getting ready to chase down escaped slaves, they had merely obeyed their inner cop. They had chosen to fill the role the slave power drew up for them 200 years ago.

This does not, however, excuse the liberal bourgeoisie who voted for Hillary Clinton for, I would argue, the “professional managerial class,” plays a role no less important in maintaining corrupt, oligarchic, American capitalism than the Tea Partier stockpiling weapons. Lawyers, human resource administrators, certified public accountants, insurance executives, all do their part to guard against any possible working class rebellion. Consider not only the epidemic of middle-class white women willing to call the police on any random black person in public for any reason, but the way the liberal elites have simply decided to displace their anger against a corrupt system to a different scapegoat. Instead of black Americans or Central American refugees, the liberal elite sees Russians, miserable 19-year-old incel virgins who can’t get laid, laid off Midwestern factory workers, or “Bernie Bros,” anybody but the ruling class who signs their paychecks. For conservatives, the fear is that black people might rebel against capitalism. For liberals, the fear is that white people might rebel against capitalism.

Until white people and black people rebel against capitalism together, not much is going to change, and until white Americans start seeing themselves as workers and not as a slave patrol in waiting — fondling our guns and waiting for a pat on the head from our ruling class masters — black people and white people are not going to rebel against capitalism together.

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