The violation was known as “vagrancy.” If you were a black man in the South following Reconstruction, and you were unable to show proof of employment on-demand to the police, you could be arrested and delivered into what Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name, calls “Neo-Slavery.”
“Show me your papers” in the vernacular of the late 19th Century through World War II involved furnishing pay stubs or, if you were lucky, the word of your employer — some kind of evidence proving to a police officer that you were employed.
But what if you forgot to carry your employment records with you when you left the house that morning? What if you were — like so many regular citizens — unaware of the anti-vagrancy law? Hell, what if you were simply unemployed? It might be your last mistake as a free citizen of the United States.
Like so many other African American males of that era, you might be incarcerated, convicted and perhaps sold to a farming, mining or lumber operation. Yes, sold. After the Civil War. After the abolition of slavery and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Slavery, it turns out, survived.
In the Spring of 1908, a young African American son of slaves living in Alabama named Green Cottonham was arrested at a train station. We don’t know for sure what law Cottonham had violated to warrant his arrest because, at his trial, the arresting officer literally forgot the reason why Cottonham was picked up in the first place. So the charge of vagrancy was substituted. Cottonham convicted and sentenced to 30 days of hard labor, but since he was poor and couldn’t pay several intentionally impossible-to-pay fines, the 30 day sentence grew to a year. He was carted off and “legally” sold for $12-a-month to U.S. Steel. At age 22, Green Cottonham was shoved into a coal mine as a manual laborer — occasionally whipped and tortured, eventually dying before the end of his sentence.
Vagrancy and a wide variety of other similar violations were intentionally broad and trivial — not intended to clean up the streets, but, instead, to suppress the advancement of blacks, as well as to feed the engines of agriculture and industry in the South with cheap forced labor.
This was a back-door slave trade, ensnaring hundreds of thousands of African American men. The Southern judicial system, fueled by ridiculous laws and ridiculous trials, became an above-boards means of rebuilding the South on the backs of slave labor. And it flourished until just after Pearl Harbor when President Roosevelt asked the Justice Department to shut it all down for fear the Germans and Japanese would use it against us in their propaganda.
Fast forward to 2010.
Last week, shortly before the Republican governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, signed the state’s new anti-immigration law, an Hispanic truck driver was stopped at a weigh station along Rt. 202 by a patrol officer.
The commercial truck driver, “Abdon,” is a natural born citizen of the United States. He’s obviously employed. He speaks English. He pays taxes. His wife, Jackie, is a natural born citizen of the United States. She, too, is employed. She speaks English. She pays taxes.
And yet “Adbon” was shackled by the police and detained by the Phoenix Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
Because when the officer demanded his papers, Abdon could only produce a driver’s license and his Social Security number. Not good enough. At that roadside weigh station in the middle of an otherwise ordinary weekday, Abdon made the mistake of not carrying his birth certificate with him. His birth certificate!
Put another way, Abdon was handcuffed and detained because he’s Hispanic.
And now this is the law of the state of Arizona — arresting people, citizen or not, simply for appearing Hispanic. The ghosts of Green Cottonham, “anti-vagrancy” laws and Black Codes. America has resurrected its predilection for rounding up brown people based on flimsy excuses and good ol’ boy lawmaking.
While there’s no evidence that the Arizona law will feed the rise of a new underground forced labor market in the United States, it’s clear that the various components of neo-slavery are here now. And the optics and civil liberties violations, say nothing of the long-term consequences, are horrible. We’re on the brink of rounding up Hispanic people on ridiculous charges while American corporations are actively engaged in the trafficking of illegal immigrant labor.
How soon, I wonder, until we read about Hispanic people — citizens or otherwise — being picked up for not having their birth certificates and other “papers” in their back pockets and consequently shipped off on some sort of prison “work release” program to a cabbage farm or meat packing plant? Free labor is slave labor.
This week, Eugene Robinson asked a salient question about the Arizona law: where are the tea party people who claim to be against government overreach? Where are the tea party people who claim to support the Constitution above all else?
The Arizona law specifically violates the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their… papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause…” It’s unconstitutional to arrest people because they merely look suspicious and then fail to produce a birth certificate as proof of citizenship. Period. But Glenn Beck, for example, said the Arizona law is okay because “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.” He’s suggesting here that the Constitution is important until it contradicts his crusade.
The answers to Eugene Robinson’s questions are also revealed in the tea party movement’s contradictory anger over certain Americans receiving ample tax cuts that reduced their 2009 federal income tax to zero. As it turns out, the tea party doesn’t, in fact, support tax cuts. The tea party only supports tax cuts for tea party people. Likewise, they only support constitutional rights and liberties for tea party people. If the tea party was really about freedom, they’d be standing side-by-side with anti-Arizona protesters. But they won’t. Actually, I wonder what the tea party would say about a law that allowed authorities to demand papers from people who look like Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin?
It’s obvious that Republicans and tea party people fear the browning of America, with whites shrinking to a 47 percent minority by 2050, and so these groups are engaged in an effort to make it dangerous to be brown. 40 years and counting — get them out before it’s too late. The obvious reason for targeting the people is to sandbag the rising tide.
If the Republicans are really interested in preventing illegal immigration, they would pass laws that crack down on the trafficking of cheap immigrant labor to corporate farms and factories, but the fines for such violations remain laughably small (around $3,200 per undocumented worker). Writing and reforming the law on the corporate side to disincentivize the exploitation of illegal immigrant labor makes the most sense, while leaving civil rights intact. Instead, the Arizona law transparently targets and punishes all Hispanics regardless of their citizenship status (not to mention people like me who appear somewhat Hispanic). It makes the race component of both the Republican Party and the tea party movement that much more evident.
Like the neo-slavery laws of the old South, the Arizona immigration law is another way for the white, Republican establishment to retain some semblance of control in the face of a growing minority population. If history is any indication, it could also end up becoming another conduit for trafficking immigrant labor. Meanwhile, it will further institutionalize a distrust of authority while augmenting racial resentments in an increasingly incendiary environment. As of right now, however, we have an opportunity to stop all of this before history repeats itself. Fortunately, we just happen to have a president with a unique insight into racial tensions — a president who can turn the tide.
Follow Bob Cesca on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go