I n a scene straight out of every slavery novel or film ever written or produced, and the blood-soaked history in which they are steeped, two white Galveston, Texas policemen paraded a handcuffed, roped or leashed black man through the streets of the city as they rode comfortably, nonchalantly, astride horses.
The Galveston Police Department, via its black police chief Vernon Hale, issued an apology, but only after the jarring images of this scene were posted on social media. Donald Neely, 43, was homeless, unarmed and well known to the GPD, having had at least six “encounters” with that office over the course of the last eighteen months. This latest arrest was for trespassing. These cops, therefore, knew, or should have known, that Neely was also mentally ill.
As a part of his apology, Chief Hale offered a “rationale” of sorts, explaining that the use of rope on such suspects and in such circumstances is a “trained technique and best practice in some scenarios.” Therefore, in this “scenario,” leading a roped, mentally ill, homeless black man through the central business district of one of the most geographically southern and historically iconic of southern cities was “best practice” and in keeping with police “policy.”
However, when asked to produce that policy, it turns out that no such “policy” is actually written down anywhere. Rather, leading a handcuffed, leashed, black man through the streets behind horses is just something that is taught and, well, understood and absorbed, apparently by osmosis, by all GPD officers.
The chief continued:
“First and foremost I must apologize to Mr. Neely for this unnecessary embarrassment,” Hale said. “I believe our officers showed poor judgement in this instance and could have waited for a transport unit at the location of the arrest. My officers did not have any malicious intent at the time of the arrest, but we have immediately changed the policy to prevent use of this technique and will review all mounted training and its procedures for more appropriate methods.”
The president of a Galveston political campaigning group, Galveston Coalition for Justice, Leon Phillips, told the Houston Chronicle that the images of Neely, the cops and the horses were rife with racial/racist connotations.
“All I know is that these are two white police officers on horseback with a black man walking him down the street with a rope tied to the handcuffs. That doesn’t make sense, period,” Phillips said. “And I do understand this — if it was a white man — I guarantee it wouldn’t have happened.” (Emphasis added).
The pictures quickly went viral throughout cyberspace. Yet, at this writing, the GPD has refused to release the policemen’s body camera footage of the “incident.” Perhaps, as has been suggested, that may be because the bodycams just might reveal not only images, but audio of these cops berating Donald Neely?
The historical significance of this incident is impossible to miss — or dismiss. New York City Public Defender Rebecca J. Kavanagh wrote: “[Officers] led him through the streets…on mounted horses. All as though they were slave masters, and he was their slave.”
That is one interpretation, of course. The more accurate understanding of this scene, since these were armed and mounted policemen, is that they were acting more like ante-bellum slave patrollers, this nation-state’s original policemen. That is to say that they were working on behalf of slave owners rather than as the actual slave owners themselves. In political and social science parlance, these types are, in effect, “social control agents.”
And in today’s terms, is this what policing really means when officers proudly, loudly, proclaim that their function, their purpose, indeed, their mandate is to “protect and serve”? Three questions come to mind: Protect and serve whom? Protect and serve what? And, of course, why is such overwhelming, suffocating…yes…oppressive, protection and service required in the first place?
This scene raises many other issues relative to black peoples’ interaction with not just mounted slave catchers and horses, but their use of vicious war-hounds specifically trained to sniff out, maul, and “if necessary” rip into shreds recalcitrant, runaway slaves as well.
Look, despite their possession and use of war-ready, taxpayer-funded, high-tech, 21st century weaponry, gadgetry and techniques, when all else fails or is not quite understood, good old-fashioned police work always defaults back to its original sources and resources — dogs, horses, guns. Oh, and snitches, too (but that’s the subject of a whole — other — essay).
Finally, this case is even more heavily freighted with memories, past and more recent, of the manner in which black people in Texas specifically have historically (and even currently) been treated by Texas law enforcers.
Galveston is the city wherein the original “holiday” of Juneteenth was first commemorated. That is, even though slaves throughout the south had been technically “freed” by both President Lincoln’s 1863 Executive Order №95 (also known as the Emancipation Proclamation), and the Union Army’s vanquishing of the Confederacy in April of 1865, it was not until June 19, that the slaves of Galveston were informed by the Union Army that they were, in fact, “free.” Thus, “Juneteenth” was born.
Several Other places throughout the south did not get around to telling their own enslaved black people that they had been freed until as late as 1867. And, “the great state of Mississippi” did not ratify the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which finally, “officially”outlawed slavery, until 1995–one hundred and forty-eight years after the fact.
Corralling or herding black people into pens or jails or penitentiaries like so many draft animals, or at best as a sub-species of “true” humanity — chattelized property in either case — has a deep history in this nation-state. It is an act of dehumanization of the highest order, and one that certain people who think of themselves as “white” cannot seem to shake off. As Chief Hale said directly, these two policemen knew that they had other, more humane, options available to deal with Mr. Neely. But they did not, would not, could not see Neely’s humanity. They instead consciously chose to make a zoological display and spectacle of him, not only for his “benefit,” but as an object lesson for both Galveston’s black and white communities.
This whole affair was nothing more, and certainly nothing less, than a stark demonstration of raw and naked power — who has it and who does not.