Cops in Baltimore, the Hard Town by the Sea

Photograph Source: GoBlue85 – CC BY-SA 4.0

The city of Baltimore sits on the Chesapeake Bay. The largest city in what was the northernmost slave state prior to the civil war in the United States, it was a busy seaport with its own slave market and a bustling trade in human beings. In antebellum times, its population contained large numbers of freed men and women—Blacks who had either been granted their freedom, born into freedom or bought their freedom. The state of Maryland contained several large plantations and thousands of slaves. It was a town that divided the north from the south, with fierce advocates both for and against slavery in its legislatures, in is churches and among its general population.

The large numbers of freed men and women meant that the authorities could not assume every Black man or woman was a slave and therefore subject to the laws regarding the behavior of slaves. Nor could other white residents make that assumption. This fact seems to have changed very little in the way which Black people were policed before their emancipation. Indeed, the authorities methods of control in antebellum Baltimore did not give freed Black people the same rights as whites in the courts or in the streets. Among other things, Blacks could not testify against whites nor challenge them in court. This meant they could not retrieve debts owed them or take legal recourse should their property or persons be harmed by a white person. Their status was that of second-class citizens at best.

In a new book titled The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation, author Adam Malka examines the nature and history of policing in Baltimore during the time described. The scenario he describes is one which places the Black residents of the city at the whim not just of uniformed police, but also at the whim of every white skinned man a Black person might encounter in their daily business. Utilizing anecdotal tales drawn from newspapers of the time, statistics regarding arrests and incarceration rates, and a historical understanding that draws a distinct line between policing and white supremacy in the United States, Malka’s text provides an understanding of why Black people in Baltimore and the greater nation continue to be policed the way they are.

The reasons he provides include but are not limited to the concept that the approach of modern day policing of US Black residents is merely the extension of the slave-catching patrols that existed before the confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War. In fact, Malka contends that the post-Emancipation policing of Black people is based in liberal ethics as described by John Locke. In other words, ethics that place the ownership of property as the foundation of all other rights; it is the propertied individual whose rights are paramount. In a society where women and most Black men could not own property, this conveniently placed the property-owning white man at the top. Malka goes further, accepting the concept that in the rapidly developing capitalist economy of the nineteenth century, white working men who did not own land or a house still had their labor to sell. That labor was their property. Slaves had no such commodity since their labor was owned by the slaveholder who owned their person. When Black men were freed, they could then theoretically sell their labor.

Malka describes white vigilantes hunting down Blacks accused of crimes and handing them over to loosely organized police outfits before the Emancipation Proclamation. He tells of mobs intent on murder going after real and imagined criminals, mostly Black. The text discusses the support the vigilante style of policing enjoyed until it turned on the bankers and their class after the Bank of Maryland defaulted on the accounts of working class white Baltimoreans in 1835, causing thousands of them to lose their savings while the owner class not only walked away, but made themselves richer in the process. The rich had no problem supporting mob policing until the mob turned on them, which it did—burning homes of the wealthy and causing mayhem in the neighborhoods of the wealthy. It was these riots which gave Baltimore its name “Mobtown.” It was also these riots which propelled the ruling classes in the city to create a uniformed, trained police force.

When emancipation came, white Baltimore began to see crime everywhere in the Black neighborhoods and wherever Black men gathered. The reason for this was simple. In their minds Black freedom was criminal. The fact of Black men becoming employees en masse on Baltimore’s docks and in its factories was met with anger among many white workers and their bosses. The fears were multifaceted, but ultimately all were founded in the racist idea that Black men were incapable of handling freedom because they were Black.

The way this worked in practice was simple. Black men who were not working were considered to be breaking the law. Of course, the majority of Black men who worked might lose their job at any time because of threats from white workers, racism on the part of management or high unemployment. Since the laws were no longer specific to a man’s skin color, the powers that be—liberals and conservatives—could claim that the laws applied equally to all men. The truth of the matter was that Black men got arrested and incarcerated at a much higher rate proportionate to their numbers in the community. Indeed, quite often they were arrested and incarcerated in higher numbers overall. Like the author, this reviewer uses the word “man/men” intentionally. The profile of women from all walks of life in the nineteenth century was barely considered, much less worth keeping statistics on.

Baltimore continues to struggle with its legacy of white supremacy. So does the rest of the United States. This is despite the fact that many of those in power in Baltimore are African-American. The fact that Black men continue to be seen as criminal by many in the police apparatus usually means that the law is applied more harshly on them than white men committing the same acts. The fact that many Baltimore police officers are white and from suburban and rural Maryland lends these officers a sense that they are upholding a society designed for them. In other words, the essence of white vigilantism is still too present in the twenty-first century; in Baltimore and around the United States.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: