“A Troubled Past” and the Meanings of Breaking the Law

This article was originally published on August 25, 2015.


In early August, St. Louis County Police shot eighteen-year-old Tyrone Harris, Jr. amidst an outbreak of violence during protests in memory of Michael Brown. The Washington Post described Harris as a young man with a “troubled past.” That phrase, so often reserved for those deemed to be on the wrong side of the law, obscures long and complex histories of individuals, groups, and nations. It offers a simplistic explanation for arrest, incarceration, or violent death as a logical and direct extension of a person’s unspecified yet determinative past.

Kara Brown, writing at Jezebel, places Tyrone Harris, Jr., within the longer history of black Americans surviving in a nation that has so often designed to destroy them. She encourages black people to continue to live:

So I say this: Burn down the stores. Sag your pants. Blast your music. Protest. Write. Sing. Dance. Ace their tests. Beat them at their own game. Let America know that we are here and we are alive right now and forever.

Brown opens that call to be free with an embrace of lawbreaking, and positions it alongside a range of other political acts that may seem more reasonable. We might, however, understand lawbreaking differently when we acknowledge and account for the fact that black people live and have always lived in a nation of unequal laws, and that our judgment of what it means to break the law often looks quite different with the passage of time.

Consider, for example, Adam Crosswhite, who stunned observers when he walked into a crowded Detroit courtroom on December 6, 1848 and took the stand to testify. Crosswhite and his family had fled slavery in Kentucky in 1843, only to have agents of their owner, Francis Giltner, discover and arrest them in Marshall, Michigan, in the spring of 1847. A crowd of local abolitionists helped liberate the black family and led them to Canada but Giltner then sought damages from the abolitionists in a civil suit. It was that trial that brought Adam Crosswhite back to Michigan and put him face-to-face with the man who claimed to own him.

Crosswhite’s testimony was brief. Presumably, the abolitionists wanted him to say that they had not technically rescued the black family and, therefore, that they had not violated the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. A news report suggested the kind of vagueness that Crosswhite may have employed: he “came to this State [i.e. Michigan] in 1843”; he had “moved thence to Canada in 1847.” Still, all present understood the danger of his appearance at the trial. “The Courthouse,” the reporter noted, “was literally crammed with people of color.” As soon as Crosswhite finished his testimony, a number of those black observers rushed towards the stand, ushered him out of the courtroom, and led him south across the Detroit River, back into Canadian freedom.

The people who escorted Adam Crosswhite out of Detroit in 1848 performed a particularly vivid act of lawbreaking, in a courtroom, in front of dozens of witnesses. And the result of the case underlined the significance of that act. The presiding judge instructed the jury that “there seems to be no doubt of the right of the plaintiff to the services of the fugitives,” and the jury agreed, awarding Francis Giltner $1,900 in damages. But Crosswhite’s defenders announced publicly that they were not beholden to the laws that undergirded that ruling. They denied that the courtroom was a place in which justice could be done.

In case their message was not explicit enough, a group of black activists met the next evening at a Detroit church and explained the second liberation of the fugitive from Kentucky. Many of those activists had themselves “worn the galling chains of slavery,” and it is likely that a number of them had, like Crosswhite, broken the law in order to be free. They wanted “to be a peaceable and sober portion of the community,” and they were willing to “abide by the constitution and laws of this and all other states,” but only those “which recognize no slavery within their borders.” The injustice of human bondage obligated them to resist at all costs. “Live or die, sink or swim, we will never be taken back into slavery.”

The multiple and illegal liberations of the Crosswhites had meaning well beyond that family’s freedom. The Crosswhites rejected the idea that black people were comfortable in enslavement, and they challenged the slave owner’s claim to his absolute authority over their bodies. But their and their supporters’ willingness to violate the law called into question the legal system itself. Indeed, the Crosswhites and their supporters made claims about what the law should be.

Lawbreaking as protest is a declaration that justice cannot be found in society as it exists. Broken windows and damaged storefronts are not simply broken windows and damaged storefronts. They emerge from destructive acts, to be sure, but those acts have meaning to perpetrators and to witnesses that we dismiss at our peril. In the nineteenth century, it was powerful for people to see and to say that the Crosswhites were not simply running from an individual who compelled them to work. Rather, they broke the law to escape a “troubled past” that denied them the fruits of their labor, endangered their family, and excluded them from the legal community. Adam Crosswhite and his family refused to be bound by Francis Giltner or by the laws of a nation that said Giltner could own them.

Amidst uprisings in Baltimore, Ferguson, and other cities, in the months that have passed since the death of Michael Brown, some observers have criticized black people for perpetuating “senseless” violence in their communities. Rioting, it has been said, will not break down the structures of inequality. Yet the same critique might have been leveled at Adam Crosswhite and his abettors, since they could do little about a court that would enforce Francis Giltner’s title to his property in black bodies and refused to return those bodies to slavery despite what the law said.

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Christopher Bonner

Christopher Bonner is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He specializes in African American history, particularly black protest in the early United States. He is at work on a manuscript titled “The Price of Citizenship,” which examines black activists’ efforts to construct American citizenship before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Follow him on Twitter @63cjb.