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April 30, 2012

22,000 Were Arrested for It, And It Was Perfectly Legal

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Written by: Dax-Devlon Ross

illustration of hands in handcuffs

Illustration courtesy of Flickr/VectorPortal

passed both the Ordinance of Labour — requiring work and fixing wages – and a vagrancy law that criminalized the refusal to work, as evidenced by begging. The initial punishment was involuntary labor, but by the 16th century, beggar laws called for more aggressive punishments. Offenders were imprisoned, branded on their chests with the letter “V”, whipped before crowds of onlookers, relieved of their ears, even executed. These same laws applied in colonial Ameica, which was controlled by England’s common law system, and in post-independence America. “In general,” William Chambliss wrote in a 1964 scholarly article on the subject that is still cited as authoritative, “the vagrancy laws of England, as they stood in the middle eighteenth century, were simply adopted by the states.” One key difference was that, in America, the laws passed throughout the new nation empowered  authorities to arrest people who looked poor or homeless on suspicion of a crime. Probable cause of an actual crime did not factor into the equation.

Except in Maryland, where the vagrancy law initially applied only to “free” blacks, few blacks were charged under America’s begging statutes before 1865. Most were enslaved and therefore not free to roam, begging. When slavery ended, however, the newfound serfdom of blacks made conditions ripe for the rise of a new effort to criminalize them. With the U.S. suddenly facing a glut of jobless, landless blacks and a shattered Southern economy, America wanted to put blacks back to work to avert more economic disaster. Claiming that blacks were too lazy and shifty to work without compulsion, America’s elite called for the extensive adoption of vagrancy laws targeting blacks throughout the South. An 1863 editorial in The New York Times said:  “If the [Emancipation] Proclamation makes the slaves actually free, there will come the further duty of making them work. That the whole negro race is to remain idle if it should choose so to do, being free, no one can seriously propose.” The editorial called for the application of vagrancy laws to blacks:  “If the slaves choose to ‘labor faithfully for reasonable wages’ — very well …. But if they do not, they must be compelled to do it, — not by brute force, nor by being owned like cattle, and denied every human right, but by just and equal laws, — such laws as in every community control and forbid vagrancy, mendicancy and all the shapes by which idle vagabondage preys upon industry and thrift.”

As early as 1865, the kind of laws the New York Times was advocating were being added to statute books throughout the South. Specifically targeting blacks, the laws formed part of the new Black Codes, laws designed to subjugate the freedmen. These vagrancy laws penalized not begging per se, or appearing poor, but idleness itself, or loitering. Under Mississippi’s code, Blacks appearing in public with no “lawful employment or business” or “found unlawfully assembling themselves together, either in the day or night time” were subject to arrest. The arrests carried fines that could only be paid off through labor, essentially re-enslaving blacks to white farmers. Even after the 14th Amendment invalidated the Black Codes, the Freedmen’s Bureau — the federal agency created to protect blacks — backed and enforced vagrancy statutes that purported to be “color blind,” but were almost exclusively enforced against ex-slaves.


Until the 1870s, the NYPD and other urban police forces had helped control the unemployed northern population by functioning mainly as social welfare institutions, according to the book Paradoxes of Police Work by David Perez. “The police ran the soup kitchens and poor people would sleep in police stations,” says Amy Dru Stanley, a History of Law professor at the University of Chicago. But in the 1870s, after a depression struck, causing unprecedented levels of poverty, elites began to reconsider the wisdom of this police function. Industrialists and wealthy charity reformers wanted police to stop cushioning the blows of unemployment, because they believed it convinced people not to work. Seeing how effective the South was at controlling black labor with vagrancy laws, northern elites decided to adopt them in New York. “Part of the reformers attempt was to make the police not undercut the [labor] market,” Stanley says. A strong, healthy economy depended on every able-bodied person carrying his weight, reformers argued. While men


About the Author

Dax-Devlon Ross
Dax-Devlon Ross
The author of six books, Dax has been featured on WNYC, WBAI,, Democracy Now, and Pacific Radio. His work on race, youth culture and criminal justice has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. He has lectured on literature and hip-hop culture at Fordham, Pace, City College and NYU. His book, Beat of a Different Drum (Hyperion, 2006), explored the lives of 30 African-American creatives and iconolasts.