Slavery was finally abolished in New York in 1827, but northern free blacks had few civil rights and still lived in fear of being kidnapped and taken south into slavery. As David Ruggles, a leading black abolitionist, made clear in this 1836 account of a kidnapping, African Americans could not count on the police, the courts, or anti-slavery organizations to protect their right to freedom. In fact the police and judges often colluded with slave catchers as was the case of George Jones described here. Ruggles advocated for self-defense and the need for African Americans to organize and establish their own "remedy" for justice. In 1835, Ruggles and other radical black abolitionists formed the Committee of Vigilance to protect free blacks and recently escaped slaves and to fight slave catchers and kidnappers.
It is too bad to be told, much less to be endured! -- On Saturday, 23rd instant, about 12 o'clock, Mr. George Jones, a respectable free colored man, was arrested at 21 Broadway, by certain police officers, upon the pretext of his having 'committed assault and battery.' Mr. Jones, being conscious that no such charge could be sustained against him, refused to go with the officers. His employers, placing high confidence in his integrity, advised him to go and answer to the charge, promising that any assistance should be afforded to satisfy the end of justice. He proceeded with the officers, accompanied with a gentleman who would have stood his bail -- he was locked up in Bridewell -- his friend was told that 'when he was wanted he could be sent for.' Between the hours of 1 and 2 o'clock, Mr. Jones was carried before the Hon. Richard Riker, Recorder of the city of New York. In the absence of his friends, and in the presence of several notorious kidnappers, who preferred and by oath sustained that he was a runaway slave, poor Jones, (having no one to utter a word in his behalf, but a boy, in the absence of numerous friends who could have born testimony to his freedom,) was by the Recorder pronounced to be a SLAVE!
In less than three hours after his arrest, he was bound in chains, dragged through the streets, like a beast to the shambles! My depressed countrymen, we are all liable; your wives and children are at the mercy of merciless kidnappers. We have no protection in law, because the legislators withhold justice. We must no longer depend on the interposition of Manumission or Anti-Slavery Societies, in the hope of peaceable and just protection; where such outrages are committed, peace and justice cannot dwell. While we are subject to be thus inhumanly practised upon, no man is safe; we must look to our own safety and protection from kidnappers; remembering that 'self-defence is the first law of nature.'
Let a meeting be called -- let every man who had sympathy in his heart to feel when bleeding humanity is thus stabbed afresh, attend the meeting; let a remedy be prescribed to protect us from slavery. Whenever necessity requires, let that remedy be applied. Come what will, any thing is better than slavery.
Yours, &c. David Ruggles
Source: Foner, Philip S., and Lewis, Ronald L., The Black Worker: A Documentary History from Colonial Times to the Present, Volume 1 The Black Worker to 1869. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978 p. 181