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The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878


The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, still in effect, was passed to prevent U.S. military personnel from acting as law enforcement agents on U.S. soil.

While the Act is seen as an essential element of the American civil liberties framework, it originally represented a profound betrayal of African-American Southerners by the federal government. In the Reconstruction years following the American Civil War, U.S. troops were stationed in the South to protect recently-freed black slaves, allowing them to vote and function as free people. But when Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction in exchange for electoral votes during the controversial 1876 presidential election, they sold out black Southerners, who were condemned to a near-century of Jim Crow laws with almost no federal protection. The Posse Comitatus Act, which withdrew U.S. troops from Southern soil, was a central part of this betrayal.

The text of the Posse Comitatus Act, which is still in effect (as 18 U.S.C. Section 1385), reads:
Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.
Today, the Posse Comitatus Act has taken on a very different meaning from the one that it had in 1878. No longer associated with Reconstruction, it is a useful way to prevent the U.S. armed forces from directing their efforts against U.S. dissident groups. Public sentiment in favor of the Posse Comitatus Act is so strong that a 2006 law permitting an exception to the Act in cases of public disasters (in response to Hurricane Katrina) was repealed a year later.
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