According to author Melissa Fay Greene, systemic violence characterized social interactions in McIntosh County, Georgia. The political machine had long been dominated by men of the Poppell family who had served as Sheriff. In the 1970s, when the nonfiction account takes place, Sheriff Tom Poppell exercises control over the region’s political economy, not just the law enforcement system.
In an area of widespread poverty, with a well-established system of intimidation, the sheriff and other law enforcement officers maintained thorough control that local African American residents were too fearful to resist. With those tasked to uphold the law actively participating in supporting criminal activity, such as prostitution, drug dealing, and smuggling, there was effectively no functioning justice system.
Widespread offenses that Greene mentions are the sheriff department’s routine procedure of conducting random stops of cars with African American drivers. Rather than issue tickets, officers would demand cash payment to settle alleged infractions.
The situation changed, however, because of an egregious offense when a White officer shot an unarmed Black man in the face. He then took the man into custody and left him in a jail cell, deprived of medical treatment. This particular incident sparked a legal battle. This in turn stimulated further legal challenges and, later, reform.