"...when you have seen the hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your Black brothers and sisters...then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."
Dr. Martin Luther King, jr wrote these words while sitting in a Birmingham, Alabama jail on trumped up charges initiated by the police. During the civil rights movement the relationship between the non violent protestors and police was adversarial. The police were charged with protecting property and maintaining law and order, never was protect and serve a policy or attitude. The police used cattle prods, fire hoses, tear gas, billy club beatings, dogs, guns and more on non violent protesters to maintain law and order, segregation and the violation of human and civil rights. Moreover, the police processed a license to kill Blackmen with impunity. Thus, for the Black community the murder of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and most recently Eric Courtney Harris who was shot by a White Reserve Sheriff''s deputy in Oklahoma and Walter Scott in South Carolina who was shot 8 times by Officer Michael Slager while running away after being stopped for a traffic violation, is nothing new. What is new is the taping of these killings. It gives the nation and world community the opportunity to see exactly what the Black community has witnessed for centuries.
The license to kill Black men with impunity and no accountability started with slavery. Most scholars agree the first Black man was purchased and sold into slavery in Virginia in 1619. Slaves are not born, they are made. Black men were stripped of all their humanity through a system of massive violence, brute force, terror and murder to create a slave. The police had the power to enforce a savage slave system that denied all human rights and gave permission to whip, dismember, lynch, torture, castrate and murder Black men at random and at will again with impunity and no accountability.
Contrary to the history taught in schools, many Black men took direct action against slavery. One of the most interesting stories is Gabriel. Gabriel was born in 1776 in the state of Virginia, he had two brothers, Solomon and Martin. Their slave masters name was Thomas Prosser. At this time, all slaves were forced to carry their slave masters sir name; this helped identify the slaves owner. Gabriel was a literate slave, he could read and write. This was unusual because slaves were not schooled and was later promulgated it was against the law to educate a slave. Gabriel read the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, their words help inspire him to organize a rebellion; he believed these words should also apply to Black men, women and children who were slaves. To justify slavery a system of racist beliefs developed. Religion, science, history and more was used to rationalize slavery and its existence by stating the White man was superior to the Black man. This racist system of beliefs became policy, law and was written into the hearts and minds of the majority of Americans. Racism became an individual and institutional expression backed by savage brute force and terror initiated by the police. The newly created United States of America gave the police a license to kill Black men at random and at will.
Gabriel planned the revolt for August 30th, 1800. The goal was to take Richmond and free all slaves along the way. During this time one of America's Founding Fathers, and The fifth President of The United States, James Monroe, was governor. A slave told his master about Gabriel's plans and the revolt was suppressed. Gabriel escaped. The police, along with deputized citizens, hunted Gabriel until captured. Gabriel, his brothers Solomon and Martin, along with twenty three Blackmen were hanged. In 2007 then Virginia Governor Tim Kaine gave Gabriel and his followers an "informal pardon" because, "the end of slavery and the furtherance of equality for all people has prevailed in the light of history". The police had a license to kill Gabriel and his followers as they fought for human rights and the principles laid out in Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
In 1846 a slave by the name of Dred Scott sued his master on behalf of himself and his family in the state of Missouri. His lawyer argued that Mr. Scott, once moved by his master from a "slave state" to a "free state", was now free. America was expanding as a nation and slavery as a practice was being questioned. Moreover, a number of slave revolts took place which made America "fearful". The case made it to The United Staes Supreme Court in 1857. In March of 1857 Chief Justice Roger B. Tannery gave the majority opinion of the court; ".....the authors of The Constitution had viewed all Blacks as beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they has no rights which the Whiteman was bound to respect". This decision again codified an individual and institutional racist system. In 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the south only. President Lincoln had hoped freed Blackmen would join the Union Army and fight for their freedom against the Confederate Army, they did. The Civil War ended on April 9th, 1865. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, passed on January 31st, 1865, abolished slavery; the 14th Amendment, passed on June 13th, 1866, made Blacks citizens; the 15th Amendment, passed on February 26, 1869, gave Blacks the right to vote. These Amendments to The Constitution served to nullify The Dred Scott decision. However, a racist system of individual and institutional racism had at this point been in effect for more than 250 years. No law can erase the hearts and minds who practiced a belief system for so long.
Reconstruction, a policy that had the North working with the South to redevelop its land and it's people, ended in 1877. All the political ideals to integrate the Blackman into the political, economic and social fabric of society stopped. All talk of reparations for the Blackman's years of servitude ceased. The Federal Government pulled back. States enacted laws which established a new form of slavery. Secret vigilante and white supremacist organizations infiltrated state and local police organizations. Judicial and extrajudicial assaults were initiated by these organizations with the police to maintain power and keep Blackmen from developing businesses, owning land, accumulating wealth, voting, getting educated, political organizing and more. This was systematic political, economic and social terrorism usually initiated by "secret" vigilante groups in cooperation with the police or initiated by the police outright. The police still had a license to kill Blacmen with impunity. For example, a study by The Tuskegee Institute stated from 1882-1968 there were 3,446 lynchings of Blackmen. Keep in mind lynchings are events that usually take place after the police arrests a Blackman. An unholy alliance existed between white supremacist organizations, the police and the judiciary system.
During this period Black men faced trumped up charges, were forced to work on prison farms, picked up by the police to never be heard from, beaten without mercy by the police for trying to vote or politically organize and horrors beyond belief including murder. This lead to the creation of "Jim Crow" a system of segregation which became the construct for apartheid in South Africa. What gave rise to America finally comprehending the violent nature of the police towards Blackmen, women and children was television. America witnessed civil rights marchers ruthlessly beaten, dogs being sicked on innocents women and children, firehouses used on students peacefully protesting all at the hands of the police and The Ku Klux Klan in cooperating with the police kill civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.
Americas subsequent outrage lead to the passage of The Civil Rights Bill of 1964. Even with the passage of this bill police brutality and the murder of Blackmen at the hands of police, with impunity, remained an issue. The behavior of the police exposed by television was nothing new. Television provided the nation and the world a new platform to see what the Black community had watched for years. In fact, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Newark, Chicago, Milwaukee police and even liberal New York were known for their cruel, brutal, torturous, and sometimes murder of Blackmen. For example, The NY Daily News recently reported from 1999 to 2014 179 people were killed by the police, 86% were Black or Hispanic and 27% were unarmed; three cases lead to indictments and one conviction.
Two conspicuous historic examples of post civil rights era torture, brutality and murder in NYC are Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. On August 9th, 1997 Abner Louima, married with one child, attended a party at a club in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. A fight broke out, the police were called; four officers responded. One of the officers, Justin Volpe, was punched in the face, he mistakenly accused Mr. Louima and arrested him. While in the patrol car and handcuffed, Mr Louima was beaten with nightsticks and hand held radios. Once they arrived at the station Mr. Louima was strip searched and tortured. Mr. Louima's testicles were squeezed and he was sodomized with a broom handle. The boom handle was also forced into his mouth, knocking out several teeth. After several hours he was taken to the local hospital emergency room. The police told the nurse his injuries were the result of "abnormal homosexual activities". Not believing the police the nurse called Mr. Louima's family and Police Internal Affairs. Community protests ensued. Only one officer, Justin Volpe, was convicted; he is now serving thirty years. On February 4th, 1999, twenty-three year old Amadou Diallo was walking home after a late dinner with friends. Four plain clothes detectives approached him because he, "fit the profile". Words were exchanged. As he walked away and into the doorway of his home, the officers mistook his keys for a gun. The police shot 41 bullets at Mr. Diallo, 19 hit him. The police officers were charged with second degree murder. All were found not guilty.
Historically, the Black community has used every political avenue and all forms of protest to bring attention to the heinous crimes committed against and lack of justice given to Blackmen. David Walker, Monroe Trotter, Paul Robeson, Congressmen Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X and every Black political leader that sprung up in America has spoke to killing of Blackmen by the police with impunity and the inherent lack of justice in America's criminal justice system. There also existed a cultural component to these protests. The art of Emory Douglas, Charles Wilbert White and countless others depicted these issues visually. Literary giants, James Baldwin, Micelle Alexander, Ameri Baraka, Maya Angelou and so many more have written extensively about these issues. Comics Chris Rock, DL Hughly, Richard Pryor and countless more have used their monologues to talk about police brutality. Songs like "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday, "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy" or "Fuck the Police" by NWA gave additional insight to an age old problem. Even in film, "In the Heat of The Night", Sidney Poitier was racially profiled, arrested and accused of murder by the police while he sat waiting for a train; in Spike Lee's classic, "Do The Right Thing", the character Radio Raheem is murdered by a policeman using a choke hold; in "Selma", the police brutally use dogs and firehouses on innocent protesters. No matter what the protest action, political, economic, social or cultural, America never listens. America has chosen to not see, not hear and not understand a problem that pervades every aspect of American life and history. What will it take for America to listen? Black men, for nearly 400 years, have been murdered by the police with impunity.
Check out the BBC's Racism: History- A lynching in Texas in 1916
This cursory view of American history is to link it's present to its past. In his last speech titled, "I've been to the Mountain Top", on April 3rd, 1968, the day before he was assainated , Dr. Martin Luther King, jr said, "...all we say to you America is be true to what you said on paper". This is the history of America. It has never lived up to its ideals and the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Since America's beginning Blackmen, women and children have fought to get America to live up to its founding words. It has been a never ending struggle; many have died. Freedom, justice, equality, democracy, human rights, civil rights and many more of its ideals have been lacking when it comes to the treatment of Black people in America. America has practiced individual and institutional racism since it's genesis. The police uphold and enforce these practices and policies, sometimes thru mischief making, terror and outright murder. George Stinney, Oscar Grant, Micheal Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sean Bell, John Crawford, Patrick Dorismond, Ramarley Graham the names seem endless. The unknown names are always greater than the known names.
Moreover, think about the many Blackwomen who have for centuries been asked to forgive the perpetrators and system that produced and protects them. The caveat is all police officers are not bad, or corrupt. I have friends and family who are great police officers. I respect all policemen, it's a very difficult but necessary job. No one wants to live in a society without law and order. However, no profession is perfect; police included. The bad actors must be held accountable for their actions. Wanting justice distributed equally, police reform and accountability for savage behavior and murder is not anti police, it's an American ideal. Protestors all around the country are giving voice to this ideal. The world is watching and waiting to see when, and if, the ideals espoused by America will ever be realized for all. To criticize the police is not anti police or a call for anarchy. It's a call for improvement, a call to do better. As James Baldwin once said, "I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually". We must acknowledge there are some policemen who have gotten away with brute behavior and murder. When will this end? I Idon't know, the grand jury is still deliberating.
"I, too, sing America.....I, too, am America"- Langston Hughes