As the virus ravages black communities at a disproportionately higher rate than other racial groups, black people must continue to contend with another threat: police violence. Although both problems are the consequences of structural racism in the United States, the police violence on display today runs deep in the fabric of American life and will likely outlast the threat of the coronavirus.
The deaths of Floyd and Taylor follow a tragic pattern of racist state-sanctioned violence that has shaped U.S. history for centuries. During slavery, black people’s lives were circumscribed by organized groups of white men who policed the enslaved. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the emergence of “Black Codes,” which curtailed black rights and mobility, emboldened nascent police forces and white vigilante groups to carry out violent acts under the guise of “law and order.” In cities across the nation, black people were targeted by police forces, arrested at higher rates than their white counterparts and, in Southern states, trapped in a system of bondage that mirrored slavery.
Early in the 20th century, lynchings emerged as another tactic to control the lives and movements of black people. Racist police forces upheld — rather than challenged — white mob violence. As anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett observed in “The Red Record,” the lynchings of black Americans were not only planned in advance but had full support of local police. Often, police were participants in the white mobs that attacked black men and women. Others were complicit and worked to protect the interests of white perpetrators to ensure they would never face repercussions for their violent actions. As a result, thousands of black people across the country were lynched with impunity.
Wells-Barnett and others called out this police violence, and yet it persisted. During the Red Summer of 1919, violence and intense racial uprisings erupted in more than a dozen cities across the nation. In Chicago, Eugene Williams, an African American teenager, was murdered on July 27, 1919, when he dared to take a swim in the “whites only” section of Lake Michigan. Williams’s brutal death for defying informal segregation practices on Chicago’s beaches, and the police’s refusal to arrest any of Williams’s killers on the scene, sparked a week of violent uprisings in the city. By the time the “race riot” ended in August 1919, 15 whites and 23 black people had been killed. More than 500 people were injured and thousands of black families had lost their homes.
As the civil rights movement gained momentum, activists were constantly targeted by local police who worked in tandem with white civilians to block black efforts to obtain civil and political rights. “[T]he law is against [the Negro],” famed Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes observed in 1926. “He has no vote, the police are brutal, and the citizens think such caste-democracy is as it should be.”
The images of police attacking black activists during the 1963 Birmingham campaign and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches exposed the racist roots of American policing, and how such practices targeted men, women and children. So, too, did local developments in Minneapolis during the 1960s. Much like the recent uprisings in response to Floyd’s death, black residents in the city clashed with local police in the summer of 1967. By several accounts, the uprising — which resulted in the destruction of homes and businesses — was sparked by tensions between a local resident and police officers.
The cycle of police forces threatening the lives of black Americans — as opposed to protecting them — led civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. to confront the issue during his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’” King said. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
By the 1980s and ’90s, it was evident that King’s dream of a nation without police violence and brutality would not become a reality. From the high-profile police cases in New York City — including Michael Stewart (1983), Eleanor Bumpurs (1984), Michael Griffith (1986), Edmund Perry (1985), Yvonne Smallwood (1987), Abner Louima (1997) and Amadou Diallo (1999) — to the violent police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, the roots of American policing are tied to structural racism. Black people are far more likely to be arrested and fatally shot by police than their white counterparts — and police officers are rarely charged with killing unarmed black people.
These realities indicate that despite the political gains of the civil rights movement, black people are still treated as second-class citizens in the United States. Black Americans today die at the hands of police at a rate that is almost equivalent to the number of documented lynchings a century ago. As a 2019 report revealed, police violence is now one of the leading causes of death for black men in the United States. And as the “Say Her Name” report of the African American Political Forum makes clear, black women and girls are also vulnerable to police violence and brutality.
The recent uprisings in Minneapolis have brought to the surface the persistence of police violence in black communities — and the urgent need for state and federal policies that would protect black citizens and ensure that police officers are criminally prosecuted and punished. As Wells-Barnett advised in 1909, “Let us undertake the work of making the ‘law of the land’ effective and supreme upon every foot of American soil — a shield to the innocent; and to the guilty, punishment swift and sure.”
Those words still ring true today.