The death of Daunte Wright in Minnesota is only the latest in a long line of police killings of African Americans. The media’s focus on whether the officer intended to fire a Taser or a gun dominated coverage of the shooting. But while national attention on police brutality often focuses on guns and violence by armed police, officers also use potentially lethal unarmed tactics that disproportionately target African Americans — and these matter as well.
Indeed, the ongoing trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd epitomizes the dangers of these tactics. The prosecution called more than 30 witnesses, including no fewer than nine police officers who unanimously condemned Chauvin’s use of force as excessive and unnecessary. Multiple witnesses have testified or suggested that Chauvin’s pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck ultimately took Floyd’s life.
Tactics such as chokeholds are not alternatives to violence but simply another expression of it. Even as police departments became heavily armed throughout the 20th century, they also embraced unarmed tactics, drawing on martial arts, to become more effective at control. In fact, Black practices of self-defense fueled developments in the training of police in such tactics. This history reveals how calls only to “disarm” police are inadequate for ending anti-Black policing.
While police shootings rightly garner headlines, there also is a sustained record of unarmed police brutality in the United States. In 1958, the NAACP magazine the Crisis reported on numerous physical assaults and beatings that African Americans suffered in Detroit. A central theme of the cases was the police initiation of violence during questioning. Ninety percent of complainants “believe[d] they were subjected to unwarranted abuse because of their race.” Physical assaults ranged from hand blows and kicks to the use of objects. When Birmingham exploded during civil rights protests in 1963, police beat protesters and unleashed dogs on them. Nationally, the Black Power Movement joined civil rights calls to end police violence and police killings of Black people.
In response to both white supremacist violence and police brutality, Black activists adopted practices of self-defense. Though they are largely remembered for armed self-defense, unarmed struggle became a focal point of groups such as the Nation of Islam, the Panthers and the Congress of African People.
These efforts made law enforcement and the broader public uneasy. After the release of the 1959 documentary “The Hate that the Hate Produced,” reporters flooded Malcolm X’s phone to inquire, “Why is your Fruit of Islam being trained in judo and karate?” He responded pointedly that Black self-defense terrified White men: “Why does judo or karate suddenly get so ominous because Black men study it? Across America, the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, even the YWCA … PAL [Police Athletic League] — they all teach judo!”
Many Americans practiced martial arts, but these activities were taken to be threatening only when Black Americans partook.
Indeed, as part of its argument that the Nation of Islam was advocating violence, the FBI tracked the group’s martial arts training, although members repeatedly said that they used their skills only defensively when attacked first. The San Diego police had almost no encounters with the group, yet they circulated a training brief that insinuated that the Nation’s martial arts would help incite a bloody revolution and result in members killing a “police officer when the opportunity present[ed] itself.”
Though Black folks had practiced martial arts and defended themselves against violence since arriving in the Americas, Asian martial arts became a more popular foundation for self-defense in the middle of the 20th century. The Air Force, Army and Marine Corps trained thousands of troops in judo, karate and taekwondo, adapting techniques learned during World War II and subsequent military occupations in the Pacific. Veterans, in turn, rapidly spread martial arts within the United States beyond Asian American communities — something Black Power groups embraced.
But just as African Americans learned these techniques to protect themselves, police gained similar know-how from the military. Police departments came to believe that Japanese methods of restraining people were superior to American ones. While some police departments had exposure to Asian martial arts in the first half of the century, they came to perfect tactics such as chokeholds only as a response to the threat they perceived emanating from African Americans in postwar U.S. cities. The ongoing pathologizing of blackness as “unruly” and difficult to restrain furthered police bias against African Americans and their displays of protest and self-defense.
This more militarized police training coincided with attempts to quell Black uprisings in the late 1960s. Though footage often shows the police as armed in confrontations during the uprisings, police did not always need to halt protests by firing shots. Instead, in February 1968, Malcolm X’s mentee Russ Meek told the newspaper the Chicago Defender that police were fighting “civil disorders with their own brand of violence.” Meek was referring to the use of martial arts, and he called police versions of karate and aikido “the most murderous methods of self-defense.” A New Jersey commission investigating the 1967 Newark uprising agreed that all police tactics needed to be probed, including hand-to-hand combat borrowed from military training rooted in martial arts.
Ironically, the racial integration of police departments reinforced the use of such techniques. Hoping that integration would increase community understanding and decrease disproportionate anti-Black abuse, African Americans optimistically joined police departments in larger numbers in the 1960s, ′70s and ′80s. Some of those joining were martial artists themselves. By 1979, Black and White martial artists were training integrated police forces in cities such as Atlantic City. They taught joint locks and immobilization techniques that would protect officers and let them handcuff those they were detaining without doing permanent damage.
While such tactics were appealing in a context of sustained attention to police brutality, they also came with their own brutality. During the 1980s, the National Urban League called for bans on unarmed techniques such as the bar-arm and carotid artery chokes that cut off the airway. Civil rights groups demanded that Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates be suspended when he reportedly excused the danger of chokeholds by saying African Americans were simply more likely to die of them for biological reasons. His remarks came after the LAPD’s high-profile killings of Ron Settles and James Mincey.
In 1997, Chicago officers claimed that 37-year-old Frankie Ann Perkins choked on a plastic cocaine bag, but witnesses said that police suffocated her by placing a knee on her chest. Just as in the case of George Floyd, no medical care was provided to revive her.
Some cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago have banned strangleholds and chokeholds. Minneapolis instituted its own ban after Floyd’s death last summer, and the Missouri Senate just passed a statewide bill. But cases involving unarmed tactics still number in the hundreds — even in cities with bans such as New York.
Numerous encounters have ended in death, including the cases of Shereese Francis and Eric Garner, whose death by a prohibited chokehold sparked a national outcry in 2014. Despite this evidence, police officers and practitioners are confident that such tactics can be deployed “safely.” Activists, by contrast, emphasize that legal bans do not provide solutions to police discretion about deploying these tactics. And the data unambiguously shows that these tactics are deployed more against African Americans. In California between 2016 and 2018, officers seriously injured 103 people by using carotid chokes. Black people made up 23 percent of victims, despite being only 6.5 percent of California residents.
Few instances of police brutality have sustained the broader public’s attention like the killing of Floyd in May 2020. On the first day of Chauvin’s trial, an eyewitness to the killing, Donald Williams, proclaimed that Chauvin applied a “blood choke.” A former high school wrestler and mixed martial artist, Williams had worked alongside off-duty police officers while in private security and trained alongside them in his mix martial arts gym. Though not logged with the court as an expert witness, Williams provided insights like an expert witness, given his background in the use of force. Relaying his understanding of the science of unarmed techniques in detail, Williams testified that the officer shifted his body and intentionally set the deadly choke.
Chauvin’s defense has raised other factors in Floyd’s death while aiming to define Chauvin’s unarmed force as something other than violence. But it is critical to remember that police expanded the use of such techniques because they perceived Black people as dangerous even when unarmed. This history makes clear that unarmed techniques are damaging forms of police violence and that reforms aimed at just preventing police use of guns will not solve the problem of police violence against Black Americans. Giving more funding and training to police can vary the methods of violence that disproportionately affect Black communities. But the problem is not the specific tactic police deploy in a given case, i.e., the gun, chokehold or Taser. It is the anti-Black bias embedded in their traffic stops, searches and seizures, and arrests.