I don’t personally have a lot to offer on this subject that people far, far more qualified than I are already saying. But I can link to those qualified people. Here’s a few good essays. First, the one and only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
What was your first reaction when you saw the video of the white cop kneeling on George Floyd’s neck while Floyd croaked, “I can’t breathe”?
If you’re white, you probably muttered a horrified, “Oh, my God” while shaking your head at the cruel injustice. If you’re black, you probably leapt to your feet, cursed, maybe threw something (certainly wanted to throw something), while shouting, “Not @#$%! again!” Then you remember the two white vigilantes accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged through their neighborhood in February, and how if it wasn’t for that video emerging a few weeks ago, they would have gotten away with it. And how those Minneapolis cops claimed Floyd was resisting arrest but a store’s video showed he wasn’t. And how the cop on Floyd’s neck wasn’t an enraged redneck stereotype, but a sworn officer who looked calm and entitled and devoid of pity: the banality of evil incarnate.
Maybe you also are thinking about the Karen in Central Park who called 911 claiming the black man who asked her to put a leash on her dog was threatening her. Or the black Yale University grad student napping in the common room of her dorm who was reported by a white student. Because you realize it’s not just a supposed “black criminal” who is targeted, it’s the whole spectrum of black faces from Yonkers to Yale.
You start to wonder if it should be all black people who wear body cams, not the cops.
What do you see when you see angry black protesters amassing outside police stations with raised fists? If you’re white, you may be thinking, “They certainly aren’t social distancing.” Then you notice the black faces looting Target and you think, “Well, that just hurts their cause.” Then you see the police station on fire and you wag a finger saying, “That’s putting the cause backward.”
You’re not wrong — but you’re not right, either. The black community is used to the institutional racism inherent in education, the justice system and jobs. And even though we do all the conventional things to raise public and political awareness — write articulate and insightful pieces in the Atlantic, explain the continued devastation on CNN, support candidates who promise change — the needle hardly budges.
Kareem speaking directly to white people is a great way to frame this and of course he’s a national treasure in any case.
Historians also have a lot to offer. Here’s Keisha Blain:
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.”
On Friday, President Trump tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” in response to the anti-police protests that erupted in Minneapolis after the police killing of George Floyd. Trump was quoting Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who coined the rhyme in 1967 during his department’s “hoodlum crackdown.” Trump’s tweets also referred to protesters as “THUGS” who dishonored Floyd’s memory. Twitter flagged the post for violating its rules about “glorifying violence” and, though Trump’s allies have cried foul and the official White House Twitter account reposted the tweet, the history behind this language shows why this is true.
Trump’s response to the justified anger of protesters in Minneapolis at yet another black man killed by the police not only misreads the meaning of the unrest — which is about social justice, not criminality. Even worse, his suggested response encouraging police violence threatens to exacerbate the problem of police brutality and killing of African Americans. That’s what happened in the 1960s, when urban unrest in the face of systemic racism led to expanded police power and decades of violence disproportionately targeting black communities.
There is more to the Headley quote than meets the eye. Headley made the statement in 1967 when he announced a ‘Get Tough’ policy aimed at young black men between the ages of 15 and 21 whom he described as “hoodlums.” Crucially, Headley suggested that such get-tough policies would actually prevent riots. His full quote: “We haven’t had any serious problems with civil uprisings and looting because I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Headley’s views of the preventive capability of the police force was, to say the least, ill-conceived. Indeed, aggressive and racially discriminatory policing in American cities actively produced — rather than prevented — urban unrest and protest during the 1960s. Of the more than 750 urban revolts in nearly 525 cities between 1963 and 1972, nearly all of them were sparked by an episode of police abuse or harassment. Some of the most well-known were in Harlem in 1964, Watts in 1965, and Newark and Detroit in 1967.
In response to the wave of urban uprisings in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson formed a commission led by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, called the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The Kerner Commission’s goal was to locate the causes behind the unrest that summer. The commission investigated and concluded: “Almost invariably the incident that ignites disorder arises from police action.”
Although the commission noted that the Watts, Harlem, Newark and Detroit uprisings were all sparked by arrests of African Americans by white police officers for minor offenses, it recognized that these were not just reactions to individual incidents. Rather, the role played by police over the years in upholding white supremacy, along with police brutality against African Americans, were the roots of the protests. “Thus, to many Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism, and white repression,” the commission concluded. “And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection — one for Negroes and one for whites.”
Obviously, read the entirety of all these essays and work to read quality commentary on what is going on.