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Black Women and Police Violence

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Keisha Blain is one of our most important historians of Black history. At The Baffler, she has an important essay on Black women’s long efforts to end police violence. You need to read it. An excerpt:

The Bumpurs and Taylor cases offer a longer perspective on how we came to the point where it was necessary to insist that Black lives matter—linking the 1980s to the 2020s and revealing how the Black Lives Matter movement was already decades in the making. BLM as we know it emerged in a particular moment in United States history—specifically following the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer in 2013. That year, activists Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Cullors joined forces to launch what would quickly become a mass protest movement to end state-sanctioned violence. After the 2014 police shooting of teenager Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, Black Lives Matter rose to national prominence, demanding justice for Brown’s family and the multitude of unarmed Black people murdered in this country by the police.

This specific context is important. But if we examine the core ideas and philosophies that shape Black Lives Matter, it is clear that the movement’s trajectory extends further back. Indeed, the ideological underpinnings of Black Lives Matter were already simmering for quite some time. [1] One can hear the echoes of Black Lives Matter, for example, in the writings and public statements of a diverse group of Black activists and intellectuals, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett. And one can trace a much longer movement—stretching as far back as the resistance to slavery and the slave patrols that incited much fear and terror in Black communities during the eighteenth century. From some of the earliest documented slave patrols, including the Charleston City Guard and Watch in 1783 (the precursor of the modern police force in Charleston, South Carolina), to the rise of lynchings in the aftermath of the Civil War and the expansion of police forces and white vigilante groups across the nation, state-sanctioned violence shaped every aspect of Black life and culture. Then, as now, Black people insisted that until their lives were valued equally as white lives, the nation’s professed creed of equal rights was no more than a myth.

During the Civil Rights-Black Power era, Black activists were at the forefront of challenging police violence and calling attention to the devaluation of Black life. Fannie Lou Hamer emerged as one of the most vocal activists in this struggle during the 1960s. Born in 1917 to a Mississippi sharecropper family, Hamer joined the civil rights movement in 1962—at the age of forty-four. After becoming a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an interracial civil rights organization, Hamer worked with other activists to help Black residents in Mississippi register to vote.

After her own experiences with police violence and intimidation, Hamer openly condemned state-sanctioned violence, most notably at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Before a televised audience of millions, Hamer told the story of how police officers violently beat her and fellow activists in Winona, Mississippi.

In 1963, a group of activists Hamer was travelling with got off a bus in Winona to grab a bite. They were returning home from a voter’s workshop in Charleston, South Carolina. Hamer and her colleagues encountered resistance from the owners of the restaurant who made it clear that Black patrons were not welcome. She left the bus when she noticed police officers shoving her friends into police cars. In only a matter of minutes, a white officer grabbed Hamer and started kicking her. She was arrested and taken to jail, where other officers unleashed a brutal beating on the activist, leaving permanent effects on her physical health. As she later explained:

“They beat me till my body was hard, till I couldn’t bend my fingers or get up when they told me to. That’s how I got this blood clot in my left eye—the sight’s nearly gone now. And my kidney was injured from the blows they gave me in the back.”

Reflecting on her own experiences, and that of countless Black people living in the United States, Hamer asked “Is this America?” as tears welled up in her eyes. By bringing national attention to the problem of police violence, Hamer paved the way for many other activists in the decades to follow.

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