By Paul Nutcher
Many whites were appalled by the rioting, shooting of police officers, and burning down of property and businesses following the killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd. The officer, Derek Chauvin with the Minneapolis police was recorded on cell phone video placing his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes during an arrest. In the now viral video, Floyd stated, “I can’t breath” before his body went limp. Floyd was later pronounced dead at the hospital. The cause for his arrest was trying to use counterfeit money to buy cigarettes. Chauvin was fired and charged with 2nd degree murder and the three other officers who stood by and did nothing also were fired and charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
For many African Americans, this homicide by police was another one too many deaths of an unarmed Black man and with good reason. Blacks are 2.5 times more likely to die in police custody than whites, according to a 2019 report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as posted on journalist.resources.org. So people took to the streets for a majority of peaceful protests against police brutality and called for reforms to the justice system. Other Blacks in recent years had been shot during traffic stops or subdued during arrests with chokeholds and ended up dead. In a show of empathy and support for the outrage nationwide, the protestors marched and held signs, saying: “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund The Police,” among others. All while, whites watching on TV focused on the several riots playing over and over again on the news and now they want their justice for the destroyed property and they demanded police file charges against the “thugs” (President Trump‘s word) who allegedly shot and killed police officers and burned down entire city blocks.
While law abiding citizens did not and cannot condone these acts of violence on either side, the white community needs to better understand the source of frustration for African-Americans at the root of the looting and Molotov cocktails in order for the nation to heal. To hear them talk or read their posts on Facebook, it is clear that most whites are unaware that policing in America has been a tool of government oppression for centuries, working for the interests of wealthiest Americans – from plantation owners to current day one-percenters – and reforms are long overdue. Police have become overly militarized and warrior-like while citizens from all communities prefer the “protect and service” mottos on police patrol cars to mean they act as guardian of the peace in our communities.
Policing in the United States started as a means to track down run-away slaves. These police were called “paddy rollers” by slaves and were first formed in 1704 in Antebellum South Carolina. That is the legacy of policing in America. Little changed, however, even after Abolition. While the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery, the amendment contained a loophole for taking away freedom from slaves who committed a so called “crime.” (See Netflix documentary 13th) Many emancipated slaves lost their freedom due to this clause in the Constitution. So police found any old crime to arrest former slaves and in effect they were re-slaved in the plantations now called prisons. Some plantations were converted to working prisons: see The Marshall Project. Police effectively rounded up Blacks and charged them with trespassing or vagrancy – basically criminalized them for being homeless – because after they were given freedom many of them had no home, scattered family in most cases, and little or no money or prospects. Many Blacks tried to migrate north to escape the terror they endured from police, who in many southern states were also members of the KKK. If a freed slave was spotted by a local sheriff in a white community, they were often made an example of to other Blacks with lynchings and beatings with chains and whips. Southern whites who attended lynchings often cut off the fingers of the victims as souvenirs to be kept in a jar on a shelf at home.
Further, Blacks who overcame the odds to become financially successful were also terrorized or even killed. Neighborhoods where freed slaves in the South were thriving were not safe from the blood-thirsty southern whites. Whole Black communities were destroyed by white mobs who did not want Blacks to be successful. One such racial atrocity was at the Black Wall Street massacre in Tulsa, Okalahoma, where 300 Blacks were slaughtered and their main street business section burned to the ground.
Eventually, these practices were exposed and most Southern states adopted a separate but equal doctrine, which were codified in the era of the Jim Crow laws. This led to systemic poverty for Black communities due to a lack of funding for books and better schools, inadequate healthcare and poor housing condition. During the Civil Rights era when activists tried to overturn segregation and racist laws, police used fire hoses on peaceful protesters and beat Blacks with batons, unleashed dogs on the activists including whites from the Northern states who had joined the movement.
When this ended and Blacks were allowed to attend white schools and universities, politicians in Washington, D.C. promising law and order started yet another form of racial oppression with laws that led to mass incarceration of African-Americans. These laws included: the War on Drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, and 3 strikes you’re out laws. On the streets, police started the “broken window” and “stop and frisk” policing methods which meant arrests more often in poorer neighborhoods for relatively minor offenses, again trespassing or vagrancy. According to the Netflix documentary 13th, due to more than four decades of these over zealous laws one in three Black males has been incarcerated in their lifetime compared to one in 17 white males. Further, whites are also more likely to post bail to get out of jail after an arrest and until their trial on the charges. However, that is not always the same for Black males whose families cannot afford to make bail and even if they want to plead not guilty they are left in jail until they accept a plea bargain and in the process admit to a crime they may or may not have committed just to be sentenced to time served and released. These extended stays in jail or prison mean they often lose their housing and jobs and are given little or no preparation for life outside of the lockup.
In America’s neoliberalism experiment since the Reagan era all the way to the current President Trump, corporations with one-percenter shareholders have cashed in on this bonanza of abundant inmates in the form of privatized, for-profit prisons. America has 4 percent of the world’s population yet it incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. These prison owners not only hold African-Americans they also house Central American immigrants and refugees of color in detention centers where profits are more important than the safety of people and even children in the warden’s custody. So there is a class warfare element to this issue as many of the Blacks held in for-profit prisons are not only padding the pockets of one-percenters who utilize tax havens to avoid taxes, they put today’s prison population to work for other corporations providing cheap labor for American companies, from inmate-grown potatoes to inmate-manufactured car parts, mattresses and clothing – all for less than a dollar a week in pay. And their business plans are now including monitoring paroles and those in the warden’s custody on work or school release with geo-trackable ankle bracelets. It is no wonder some activists in Black neighborhoods say their communities are under occupation by the police state. No wonder they say prison labor is the modern form of slave labor.
In reality, after peeking behind the news reports of riots, nothing has really changed for so many inner-city Blacks in America who are living paycheck to paycheck hoping not to get sick or for their car to break down. Of course, burning down a Wendy’s in Atlanta does not change anything in terms of gaining police reforms and may even hurt their cause. Still, one can imagine after generation after generation of family members have seen the same oppressive system after oppressive system keep Blacks from equal treatment by our police and the justice system, they see protesting as the only way to get attention for their cause – a potential stepping stone toward change. The protestors are trying to get somebody to listen to them about equal treatment. They don’t want special treatment; they just want a system based on equality for all.