Updated: Jun 3
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Although some argue that today's police departments do not exhibit systemic racism, taking a look at the history of this country provides a different perspective.
"I don't think there's systemic racism in US police forces. I think 99.9% of our law enforcement are great Americans. There are just some bad apples in there." - Robert O'Brien, National Security Advisor for the Trump Administration.
The African ancestors of Black Americans came to this country after being captured from their homeland by White colonizers in 1619. They were sentenced to enslavement and bondage by people who viewed them as less than human and were tasked with the job of building this country - for free. Since the colonizers feared a slave revolt, they developed a system of policing to ensure there were consequences for anyone who dared to defy their slave masters.
Photo Credit: OrigionalPeople.org
By the early 1700s, America had begun to develop a form of law enforced by the Slave Patrols, also known as "paddyrollers." This organization regulated the slaves by using brutal physical force, traumatizing mental intimidation, and continuous surveillance. They patrolled each plantation on horseback while armed with ropes, guns, and whips, ready to be used on any slave caught breaking the law. Some infractions of the law included: talking back, writing, reading, hosting a family gathering to celebrate life events, singing, and a host of other situations that under any circumstances would be considered the furthest thing from a crime.
The Emancipation Proclamation, unfortunately, did very little to free Black people from their slave masters. Instead, it introduced another insidious version of the paddyrollers called the Ku Klux Klan, simply known as the "KKK". This group, also on horseback, donned white robes with cone-shaped masked to conceal their identities. Though not legally sanctioned, they continued to terrorize and brutalize the emancipated slaves as a rouge group of White supremacists who refused to view Black people as legitimate and equal members of society.
The KKK is infamously known for burning crosses in the yards of Black homeowners as an intimidation tactic and for the countless lynchings of Black men for no reason other than the color of their skin. The suspicion of having any contact with a White woman- or even looking at one - would also result in an immediate public lynching. This horrific system of oppression continued for more than 100 years and still exists - although in more veiled ways - today.
That is, with the exception of some members of the police force.
Unfortunately in 2020, Black people (Black men in particular) are still subjected to extreme brutality, unwarranted surveillance, and intimidation designed to control their constitutional right to freedom. Being arrested without just cause, beaten for petty crimes, and even killed while unarmed and not posing a threat are sadly common occurrences for Black Americans more than 400 years after our capture and enslavement.
As I write this, we are currently in the middle of a social uprising to protest the vicious and callous death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was brutally murdered by a White officer who held him down on the street with his knee on his neck along with two other officers who held down his body with the weight of their own. The officer's force was so severe it cut off circulation to his brain and killed him while he pleaded: "I can't breathe." He was murdered while being arrested for suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill.
The following is a list of unarmed Black men and women killed by police whose deaths made headlines.(Note: this list is not all-inclusive as it does not include the deaths that did not have the benefit of witnesses or videoed evidence):
Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, 54, shot for lunging at an officer with a screwdriver. Ms. Mitchell suffered from mental illness.
LaTanya Haggerty, 26, shot under the assumption that she had a gun. She was holding her cell phone and was unarmed.
Amadou Diallo, 22, shot 19 times by four officers who thought he fit the description for a rapist. He was not the rapist in question. He was shot when he reached for his wallet to identify himself.
Kendra James, 21, shot in the head when as a passenger, she moved to the driver's seat after the original driver was arrested. She was unarmed.
Ronald Madison, 40, and James Brissette, 17, killed by police while walking in search of food and supplies after Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Madison was mentally disabled.
Sean Bell, 23, shot in the neck and torso in his car the night of his bachelor party, suspected of having a gun. He was unarmed.
Manual Loggins, Jr., 31, was shot after crashing into a school gate during a motor vehicle accident. Police said when he got out of the car and returned to it, he didn't comply with their order to show his hands. They fired three shots into the car, killing him in front of his 9-year-old and 14-year-old daughters.
Ramarley Graham, 18, was shot in the chest in his apartment after police suspected he was armed. He was not.
Shereese Francis, 29, who was mentally ill and off her medications, died by strangulation during a struggle with police.
Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot by a neighborhood watchman who claimed he "looked dangerous" and thought he was armed. He was carrying a soft-drink and a bag of Skittles.
Rekia Boyd, 22, shot in the head while standing with friends after a man in the group had words with an undercover detective, who shot five shots in her direction.
Jamar Clark, 24, was shot in the head after what police said was a "struggle for their gun." He was unarmed.
Yvette Smith, 47, shot on her front porch. Police said she was armed and later confirmed she was not.
Tamir Rice, 12, was shot while playing with a toy gun alone at a park.
LaQuan McDonald, 17, shot 16 times after officers followed him under suspicion breaking into cars. He was unarmed and no proof surfaced that he was responsible for any break-ins
Akai Gurley, 28, was shot when a policeman's bullet ricocheted off a building when it discharged after being held in an unsafe manner.
Eric Garner, 43, died after being placed in an illegal chokehold while he pleaded, "I can't breathe."
Oscar Grant, 27, shot while handcuffed as an officer straddled his back at Bart's Fruitvale Station.
Ezell Ford, 25, was shot while walking down the street after officers approached him while looking for gang members. The officers said he attacked them. He was unarmed and mentally ill.
Michael Brown, Jr., 18, shot after suspected of a robbery at a convenience store. He did not rob the store and he was unarmed.
Christian Taylor, 19, a college football player, was shot after suspected of burglary at a car dealership. He did not commit burglary and the office pursued and shot him although no orders were given to do so.
Walter Scott, 50, was shot in the back while running away from a police officer fearing for his life.
Natasha McKenna, 37, died after being shocked four times with a stun gun while in custody. She was cuffed and shackled at the time she was shocked and suffered from mental illness.
Freddy Gray, 25, died when his neck was broken in the back of a police transport van.
Brendon Glenn, 29, shot by police in the back while he was lying on his stomach. Police say he reached for the gun holster, however video footage proved he did not.
Samuel DuBose, 43, shot during a traffic stop when he tried to get out his car
Gregory Gunn, 58, shot outside of his home as he knocked on a window asking for help when police approached him for "looking suspicious".
Alton Sterling, 37, shot during a confrontation with police while he was selling CDs and movies outside of a store.
Philando Castile, 37, was shot in a car with his fiance and 4-year-old daughter after telling an officer during a stop that he was a registered gun owner and he reached for his gun permit.
Sandra Bland, 28, died suspiciously in custody after an arrest from a traffic stop where the officer used brutal force and refused to explain why she was arrested. Police say she committed suicide, although her family maintains that she was not depressed and had recently moved to a new city for a new job.
Stephon Clark, 23, was killed in his grandmother's backyard as police suspected the cell phone he was holding was a gun.
Breonna Taylor, 26, shot in her apartment during a botched search warrant served at the wrong home.
Ahmaud Aubery, 25, shot 3 times by former police offer while jogging unarmed
George Floyd, 46, strangled by a police offer while he lay prone and in handcuffs.
It is beyond difficult to conclude that the state of current law enforcement is not reminiscent of the systemically racist foundation on which it was created some 300 years ago. And the souls of those listed above are the tragic and senseless casualties of a system that continues to oppress Black people that already suffer from the post-traumatic stress of our ancestor's enslavement.
I understand there are those who feel that not all police operate with racial bias because you may have a friend or family member who serves and has a good heart. But if they do not speak out against the injustice within their departments, I respectfully submit these words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the SILENCE of our friends."
"Getting Shot By the Police is the Leading Cause of Death for Young Black Men in America," Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2019, accessed 5/31/2020 from latimes.com
Turner, K. B. , Giacopassi , D. , & Vandiver , M. (2006) . Ignoring the Past: Coverage of Slavery and Slave Patrols in Criminal Justice Texts. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 17: (1), 181–195.