At the famous Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington rests a protest placard that says, ‘WE DEMAND AN END TO POLICE BRUTALITY NOW!’
The placard is all too relevant to today’s America. One can see at all recent anti-police brutality protests, especially the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that erupted following the death of George Floyd in police custody last summer. But the fact is that this placard is 58 years old.
It was carried by college professor Samuel Egerton in 1963 demonstration protesting the killing of an armed black man at the hand of white policemen. Egerton donated the placard years later to the museum.
The placard may be nearly six decades old yet the message “is still unresolved”, he said in a report on the museum’s website. The demands are the same, the slogans are the same and unfortunately the police brutality against black Americans are still the same 58 years later.
The US media and many activists hailed the conviction of white police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of Floyd as could as paradigm shift in justice for the African American community. But sadly, it is not. It will be business as usual in the treatment of black Americans at the hands of the police for the simple fact that we were all genuinely and happily surprised by the verdict.
In her book White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960, Lisa Lindquist Dorr says: “The system [will be] fair when we are no longer surprised. We’ll know that the system is fair when we expect fairness.”
So, the US justice system occasionally gives the appearance of justice to black people who are victims of police brutality because extending that justice in a few instances keeps intact the “racially oppressive nature” of the system. In fact, granting “infrequent justice enables stewards of the system to exalt its supposed impartiality.”
Harsh police tactics
Therefore, the African American community is expected to keep since tomorrow if another black person is killed by a white police officer because the killer of George Floyd has been convicted. One case may be used to silence the demands of a community to end racial injustice that has been ongoing for nearly two centuries, when the first police department was established in the US in Boston and other northern cities in the 1830s.
Then, and due to the small numbers of blacks in those communities, the recipients of the early police harsh tactics and racial behaviours were the new immigrants from Europe who didn’t speak English well, like the Italians, the Greeks, the Polish.
Then as the infamous Jim Crow Laws were enacted in the south, black began to flee their southern hometowns to the north expecting equality and justice. However, the police could very well have been waiting for them to exercise their own ‘right’ of getting away with murder every time they killed a black person!
The Jim Crow Laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern US. They were enacted in the late 1800s and early 20th century by white Southern Democrat-dominated state legislatures to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by black people following the civil war.
These laws mandated the segregation of state schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains between white and black people. The US military was already segregated.
President Woodrow Wilson, a Southern Democrat, initiated the segregation of federal workplaces in 1913. Despite their sheer nature of racism and white supremacy ideology, the Jim Crow Laws were upheld by a court order after a court order until they were abolished in 1965 at the height of the civil rights movement.
Unfortunately, we don’t how many thousands of black people were killed at the hands of the police as there is no reliable data, but we know for sure that the number of white policemen who got away with murder is far greater than America is willing to remember.
However, a recent website called Mapping Police Brutality, set up by three rights activists, managed to track confirmed cases from the beginning of 2013. From January 2013 to the end of 2019 — that is six years — at least 1944 blacks were killed by the police in different parts of the US. Policemen convicted for those near two thousand murders: Less than 1 per cent. That is right, less than 1 per cent.
What paradigm shift?
According to the website, African Americans make up 13 per cent of the US population but account for 24 per cent of people fatally shot by police. And according to the Washington Post, blacks are “2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.” So much for a paradigm shift.
Nevertheless, the conviction of Floyd’s killer still is a significant achievement made possible most probably by the mass protests last year. The viral video of Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd helped, too.
The conviction led to a sense of relief and joy across the United States. But many smart people voiced concern that the guilty verdict may represent yet another infrequent dose of justice to silence the demands of the community for complete justice and equality.
Gary McCollum, a local minister in Virginia Beach, said it on National Public Radio shortly after the verdict was announced that he was afraid that Chauvin will be portrayed as “one bad apple” in the criminal justice system rather than a systemic problem.
“Chauvin was not one bad apple,” he said. “You have a system that preys on marginalised communities and African Americans” for decades. He is right. We will confirm it is justice when we are no longer surprised by the conviction of one killer cop.