What is going on now in the killing of black people by police is merely an extension or continuation of America’s history as concerns legal violence against African-Americans.
Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow, as well as others, makes the case that mass incarceration is a way to control black lives in this country. Slavery was a good way to keep black people under the thumb of white people; when Lincoln freed the slaves in the states which had not seceded from the Union, Southerners were angry. The cry of “states’ rights” became common as Southerners deeply resented the “interference” of “big government” in their affairs. Whites began to consciously look for ways to again control black people. The result of their search included sharecropping and convict leasing.
But within the culture of control was also a culture of terror. Black people were objects; people did not regard blacks as human beings, thanks to the interpretation of the United States Constitution and the Holy Bible. Black people were despised for their color but valued for their labor. What white people wanted was to forever be in control; for many, America was a white man’s country. Nobody, not “the law” or God, would object to how they treated their nigras.
Racial discrimination, after Reconstruction, was institutionalized, with laws written into the Constitutions of Southern states to make racism legal. Southern states actually rewrote their constitutions to reflect the legality of racial discrimination. The legality of racial discrimination, accompanied by the criminalization and dehumanization of black people allowed people, including police officers, to oppress black people and throw them into jail for whatever reasons they wanted. Jim Crow laws were put into effect to keep black people subordinate to white people (see “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” written by the Equal Justice Initiative.) Black people could be and were arrested or in some cases, just lynched, for the most minor “offenses.” The EJI report tells of a man who was lynched in 1889 because he tried to enter a room where three white women were sitting, and another man was lynched for knocking on the door of a white woman. (EJI report. p 31)
Black people were arrested and many times lynched without the benefit of a trial for vagrancy, for speaking to white people, for looking at white people, for not stepping off a sidewalk or for bumping into a white woman. Though it was common, and had been common since slavery, for white men to rape black women, black men could be and were lynched for even unproven allegations of having sex with white women.
Law enforcement did not protect black people. Law enforcement …and local and state governments, did not protect black people, either. The federal government was basically impotent, refusing to become involved in the way states treated black people unless what was going on threatened to adversely affect the state.
Black people, then, have been living in terror and distrust of law enforcement officers for hundreds of years. The Great Migration happened in large part because black people were tired of living in fear, and tired of being terrorized by mobs and cops. They witnesses horrific destruction of black life – black people hung from trees, then shot as they hung, taken down and dragged through the streets. Often times they were burned alive, and sometimes they were set afire after the hanging was done. Like the Romans who crucified people and let them hang along main drags into major cities to remind people of what happened to those who challenged the government, white people paraded their “catches” through the streets. Sometimes those doing the lynching made family members watch as their loved one was brutalized and mutilated. (http://www.tampabay.com/features/humaninterest/spectacle-the-lynching-of-claude-neal/1197360)
In a horrific case, the lynching of Claude Neal in Florida, Neal, who confessed to raping and killing a white woman, he was dragged from jail by a mob. He was taken to a location where he was tortured before he was killed. He was shot; his testicles were cut off and he was made to eat them; his penis was also cut off and he was made to eat it. After he was hung he was shot 50 times. His fingers and toes were cut off and sold as souvenirs. The sense is that everyone knows who killed Neal but nobody talked – not then and not now.
When I heard the account of why Freddie Gray was chased – because he made eye contact with police officers and then ran, a chill ran up my spine. The spirit of racism and of hatred, coupled with the tradition of white law enforcement allowing and often participating in the mass destruction and control of black people…has not died. Black people still do not trust law enforcement – not the police, not the detectives, not the judges or the court system …and white people still feel justified to stop and harass black people for two reasons: one, because they can and get away with it, and two, because they still regard black people as criminals and not quite human. Only when an individual regards another individual as an object can he or she treat others as white police officers have too often treated black people.
None of what the white mobs did to black people was done without violence. I guess that’s why I cringe as news anchors express so much dismay over the potential for violence as black people gather in frustration and anger to protest the way they (we) have been treated. White mob violence meted out against not only black individuals, but against entire towns and neighborhoods was nothing short of barbaric. But again, the resentment of whites against black people for their standing up for justice is not a new thing; in the past, some people who voiced opposition to the unjust laws and murderous treatment they received were lynched.
My prayer is that the family of Freddie Gray gets justice. I am not confident that any investigation of what happened to him will yield charges against the officers who were involved. I hope that we do not receive the dreaded phrase, “the force used was justified.”
Those who lynched black people in the past used that same phrase. That enabled them to kill black people when and as they wanted …and never look back. They accused and killed black people because they could.
It feels like that privilege is still alive and kicking.
A candid observation …