Police Brutality and Black Bodies: Can Martin Luther King’s ‘Dream’ Be Fulfilled?

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When I heard the news of a 46-year old African-American man being choked to death by a US law enforcement officer on 25th May, 2020 in Minnesota, one month back, I was curious to know how grave a crime the man had committed that he was punished so brutally. A little research into social media posts and news reports revealed that he was punished for an alleged crime of buying some cigarettes using counterfeit money. ‘How could the police authorities be so ruthless and brutal for a petty crime like this?’ was my immediate reaction. Further research into such institutional killings in the US led me to hordes of such cases of police brutality where black individuals had been randomly identified, tracked, targeted and thereby put to death or life-term imprisonment for petty offences like bootlegging, buying or selling of cigarettes without tax stamps, loitering on the roads with a hoodie and so forth. Needless to say that the offenders could have been easily let off with a stiff warning or a heavy penalty if the offence was so serious, but even a minor offence has severe implications if the offender happens to be an African-American in the US. As the fate had it, George Floyd was robbed of his life for the same reasons in exact 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

American Racial history and African-Americans

Was George Floyd guilty of such a heinous crime that his life did not matter before it? Was he a pathological offender? Was he already on police’s list of ‘suspected criminals’? Questions like these and many more are perturbing almost every ‘living’ person on this planet at the moment. However, the answer to these questions is neither available in the severity of the crime Floyd may have committed nor in the show of brutality the police put up in full public view. It is rather to be explored in the long history of racism in white majority US when slavery as an institution came into force with the first slave ship arriving at the coast of Virginia in the first decade of 17th century.

Africans who were brought to America from various different locations in Africa were now to be treated as slaves or chattel labour in their new location, devoid of all rights—social, economic, political and life. They had only one right: the right to serve the white master. They were property of their white masters who could sell them, buy them or dispose of them anytime they would like. Those who acted tough and did not submit to the call of the white master were punished with death. Hanging from a tree or post, throwing off into the sea or river with hands tied, shooting with a gun or skinning someone alive were regular methods used by the white masters to show resisting slaves their place and to terrorize others. Women slaves were spared with life but raped repeatedly. They had unique powers to bring more hands to till white master’s land or pick cotton from his field.

Though slavery as an institution was abolished in 1865 (the final year of the American Civil War 1861-1865 where the American north or the Federals fought to industrialize/modernize the American south or the Confederates and thereby free the slaves from the clutches of agriculture dependent white slave holders who resisted all attempts of the north but could not succeed), racism did not end. It was rather born in a new avatar known as extreme racial prejudice and violence against ex-slaves who would remain sub-humans to the whites. During the Reconstruction era (1863-1877) which is an important chapter in the history of American civil rights, not only was slavery abolished but the newly freed slaves were also given the status of citizens with civil rights and the right to vote as per 14th and 15th amendment to the Constitution. Since the constitutional guarantees had changed the prevailing status quo badly affecting the material interests of the slave holders and their high social status, American south emerged as the one place where the changed status quo gave rise to extreme racial prejudice against ex-slaves that would often culminate in mass killings of blacks, lynchings and discrimination of the worst kind imaginable. The atrocities against ex-slaves were not just an act of revenge upon the blacks who had slipped out of the hands of the erstwhile slave holders due to constitutional amendments and would often refuse to work for them as former slaves but also on the American north which had ‘dis-privileged’ the white Americans in the American south in one go and were sending in educated blacks and white northerners to help rehabilitate the freedmen. Freedmen’s Bureau, a US government agency from 1865 to 1872, working to rehabilitate freedmen, their wives and children with food, shelter and other essentials, is one example here.

The racial prejudice against the free slaves was so profound that it took an institutional character in the post-bellum period where the black community as a whole was systemically oppressed, discriminated against, segregated, disenfranchised and deprived of opportunities essential for advancement and socio-economic mobility. On one hand, those among the blacks who had moved to the cities in the north either by stealth or after the abolition of slavery had some opportunities for growth and mobility under the protection of white abolitionists who fought for the cause of black people ever since the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin but could not help much in erasing the white-black binary. On the other, those who stayed back and received assistance from the central government to renew their lives were in quite a bad shape as the white extremists and race-binary supporters made sure that they stay in their previous place. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist hate group whose members targeted both politically active blacks and black sympathizers among whites in the South with the agenda of ‘purifying’ the American society, and the legalizing of racial segregation under Jim Crow Laws which denied African-Americans the right to vote, hold jobs or public office, and get education and other opportunities, were some measures adopted by the southern states of America to keep the ex-slaves at bay and deprived of advancement.

It is to counter this supremacist attitude of the white society against people of colour and to put an end to their systemic oppression and dehumanization that the Civil Rights Movement of late 1960s took shape and strived to “make real the promises of democracy” that had been conferred upon every single person in the US irrespective of their class, creed and color. Unfortunately, the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken about in his 1963 Lincoln Memorial speech where he envisaged an American nation where his children and the rest of the African-American community would be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character, still remains elusive and far from any realization in the present scenario.

The death of George Floyd was not merely as an act of police brutality but an unflinching hate crime by the white fundamentalists consumed by deep seated racial prejudice against people of color in America. Floyd merely paid the price for being born in a black body like many others before him. Whether it was the 14-year-old Emmett Till who was lynched and mutilated by a group of white Americans for offending a white woman in a grocery shop in Mississippi in 1955 or a 17-year-old Trayvon Martin who was racially profiled and shot in the chest by George Zimmerman, a white man, in 2012 who suspected him to be “up to no good” or Eric Garner who was put into a chokehold by US police officers in plainclothes on suspicion of selling cigarettes from packs without tax stamps and died uttering “I can’t breathe” eleven times in New York City in 2014, all the victims and their brutal deaths highlight the deep seated racial prejudice among the whites which continues to oppress and dehumanize the people of colour in the US. It won’t be an exaggeration to point out that the black bodies in the US have always been a staple diet for select white Americans who go after vulnerable black individuals to satiate their cannibalistic hunger.

 Upward Mobility of Blacks and the Revolt of White ‘Fundamentalists’

All human societies of the world have transitioned from old to new. More liberal socio-political systems have replaced the traditional oppressive ones. There are laws and constitutional provisions which not only safeguard the interests of the marginalized social groups but also foster an environment of collective growth and advancement for people in all social categories. Pre-historic anti-people social norms and practices have been outlawed which once allowed certain social/racial groups dominate over others and exploit them. In other words, democracy has become the norm in almost all political systems of the world today no matter what is at stakes. However, to assume that a more democratic and liberal approach would ease the matters of the past and teach people to live by the new principles and values which promote equality and justice and a little sacrifice on part of the dominant groups would be delusional to begin with. Individuals are driven by their self-interests. The moment there is a potential encroachment of the same or the fear that their self-interests would be compromised because of a new rule or law, it takes the form of never-ending social/racial prejudice and even violence to retain the status quo. Upward mobility of blacks from post-bellum period onward and the revolt of white fundamentalists who perceive every other black individual as a stealer of their privileges and prerogatives form the basis of racial profiling, racial attacks and racial discrimination in the present day US against people of colour.

As the people of colour in the US attained socio-economic mobility as a result of abolition of slavery and the policy of affirmative action which was a gift of the Civil Rights Movement, racial prejudice and racial atrocities against black people became more profound and routine. It was a result of an increasing insecurity felt by the white dominant groups that their own socio-economic interests would be severely affected if the blacks continued to rise and attain upward mobility under the protection of constitutional provisions. A repeat of what came to pass post-American Civil War. Socio-economic mobility meant that a black individual could rise to the positions of power and privilege with the help of education and constitutional safeguards, a massive blow to the erstwhile status quo and social order when only the whites had positions of power and dominance in the American society. This insecurity or imagined loss of the privileges and prerogatives once enjoyed by the whites not only pushed them to profile every black person as a troublemaker and encroacher but also resort to violence against them whenever they fancied that the blacks had transgressed the racial norms. Emmett Till’s death in 1955 at just 14 for a crime like offending a white woman was an outcome of such racial transgression the boy couldn’t make sense of given his age.

Although there is one law for all in the US and no one is above or below it, it appears that the law has a slightly bad relationship with the blacks. As far as incarceration rate in the US prison system is concerned, African-Americans make the maximum numbers in prisons with a population of just 13% as a whole, followed by white Americans who have a population base of about 72% in total. Hispanic and Asians figure at the bottom. Besides, conviction rate among blacks is much higher than the whites once the prosecutors, who happen to be mostly white, are familiar with the background information of the accused like race, demography, location of the crime etc. A 2016 Justice Department report found that though African-Americans made up only about 6 percent of San Francisco’s population, they accounted for 41 percent of those arrested, 43 percent of those booked into jail and 38 percent of cases filed by prosecutors between 2008 and 2014. Another study by Carlos Berdejo in 2017 at University of Loyola Law School reported that white defendants in Wisconsin were 25 percent more likely to have criminal charges dropped or reduced to less serious charges than their black counterparts. George Zimmerman is a case in point here who shot Trayvon Martin dead in Florida in 2012 and was initially let off by the state court without slapping any grievous charge. It is only after he was spotted partying around in his apartment and the subsequent protests by blacks went more violent that he was re-arrested and charged with murder.

Therefore, to argue that racial bias is something which existed only in the past as I have discussed above or to some extent exists in social spaces where blacks and whites contact each other on a regular basis but not in the public institutions would be like turning one’s face away from the reality on ground. Only thing that seems to have changed over time is that the locus of brutality and violence against blacks has shifted from the South to the North and other western states of the US, thus coming a full circle. In other words, racism and racial prejudice exist everywhere in the US. States with minimum black population have maximum incidents of violence against blacks and the incarceration rate among them too is very high when compared to other communities. Thus, there is an immediate need to remove the stereotyping lens which enables almost every white American or race-binary lovers to see African-Americans as second-class citizens, troublemakers, thugs, stealers of privileges, or as people always onto something wrong or evil and so forth. The racial narrative which has kept the binaries of white and black and others alive for centuries has to be dismantled and the image of the black people to be corrected if the dream of post-racial America has to come true. People in power positions have a greater responsibility towards the afflicted race. They need to rise above their personal angst if any and debunk social and popular influences which impregnate the mind with racial bias against people of colour. They have to make sure that the Constitution of the country does not get a bad name. The words of current US Defense Secretary, Mark Esper who refused to send army troops to disperse the protestors on Donald Trump’s order stating “every member of the armed forces swears an oath to defend the Constitution which gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly”, hold immense significance and instill hope in every US citizen that no matter what the past was like; no matter what the present is like, the future will be different and the dream of Martin Luther King Jr., realized.

Amit Kumar, faculty, Department of English, Vivekananda College, DU



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