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Oscar Grant, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Michael Brown, and Vonderrit Myers Jr. Each of the individuals all have one thing in common: they were all people of color (POC) that were murdered while completely unarmed. Following each of their murders large scale non-violent protests quickly formed in order to fight against the too constant murders of POC. Unfortunately in each of these instances the police found it necessary to use overly militaristic tactics in defending themselves against the ‘violent protestors’ despite them being completely nonviolent.
While many supporters of the police and its officers claim that the police try their best to be colorblind and follow the letter of the law while in a constant battle with the ‘violent POC’, throughout the sordid history of the United States any non-violent protest led by POC has been violently disrupted by the police force disproportionately to white-passing protestors in their movements.
To understand the police’s violent dislike of and resistance against non-violent protests organized and led by POC it’s essential to know how the police force in the United States became, in essence, a racist and prejudice entity that does not protect everyone equally, but still does what it was designed to do originally.
The origins of racism in the United States began as soon as the settlement of James Town was established in the ‘new world’ in 1607 and it was discovered that the Native Americans (or American ‘Indian’) was already living there. They were immediately labeled as savages and set on a path of almost total annihilation (National Humanities Center).
However, at this point there was not an organized police force in the United States yet. The origins of the police force in the United States came after the first slave ships arrived in America during 1619 and the American slave economy was established (Chandler). It’s not well known that American policing began at this point as it wasn’t called a ‘police force’, it was originally titled the ‘Slave Patrol’, an organization of white and white passing, those who may be POC but have stereotypically white features, men that were in charge of catching and returning slaves to their ‘owners’. In the words of Turner, Giacopassi, and Vandiver, it was “a legally sanctioned law enforcement system… in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement” (Kappeler). To think that the police force that our society depends on to protect all of us is rooted in absolute legalized racism at its core is appalling, especially when you consider that this type of detrimental treatment towards POC has continued centuries past the ending of legal slavery in the United States.
Now that the police force has been established and organized, racist past and all, the spotlight moves over to the origins of the non-violent civil disobedience movement in the United States. During the early stages of the civil rights movement there was a disagreement on how to effectively react to the negative reactions to the fight for the increase of rights and visibility in government. During this turbulent time of disagreement and confusion Bayard Rustin, who would later become Martin Luther King Jr’s right hand man, approached King Jr and introduced him to Gandhi’s philosophies on non-violent resistance and civil disobedience also known as ‘Satyagraha’ (Rustin). These principles enabled the protestors in the movement to combat racist oppression without being labeled as the violent animals that the opposition already viewed them as. However, despite Satyagraha being such a simple philosophy, in practice often became a completely different story. Many of the early participants in the civil rights movement were extremely underprepared inexperienced youth that were viewed with a large amount of skepticism in their own communities. (Cobb, 114). This coupled with presence of the Klu Klux Klan, a racist white-supremacist organization that committed numerous violent acts against African-Americans that still believed in violence even if the POC didn’t, created a major daily risk. Due to this major risk and lack of preparation, some participators in the movement, like Malcom X, still believed in the age old principle of and ‘eye for an eye, because in their opinion “nonviolence means [that] we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem – just to avoid violence” (Malcom X, 19). Despite this slight pushback against the principles of civil disobedience it has become the forefront of effective civil rights movements both past and present.
When the racist origins of the police force and nonviolent resistance movements that involve mostly or exclusively POC collide, flagrant human rights violations and shameless displays of unnecessary violence often ensue. One of the most famous examples of this fiery clash between the oppressors and the oppressed occurred in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 during one of the largest non-violent protests of the civil rights movement. Despite the protestors, mostly made up of African-Americans, complete non-violent and peaceful stance they were met with a racist backlash by the white-passing majority that they were fighting against. To quiet this ‘public disturbance’ the City Commissioner at the time, T. Eugene “Bull” Connor, authorized the police’s use of vicious police dogs and fire hoses. The images of African-American protestors being bitten by dogs while simultaneously being bombarded by the massive force of the water from the fire hoses is engrained in the minds of every African-American alive then and born since. (Eskew) This single act, and its subsequent coverage on television, showed the world that the police in America were not here to protect POC, and were not afraid to engage in violent offensive militaristic tactics when it came to proving that. After the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent increasing of rights for POC and other minorities, the racist motives of began to go largely unnoticed, unmonitored, and relatively underground. However, this does not mean that their persecution of POC ended at all by any means. As a study by the U.S. Department of Justice in March of 1997 explains the “lifetime chances of a person going to prison are…higher for blacks (16.2%) and Hispanics (9.4%) than for whites (2.5%). (Bureau of Justice, 1). If POC are more likely to be incarcerated it can be surmised that “racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested”, as it’s said in a report by the U.N. Human Rights Committee (Knafo). This imbalance in arrests and incarcerations by the police force proves that their racial prejudice did not end with slavery nor at the end of the civil rights movement.
In fact, it still continues into the present day even as this essay is being written. Following the shooting and murder of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by officer of the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Missouri Darren Wilson, a large scale non-violent protest movement akin to the ones often seen during the civil rights movement erupted to combat the underlying racist ideologies that plague the police department and their frequent killings of POC with little to no repercussions; for example, as of the writing of this essay Darren Wilson, the officer involved in the murder, has yet to be arrested for the shooting of Mike Brown over three months after the initial incident. (Yousef). Rather than focusing on the obvious, prosecuting Darren Wilson for his crime, the police have, staying true to their pattern, chosen to be belligerent towards the non-violent protest movement that erupted. After the original crime a national outcry was called out against the murders of POC, but the conversation quickly shifted as protestors were beginning to be subjected to the same exact inhumane treatment. As described by the Daily Cougar, the student newspaper at the University of Houston, “military tanks line the streets where protesters have gathered. Police are arresting protesters and reporters, even engaging in physical violence and using tear gas to disperse crowds. Protesters stand with their hands up; a sign of surrender, yet the brutality continues.” (Yousef). The slogan “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” has become a major rallying cry during these nonviolent protests as the incidents of brutality committed by the now completely militarized police force towards the protestors continues. This also brings into question the militarization of the police as a whole which is caused by the Department of Defense program, known as the 1033 program, which donates surplus military weapons and equipment to civilian police departments for free (Prupis). Why would civilian police need literal military grade equipment to defend themselves against protestors and who felt that this was an appropriate response? It’s likely the same type of individuals that felt it was perfectly acceptable to utilize vicious dogs and fire hoses against POC during the civil rights movement, but now with a larger access to dangerous weaponry such as tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, assault rifles, armored tanks and their favorite: attack dogs. This demonstrated the utter lack of respect for the lives of POC, and their safety and comfort in their own neighborhoods. On average, according to a study by the National Safety Council, “an individual is eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist” (Prupis). When this is coupled with the high arrest rate for POC, it’s obvious that a large number of the murders committed by the police involve POC victims. Not only is this an appalling trend, it’s morally wrong.
While a great deal of evidence supports the theory of the police’s bias towards POC led non-violent protests, there are still a large number of holdouts that still view the police in an altruistic and heroic light. Immediately following the murder of Mike Brown, while a large majority began protesting against the police, some began to rally in support of them. Multiple Darren Wilson fundraisers have popped up, selling t-shirts, and pins and buttons claiming that these individuals “Stand by Darren Wilson”. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been donated towards Wilson’s ‘cause’ despite him being on paid administrative leave following the incident, and no warrant being out for his arrest (Terkel and Reilly). This raises the question of why people are supporting Darren Wilson. It’s essential to know that the majority of those rallying in support of the police officers, and Wilson in particular, are often white or white passing. This means that they have likely had less negative interactions with the police due to the police’s bias not being targeted towards them. The lack of being targeted by the police allows an accidental ignorance when it comes to the plight of POC and police brutality. According to one Pro-Wilson advocate Michael Bates, “If you do what the police tell you to do… then you’re not going to have nothing to worry about. If everyone just stopped with the racism thing, it’d all just go away… Rioting and everything in the streets doesn’t get anything done.” (Terkel and Reilly). While it’s great to think that the police are on everyone’s side, it’s impossible to eliminate the racist ideologies from the conflict of the police vs. protestors. Many believe that the only reason that anyone supports Darren Wilson instead of Mike Brown boils down to the issue of race, not guilt. This theory is supported upon viewing the comments found on the fundraising pages in support of Darren Wilson. These pages contain gems of racial insensitivity that range from “all self-respecting whites have a moral responsibility to support our growing number of martyrs to the failed experiment called diversity – Mike Berman” to “Darren and those like him are all that stand between Americans and anarchy. After supporting the blacks I give up – Richard Holsinger” (Keith). These comments from average American citizens portray the intolerance towards black people and their actions both during protests and, unfortunately, in general. Another topic many of these comments touch on is the portrayal of the protestors. When the media portrays the protestors as violent rioters with no purpose for invading the streets. For example, during the early stages of the conflicts between the police and the protestors they were described as “standoffs” and “clashes”, despite, according to Chauniqua Young, a fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, “the over-escalation has been by the police, not the protestors” (Prupis). This causes a negative view of the protestors and a positive view of the police which results in supporters of the police who may or may not be aware of the racist ideologies that police support.
While the history of racial violence and injustices in the United States could be considered and ongoing epidemic of sorts it’s important to note that the issues of police brutality when it comes to non-violent protestors is not only a U.S. centered issue. Throughout the modern world there are a multitude of examples where the police are unjustly violent towards protestors that ‘just happen’ to be POC. While the ideas of race, racial presentation and discrimination are not the same in other countries, there are still incidents such as Hong Kong’s currently ongoing Umbrella Revolution where protestors are unjustly subjected to militaristic tactics. The ongoing militarization of police has had an overwhelmingly negative affect on POC throughout the world (Hume and Park).
Throughout the history of the United States there has been a large amount of injustices committed against POC, with a particular regard to police officers in relation to non-violent protestors. This has caused a split in the national opinion on whether or not the police’s motives are rooted in their racist origins which are shown through their overly militaristic violent tactics or if they are actually here to protect us all equally.
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