Over two weeks, the latest protest for civil injustice reaches national (and heading global) proportions, yet also grown for decades in the making. We look outside, turn on the news, take part in the conversation because the air is a bit tenser. That time for civilization to stand by and do nothing is up.
On the surface, this latest civil unrest ignited by a horrific image from Minneapolis, a White police officer using his knee to crush the neck of a Black man for eight minutes and 46 seconds, depriving him of his right to live. On the ground pleading to breathe, George Floyd was a father, a mentor, a working every-man who also made terrible decisions. He then turned his life around, with new dreams while recently losing his job to the ongoing pandemic. Such details and more, are additives to the humane treatment that George Floyd and anyone else deserves.
Yet George Floyd had no chance, but every right to live as other officers stood by and did nothing. And,, so did much of the current police system passing this off as a mere incident, reducing the public call to action. The Minneapolis Police Department attempted to change the narrative, while more details and outside camera footage showed an apparent contradiction. Each disciplinary action felt like minimal for what appeared to be an execution, as more information mounted. This overall system felt cold to the growing public outcry.
Yet, new heat developed among the citizens of Minneapolis, spread through news and social media to every corner of the U.S nation. A spark to the growing Black Lives Matter movement, and too many similar incidents of police brutality and injustice through the previous decade. The systemic racism that leads to far too many events where people of color are unfairly targeted and mistreated for minor or made-up offenses. Then, made to suffer from a lack of due process where a law enforcement officer may use some lousy excuse to become judge, jury, and executioner.
Now, the movement fires up, filled combinations of pent-up fury and frustration with hope and hopelessness for the future. Many give up on not just the police as a force that is supposed to “serve and protect,” but a growing world that leaves the needs of the poor, the minorities, the less privileged…cold.
I use temperature as a metaphorical measure because nothing is instantly hot or cold. There are conditions that lead to growing extremes. History is full of moments that have raised the temperature of the growing frustration of a system that seems to give little effort to change.
Many historians would agree, the earliest racially pushed policing stemmed from the pre-civil war era. Slavery patrols were common in White, European descent dominant small towns and rural areas, organized to keep a lookout and control of Black slaves. Eventually, slavery was abolished, but the mentality of racial control remained through harassment, terrorism continued through the growing sectors of law enforcement.
Racial segregation laws, also known as Jim Crow laws (the term derived from a popular racist caricature in the late 1920s of Blacks), were eventually considered legal in South area regions, pushed a very unequal imbalance for Blacks to be kept social and economically disadvantaged and many dominant White areas. Being that African Americans were on the losing end of the Jim Crow era and treated inhumanly, White police officers identifying (and often working with) White supremacist groups including the KKK), would be widespread as typical enforcers. Eventually, those laws were ended, as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. Yet still, it took a heavy law enforcement in many areas to keep those laws moving.
Such attitudes through many law enforcement areas, did not change overnight. The resentment from many African Americans who experienced the social damage of Jim Crow laws grew, especially among those who migrated westward to the Pacific States, remained.
On August 11, 1965, in the Watts district of Los Angeles, a police officer pulled over Marquette Frye, a young African-American with a troubled past resulting in bad personal decisions, for drunk driving. He would walk in a drunken state to return with his mother to claim help claim the vehicle being towed. Eyewitnesses (a slowly growing crowd of locals) say she handled the situation well, while rightfully scolding her son for drunk-driving. Frye became agitated according to a police report, where he angrily defied threats of jail and car towed away. Patrol officers present tried to handcuff Marquette Frye, leading to a worried mother defending the life of her son in police custody, jumped to the officer, leading to violent escalation. The officer struck his baton to the head of Marquette Frye, bleeding as they both were under arrest,
The present local crowd grew frustrated and angry, also responding to some spreading incorrect rumors (for now, but there was only an official report to go by at this point). But even so, the racial tensions combined with economic inequality and housing discrimination added to the reputation of the Los Angeles police force, notorious among them for its recruitment of white individuals from the South U.S regions, an area well known for its systematic and very open racist community standards. Protests grew, and so did the anger.
The 1965 Watts Riots followed, leaving many buildings burned and places looted. While the police arrived to slow down the civil unrest, many were quick to use violent methods of crowd control. It didn’t help that Police Chief William Parker described the rioters as “monkeys in the zoo.” 34 people ended up dead and 1,032 injured. Of those who died, 23 killed by LAPD officers.
More frustration grew and spread from police reaction, mixing the protests and riots together.
Another early yet major and more substantial incident of police brutality was on the evening of July 12, 1967, in Newark, New Jersey, where two white police officers pulled over black cab driver, John William Smith, for an apparent traffic stop. They arrested and severely beat Smith claiming resistance and “insulting remarks.” Smith remained in his holding cell of the local precinct until further injuries lead to hospital placement.
The incident sparked protest from an area where African Americans were economically disadvantaged, adding anger to frustration resulting in a wide range of reactions. Rising tensions resulted in a quickly organized peaceful protest on that police station. But hell broke loose, as a riot instigated by a few angry citizens, leading to more police brutality, unnecessary and vicious. 26 people died, and countless injured, including Joe Bass Jr, a 12-year boy injured from a police gunshot. A photo of his bloodied body appeared on the cover of the July 1967 issue Life Magazine. It’s haunting, violently graphic, and you can click here if curious (warning, very graphic)
It’s what we see with out own eyes that makes the biggest difference. With the advent of media technology, so shall come the mounting resentment as pictures and video captured of unnecessary police brutality built upon legitimacy of the problem.
So why the rioting when there involves incidents of police brutality? I think Dr. Martin Luther King had the best response in a 1967 interview with CBS’ Mike Wallace in which he responded to a question regarding on minority charged vandalism and looting. “And I contend that the cry of ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro,” King said. “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
Adding oppressing police who abuse their power, maddens the situation for the disadvantaged. Sure, a riot is not justification. It is merely a result for many involved who I think, have given up on a system that works for them.
And so forth, there continued other incidents of police brutality, but none quite so apparent until the night of March 3rd, 1991 in Los Angeles from the balcony of local citizen George Holliday. He recorded by video cam, construction worker and also African American Rodney King, beaten horribly by a group LAPD officers who pulled initially pulled him over for drunk driving after a short chase.
And, that’s where I leave pause for a moment, looking back to a more personal experience. I was in Los Angeles at the time, with much to share the civil unrest and riots that followed. There is more to bring up from personal experience, because my part among so many others are just a contribution to the connected buildup of today.
Which is now, a very hot time.
The top picture I took from the recent protest in Seattle, currently more focused now in the Capitol Hill district. More on that with more pictures, coming up.