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Guest Column
Is this America? Protests and policing in historical context | Column
What America should learn from the unbroken history of police violence against Black and brown communities.
Register for the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs at worldaffairsconference.org.
Register for the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs at worldaffairsconference.org. [ Photo illustration by Ron Borresen ]
Published Feb. 19

Editor’s note: This column is from one of the participants in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which is being held virtually this year. It runs from Tuesday through Friday. For details, go to worldaffairsconference.org. The column contains vulgarity.

Shortly after the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, two African-American Capitol Police officers came upon one another in the Rotunda. Based on a BuzzFeed News interview with one of these men, he turned to his fellow uniformed officer and spoke out as “tears just started streaming down my face.” “What the f--k, man,” he said. “Is this America? What the … just happened? I am so sick and tired of this s--t!”

Soon the Black officer began screaming so that all within the Rotunda, especially his white colleagues, could hear what he had just experienced. “These racist-ass terrorists,” he shouted. “I just got called n----- 15 times today. Trump did this, and we got all these f--king people in our department that voted for him. How the f--k can you support him,” he asked?

The blunt answer to this officer’s question is, yes, this is America.

Black police officers, men and women who that very day fought valiantly to protect the Capitol and the workings of American democracy, endured racist abuse. They had repeatedly been called the worst of racial epithets, witnessed the parading of the Confederate battle flag and learned that some white officers had taken selfies with insurrectionists. The treatment of this deadly mob by Capitol management as a free speech protest stood in sharp contrast to the heightened police and National Guard response to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

Professor Clem Harris
Professor Clem Harris [ Provided ]

The Black officer’s anguished question about our nation’s character calls on us to look to its history and understand the long Black freedom struggle against white supremacy — especially the structural racism that has marked American law enforcement and criminal justice. To this day, some police act as an occupying paramilitary force within Black and brown urban and suburban communities. The police shoot unarmed Black and brown people at disproportionately high rates. No wonder the Black Lives Matter movement arose.

The roots of the tense relationship between Black and brown people and the practice of race-based predatory policing date back to the rise of racial slavery, global capitalism and colonial rule. The origins can be traced back to the hunting, abduction and restraint of Black-skinned Africans with chains and shackles. While no longer in physical chains, Black citizens are still constrained.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project analyzed more than 7,700 Black Lives Matter protests from late May to August in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., and determined that 93 percent of all the protests were peaceful. Contrast that with the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

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Yet, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has called for a “broad anti-mob law” that would make it a third-degree felony to block traffic during a protest and offer immunity to drivers who claim to have unintentionally killed or injured protesters who block traffic. Who do you think he has in mind?

There is more than a century of scholarship showing how race-based police violence during the colonial and antebellum eras provided the foundation for understanding the policing of Black and brown communities today.

A Department of Justice report on use of force disparities within the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department after the death of Michael Brown in 2014 noted that “nearly 90 percent of documented force used by (Ferguson) officers was used against African Americans.” A 2016 analysis by Larry H. Spruill, “Slave Patrols, ‘Packs of Dogs’ and Policing Black Communities,” demonstrates the unbroken history of police violence. “In every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the person bitten was African American,” the report concludes.

Such brutal application evolved from the use of slave patrollers, hunters and use of dogs to maintain Black labor and white standards of living during the colonial period and after.

Routine stops, intrinsic to the racial dragnet policy of “stop and frisk,” were first perfected by the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1930s. But soon such policies proliferated across the industrial and post-industrial urban North as a response to African-American migration, urban renewal, flight of capital and white fears that their neighborhoods would be overrun. Such practices have origins in the Black Codes and Vagrancy laws that followed Reconstruction.

Stop and frisk policies, and other practices that sought to limit Black movement in the neighborhoods where they live, have led to some of the worst urban rebellions of the 1960s, and they are at the very core for understanding the global racial reckoning triggered by the gruesome public death of George Floyd for alleged commission of a low-level crime and resistance to arrest.

Images of white Capitol Police officers taking selfies with violent insurrectionists grew from a well-documented history of white vigilantism and extra-legal justice like that used during the Red Summer of 1919, when more than 100 white-led race riots occurred in Black communities across the nation. This phenomenon continued well into the first six decades of the 20th century.

As civil rights and Black power activists protested systemic poverty and the culture of brutality within law enforcement, “law and order” emerged as a coded concept designed to politically mobilize the so-called Silent Majority during the presidential election of 1968. Republican candidate Richard Nixon successfully used the slogan to develop a white counter-revolution to the Black revolution. During the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, Donald Trump employed the same strategy to “unite-the-right” in an essentially white counter-revolution to the Black Lives Matter multiracial revolution against race-based predatory policing.

In 1968, when the Kerner Commission published its report on civil disorders in America during the 1960s and concluded that police violence in Black and brown communities was a major factor for understanding the urban rebellions during the period. The report pointed to Miami Police Chief Walter Headley’s “‘get tough’ policy, involving the frequent display of shotguns and dogs by Miami police in Black neighborhoods (that) contributed to a state of agitation in the Black community until the eruption of the 1968 Miami” rebellion nearly eight months later. Headley gained national acclaim for frequently saying, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

After the death of George Floyd last summer, Trump invoked that police chief’s racist legacy in a tweet: “When the looting starts, the shoot starts.”

The unbroken history of police violence against Black and brown communities led one scholar to conclude, “Whether we are speaking of North Africans in Paris, West Indians in London, indigenous people in Australia, Black people in Birmingham, Alabama and England, or Palestinians in the West Bank, relations between the police and people of color have been historically rooted in a colonial encounter.” I agree, speaking as a retired criminal investigator with the New York State Police, a former drill sergeant with the U.S. Army Reserve, a former senior aide to former New York Gov. David A. Paterson, a reformer and as a professor and scholar of the long Black freedom struggle.

Given all the scholarship conducted to understand the legacies of racial slavery, global capitalism and colonialism, why has this knowledge not played a more constructive role among law enforcement reformers in understanding the unbroken history of police violence and race-based predator policing in Black and brown communities?

Clem Harris is director of Africana Studies and assistant professor of history at Utica College.