“Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became clear that he could easily have been me,” wrote John Lewis in an essay published in the New York Times on the day of his funeral, July 30, 2020. Many African Americans share Lewis’s feeling of that pivotal moment when they learn that they could be killed because of their Blackness. I was fourteen years old in 1986 when Michael Griffith was chased and killed by whites in Howard Beach, a neighborhood in Queens, New York, and I was eighteen years old when my classmate, Yusef Salaam, was convicted for raping a white woman in Central Park in 1990. Salaam is one member of a group of survivors of police brutality and corruption known now as the “Exonerated Five.” Many African Americans also share the conviction that racial injustice will prevail. Our experience and historical knowledge of the criminal justice system has persistently dashed any confidence that we might have had in it.
Elizabeth Alexander calls youth that have come of age in the last eight years the “Trayvon Generation.” In July 2013, Alicia Garza, one of the three co-founders of the Black Lives Matter Global Network (BLMGN), wrote the words “Black Lives Matter” in a post on Facebook after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager in Sanford, Florida, in 2012. Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, co-founders of the BLMGN, had been engaged in “the movement” well-before the death of Martin. The slogan, Black Lives Matter, however, became popular in the wake of the Ferguson movement in 2014 because of the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. The killing, occurring in Barack Obama’s second term, shattered the myth of a post-racial America. Despite this, many view the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) with suspicion and still others with condemnation. The M4BL argued that police killed Black people because of their Blackness, not because of any criminal activity. Now, in the throes of the second wave of this movement, the COVID-19 pandemic that has wrecked the American economy and overburdened the most vulnerable to the disease—poor people of color—with the task of returning to work to save the economy. After people watched the video recording of police officer Derek Chauvin kneel on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020, the M4BL has truly become global. Millions of people of all races, nationalities, ethnicities, genders, and class backgrounds here and abroad have protested, marched, and been pelted by rubber bullets and tear-gassed by police departments and federal law enforcement.
This essay offers one way to teach this current moment from a historical perspective, centering the uneven battle between anti-Black violence and Black resistance as a prelude to Black uprisings, spotlighting the issue of cross-generational, anti-Black violence and the long history of racial injustice found in the criminal justice system.
Policing Institutions as Social Control and Marginalization
In initial discussions about policing, I ask students to share their own knowledge of, ideas about, and if willing, experiences with the police. I then briefly discuss the history of policing, foregrounding how the powerful have historically leveraged police authority to use coercive force to reproduce society’s racial, class, gender, and sexual hierarchies. Historian Sam Mitrani has shown how business elites in the late nineteenth century used the police to control Chicago’s emerging industrial economy and multiethnic working-class. In the South, police departments developed from the coalescing of various colonial and antebellum policing institutions, such as slave patrols, constabularies, and the town watch. I also discuss Heather Thompson’s framing of the “first prison crisis,” convict lease system, compared to the “second prison crisis,” our current system of mass incarceration. During the first prison crisis, white southerners passed an assemblage of new laws to debilitate Black power and control Black labor in the late nineteenth century. In addition to expanding the criminal justice system, whites produced discourses through the white press, cultural institutions, consumer advertisements, and scientific journals that constructed Black women and men as hypersexual, lazy, violent, and inherently criminal, warranting the discipline and punishment of Black people. At some point, a student will ask: What about simply enforcing the law?
This is a question about police discretion. Do the police have agency beyond their bending to the will of the political and business elite? Police officers have the discretion to determine when and how they enforce the law and the authority to use coercive force to prevent or stop crime. Discretionary behavior, nonetheless, is embedded in and refracted through the prism of race, class, gender, and sexuality.
Anti-Black Violence and Memory
Garza wrote #blacklivesmatter because of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, a case of white vigilante violence. Police power and its civilian proxy, white vigilante violence, constitute anti-Black violence, especially when the two work together. During the Chicago Riot of 1919, for example, white police officers joined white civilians in attacking Black people and rampaging through the South Side of Chicago. African American memory is replete with these stories. Many African Americans live with the memory of their slain loved ones. Survivors and witnesses of anti-Black violence live with these memories, too. Collectively, these stories of anti-Black violence are passed down from generation to generation and re-remembered as African Americans watch recordings of anti-Black violence. I also show my students how gender, race, and class shape the dynamics of police violence.
In class, I discuss the visible and semi-visible nature of anti-Black violence. Too often in discussions of anti-Black violence, “spectacular violence,” such as the lynching, police shooting, and asphyxiating of Black men, are foregrounded. But anti-Black violence often takes more quotidian, less visible forms, especially gender-specific violations. In 2014, a courageous Black grandmother in her fifties complained to the police that a police officer in Oklahoma City pulled her over and forced her to perform oral sex. After some investigation, the police found that officer Daniel Holtzclaw had sexually assaulted at least thirteen women, all Black, during traffic stops or searches. The cover of his profession—law enforcement officer—and the legitimate fear that a white police officer’s word would be believed over a Black women’s, contributes to the semi-visible nature of this kind of police violence. It is sem-ivisible, of course, because Black women and the police officer know that the violence occurred, in spite of the official police record.
Black resistance to anti-Black violence has taken a variety of forms, including civil disobedience, self-defense, voting, litigation, and joining law enforcement institutions. For example, in the East St. Louis riot in 1917, African Americans armed themselves for self-protection, not only because of white mob violence but also because the police refused to protect them. This history includes both Black men and Black women. While Ida B. Wells’s deployment of the pen and the Winchester rifle are well known, Gloria Richardson employed similar tools in the early 1960s during the Cambridge movement in Cambridge, Maryland, as did Mae Mallory, who was part of the “Harlem 9” (a group of Black mothers fighting for desegregated education in New York City during the 1950s) and member of Robert Williams’s Monroe Defense Committee in the early 1960s. Before Ella Baker’s mentorship of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she led the New York chapter of the NAACP’s campaign against police brutality in Harlem in the early 1950s. And Audley “Queen Mother” Moore and her organization, the Universal Association of Ethiopian Women in New Orleans, Louisiana, also fought for recompense for victims of police brutality in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
For class assignments, I use a variety of primary sources, including newspapers, magazines, speeches, and reports to explore the themes of anti-Black violence and Black resistance. Because most students are familiar with Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, I use it to complicate what they think they know about King and the politics of the event. Rather than center King and the more familiar parts of the speech, I pair it with John Lewis’s “The Revolution Is At Hand” and images of the march.
While many students are familiar with King’s famous phrases, such as “content of their character,” most have not read the entire speech. They also know very little about the event or its focus on “jobs and freedom.” To open up discussion, I ask: Why don’t we associate police brutality with the “March On Washington”?
The students identify parts of the speeches where King and Lewis mention police brutality. I then show them pictures of placards denouncing police brutality. Students point out quotes in Lewis’s original speech, such as “in good conscience, we cannot support the administration’s civil-rights bill, for it is too little, and too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.” Lewis also references a case of police brutality in the south: “[I]n Albany, Georgia, we have seen our people indicted by the federal government for peaceful protest, while the Deputy Sheriff beat Attorney C. B. King and left him half-dead; while local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King, and she lost her baby.” I then have the students read about the King family in Albany, Georgia (no relation to Martin Luther King Jr.), using resources from the SNCC Digital Gateway. Two points become clear: police brutality in the southern civil rights movement was pervasive and policing was not about crime but brutally protecting segregation and white supremacy.
The Second Prison Crisis
After the civil rights movement, I foreground the movement in Lowndes County, Alabama, Oakland’s Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the 10 Point Program, and Fred Hampton, the slain leader of Chicago’s Black Panther Party and his Rainbow Coalition. Woven through these lectures are discussions of the 1960s uprisings and the 1964 presidential election. Republican Senator from Arizona Barry Goldwater’s “law and order” rhetoric and the legislative roots of “law and order” jumpstarted by Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration help student see the way crime discourse, policy, and law criminalized Black neighborhoods. After the Watts riot in 1965, Johnson and Congress voted in the Law Enforcement Assistance Act and later the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, creating the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). Finally, we discuss President Richard Nixon and New Federalism.
The goal here is to complicate students’ understanding of the 1960s as a singularly victorious decade for civil rights that was blighted by the Black Power Movement. I stress three dynamics: (1) while Hampton, the Young Lords, and others advocated for the working-class and the expansion of the social safety net, many white Americans, southern Democrats, and conservative Republicans claimed the federal government was too big and wasted their tax dollars on undeserving, Black welfare recipients, rioters, and criminals; (2) since 1965 the federal government had financed the expansion and militarization of the police, whom President Johnson called “frontline soldiers” of the war on crime and were used for the surveillance and punishment of civil rights and the Black Power activists in the 1960s and 1970s, while the Nixon administration began dismantling the war on poverty; and (3) through the carceral state—sans the New Deal’s and Great Society’s social safety net—discipline and punishment has been one of the primary relationships between Black and Brown communities and government.
Historian Max Felker-Kantor’s work on liberal law and order traces the growth of the Los Angeles Police Department from the Watts riot to the 1992 uprising. Felker-Kantor situates the LAPD in the context of deindustrialization, the dismantling of the Great Society, and the failure of Tom Bradley, the city’s first Black mayor, to invest in Black and Brown communities. At the same time, politicians across the political spectrum, police officials, and the media falsely tethered the drug crisis to gang violence, inciting fear but also providing a rationale for the militarization of the police. In congruence with federal laws, such as the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that pumped billions to local law enforcement, the LAPD, with the support of Bradley, created the Gang-Related Active Trafficker Suppression (GRATS) system, which was a computer-based system that tracked gang-related drug activity and distributed the data to task forces ready to arrest dealers and seize property. Although the program had some success, it was judged unconstitutional in 2013 as “it led to the arrest of a wider range of non-gang-affiliated individuals.”
I then pair Felker-Kantor’s work with Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of the BLMGN, and Asha Bandele’s When They Call You A Terrorist. Khan-Cullors’s memoir powerfully shows the impact of the war on drugs and gangs on her family and community in Los Angeles. Khan-Cullors, who came of age in the early 1990s, explains how Brown and Black kids, like her older brother Monte, were targets of police surveillance and violence and lays out her own history as an organizer in youth organizations and the circumstances that led her to create her own organization, Dignity and Power Now, in 2012.
To help students make connections between the two texts, I provide them with general prompts days before to prepare for our in-class conversation: How does age, class, race, and gender explain the different experiences of youth living and attending schools in Van Nuys and those living and attending school in Sherman Oaks? What are some examples that help us explore those differences? Students ably point out the stark differences between the poor, multiracial neighborhood of Van Nuy and Sherman Oaks, the predominately affluent white neighborhood.
This conversation also becomes the basis for our discussion of policing. As Khan-Cullors and Bandele explain, “Van Nuys neighborhood, bordering as it did the wealthy white neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, was ground zero for the war on drugs and the war on gangs. There could be no spillover of us, the others, the dark others.” They write that Monte and his friends were arrested and sent to juvenile detention for:
- Underage drinking
- Carrying two-inch pocket knives
- Cutting class
- Being kids
- Talking shit
- Talking back
- Wearing the same t-shirts. Literally.
The questions are targeted to get students to interrogate the theory that there are only a few “bad apples” in police forces as a legitimate explanation anti-Black violence. Students note the ease with which any behavior that challenges police authority becomes a rationale to label youth living in Van Nuy as gang members. Along with the extensive discretion of the police, students discuss how the GRATS system functions as an arsenal of disciplinary practices that marks, arrests, and contains Black and Brown youth.
By reading Felker-Kantor with When They Call You A Terrorist, it becomes quite easy to see the institutional power that police have not only on marginalized communities but also in municipal politics. Both texts show that police are everywhere—in neighborhoods, above in helicopters, and in schools. From reading the memoir, students are not only introduced to Khan-Cullors’s family and friends and the various organizations that animate Khan-Cullors’s life but also shown how neighborhoods of color became occupied territories in Los Angeles.
To understand this current iteration of M4BLM and collective forms of Black protest, it is essential to frame this history as problematic and deeply rooted in this nation’s quest to realize democracy for all of its citizens.
If African Americans have long been victims of different forms of anti-Black violence for the entirety of U.S. history, and if they have exhausted its legal and political mechanisms for redress of their legitimate grievances, what else can they do to rectify these wrongs? And what does the dearth of recompence for African Americans say about American legal and political institutions?
This is not to suggest that what scholars call “commodity riots,” when rioters rampage and loot property, are necessarily planned, but these questions do interrogate the shibboleth that these “riots” are simply triggered by exceptional cases of police brutality or that this form of collective violence is simply the actions of criminals. As historian Robin D. G. Kelley asks, “What Kind of Society Values Property Over Black Lives?” The frustration that Black people feel is real and is older than this nation’s history, as is the traumatic memories of survivors, eyewitnesses, and of those living with the memories of loved ones gone too soon.
Shannon King is Associate Professor of History at Fairfield University and author of Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?: Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the New Negro Era (2015). He is working on a manuscript on race, crime, and punishment tentatively titled, Policing the Crisis: Black Protest and Law and Order during the La Guardia Era.
John Lewis, “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation” New York Times, July 30, 2020; Robert D. McFadden, “Black Man Dies After Beating by Whites in Queens,” New York Times, Dec. 21, 1986; Gabrielle Bruney, “The Exonerated Five prove Their Innocence” Esquire.
Sam Mitrani, The Rise of the Chicago Police Department, Class and Conflict, 1850-1894 (2015); “Stop Kidding Yourself: The Police Were Created to Control Working Class and Poor People” Laboronline, Dec. 29, 2014.
Heather Ann Thompson, “From Researching the past to Reimagining the Future: Locating Carceral Crisis and the Keys to Its End, in the Long Twentieth Century” in The Punitive Turn: New Approaches to Race and Incarceration, eds. Deborah E. McDowell, Claudrena N. Harold, and Juan Battle (2013).
Treva Lindsey “The Rape Trial Everyone in America Should Be Watching” Cosmopolitan, Nov. 10, 2015; Kali Nicole Gross, “#DanielHoltzclaw Split Verdict Is a Travesty and Dangerous” Huffington Post, Dec. 11, 2015; The African American Policy Forum initiated the #SayHerName campaign in 2014 precisely to raise awareness about the too invisible names and stories of countless black women that have been victims of racist police violence.
Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892); Peter B. Levy, Civil War on Race Street: The Civil Rights Movement in Cambridge, Maryland (2003); Paula Marie Seniors, “Mae Mallory and ‘Of Dogs and Men’,” April 11, 2017,; Barbara Ransby “Cops, Schools, and Communism: Local Politics and Global Ideologies—New York City in the 1950s” in Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era, ed. Clarence Taylor (2011), 32-51; Ashley Farmer, “Reframing African American Women’s Grassroots Organizing: Audley Moore and the Universal Association of Ethiopian Women, 1957-1963,” The Journal of African American History, 101, no. 1-2 (2016), 69-96.
Max Felker-Kantor, Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (2018), 196.
 Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele, When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (2017), 54.
Robin D. G. Kelley, “What Kind of Society Values Property Over Black Lives?” New York Times, June 18, 2020.