By: Jwyanza Hobson
It was a cloudy Monday morning and I was a university student driving into the parking lot of my school in Riverside, California, when I noticed in the rear view mirror of my car, two police cars following me with their siren lights flashing. I swiftly stopped the car, and placed my hands on the steering wheel to wait for an officer to approach my vehicle. I had just bought this car recently, and knew that the officers probably had questions about my registration tags. Still, in the back of my mind were memories of my youth, the few times in New York City when I had been harassed, beaten up, and even jailed overnight by the police without ever having committed a crime. I knew that I should be careful. I watched through the rear view window as four officers approached my car with their guns drawn and pointed at my head. As the first two officers arrived at the right and left sides of my vehicle, one screamed, “Take your keys out of the ignition!” while the other bellowed, “Keep your hands on the steering wheel!” These were clearly conflicting instructions, and I knew that I was potentially moments from losing my life. I thought to myself, “This is how someone’s name becomes a hashtag.” Time slowed as I realized that every move I made from this moment on was crucial. I told the officers in the most polite but resonant voice I could muster, “I need to take my hands off of the steering wheel to take my keys out of the ignition.” “THEN DO IT!!!” one yelled. My explanation of the situation with my car was met with disdainful stares. It almost seemed as though they were upset that I was a university student about to graduate with honors, the commencement speaker of my graduating class, and soon-to be-Fulbright scholar, and not the criminal they were hoping to have pulled over. They impounded my car, and after taking my History exam that morning, I spent over $400USD getting it back. It could have been worse. I still had my life. Interactions are like this one just a part of the racial dynamic that exists between police and the black citizenry of the United States.
Events currently unfolding in the United States may resemble a sudden explosion to some, but the undercurrent carrying this new wave of civil unrest has been traveling since the Western country’s inception. Although African Americans have been an integral part of the fabric of American culture, they remain some of the country’s most marginalized people, as reflected in disparities in wealth, education, healthcare, housing, and civil rights. Public awareness of the adverse relationship between American law enforcement and its black citizenry is at an all time high. With the advent of social media and smartphones, incidents of police brutality have become more visible as striking videos are shared around the world, shedding light on the atrocities black people have been subject to. Although there have been cries for more accountability from police when these incidents occur, they have fallen on deaf ears, and the resulting frustration has now built to a crescendo of turmoil all over the United States, the likes of which have not been seen for half a century.
The most recent of these grisly videos shows the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department, who had already amassed 18 civilian complaints in his 18 year career as an officer. A store owner had called the police on George Floyd after reportedly, Floyd used a counterfeit $20 bill at his store. Video footage of the arrest which was published to the internet after the story went viral shows that Floyd was compliant with the arresting officers while being taken into custody. In the video of Floyd’s death however, we see that Floyd’s obedience didn’t save him. He is lying prone, face-down on the ground next to a police car with three officers pinning him down and Chauvin doing so by placing his knee over Floyd’s neck. Floyd pleads repeatedly “I can’t breathe” and begs the officer to stop, as do bystanders sympathetic with his plight. At one point in the video, Floyd seems to be delirious with fear and suffocation, even screaming for his mother who had died two years before. Officer Chauvrin kept his knee pressed to Floyd’s neck for a full 2 ½ minutes after Floyd lost consciousness. Authorities say he was pronounced dead at the hospital, but witnesses say that he died on that street. The four officers at the scene were eventually fired for committing acts that went against police policies, but it wasn’t until four days of nationwide protest calling for justice as a result of the viral video that Chauvrin was arrested and charged with murder.
Floyd’s murder is only the latest in a long series of murders committed by the police that traces back to the roots of the police as an entity in the United States, but has become more apparent with the use of technology that records the events as they happen. Many call the first incident of this kind in modern history the Rodney King incident, in which a black man was beaten mercilessly by the police on a Los Angeles freeway in 1991. This beating was far from an isolated incident, but it was one of the first of its kind to be caught on camera. Many black Americans at the time thought that the officers would be found guilty because it was such a flagrant display of police brutality. When the four officers that beat him were acquitted the next year, the streets of Los Angeles exploded in six days of civil unrest.
In the past 10 years there have been other notable cases that have made national headlines, such as Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Freddy Gray, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, and Sandra Bland. These are just a few of the unarmed black people who were killed at the hands of the police. In all of the cases, the police involved in the killings went free without having served jail time, which is normal. Police often see themselves as having an adversarial relationship with black communities, and treat the people in those places as they would enemies in a war zone. In 2015 alone, over 100 unarmed black people were killed by law enforcement in America. Many such cases are never brought to trial, with the criminal justice system often finding a way to excuse the actions of the police without hearing the case out in court, even when the killings are recorded on video. Although black people make up only 12% of the American population, they are 2 ½ times more likely to be killed when having interactions with the police than their white counterparts. These incidents are a part of a cycle of death and protests that have not been successful in creating the kind of reforms that would answer to the killings of people in marginalized communities at the hands of police.
Peaceful protests of these extrajudicial killings have mostly fallen on deaf ears in the halls of law, and have even received resistance from American conservatives. Human rights movements like Black Lives Matter have emerged, organizing peaceful protests, and seeking to find new means of creating accountability for law enforcement officials. Famous American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick made international news when he began engaging in a silent protest of taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem stating, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.” His silent protest and activism on the behalf of black people was met with derision, and he was eventually stripped of his ability to continue his sports career. We see that protests against police violence are scorned by many Americans, even when peaceful.
Although today iconic civil rights activist Martin Luther King is revered today as an example of the power of peaceful protest, when he was alive, he was widely disliked by most Americans. His daughter Bernice recently tweeted, “Don’t act like everyone loved my father. He was assassinated. A 1967 poll reflected that he was one of the most hated men in America. Most hated.” That poll reflected him having a 75% disapproval rating with Americans. The FBI at that time called King “ the most dangerous man in America.” King is known for influencing the signing of the Civil Rights Act, a tremendous step forward for black Americans at the time, but what is forgotten is that he tried for years to get it passed by the US government to no avail when he was killed in 1968. The outrage at the killing of King, a man who many African Americans saw as a bringer of peace, erupted in riots in cities across the United States. Within 6 days of the riots, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. King was a proponent of non-violent protest, but even he understood the nature of riots saying, “Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”
What will happen as a result of the civil unrest in the United States remains to be seen. The present situation exists in the context of the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, and a grossly mishandled global pandemic, which because of already existing disparities inequality, disproportionately affects black communities. Although the protests have been mostly peaceful, chaos has ensued at times, especially at night. Curfews are being enforced in many cities and police have been recorded attacking, pepper spraying and shooting rubber bullets at both looters and non-violent protesters.Video evidence is becoming viral that suggests that some of the violence is being propelled by agitators. President Trump has promised that protesters would be attacked with “vicious dogs and ominous weapons,” a threat that harkens back to the federal response to the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. It is yet to be seen when the smoke clears what the United States government and its people will do to get to the root of the underlying problems it faces related to race and police brutality.
It was originally written for Tuoi Tre magazine in Vietnam on 05.06.2020.