The killing of George Floyd on May 25 by the Minneapolis police is yet another in a long line of brutal, state-sanctioned violence perpetrated against Black Americans. Four officers were directly involved in his death with one pressing his knee onto Floyd’s neck, refusing to ease up even as he pleaded “I can’t breathe”.
Just two days later, Tony McDade was killed by the police in Tallahassee, Florida. Two months earlier, Louisville police murdered Breonna Taylor during a raid in her home in March even though their warrant was for a different person who had already been detained elsewhere. And in February, Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed by white vigilantes while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia.
Protests have erupted in over 350 cities across the US in response to these police and white vigilante murders, which are being called modern-day lynchings. The demonstrations have ranged from vigils, marches, and speak-outs to more intense forms of action, like blocking roads and highways. Some people have engaged in taking commodities from stores or damaging property, including setting fire to a city police building in Minneapolis.
The scale of the rebellion is reminiscent of the revolts that occurred in the late 1960s when mass protests broke out in hundreds of cities, particularly after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Similar to that period, government officials at different levels have responded to the unrest with a show of force. The National Guard has been deployed in several states and local police across the country have engaged in severe repression by firing tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets while also imposing nightly curfews.
President Donald Trump, as expected, offered a dose of viciousness, suggesting the possibility of shooting at demonstrators and threatening to deploy the military in cities to quell protests. Trump also moved to designate ‘Antifa’ – a set of tactics and principles around which anti-fascists organise – as a terrorist organisation.
In typical fashion, mainstream news channels have framed the discussion around ‘non-violent’ versus ‘violent protests’ and have narrowly focused on how to reform police to mitigate the most egregious practices. By fixating on immediate events and spectacle, they have missed the processes, conditions, and histories underpinning the uprising that continues to unfold.
In recent years, large-scale mobilisations have emerged following incidents of police brutality, most notably Eric Garner in New York City, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. These mobilisations have been informed by the memory of other Black lives cut short by racial terror. So many names are etched into the collective consciousness, from 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by police while playing with a toy gun in a park in Cleveland, to Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Waller County, Texas after being detained during a traffic stop, to Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, to Rekia Boyd in Chicago to Stephon Clark in Sacramento, among far too many others.
These murders are not anomalies but rather the outcome of a racially oppressive social and economic system functioning exactly as it is intended to. For each person killed by the police that comes to light, countless other cases of brutality do not come to the fore, in addition to the regular forms of harassment, scrutiny, and surveillance by the police that is a part of the everyday reality for Black communities.
Uprisings similar to what the US is witnessing now represents the culmination of incidents of racist brutality, both past and present, combined with the collective experience facing structural violence tied to institutional racism that takes the form of persistent inequalities and disparate outcomes in domains of housing, education, employment, and healthcare.
Black Americans have experienced segregation in housing, exacerbated historically by residential restrictions and policies that denied access to housing loans. These practices were driven by a desire to have majority white composition in suburban neighbourhoods because of prevailing racist notions that this would ensure higher property values.
Discriminatory lending practices worked in tandem with disinvestment from the areas where Black Americans lived, a process facilitated by government policy. Now, the areas earlier deemed “hazardous” and “risky” by government agencies and private lenders are undergoing gentrification following so-called urban revitalisation, leading to many Black residents being priced out of neighbourhoods they have lived for many years.
Housing and homeownership are directly connected to the building of wealth, so this history of discrimination has led to massive, intergenerational racial wealth inequalities. According to a recent analysis in the Washington Post, “the typical middle-class black household had $13,024 in wealth versus $149,703 for the median white household.”
Furthermore, where someone lives determine whether they will attend an underfunded school, have access to fresh food in their neighbourhood, and face immediate exposure to toxic environmental pollution. All of this is compounded by the fact that racialised attacks by political and economic elites have served to undercut public systems, the social safety net, and public sector trade unions capable of ameliorating some aspects of the systemic racism described above.
These stark racial inequalities and disparities have been acutely revealed in the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shown the absence of a coherent, coordinated public system in the US Black Americans face a greater risk of being infected and dying from COVID-19 and more likely to face occupational hazards on the frontlines as essential workers. At the same time, they have been the hardest hit by unemployment in the midst of the crisis.
Contrary to the American social progress in the liberal imagination where the country is seen as eventually living up to presumed core national values, the American national project is based on colonial genocide against indigenous peoples and the enslavement and racial subjugation of Black people. The US constitution and the country’s founders, for the attention it gets for being ‘forward-thinking’, protected the interests and power of slaveowners and the institution of slavery.
Indigenous peoples and African-Americans have borne the brunt of the violence and subjugation that are foundational to American society and have faced violence at every turn, from extermination campaigns and enslavement, to the persistent denial of basic human dignity and rights, to the violence of the social conditions imposed on them. As novelist and activist James Baldwin said “Violence has been the American daily bread since we have heard of America. This violence… is not merely literal and actual but appears to be admired and lusted after, and the key to the American imagination.”
The police, as an institution, developed from the constables and slave patrols put in place to control indigenous people and Black people at the behest of white propertied interests of settler colonisers and slaveowners. What became established as the police served as the first line of enforcement of racist legal codes and strictures and were called upon by employers and ruling class entities to serve as an instrument to contain and suppress labour and working-class activism.
The racial terror the US has imposed on Black communities at home is deeply tied to and has operated in tandem with the racial violence of the US empire. This is seen in the commonalities in how domestic and foreign enemies are constructed by the US and how people are dehumanised, whether in the War on Drugs that disproportionately targeted Black communities or the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq.
More directly, the militarisation of police forces across the US is a result of the surplus military-grade equipment produced for the American imperialist wars being made available to local police departments to procure. Local US police departments have also coordinated and trained on ‘counterinsurgency’ and ‘riot suppression’ with the Israeli military and police, which enforces an apartheid-like occupation on Palestinians.
While officials, police departments, and liberal activists make gestures about healing wounds and bridging divides by initiating limited reforms, solutions won’t be found in simply instituting accountability for police, diversifying the police force, or introducing implicit bias training, among other measures that do nothing to undercut the power and monopoly on violence and social control embedded in the police.
Situating the role of the police in the broader system of racial capitalism leads to a recognition of the actual purpose of the police – not to ‘protect and serve’ the public but rather to preserve the interests of white, property-owning elites. With growing consciousness around the nature of the police, many people are seeking a deeper, systemic transformation. Within the trade union movement, local and state chapters are pushing for larger labour federations like the national AFL-CIO to end affiliation with associations of police officers and to discontinue organising efforts among them.
Calls for defunding and disarming police departments are becoming widespread, and these demands work in conjunction with efforts to dismantle the world’s largest system of mass incarceration, which disproportionately targets Black people.
Taking on, as Dr King said, “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism” would lead to reallocating resources that perpetuate American violence through the police and military and directing them toward actually addressing basic social needs, which continue to go unmet.
This could serve as the beginning of the reckoning with and confronting of the oppressive, racist history at the core of the US, a process that is a prerequisite for any meaningful change.
R. Raman is an educator and writer based in the West Coast of the US.