Police brutality is far from being a modern human rights crisis. This is something many Black activists and allies have stressed in our country’s long history: our Black citizens have always been disproportionately targeted, assaulted, and killed by law enforcement. On International Day Against Police Brutality (and every day this year), we should all examine how the Black community resisted and brought to light one of the worst problems in American society.
It’s been said that the predecessors of the first organized law enforcement in the South were essentially slave patrols, which were created to help capture escaped enslaved persons or quell slave rebellions–of which there were many. There were lots of individual acts of resistance, along with more organized efforts of abolitionists hiding runaway slaves (like the Underground Railroad) or outright revolts.
Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism were movements that emerged around the early 20th century that stressed self-empowerment for the Black community and unification for all Africans and descendants of Africans. Marcus Garvey, a figurehead of the Black Nationalist movement, often stressed that the Black community must build its own economic infrastructure and policies as a response to the abuses of white society and the police.
The Civil Rights Movement
One of the biggest turning points in the Civil Rights movement was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “The Birmingham Campaign,” when peaceful non-violent demonstrators, many of them children, were attacked with water cannons and police dogs by Birmingham’s police department, which was led by a segregationist by the name of Eugene “Bull” Connor. His and the police department’s brutal tactics created images that shocked the world enough to bring to light the inherent violence in segregation.
A revolutionary group in the Bay Area, the Black Panthers formed as a way to protect those being harassed and killed by police: they would essentially carry loaded guns when Black folks were pulled over to “police the police.” The Black Panthers then grew into a controversial national movement that revived Black communities, inspired radical politics, and was hated by law enforcement.
Black Lives Matter
BLM is a decentralized social movement that continues to shape ongoing resistance today. It started as a hashtag in 2013, after the murder of Travon Martin led to an international outcry and a resurgence of calls to “Abolish Policing.” In 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, after the killing of George Floyd, led to the largest protests in U.S. history, and let the U.S. come closer to racial equity.