Two months ago, Times Square — the pulsating, neon heart of New York City — fell silent. Usually a gnarl of pedestrians, tourists, hawkers and cars, the district emptied out as Covid-19 ravaged the city, killing nearly 30,000 New Yorkers in just a few months. The traffic lights still flashed and the billboards still glowed, but the people were gone.
Until Saturday, that is, when a surge of people clotted the streets: police officers kitted out in full riot gear, protesters with face masks that were now pulling double duty, protecting them both from disease and from the clouds of tear gas and smoke that would soon fill the square.
The lockdown that emptied New York City’s streets came to an abrupt end as protests formed in places like Harlem, Brooklyn and Union Square. Those protests, which began in Minneapolis, were replicated across the United States. From Atlanta to Salt Lake City and Beverly Hills, Americans took to once-empty streets to protest police brutality in the kind of national uprising that has not been seen in the United States since the late 1960s.
The protests flared in reaction to video of the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who died after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. But they were also a reaction to more than a century of police brutality, and a president who has made it clear that he is on the side of the brutalisers.
Following the abolition of slavery, US states enacted a series of racist laws that legalised discrimination. That system was enforced not only through the courts but also with systematic violence against black Americans: violence committed by police officers, as well as violence committed by white civilians who went unpoliced and unprosecuted. As a result, protests against police brutality grew up alongside protests against lynching.
Such crimes were not limited to the American South. Between 1910 and 1920, African Americans accounted for 21 per cent of the people killed by the Chicago police force, even though they were only three per cent of the city’s population.
But fighting police brutality and police murder was perplexingly difficult. The police were reluctant to hold themselves accountable, and neither prosecutors nor the courts showed an interest in charging law enforcement officers.
The only recourse, then, was to work around the local and state systems of justice by going directly to the federal government. But this, too, provided limited relief. An administration run by, say, president Woodrow Wilson, who re-segregated the federal government once he took office in 1913, was not likely to be a source of relief for black people abused by law enforcement.
That changed in 1939, when the new attorney-general, Frank Murphy, set up a civil rights unit at the justice department specifically to investigate wrongdoing by local law enforcement. “Where there is social unrest,” he said when he announced the new unit, “we ought to be more anxious and vigorous in protecting the civil liberties of protesting and insecure people.” And no one was more insecure in their interactions with police officers than black Americans.
But even with a new unit investigating police wrongdoing, police violence against black Americans continued. By the 1960s, it had become one of the most visible crimes in the United States, with southern sheriffs sicking German shepherds on black protesters and clubbing them with night sticks even as the television cameras were rolling. And while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 empowered the government to do more to protect black civil rights, it did not dissuade police from engaging in riotous acts of brutality, against not only black Americans protesting for their right to vote but also anti-war and anti-racist protesters later in the decade. Indeed, the most iconic images of the decade involved police brutalising citizens in places like Chicago, New York and Selma, Alabama.
People challenged police brutality in a variety of ways. In New York City, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People set up its own Committee of Action against Police Brutality because it didn’t trust the city’s police department to investigate and prosecute claims. Black leaders pushed for a civilian review board that could provide oversight in cases of police brutality. Meanwhile, spontaneous uprisings continued as new episodes of police violence triggered longstanding frustration. That’s what happened in Harlem in July 1964, when a white off-duty police officer shot and killed a black teenager. Six days of civil unrest followed.
Outcry against police brutality has gone hand-in-hand with fury over a lack of accountability. It’s not just that police officers use excessive force against black people; it’s that, so often, they are not held responsible for what they’ve done. The only demand of civil rights organisers during the 1964 Harlem protests was that the officer be suspended. He was ultimately cleared by a grand jury.
That was the case in 1992, too, after four white police officers viciously assaulted Rodney King. The beating was caught on video, but the video itself did not trigger riots. The Los Angeles riots began only after the officers were acquitted. (Later a federal civil court found two of the officers guilty of violating King’s civil rights.)
In the past several years, the United States has been riven by protests in response to police killings of unarmed black men and women (and children, in the case of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old shot and killed while playing with a toy gun in a park). These murders, often caught on video, have rarely resulted in convictions. But they have given rise to a broader civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, which continues to push for everything from de-escalation training to an end to qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that makes it almost impossible to prosecute officers for criminal conduct.
But even as that movement gains strength, it has lost a powerful ally: the federal government. With Donald Trump as president, activists know not to seek help there. After all, Trump, speaking to law enforcement officers in Staten Island a few years ago, actually encouraged police to rough up people they arrest. “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, please don’t be too nice,” the president said to laughter.
Trump also echoed segregationist sheriffs when, late on Friday night, he warned, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The saying was first used by police chief Walter Headley, who escalated force against black neighbourhoods in Miami in the late 1960s. In another echo of 1960s-era police violence, Trump tweeted that protesters would be greeted by “vicious dogs” if they returned to the White House.
Yet even with all this — the pandemic, the threats of violence — protesters still took to the streets to call for justice. Because they know from a century’s experience that there is never a safe time to challenge police brutality. The pandemic did not keep police from killing George Floyd, and it won’t keep Americans from seeking justice for him, either. •