Nine months ago, George Floyd was killed three miles from our house. We had driven through that intersection many times, 38th an easy cross street, running from Lakewood Cemetery to the Mississippi River. I start that way still, remembering only when I get to Portland that I have to go around it. There sits a barricade staffed by sweet but firm volunteers monitoring the entrance. A block behind them the memorial is centered on that intersection where Mr. Floyd was killed.
We are finally able as a country to talk about race and racism. Many of us now roll our eyes at anyone still claiming not to see color. Our condescension may as well pat them on their heads and send them down a grade for remedial education. Unfortunately, such education is voluntary, and those attitudes often lack the curiosity needed to gain understanding around this divide. Without curiosity, ignorance persists.
We talk about race a lot. We are not, though, talking about our brutality.
In 1619, Jamestown colonists purchased enslaved Africans from British Pirates, who had stolen them from others. Their arrival marks the start of slavery in the United States. We were a nation yet to be formed, according to the New York Times 1619 Project, “157 years before the English colonists even decided they wanted to form their own country.” These 20 or so people, originally from Angola, were the first of millions. Before the colonists decided what this new land would become, they decided on whose backs they would build it.
As 2020 came to an end, a man of color was shot and killed by Minneapolis police not far from the George Floyd Memorial. This time the body cams were on. This time the deceased appears to have shot first. The sting of every incident is felt by every person in this city. To a person of color who has learned to live in fear of the police, or government in general, it is another traumatic event. It is heavy in its entirety, its meaning only reduced by its place in the overwhelming volume of previous such events. How can you trust an organization of authority when most of your experience leads you to fear its brutality and distrust its tactics?
The colony called Virginia established a law in 1662 that the status of the child followed the status of the mother – any child born to a slave was also a slave. Not only was such a woman a slave in her days, any sex she had, voluntary or not, could only produce a life enslaved. Such a life dictated for production, outside any inclination to nurture and love that to this day we expect and demand of women.
On March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, during an overnight police raid. Whatever the justification, the raid was executed poorly. Incompetent staff allowed to run amok with weapons shows a desensitization to brutality. For it to be done at the hand of the state is against all we claim to represent in our romanticized ideal of freedom.
In 1739 a group of enslaved Africans near Charleston banded together to fight and escape, known as the Stono Rebellion. Forty of them were killed and a law was passed to prohibit such assembly. Violence is the only way to deny the freedom that is America’s promise.
On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was shot in St. Anthony, which borders Northeast Minneapolis. The video footage his girlfriend captured, and Mr. Castile’s reputation as a beloved school teacher aid, family member and friend, galvanized this city in a furious demand for answers and change. As we see in so many instances, presumption of guilt follows the dark skin.
In 1787 the Three-Fifths Clause was included in the United States Constitution. It only bothered counting black bodies at all for political representation. Their bodies had no right to vote for said representation. This was just another extraction of their commodity value. Recognition of their humanity was not three-fifths. They were measured still as property for political gain. Their humanity was not recognized at all.
On May 15, 2010, just before his 17th birthday, Khalief Browder was arrested in The Bronx on suspicion of stealing a backpack. Due to court backlog and other issues, he remained incarcerated for almost three years before his charges were dismissed. The prosecutors never made a sufficient case against Browder to bring him to trial. The system let him languish as they failed to prepare for trial. The real delay was one that cannot be part of the equation in measuring the speed of justice. Mr. Browder refused to take a plea deal, refused to say he had committed the crime the state could not prove. Without a trial, much less a conviction, he was incarcerated for three years, two of which were in solitary confinement. Across this time the abuse Mr. Browder experienced at the hands of prison staff and inmates is heartbreaking. It is state sponsored trauma, documented on video. If you haven’t heard his story, upon release he struggled mightily to craft a good and productive life, but the trauma got the best of him and he ultimately took his own life.
“On the morning of Monday, July 13, 1863, thousands of white workers in Manhattan erupted in what’s still the deadliest rioting in American history. Mobs rampaged through most of the week in an orgy of savage murder, arson and looting. They hung black men from lampposts and dragged their mutilated bodies through the streets. They beat and murdered the pitifully small squads of policemen and soldiers the city initially mustered—and grotesquely defiled their corpses as well. It took federal troops to start restoring order to burning, rubble-strewn Manhattan that Thursday. The published death count was 119, but many New Yorkers believed the actual toll was hundreds more.” (from “White Riot: Why the New York Draft Riots of 1863 Matter Today” by John Strausbaugh, July 11, 2016, The Observer)
They were protesting the new draft law, which mandated military service except for those wealthy enough to pay a fee to escape it. The mob’s rage on the black community because blacks, as non-citizens, were exempt from service. Of course, many eventually fought and suffered and died in the Civil War on both Union and Confederate sides.
On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was apprehended for suspected drunk driving after a car chase. He was brutally beaten and tased by four Los Angeles police officers. The incident was caught on video and shared with a news station. The bystander caught on film the same kind of brutality long experienced at the hands of the LAPD, the kind that could only be stopped by witnesses. It was this same brutality that prompted black men in 1966 to follow police, and stand bearing witness with loaded weapons during traffic stops. These men were “policing the police”, and they later became known as the Black Panthers.
In 1838 and 1839 the US enforced The Treaty of New Echota, which was signed by a member of the Cherokee without the support of the larger tribe. The Cherokee people fought the treaty and were forcibly removed by the US in a brutal capture and marching of their people to their new territory. About 25% of them died on the way. Their removal was so brutal it became known as the Trail of Tears. We called the native Americans savages, but we prevailed only because we were more savage. We fought with heavier artillery and a lighter sense of honor, often breaking the promises we made in the treaties we signed.
Before dawn on December 4, 1969, FBI and Chicago police forces raided the apartment of Fred Hampton, a leader within the Black Panther Party. These forces shot almost 100 times into the apartment, Hampton and a colleague died. He was 21 years old.
In 1865, the formal institution of slavery ended, and so began the period of terror to ensure black people remained as a controlled workforce in the south.
“[The Ku Klux Klan] would take people out of their houses or their cabins in the dark of the night, strip them out in a road, make them run down the road, make them sometimes lie on a rock where they would be whipped, where men would line up to whip them. Sometimes they would burn parts of their bodies.
These were sadistic tortures, the intention of which was — we know this from testimony — to stop these people from engaging in politics, to stop these people from trying to be independent economic actors, to stop these people from trying to get educated, from trying to be citizens.
The basic goal of the Ku Klux Klan was not this kind of sadism. It wasn’t even murder. It was to put black people back into their place as the labor force of the South, and not much beyond, and to drive out of business the political force, the Republican Party, that was trying to take them to higher places.
…This is a part of American history that isn’t easy to face. It tells us that we had a moment in our history when our politics broke down, our society broke down, our police power broke down; the government wasn’t functioning sufficiently enough to protect one group of citizens from another who simply engaged in wanton vigilante violence of the worst kind. We don’t like to face that. We don’t even want to know about it. We like to believe we are a society of security and progress and improvement. Reconstruction makes us face an era when we were something else.” – David Blight, Historian, Yale University (American Experience, PBS)
On the Smithsonian website there is an image of a chilling symbol from the mid-1800s of how our colonization of native tribes changed their way of life – the ration ticket. People who for centuries lived as hunter gatherers or more agrarian lives were forced into white commercialism, a system that now decided how much tribal members could receive to eat. Those systems often failed tribes, sometimes by incompetence, and others through sheer cruelty and intentional starvation.
On May 19, 1920, conflict between anti and pro union forces concentrated into a gun battle on the streets of Matewan, West Virginia. Ten people were killed including the town’s mayor. Violence continued for a couple of years as the battle over workers’ rights waged into a near civil war. A movie called “Matewan” made in the late 80s documents just how fierce this battle between labor and company became.
In the early 1900s a Black business district in Tulsa known as Black Wall Street thrived This community was an example of Black abundance not common in the early decades after Reconstruction. But an elevator ride for a young black teenage boy and white female elevator operator set whatever tensions existed on fire. As the teen sat in jail black residents came to assist in his protection, and a mob of many more white men came and the black men retreated. The white mob then descended on this black community, killing hundreds and destroying thousands of properties for over 18 hours, ending on June 1, 1921. Just over 400 miles away in Memphis, my father was born on this same day.
Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, shot at least twelve times by rivals within the Black Muslim community. The week before his house had been bombed and his wife and children went into hiding. While not the only point of conflict, he was once admonished by the Nation of Islam and much of the nation for saying of the assassination of JFK, the “chickens had come home to roost.” By that he meant the violence white America long tolerated had come to turn on them. He was judged by this as though he celebrated JFK’s death. I don’t believe he did. I believe he, as he said at the time, was trying to hold America accountable for its tolerance of violence. But his words were silenced by violence from within the community to which he had devoted his life.
Much has been written about why Floyd’s murder awakened the world in a way other events had not. We witnessed his murder, yes, but his murderer watched us watch him do it. Derek Chauvin looked back at us. His face showed no remorse, no self consciousness, no shame. He looked us in the eye while he extinguished the life of another. While we see Chauvin’s face, it is easy to forget he is not looking at us. He is looking at a young woman who dared point her phone at armed police officers. Chauvin’s disaffected expression is as impervious to her presence as it was to George Floyd’s life.
I have painted a brief swath across our brutal history. These are just a few highlights. I’ve missed lynchings, the Birmingham church bombing, many assassinations, the march on Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the rap sheet of almost every police department in America. And I have bypassed entirely our behavior outside our borders.
From the earliest formations of America to today, our history is riddled with violence. When we say this is not who we are, we must take another look. Yes, racial disparity and racism are common features, but it all began with greed sated with violence. America was built on the premise that forced labor was not only allowed, but a noble entitlement to the superior endeavor of the colonists. The notion that the fruit of capitalism could and should be born of the oppression of others was integral to all our endeavors. From every step thereafter, we refuse to own the lies that allowed that oppression.
We didn’t become a racist society because we were averse to dark skin. We became a racist society because we wanted to build a great and profitable nation. The only shortcut was the oppression of others. We needed someone to exploit for cheap labor to do it. We had to find a group and label them as other – less than – to justify kidnapping them and forcing them, generation after generation, into hard labor.
Now the lies we told ourselves to justify this behavior have been ingrained in our psyches for 400 years. We’re not brutal because we’re racist. We are brutal because we are greedy. Skin color and culture are the means of our cognitive dissonance and they always have been. This dissonance we conveniently sowed centuries ago is ingrained in our policies, our attitudes, our behavior, and ourselves. It has been there so long even the most well meaning among us often cannot see it.
I write this on February 14, 2021, the day after the US Senate failed to convict Trump of inciting the fatal violence his supporters inflicted on the Capitol last month. Malcolm X’s words ring true today. Our tolerance of violence is once again defining who we are.
Author note: this piece is an excerpt from Shoot The Arrows, a book of essays to my children, available late 2021.