The hyper-analysis of Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown and similar incidents around the country reveals that there really is no complexity to it. Blacks – with ample cause – distrust the police because this relationship dates back to post-Civil War experiences during which sheriffs, courts and local officials participated in the suppression of blacks via false arrests, suppression of voting rights and murder (See Slavery by Another Name- Douglas A. Blackmon). Police involved killings in the 21st Century equate to lynching in the early 20th Century. They both involve the questionable deaths of black males, abuses of power and the inability of the legal system in all its concomitant parts – police, courts and corrections – to provide recourse.
Dr. Tameka Hobbs of Florida Memorial University recently published Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home, a book which details four cases of lynching in Florida in the 1940s. The similarities of those deaths to police related killings seventy five years removed sound starkly familiar. The deaths of unarmed blacks, poor follow-up investigations and no convictions rings familiar. Who trusts foxes to watch chickens? In the most recent case in Texas, 19 year old Christian Taylor in Arlington, Texas, was admittedly acting strange. But can you explain how a heavily armed James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado shooter, could kill 12 people and wound 70 others and surrender unharmed without the firing of a single shot by the police while an unarmed Christian Taylor could end up dead for vandalizing cars? These disparate results don’t build trust. There is the argument that police work is dangerous. That is conceded but that’s why they are armed and given authority to use progressive force rightly.
Where is this going? First, there is a recognition that black folk must use whatever means necessary to rouse their white supporters to aid their defense. There has been no major movement to save black lives – think the abolition of slavery through the Civil Rights Movement – where whites of good will were not involved. Without Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered differently.
Second, I predicted some years ago a white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement which dates back to the rise of the Southern Democrats, the KKK and Nixon’s Southern Strategy right through the mass incarceration madness. Although these police-related deaths happen at the hands of individual officers, they are the product of the collective characterization of blacks as violent and worthy of death without trial. Did the theft of cigars merit death for Michael Brown? Was the sale of cigarettes worthy of death for Eric Garner? Should John Crawford III have died over a pellet gun in Wal-Mart? Was the vandalism of cars worth death for Christian Taylor? In none of these cases was there a trial, a weighing of evidence or a conviction. Death came on the spot. That makes black folk untrusting.
Arthur McDuffie died in Miami in 1980 after being chased by the police on a motor cycle. He was beaten to death with flashlights and nightsticks by more than 12 officers – no arrest, no trial, no conviction. Should an insurance salesman have died for fleeing? That was my initiation of this problem. We often hear nothing has changed; however, something has changed. More blacks are dead. Ferguson and its progeny have thrust upon Generations X and Y the authenticity that their lives are as expendable as those of the four victims Dr. Hobbs cataloged. The black community’s irreverence for law is based on unaddressed grievances with a system that tolerates and often excuses the mistreatment of people of color.
Dr. Jeffrey Dean Swain is the Dean of Campus Ministry at Florida Memorial University, an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, and an author.