In August 2014, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, fatally shot Mike Brown Jr., setting off protests to which police responded with riot gear and tanks. It was only weeks after Eric Garner had died, having 11 times informed the NYPD police officers who had wrestled him to the ground and were choking and otherwise restraining him, “I can’t breathe.” Those sadly were also the last words four days ago of George Floyd, spoken to the Minneapolis cop who had his knee pressed into his neck for nearly eight minutes. Three dead African American men.
In 1975, another African American man, Carl Michael Middleton, died from “asphyxia due to manual compression of his neck” by Los Angeles police officers, according to the medical examiner. Between then and 1982, 16 more people died from LAPD-delivered police chokeholds, 12 of them Black men. “There was a pattern to it,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, director of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. “You had the police continuing to use this chokehold and the victims were young African-American males. People were saying, ‘You are targeting us with a hold that has deadly consequence.’ ”
The racist police chief, Daryl Gates—who is credited somewhat controversially with co-inventing SWAT, co-founding the anti-drug DARE program, and putting the LAPD into black uniforms— added gasoline to the public anger in 1982 when he said, ”It seems to me that we may be finding that in some Blacks when [the chokehold] is applied, the veins or the arteries do not open as fast as they do on normal people.” The NAACP sought his suspension, but Gates continued with the department for another decade.
Since Brown was shot six times that summer in Missouri, police across the United States have killed more than 4,500 people. While African Americans make up 12% of the population, from 2015—2019 they accounted for 26.4% of those who were killed by police under all circumstances. Getting killed by police is, in fact, a leading cause of death for Black men.
Black Lives Matter arose in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, but the organization only really came into the public eye after Brown was shot. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote last year:
Mike Brown’s murder and the uprising it inspired cracked open a period of organizing and protest that boldly aimed to end the reign of police terror in black poor and working-class communities around the country. For those who think that kind of language is hyperbole, consider the conclusions reached by a 2016 Chicago police commission convened by former mayor Rahm Emanuel after the vicious murder of Black teenager Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke:
That outrage [about the killing of Laquan McDonald] exposed deep and longstanding fault lines between black and Latino communities on the one hand and the police on the other arising from police shootings to be sure, but also about daily, pervasive transgressions that prevent people of all ages, races, ethnicities and gender across Chicago from having basic freedom of movement in their own neighborhoods. Stopped without justification, verbally and physically abused, and in some instances arrested, and then detained without counsel . . . CPD’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.
More than a century and a half since chattel slavery was abolished, more than half a century since the Civil Rights Act was enacted, systemic racism still drives deadly police treatment of African Americans. While the more vicious rhetoric of white supremacists had been somewhat tamped down in the public sphere in the decades after the Civil Rights Act passed, this kind of talk was cranked up when Barack Obama became president, an offense to racist “sensibilities.” With the arrival of Donald Trump at the White House accompanied by his long history of anti-Blackness, white supremacists got one of their own at the top.
But what happened in Minneapolis, Staten Island, Ferguson, and other cities will not go away when Trump does. He has worsened matters, to be sure, but he only embraces white supremacy, he didn’t invent it. The roots are deep. They extend well beyond police shootings and the criminal justice system. Change requires going well beyond investigations and reforms of individual police departments.
That was the thought of leaders within Black Lives Matter as well. In 2015, they developed Campaign Zero:
An Agenda to Resist President Trump and End Police Violence
Donald Trump and his administration have proposed to use the power of the federal government to encourage police violence against our communities. His proposals threaten to further empower police to racially profile, surveil, and break up black and brown families. Persistent advocacy will be essential to blocking Congressional legislation to expand the power of the agencies and departments responsible for implementing these proposals, including the FBI, DEA, NSA, Department of Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
However, much of Trump’s agenda may be able to be enacted without needing new legislation. As such, state and local lawmakers are positioned to play a critical role in resisting Trump’s agenda and protecting communities from harm. This agenda outlines legislation that can be passed at the state and local levels to stop Trump’s administration from escalating police violence in our communities.
Here’s one example:
One thing that some lawmakers may call for in the wake of the killing of George Floyd is a study or a task force focusing on police violence. That was already done under President Obama. You can read the results in The Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. An example from the task force’s numerous recommendations:
5.9.1 Action Item: Law enforcement agencies should implement ongoing, top down training for all officers in cultural diversity and related topics that can build trust and legitimacy in diverse communities. This should be accomplished with the assistance of advocacy groups that represent the viewpoints of communities that have traditionally had adversarial relationships with law enforcement.
5.9.2 Action Item: Law enforcement agencies should implement training for officers that covers policies for interactions with the LGBTQ population, including issues such as determining gender identity for arrest placement, the Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities, and immigrant or non-English speaking groups, as well as reinforcing policies for the prevention of sexual misconduct and harassment.
Because so often such reports and studies wind up on a government shelf—never to be referenced again until some doctoral student footnotes it in a dissertation—the participants created a separate action document—Task Force Implementation.
But that was in 2015. Five years before George Floyd couldn’t breathe.