In the past few days we have seen an uprising of riots and civil disobedience all over America, with the president most recently deploying military troops within the country as well as country-wide curfews. What initially sparked this uprising was the murder of George Floyd, a black man in America, by a police officer: the officer held Floyd down with his knee on his neck for 9 minutes, resulting in a struggle to breathe and eventually passing out. He was pronounced dead in hospital later that day.
This came in the same week as a white woman called the police when an African-American man asked her to put her dog on a lead in New York’s Central Park. By threatening the man, she was using the police as a direct tool to affirm her ability to control him. She not only threatened his life however, but the life of every black man on a bicycle in that area as they would “fit the profile” of who the police would look for. Over just this past year, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, and many more black people have been the victims of police brutality.
But these tragic events are not coincidences nor stand-alone events, they are a direct result of a long history of police brutality and racism that black people in America have faced for centuries. Systemic racism doesn’t happen overnight, and the history of police brutality against black people in America is long.
To put these recent events in context, I’ve written a short synopsis of the history – there are some major events that I have left out, but wrapping 400 years of racism and anti-blackness is easier said than done, so I’ve included mainly events that are directly related to police brutality.
In August 1619, The White Lion, a 160-ton Dutch privateer ship flying a British flag landed at Comfort Point in the first forcefully taken Africans in Virginia, to be exchanged for food and the “best and easiest rates…”. Just over twenty years later, Virginia’s General Court created what many are calling the nation’s first slave when the court condemned John Punch, an African, to a life sentence of servitude because he was black. Two other “servants“ had been caught with him, but their sentence was different because they were Scottish and Dutch, creating the first legal differences between Europeans and Africans. In 1704, South Carolina created the first modern-day, public police force. Called “slave patrols,” these publicly-funded organisations served three functions:
1) to chase down, apprehend, and return runaway slaves to their owners
2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts
3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who violated rules.
In 1770, America’s first police brutality protest turned into a riot when British troops charged with policing colonists opened fire on Boston residents. Crispus Attucks, a black man, was killed during what is now called the “Boston Massacre.” This is what resulted in a constitutional change, adding the second amendment giving white Americans the right to bear arms – in order to protect themselves from „black uprising“.
After the end of the civil war, a group composed of former Confederate soldiers, slave patrollers and law enforcement officers formed the “Circle of Friends,”, a white-supremicist hate group targeting African American, also known as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). In 1868 slavery was abolished (formally, although the practise took a lot longer to be eradicated), which did not sit well with the KKK, who continued to terrorise and kill black people for decades. In 1880 the Jim Crow laws were established, a collection of state and local statutes that legalised racial segregation that wasn’t abolished until 1964.
1900 – today
In the midst of the civil rights movement, which ended in 1968, Martin Luther King called for an end to police brutality in his famous “I have a dream” speech. However, black people still today face discrimination and racism in America, along with police brutality – with the latest case of George Floyd.
Martin Luther King said that rioting is the voice of the unheard. He advocated for, and practised, peaceful protesting but was in the end assassinated. Rioting, protests and civil unrest have been tools for change in a number of countries worldwide. Insurgency let to new forms of democracy in e.g. El Salvador, Guatemala and South Africa. Civil obedience and violence interact with the political and economic interests of the powerful in society, which often times are the oppressors.
Many changes that have happened throughout history, which are now are seen as progressive, have their origins in social conflicts that have taken a violent turn. While it is unclear who has escalated the violence in this instance, and many evidence that suggest that it was the police and far-right individuals that initiated the looting and violence that is taking place, it is true that it is the reconstruction that takes place after the events that is crucial, and it is crucial to stay vigilant to make sure that the voices that started the protests are heard.
What action can we take?
Racism is not tied to America — many people still seem to think that it’s only a problem across the pond. It’s time that those of us in Europe accept our history and the role that we have played in the slave trade, colonialism, and oppression. Racism is a problem across the globe, and we all – both black and white – need to do try and do something about it.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Desmond Tutu 1984
Tutu’s statement is more relevant now than ever. Many activists and organisations have come together and created resources for people to educate themselves better.
This spreadsheet compiled by activists contains a world of resources & tools regarding racism and anti-blackness, and how to be a better ally for people who want to do better, and to be better. In this resource pack you will find:
- Articles on whiteness, on racism and blackness in America, on liberation, and on police violence.
- Compilations of guides and further resources
- Petitions and donations, which ensure that you are supporting the movement beyond optical allyship.
- Lists of books, podcasts, films, videos, and social media accounts to follow to make sure that you continue learning beyond the movement.
The SOAS SU has also compiled a “fight anti-blackness resource pack”. In this resource pack, you will find:
- Useful resource lists, both US and UK centred (page 2)
- Self care and collective care resources, including online content and a list of organisations focusing on black mental health and wellbeing (page 3)
- A section on protests in London, how to engage safely and general tips (page 4)
- How to support from home if you cannot join protests because of the risk it entails. It includes petitions, letters to embassies and information sharing. We have also created collaborative documents on where to buy from black-owned businesses, and local grassroots organisations to support in the UK. Please add to these lists, share what you’ve got and let’s make it mainstream! (page 6)
- Meaningful and effective allyship focuses on deconstructing racism within ourselves. There are resources for white people, but also some content on anti-blackness in POC and LGBTQIA+ communities, and a note on ontical allyship (page 7)
The riots will pass. But that’s when the real work starts. We all need to do our part in making sure that they will not be forgotten, and that we collectively contribute to a systemic change. That requires every single one of us.
As a white person myself, I do not claim to have all the answers or to know better, all I can do is commit to learning and unlearning and to share my learnings with others. This is a collective effort and the emotional and physical labour that comes with dismantling centuries-long systems of oppression should, and can, not lie on the shoulders of black people. It is high time that we all do our part and ignorance is no longer (nor ever was) an excuse.
Rut Einarsdóttir is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and Operations Manager for SCRAP Weapons, a project for global disarmament in the CISD Department at SOAS, currently pursuing a MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development.