On Thursday, a little before 9 am, in reaction to two more killings of black civilians by police, two local activists, Robert James and Devon Trotter, got to work organizing a march. As the day progressed, word of the March to End Police Brutality spread through social media and by word of mouth. Local blogs helped spread the word. By 6 pm, over 2,000 people indicated they would be attend. By 8 pm, that number had grown to over 3,000.
There’s a terrible sameness to all of this, bordering on ritual. It’s usually a man, a black man, whose name we learn not because of how he lived, but because of how he died – killed by police. Because the police are not meant to use violence to force compliance except as a last resort in cases of imminent danger, the dead are subjected to a morbid Monday-morning-quarterback discussion of how each victim could have prevented his own demise. He shouldn’t have run away. He should have run away. He shouldn’t have resisted. He should have gone limp – even though going limp is considered resistance. He should have overcome his instinctive terror and resisted not the police but his primal responses of fight or flight. Each “should have” or “shouldn’t have” misses the point, because he simply cannot.
Today, we know the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile for the same reason we know the names of Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Sean Bell, Walter Scott, and Amadou Diallo. But the intolerable injustice of extrajudicial killings can’t always boil down to “he should have done X” or “he shouldn’t have done Y.” These killings are not isolated incidents. They are representative of the fact that black men are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men are. Their killings are a part of how America has always functioned.
Beginning with the structural and historic violence perpetrated against the black community through the enshrinement of slavery by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, through the Civil War, the Black Codes, Jim Crow, Plessy v. Ferguson, the convict lease system, Bull Connor’s dogs, redlining, COINTELPRO, the Tuskegee Experiments, ghettoization and financial evisceration through zoning and eminent domain abuse, jump outs, property-tax-based education funding, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the continued demonization of the black poor, it is clear that this nation thinks blackness is inherently criminal. The killings by police of two black men, in two cities 1,000 miles apart, a day apart, are both symptoms and not unexpected results of America’s undeclared and systemic war on blackness.
Today, the police, armed with military equipment due to the endless War on Drugs and the endless Global War on Terror, sometimes look more like an occupying force than fellow citizens who have sworn to uphold the Constitution and protect their communities – SWAT raids alone have increased nearly twenty-sevenfold over the past 30 years.
These policies are not accidental. They are the direct result of choices made by voters, acting through our elected representatives, funded with our tax dollars.
The march, with over a thousand people in attendance, began in front of the White House with speeches and chants of “black lives matter,” “no justice, no peace,” and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” After a half hour, the crowd, still growing, began its march to the Capitol. There, they were joined on the steps of the Capitol by several members of Congress, including Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga), Maxine Waters (D-Ca), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tx), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC). These representatives joined the crowd in their march back to the White House, giving advice along the way on how to transition from an empowering march to a sustained movement to end systemic racism: engage on the issues, vote, and get elected.
Three years after Black Lives Matter began in reaction to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, after the extrajudicial killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and too many more, Trotter stated the reason for the march: “We’re fed up. There hasn’t been any action from our elected officials and we want to be heard.”