By Robert Lee Johnson
The general assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1669 addressed the killing of slaves by their masters this way:
WHEREAS the only law in force for the punishment of refractory servants resisting their master, mistress or overseer cannot be inflicted upon negroes, nor the obstinacy of many of them by other than violent means suppressed, be it enacted and declared by this Grand Assembly, if any slave resist his master (or other by his master’s order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accounted a felony, but the master (or that other person appointed by the master to punish him) be acquitted from molestation, since it cannot be presumed that prepensed malice (which alone makes felony) should induce any man to destroy his own estate.
The murder of Black people by those in authority is older than the country itself, so we are no longer surprised over the” snuff video” that documented the police murder of Mr. George Floyd.
America is once again confronted with its historic legacy of violent racism and discrimination against the Black community, this time in living rooms and on personal devices across America in “undeniable” living color!
The nation watched the torture and slow death of Mr. Floyd as he called out to anyone willing to listen that he could not breathe! A chilling refrain from the recent past that reminded us all of another video of a senseless murder of a Black man named Eric Gardner, at the hands of American law enforcement. As the representative of the “State” pressed his knee against Mr. Floyd’s neck as Mr. Floyd called out for his recently deceased mother, several bystanders screamed at the officer to take his knee off of Mr. Floyd’s neck because he was killing him.
The officer ignored them as he ground his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck with his hand in his pocket and a quizzical look on his face, prompting a bystander to ask if he was enjoying himself? He crushed Mr. Floyd’s throat with his knee for 8 1/2 minutes, two of those minutes after Mr. Floyd was dead. It was all documented on video for all to see and yet it took massive demonstrations and civil unrest across the nation to get an indictment of Mr. George Floyd’s killers. Why?
A few days before Mr. Floyd was murdered at the hands of his local police force. Breanna Taylor, a front line essential personnel EMT working to fight the deadly coronavirus in her community was shot several times by the local police as she slept in her bed in her own home in the middle of the night at the hands of local police conducting a “no knock raid “where they did not identify themselves. They arrested her boyfriend for defending his home from unannounced intruders who shot and killed his girlfriend. And of course, America was not “shocked” by news of this murder as it became just another outrage in the Black community that seems to pop up every few weeks or so.
These types of murders of Black civilians by the police have become the norm and almost expected as, part of the “Black experience” in America. After all, they had to be guilty of something? Right! But, then there’s that video of “Minneapolis’s finest” digging his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck as he laid handcuffed and helpless in the gutter pleading for his Life.
So now the time has come for an answer to an age old question that was first asked in earnest during Reconstruction, “Do Black Lives Matter!” For most of American history the answer has been a resounding No! Equal protection under the law for Black people in the United States is a cruel joke.
… They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order… And so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect… Chief Justice Roger Taney’s majority opinion in the Dred Scott Decision, United States Supreme Court. March 6th 1857.
During the era of Reconstruction, which lasted from 1865 to 1877, one side argued for equal rights and equal protection under the law for the newly freed Black population. The other side argued that the “Negro” was an inferior species unfit to participate in a white man’s democracy and for a return to white supremacy in the South under the leadership of the remaining planter class and their former Confederate allies (the Redeemers).
By 1877, white supremacy was the order of the day in both the North and the South. The Black community had seen their short day in the sun at the beginning of Reconstruction only to have the Republican Party and the nation, turn their backs on the newly freed Black citizens leaving them at the mercy of the conservative Southern Democrats who were fresh out of mercy and thirsty for revenge.
What followed was nearly 100 years of racist “Jim Crow” segregation that allowed for disenfranchisement, police abuse, brutality, rape and murder in order to suppress and contain the Black community in the same vein as the old Slave Patrols. The lynchings, beatings, extrajudicial executions and the wholesale destruction of Black towns and communities were the order of the day. As long as the Black community was separate and contained from the white community especially in the North, the majority population did not care what happened in the Black community as long as it did not affect them.
Ida B Wells, Sojourner Truth, Monroe Trotter, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois the NAACP and many others demanded that a federal law to outlaw lynching be enacted to stop this gruesome ritual that has spread across the South and into the North. We have all seen the postcards depicting the smiling white faces, of the young and old, male and female pointing at the horribly mutilated Black bodies hanging from the tree or a telephone pole as white onlookers gawk and cut off pieces of the body for souvenirs. (Go to withoutsanctuary.org) Many of you are aware of the Bloody summer of 1919/1920 that took place right after the end of World War I and the 1918 flu epidemic and the urgent plea by the Black community to outlaw lynching. I can tell you that as late as July 31, 2020 the United States Senate is still trying to pass a bill to make lynching a federal crime. At the moment Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is blocking the legislation in the Senate and four Republican Congressman voted against the bill in the House.
As my Grandfather used to say, “As much as some things have changed some things stay the same.”
Maybe that’s why it took so long to indict the white vigilantes that hunted down and shot Ahmaud Arbery whose only crime was jogging through “their” neighborhood in Georgia. They were so proud of what they were doing that they decided to document their hunt on video. Otherwise we would have never known what happened to him. I wonder what a video of the Travonn Martin incident would have looked like. A hunt? We have to ask ourselves, how far have we come in 100 years?
In March of 1770 in the city of Boston, Massachusetts a Black man was shot down by local law enforcement during a protest. That man’s name was Crispus Attucks and he was leading a multiracial protest against British forces in colonial America that evening. He was a Stevedore and a Seamen, He was also a runaway slave. Four white men were also killed that evening, James Caldwell, Patrick Carr, Samuel Gray, and Samuel Maverick but Crispus Attucks would always be remembered as the first to die in what would eventually become the rebellion that birthed a new nation, based on the proposition that all men are created equal.
The response to the videotaped torture slaying of Mr. George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement in Minneapolis in May of 2020 seems to have been a tipping point that has led to multiracial protests against racism, discrimination, police brutality and murder across the country and around the world. There are calls to reform the policing of Black communities across the United States. The truth is that you cannot reform an institution that is functioning as intended!
Remember, it was not just white vigilantes that attacked freedom riders and civil rights protesters. It was the police! It was Eugene “Bull” Connor and his clones across the country that brutalized and murdered civil rights workers, in order to suppress and contain the Black community. It was the local police that enforced segregation in the North and the South. These institutions were created by slave owning white supremacists to serve their needs, not ours.
Therefore, for any real change to take place the institutions would have to be replaced and rebuilt in order to serve all the people justly. The difference in the demonstrations protesting Mr. Floyd’s murder is that we are all truly outraged, not only Black people, or Brown people or Native Americans or Asians but we see many white faces sometimes predominately in the crowds of protesters just like in Crispus Attucks’s protest and we all know what that led to!
“Until the killing of Black men, Black mother’s sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a White mother’s son. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” Ella Josephine Baker