As incidents of police brutality multiply, historians hear echoes of 18th-century ‘slave patrols’

Millions of people around the world, caught up in the tragedy of black Americans killed by police and white vigilantes, have taken to the streets in recent weeks to march for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others. At the same time there have been counter demonstrations, generally much smaller, by racist groups including remnant groups of the Ku Klux Klan, and unrelated protests against coronavirus lockdowns by largely white, conservative, armed mobs.

It is hard not to notice that the police have treated the two kinds of protests very differently.

In February, police escorted more than 100 masked members of a white nationalist group on a march through Washington's National Mall. Patriot Front members shouted, "Reclaim America!" and "Life, liberty, victory!" as officers protected them against possible attacks.

In April, hundreds of protestors, many armed, entered the Michigan Capitol building and crowded halls and staircases demanding that the state legislature not extend Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's coronavirus stay-at-home order. One of the protesters carried a doll dangling from a noose. Police stood by placidly as demonstrators jeered and shouted from much less than six feet away.

Protestors try to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber and are being kept out by the Michigan State Police after the American Patriot Rally organized by Michigan United for Liberty protest for the reopening of businesses on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on April 30, 2020.(Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Also, in Rome, Ga., a viral video captured police calmly patrolling a KKK rally in full regalia.

In contrast, there have been a significant number of reports, many caught on video, of law enforcement instigating violence or mistreating law-abiding citizens during peaceful protests, most famously when law enforcement and National Guard personnel cleared demonstrators outside the White House for President Trump’s photo op at an Episcopal church two weeks ago. After first denying it, the Secret Service admitted last week that pepper spray had been used on the crowd.

In another instance, a video that has gone viral shows a peaceful protest last week in East Meadow, N.Y. An officer stepped into the path of a protester and stopped short, causing the marcher to bump into him. Police officers then swarm the protester and knock him to the ground, arresting him.

Police claim the march was impeding traffic.

Another video shows an NYPD officer pulling down a peaceful protester’s mask to pepper spray a young man in the face at point-blank range late last month.

Earlier this month, in Buffalo, a 75-year-old protester was pushed to the ground by two police officers during a Floyd protest. The push led to the man’s head hitting the pavement and he was left to bleed as officers walked past him. He was taken to the hospital with a brain injury.

On June 7 in Seattle, police clashed with a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration, dispersing marchers with flashbang grenades and pepper spray and pushing some demonstrators with a police bicycle.

“This has been going on underneath my apartment for several days now,” said one local resident, @menilivne, who has filmed the nightly procession told NewsFlare. “Peaceful protesters stand in front of barriers that the police set up. Eventually, the police do something to provoke the protesters. Sometimes they approach them and start moving the barrier. This leads to a scuffle where the police use flashbangs, and in the past tear gas, too, against the protesters.”

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - MAY 30: Police advance on demonstrators who are protesting the killing of George Floyd on May 30, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - MAY 30: Police advance on demonstrators who are protesting the killing of George Floyd on May 30, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Medics and journalists also have been targeted by police and even arrested for doing their jobs. One medic in Brooklyn pleaded to officers as he was arrested for giving first aid to someone. In another instance, CNN reporter Omar Jimenez and his crew were arrested while broadcasting live on air in Minneapolis.

While there are many additional examples of police and Black Lives Matter protestors coexisting peacefully, you cannot find many, if any, videos of Ku Klux Klan, white supremacist or armed militia groups, having violent confrontations with police. The injustice harkens back to the very origins of policing in the U.S., in volunteer patrols charged with keeping African-Americans in their place and hunting runaway slaves.

Dating back to the 1600s, the British colonies that would later become the United States enlisted citizens of towns and cities to patrol their own communities and maintain order. Later in the 1700s, early policing evolved into slave patrols, responsible for heading off slave rebellions and preventing enslaved people from escaping. The inception of policing in America was built on keeping black lives in order.

“Policing has a historical base of controlling and containing black people,” Delores Jones-Brown, Professor of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College told Yahoo News. “We can talk about the overseers on plantations, where black [bodies] were controlled, followed by Jim Crow where police were in charge of controlling black people. In some ways everyone knew what was incorrect and immoral, but police were in charge of enforcing this law. There is over 300 years of this.”

July 11, 2009 in Pulaski, Tennessee. (Getty Images)
July 11, 2009 in Pulaski, Tennessee. (Getty Images)

The first iteration of the KKK came about in the late 1860s, around the Reconstruction era, in southern parts of the U.S. Klan members sought the restoration of white supremacy through intimidation and violence aimed at the newly enfranchised black freedmen. The hate group terrorized black communities by carrying out lynchings and destroying black schools.

In more recent times, there have been disturbing signs of connections between the KKK and some law enforcement agencies and individuals.

In September 2019, a Michigan police officer was fired after KKK memorabilia, including a framed KKK application, was found in his home. The officer said the items were part of his antique collection.

In 2014, a Florida town was rocked by the news that two Fruitland Park police officers were allegedly members of the local KKK. One officer was later fired and the other resigned.

Police officers have been known to post hateful and racist messages on social media or dressing up in black face. One expert who studies hate and extremism says this reflects the systemic racism that runs through every American institution, including policing.

“If we contend that systemic racism runs across institutions in society, including police departments … to the extent that people of color are to be stopped by police, frisked and disproportionately killed in interactions by police, it stands to reason that the [issues] that are brought by citizens have some merit,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino in an interview with Yahoo News. “It stands to reason that the same kind of bias is similar with respect to rallies.”

Levin added that in the wake of tense protests between officers and community members, the only solution is for the two sides to work together towards change, to get beyond the optics of police throwing Black Lives Matter protesters to the ground, and police treating racist mass murderer Dylann Roof, who shot up a prayer meeting at an African-American church, to a meal from Burger King after his arrest.

“What activists have to do as well as police is roll up our sleeves together and figure this out,” Levin said. “This includes the development of self-policing by rallygoers.”

The idea of self-policing and any kind of policing reform is now the subject of a push by many top Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The “Justice in Policing Act” would be the most transformative policing reform legislation of its kind, banning chokeholds in all jurisdictions and requiring local police departments to send data on the use of force to the federal government. Democrats plan to present this bill to the House floor by July 4 — and Republicans plan to present their own plan.

Representative Karen Bass, a Democrat from California and chair of the Democratic Black Caucus, and House and Senate Democrats raise their hands when asked about the viability of their bill during a news conference unveiling policing reform and and equal justice legislation at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, June 8, 2020. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Despite the evident difference in policing at rallies, and the fact that the KKK has a long history of killing black people dating back to the mid-1800s, President Trump announced last week that he is seeking to label anti-fascist group Antifa as a terrorist organization, not the KKK.

“The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” Trump tweeted on May 31.

The only caveat is, he can’t do this. The federal government only has the authority to designate foreign groups as terrorist organizations. There is no domestic terrorism statute under which to label U.S.-based groups.

“We don’t have federal legislation that mandates what the criteria for labeling a domestic terror group is,” Levin said. “We can develop that, but if we are going to do that and allow the government to interfere with peaceful First Amendment activity, do we feel comfortable with them interfering with domestic actors?”

The latter becomes a complex issue of whether to condemn hate or start a precedent of limiting free speech that may be harmful. All the while, the numbers show hate crime is growing. Hate crime hit a 16-year high in 2018, according to an annual FBI report. The biggest spikes in hate crime took place in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, the largest cities in the nation, according to Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

Yet polling shows most Americans sympathize with the nationwide protests. A new Reuters poll found 64 percent of American adults were “sympathetic to people who are out protesting right now,” while 27 percent said they were not and 9 percent were unsure.

The protests have helped energize the Black Lives Matter movement, which has gained newfound momentum since it began in 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of teenager Trayvon Martin. While in its early days it was frequently met with the counter-slogan “All Lives Matter,” BLM is now widely recognized as an appropriate call to redress centuries of injustice, a rallying cry for equality in the name of humanity. The movement has always and continues to seek to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes,” according to its website.

A young boy raises his fist for a photo by a family friend during a demonstration over the Minneapolis death of George Floyd while in police custody on May 31, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
A young boy raises his fist for a photo by a family friend during a demonstration over the Minneapolis death of George Floyd while in police custody on May 31, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

With the latest wave of activism, at least public perception appears to be changing. In 2017, a poll by Reuters/Ipsos/UVA Center for Politics, revealed that 39 percent either strongly or somewhat agree with the idea that white people are the primary victims of racism. Just 32 percent supported Black Lives Matter, which at the time was associated in the public mind with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who provoked outrage, from President Trump among others, by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before games to protest police brutality and systemic racism.

A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll has found that a significantly larger number of Americans are changing their minds on NFL sideline protests. A majority of Americans (52 percent) now agree that it is “OK for NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police killings of African Americans.” In 2018, according to another Yahoo News/YouGov poll, only 35 percent agreed with Kaepernick’s right to protest.

Having spent five years as an NYPD officer from 1985-1989, Levin believes that transparency is the only way for the police to regain trust in the public.

“One of the best things police can do is to have greater transparency to enforcement,” he said. “The issue is not only bias we have to address, but addressing standards in policing in which rallies and demonstrations are included. This includes training of different kinds of gatherings. A peaceful demonstration that is fixed is different than one that moves.”

Jones-Brown says President Trump contributes to the problem. “In D.C. you have the leader of the free nation, who doesn’t believe it’s a free nation. And whether overt or thinly veiled, [he consistently] comes out against people of color,” she said. “Police have been emboldened to act out towards black people.”

The world is watching — and joining in — as Americans march for change. Jones-Brown believes history continues to rear its head time and time again at these moments.

“We know there is vitriol from the Blue Lives Matter movement,” she said. “[It’s emphasized by] the position of black people in America and those who say black people should be subordinate. You see people say ‘How dare you?’ And the police have always been the force to keep you in your place.”


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