“Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet … We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy … Force and violence systematically and consistently employed to quell the righteous anger of Blacks is justified by calling murder an exercise ‘law and order’.” — from We Charge Genocide, 1951 Petition to the United Nations edited by William Patterson, endorsed by W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Harry Haywood and others.
More than six decades have passed since Patterson’s authoritative study of police killings of Black people. Within that span, the Deacons for Self Defense and others used arms to protect the Black Freedom Movement against vigilantes in the South; the Black Panther Party for Self Defense organized thousands of people based on the demand to end police brutality and murder of Black people; and insurrections sparked by police atrocities rocked every major city in the country.
Then in February 2012, a vigilante, George Zimmerman, killed Trayvon Martin.
Two years ago today the acquittal of George Zimmerman re-kindled a movement against impunity for police and vigilante killers. Yet, despite the outrage over the state’s protection of Zimmerman, and the spotlight on impunity of police who summarily execute Black people on camera, the killing continues with shocking regularity. And the impunity of police, and even vigilantes, proceeds apace.
What makes this modern day lynching a seemingly inoperable tumor woven into the arteries and sinew of the U.S. body politic? This is the first in a three-part series that offers a diagnosis of sorts of our national disease.
A cornerstone of police impunity is the failure of the federal government to require reliable and accurate reporting. Even organizations that have the resources to amass and disseminate the data, still must rely on police accounts of the killings that invariably justify their mayhem. Impunity breathes life into chronic assaults by cops and the state’s privatized killers. In May and June 2012, Operation Ghetto Storm (OGS) documented 30 Black people killed per month by police, security guards and vigilantes. In May 2015, The Guardian’s website counted 26 killed by police alone. Their count for June 2015 is 19. If they followed OGS methodology to include vigilantes and security guards, the total for June 2015 would be at least 28 or one every 25.7 hours for the month.
Initially enraged by the Florida police’s refusal to arrest Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, we began to collect names of murdered Black people to demonstrate that Trayvon’s killing was systemic. We found that in 2012, police, security guards and vigilantes killed a total of 313 Black people. Divide the number of hours in a year by 313 and you get one every 28 hours. We called the Report Operation Ghetto Storm (OGS) because the name encapsulates our conclusion that the mission, white supremacist state policies and institutions, high tech military hardware, and military mind-set that characterized the invasion of Iraq also sustain the occupation and war on Black and Brown communities inside the U.S. Security guards and vigilantes, protected by “stand-you-ground”, “self-defense”, the “home as castle doctrine” and other laws, join the 18,000 law enforcement agencies employing approximately 250,000 police and sheriffs in the occupation and containment of Black communities.
The Mission of Police in Black Communities in Historic Context
White supremacy is much more than the ideology or ranting of a right-wing extremist, admirer or member of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. White supremacy has flowed in the mainstream since the beginning of U.S. history. According to Elizabeth Martinez, an early member of the Black Southern Freedom Movement organization, SNCC and Latina activist,
“White Supremacy is a web of interlocking, mutually-reinforcing institutions - economic, military, legal, educational, religious and cultural - that propel a system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.”
The groundbreaking historian, Gerald Horne, has demonstrated how the United States – a settler colony based on stolen land and built with stolen labor – was the world’s first nation founded on white supremacy. Its founding heroic democratic myths are lies. The so-called “American Revolution” was, in fact, a counter-revolution by slave owners and land pirates who feared that the British Crown would not allow their profitable white supremacist enterprise to continue. Slavery and slave trade made the development and economy of the United States possible.
The system of slavery enlisted white settlers – including those who owned no land – to control the lives of enslaved Africans. The earliest “law enforcement institutions” or police forces grew from networks of white people whose task it was to contain and control enslaved Black people, especially those who attempted escape. After the Civil War and end of Reconstruction, between 1877 and 1950, white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, civilian mobs, local sheriffs and police colluded to enforce sharecropping – different from slavery in name only – and to maintain Jim Crow – de jure apartheid and denial of citizenship. They institutionalized a system of omnipresent surveillance, prison plantations and more than 4000 lynchings to terrorize Black people into submission and to re-entrench white supremacist power.
While this state-sanctioned terror was centered in the South, many Northern and Western states were sites of lynching and all practiced some form of slavery and then Jim Crow. White riots or pogroms against Black people mobilized white mobs in many northern cities to contain the Black people who had migrated North during and after World War I. Local police throughout the country enforced ordinances that barred Black people from living in the “Sundown towns” where they worked. Despite numerous proposals, the federal government never passed an anti-lynching law or any other legislation to protect Black people against the excesses of police and white citizen attacks. Rather, when Black people’s tradition of resistance to white supremacy gained strength in the 1960’s, the federal government launched COINTELPRO. Under that program, dissent was criminalized, leaders and militants were assassinated or incarcerated and their activities were disrupted.
This failure to protect Black people’s human rights persists in the toothless pretenses of the federal government to hold police accountable. Operation Ghetto Storm documented how only 12 percent of the extrajudicial killings of Black people might be justified by international human rights standards. That leaves 275 killings that were tantamount to lynching – an astronomical number compared to the heyday of lynching.
As early as 1960, in an essay published by Esquire, James Baldwin explained the mission of the “modern” police in Harlem, New York: “… the only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive….. Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children. They represent the force of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are, simply, for that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man corralled up here, in his place. The badge, the gun in the holster, and the swinging club make vivid what will happen should his rebellion become overt.”
In 2013, the New York State Senate heard testimony that the former NYPD Commissioner Kelly told the NY State governor that his aim was to instill fear in young Black and Latino men every time they left home. A recording made at a Brooklyn Police Station showed that Kelly’s views permeate the NYPD: “If you get too big of a crowd there, you know, they’re going to get out of control, and they’re going to think that they own the block. They don’t own the block, alright? They might live there, but we own the block, alright? We own the streets here.”
Within the last year the uprisings and police response in Ferguson and Baltimore have illuminated how consistent the police’s mission has been over the decades. Whether they are equipped with candy, traditional billy clubs and sidearms or tanks and high tech military equipment; whether their captains give them arrest quotas that require petty harassment or follow the principles of “community policing”, their mission remains the same: to contain, control and force submission of Black people.
In Part 2 of this series we’ll investigate the enduring ideological and structural underpinnings of police state occupation and control of Black communities.
Arlene Eisen is the author of the study called “Operation Ghetto Storm: 2012 Annual Report on the Extrajudicial Killings of 313 Black People by Police, Security Guards and Vigilantes” (Also known as the #every28hours Report) originally published by Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. The revised edition is available at www.operationghettostorm.org. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org