American Carnage: Extrajudicial Killings of Black Americans

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TW/CW: Racism, Police Brutality, Anti-Black Abuse.

George Floyd. Emmett Till. Breonna Taylor. Eugene Williams. Ahmaud Arbery. Lamar Smith. 

You may be familiar with most of these names. George Floyd, suffocated under the weight of the police officer whose knee was planted on his neck. Emmett Till,  a 14-year-old boy lynched and mutilated in 1955. Breonna Taylor, an unarmed medical technician who was shot eight times in March inside her own home when counter-narcotics police stormed her house. Eugene Williams, drowned in 1919 after he floated on a raft from the black to the white sections of a beach in Illinois, to be met with a hail of rocks. Ahmaud Arbery, shot dead in February, while jogging in another neighbourhood. Lamar Smith, gunned down in 1955, in broad daylight, before witnesses, on the steps of a courthouse no less, only for his murderers to be acquitted after the witnesses refused to talk.

Three of these deaths occurred this year. Three of them happened before the Civil Rights Act, in a time before Black Americans were given the nominal protection of the law. Yet, the same themes are still recurring. A Black person is killed. Those responsible, even if their guilt appears clear and obvious, are acquitted or never charged. This provokes outrage, which can lead to further violence, which then leads to the aggrieved being labelled as ‘thugs‘, and appeals for peaceful, respectful dissent to take place.

When Eugene Williams drowned, his death took place on a crowded beach, with multiple witnesses to see the white Americans throwing rocks at him. But the only arrest was of a Black man who opened fire on the police, after they failed to make an arrest. The result was protests and violence that burnt around 1000 buildings to the ground. George Floyd, was suffocated by a police officer with 18 complaints recorded against him, while one of those ‘helping’ had been at the centre of a lawsuit for excessive force.  The event was captured on video. Yet it took the destruction of a Minnesota police precinct and several other buildings damaged, or in flames, before a charge of third degree murder was brought against the officer principally responsible. On each occasion, the aggrieved communities protested, in a manner that turned violent when it became apparent no justice was to be delivered.

I wish that this piece just had to list what has happened, but that’s not enough. We know these things, these mere facts that tell such an apparently impotent story. That Black lives matter less in the eyes of the US state and its representatives.

This can be confirmed as a matter of empirical fact. Mass incarceration, when applied to a context defined by historic racist housing policies and poverty (itself also largely due to historic racist policies), have combined to ensure that Black people are five times more likely to be imprisoned. They are five times as likely, therefore, to have criminal records, which cuts their chance of gaining employment in half. Which, in turn, makes further criminal behaviour likely. So the story repeats itself, while Black communities continue to suffer, in a cycle that the election of black legislators, or even a President, cannot break by itself.

Yet, this is not the only story to be told. The other story is that of one man’s weight pressing down implacably upon another’s windpipe as they plead for their life. It is of someone refusing, even in the face of another’s utter submission, to recognise the worth of another’s simple humanity. You might say that is a case of individual malice. But four others were there. They watched, and did not stop it. Then there is the institution, the Minneapolis police department. They had probable cause, a crime had been committed, and they did not hold their officer to account for it. George Floyd’s life was passed through many different hands, and each one tried to wash themselves of him.

We can talk about the bare facts, the big picture of the experience of minorities in the United States. But at its heart, this incidents confirms a long thread of contempt for the lives of Black people. You can find it in the remorseless pressure of a knee on a the neck of a man both cuffed and prone. You can find it in the rock thrown at a boy on a raft enjoying the sun.  Or the gunshot in broad daylight, before the eyes of the world, fired by a man who would rather kill than allow a black person to assert their inalienable rights.

I am mindful that we share a colonial and imperial past with the US, including the deep shame of slavery. What is true for them can also be true for us. As of 2016, around 1/3 of people shot by the UK police since 2004 were BAME.  We can do better. We all have to do better. Because, in the final analysis, all of us matter or none of us do.

For further resources and ways to help, visit Black Lives Matter.

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Political Editor for the Wessex Scene 2020-2021. Interested in politics, foreign affairs, and just about anything within those to be honest.

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