Dr. King was deeply concerned about the plague of police brutality gratuitously visited upon black men throughout the country. He had seen and experienced police brutality firsthand. In the Spring of 1963, he witnessed Eugene “Bull” Connor, the rabidly racist police commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war” on unarmed citizens demanding the right to vote. Connors unleashed his police officers to viciously and mercilessly attack non-violent anti-segregation protesters with high-pressure fire hoses, police dogs, billy clubs and tear gas. But the protesters kept on coming in waves chanting, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”.
A number of prominent white Southern clergymen expressed disapproval of Dr. King’s nonviolent tactics in demanding their constitutional right to vote, but applauded Connor’s brutal methods to “maintain law and order.” In April 1963, Dr. King, in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, challenged the moral ambiguity and absurdity of their position and their skin-deep commitment to racial justice. He exposed their willful ignorance and hypocrisy before the court of public opinion. He argued that those who “warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping ‘order’ and ‘preventing violence’” would have come to a different conclusion had they “seen [the] dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes… observed their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail… watched them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls… slap and kick old Negro men and young boys… observe them refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.”
In March 1965, during the “Bloody Sunday March (click here for video)”, Alabama State troopers and a posse of police-recruited Klansmen on horseback savagely brutalized civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as the world watched in horror. Dr. King personally led the second march on “Turnaround Tuesday” with 2500 marchers in tow. Connor’s police withdrew from the bridge to let the marchers continue and avoid a confrontation. Dr. King held a short prayer session as the police looked on from the sidelines. In a dramatic display of self-control and demonstration of the principles of nonviolent resistance, Dr. King turned back and walked his marchers back to town. Within days, Dr. King led some 25 thousand marchers and successfully completed the 54-mile march from Selma to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery with the protection of thousands of soldiers from the U.S. Army, federalized Alabama National Guardsmen, FBI agents and Federal Marshals. There he delivered a soul-stirring speech: “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. … I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long…”
All of the police savagery was visited upon the Selma marchers simply because they demanded their constitutional right to vote guaranteed them under the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. President Lyndon B. Johnson later declared, “The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”
Dr. King understood police brutality was not limited to physical beatings and atrocities. He was acutely aware of the debilitating effects of the psychic brutality of segregation reinforced by ruthless police forces. The police were the sledgehammer and axe in the hands of Jim Crow (the metaphorical name for racial segregation laws enacted in Southern United States after the American Civil War and remained in force until 1965). They were the first line of “defense” against any efforts to desegregate public schools, public places and transportation, restaurants, restrooms and drinking fountains.
Dr. King was acutely aware of the psychic brutality of racism that destroys the very soul of a human being and leaves the body a shell of shame, fear and self-hate. He understood that a physical injury, even a bullet wound, will eventually heal, though the scar will remain as a permanent signature of the crime committed. But the victim of psychic brutality “finds himself suddenly tongue twisted and stammering to explain to [his] six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people…” The victim of psychic brutality has to “concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’”
Dr. King understood the psychic brutality of being “humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; [having one’s] first name become “nigger,” [one’s] middle name become “boy” (however old you are) and [one’s] last name become “John,” and [one’s] wife and mother never given the respected title “Mrs.” He understood the psychic brutality of racism and what it means to be “forever fighting a degenerating sense of nobodiness”. That’s why he declared Black people could no longer wait for change because “there comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”
Dr. King understood the psychic injury to the dignity of man and woman will never heal unless given large doses of love (agape). Without love, the psychic brutality of racism, to paraphrase the poetic words of Langston Hughes, will only continue to “fester like a sore– / And then run? /… /… it just sags/ like a heavy load… [and in the end]… explode…”
The spark that set off the powder keg of racism came in the person of a frail 42 year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks. On December 1, 1955, Parks said she was no longer going suffer the slings and arrows of racist psychic brutality inflicted on her as she boarded the buses. She resolved to stand up to the daily humiliations, degradation and dehumanization of segregated public transportation. If she is going to pay her bus fare at the front of the bus, that’s where she was going to sit. When Parks refused to follow the bus driver’s instruction to go to the back of the bus, she stood her ground and would not back down. The police swiftly arrested and jailed her.
“A riot is the language of the unheard.” MLK
Dr. King once told a journalist that “A riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
That was not all. America had also failed to hear the cries and whimpers of her black children wilting under the blows of police batons. She had turned a blind eye to the lifeless bodies of victims of police brutality in the streets and deaf ears to the bootless cries of young black men begging the mercy of rogue police officers with huge chips on their shoulders.
The most severe “race riots” of 20th Century America were triggered by acts of police brutality. (I am not sure why such unrest is called a “race riot”. It is factually more accurate to call it “riots against police brutality”.)
The July 1964 “Harlem, N.Y. Race Riots” were sparked when a 15-year-old African American teenager was shot and killed by a police lieutenant in the presence of the teen’s friends and several other witnesses. Thousands of people rioted for nearly a week in the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant resulting in one death, 118 injuries and over 450 arrests along with significant vandalism and looting.
The “Harlem Riots” set off other riots. The Rochester (N.Y) Race Riots” of July 1964 flared when that city’s police attempted to arrest a 19-year-old African American man in the street. Rumors alleging police brutality spread in that city’s African American community resulting in angry reaction. In the ensuing riot, several people were killed, hundreds injured and nearly a thousand protesters arrested along with significant property damage.
The “Philadelphia Race Riots” of August 1964 exploded after prolonged complaints over numerous allegations of police brutality. In several days of rioting, 341 people were injured, 774 arrested and 225 stores damaged or destroyed in several days of rioting. Similar riots took place in various cities in New Jersey and Chicago.
The August 1965 “Watts Riots” or “Watts Rebellion” were triggered after two white policemen tussled with a black motorist. An angry crowd joined the fray causing a riot that lasted for nearly a week. By the end, 34 people were dead, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests and incurring over $40 million in property damage.
The 1967 “Detroit Riot” was sparked when police raided an unlicensed bar and rumors spread that the police had murdered several African American men. That riot lasted for nearly a week and according to Time Magazine became “one of the deadliest and costliest riots in the history of the United States.” During the “long hot summer” of 1967 some 159 riots erupted across the United States.
The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (“Kerner Commission”) was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 riots and to provide recommendations for the future. The Report’s most famous passage warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The Report pointed an accusatory finger at white racism as one of the major causes of urban violence in America. The Report recommended, among other things, the hiring of more diverse and sensitive police forces.
Police brutality-sparked riots continued in the late 1960s and 70s in various American cities.
The Orangeburg Massacre (in Orangeburg, South Carolina) of February 1968 occurred on the campus of South Carolina State University as students tried to desegregate a local bowling alley. South Carolina Highway Patrol Officers fired into a group of African American students killing three and wounding 27. That was the first time police committed atrocities on an American college campus, over two years before the Kent State University shootings in May 1970.
In the 1970s, riots triggered by police brutality continued to occur from Augusta, GA to Jackson, MS. By 1980, another major riot had occurred in Liberty City, a Miami neighborhood after four police officers were acquitted in the death of an African American man. After three days of rioting, 18 people were dead, scores arrested and over $100 million in property damage incurred.
In April 1992, massive riots erupted in Los Angeles after a jury acquitted four police officers of assault charges in the 1991 beating of Rodney King. Fifty-five people died and 2,000 were injured and over 10 thousand people arrested in several days of rioting. Over 1,000 buildings were damaged in the Los Angeles area at a cost of over $1 billion.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention was as much a battleground as a political convention to nominate a president. A number of “counterculture groups” coordinated to disrupt that convention. The law-and order mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, unleashed his police on protesters to “maintain law and order”. That led to pitched street battles in the streets for several days.
The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence appointed Daniel Walker, an Illinois lawyer and politician, to head the Chicago Study Team to investigate and prepare a report on the violence during the Democratic National Convention. The Walker Report (“Rights in Conflict”) made the controversial conclusion that while protesters had deliberately harassed and provoked police, the police had responded with indiscriminate violence against protesters and bystanders. The report accused law enforcement of engaging in a “police riot”. The Report determined many police officers had committed criminal acts, and condemned the official failure to prosecute or even discipline those officers. The Report stated:
… That [police] violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat. These included peaceful demonstrators, onlookers, and large numbers of residents who were simply passing through, or happened to live in, the areas where confrontations were occurring.
Newsmen and photographers were singled out for assault, and their equipment deliberately damaged. Fundamental police training was ignored; and officers, when on the scene, were often unable to control their men. As one police officer put it: “What happened didn’t have anything to do with police work.” . . .
As a lawyer, I wonder if some of the incidents we witnessed in the riots sparked by police brutality in 2014 could be fairly classified as “police riots”? I wonder if Eric Garner had died at the hands of police officers in California (instead of N.Y.), the officers involved in his death would have been prosecuted for “police riot”? According to California Penal Code section 404 as “Any use of force or violence, disturbing the public peace, or any threat to use force or violence, if accompanied by immediate power of execution, by two or more persons acting together, and without authority of law, is a riot.” If those officers had been found in California to have engaged in an unreasonable and unlawful use of deadly force (“without authority of law”) such as employing an illegal chokehold causing a death, could they have been charged for committing a homicide in the course of a “police riot”?
The “quiet riots” of Barack Obama
In June 2007, presidential hopeful Barack Obama spoke at Hampton University Annual Ministers’ Conference in Hampton, Virginia. He spoke of the “quiet riot” taking place in Los Angeles and in Black America:
… A few weeks ago, I attended a service at First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the LA Riots. After a jury acquitted 4 police officers of beating Rodney King-a beating that was filmed and flashed around the world- Los Angeles erupted. I remember the sense of despair and powerlessness in watching one of America’s greatest cities engulfed in flames…
… Many of the folks in this room know just where they were when the riot in Los Angeles started and tragedy struck the corner of Florence and Normandy. And most of the ministers here know that those riots didn’t erupt over night; there had been a “quiet riot” building up in Los Angeles and across this country for years.
If you had gone to any street corner in Chicago or Baton Rouge or Hampton — you would have found the same young men and women without hope, without miracles, and without a sense of destiny other than life on the edge — the edge of the law, the edge of the economy, the edge of family structures and communities.
On January 20, 2015 when President Obama delivers his State of the Union speech in Congress, I would like to get his take on the “quiet riot” that has been taking place in the Black community since he became president. Perahps the “quiet riots” quietly disappeared with the Bush Adminstration. I don’t know.
I would like to know if President Obama had been back to street corners in Chicago, Baton Rouge or Hampton lately (I mean in the last six years). If he had, I would like to know if he had seen any of the young men and women he saw in 2007 “without hope, without miracles, and without a sense of destiny” still hangin’ and chillin’ out there.
After he delivers his speech, I would like to ask President Obama a hypothetical question: What happens to an unrequited “quiet riot”?
“Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? /Or fester like a sore—/ And then run? /Does it stink like rotten meat? /Or crust and sugar over– /like a syrupy sweet?/ Maybe it just sags /like a heavy load./ Or does it explode?”
A nation of two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal in 2015 or just one United States of America?
In his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Senator Barack Obama stole the show by declaring: “Well, I say to them (those who are preparing to divide us) tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.
In 1967, the Kerner Commission warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
I ask myself, “What is America to me?”
Is it a land ruled by the rule of law or a land of a few misguided men who rule because they believe they are above the law, indeed believe themselves to be the personification of the law because they carry a badge to enforce the law which they mistake as a license to kill and abuse citizens.
Is not America the land of the brave and home of the free?
The Presbyterian Minister and poet Henry Van Dyke had an answer. “…So it’s home again, and home again, America for me! / My heart is turning home again, and there I long to be, / In the land of youth and freedom beyond the ocean bars, / Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars!…/
Langston Hughes disagreed, “America never was America to me.” Hughes demanded that we “Let America be America Again” for those who feel “America never was America to [them]”.
In passionate soul-stirring words Langston Hughes demanded, “Let America be America again./ Let it be the dream it used to be./Let it be the pioneer on the plain/Seeking a home where he himself is free… / Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–/Let it be that great strong land of love/Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme/That any man be crushed by one above…/ O, let my land be a land where Liberty/ Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,/But opportunity is real, and life is free,/Equality is in the air we breathe…/
I join Hughes. Let’s “Let America be America Again” to those who feel “America never was America to [them].”
Can we get satisfaction in 2015?
On the occasion of Dr. King’s 86th birthday, it is time for us to ask his soul-searching questions once again. “When will you be satisfied?” When will we be satisfied?
The answer in 2015 must be the same as the answer given in 1963. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” We can never be satisfied until those “battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality” find a safe harbor, a haven, in the embrace of the Constitution of the United States of America!
In 2014, there were some gusty winds of police brutality. Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer in Ferguson, MO. Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man died in Staten Island, New York, after a police officer put him in a chokehold. Grand juries in both cases refused to charge the police officers. There were numerous other incidents throughout the country publicly reported and unreported alleging police brutality.
The Brown and Garner deaths sparked massive street protests. Famed African American televangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes told worshipers that black men should not be “tried on the sidewalk.”
Police Chief Chris Magnus of Richmond, California stood on the sidewalk carrying a sign that read “Black Lives Matter” to show his solidarity with those protesting police brutality.
An organization called “Black Life Matters” was launched to coordinate national grassroots action on police brutality. Several St. Louis Rams players protested on the filed by displaying the “hands up don’t shoot” pose on the field. “I Can’t Breathe,” became the rallying cry against police brutality.
The Rolling Stones sang, “I can’t get no satisfaction… Cause you see I’m on losing streak…”
We must reverse the losing streak of 2014 in 2015. As Americans we must rise up, lock arms and stand together to withstand the battering storms of persecution and let the gentle breeze of justice and the rule of law blow in our faces and take up permanent residence in our souls. In 2015, let’s “Let America be America Again” to those who feel “America never was America to [them].”
An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure. Dr. King taught us that we must be quick to negotiate and slow to confrontation. In 2015, we must negotiate a long and hazardous road littered with the injustices of police brutality. We must negotiate with and convince our fellow citizens who feel battered, betrayed and persecuted by law enforcement and judicial systems that they are fully protected by the American Bill of Rights. We must negotiate to de-escalate tensions between the community and the police, and escalate our creative engagements on issues of the rights of man and woman as human rights.
Police and citizens are not mortal enemies. There are some rogue police officers who believe police power comes from the barrel of the gun. They are mistaken. There are some citizens who believe the police are demons. They are mistaken too. The police should know that they are the servants of citizens. Their professional creed and oath is “to serve and to protect”.
Citizens have a civic and moral duty to treat their servants with respect and appreciation, and without scorn. They must appreciate their servants for doing a thankless, difficult and dangerous job every day.
All police officers wear a badge of courage, but the rogue ones also carry huge chips on their shoulders. We should appreciate all police officers for their courage and sacrifices; but we must also insist that they proudly wear their badges of professionalism and integrity at all times.
The police sometimes use the metaphor of the “Thin Blue Line” to suggest that they are the last line of defense of the citizenry from the criminal elements. In 2015, we need to draw a broad red, white and blue line to protect all Americans from all unlawful official use of force.
Dr. King often dreamt about the “Beloved Community” where poverty, violence, injustice and racism in all its forms will not be tolerated. In his Beloved Community, disputes are resolved by “creating a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation”.
In Dr. King’s “Beloved Community”, negotiation is not about one-upmanship, gamesmanship, showmanship or brinksmanship. It is simply about truth and reconciliation. The negotiators are guided by a single principle: Focus on the positive in every action and statement the opposition makes.
In 2015, I hope Americans will have not only a national “conversation on race” but also a negotiation to begin the creation of the Beloved Community of Dr. King’s dream. It must NOT be a negotiation between good and evil. It must be a negotiation between good people to get rid of evil.
I hope it will be a negotiation that will NOT end up demonizing and criminalizing one side or the other but humanizes all sides. I hope the negotiations will produce police accountability and citizen civility. I hope that negotiations will lead to the liberation of people hopelessly trapped in an evil system of hate and dehumanization.
There is one non-negotiable issue. We must insist on the unconditional surrender of an evil system that thrives on man’s inhumanity to man and the deprivation of the divinely ordained rights of Americans to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
As we celebrate Dr. King’s 86th birthday in 2015, I can imagine him asking us the following haunting questions: When will you be dissatisfied with the bloodletting? Dissatisfied with your demonization of young black men and the police? Dissatisfied with your finger-pointing, teeth-gnashing, heart-aching and gut-wrenching about evil systems that thrive on man’s inhumanity to man? Your endless soul-searching when the truth is standing in your faces with the tears of the suffering? When will you be dissatisfied with your hypocrisy, cowardice and window dressing of injustice? When, when will you begin to negotiate?
In 2014, protesters against police brutality adopted the rallying cry, “I (We) can’t breathe.” It is time for all Americans to exhale in 2015. It is time for us to take a long deep breath of the fresh air of justice and righteousness. Because if we can’t breathe together, we will choke separately. Even at age 86, Dr. King would have admonished and even chastised us, “All lives of God’s Children matter!”
I highly recommend the motion picture “Selma” to all of my readers. It is a must-see, a magnificent triumph of cinematic storytelling. I just can’t wait for the DVD to come out!