One of the tenets of activism is that we teach history so that history does not repeat itself. Unfortunately, this week we have seen that, no matter how much history we teach, and no matter how much technological evidence we marshal, we are at an impasse when it comes to police brutality and excessive force against Black people, and that the steps we’ve taken throughout history have only been a drop in the bucket. To some, we moved the needle, but to many others, we haven’t moved it anywhere.
Two years ago, I published a book that drew in part on my interviews and friendship with Nelson Malden, the first Black man to run for public office in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1966—and a man who happened to be the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s barber for many years. At the time, Nelson and I both believed that it would be technology that would finally bring Black people justice facing violence from police. At the time, videos, audio recordings, and photographic evidence were produced almost instantly to bear witness against the brutality against individuals like Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and many others like them.
I no longer believe that technology alone can protect us.
We’ve had videos and photographs for seventy years of crimes being committed against Black people. The nation was horrified by the images of Emmett Till lying mutilated, post-lynching, in his open casket in 1955, images which at the time were only published by Jet magazine. If you Google “marches, police assault, 1965,” you’ll see more images than you can stomach of the violent abuse Alabama State Troopers perpetrated against peaceful civil-rights marchers outside Selma, Alabama, on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
At that moment, in March 1965, technology was, like today, touted as a game-changer. After all, national television news cameras were covering the march, and the presence of those cameras may indeed have shielded the marchers from further assault. Many peaceful protesters might have died on “Bloody Sunday” without the shield of that coverage. But even with cameras rolling, marchers were beaten unmercifully with billy clubs, and smothered with tear gas.
This week, just as then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace refused in 1965 to protect the marchers even with the cameras rolling, Minnesota’s Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said: “there is other evidence that does not warrant a criminal charge” referring to the well-publicized killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
The difference between today and 1965 is that in 1965, then-Pres. Lyndon Johnson was pressured by news coverage of the “Bloody Sunday” marches to enact the Voting Rights Act. Today, when our current president sees the news relating to Minnesota, he tweets, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” And the reality today is that now more than ever, leadership matters.
Partly because of the work I have done in interviewing Nelson and other participants in the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s, I have long fought for expanding the use of police body cameras to provide more impartial evidence when police brutality is suspected. Now, we can see that cameras help tremendously but are not enough. Plain and simple—excessive force by police has to be criminalized. If you apply excessive force as a law enforcement official, you should be charged with a crime. Your crime should, in fact, be a federal offense. Right now, the application of justice is arbitrary, and sometimes hinges on a personal decision by a prosecutor. The standard of justice cannot be personal. If I, as a Black man, were to strangle someone to death right now and someone happened to catch it on video, I would be arrested as soon as law enforcement located me. I would not be free until a grand jury convened; I would be in jail.
Right now, the timing of George Floyd’s killing couldn’t be worse. We’re in the midst of a pandemic; people were already traumatized, and now they don’t know what to do with their pain. For many of us, George Floyd isn’t just another black man. For many of us, George Floyd was us. It was like looking in a mirror and seeing your own reflection slowly dying on the asphalt. When I see the protests in Minnesota, as a historian, it brings me back to Selma in 1965 and a man named Jimmie Lee Jackson. Jimmie Lee was an unarmed Black man who was killed by police in Selma in February 1965, for the crime of trying to help Black people register to vote. There were no photographs or video to help Jimmie Lee, but his killing inspired the Selma marches. His killing inspired action.
Protests such as those that happened after Jimmie Lee was killed, and such as those going on in Minneapolis today, remind us all that sometimes we must take personal risks. These protests, these risks, are essential—even required—to serve the cause of justice. One Minneapolis officer has been arrested—probably as a direct result of the protests. In my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, in 2015, there was an uprising after Freddie Gray was killed while in police custody, but much of the violence of the protests dissipated after six police officers were charged.
It took years before Emmett Till’s murder was viewed by white America in the proper historical context of what it was—an unequivocal murder. Today, it shouldn’t take years for us to understand the importance of a moment of racial injustice like the one that just happened in Minneapolis. Today, with the passage of laws to make police brutality a federal offense, we can go beyond history and beyond technology, and into action.
Editor’s Note: A version of this essay ran in the New York Daily News on Monday.
Kevin Shird is the co-author of The Colored Waiting Room: Conversations Between an MLK Jr. Confidant and a Modern-Day Activist. He is an Associate at the Center for Medical Humanities and Social Medicine, Johns Hopkins University.