By Imam Khalid Fattah Griggs
Some images are virtually impossible to expunge from our mind’s eye. Such is the case with the video of an African American man, George Floyd, begging for his life as a White Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, forcefully lodged his knee against his neck for at least five minutes resulting in Floyd’s death.
Yet, the callous disregard for Floyd’s life evidenced by the smug, casual demeanor of his killer is equally as egregious, if such a thing is possible, as the murder itself. The sight of Officer Chauvin, one hand placed in his pocket and glancing at his victim as if he were a newly-captured hunting target, is reminiscent of pictures from the 1930’s-1950’s of White American men, women, and children gathered around newly lynched and/or burnt African American corpses while adorned in church clothes and carrying picnic baskets. The fact that George Floyd joins a long 21st century list of unarmed African American men killed by police officers can be reasonably traced to two uniquely American phenomenon. Firstly, this nation has miserably failed to remove from society all blatant and subtle vestiges of structural racism. And secondly, as difficult as it may be for many to accept, modern-day police forces across the country have not fundamentally repurposed their mission from their slave patrol antecedents.
In colonial days, the American South was virtually totally dependent on slave labor. Plantation owners lived in constant fear of slave rebellions and losing valuable mainstays of the southern economy, slaves. The first state to empower slave patrols was South Carolina in the early 1700s. According to historian Gary Potter, slave patrols had three primary functions:
1. to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners’ runaway slaves
2. to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts
3. to maintain a form of discipline for slave workers who were subject to summary justice, outside the law.
Hence, slave patrols, “one of the earliest and most prolific forms of policing in the South,” eventually provided the model for modern day police forces in the United States. Slave patrols, like its modern-day counterpart, police departments, relied heavily on racist, aggressive, often brutal recruits to fill its ranks. FBI internal reports on local policing confirm the notion that today’s police departments are populated by sizeable numbers of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and skinheads. While never a moral, ethical, or legal justification for police officers targeting Blacks for physical abuse and killing, many police departments are so deeply entrenched in their slave patrol roots as protectors of the white upper class that Black lives are dispensable and highly devalued. With a few notable exceptions, structural racism permeates practically every institution of American social, economic, and religious life, including local, state, and national law enforcement agencies. Without the cooperation of corporate media and educational institutions, more Black and non-Black people of good conscience would never accept the street execution of Black men and women by rogue cops as merely unfortunate reoccurring happenings of an imperfect society; something to decry and feel sad about but little else. Police killing of unarmed, mostly Black men is a national undeclared emergency.
In the aftermath of urban rebellions following the police execution of Blacks, the corporate media conditions the American public to focus its anger, disgust, and denunciation away from the perpetrators of the serial killing of African Americans on to the spontaneous acts of the dispossessed victims of structural racism. To call urban rebellions like those occurring in Minneapolis “riots” is to minimize and denigrate the legitimate attention garnering cries for help/change to an otherwise voiceless people.
This is by no means a justification for criminal behavior only a recognition that the centuries-long pent up frustration borne by the non-WASP privileged population has reached the point of social explosion.
Just as the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States demands strong visionary leadership to halt and eradicate it, the plagues of structural racism and the Blue Plague similarly need course changes in leadership, attitudes, and commitment from all of us. The adage that “those who do not know their history will be forced to repeat it” is a truism that has been verified over time.