By: Adrian Duah-Mensah
February is Black History Month, a time to commemorate the lives of multiple black figures and the strides African Americans have made for centuries. Originating in 1926, Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), created “Negro History Week”. Half a century later, President Gerald R. Ford expanded the week to a month-long celebration, coinciding with the rise of the civil rights movement. As generations of activists go by, new movements rise, both to commemorate black lives, and to fight for rights that many black people still haven’t received: living without fear. Most notably, living without fear of police brutality.
The rise of police brutality against people of color has become more widely recorded from the early 2010’s to the present. Many studies were conducted to map police violence across the US. In those studies, it was determined that per capita, people of color have faced a higher amount of violence than white people. Among those studies was Mapping Police Violence, a research group focused on both national and domestic trends of police brutality. According to some of their figures, in 2020, unarmed black people were killed almost every week. Armed or not, black people were killed almost every day. This data stems all the way back to 2013, where the rates only seem to increase. POC were 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed than whites, meaning 17% of black people who died as a result of police violence were unarmed. Despite these alarming numbers, only an appalling 1% of police officers have been charged with a crime, and even fewer convicted of one. The NYC DC Dialogues, a student-led group from NYU, talked about these rates and much more, such as the “War on Drugs” and the effect it has had on women of color. In airports and other screening areas, women of color have been publicly humiliated and searched excessively for drugs, some forced to take laxatives to monitor bowel movements.
Knowing all of this, there was definite exigency to address the issue. In 2013, three black women rose to create a movement in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old boy killed by George Zimmerman–a neighborhood watchman. After the shooting, Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defense. He was later charged with second-degree murder, to which he was acquitted. After the verdict, an activist named Alicia Garza posted to Facebook, “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter. And I will continue that. Stop giving up on black life.” That post would end up echoing the Black Lives Matter movement. With the help of two other activists, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors, a hashtag on Twitter—#BlackLivesMatter—was born.
The movement was steadily gaining momentum in 2014, and with each incident of police violence, the movement gained more traction. The #BlackLivesMatter movement expanded to show the ways Black women and Black LGBTQ+ members were violated, propelling the conversation to levels which the whole Black community was violated. There were multiple cases of police violence against people of color, such as Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old holding a toy gun in a park, or Tanisha Anderson, a schizophrenic woman in need of a psychiatric evaluation, or Michael Brown, who was murdered by police officer Darren Wilson. Following these deaths, several protests ensued, and although a handful of riots ensued, the majority of protests were peaceful. Despite this, the media ran with the notion that Black Lives Matter was a harmful organization inciting violence, and peaceful protestors were criticized, tear gassed, and brutalized by police. In response, Darnell Moores and Patrisse Cullors organized the Black Life Matters Ride, where over 600 people had come to march through St. Louis, thus making more localized Black Lives Matter groups.
The movement continued to take off in 2016, where some of the highest rates of police brutality occurred. According to The Guardian, 258 black people were killed that year. One of those people being Philando Castile, who was shot three times because he had a “busted taillight,” according to his fiancee, Diamond Reynolds. Another case was Travis Stevenson, a 45-year-old man with a mental illness, whom his family reported as suicidal. 2017 marked the protests of not only black killings, but the acquittals of those who had committed them. 2018 marked the fifth year anniversary of Black Lives Matter. According to Pew Research Center, #BlackLivesMatter has been used 30 million times on Twitter. More and more protests came about this year, with the death of Anton Black, who was shot after a woman called about a mistaken kidnapping. In 2019, police shot and killed Atatiana Johnson. She was playing video games at home with her 8-year-old nephew. The police chief said there was “absolutely no excuse” for the shooting as it sparked multiple protests. Isaiah Lewis was also shot and killed that year, which sparked a protest with 100 people attending.
In 2020, major protests began in response to the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old man who was killed by officer Derek Chauvin, who reportedly knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Immediately after his death, widespread outrage ensued. Clips and body cam footage surfaced across the internet of the incident, with Floyd repeatedly stating throughout the footage “I can’t breathe”. Throughout the following days, protestors pushed through the streets of Minneapolis, as law enforcement fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds. The protests grew far outside Minneapolis, with protests in Memphis, Los Angeles, and many other places. In addition, protestors rallied against the death of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and many others. As more and more protests took place, some turned violent. Protests in Atlanta and New York had injured both officers and protesters. Despite this, protests continued, as protests had now launched to a global scale. Protests in London and other European countries began, as celebrities poured their support in for those protesting, and some even joined the fight as well.
In the earlier phases of the movement, it wasn’t uncommon for many Americans to think Black Lives Matter was an extremist group, but in 2017, the FBI listed Black Lives Matter as a “black identity extremist” movement. It was during this year that two Ferguson protestors were arrested on the accusation of planning to plant bombs. This wasn’t the first time law enforcement became involved in Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Just three years prior, law enforcement was supervising surveillance of other Black Lives Matter activists. For years, it seemed that Black activists and demonstrators were at odds with law enforcement—further proving the points that Black activists were trying to make. The suppression of Black protestors and activists had, unsurprisingly, led to more outrage from the Black community, as many felt as though they were being demonized in an attempted coercion to back down. The incarceration of the two black activists was not helping either.
As said before, police officers are indicted in fewer than 1% of killings. This could be due in large part to there not being enough evidence. In 2018, according to the Washington Post, “Of the 33 black people killed, only 2 incidents are known to have been caught on a body camera.” In the shooting of Tamir Rice, the two officers involved, Timothy Loehman and Frank Gamback, were originally put on paid administrative leave. Later on, when the grand jury had begun their investigation, they declined to accuse Loehman and Gamback of a crime. In the case of Alberta Spruill, a woman who was confused for a drug dealer from the same apartment complex, some of the officers kept the information to themselves and no legal action was taken. The use of flash bang grenades in the false arrest had not been approved either. And there’s many more cases similar to these two mentioned. Many of these unjustifiable crimes had, at worst, resulted in the paid administrative leave and occasional subsequent firing of only a third or a quarter of the police officers involved in the crime. Activists and protestors also argue some of the convictions deserved higher charges, such as ‘voluntary manslaughter’ to ‘2nd-degree murder’ charges.
In addition, many of the people mentioned before had mental illnesses. Tanisha Anderson was one such case, where a mental-health episode had led to excessive force, leading to her death. The mentally ill being treated poorly by police is sadly nothing new. There have been multiple cases where the police have encountered suicidal, homicidal, psychotic, or manic civilians where the situation ended up in people getting hurt due to excessive force, mishandling of the situation, or overestimating the harm the person could have caused. A similar case was Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old man with schizophrenia, who was shot fourteen times by police officer Christopher Manney. There are a plethora of other cases, from the Black community and the mental-health community alike, of officers harming mentally ill people, seemingly for the crime of being mentally ill. This is due in large part to mental health only becoming widely talked about in recent years, and although it’s not an excuse for brutality, there are a lot of people who don’t know how to deal with mental illnesses, unfortunately.
Many victims of police brutality are also members of the LGBTQ+ community. In 2015, 21 transgenders were killed by police, a record high. Of those 21, 13 of them were black. That’s 62%. One case of this was a transgender woman, Duanna Johnson. In 2008, Officer Bridges McRae had reportedly hit Johnson using a pair of brass knuckles, which are illegal. The trans community has faced a lot of scrutiny in recent years, especially as more and more people come out. And while it’s worth noting a lot of progress has been made, there are still many people who have less than savory feelings about the community. But the whole LGBTQ+ community has faced problematic behavior–both in the past and present. Another case is Stephanie Dorceant, a black lesbian who was walking home with her girlfriend when she was alledgedly assaulted by an off-duty police officer, injuring her eye. A similar case happened with a traffic-stop tasering, where two gay men were tasered, pepper-sprayed, and beaten by police. Unfortunately, this is really only scratching the surface in a string of generally homophobic and transphobic crimes against the LGBTQ+ community.
The Black Lives Matter webpage states that they “affirm our humanity.” I think that’s not only important, but echoes the Black Lives Matter movement. Throughout this article, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought awareness, and in saying the names of the deceased, hopefully they can be liberated and vindicated as the vibrant people they were. These people had families and lives that were sadly cut short to police brutality, whether it’s due to their race, sexuality, health, or all or some of the above. Maybe the point of the Black Lives Matter movement, or at least part of it, is empathy. You could put yourself in the place of some of these people. Many of them were unarmed and even some weren’t. But that doesn’t excuse excessive force, and it doesn’t excuse their deaths. To affirm our humanity, we have to remember that everyone—no matter their color, sexuality, or health conditions—are human and deserve to live.
The Black Lives Matter movement seems to be here to stay. And it’s important to know that as the movement continues to rise, we continue fighting for the lives that have been lost, and the lives that are still fighting.