By Karthik Shankar:
The recent death of Freddie Gray under mysterious circumstances while in police custody has led to widespread rioting in the city of Baltimore. The protests echo what happened in Ferguson last summer after Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer, and intensified the discourse around the fact that law enforcement in the United States is severely opposed to the disenfranchised and black men in particular.
Too many to count, and still counting, in no particular order, these eight instances of police brutality in the United States tell a different truth about this ‘just’ state.
March From Selma To Montgomery (1965)
When Dr. Martin Luther King put his muscle behind a series of marches that pushed for the right to vote for African-Americans, there was fierce opposition from the government and law enforcement. When almost 600 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a wall of riot police greeted them on the other side. They attacked demonstrators with sticks and engulfed the crowd with tear gas. Amelia Boynton, a prominent civil rights campaigner who helped organise the march, was beaten unconscious. The event called ‘Bloody Sunday’ was popularised through images around the world and became instrumental in President Lyndon B. Johnson pushing forward the Voting Rights Bill.
Bloody Christmas (1951)
In 1951, police officers arrested seven men (five of whom were Hispanic) who were drinking on Christmas Eve, after a scuffle which was based on a wrong tipoff and led to an officer losing an eye. All men were arrested that night. One was taken to a city park where he was beaten so severely he required multiple blood transfusions and endured several fractures. The other six men were taken out of their cells on Christmas and savagely attacked by fifty police officers. The crime was initially ignored by the media but gained traction after activism by the Mexican-American community. Finally, eight officers were indicted, 54 transferred and 39 were suspended for the brutal assaults.
The Shooting Of Michael Brown (2014)
When Officer Darren Wilson shot eighteen-year-old Michael Brown allegedly for charging at him, no one could have predicted the seismic change of events that followed. The town,Ferguson, became a war zone in the weeks that followed with initial peaceful protests giving way to violent confrontations between largely African-American demonstrators and police officers. “Hands up, don’t shoot”, which was initially perceived to be said by Brown to Wilson (although later refuted) became a rallying cry during the movement. Wilson was charged with civil rights violations but was not indicted on any of the counts.
Stonewall Riots (1969)
In the 1960s, homophobia was still rampant. Yet, there were several bars that catered mainly to the LGBT community including establishments like the Stonewall inn. One night the place was raided by the police. The usual clientele of the inn was made up of homosexual men and women, transgender people and even drag queens. The scene quickly became a commotion, and a mob (most of whom were from the LGBT community) gathered outside and yelled ‘gay power’. Riot police arrived but a mob kept arriving every day for the next few days and grew dramatically in numbers. Riot squads were used to disperse the crowds. The increased public awareness of LGBTs led to the formation of the first LGBT groups. On the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the first gay pride parade took place. It is considered a pivotal moment in the LGBT movement.
Rodney King Arrest (1991)
On March 3, Rodney King was tasered, kicked in the head and brutally beaten by five police officers who claimed he was under the influence of drugs. The event became a media sensation especially because it was captured on camera. No evidence of drugs was found in King’s system and the highly publicised trial led to the acquittal of all four officers charged with assault. Riots started in Los Angeles on the day of the verdict, and over six days, left over 50 dead and 2000 injured. Another notable aspect of the race riots was that Koreans, most of whom owned retail stores, were highly involved in quelling rioters especially since the death of a black teenage girl at the hands of a Korean store owner had led to a rift between the two communities.
The Shooting Of Oscar Grant (2009)
On New Year’s Eve, 22 year old Oscar Grant was detained along with some of his friends at Fruitvale Station for a physical altercation that happened on the train. At the station, Grant was shot by a police officer who insisted he had actually reached out for his taser. The whole confrontation was recorded on several mobile cameras by bystanders. A jury found the officer Johannes Mesherle guilty of involuntary manslaughter but not the more damning offences. Violent protests followed. Eventually, Oscar’s mother and his daughter received a settlement of $2.8 million from the city. A movie based on Grant’s life called ‘Fruitvale Station’ was released in 2013 to great acclaim.
The Death Of Eric Garner (2014)
The Eric Garner case, which followed on the heels of Michael Brown’s shootings made clear the pattern of black men being targeted by police officials. Garner, a small time crook, who had warrants for selling un-taxed cigarettes and marijuana possession, was confronted outside a store by a police officer. When he resisted being handcuffed, the police officer placed him in a choke-hold and then pushed him to the ground. Garner, who had several health issues, kept repeating “I can’t breathe” and became unconscious. He was pronounced dead an hour later. “I can’t breathe” became a popular motto during the 2014 revival of public consciousness over the killings of African-American men.
Occupy Cal At UC Berkeley (2011)
A group of students at UC Berkeley started Occupy Cal, which was allied with the Occupy Wall Street movement that was going on at the same time. Police officers reacted swiftly, and in their effort to remove an encampment, used excessive force on students. A video posted online, which showed a student and professor being dragged on the ground by yanking their hair, created a furor which led to students walking out of classes. The university empathised with students but no officers were charged in the incident.
Social and economic inequalities bleed into the way people are treated by law enforcement. All these incidents are proof that even in a country that is the world’s oldest democracy, abuse of power is rampant. Law enforcement is used by the government to reinforce the social contract but even such authorities should have adequate checks and balances on them.