A reckoning for police and a referendum on oppression

Photo by Kelly Burkhardt.

There can be no true justice for murder victims. They can never be brought back to life. But accountability for their killers is a measure of recompense for the survivors, and it sends a message that this crime will have consequences.

Every Black person in America is — if we are, as a society, honest — a survivor of police violence. Whether it is the relentless traffic stops that statistics show are as many as 300 times that of white drivers, or the arrests for being a Black student on a white college campus, or a Black professor like Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. trying to get into his own house after getting locked out, or Oprah being stalked by security in an Hermes store, the macro and micro aggressions of racism in America often come down to what the police can — and will — do to you.

The whole world was watching as the verdict was read in the trial of former policeman Derek Chauvin on April 20. Chauvin was found guilty of all three counts — second degree murder, third degree murder and second degree manslaughter — in the torture murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Chauvin seemed stunned as he was handcuffed and led away, his bail revoked by Judge Cahill. There may be an appeal, but it will come from behind bars.

The verdict in the trial was a referendum on Black lives and whether they do in fact matter. It was the beginning of a reckoning over police violence and the war on Black bodies.

The killing of George Floyd, which was filmed in its entirety by a courageous 17 year old, Darnella Frazier, sparked a long-overdue collective outrage across this country over the extrajudicial killings of Black Americans by police.

There were so many names beyond George Floyd’s to speak for in the protests that ensued: Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others. Too many others. Others going back to Emmett Till, who would be the same age as President Biden had he lived past 14, the age he was lynched in 1955. Others going back for queer and trans Americans to the days of Stonewall.

Last summer, protests erupted everywhere, including here in Philadelphia. For weeks this city and others were alive with the pent up frustration, anger, outrage and despair of Black, brown, LGBTQ and other Americans who could no longer bear to witness what they had seen time and again — police killing unarmed civilians and then walking away as if those killings never happened. As if Black lives were not worth as much as white lives.

In 2013 three Black women, two of whom are queer, founded Black Lives Matter. These three women, who call themselves radical Black organizers — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — created a Black-centered political will and movement building project called #BlackLivesMatter. It was in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman.

In their herstory, the women explain, “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”

We have been here before: facing down oppression, protesting, marching through city after city. My own parents, members of President Biden’s and Emmett Till’s generation, were Socialist Civil Rights workers in the 1960s and 1970s. They were members of iconic civil rights groups, SNCC, CORE and founding members of the Philadelphia to Philadelphia Project. I was raised in a culture of activism and anti-racist actions. And from a very young age I witnessed the threats my parents and their Black friends got for their work.

As a college student, I was, with my then-partner who worked as a social worker, the lead witness in the first federal police brutality trial in Philadelphia. We had, along with a friend, witnessed the beating of a Black man, William Cradle, who had missed a stop sign in Society Hill.

We tried to stop it. We got out of our car and I literally tried to take a nightstick from the hand on one officer while my partner yelled at another. There were 12 officers in all. We were outnumbered.

It was a terrifying and terrorizing event and time for me and my partner as we tried to get justice for this man who had only missed a stop sign covered by a tree branch. We had to choose to come forward or walk away.

We could not walk away. What if this man died? What if the police tried to hide what happened to him? We were so young and so naive.

We called police and reported the police. There were no cell phones then. But we called everyone we could. We called the FBI. We called a lawyer friend. We called the Philadelphia Inquirer, the newspaper of record. We went back to the scene of the beating and retrieved evidence — Cradle’s shoes, glasses, checkbook, pieces of broken night sticks.

It was a path we had no idea would be so dangerous and fraught when we stepped onto it. But there was no turning back from conscience.

It took eight months to bring the case to trial, a trial I was told was only happening because we were white female witnesses who might be believed by a jury. Throughout we were harassed by police constantly. The trial itself took several weeks and then-Mayor Frank Rizzo, a notorious racist known for ignoring police violence, spoke out against us on the news, veiled threats against “these girls” and against “queers,” outing us on the national news.

My former partner, my best friend for all the years since, says that the memories of what was done to us by the police for months on end still triggers a PTSD response in her. The Chauvin trial brought it all back vividly for us both.

We kept in touch with William Cradle for a time. His life was not made better for that trial. He received neither recompense for his injuries nor the justice of a conviction. The three officers who were tried in the case were acquitted by a nearly all white jury and remained on the force.

We were devastated that we hadn’t been able to get justice for this man who did nothing more than miss a stop sign, yet was nearly killed just for being Black. We were mere witnesses and our lives were upended. My partner and I broke up. I joined the domestic Peace Corps searching for justice. It was years before our lives normalized again.

And through it all we were never Black. We were under threat merely for standing up against the police for someone who was Black. But we never faced the daily threat of being Black in America that our Black friends and colleagues faced, that my partner’s clients dealt with every day — unable or afraid to call the police for help because the police could not be trusted to help Black people in trouble.

President Biden said of Floyd’s killing, “It was a murder in the full light of day, and it ripped the blinders off the whole world to see. Systemic racism is a stain on our nation’s soul.”

Decades of killings by law enforcement have led us to this point in historical time where the oppression of racism and the control and abuse of Black bodies by authorities has reached critical mass.

Every day in this country Black people of all genders, classes and ages are subjected to police violence. Not all of it is fatal, but all of it is life-altering. Even as the verdict was being read in Minneapolis, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was being shot to death by police in Columbus, Ohio.

It must end. The question is, what can we do to end it?

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.