The Long List of Names That Came Before Breonna Taylor and George Floyd

Samuel Williams. Tyisha Miller. Amadou Diallo. Eric Garner. I’ve reported their names for decades. This time feels different.

Salim Muwakkil June 23, 2020

Activists in a Feb. 9, 1999 protest in New York City demand a probe into the police killing of African immigrant Amadou Diallo. (Photo by Jonathan Elderfield/Getty Images)

Vineland, N.J., was abroil in August 1989 over the acquit­tal of a white police offi­cer who had shot and killed Samuel Williams, a young black man. Dur­ing a two-day ram­page in response, police arrest­ed more than 30 pro­test­ers, 13 of whom a grand jury indict­ed that Octo­ber. I wrote for In These Times:

"Examples of blacks and other minorities killed by police officers with near impunity could fill three times this space. Unfortunately, the list is still not long enough to convince political leaders to effectively confront the racism responsible for these crimes."—Salim Muwakkil, 1997

African-Amer­i­cans have reached the lim­its of their tol­er­ance for what they per­ceive as racist treat­ment and are increas­ing­ly respond­ing in ways that threat­en civ­il dis­or­der. It is a prob­lem that will only esca­late unless it finds a place on the nation­al agen­da and prompts a firm response.

Eight years lat­er, sum­ming up yet anoth­er report on police killings of black peo­ple, I was less san­guine:

The Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al report may cause a tem­po­rary spasm of civic embar­rass­ment in New York, but if pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence in Chica­go and Los Ange­les is any indi­ca­tion, don’t expect much to change. Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al issued a 1990 report describ­ing police tor­ture and bru­tal­i­ty in Chica­go and an equal­ly scathing 1992 report on the Los Ange­les Police Depart­ment. Nei­ther the police nor their polit­i­cal over­seers in either city have moved to address the con­cerns raised in those reports.

Exam­ples of blacks and oth­er minori­ties killed by police offi­cers with near impuni­ty could fill three times this space. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the list is still not long enough to con­vince polit­i­cal lead­ers to effec­tive­ly con­front the racism respon­si­ble for these crimes. 

In 1999, pro­test­ers were chant­i­ng the names Tyisha Miller and Amadou Dial­lo. Miller, 19, had been slain by 12 police bul­lets in River­side, Calif. Dial­lo, 23, had been killed by 19 NYPD bul­lets, of a total 41 fired. My April 1999 col­umn was titled No Cop Accountability”:

Although dozens of protests demand­ing police account­abil­i­ty have been held in vir­tu­al­ly every major city in Amer­i­ca, there has been a per­sis­tent fail­ure to inves­ti­gate and pun­ish offi­cers who bru­tal­ly vio­late cit­i­zens’ rights. … After a while, peo­ple get tired of protest­ing for noth­ing,” says Ron Daniels, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tion­al Rights.

But this time is dif­fer­ent. The response to the mur­der of George Floyd has been unprece­dent­ed in scope. Every state has host­ed demon­stra­tions. Ges­tures of sol­i­dar­i­ty have appeared in vir­tu­al­ly every country.

Why is it dif­fer­ent, and will it matter?

After all, the list of black vic­tims of police vio­lence is long, and long ignored. Trayvon Mar­tin, Laquan McDon­ald, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Phi­lan­do Castile, Ezell Ford, Stephon Clark, San­dra Bland, Eric Gar­ner are just the recent house­hold names. The lat­est list includes Dreasjon Reed, Ahmaud Arbery and two black women who died by police bul­lets in their own homes, Ata­tiana Jef­fer­son and Bre­on­na Tay­lor. Those of us with longer mem­o­ries recall Joseph Gould, Aswan Keshawn Wat­son, James Coop­er and Aaron White. My mem­o­ry stretch­es back to my home­town of Harlem in 1964 when the police shot 15-year-old James Pow­ell, spark­ing the first Harlem riot of the 1960s.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, even as the evi­dence of racial bias mount­ed, police forces sel­dom made efforts to reform their prac­tices — with the rare fed­er­al con­sent decree” often ignored.

The prox­i­mate dif­fer­ence now is the 10-minute video record­ed by 17-year-old passer­by Dar­nel­la Fra­zier on her phone on Memo­r­i­al Day, which shows Min­neapo­lis police offi­cer Derek Chau­vin squeez­ing the life out of a prone, help­less George Floyd. Frazier’s steady hand cap­tured Chauvin’s non­cha­lant malev­o­lence in chill­ing detail while reg­is­ter­ing Floyd’s anguished pleas. The cav­a­lier demeanor of Chau­vin and his three com­pa­tri­ots seemed to sum up Amer­i­can policing’s gen­er­al atti­tude toward black people.

Fra­zier had no idea she was spark­ing glob­al sup­port for the Black Lives Mat­ter (BLM) move­ment. But, clear­ly, this video evi­dence is mak­ing the difference.

A con­flu­ence of unique cul­tur­al dynam­ics — the ubiq­ui­ty of smart­phones, the vital­i­ty of social media, the per­sis­tence of an aspi­ra­tional youth move­ment, the iso­la­tion of a pan­dem­ic — seems to have trained a glob­al spot­light on the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment as the cus­to­di­an of this zeitgeist.

BLM began as a hash­tag after the 2013 acquit­tal of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s vig­i­lante killer. The full-fledged move­ment launched the fol­low­ing year when unarmed black teen Michael Brown was shot dead by police in Fer­gu­son, Mo.

Pro­test­ers chant­ed Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” to con­demn Brown’s slay­ing as BLM launched nation­wide demon­stra­tions. Those protests, how­ev­er, were taint­ed by charges of ter­ror­ism that deterred wider par­tic­i­pa­tion. The BLM move­ment was fur­ther mar­gin­al­ized by a cat­e­gor­i­cal rubric (now defunct) under Trump’s Jus­tice Depart­ment, Black Iden­ti­ty Extremists.”

But pro­pelled by the pow­er of that 10-minute film, protests of the racist chore­og­ra­phy of Amer­i­can polic­ing — a style that still dances to the rhythms of the slave patrols from which it emerged — are now becom­ing rou­tine in Amer­i­can life.

Ear­li­er this year, too, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery — a black man jog­ging through a white com­mu­ni­ty in Geor­gia, killed by a pair of white vig­i­lantes (one a for­mer cop) — was caught on tape, chron­i­cling a mod­ern-day lynch­ing. His killing was vir­tu­al­ly ignored until the video emerged.

And then there was the Cen­tral Park bird­watch­ing inci­dent May 25, the same day George Floyd died. A video shows white Amy Coop­er call­ing the cops on black bird­watch­er Chris­t­ian Coop­er (no rela­tion), who had asked Amy to leash her dog. An enthu­si­as­tic Oba­ma sup­port­er in 2012, Amy was not averse to weaponiz­ing white fragili­ty to endan­ger the life of an inno­cent black man she repeat­ed­ly referred to as African Amer­i­can” and claimed was men­ac­ing her.

These wider social atti­tudes reveal a soci­ety still plagued by anti-black assump­tions that fuel racist polic­ing. Even as we bask in a con­sen­sus demand­ing police reform, we con­tin­ue to strug­gle with the appro­pri­ate response. Some polit­i­cal lead­ers are begin­ning to tam­per with the struc­ture of their police depart­ments, but these gin­ger approach­es still fear police unions while pub­lic sen­ti­ment resists any osten­si­ble weak­en­ing of police power.

The more rad­i­cal voic­es among us urge a com­plete reimag­in­ing of Amer­i­can polic­ing, com­plete­ly extri­cat­ing its slave-patrol pat­ri­mo­ny and cre­at­ing insti­tu­tion­al struc­tures framed by dif­fer­ent incen­tives and more lim­it­ed functions.

If ever there was a time to act on those rad­i­cal impuls­es, that time is now.

Sal­im Muwakkil is a senior edi­tor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Sal­im Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s his­toric black radio sta­tion, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Pho­tographs from the Harold Wash­ing­ton Years.
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