I wanted to deliver this last week but Trump’s use of the military against domestic protestors had me fear for the future of our republic and I put this off.
But I want to talk about these horrible scenes of murder of African-Americans by police. People killed who posed no threat, where the police had everything well under control, and it wasn’t even clear if the victim had done anything meriting police attention, let alone murder. Breonna Taylor, an EMT, was killed in her bed in Louisville.
This reminds me of the Civil Rights Movement I grew up with. People in prayer outside boards of election that wouldn’t let them register. 14-year- old Emmet Til killed on a visit to Mississippi relatives, accused of whistling at a white woman. Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker shot in her car. Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, an integrated trio of civil rights workers, released by police in front of thugs who followed, murdered and buried them where they were not expected to be found.
The murders and lynchings stayed in front of our eyes until we hurt, just as we are hurting for George Floyd, choked to death in Minneapolis; Walter Scott, over a brake light in Charleston, SC; Ahmaud Aubrey, killed for jogging while Black in Georgia; Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old, in Cleveland; Stephon Clark, killed for holding a cell phone in his grandmother’s Sacramento backyard; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Eric Garner, in Staten Island; Tony McDade in Tallahassee; and Trayvon Martin, a teenager, killed by a neighborhood vigilante who thought he didn’t belong, compounded by the jury’s acquittal. Their stories, and so many more, are unacceptable. The police are supposed to protect us. But they kill too. African-Americans have learned not to call the police in order to protect their own families. I can’t forget the acquittal of four officers here in Albany for killing Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, in a barrage of forty-one shots for trying to put a key in his door.
The U.S. Supreme Court enabled a century of lynching in 1876 by holding that a U.S. Attorney had no authority to prosecute the perpetrators of the Colfax Massacre.[i] After that, police and the Klan, which also infiltrated the FBI, acted with impunity in much of the country. The Court now does its best to restore the worst abuses of that century of intimidation and impunity.[ii] I recently worked on a brief in support of the family of a Mexican boy, in a cross-border shooting by American officers for playing too near the border. The Supreme Court protected his killer. As Pete Seeger asked, “When will it ever end”?
And yet we can’t get tired, we can’t stop, we can’t let all the abuses this country has tried to stop elsewhere define life for a third of our citizens at home. No one is free when anyone is in chains. I don’t want to have the deaths of thousands of decent people on my conscience. I don’t want my darker skinned friends, colleagues, clients, neighbors, essential workers, athletes, entertainers or any other good people and their families having to worry day and night about eluding people who want to kill them or think they aren’t worth living?
When Yugoslavia started to come apart, we had an exchange student living with us who was from Belgrade. She cried about what was happening to her country – the whole country, Yugoslavia. There was intermarriage, friendship, strong neighborhoods, business partnerships, and none of that protected people. When things start to fall apart, there is no safety. We need to stand up for decent people of all backgrounds. And remember that none of us and none of those dear to us are safe when shooters are empowered, with or without a badge.
[i] LeeAnna Keith, The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction (Oxford Univ. Press 2008); Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction (Henry Holt & Company 2008); and United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876), the case that turned a massacre into a century of intimidation and impunity.
[ii] Stephen Gottlieb, Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics 189-208 (2016).
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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