The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality in the U.S.

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July 27, 2017 | Updated: May 29, 2020

Editor’s Note, May 29, 2020: In 2017, Smithsonian covered the history of police brutality upon the protests over the verdict in the Philando Castile murder case. With the Twin Cities once again under the national spotlight after the killing of George Floyd, we revisit the subject matter below.

Last month, hours after a jury acquitted former police officer Jeronimo Yanez of manslaughter in the shooting death of 32-year-old Philando Castile, protesters in St. Paul, Minnesota, shutdown Interstate 94. With signs that read: “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace,” the chant of “Philando, Philando” rang out as they marched down the highway in the dark of night.

The scene was familiar. A year earlier, massive protests had erupted when Yanez killed Castile, after pulling him over for a broken taillight. Dashcam footage shows Yanez firing through the open window of Castile’s car, seconds after Castile disclosed that he owned and was licensed to carry a concealed weapon.

A respected school nutritionist, Castile was one of 233 African-Americans shot and killed by police in 2016, a startling number when demographics are considered. African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for 24 percent of people fatally shot by police. According to the Washington Post, blacks are “2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.”

Today’s stories are anything but a recent phenomenon. A cardboard placard in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and on view in the new exhibition “More Than a Picture,” underscores that reality.

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“The message after 50 years is still unresolved,” remarks Samuel Egerton, who donated the poster to the Smithsonian after carrying it in protest during the 1963 March on Washington. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, gift of Samuel Y. Edgerton)

The yellowing sign is a reminder of the continuous oppression and violence that has disproportionately shaken black communities for generations—“We Demand an End to Police Brutality Now!” is painted in red and white letters.

“The message after 50 years is still unresolved,” remarks Samuel Egerton, a college professor, who donated the poster to the museum. He carried it in protest during the 1963 March on Washington. Five decades later, the poster’s message rings alarmingly timely. Were it not for the yellowed edges, the placard could almost be mistaken for a sign from any of the Black Lives Matter marches of the past three years.

“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?” said Martin Luther King, Jr. in his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 march. His words continue to resonate today after a long history of violent confrontations between African-American citizens and the police. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

“This idea of police brutality was very much on people’s minds in 1963, following on the years, decades really, of police abuse of power and then centuries of oppression of African-Americans,” says William Pretzer, senior history curator at the museum.

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