Police Brutality: From the Civil Rights Movement to Today, little has Changed

Trace Whalen, Union College - Schenectady, NY


African Americans have always been oppressed by whites, and while that oppression may have transformed over time, it is still present today. Following the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v Ferguson, which legalized the Jim Crow laws of racial segregation under the motto ‘separate but equal,’ almost everything, including school systems, was segregated. It was not until the Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education in 1954 when segregated education was deemed unconstitutional. Still, segregation was incorporated in daily life until the Civil Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

While segregation and race related laws have been abolished, police officers, as well as other branches of the law enforcement system, have been notorious for finding ways to continue to suppress African Americans. While the Civil Rights Movement and movements in more recent years have been effective in eradicating segregation and racist laws and practices, Jim Crow has continued in the mass incarceration, police brutality, and other forces of systematic violence against African Americans. Since 1964, police and legal systems across the country have remained systematically racist. In this study, I trace the persistence of police brutality across the decades since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The project focuses on three parts in history. The first part centers on the police brutality which occurred in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement and transitions into Oakland in the late 60s with the rise of the Black Panther Party. From there, the study progresses into the recorded beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 and the race riots which followed. The final time period which was studied took place from when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in 2013 and continues into present day awaiting the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who was charged with the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

In Oakland 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, inspired by the works of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP). The BPP was a group of young, African Americans who were tired of being oppressed by police and decided to resist. They would consistently bear arms in public places in order to bring attention to the issues they felt needed to be addressed, such as cross walks in front of schools with primarily African American students. The California state laws allowed for the public display of firearms at the time, so they were not technically breaking any laws by protesting in this form.

When video cameras became household items in the 1990s, nobody imagined the impact that their availability would have on the problem of police brutality. In 1991, a video was broadcast nationally of Rodney King, an unarmed African American, being continuously beaten by four white police officers, while over twice that observed close by. Following the officers’ acquittals, the largest riots in recent history broke out in the streets of southern Los Angeles causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and thousands of injuries. With technology improving at a rate never seen before, a once one-camera-per-household reality has changed to everyone having a high-definition camera in their pocket. In May of 2020, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was videotaped resting his weight on the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed African American, for over eight minutes. Floyd died shortly after, and the video stirred international outrage. Not only were there thousands of protests in the United States, hundreds of which were coordinated by the Black Lives Matter movement, but also protests internationally.

I reconstructed this story from multiple primary and secondary sources providing insight, knowledge, and justification for the continuation of police brutality across the country. I have researched decades worth of newspaper articles including nationally published and locally run African American newspapers ranging from The Sacramento Bee, to The Chicago Defender, to The Black Panther of Oakland. I have listened and read multiple interviews with individuals who experienced these events firsthand including Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, and Stokely Carmichael. In addition, my research included reading autobiographies, published works by Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Alicia Garza, and referenced recent studies done by The Washington Post on police shootings by demographic.


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