America will not heal until it atones for its original sins. At its very core, from the moment of its inception, America has been racist and sexist.
For all of America’s pride over being a “shining city on the hill,” America was illegitimately born into the world of nations as a country stolen from indigenous people. Our nation from its inception, treated women and Blacks unequally. George Washington, the “Father of our Nation,” was an owner of more than two hundred slaves. Former President Thomas Jefferson, eloquently authored the words that ring as true today as they did when he penned them that “[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” Notice that those eloquently articulated foundational words, evidencing the American democracy, did not apply to women or the over six hundred slaves owned by Jefferson throughout his lifetime.
I have been on a search for justice for African-Americans within this country for most of my life. It started through the prism of a child’s perception of the government’s “occupation” of my South Central Los Angeles neighborhood in response to the so-called Watts Riots in August of 1965. Then, very much like now, the African-American community was sick and tired of being sick and tired with the way it was treated by the Los Angeles Police Department. At that time L.A.P.D. was under the tyrannical control of former Police Chief William H. Parker. The 1965 Watts Riots were a reaction to police mistreatment of Marquette Frye, a young African-American motorist who was stopped and detained by an officer of the California Highway Patrol. A crowd formed during Mr. Frye’s arrest and protested the treatment of Frye by law enforcement. A simmering fuse ignited a literal firestorm of protest and violent reaction to decades of police mistreatment of African-Americans in supposedly progressive Los Angeles. Eventually over 14,000 California National Guard troops were deployed to “occupy” the streets and neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles and enforce a “dusk to dawn” curfew.
Imagine how all this appeared to me, an eight-year old child who had been taught to respect and obey authority and whose favorite television shows during the 1960’s were “Dragnet” and the “Mod Squad” both of which romanticized law enforcement. During the Watts Riots, what I saw with my own eyes in my own neighborhood, was in direct conflict with the sugar- coated image of law enforcement that was being fed to me, and millions of others, on television.
During the 1970’s, the late Richard Pryor had an iconic joke on his Grammy award winning comedy album entitled “Is it Something I Said?” Pryor commenting on the astronomically high number of African-American men in prison says that if you are in search of justice in prisons, that’s what you find: just us!” Unfortunately, the hard truth of this supposed “joke” is not lost on anyone in the Black community.
The over-incarceration of Black men and women, contributes to the perceived deadly threat posed by ALL African-Americans. Some believe that just being Black has rendered Black people as “weaponized.” In response to the murder of George Floyd, the current mayor of Minneapolis stated that “being born Black should not be a death sentence.” Mayor Jacob Frey has used rhetoric hopeful of calming his city in the face of the understandable groundswell of protest over Mr. Floyd’s death. Mayor Frey recognized that it is not just the one horrific incident that Blacks in Minneapolis are protesting, “it is over four hundred years of oppression.”
What then is required as a starting point for the healing that must occur in the wake of the murder of George Floyd? First, all of the officers involved in his original detention must be immediately terminated from the Minneapolis police force. At the time of the writing of this article, four of the officers involved have been terminated from their employment with the Minneapolis Police Department. Second, the chief of police in Minneapolis should be fired immediately for dereliction of his duty to effectively train and discipline his subordinates. This should happen despite the fact that the current chief of police is an “Afro-Latinx.” Having a “Black” police chief in Minneapolis did not save Mr. Floyd’s life. The current chief must go! Third, the officers who were involved in the disgusting “choking out” of Mr. Floyd should be prosecuted for murder…period! Under the Minnesota Penal Code, the officers’ behavior seems to qualify for arrest and conviction under at minimum, “Second Degree Murder” and possibly “First Degree Murder.” Both the actual officer who applied his knee to the neck of Mr. Floyd for over nine minutes, and those who aided and abetted in that behavior, should be arrested, held without bail and prosecuted.
“Atonement” is the process of “reparation for a wrong or injury.” America will not have a true racial healing until, it acknowledges its discriminatory history which is at its very foundation. You cannot have a country espousing justice where enslavement is at its core. Nor can you have peace in the streets of Minneapolis, and throughout America, with a system that protects rogue law enforcement officials who victimize the Black community with impunity.
I do not encourage or condone the violent reaction to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of those entrusted to “protect and to serve.” However, in the words of one of my brilliant former students, “the formula for true social change includes equal parts protest and violence.” Even the celebrated efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were interwoven with violence. Although Dr. King and the SCLC (and other civil rights organizations) espoused “non-violence,” they were constantly enmeshed in violent protests and racist’s conduct often masquerading as local law enforcement. Need I remind you that Dr. King was stabbed; little girls were killed during a church bombing in Alabama; and Eugene “Bull” Connor was a sworn law enforcement official.
In closing I offer one small observation. If you are more outraged by the violent protest in Minneapolis than your are by the death of George Floyd, then in the words of Dr. King, you’re “more devoted to order than to justice.”
Peaceful protest alone will not be sufficient to prevent the next horrific treatment of an African-American at the hands of law enforcement. At minimum, one should arm themselves with a cell phone enabled with a recording feature. The police misconduct uncovered in the case of George Floyd would never have come to light without video and audio evidence validating those protesting his mistreatment.
[Mark T. Harris is originally from Los Angeles, California where he attended Los Angeles High School, the University of Southern California and Loyola Marymount University. Attorney Harris attended UC Berkeley School of Law, during which time he served as a member of the City of Berkeley Police Commission. Subsequently, Attorney Harris chaired the City of Oakland Police Commission and was appointed by California Governor Jerry Brown to the California Fair Employment and Housing Council. Currently, Attorney Harris lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and sons, where he practices civil rights law.]