In 2018, across a range of issues, many human rights activists believe that the United States has been moving backwards.
The current administration’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies grab global attention. However, deep and divisive issues burn at home among blacks and whites in a struggle to co-exist that began 400 years ago, as European traders first brought slaves from Africa to the west.
One such issue in the headlines lately is police brutality. It is defined as the unwarranted, excessive, and often illegal use of force against civilians by police officers. It may come in the form of harassment, verbal abuse, intimidation, or assault.
The origins of racial inequality by way of police brutality in America date back to slave and colonial times in the early 1600s. Later, when the first police departments were established in the 1800s, African Americans would become targets of police brutality as they tried to flee the areas of predominant slavery – the south.
During the civil rights era of the 1960s, racial disparity in treatment by police became more evident, as police dogs and fire hoses were used to control protests, even peaceful ones.
With the proliferation of cell phones, instances of police brutality have become public, broadcast by bystanders onto social media. Additionally, there have been cases of abuse and killing by police in which the officers have been acquitted, raising the question of potential institutional issues between certain districts’ police forces and civilians.
There is much controversy surrounding this topic, as the police officers’ defense is based in sound public policy. They are often confronted with extremely dangerous situations and need to be able to act and react in a very short period of time.
In 2002, the University of Chicago conducted a study exploring what they called “the police officer’s dilemma.” It consisted of a video game, with scenarios involving both black and white men holding objects, both threatening and non-threatening, such as cell phones. The task was to shoot only the men carrying guns. Results showed that armed black men in the video game were shot more frequently and more quickly than armed white men. In addition, police would often mistakenly shoot an unarmed black target, while also neglecting to shoot an armed white target.
In 2015, a report by doctoral student Cody T. Ross concluded there was “evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans… the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police.” A 2017 study found that black people comprised 25% of those killed by police that year, despite being only 13% of the total population.
Law enforcement of course has a very difficult job. Most agree that police act in good faith, however given the above as well as other issues within the U.S. criminal justice system where racial disparities are present has lead to much debate and hand-wringing over these polarizing issues.
Having said this, there are bright spots in regards to racial reconciliation within the United States. In the midst of this painful reckoning there has been an acknowledgement of past wrongdoing.
In April of 2018, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. It is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of black people — a legacy that includes the past horrors of enslavement and lynching, racial segregation, and the more contemporary presumptions of guilt and violence by police.
The memorial is set on a six-acre site, and much like the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin it uses sculpture, design, and space to give context to its enormous and difficult topic. At its center is a memorial square with 800 six-foot steel monuments – one for each county in the U.S. where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns.
Racial terror lynchings were violent, public acts of torture, and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. They left thousands dead and inflicted deep, traumatic, and psychological wounds on survivors and witnesses. More than 4400 lynchings of black people between 1877 and 1950 have been documented.
The Equal Justice Initiative, the non-profit organization behind the memorial, believes confronting the truth about history is the first step towards recovery and reconciliation. They believe a history of injustice, atrocities, and abuse must be recognized and remembered before a society can recover from mass violence. They see the memorial as part of their work to advance reconciliation in America.
In the park-like area surrounding the memorial lays a field of identical monuments, each waiting to be claimed and installed in the county it represents. Over time, any columns left behind will serve as a report on which parts of the country have acknowledged this aspect of the past, and which have not.
In the U.S. in 2018, it’s one step up, amidst the pain of many steps back.