Black communities across the nation are mourning the deaths of George Floyd, tortured to death by Minneapolis PD, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old jogger who was killed while running in a residential neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, and Breonna Taylor a Black EMT killed while sleeping in her home. Their names are added to a devastatingly long list of Black people who have been killed at the hands of vigilanties or law enforcement. In many ways Ahmaud’s death in particular parallels that of Trayvon Martin, whose 2013 killing sparked international outrage about the extrajudicial murders of Black people in the United States and globally, and ignited a global movement to stamp out anti-Black racism.
If this isn’t your experience, it might be hard to imagine what it’s like to go out for a run and be confronted by two strangers brandishing guns. Or what it’s like to be accosted by a stranger with a gun walking home from the store. Or to be profiled, harassed and arrested simply for being. Black people can.
This menacing behavior isn’t new to Black communities. For centuries, Black people in the United States have been stalked, heckled and killed by white mobs and law enforcement — and sometimes everyday people. Ahmaud’s death is a reminder of how penetrable hatred and white supremacy are in this country — even during a pandemic.
COVID-19 brought the country to her knees. We’ve been forced to separate from our learning facilities, our places of worship and our loved ones. We’re told this moment could potentially be “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” I have to ask myself, will anti-Black violence follow us into the next world?
George, Ahmaud and Breonna’s deaths are the result of centuries-old anti-Black attitudes flanked by prejudicial legislation, and a wild wild west approach to law and order meant to intimidate Black people and control our behavior. Many elements, like racist stereotypes, a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to vigilantism and law enforcement for Black people, Stand Your Ground laws and antiquated policing systems with roots in slave catching coalesce to create a network of deadly terror for Black communities nationwide. This network, coupled with a criminal-legal system with a history of antipathy toward us, wreaks havoc on Black bodies like George, Ahmaud and Breonna.
George Floyd, was suffocated to death by Minneapolis PD. A 10-minute Facebook video shows the officer kneeling on George’s neck for several minutes as bystanders and the man himself pleaded for the officer to stop.
Ahmaud was killed by Travis and Gregory McMichael, a father and son who assumed Ahmaud was a criminal because he was running in their neighborhood. Although there is no evidence Ahmaud was a threat, the McMichaels and the prosecutor in the case, Tom Durden, insist he was a criminal and that the McMichaels were well-grounded in pursuing him and ultimately killing him. The association of Black people with danger and criminality is a reflection of a long history of oppression and stereotyping. It is one way white people with power wield and maintain that power over time. By relying on racist stereotypes, media portrayals of race and crime, and anecdotes of acquittals of vigilantes like George Zimmerman, vigilantes and state actors can justify mob justice or police terror and then scapegoat Black people for our own deaths in the media to shape public opinion and in a court of law.
These racist stereotypes also result in excessive use of force against Black people by cops, even though white people are more likely to resist arrest. The death of Breonna Taylor, an EMT who was murdered by the police in Louisville in March, gained national attention, and provides another example of how excessive force and police misconduct plagues Black communities. She was at home sleeping when an arrest warrant was executed at the wrong address. Her subsequent death amplifies the disparities in policing, especially when we see white men engage in armed protests at state houses across the country. When this happens, we don’t paint white communities with the kind of broad brush strokes our communities experience.
These same stereotypes of Black people have also resulted in mass incarceration, which led to a 700% increase in the prison population between the ‘70s and ‘90s, with more than 30% of those people being Black.
More than two months passed before a video surfaced of Arbery’s murder, which went viral with the public demanding justice. The McMichaels were charged with Ahmaud’s murder. The delay in the McMichaels’ apprehension highlights another way American criminal-legal systems fail Black people. After killing a man, for more than two months the McMichaels have been home, free to be with their families and sleep in their own beds. In 2010, 17-year-old Kalief Browder spent three years on Rikers Island without even being convicted of a crime, ultimately comitting suicide. For Black people, even Black kids, the criminal-legal system presumes guilt over innocence, while the McMichaels have been afforded the benefit of the doubt.
Another way the criminal-legal system works against keeping Black people alive is by passing Stand Your Ground laws, which embolden vigilantes with racial animus toward Black people like the McMichaels to "defend" themselves against Black people performing everyday activities, like walking home from the store or going on a run.
Finally, the elder McMichael has deep ties to county law enforcement. Today’s modern-day policing institutions were first slave patrols tasked with tracking, returning or killing runaway slaves. The McMichaels took an identical approach: they profiled Ahmaud, grabbed their shotgun and .357 magnum, chased him down in their pickup, blocked his route, accused him of being a thief and then killed him.
The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) was erected in the wake of the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who was later acquited, and the murder of Mike Brown by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, we have remained committed to making space for Black organizations and individuals to discuss current political conditions, develop political interventions and convene organizational leadership around a shared movement-wide strategy. Seven years later we’re asking ourselves once again, how many more Black people must die before we take seriously the plague of anti-Black vigilantism and police violence in this country and the network of deadly terror that fortifies it?
As old as these racist, American institutions and traditions are, and as hard as they are to extinguish, enough is enough. When we imagine our next world, which we must first do before we erect it, we must insist on freedom for everyone, lest we be destined to carry the albatross of fear and oppression of the old world with us forever. Black people have suffered enough. The racist stereotypes cannot come. The guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to vigilantism and law enforcement for Black people cannot come. Stand Your Ground laws cannot come. Antiquated policing systems with roots in slave catching cannot come.
We stand in solidarity with and send our condolences to George, Breonna and Ahmaud’s families, to the Black communities of Brunswick and Louisville, and all Black people demanding justice for victims of anti-Black violence. Too many of us know the harrowing experience of a loved one being killed because of anti-Black racism. Just as many will never see justice for the same reason.
Medical experts told us that being responsible citizens, social distancing and doing our part to keep one another safe would keep our communities healthy. Viral sickness is one way of measuring health, but those experts didn’t account for the violent and deadly attacks from police and vigilantes on the dignity, humanity and lives of Black people. Even now, when our communities are dying disproportionately more than others due to COVID-19, we have to fear being tracked and shot to death simply for being Black. It’s heartbreaking, and a reminder of just how routine the extrajudicial murders of Black people are in the United States, and the justifications that soon follow.
With all the uncertainty we’re swimming in, can't we agree to leave this network of deadly terror in the old world? Our vision is one in which all Black people not only matter but are thriving. We urge you to act now for Black lives.
Karissa Lewis is the National Field director with the Movement for Black Lives. The Movement for Black Lives is an ecosystem of individuals and organizations creating a shared vision and policy agenda to win rights, resources and dignity for Black people.