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Police killings of black people: the legacy of lynching writ large | COMMENTARY

Demonstrators walk through Fells Point in protest of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.
Demonstrators walk through Fells Point in protest of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

As if any further proof were needed, the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd reveal the thinly veiled truth about how little black lives are valued in this country. That all three killings involved current or former law enforcement officers is revealing.

The license that is taken, the tolerance that is assumed by the perpetrators in these (and too many other) incidents is an inheritance. It is the legacy of lynching writ large: horrifying, traumatizing, breathtaking — and present.

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One is tempted to think of these crimes as vestiges of the centuries-long campaign of racial terror that was waged against black Americans. But the term “vestige” implies something that is outdated, a relic, something from the past. These incidents remind us there is nothing outdated about racism. These murders are not outliers.

The Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission recently established this working definition for what constitutes a racial terror lynching: “the unlawful killing of an African American by white mob violence, often with the apparent complicity of state and local officials, intended to incite racial terror and subservience to white supremacy.”

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Using that standard, the Floyd murder was not LIKE a lynching, it IS a lynching. Only in this case the “white mob” happened to be police officers. The very people entrusted with the responsibility of protecting his life, took his life — in broad daylight and in public. This is terror, and it screams to be recognized as such.

The pathetic spectacle of a white woman calling police to falsely report that she and her dog were being threatened by an African American man in Central Park is another side of the same racist coin. The woman’s overt threat to the man, “I’m going to call the cops and tell them that an African American man is threatening me” (emphasis mine), invokes a timeless trope used to incite the lynchings of hundreds, if not thousands, of black men in this country. It’s an example of what New York Times columnist Charles Blow called “white women weaponizing racial anxiety, using their white femininity to activate systems of white terror against black men.”

It is a phenomenon all too familiar in Maryland. In 1885, a white mob dragged a 15-year old boy from the old Baltimore County jail in Towson and lynched him to short-circuit a planned appeal to the Supreme Court. One member of the lynch mob explained to The Sun, “Every man was actuated by the thought that … he was protecting his own wife, sweetheart or children.”

So the fuse that the Central Park dog walker threatened to light is short but centuries old. The reservoir of hysteria the dog walker drew from, “an African American man is threatening me” could have led to far more tragic consequences. The accused man was guilty only of birding while black.

It’s hard not to see some irony in the Central Park episode. In 1989, real estate developer Donald Trump embellished his reputation by taking out full-page ads in New York newspapers calling for the death penalty to be imposed in the case of the so-called Central Park Five. Never mind that the teenagers hadn’t yet even been tried.

Even after DNA evidence totally exonerated the young men and their convictions were vacated, the now President Donald Trump refused to accept their innocence or apologize. Is it surprising then, that in 2017, the first year of the Trump presidency, hate crimes in the U.S. increased by 17% compared to the previous year (as reported by the FBI Universal Crime report)? Perhaps more telling is a 2019 analysis by The Washington Post that revealed that counties where Trump held rallies in 2016 saw hate crimes increase by 226% in the following year.

The flagrant disregard for black lives is a tragic, but undeniable, symptom of the pervasive racism that poisons our institutions, weakens our community and demeans civility itself. Is this not terror? Before you answer, try to imagine what our black children must be thinking when they go to bed tonight.

We take as an article of faith that “truth and reconciliation are sequential”; that is, we need to acknowledge the truth before racial reconciliation is even possible. The mission of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project is to encourage Marylanders to acknowledge the truth about the history of racial terror in our state. At the same time, we must also acknowledge the truth that racial terror is not just historical.

Will Schwarz (wschwarz@mdlynchingmemorial.org) is president of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project.

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