The protests that have engulfed American cities in the past week are rooted in decades of frustrations. Racist policing, legal and extra-legal discrimination, exclusion from the major avenues of wealth creation and vicious stereotyping have long histories and endure today.
President Donald Trump addressed America about the protests. Post continues below.
African Americans have protested against these injustices going back as far as the post-Civil War days in the 1870s. Throughout the 20th century, there were significant uprisings in Chicago (1919), New York City’s Harlem neighbourhood (1935), Detroit (1943) and Los Angeles (1943, 1965, 1992).
And in what became known as the “long, hot summer of 1967“, anger in America’s cities boiled over. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had ended segregation, but not brought equality. Racial injustice at the hands of police remained. Protesters took to the streets in more than 150 cities, leading to violent clashes between black residents and largely white police forces.
White moderates condemned these armed rebellions as the antithesis of the famed nonviolent protests of civil rights activists. But Martin Luther King, Jr., himself, recognised that the success of nonviolence lay in the ever-present threat of violence.
He noted, too, that riots “do not develop out of thin air.”
Policing practices a trigger for unrest.
The trigger for African-American uprisings in the US has almost always been acts by police forces, such as the recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Sometimes, unrest has broken out when police have refused to act on behalf of black residents. When an African-American teenager drifted into the “white” part of Lake Michigan in Chicago in 1919, for instance, a white man on the banks threw rocks at him and he drowned. A policeman did nothing to stop the assailants, nor did he arrest them.
From the perspective of those targeted and traumatised by police and discriminated against by society at large, property damage and looting were justified.
In the century after slavery ended in 1865, white Americans had established new ways to exploit black people’s labour and keep African Americans impoverished. These methods ranged from legislation governing work contracts and mobility to racist stereotyping.
Such laws and customs were all underpinned by violence, including murder. From the late 1800s until 1950, more than 4,000 African Americans were victims of lynchings. They were so acceptable they were sometimes advertised in the press in advance. These were extra-judicial killings, but often included the police (or they would at least turn a blind eye to the proceedings).