Can black activists defeat the great white might of US law enforcement?

Image Credit: Fibonacci Blue

Gavin Tracey examines the myriad of ways in which lives of black civil rights activists in the USA are endangered by the very forces that exist to “serve and protect” them.

The life of an activist - one who dedicated their life to challenging and upending the status quo - will by definition never be easy. It is not a life filled with glitz and glamour, it involves incredible dedication and the willingness to spend decades of one's life working towards a solution that may not materialize until decades after one's death. It is a battle to change the hearts and minds of your fellow citizens, but that is the easy part. In order for any meaningful change to be enacted one must dismantle and rebuild the systems of power and governance that have emerged over decades or even centuries, unwinding and unravelling thousands of threads that have been twisted into a gordian knot through years of neglect. These systems of power have ossified and become sclerotic, and to challenge them is to make the people who have tacitly benefited from these systems very, very angry. 

Examples of these struggles can be found worldwide, but few have been so impactful and visible as the struggle for the civil rights of African Americans in the United States. Focusing on this one issue, we can begin to understand all of the various ways in which a struggle for emancipation and equal treatment under the law can and will be hampered by the systems of power and those who benefit from them. 

While the struggle for civil rights began almost contemporaneously with the founding of the United States, the modern civil rights movement as we know it began in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (A brief caveat; for the sake of this article one is forced to truncate the long and detailed story of the civil rights movement and distill it.) How did the two most prominent civil rights activists, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. fare when they came up against the full weight and power of the white establishment? The short answer; not well. The long answer reveals more about how entrenched systems of power will work against those who seek to upend it. In the case of MLK, he was subject to persistent abuse both from law enforcement and white supremicists. In 1964, King was sent an anonymous letter, which he correctly assumed to have been written by FBI agents, that heavily implied that he should kill himself. It reads; “There is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days.”

A more concrete example of the role US law enforcement played in the death of a black civil rights leader is to examine the case of Fred Hampton. Hampton was a revolutionary socialist and a leading member of the Black Panthers. In 1969, the FBI attempted to prevent Hampton and the Black Panthers from gaining in popularity and support, and organised a dawn arms raid at the house Hampton was staying in. Hampton was shot in the head at point blank range in his bed, as he slept beside his 9 months pregnant fianceé. It was later revealed that the FBI had a paid informant close to Hampton, who gave them all the information they needed to raid the house, including a floor plan and a list of who would be inside. At a trial, an FBI crime scene expert testified that the police had fired at least 89 shots, while the inhabitants of the house had only fired one - the shot had not come from Hampton’s room. 

So, many will argue that it was a long time ago, and many things have changed for the better in the United States. However, the life of a black civil rights activist still remains incredibly dangerous. After the shooting of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the modern civil rights movement was kicked off again in earnest with the wave of Black Lives Matter protests all over the United States. Despite media attention having waned as the years wore on, many people in the community remained dedicated to resolving longstanding police brutality issues. The issues they have faced in recent years have gone underreported. Several prominent BLM protestors and community organisers have been found dead - shot in the head and left inside a burning car. 

In many of these cases that are treated as random murders or suicides there are a host of factors that simply do not add up. Activist Danye Jones was found hanging from a bedsheet outside of his house. While it was ruled a suicide, his mother has publicly stated that she does not believe this - citing the fact that the bedsheet he was hanging from did not belong to them, as well as the fact he had packed an overnight bag to go somewhere. Other cases are also worthy of suspicion. Darren Seals, a 29 year old activist was found shot inside of a burnt out car. Activist DeAndre Jones was also found dead with gunshot wounds in the back seat of a burnt out car. The police ruled it as a suicide. Many in the community feel that these activists are facing retaliation for their outspoken criticism of police brutality, while the police turn a blind eye to the crimes committed against them.

While this can at times verge in to tin foil hat conspiracy theories, it is worth examining these deaths in the light of the historical context. Not only that, but as The Intercept has reported, there has been a large effort by white supremicists to infiltrate police forces in the US.