The recent grand jury decisions not to indict police officer Darren Wilson who shot and killed Michael Brown and police officer Daniel Pantaleo who killed Eric Garner with an illegal choke hold or ‘carotid restraint’, have plunged many people here and around the world into serious concern and contemplation as to how this could have occurred today in the year 2014. Firstly, how could such racist hostility in American police forces still prevail as standard operating procedure after decades of widespread public loathing towards this notorious tradition? Secondly, how could the grand jury refrain from issuing any indictments to the officers, even given the clear and conclusive evidence of homicide – especially in the Eric Garner case? Ask yourself. These questions ultimately elicit some demoralizing answers. Recognizing the parallels between the Michael Brown and the Eric Garner incidents and other incidents including the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the killing of Akai Gurley in Brooklyn – and the plethora of other senseless killings of young black men by the police – will bring us to clearer answers than the ones we’d reach if we falsely believed that these incidents occurred in vacuums of their own. Viewing these incidents as apart of an overarching sociohistorical context will then equip us with a comprehensive understanding of the predicament in which young black men find themselves in this country and also an understanding of the leeway afforded to law-enforcers by judiciaries.
The photograph above portrays the lynching of 16-year-old Lige Daniels beside a courthouse on August 3, 1920 in Center, Texas. Those responsible for killing Daniels are somewhere in this picture posing without the slightest suggestion of guilt or shame. Even children are present. Among the individuals in this congregation, there are no clear representatives of the Ku Klux Klan or any such organized extremist white supremacy groups; the people in this photo – including those who actually slipped the noose around Daniels’ neck and hoisted him up to die – were just neighborhood people with normal jobs, families, virtues and common duties. Oftentimes, modern people link the extreme racial brutalities of the past with the exclusive agendas of the KKK however, many black men (and women) – young and old – were mutilated, tortured and killed by people who didn’t hide behind sheets of white. These were simply American people who believed that what they were doing was necessary, correct and almost honorable. The fact that they are posing for a photograph as a group of revelers underneath a person they just killed demonstrates their guiltlessness and the complete lack of criminal consequences about which they needed to worry. Between about the 1870s and the 1940s, lynching African-Americans was a common American pastime. It was as much a source of voyeuristic amusement as it was a tactic for intimidation. Victims were either swept up by a vicious mob or executed as punishments for crimes that they often did not commit. As the story goes, Daniels was falsely accused for murdering “Earl’s Grandma”.* So once he was thrown in prison, a mob decided to break into the building and kidnap Daniels from his cell:
“Captain W.A. Bridges of the Seventh Calvary was wired orders from Austin to protect Lige Daniels from the threat of mob violence. His excuse for failing to follow orders was the inability to ‘find any members of his company in time for mobilization.’”
Basically, Captain Bridges just let it happen. Lige Daniels was imprisoned perhaps for some simple transgression with Jim Crow etiquette, and still, a highly ranked law-enforcer allows for this extra-legal violence to ensue. Captain Bridges himself might even be in the photograph. This actual image was printed on postcards for anyone to purchase.
Let us consider this photograph from 1920 in light of current events.
The failure of the grand juries in Missouri and in New York to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner has conflagrated shock and anger in so many people. Under the auspices of legal technicalities, the officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo (and the other NYPD officers) were not prosecuted, which conveyed to the public that the state justice systems deemed their actions lawful. While it has long been evident that the notion of a ‘post-racial society’ is a completely naïve distortion of reality, these recent events have still considerably amplified the extent to which black people in this country are often excluded from American justice. Furthermore, it is evident that those who bring harm to black lives often receive no consequences under the law, especially police officers whose authority exempts them from the throes of a supposedly strict and impartial justice system.
Returning to the 1920 photograph above, we can see that this public display depicted is taking place directly adjacent to a courthouse. The fundamental purpose of a courthouse is to be a community center where trusted officials allot justice. The building itself begins to evoke this ideal notion, yet alongside of it hangs a young black teenager above the murderous pride of the townspeople. Contemplate this image aside the recent injustices that we have all witnessed. The fact that interactions between the prosecutors and the grand juries led to the innocence of the policemen who senselessly killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner demonstrates that the vestiges of the concretely institutionalized racism that we see in this 1920 photograph still exists just in a more ‘elegant’, surreptitious form. The so-called ‘rule-of-law’ that exempted the police officers from any legal criminalization descends from the ‘rule-of-law’ that permitted Lige Daniels’ dead body to swing from an oak tree branch in a courthouse yard and the ‘rule-of-law’ that allowed his killers to remain free from any consequences and proud of an execution that they probably deemed a necessary duty.
The ‘system’ today is not broken as many believe. We are witnessing fair play in a system that originated in favor of the marginalization the black man. The most extreme act of marginalization is murder. The photographed lynching of Lige Daniels depicts the raw materials that compose the current problem of local judiciaries and law-enforcers interpreting young black men as menaces to society and worthy enough to die in vain.
At the moment, we await the grand jury’s decision on whether or not to indict NYPD Officer Peter Liang who, without any warning, shot and killed Akai Gurley from the shadows of a dark East Brooklyn stairwell. Akai Gurley and his girlfriend took the stairs because the elevators in the building had been malfunctioning. Much to the dismay of New Yorkers, Americans and people around the world, it is quite possible that the supposedly accidental nature of the shooting might actually be legitimate grounds for another acquittal. Police officer Peter Liang might also not receive any indictments.
This brings us back to the 1920 photograph and the metaphor that it provides. ‘Justice’ stands firmly behind a mob of people who believe in their racial superiority and enjoy their freedom under the law to act upon this belief. With this racist mentality coupled with municipal support, these people are motivated and essentially authorized to kill young black men without hesitation. This photo reveals the raw discrepancy between American justice and human rights.
People often isolate today’s racism, expressing shock and disbelief at the police treatment of black men; but these race relations have long persisted through time. The feelings that drove the townspeople of Center, Texas to lynch 16-year-old Lige Daniels still exist. Whether racism in this country will ever subside into the past, as a merely obsolete behavioral tradition has become quite the rhetorical question without any clear solution in reach. But in the midst of this recent chaos, a tangible solution to these police murders would be a comprehensive reform in police curriculum and training. This requires a deep study and understanding of police departments and the judiciary system such that everything that happens in either realm will be within the public’s awareness such that the public can approve or disapprove before more tragedy ensues.
Featured Cover Photo: ‘Man at Bryant Park’ by M. Pitter
* Allen, James. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Twin Palms Publishers, 2000. p184. Print.