Yesterday’s lynching. Today’s protest.

by Dana Saxon

It’s pretty tempting to make comparisons between past and current events. Some trends seem to appear in all eras, perhaps filling a need, taste or interest that’s shared among many people, regardless of when they’ve lived. At the core of humanity, the characters and events basically seem to be the same.

You might ask, “who’s the modern day James Brown?” Or, “what’s the modern day version of the Great Migration?” Maybe, “who is today’s Robert E. Lee?” All interesting questions. But today, reflecting on pressing and painful current events, one comparison comes to mind.

What’s the modern day equivalent of lynchings in the US?

lynch-banner

Sadly, we might come up with multiple answers. Here are some of the factors:

  • This would be something that’s disproportionately harming – rather, killing one group of people.
  • Perpetrators are in positions of economic, political, and/or social power.
  • The brutally violent crimes are committed to provoke fear among an entire marginalized group, solidifying the criminals’ perceived  power, yet unintentionally revealing their fear of the very people they oppress.
  • The crime is committed under the guise of justice, with the victims denied a right to trial after possibly committing even the most innocuous offense and sentenced immediately to death.
  • Victims often are criminalized following their deaths to justify their murders.
  • Further denying justice, the perpetrators of the crime most often go unprosecuted.

An obvious answer: Police brutality and killings of unarmed men and women are the modern day lynchings of Black people in the US.

Eric Garner brutalized by the police
Eric Garner brutalized by the police

Black people protested and fought against lynchings for decades. They wrote and published extensively about it. They marched silently. They talked, educated, and negotiated. They tried to pass federal legislation.

6 May 1919, Baltimore American (Maryland). Newspaper clipping courtesy of Genealogybank.com
Baltimore American (Maryland), 6 May 1919. Courtesy of Genealogybank.com

In 1922, The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill defined lynching by a mob as “an assemblage composed of three or more acting in concert for the purpose of depriving any person of his life without the authority of law as a punishment for or to prevent the commission of some actual or supposed public offense.” The Bill proposed to address lynching with the following:

  1. Punish state and municipal officers who failed to do their duty in protecting the lives of persons from mobs
  2. Punish the perpetrators of the crime of lynching by federal prosecution
  3. Compel the county where the crime was committed to make compensation, by forfeiture of $10,000 to the family, or if no family, to dependent parents, and if none, to the United States.

The Anti-Lynching Bill was defeated three times in the Senate. It never became federal law.

24 Jun 1922, Washington, DC. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
24 Jun 1922, Washington, DC. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS, courtesy of Flickr.com

In 1922 (and every year before and since), the US reminded Black people that their lives don’t matter. Out of fear, desperation and rage, Black people continued to organize, march, protest, and demand overdue justice.

I think we can all recognize history repeating.

So what’s the modern day equivalent of these outcries for justice? It’s Ferguson. It’s NYC. It’s Baltimore. It’s in countless places where people are demanding justice, equality, and the right to life for all Black people.

Students from Baltimore colleges and high schools march in protest chanting 'Justice for Freddie Gray' on April 29, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images; courtesy: nymagcom
Protesters chanting ‘Justice for Freddie Gray’ on April 29, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images; Courtesy: nymagcom

But frankly, my comparisons to the past are inaccurate. Because instead of repeating trends that have arisen at various points in history, this is just one very long, continuous, dreadful story. It’s not that these circumstances have arisen again. They never stopped.

From the transatlantic slave trade, slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and lynchings to COINTELPRO, the criminal “justice” system and rampant police brutality, the motivations to dehumanize, criminalize and deny equality to Black people have remained the same. Only the tactics have changed.

Today we’re witnessing both peaceful and angry protests – quiet marches and fire-starting riots. This is cumulative frustration – cumulative anger. The community’s rage is for Freddie Gray and Walter Scott as much as it’s for the countless people who have been kidnapped, lynched, and otherwise denied justice in the US for the last few hundred years.

I expect the anger to persist until we finally see a solution.

So what’s the modern day solution to ensure the value of Black lives? Since we have yet to see when/how the outrageous injustice ends, it’s up to us and future generations to write this part of the story.

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