The Death of Hannah FizerRoundup
tags: racism, violence, Police
Adam Rothman is the author of Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery. He teaches history at Georgetown University.
Barbara J. Fields, with her sister Karen E. Fields, is co-author of Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. She teaches history at Columbia University.
Hannah Fizer was driving to work at a convenience store in Sedalia, Missouri, late on a Saturday night in June when a police officer pulled her over for running a red light. According to police reports, Fizer was “non-compliant” and threatened to shoot the officer, so the officer shot and killed her. In fact, Fizer did not have a gun and, now that she is dead, cannot tell her side of the story. Her friends and family want answers, and they want justice. “She was a beautiful person,” a coworker recalled.
Amid widespread protests against police killings of black people, it seems a familiar story: an unarmed person smart-mouths a police officer and dies for it. But Hannah Fizer was white. That should not surprise anyone. According to a database of police shootings in the United States since 2015, half of those shot dead by police—and four of every ten who were unarmed—have been white. People in poor neighborhoods are a lot more likely to be killed by police than people in rich neighborhoods. Living for the most part in poor or working-class neighborhoods as well as subject to a racist double-standard, black people suffer disproportionately from police violence. But white skin does not provide immunity.
Nor does white skin provide immunity against police clad in riot gear and armed with military-grade weapons violating freedom of speech, assembly, and worship. Just ask Martin Gugino, the seventy-five-year-old man who spent a month in the hospital with a fractured skull after he was knocked down by police in Buffalo, and received death threats as a reward. Or ask white clergy and others beset by tear gas and military helicopters to clear space for a photo-op for President Trump during the “Battle of Lafayette Square” in early June. Militarized attacks on unarmed, peaceful protesters have taught thousands of previously uninvolved Americans that they, too, have a stake in curbing the excessive use of force by the police.
As historians, we instinctively look to the past for hints about the present. The tumultuous decades before the Civil War carry resonant echoes today. In that moment of profound political upheaval, a new political party forged a potent antislavery coalition. How did they do it? How did the antislavery Republican Party win power in a racist country?
The answer is that overreaching by the slaveholders taught many white Americans—at least in the North—that the agenda of the slaveholders threatened their own rights. The Gag Rule 0f 1836–1844 prevented members of the House of Representatives from considering antislavery petitions from their own constituents. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, federal marshals could require Northern citizens to assist in recapturing fugitive slaves. The Kansas–Nebraska Act set off a bloody contest over the introduction of slavery into territory where it had previously been banned. The Dred Scott decision called in question the ability of white citizens to exclude slavery anywhere in the country. These milestones of antebellum politics convinced many white Northerners that their own rights would be trampled and their livelihoods cramped—and that they, too, could be made into slaves—if the “slave power” were left unchecked. Even white Northerners who mistrusted abolitionists and
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