Calls to Disarm the Police Won’t Stop Brutality and KillingsRoundup
tags: racism, Police, police brutality, Self Defense, Martial Arts
Maryam Aziz is the African American History Postdoctoral Fellow at the Pennsylvania State University and is writing a book on unarmed self-defense and wellness during the Black Power Movement.
The death of Daunte Wright in Minnesota is only the latest in a long line of police killings of African Americans. The media’s focus on whether the officer intended to fire a Taser or a gun dominated coverage of the shooting. But while national attention on police brutality often focuses on guns and violence by armed police, officers also use potentially lethal unarmed tactics that disproportionately target African Americans — and these matter as well.
Indeed, the ongoing trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd epitomizes the dangers of these tactics. The prosecution called more than 30 witnesses, including no fewer than nine police officers who unanimously condemned Chauvin’s use of force as excessive and unnecessary. Multiple witnesses have testified or suggested that Chauvin’s pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck ultimately took Floyd’s life.
Tactics such as chokeholds are not alternatives to violence but simply another expression of it. Even as police departments became heavily armed throughout the 20th century, they also embraced unarmed tactics, drawing on martial arts, to become more effective at control. In fact, Black practices of self-defense fueled developments in the training of police in such tactics. This history reveals how calls only to “disarm” police are inadequate for ending anti-Black policing.
While police shootings rightly garner headlines, there also is a sustained record of unarmed police brutality in the United States. In 1958, the NAACP magazine the Crisis reported on numerous physical assaults and beatings that African Americans suffered in Detroit. A central theme of the cases was the police initiation of violence during questioning. Ninety percent of complainants “believe[d] they were subjected to unwarranted abuse because of their race.” Physical assaults ranged from hand blows and kicks to the use of objects. When Birmingham exploded during civil rights protests in 1963, police beat protesters and unleashed dogs on them. Nationally, the Black Power Movement joined civil rights calls to end police violence and police killings of Black people.
In response to both white supremacist violence and police brutality, Black activists adopted practices of self-defense. Though they are largely remembered for armed self-defense, unarmed struggle became a focal point of groups such as the Nation of Islam, the Panthers and the Congress of African People.
These efforts made law enforcement and the broader public uneasy. After the release of the 1959 documentary “The Hate that the Hate Produced,” reporters flooded Malcolm X’s phone to inquire, “Why is your Fruit of Islam being trained in judo and karate?” He responded pointedly that Black self-defense terrified White men: “Why does judo or karate suddenly get so ominous because Black men study it? Across America, the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, even the YWCA … PAL [Police Athletic League] — they all teach judo!”
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