*This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.
“Hands up, don’t shoot.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“Black lives matter.”
These are the now ubiquitous chants, hashtags and mantras that stand as succinct and eloquent expressions of the current crisis in race and criminal justice. They also effectively capture the struggle for racial justice throughout our nation’s history and embody a call to action. Thus, “hands up, don’t shoot” reminds us that while some have the capacity to devalue and destroy life, a gesture of surrender can also become a symbol of strength.
“I can’t breathe” speaks to the poignant frailty of human life and the way in which violence intended to silence can instead embolden the oppressed. And “black lives matter” is a profound reminder of the important work that remains to be done in order to achieve true racial justice in our country.
“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”
On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Witnesses stated that Mr. Brown’s hands were up in surrender before he was killed. Although this testimony later faced scrutiny and contradiction, the indication that a law enforcement officer responded to non-violence with lethal force struck a dangerously tender nerve that ignited a wave of protests across the country. The public skepticism – and anger – about the criminal justice system’s treatment of Black people was compounded by the Missouri grand jury’s subsequent decision not to indict the officer that shot and killed Mr. Brown.
This image of a White police officer using lethal force against a Black man in surrender is powerfully evocative of past events. Almost 50 years ago – on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965 – state troopers in Selma, Alabama, violently assaulted 600 unarmed men, women and children who peacefully attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to draw national attention to their fight to participate in the political process. Law enforcement officers clubbed, spat-on, whipped and trampled with horses the protesters who had stopped to pray.
Then, as now, this image of police answering non-violence with violence shocked and horrified the nation. In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress about the importance of voting rights; the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. secured an order allowing the march to proceed safely; and the Voting Rights Act was passed in August of 1965.
Thus, “hands up, don’t shoot” speaks to not just the police brutality currently plaguing Black communities, but also the power of collective, strategic organizing and legal action.