“I can’t breathe”: The History Behind Black Lives Matter

Six years ago in New York City, a 43 year old Black father named Eric Garner was put into a chokehold by an NYPD officer named Daniel Pantaleo on suspicion that he was illegally selling loose cigarettes. The maneuver by the officer resulted in the asphyxiation and eventual death of Garner. The type of chokehold used by the officer has been banned in the NYPD since the 1990s. 

The encounter was caught on film by Garner’s friend who said that Garner had actually just broken up a fight prior to the arrest. In the video, Garner can be heard repeatedly saying the words “I can’t breathe” as he is choked before having his head shoved into the ground with several other cops swarming in. 

Fast forward to today, and the world once again hears the phrase “I can’t breathe” as another Black man, George Floyd, had his neck knelt on by an officer named Daniel Chauvin for nearly nine minutes, two minutes and 53 seconds of which Floyd was unresponsive. Floyd was accused of using counterfeit currency at a grocery store.

Photo Courtesy of Black Lives Matter

The incidences surrounding  Floyd’s murder and that of Garner’s are very similar to each other. One was accused of selling loose cigarettes. One was accused of using a counterfeit bill. Both were unarmed. Both were Black. Both couldn’t breathe.

In recent days, following the death of George Floyd, widespread protests and riots have erupted across the nation not unlike those that the country has seen time and time again when dealing with racism.

This death in particular has once again thrust the Black Lives Matter movement into the spotlight. Started back in 2013 after the death of a Black teenager named Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter movement has combined elements from many of its civil rights predecessors like the 1960s Civil Rights Movement or the movement for Black Power. 

The Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent protests of the 60s did much to pave the way for the protests of today. In unrelenting efforts to reverse the inherent racism found within the country, Black activists such as Martin Luther King and John Lewis led nonviolent protests nationwide for several years. Notable protests methods like boycotts, sit-ins, or marches were utilized to great success. It is notable that many of these protests were met with open retaliation from police and federal forces alike. An incident in Birmingham, Alabama saw the police commissioner order dogs to attack the protestors. It is also important to mention that the FBI continuously harassed and attempted to obstruct the movement. 

Yet, despite these virulent attacks that police and federal officials inflicted on the protestors, the protests remained wildy peaceful. All of these efforts eventually led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 both of which contributed to ending regulated segregation and put a stop to requiring qualifications to vote which disenfranchised people of color. 

President Lyndon B Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 | Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

However, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. at the hands of a white man, riots erupted across the United States. While the riots were primarily in response to King’s death, many still were upset about the discriminatory housing policies and the “white flight” which saw whites segregating communities by leaving urban areas for the suburbs. It was difficult for Blacks to get to the suburbs due to other discriminatory policies thus isolating people of color in areas that were over-policed and received little support for infrastructure or employment; a problem still being fought today. After a week of rioting, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was passed, prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, financing of homes.

However, while the Civil Rights Movement accomplished big things, for many in the Black community, activists had simply not done enough to address the foundational racism that the country was built on. Moreover, many felt that progress was too slow in its current form. This is where the Black power movement came in. 

Black activists such as Malcom X and Stokely Carmichael’s, as well as groups like the Black Panther Party, demanded more of the government and were willing to use force when necessary. X elaborated on his support of force by saying that the movement was “nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us”. The foundation of Black power was built around the ideas of self-determination and racial pride stemming primarily from the philosophies of Malcom X. The civil rights leader established an organization known as the Organization of Afro-American unity a group tasked with combating racism in all its forms.

After Malcom X was assassinated and the San Francisco police shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager, two Black college students from Oakland, California established the Black Panther Party which helped to solidify the Black Power movement into history. The party organized armed civilian groups to patrol mostly in protest to police brutality. However, beyond their increased militarism the group also supplied free breakfast for school children, sickle-cell anemia testing, legal aid, and adult education. In addition, the group subscribed to Malcom X’s principles on racial nationalism and that integration into white society should not be the end goal. To fortify these ideas the party created their Ten-Point Program which called for the government to remake its law enforcement and justice system and fortify Black communities with better employment, housing, and education. The group felt the American government at least owed the Black community this much considering that “The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people”.

Black Panther Party members outside a court house in New York City | Photo Courtesy of David Fenton/ Getty Images

Beyond the demands for economic, intellectual, and social equality, those of the Black Power movement also demanded further representation in education curriculum and various artistic mediums. They desired more Black art and Black history to be showcased in society to help educate people on the position of African-Americans both in their current form and in the past.

While the Civil Rights Movement’s tactics are still touted today as some of the most successful forms of protest, the conditions that the Black Power movement was centered around namely the systematic racism in law enforcement and the justice system is what the newer movements such as Black Lives Matter are focusing on. 

Police brutality, particularly against African-Amercians, has been one of the bigger subjects of conversation the last few decades. With the advent of the internet, videos of police brutality against people of color have circulated widely online leading to widespread outcrys of corruption and racism in law enforcement. 

Rodney King Riots | Photo Courtesy of Ron Eisenbeg/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

One of the most notable early cases to go viral was that of the 15 minute beating of Rodney King in the early 90s in Los Angeles. King was an African-American man who was on parole for a robbery. He had just led police on a high speed chase, but after being caught, King was ordered from his car and was then assaulted by several LAPD officers while more than a dozen others stood by watching and commenting on the beating. Only four officers were charged with assault and excessive use of force, but all were acquitted by a predominately white jury. Following the verdict, the city erupted into riots chanting phrases like “No Justice, No Peace” another common protest chant used today. The riots eventually resulted in the resignation of the city police chief as well as the mayor’s decision not to run for a sixth term. In addition, two of the officers were eventually convicted in a civil lawsuit stating that they had violated King’s civil rights. 

All of this is to show that the current Black Lives Matter movement is an amalgamation of all of the injustices and movements that have come before it. The current protest methods and chants used are those that have been tried and true during the Civil Rights Movement and the Rodney King riots. The purpose behind the movement is also very similar to those that have come before it; especially the movement for Black Power. 

It is as imperative as ever to understand the history behind the movement so a thorough understanding of why people are protesting and what they are protesting for can be reached. The basis behind the protests is one for equality and a fight for human rights. It is a fight that has gone on for centuries and will continue to go on unless change is made.

Written by Colin O'Malley

Colin O'Malley is a senior at Mt. Carmel and in charge of the Entertainment section of The Sun.

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