A Brief History of Police Brutality: A Workshop by Linda Wiggins-Chavis

This summer Bethlehem Area Public Library (BAPL) hosted a variety of anti-racist educational programing to bring depth and specificity to Bethlehem’s conversations about race and anti-racism. One such program was a series of workshops on theories and histories of race and racial justice, facilitated by teacher, activist, and writer, Linda Wiggins-Chavis. Though the workshops are over, the spirit and importance of having such dialogues about the structures of racism are as crucial now as ever, especially in the context of the insubstantial charges leveled against Breonna Taylor’s murderers, and the recent excessive police use of force against Roxanne Moore in Reading, PA. In this article, Southsider reflects on the information Linda Wiggins-Chavis brought to our community in her workshop entitled “The Racist History of Policing and the Gradual Militarization of the Police,” and how this deep history of American policing can help our community to make crucial legislation and funding decisions that will eliminate devastating police brutality.

Linda Wiggins-Chavis began the conversation about the historical development of police brutality by describing the creation and actions of the slave patrols, begun in the 1700s. The slave patrols enforced the slave laws, which regulated the movements, activities, and punishments for enslaved people with the clear agenda of subjugating revolts or escape, and thus, keeping structures of slavery in place. These slave patrols were implemented by law in most Southern states, in many cases directly evolving into police departments as time went on. After the Civil War, slave patrols ceased to exist in name, but scholars trace how their agenda simply transferred to the less overt, or even covert, purview of the state militia, the federal military, and the Klu Klux Klan. Evidently, the inception of policing in the United States was directly about regulating and controlling Black bodies.

A slide from Linda Wiggins-Chavis’ workshop illustrating high profile examples of police brutality and manipulation.

Though Wiggins-Chavis didn’t dwell extensively on the legacy of lynchings by the KKK and civilians following the Civil War, it is a crucial piece of the history of anti-Black violence that still has traumatic reverberations. With the gradual decline of lynching violence in the South in the 1930s and 1940s, law enforcement often leaned on coercion and torture to elicit false confessions from Black victims. Rather than outright death, this new tactic of controlling Black bodies was about forcing Black individuals to falsely implicate themselves and thus suffer years in jail in order to escape continued police violence. Such torture—including beatings, sexual abuse, and threats—went under the radar, but functioned to allow the white police force to dictate the narrative of black criminality.  It didn’t matter if a Black individual was guilty or not as the police department had tactics to make it seem as if they always were. The imprisonment, torture, false trial, and execution of George Stinney, Jr. in 1944 is an example of these tactics. These false confession tactics persist into the present day too, with notable stories, including the false confessions and imprisonment of The Central Park 5. In another example, the false confession and imprisonment of Kalief Browder ultimately resulted in Browder dying by suicide.

Wiggins-Chavis contextualizes the beginning of the current militarization of the police with the War on Drugs rhetoric of the Nixon administration. Couched in the narrative of cleaning up America from the terrifying disruption of drug use, the War on Drugs criminalized drugs racially, imposing laws that opened up new ways to jail and brutalize Black Americans. For example, no-knock warrants and “stop and frisk” laws infringed on de-escalating steps, such as knocking, and reified the role of police bias and stereotyping of individuals based on appearance as a legitimate way to police. Overcriminalization put incredible numbers of nonviolent offenders in jails, which only served to dehumanize and isolate them, often resulting in exacerbating their trauma in ways that made it harder for previously incarcerated individuals to resist recidivism. Other policies that played a huge role in the expansion of the “legitimate” powers of the police included mandatory minimums and the three strikes law, both of which function as extreme threats that allow police to coerce offenders to bypass fair trial and accept plea deals, regardless of guilt. 

A slide illustrating the intentionality of the War on Drugs as anti-Black.

In the 1960s, and escalating in the 1980s, policing experienced indirect militarization. Rather than the military being deployed for domestic policing, standing police agencies took on more and more characteristics of an army, largely due to Pentagon-supplied equipment that allowed for an escalation in force. This militarization of the police is encoded in law. Called “Program 1033,” this act, beginning in 1990 and 1991, authorized the transfer of excess Department of Defense property—for example, military vehicles, assault rifles, and combat gear—to state and local law enforcement. A graph that Wiggins-Chavis borrowed from a New York Times report illustrates the absurdity of being so excessively armed for such minor crimes:

Wiggins-Chavis sourced a graph from the New York Times to illustrate the overwhelming misuse of S.W.A.T. force for drug raids.

The historical legacy of slavery, and the various ways in which white America has sought to maintain it’s control over resources and power by continuing to subjugate Black people in new forms, is important for understanding that the proliferation of various forms of policing that have been noted by Wiggins-Chavis in this workshop were not new, but rather evolving tactics of anti-Blackness that continue to this day. In other words, not only were slave patrols and the KKK racist forms of policing, but so is the War on Drugs, police militarization, torture and forced confession, and mass incarceration. Wiggins-Chavis quotes Kevin Gannon in one slide, to make this point: “There has never been a period in our history where the law and order branch of the state has not operated against the freedoms, the liberties, the options, the choices that have been available for the Black community, generally speaking.”

Wiggins-Chavis cited research by Fagan and Campbell that since 2013 police officers in the United States have killed over 1,000 civilians each year. Black suspects are more than twice as likely to be killed. Much of the world now knows many of their names: Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Micheal Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile…but will this horrific form of racism continue, now that it is more visible? In our own communities in the Lehigh Valley and beyond, this history of a police system built to control and enact violence on Black people should make us take a very serious look at what policing should look like in the future, and how our funding choices can make the changes that so clearly need to happen. Wiggins-Chavis’ educational workshops offered a glimpse into the history of pain and violence that our country has enacted on Black people and people of color through the policing system. The next step is to act in our own communities today, so that what happened to Roxanne Moore in Reading does not happen again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *