In September 1957, seven members of the Ku Klux Klan abducted Judge Aaron, a Black man living in Birmingham Alabama, before beating, castrating, and drowning him in a creek. His torture and execution was one of thousands – part of the well-documented, yet largely ignored reign of terror carried out against Blacks in the United States over decades. Much of the terrorism has been carried out by vigilantes unhindered by state authorities, while others have been carried out under the guise of policing.
Pick among dozens of American cities, and it becomes evident that sixty years later, the terrorism continues. As just one example, the most recent known event in Austin took place on December 12, 2017. There, Austin Police officers beat Jason Donald outside a downtown convenience store. Fortunately for Jason, there were witnesses. If not for a bystander who recorded the attack, his life may have ended just as so many others have – in sickening violence.
Like members of the Ku Klux Klan, the police who brutalized Jason wore masks. The officers demonstrated a zeal for violence and anti-Blackness that is reminiscent of the racism that Ernest Green and Charlie Langin faced when lynched in 1942 Mississippi, that Judge Aaron faced in 1957 Birmingham, that cab driver John Smith faced when beaten by police in 1967 New Jersey, that Michael Donald faced when murdered in 1981 Alabama, that Rodney King endured when beaten by police in 1991 Los Angeles, and that many of the 223 Blacks killed by police in 2017 faced as well.
While individuals who commit such violent acts should be held accountable, impacted communities should expand their focus to the local governments – the city councils, commissions and police department that empower them. What sense does it make to condemn individual slave owners who murdered human beings, yet ignore those who wrote the slave codes that allowed such violence? Will we remember only the cruelty of the Klan members who stole Judge Aaron’s last breath or will we remember that Governor George Wallace pardoned them? Will we today focus solely on individual officers, or will we also make connections to the training, procedures and policies that individual officers follow?
As we endure ongoing state-sponsored violence, will concerned citizens call only for the termination of officers, or will there be a recognition that those on a City Council chamber dais or holding the office of Mayor are responsible as well. Will we insist that elected officials divest from policing that results in brutalization and murder? Will we demand that city officials take further steps to develop police accountability? Or will the story continue as it has for centuries, a tale in which government – tasked with upholding democracy – continues to tacitly endorse violence by men in masks?
Njera Keith is the founder of Black Sovereign Nation, an Austin, Texas based pro-Black, anti-capitalist collective that focuses on developing autonomy in Black communities.