Three young African-American women started a blog in 2013 entitled “Black Lives Matter” in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a racist vigilante backed by the police, for the murder of unarmed Black youth Trayvon Martin.
The blog started a movement that took the same name, as young Blacks launched mass actions that broke through the wall of silence concerning police murders of Black people.
Since then, the names of unarmed victims have become known nationally, including Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and many more.
Such murders did not start these past three years. Rather, the long-standing role of the police in keeping the Black communities in line and suppressed, through daily harassment, arbitrary arrests, beatings and killings, has been brought to light.
Another pattern has emerged since these killings have been exposed. In almost every case, the cops involved have gotten away with these murders, or received light punishment.
This has been achieved by prosecutors refusing to bring charges, hung juries when charges are brought, and judges imposing ridiculously light sentences or acquitting the cops in cases where the trial is only heard before a judge.
But it is not only the local and state justice systems involved in this systemic denial of justice. The federal system has recently become an active participant in this pattern, emphasising how it is one aspect of the institutional racism that permeates all of US society.
One example relates to the murder by two white police officers of 25-year-old African American man Jamar Clark in Minneapolis last November. Multiple eyewitnesses testified that Clark was thrown to the ground, handcuffed, then executed.
A series of protests were organised over the following months, including a weeks-long occupation outside the Fourth Police Precinct where the killer cops were headquartered. At one of the protests white supremacists opened fire on a group of Black Lives Matter activists, but no one was hit.
The police went on the offensive to discredit the protesters. The head of the police mutual protection association called them terrorists. He told media that the eyewitnesses to the killing of Clark could be prosecuted for perjury if they came forward in a blatant act of intimidation.
Contradicting eyewitness statements, the cops who shot Clark denied he had been handcuffed.
Then in March, local prosecutor Mile Freeman decided not to bring charges against the two officers, rejecting the testimony of the many eyewitnesses. Freeman accepted the police version that included the assertion that Clark had grabbed one of their guns.
Cameron Clark, Jamar's cousin, said after that decision: “There's blood on Mike Freeman's hands. I can't control what the city — we've been [protesting] for four months. We're tired of this.
“And y'all supposed to be protecting and serving. Y'all are not protecting. Y'all is the biggest gang. Y'all are killing us. And y'all get away with it.”
The federal Department of Justice then “investigated” the case to decide if Clark's civil rights had been violated. The FBI, as the investigating arm of the DOJ, concluded that there was no evidence that Clark's civil rights were violated. No charges were brought against the police.
The decision comes in a context where FBI head James Comey has repeatedly said that the Black Lives Matter protests have crippled the police's ability to do their job.
Federal prosecutor Andrew Lugar announced the decision in late May. He began with crocodile tears, saying: “There are no winners here, and there is no victory for anyone. A young man has died, and it is a tragedy … my heart goes out to [Clark's] family.”
He then went on to disparage the eyewitnesses in defence of the DOJ's finding that Clark's civil rights were not violated.
In a June 2 interview on Democracy Now!, Lena Gardner, a cofounder of Black Lives Matter in Minneapolis, responded: “The first thing I want to say is that I believe the people. I believe community. I believe when people tell me what they saw. I believe that over the accounts of police officers in any situation where they have killed a Black person.
“You can see how even in [Lugar's] language talking about the case, he says Jamar Clark died. Jamar Clark didn't die. He was murdered … And we have countless witnesses say they saw Jamar Clark handcuffed, and they shot him while he was handcuffed.”
The DOJ is also reviewing the case of Eric Garner, the man recorded on film in 2014 being strangled to death by cops in Staten Island, New York City. The video was seen across the country and internationally.
The video shows how the confrontation began with a group of cops harassing Garner for selling individual cigarettes on the street to make a few dollars, supposedly evading pennies worth of taxes. Such harassment for petty “offences” is just one example of daily, pervasive harassment by police in Black communities across the country.
After Garner says, “why are you harassing me?” the video shows the police reacting to such impermissible “talking back” by attacking him in a choke hold as he wheezes “I can't breathe”. They then throw him to the ground and strangle him.
The DOJ recently reported that there was an internal conflict in the department about whether these actions amounted to denying Garner's civil rights. It seems the FBI insists that Garner likely died from natural causes due to previous health problems.
As of this writing, no charges have been brought.
Contrary to Comey's claim that the police have been intimidated, they have been emboldened by not being held accountable. A case in point is the trial and conviction of Jasmine Richards, a Black Lives Matter organiser in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena.
In August last year, Richards was part of a protest against police violence when police arrested a Black woman nearby, who allegedly walked out of a restaurant without paying her bill.
The protesters, who did not know her or her alleged crime, saw the police roughing her up and began shouting. Three days later, Richards was arrested and charged under a law originally known as “felony lynching”.
Grotesquely, this law was originally passed in the era of widespread lynchings of African American. These frequently occurred with white racist mobs attacking police stations where an African American was being held, kidnapping the prisoner, torturing and then hanging them.
So a law originally intended to protect Black prisoners from murder by white racists is used to attack a Black activist protesting police violence — her real “crime” in the eyes of the police.
In the face of protests after Richard's arrest, Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown changed the name of the law, but not the law itself.
The local prosecutor then formally charged Richards under this law. She was subsequently convicted by a jury that contained no Black people. On June 7, Richards was sentenced to 90 days in jail, and three years of probation, under which she will be under intense police scrutiny to find another excuse to re-arrest her.
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