Terrance Heath

An Unbroken Line of Violence

Filed By Terrance Heath | February 06, 2015 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Eric Garner, extrajudicial killing, extralegal killing, lynching, Michael Brown, racism, Trayvon Martin, violence

In ten years of blogging, much of my writing comes down to telling stories and stitching them together into a bigger context. It's been my thing for awhile now, because it just makes sense to me. Individual words combine to make sentences. Sentences combine to make paragraphs, and paragraphs combine to create full-fledged stories. Stories that seem separate from one another are linked together through time by recurring themes.

After Michael Brown was shot to death by officer Darren Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, I began gathering similar stories of unarmed black men killed by police officers. Eventually, I decided to put them into a timeline in chronological order.

Each story I came across led me to several more I hadn't heard of before, until I found lists of such deaths going back several decades. Each time I came across a new story, I researched it and added it to the timeline.

At some point, my timeline reached all the way back to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. Neither was killed by a police officer, but by private citizens acting as vigilantes -- as a law unto themselves. I couldn't leave their deaths out of my timeline, because I saw them in the same context as the deaths of Michael Brown, John Crawford, and Eric Garner.

With them, I began including extra-legal killings in the timeline.

Opening the door to extra-legal killings raised a question. How far back would this timeline go? Around that time, I came across this quote by Angela Davis:

"There is an unbroken line of police violence in the United States that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery, the aftermath of slavery, the development of the Ku Klux Klan. There is so much history of this racist violence that simply to bring one person to justice is not going to disturb the whole racist edifice."

Extra-legal and extra-judicial killings of black men and women go back centuries.

I'd started the timeline with the most recent police killings. Eventually, I expanded the timeline to include a number of lynchings -- extra-judicial killings that often took place with the implicit approval or explicit participation of law enforcement, and for which few participants were ever punished.

I started with lynching victims whose deaths were included on Wikipedia. As I came across more names, I started researching stories, and entered into the timeline those for which I could find information. I poured over stories that had a familiar ring. The "black brute" stereotype haunted the stories of lynchings going from Reconstruction all the way up to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others.

noose.jpgAdding lynchings to the timeline brought me to the murder of Emmett Till, where the story of lynching in America overlapped with the murders of civil rights activists. I started with the Southern Poverty Law Center's list of civil rights martyrs.

I soon realized the enormity of the project I'd started. I came across a partial list of African-American lynching victims that contained 2,162 names. Meanwhile, every week seemed to bring new stories to add to the timeline. I learned that the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project had a list of 122 Civil Rights-era cold cases, containing the names of victims whose deaths may have been racially motivated. The SPLC list, "The Forgotten," includes the names of 74 men and women who died between 1954 and 1968.

As I continue to review these lists and add the cases for which I find information, my hope will be to add names and faces to the"unbroken line of violence" Davis spoke of.

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