The history of police brutality against black people in America

  • By Multimedia Producer Amani Hughes

The horrific killing of George Floyd – an unarmed black man - at the hands of a white police officer has catapulted the fury over racial injustice in the US back into focus.

Footage of an officer kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck for nine minutes as he pleaded for breath sickened not just the US, but the world, and triggered mass protests.

The killing sparked a “tinder box” – so says Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, and Tom Davies, Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of Sussex – igniting anger and frustrations among black people in the US that were always bubbling under the surface.

“It’s probably the clearest and most shocking footage of something that happens with painful regularity,” Dr Davies told ITV News.

“It was visceral for anyone watching the video and for African Americans it was just too much,” Douglas Flowe, Assistant Professor of History at Washington University, said.

George Floyd died after a police officer kneeled on his neck.

Sadly, George Floyd’s death is another chapter in a long American history of urban unrest, triggered by the treatment of black people by police forces.

“Social media has had an impact of spreading the stories,” Professor Andrews says, pointing to the death of Eric Garner who died after being put in a chokehold by a police officer.

Video footage – in which Garner said he couldn’t breathe 11 times – drew widespread outrage as it showed a NYPD officer pushing Garner’s head into the pavement.

It was the death of Garner and the shooting of Michael Brown – a young black teenager by a white police officer – that was the starting point of the Black Lives Matter protests.

Protesters took to the streets in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 chanting ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ in response to the death of Brown - who they say had his hands up in surrender - an FBI investigation said otherwise.

Protesters took to the streets following the death of Michael Brown. Credit: AP

Since then, there have been the deaths of Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and Philando Castle, among many others.

The names have become as synonymous with police brutality as Rodney King – a black man who was viciously attacked by four police officers in 1992 – leaving him with skull fractures, broken bones and teeth, and permanent brain damage.

“Broadly speaking, throughout US history African Americans have never enjoyed the same relationship with law enforcement as have white Americans,” Dr Davies explains.

“They have more often been the targets of police actions – often violent, predatory, and hostile in nature - than they have been the objects of police protection, particularly in the case of poor and working-class black communities.

"And this history of discriminatory policing is of course a key factor in leading to the situation we see today.”

But to understand the systemic racism that is embedded in police forces in the US, you have to look back at the racial order in the US and the reason this exists in the first place – slavery.

“America was founded upon the principle of reducing Africans to subhuman chattel, and much of our early culture was about solidifying that principle, and maintaining psychologically and physically, for all Americans,” Professor Flowe says.

“It is naïve for anyone to believe that the tremendous centrifugal force of that arrangement could somehow evaporate as soon as slavery ended.”

The acquittal of four police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King sparked protests across LA. Credit: AP

Since the abolition of slavery, stereotypes of black people, in particular black men, have existed – they have been “portrayed, deliberately as a dangerous, violent threat”, Dr Davies explains.

“The widespread phenomenon of lynching was about striking fear into the hearts of African Americans and ‘keeping them in their place’, showing them how white supremacy would work, making clear the idea that black freedom – be it political, economic, social - wouldn’t be accepted,” Dr Davies added.

“A big part of trying to intimidate and control the black community involved both demonising and brutalising black men, first and foremost.”

The stereotype of ‘seeing a black man as a threat’ is one that has never gone away - it’s a long standing trope in American political and social history.

When a police officer stops a black person they are more inclined to be more aggressive – black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people.


“There has been a habit of explaining black death at the hands of police officers as tragic, but necessary to keep the public safe,” Prof Flowe explains.

“The sight of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers has forced everyone to ask the question: how often does this happen in cases that have simply been dismissed as necessary deadly force.”

But in a country where police officers face little to no consequences for their actions – 99% of killings by police from 2013-19 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime – there is no disincentive for an officer to draw his gun.

In 1992, four officers were found not guilty in the beating of Rodney King, no officer has been charged in the death of Eric Garner and most recently, in the death of Breonna Taylor, no officer has been arrested or charged.

Alongside this, the Supreme Court created a legal doctrine around 40 years ago that shields law enforcement and government officials from accountability for constitutional violations – like the right to be free from excessive police force.

The legal doctrine protects government officials from liability for conduct on the job unless they violate "clearly established" constitutional rights.

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, legal experts are calling on the Supreme Court to rethink 'qualified immunity' as they believe the standard victims must meet to hold law enforcement accountable has become exceedingly difficult to reach.


Protesters have also been calling out the militarisation of the police and the use of military equipment – which began under Ronald Reagan.

This has only increased under President Donald Trump who urged law enforcement officials to “dominate” protesters and has called for a more forceful approach.

The militarisation of the police was introduced in the context of the War on Drugs in the 1980s, which incentivised police officers to arrest people on drug charges.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986 gave billions to wage the war on drugs and encouraged mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, Prof Flowe explains.

But instead of going to college campuses where drugs were rife, they targeted black communities.

“This again is another chapter in the history of police treating African Americans different to white,” Dr Davies said.

“The War on Drugs was fought primarily in poor and working class black inner-city neighbourhoods.

“White spaces where drugs were used – such as college campuses – were left alone, they weren’t interested in that.

“They targeted people who had the least social capital, or the least economic potential to defend themselves legally.”

Ronald Reagan oversaw the militarisation of the police. Credit: AP

This helped to further fuel tensions between poor, working class black communities and the police – and made “our communities feel like war zones” – Prof Flowe says.

Police forces failed to understand that crime is systematic – if you are born into an impoverished urban centre, which is predominately black, where there are not many jobs, people rely on welfare and children attend poorly funded public schools, then crime can easily be born out of these social conditions.

Dr Davies explains that this “cyclical problem, which is tied to long-standing discrimination in housing, employment, education and healthcare” has created “pronounced poverty in parts of the US” where police brutality is often the worst.

And there is a lack of understanding of “the impact of society and economic isolation in a capitalist country as a factor of crime”, Prof Flowe says.

“They have placed the focus on punishment and policing, rather than systemic changes for equality," he explained.

Police officers walk enveloped by teargas in Portland. Credit: AP

So how an can police forces change and racial equality be addressed?

National police reform is needed and the outlaw of certain practices, Prof Flowe and Dr Davies say.

The campaign group – 8cantwait – points to eight policies which they believe will help to reduce killings by police and violence, these include:

  • Banning chokeholds and strangleholds

  • Requiring officers to de-escalate situations, where possible

  • Require warning before shooting

  • Require officers to exhaust all other alternatives before shooting

  • Require officers to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers

  • Ban shooting at moving vehicles

  • Establish a Force Continuum that restricts the most severe types of force to the most extreme situations

  • Require officers to report each time they use force or threaten to use force against civilians.

Dr Davies says there needs to be a greater sense there will be consequences for police officers and their violent actions.

“Maybe if we see strong decisive sentences and punishments handed out to the police officers in the death of George Floyd, then that might prompt some change,” he added.

But Prof Flowe says reform is also needed so police officers “foster a new understanding of that fact that crime is systematic.”

“It is not simply individual and deep systemic solutions are required to handle all social problems,” he adds.

“Force should be the very last resort for the worst emergency moments.”