In the 1780’s, the British Society for the Abolition of Slavery adopted as its official seal a woodcut of a kneeling slave above a banner that read “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” More than a hundred years later, Black sanitation workers marching in Memphis answered the slave’s question with signs worn around their necks that read “I Am a Man.” Today, 50 years after the passage of the civil rights acts, Black people are once again in the streets holding signs asserting their basic humanity, reminding a forgetful nation that Black Lives Matter. The fact that these words still need to be uttered speaks volumes regarding where we stand at this moment in our history. Just as lynchings were not the only thing wrong with the old Jim Crow system—but merely the ugliest, most frightening reflection of it—today’s police killings reflect the unrelenting punitiveness of a new system of racial and social control in this country, a new Jim Crow.
It is common to hear people say racial progress has been made but “we still have a long way to go.” In reality, we’re no longer traveling the same road as Ella Baker and Martin Luther King, Jr. Our nation has slashed budgets for education, job training, economic development and drug treatment while investing billions in prisons and militarized police. A penal system unprecedented in world history has been born. Millions have been arrested and stripped of basic civil and human rights.
Police killings of unarmed Black men are not an isolated problem; they are the logical outcome of a system predicated on the notion that some lives simply don’t matter.