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A history of police violence in America

  • 1919: The 'Red Summer' of 1919

    A Black teenager drowned in Lake Michigan in Chicago after being stoned by a group of young white people for crossing a segregated barrier of the lake. After law officials refused to arrest the white man who eyewitnesses said caused the murder, a race riot broke out and lasted for weeks on Chicago’s South Side. Many died, and Black homes were destroyed.

    [Pictured: A victim is stoned and bludgeoned under a corner of a house during the 1919 race riots in Chicago.]

  • 1929: President Herbert Hoover establishes the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement

    The NCLOE or “Wickersham Commission” was designed to investigate crime related to prohibition, in addition to policing tactics. Between 1931 and 1932, the commission published the findings of its investigation in 14 volumes, one of which was titled “Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement” and said that police frequently used torture methods to enforce the law. Instead of reform, officials declared a “war on crime” and aimed to militarize the police.

    [Pictured: President Hoover meets with his newly created enforcement commission.]

  • May 30, 1937: Chicago police shoot 10 protesters at Republic Steel Plant protests

    Laborers continued to fight for their rights well into the early 20th century, and when the Republic Steel Plant’s leaders refused to sign a labor contract for their workers, protests ensued. The Chicago Police Department demanded protesters to disperse, and when they didn’t, the department used tear gas on demonstrators and shot and killed 10 people.

    [Pictured: Photograph titled "The Chicago Memorial Day Incident."]

  • 1943: LAPD officers complicit in attacks against Mexican Americans during Zoot Suit Riots

    A clash between Mexican Americans and white servicemen broke out, resulting in the death of a U.S sailor. In response, mobs of U.S servicemen carrying weapons brutally attacked anyone wearing a zoot suit, an outfit popular among some Mexican Americans that became a racist stereotype. The attackers went into Latino communities in Los Angeles, stripped people of their clothes and beat them as LAPD often looked on from the sidelines, arresting the victims after the fact.

    [Pictured: Gangs of American sailors and marines armed with sticks during the Zoot Suit Riots, Los Angeles, June 1943.]

  • 1882–1968: Lack of law enforcement and government intervention during lynchings and murders

    There were 5,000 documented accounts of Black people being lynched across the U.S. South during the Jim Crow era, and it's been more than 100 years since the first anti-lynching bill was proposed and continues to be debated today. While many Black advocates brought gruesome evidence of the lynchings to the attention of government officials, nothing was done to designate the brutality as a hate crime. And while lynching by definition decreased in numbers in the ‘60s, modern-day lynching continues.

    [Pictured: Protesters marched on the streets of Washington carrying signs urging control and halting of the lynching of blacks in Washington, 1922.]


  • 1956: COINTELPRO is founded to monitor radicals and activists

    FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover encouraged COINTELPRO, a group founded to discredit organizations disruptive to U.S politics, to focus on tools that taught about Black power and warned of a “Black messiah,” or leader of Black nationalism. As a result, the FBI infiltrated Black organizations like the Black Panther Party. Hoover even targeted Black-owned bookstores and their products, as the movement was seen as a threat.

    [Pictrued: John Edgar Hoover, FBI director.]

  • 1960s: Rising militarization of police forces around the US

    In the civil rights era, police departments around the country started to become more and more militarized. The first SWAT team emerged in Los Angeles during this time after a series of high-profile raids against groups like the Black Panther Party. Soon, SWAT teams spread across the country, and the federal government began to blur the lines between soldiers and policemen.

    [Pictrued: Civil rights marchers stay close to the ground as Mississippi Highway Patrolmen use tear gas on the protestors, Canton, Mississippi, 1960s.]

  • 1963: Over 250,000 attend March on Washington

    One of the most well-known moments in civil rights history, the March on Washington was a nationwide outcry from Black Americans who marched to stop racial discrimination and police brutality and gain job equality. The emotional event is where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream'' speech.

    [Pictured: Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the historic March on Washington.]

  • 1965: Watts Riots highlight tensions between police and Black Americans

    A young Black motorist named Marquette Frye was pulled over by police for suspicion of being intoxicated. Onlookers gathered as racial tensions between the Black community and law enforcement ran high. As things grew more contentious between the two groups, more police officers rushed to the scene, and violence ensued, leading to a six-day riot.

    [Pictured: Armed National Guardsmen force a line of Black men to stand against the wall of a building during the Watts race riots, Los Angeles, August 1965.]

  • 1965: Special Weapons and SWAT team established in LA

    LAPD established the "Special Weapons and Tactics," or SWAT teams, in response to the Watts uprisings that year, militarizing police tactics. The program expanded across the country and was used heavily to quash riots and enforce military order over any uprisings.

    [Pictured: Armed police patrolling the streets of Los Angeles during the Watts race riots.]