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A history of police violence in America

  • 1967: Newark race riot begins due to injuries inflicted by police on John Smith

    The Newark race riot began when white police officers severely beat a Black cab driver named John Smith during a traffic stop. The protest against the police brutality turned violent, and 26 people died, with many others injured during the four-day clash.

    [Pictured: A man gestures with his thumb down to an armed National Guardman, during a protest in the Newark race riots, Newark, New Jersey, July 14, 1967.]

  • 1967: Racial profiling and police brutality culminate in Detroit riots

    The Detroit Riots are considered among the most destructive in American history. After incidents of “white flight,” where white people fled to suburban areas after Black people integrated Detroit’s urban areas, the area was densely populated with African Americans and heavily policed. Police conducted a bar raid, and while they were making arrests, a riot broke out that lasted for days.

    [Pictured: A federal soldier stands guard in a Detroit street on July 25, 1967, as buildings are burning.]

  • 1967: Federal Kerner Commission admits that ‘police action’ is the cause of urban rebellions of 1960s

    In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson organized the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also called the Kerner Commission) to investigate the causes of recent major riots. The commission found common denominators at the heart of many protests/rebellions of the ‘60s: white racism and police brutality. However, conservative Americans and Johnson did not eagerly accept these findings.

    [Pictured: The Kerner Commission in session, Washington D.C., 1967.]

  • 1969: New York City riots after a police raid on Stonewall Inn

    On the night of June 27, 1969, members of the LGBTQ+ community were visiting the Stonewall Inn, one of the few openly LGBTQ-friendly bars in New York City when the police raided it. Fed up with being marginalized, members and allies of the community gathered by the hundreds to riot in protest of police harassment, galvanizing the gay rights movement.

    [Pictured: Police force people back outside the Stonewall Inn as tensions escalate the morning of June 28, 1969.]

  • 1971: Death of George Jackson in prison sparks controversy

    George Jackson was a Black activist and author who was imprisoned in 1959 for stealing $70 from a gas station and killed in an alleged escape attempt. He organized sit-ins against the segregated cafeterias and taught martial arts to fight back against abusive prison guards. A member and leader of the Black Panther Party, Jackson had achieved worldwide fame for writing “Soledad Brother” while in prison.

    [Pictured: The funeral of Black Panther George Jackson at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, Oakland, California, 1971.]

     

  • June 18, 1971: War on Drugs campaign kicks off

    The War on Drugs was used as a justification for increased policing and arrests and harsher prison sentences, largely targeting Black communities. Former Nixon-era domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman later confirmed that the effort was designed to hurt Black families.

    [Pictured: Suspect frisked after arrest in drug raid in Colorado in 1971.]

  • 1970s–1980s: Spike in urban crime perpetuates stereotypes and creates 'broken windows' policies

    With institutionalized racism in place, racially charged politics saw incarceration numbers and urban crime rates begin to rise in the 1970s and ‘80s, further perpetuating stereotypes. The “broken windows” theory was introduced during this time, which stated that small crimes would lead to bigger crimes if not punished. Police took license to enforce punishments on small “offenses” like jaywalking or unauthorized barbeques.

    [Pictured: Police officer holds a "suspect" on a car in New York City, 1980.]

  • 1991: Video of police officers beating Rodney King sparks outrage

    Video evidence of three policemen brutally beating 25-year-old Rodney King made its way around the country. The acquittal of all four officers involved (three of them white) sparked riots and protests across Los Angeles due to widespread anger and frustration with LAPD violence toward the city’s Black community.

    [Pictured: Nationally televised footage of the Rodney King beating.]

  • 1992: Riots begin in Los Angeles due to Rodney King beating and Latasha Harlins killing

    Along with the acquittal of the officers in the Rodney King case, another incident is thought to have helped fuel the L.A. Riots. In March 1991, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was fatally shot in the back of the head by a Korean store owner after she was accused of stealing juice. Harlins had money in her hand at the time of the shooting. The store owner received probation and a $500 fine.

    [Pictured: LAPD officers arrest rioters on April 29, 1992.]

  • 1994: Congress passes the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994

    This crime bill called for the Department of Justice “to review the practices of law enforcement agencies that may be violating people's federal rights.” While the bill was intended to signal an effort to reform police departments, it ultimately caused more harm than good for low-income Black families by enforcing “tough on crime” provisions.

    [Pictured: A 1990s Atlanta police officer shines his torchlight into the face of a man lying on the ground.]