MLK Monday: On Police Brutality

Happy Moltmann Monday, all! In honor of MLK Day, I don’t think our German friend will mind if we spend this post reading some of King’s words. The section I’ve selected is from his 1964 report on the state of civil rights called “Hammer on Civil Rights.”*  He discusses police brutality at length, which, heartbreakingly, is still painfully relevant to us today.

The most tragic and widespread violations occur in the area of police brutality and the enforcement against the Negro of obviously illegal state statutes. For many white Americans in the North there is little comprehension of the grossness of police behavior and its wide practice. The Civil Rights Commission, after a detailed, scholarly and objective study, declared it to be one of the worst manifestations of the Negro’s oppression. The public becomes aware of it only during episodes of nonviolent demonstration, and often concludes that what they have witnessed is an atypical incident of excessive conduct. That the behavior is habitual, not exceptional, is a fact little understood. 

Police brutality, with community support, or at best indifference, is a daily experience for Negroes in all too many areas of the South….

People often wonder why southern demonstrations tend to sputter out after a vigorous beginning and heroic sacrifice. The answer, simply and inescapably, is that naked force has defeated the Negro. A ruling state apparatus, accustomed for generations to act with impunity against him, is able to employ every element of unchecked power…

King then goes on to list off details of armored cars, tanks, tear gas weapons and the extent of local armies to describe what these communities of nonviolence are up against. He continues,

This local army awaits nonviolent demonstrators with undisguised hostility and the familiar trigger-happy eagerness for confrontation.

The inevitable conclusion is that as Negroes have marshaled extraordinary courage to employ nonviolent direct action, they have been left- by the most powerful federal government in the world- almost solely to their own resources to face a massively equipped army. They have endured violence to reveal their plight and to protest it; their government has been able to muster only the minimum courage and determination to aid them. 

This contradiction cries out for resolution.

And it still does. In the last few years, as we have seen police brutality against unarmed African American young men and women skyrocket, we have seen very little justice brought by the state or federal government. What we’ve seen, mostly, is a white response that has predominately been one of dismissal. “This wouldn’t have happened if he had followed orders or been respectful.” (Not true. Read the stories.) “The officer had a right to defend himself.” (Against what? A kid literally running away? Who held the power in these scenarios?) “Look at his criminal record.” (Since when is it American policy to murder someone who has a shoplifting violation? Not to mention the racist and systemic injustice that leads to these criminal records in the first place.)

And so we return to the words of King, who reminds us that those of us who live in relative safety and privilege assume that police brutality is the exception and not perhaps a common experience for people of color. We believe this even after we have heard countless mothers tell us how much they fear for their African American sons when they see them walk out the front door. We believe this after the number of police shootings continues to rise, with seemingly little outrage from those of us who happen to be white and unaffected.

In recent months, we can also hear King’s description of “the familiar trigger-happy eagerness for confrontation” as generally on the rise. When the President-elect is openly endorsed by the KKK, this kind of behavior becomes normalized and white supremacists become emboldened to incite incidents of racial violence.

And we must come to terms with the fact that, still, in 2016, the “government has been able to muster only the minimum courage and determination to aid them.” I don’t mean to disparage the strides that have been made in the Ferguson report, and in police precincts across the nation whose officers are working hard to establish trust in the neighborhoods they patrol. These efforts should be championed and encouraged. But our justice system has, by and large, failed these families and protected these officers. Our national conversation has been dismissive and condescending and blind to our own racism.

So we return to the words of King: this contradiction cries out for resolution. There is a disparity between what we claim as a nation (liberty and justice for all) and what we see in our streets and in our courts and in our systems of oppression. If we want to honor the legacy of Dr. King today, we will not try to easily resolve the tension. We won’t turn away from the glaring disparities between what we want to believe about our country and what is actually true. We will turn our ears toward those who are trying to share their cries for freedom, and we will allow those cries to convince us of the need for both resolve and resolution.

And we will get to work.


If you’re interested in getting involved, Showing Up for Racial Justice is a good place to start. SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. If you’re in Dallas, I’d also encourage you to look at Dallas Faces Race.

*The speech can be found in its totality in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. which is an excellent resource. If you’re new to this conversation, one of the best first steps you can do is to listen. Find people or books or podcasts or Twitter accounts where you can hear a non-white perspective. Here’s one list of books, for starters. (I haven’t read all of them but the ones I’ve read on here are excellent. I’d also add Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy.)


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