“We Charge Genocide”

Following the end of World War II, the U.S. government was increasingly sensitive to international criticism of domestic racial tensions, the “American dilemma” of liberal values coexisting with deep oppression.

Capitalizing on this atmosphere in 1951, the Civil Rights Congress—a leftist rights group with roots in organized labor—presented “We Charge Genocide” to the United Nations in Paris. The book-length report offered summaries of hundreds of cases of lynching and police brutality from 1945 to 1951, as well as a rationale for why the U.S. government should be held accountable for the deaths under the terms of the UN’s Genocide Convention.

Among these assertions, it drew a direct line from lynching to contemporary policing:

Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet. To many an American the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative. We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.

Signatories of “We Charge Genocide” included W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, William Patterson, and relatives of murdered black citizens. Its sponsoring organization, the Civil Rights Congress was peopled with leftist activists, labor organizers, and members of the Communist Party-USA. The State Department moved to suppress the report, and the United Nations never formally acknowledged its receipt. Activists’ passports were revoked. A few years later, the Civil Rights Congress would collapse under anti-communist pressure.

Many scholars have pointed out the ways anti-communism damaged the civil rights movement. But the flip side of the Cold War record is too often forgotten: the incorporation of the Bill of Rights to the states.

Memories of World War II and the ideological battle with the Soviets rendered the “Gestapo tactics” of local police more distasteful to the public as well as the justices. Through the middle of the century, the Supreme Court grew less and less willing to allow states to decide for themselves whether their police forces must protect the guarantees offered to criminal suspects in the Bill of Rights.

Little recognized as landmark victories for the civil rights movement—though in fact they were—a series of cases aimed to control police conduct and thereby extend the many constitutional protections for accused criminals. These rights include freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, a privilege against self-incrimination, and protection against cruel and unusual punishments.

Prominent examples of these rulings are Mapp v. Ohio (1961) which forbade the use in court of evidence gotten through unconstitutional searches; and Miranda v. Arizona (1966), which required police to remind defendants of their rights to have a lawyer and refuse to give testimony against themselves.

Disproportionately policed and arrested, minorities were also far more likely to have their rights as criminal defendants violated. Thus rights leaders hailed these court decisions as victories for their people, just as they had hailed Brown v. Board of Education.

And just as state governments implemented policies of massive resistance against school integration, law enforcement bodies resisted reforms to their systems of criminal justice.

In Los Angeles, for example, Police Chief William H. Parker shielded his notoriously brutal and racist police force from court directives to stop their violent witness interrogations and to start using search warrants. Parker railed against “lenient” judges who threw out illegally obtained evidence and campaigned loudly for state laws to circumvent the court rulings.

In the case of Los Angeles, the dismal relations between city police and minority communities had been evident for more than a decade when riots erupted in the Watts neighborhood in 1965. Drawing national media attention, the Watts riots and the brute force used in the same year against protesters in Selma, Alabama, presented two unsavory sides of the same civil rights issue.

Nonviolent protesters in the Deep South confronted the police brutality issue in the most literal sense, placing their bodies in harm’s way. Organizers became police targets. The notion of police as guardians of the public and impartial enforcers of the law grew more difficult to maintain as violent images from both ends of the country played to mass audiences on the nightly news.

Urban Disorder and Federal Response

Police violence was often the match that ignited urban riots in the ’Sixties. In July 1964, Harlem sank into chaos after a veteran police lieutenant shot dead a 15-year-old black male. In Newark in 1967, the arrest and beating of a black cab driver led to an angry protest outside the police station, which morphed into several days of burning, looting, and police and civilian casualties. Detroit’s fateful 1967 riot that claimed 43 lives and shut down the city began with a police raid on a party and the decision to detain and transport dozens of revelers.

The Lyndon Johnson administration responded to the riots by calling for programs that would attack the root causes of poverty and despair in the cities. He said his War on Poverty was also a War on Crime. Richard Nixon ran campaign ads featuring scenes from the riots and promising to impose order.

Johnson created a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, which found in a 20-city survey that police practices ranked as a “deeply held grievance” among rioters at the highest level of intensity, followed closely by unemployment and poor housing. Members of the Civil Rights Commission, also a federal advisory body, had been reporting this problem for years. Dwight Eisenhower had established the commission to monitor and recommend policy related to civil-rights issues. Its first major report, rendered in 1961, included riveting accounts of police brutality and death cases. It also detailed the ongoing struggles of the Civil Rights Division through the 1950s to prosecute police who beat, killed, and otherwise trampled the rights of black Americans.

Following a string of shooting and beating deaths by the Houston Police Department in the mid-1970s, Texas Monthly magazine published this issue featuring a photo illustration of police officers as members of a gang (left). "Justice" was one of five civil-rights issues studied by the Civil Rights Commission in this 1961 report (cover pictured). It focused narrowly and frankly on the problem of continued police brutality toward minorities (right).

The Civil Rights Commission continued its work during the 1960s and 1970s. It helped the civil rights movement and liberal administrations secure victories in school desegregation, voting rights, and fair employment. But the persistence of police brutality confounded and frustrated the commission.

Highly publicized episodes of police misconduct during the 1970s revealed cracks in the foundations of the nation’s law-and-order regime under Nixon.

Augusta, Georgia police killed three rioters and three bystanders, all black, in early 1970. Responding to destructive student demonstrations on campus, Mississippi State Troopers fired 250 rounds into a women’s dorm at Jackson State College in May 1970, killing two young black men. Protests rippled through New York in 1972 after police in Staten Island shot dead an 11-year-old fleeing a stolen car on foot. Black leaders in Memphis, a city long plagued by police brutality, called for a boycott on white businesses after police shot dead three black suspects aged 14, 17, and 22 in separate incidents over a 12-day period in 1972.

A rash of incidents in the Southwest through the 1970s proved Mexican Americans were also disproportionately deprived of civil liberties and subjected to police violence. In 1979, the New York Times noted that weak results from President Jimmy Carter’s Justice Department in prosecuting Texas police in death and brutality cases was a betrayal of Hispanic support in the 1976 election.

Carter, at least, supported the continuing existence of the Civil Rights Commission. By 1980, New York, Miami, Houston, and Philadelphia topped a list of places where “incidents of excessive use of force by police have triggered widespread tension and community unrest,” according to the commission.

Today we have a different list: Chicago, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Cleveland. All are sites of recent unrest originating in killings of unarmed black males by police officers.

The patterns of violence and disorder were the same then as they are now. Police were summoned to a run-down neighborhood. A black suspect resisted arrest (or fled) and officers responded with deadly force. Community members, anguished and with nothing much to lose, took to the streets in protest, their civil disobedience frequently morphing into riots.

To end this violence, the civil rights commissioners in 1980 pleaded for reforms, such as requiring that police forces reflect the demographic makeup of their jurisdictions, modifying federal code to make it easier to prosecute officers for misconduct, and responding more effectively to brutality complaints.

“Violations of the civil rights of our people by some members of police departments [are] a serious national problem,” they wrote, urging steps to “make it clear that the Federal Government intends to act in an increasingly vigorous manner to end intolerable practices.”

By the time the Civil Rights Commission presented its report on police practices to Carter, the nation was becoming less sympathetic to civil rights issues. President-elect Ronald Reagan soon moved to curtail the commission’s funding and narrow its scope, replacing several commissioners with conservative allies focused on implementing “colorblind” policies such as reversing affirmative action. In what was surely a compromise, the commission titled its 1983 report, “Who’s Guarding the Guardians?”

The Politics of Oversight

The first significant legislation on the federal oversight of state and local police is contained in the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the same legislation that has recently made presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton targets of criticism for the bill’s widening and fortification of the carceral state.

The same legislation, however, authorizes the Department of Justice to step in when a police force seems to engage in a “pattern or practice” that deprives people of constitutional rights. The federal government has conducted wide-ranging investigations of a handful of state police and dozens of local police forces under this law, including Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Cincinnati.

One former lawyer with the Civil Rights Division recalled that such a law had been “always on the wish list” but only became possible after the Rodney King beating incident in Los Angeles in 1991.

Yet when confronted about the crime bill, neither Clinton has reminded voters that the act also contained these landmark provisions for reforming police departments—provisions that have been used far more by Democratic than by Republican administrations. This suggests policing the police is not a winning issue for the general-election voter.

The history of police brutality highlights its durability as a social problem and a political issue. Moreover, ending police brutality is an unfinished chapter of the civil rights movement. Activists still want to win for minorities freedom from the oppression of fear caused by this potent, yet too-often misused, form of local power.