The Black Lives Movement has sought to highlight examples of everyday racism experienced by people of colour in the US, and how this racism can be fatal for people of colour owing to arbitrary violence inflicted by police and how state institutions fail victims.

Black Lives Matter is not a new social movement; it’s been around since at least 2013. But in 2020, it found international prominence following the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man by US police in May. Floyd’s killing and the widespread protests that followed brought attention to the innumerable other victims of police violence in the US that were otherwise lost in the 24×7 news cycle.

Among those victims were Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician in Louisville, Kentucky, who was shot dead by local police officers in her own home and Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man, who had died of suffocation in Rochester, New York, after police officers placed a hood over his head and pinned him to the ground. Activists have long pushed for accountability in the US police and justice system, which they say disproportionately targets people of colour and immigrants in the country.

Why are these cases important?

The cases involving the killing of Taylor, Floyd and Prude have highlighted the severity of the issue of police violence in the US, rooted in systemic racism and discrimination against people of colour and the lack of accountability in the police and justice systems in the US. Activists say these issues have existed for years, but the powers given to the police and court system in the US have largely protected state institutions from any reckoning and have prevented families of those killed from getting any justice or closure.

The Black Lives Movement has sought to highlight examples of everyday racism experienced by people of colour in the US, and how this racism can be fatal for people of colour owing to arbitrary violence inflicted by police and how state institutions fail victims. The New York Times recently published a news article that investigated how local police tried to suppress city records that showed how police tried to build a false narrative around Prude’s case in an attempt to cover up an arbitrary detention and subsequent killing.

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Who was Breonna Taylor and why was she killed?

Breonna Taylor was only 26-years-old when she was killed after being shot at least five times in her home by police officials in Louisville, Kentucky, during what the police later called a mistaken drugs raid.

A little after midnight on March 13, local police officers entered Taylor’s apartment, executing what is known as a no-knock search warrant, a court document that allows police officers to enter a residential home without permission or warning. Taylor and her partner were reportedly asleep when the police entered, after which an altercation occurred where gunfire was exchanged between Taylor’s partner, a registered gun-owner, and the police. The police officers who had fired at least 27 bullets claimed they had returned fire after an officer was shot and wounded.

During this exchange of fire, Taylor was shot at eight times and later died of the injuries. Although police had claimed they had entered Taylor’s property in a drugs raid, no drugs were found in her home. Taylor’s family later filed a lawsuit on grounds of battery, wrongful death, excessive force and gross negligence by the officers, whom they claimed were not looking for Taylor or her partner, but another individual who did not live in Taylor’s neighbourhood but elsewhere. Taylor’s family also accused Louisville police of intentionally targeting the neighbourhood in an attempt to gentrify it, an allegation that the police and the city’s mayor have denied.

Almost six months after Taylor was killed and amid continuous calls for justice, it was reported this past week that Louisville officials have agreed to pay the Taylor family USD $12 million in a  settlement agreement. The police officers involved in Taylor’s killing were neither arrested and nor charged in the case.

In June, one of the officers involved in the raid, Brett Hankison, was fired and the two other officers, Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove, were placed on administrative leave. After another case involving police arbitrarily shooting at individuals, Louisville’s police chief was fired. News reports suggest that a grand jury may decide whether criminal charges should be filed against any of the officers involved in Taylor’s death.

However, Taylor’s family and activists say that little justice has been done because the police officers have neither been charged or arrested and the financial settlement cannot compensate for Taylor’s death.

Also read | #BlackLivesMatter: ‘There has never been a reckoning for (American) policing’s slave-patrol origins’

Who was Daniel Prude and why was he killed?

In March this past year, Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man, died of suffocation in Rochester, New York, after police officers placed a hood over his head and pinned him to the ground. Official city records show that police officials had desperately tried to brush under the rug the circumstances in which Prude had died, because only weeks later, streets across the United States had erupted in protests against police brutality following George Flyod’s killing.

A New York Times report revealed that the police department had tried to hide the cause of Prude’s death from the public and feared a “potentially violent blowback” if police body camera footage was released to the Prude family lawyer and ever made public. The Times investigation revealed that police reports concerning the incident were altered to deliberately project Prude as a “suspect”, to cover up the violence that the police officers engaged in, where they pinned Prude naked and hooded to the ground before he stopped breathing, caused due to the hood placed on his head and being restrained by the police. Prude had to be placed on life support, but later died after his family removed the support. Police officials had initially claimed that Prude had died of a drug overdose, a claim that was strongly rejected by his family.

Prude’s death has only been recently reported, months after he died, and reports suggest that he had been suffering from mental health problems. The BBC reported that a “medical examiner had ruled his death as a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint”, with intoxication by the drug PCP, a contributing factor”.

The family filed a lawsuit on grounds of wrongful death and demanded that all police records concerning Prude’s death be given to the family in a move under the Freedom of Information Act request. Rochester police claimed to have conducted their own internal investigation and denied any wrongdoing by the officers, saying their action was “appropriate and consistent with their training”.

The family reported that the Rochester city government, possibly afraid of the consequences of the footage of Prude’s death from being made public, tried to prevent them from accessing the footage, by placing several conditions to ensure that the video was not publicly released.

After footage of Prude’s death was finally released on September 2, protests have occurred in Rochester against the police and the city government. In addition to protesting against police brutality, the protesters have also criticised the lack of action against the police officers involved in Prude’s death or even the subsequent cover-up by officials. The New York Times report said that not only was no action taken against Rochester police, the deputy chief involved in the cover-up who was initially forced to step down after the release of the videos, was named acting police chief. The other officers involved in Prude’s killing have only been suspended.

What do these killings say about US policing?

These killings have highlighted the racist and violent origins of policing in the US. In an interview with Vox, Khalil Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, says, “The notion of criminality in the broadest sense has to do with slave rebellions and uprisings, the effort of black people to challenge their oppression in the context of slavery. Slave patrols were established to maintain, through violence and the threat of violence, the submission of enslaved people. But we really don’t get notions of black criminality in the way that we think of them today until after slavery in 1865.”

Muhammad states that prior to the civil war, in the American South, all expressions of freedom by black people, whether it was in the case of political rights or economic rights or even social rights, were “subject to criminal sanction”. “Whites could accuse black people who wanted to vote of being criminals. People who wanted to negotiate fair labor contracts could be defined as criminals.

A criminal justice system developed in the American South that was “racist and thoroughly white supremacist”.

“The problem is the way policing was built and what it’s empowered to do, which is — to put it in terms that are resonant in this moment — they’ve been policing the essential workers of America,” says Muhammad in the Vox interview. “And the fact that black people over-index as the essential workers of America, when in fact, that was what their presence here was meant to be about: to provide the labor to build wealth in America, and then the only form of freedom that they really ever had, which was the freedom to work for mostly white people.”

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