Important Moments in the Fight Against Unjust Policing and the Need for Police Reform

Important Moments in the Fight Against Unjust Policing and the Need for Police Reform

In this second installment of our “Throwback Thursday” (#tbt) “Civil Rights, Equality, and Justice: Then & Now” series for Black History Month 2016, we take a look at two important moments in the fight against unjust policing and the need for police reform in America.

First, we look back at LDF’s participation in civil rights history, during the well-known and well-televised violent flashpoint—“Bloody Sunday”—that rocked our nation in the ‘60s, bringing together civil rights and LDF leaders in defiance of police intimidation and violence. Second, we explore LDF’s leadership role in the current nationwide public outcry for police and criminal justice reform after the series of deadly shootings of unarmed African Americans across the country by police.

Then: “Blood Sunday” (Selma, Alabama, 1965)

Norman Amaker
Norman Amaker

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, John Lewis—then-Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee—and Hosea Williams, a member of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inner circle, along with six hundred demonstrators, began a historic 54-mile march, starting in Selma, Alabama, and ending in the state’s Capital, Montgomery, to order to register to vote. They had marched only six blocks, however, before being stopped at Edmund Pettus Bridge. A contingent of two hundred state troopers and volunteer possemen—temporary police—had been assembled by Selma’s sheriff, Jim Clark, to prevent their passage. The sheriff was under instructions from Alabama’s Governor, George Wallace, a staunch segregationist, to stop the march, citing concerns over traffic violations—a pretext obvious to all. 

After being given a brief, two-minute warning to disperse, the peaceful demonstrators were quickly met with a ruthless assault from riot guns, clubs, whips, nausea bombs, and tear gas. Seventeen went to the hospital, while approximately 40 more received emergency treatment. Many marchers were run down by mounted forces. Those still able-bodied enough to walk were forced back to the starting point of the march—the Brown Chapel AME Church—where Lewis, who suffered a skull fracture, made a speech, lamenting Presidential inaction in stopping the massacre: “I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam … and can’t send troops to Selma, Alabama.”

Steve Ralston
Steve Ralston

Later that day, LDF lawyers Steve Ralston and Norman Amaker—knowing that the marchers, galvanized by Lewis’ speech, were committed to continuing to march on Monday—prepared a legal motion to prohibit Alabama’s governor and sheriff from interfering with the procession. In their court filing, they wrote: “Plaintiffs here have at all times wished to conduct a peaceful, non-violent march to the Capitol of the State of Alabama… They began such a march on Sunday, March 7 1965; the marchers were entirely peaceful, and the only violence that occurred was at the hands of State law enforcement officials.” 

Although the original motion was unsuccessful in persuading United States federal judge Frank Johnson, Jr., Johnson ultimately declared that the march from Selma to Montgomery for voting equity was “basic to our constitutional principles.” Furthermore, the march received support from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who authorized the state national guard to serve as protection, later paying tribute to the demonstrators’ bravery in his famous “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered before a Joint Session of Congress.

Now: LDF’s Policing Reform Campaign

Police Reform Protests in Ferguson
Police Reform Protests in Ferguson

Though Ralston and Amaker’s motion did not speak specifically to police reform, the violence of “Bloody Sunday” brought national attention to America’s legacy of brutal and unjust police treatment of African Americans and their constitutionally protected rights of assembly and free speech. And, more than four-decades later, police misconduct has continued nationwide, leading to the shooting deaths by police of unarmed African Americans—such as Mohamed Bah, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Laquan McDonald, and Walter Scott—in locales, including Chicago, New York City, and North Charleston, South Carolina

Police Reform Protests in Baltimore
Police Reform Protests in Baltimore

Their deaths, among other tragedies, inspired a movement of young activists including the #BlackLivesMatter movement, captured the attention of the media and elected officials, and generated calls for a fundamental change in policing. LDF responded to this national crisis by launching its Policing Reform Campaign, which seeks to promote unbiased and responsible policing policies and practices nationwide.

“The needless deaths of so many African Americans, as the result of racially-biased policing, has been a national shame but also a national opportunity and call to action,” said Monique L. Dixon, LDF’s Deputy Policy Director and Senior Counsel. “We stand at the verge of making serious, significant changes in how law enforcement agencies relate to the communities they serve, particularly communities of color, where African Americans are targeted at alarming levels, for everything from allegedly committing petty infractions to doing nothing at all suspect or criminal.”

In carrying this campaign forward today LDF is advocating nationwide to:

  • build the capacity of communities to change and monitor policing practices; 
  • utilize litigation to eliminate racially discriminatory policing and policies, such as “Broken Windows” and  zero tolerance;
  • advocate for national annual reporting of use-of-force and traffic and pedestrian stops data, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and gender;
  • promote the expanded role of prosecutors in eliminating racial bias in the criminal justice system, and the appointment of special prosecutors to investigate police misconduct and excessive use of force;
  • link federal funding to data collection and anti-bias and de-escalation training;
  • support local communities’ demand for federal civil rights investigations of police departments to address long-standing racially-discriminatory policing practices in certain cities and counties;
  • advocate for police body-worn camera programs that protect privacy and civil rights and do not exacerbate racial disparities in law enforcement; 
  • demilitarize police and eliminate or limit the role of school police;
  • create governance structures that allow African Americans and other persons of color to participate in decisions relating to policing;
  • create and enforce civil rights laws that address obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and whistleblower incidents; and
  • reform legal standards used in criminal cases involving the excessive use of force by police.

For more information about LDF’s Policing Reform Campaign, click here.

Stay tuned for the next installment in the “Throwback Thursday” (#tbt) of our “Civil Rights, Equality, and Justice: Then & Now” series for Black History Month 2016, on Thursday, February 19. Next week, our topic will be desegregation and inclusion.