Police Killings Continue Even As Racial Justice Movement Changes America

Posted in: Other Commentary

The year nears its end with the police killing in Los Angeles of 14-year old Valentina Orellana-Peralta. She died from a stray police bullet as she and her mother hugged in fear in a department store fitting room. They had heard the sound of shots fired at a violent man without a gun on the other side of the wall. 

Valentina was Christmas shopping on December 23 for a dress for her quinceanera, the celebration of her upcoming 15th birthday.

The shooting is reminiscent of a similar incident last August in suburban Philadelphia. Officers killed 8-year-old Fanta Bility when they fired at a car that they mistakenly thought contained two teenagers who had started a gunfight after a football game. The two have now been charged with responsibility for Fanta’s death. The police who shot her have not.

Still, it’s hard to deny that America is paying a different kind of attention to police killings. In no other year in American history have three separate juries convicted three former police officers for killing African Americans.

On the same day last week that Valentina was shot, a mainly white Minnesota jury found officer Kim Potter guilty of manslaughter in killing Daunte Wright. On November 24, 2021, a Georgia jury with a single Black member convicted retired officer Greg McMichaels and two others in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. On April 21, 2021, a Minneapolis jury found officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd.

The three convictions in 2021 mark something new. Without doubt, this change in racial justice came about because of a raised consciousness among white Americans about police killing innocent Black citizens. Unmistakably, what wrought that change is the massive participation in Black Lives Matters protests, combined with the unflagging legal efforts of lawyers such as Ben Crump and Bryan Stephenson.

Crump appeared at an LA press conference on December 28 with the grieving Orellana-Peralta family. “Just Mercy,” the film about Stephenson, seared awareness of racial injustice into the minds of white people who saw it. Black people were already all too well aware.

History, they say, does not repeat, but it rhymes. Almost 60 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood that social progress turned on combining nonviolent demonstrations for rights with front-page coverage that could bring the struggle to a white audience. One month after the June 1963 Birmingham demonstrations, President Kennedy spoke on national television. “The events in Birmingham and elsewhere,” he said, have made it “time to act in the Congress.”

Days later, he submitted transformative legislation, which, after his death, Congress enacted as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It banned racial discrimination in public accommodations such as restaurants, department stores, and bus terminals.

Fast forward 58 years. Estimates are that 15-26 million Americans participated in Black Lives Matters protests over the death of George Floyd, making it likely the largest protest movement in American history. That widespread activism both reflected and created a shift in white awareness about the daily risk Black Americans experience in society from law enforcement officers. As Sonali Chakravarti, associate professor of government at Wesleyan University has written, “[T]elling moments of the [Derek Chauvin] trial suggest a new normal when it comes to the public’s expectation for justice in police killings.”

At the same time, the deaths of 14-year-old Valentina and 8-year-old Fanta remind us that some things have not changed all that much. The New York Times reported on December 24 that the number of killings by police since George Floyd’s death has held steady or increased over previous years. The Washington Post reports that police continue to kill Black people at more than twice the rate of whites.

For those discouraged by the torturous pace of racial progress, unwavering faith in the power of activism paves the path forward. Whether the subject is civil rights, women’s reproductive freedom, or voting rights such as those protected by the Freedom to Vote Act, now pending in the Senate, citizens acting together have the power to change society. Ordinary Americans will decide whether 2022 registers such progress for the rights to be safe, to choose, to vote, or some other expansion of freedom.

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