Ruins of the Tulsa race massacre. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

American history observers think the centennial anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre that coincided with the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder—not to mention the barely acknowledged 36th anniversary of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia—are all part of an ongoing continuum of racial violence fueled by white supremacists.

“The public work of remembering Tulsa and mourning George Floyd has amplified a worldwide conversation about the ways that Black people are disproportionately and continually subjected to racialized power,” Adriane Lentz-Smith, a Duke University history professor and scholar of African American studies, told the INDY in an email.

“It caused more people to pay attention to a systemic and broad ranging problem that human rights advocates have been flagging since before Ida B. Wells launched her transatlantic antilynching campaign at the turn of the last century,” she added. “And significantly, it has spurred legislators to propose reparations and meaningful reform.”

Almost as an afterthought, Lentz-Smith said she did not want to speak about MOVE or she would have gone “on forever, but Jesus … So much devastation.”

Lentz-Smith is one of several Duke scholars who agreed to speak with the INDY about the impact of Floyd’s death one year after his murder that resulted in the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Floyd’s death became a global tipping point following the deaths of other Black people at the hands of police. Here in Durham, residents united to demand justice for Floyd after Chauvin was captured on video kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd could be heard begging for his life.

Black leaders like Rev. William J. Barber called Floyd’s Memorial Day murder a “lynching on live stream” and likened Chauvin’s posture to that of a hunter kneeling in front of his downed prey.

The Durham protests included a significant amount of white participation, which mirrored the multiracial protests across the country, and that racial diversity unexpectedly galvanized a nation that has endured widening polarization for nearly a half-century.

Lentz-Smith says Floyd’s murder and the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre “offer a sobering reminder of the work we still have before us ‘to redeem,’ in Martin Luther King’s words, ‘the soul of America.’”

That work includes recognizing the role domestic terrorism has played in shaping the economy and government, she says.

The attack on Greenwood, Tulsa’s economically vibrant Black business district in 1921 was “a land grab wrapped up in a pogrom,” Lentz-Smith added, with white Oklahomans killing at least 300 people, while traumatizing and displacing countless others. The rioters destroyed over 35 acres of commercial and residential property, which would amount to about $200 million worth of damage today. 

“The murder of George Floyd was police action, not mob violence,” she says. “But his killing—combined with the numerous others that preceded and followed it—demonstrates how the authorities sometimes continued the work of the mob.”

Lentz-Smith notes that even though Black Americans gained much through civil rights victories in the 20th century, Jim Crow did not die off. 

“The architects of segregation learned to couch discriminatory laws in colorblind language and to talk in terms of Black criminality rather than Black inferiority,” she says. “This everyday association of African Americans with criminality did not simply justify excessive surveillance and mass incarceration, it conditioned other folks to accept excesses of state violence as normal and necessary. Segregationists’ discursive victory carried the notion into the post-Civil-Rights era that Black lives matter less.”

The Duke professor says the same Jim Crow forces that animated race massacres continue today. 

She points to the efforts of everyday Americans’ efforts to construct a more just, less deadly system being met with “a wave of voter suppression bills justified, as they were in the early days of Jim Crow, by false claims of fraud.” 

“We see state houses pushing legislation to deter and criminalize civil rights protests rather than take seriously the substance of those protests,” she adds. “And we see a wave of truly unhinged legislation ordering educators to lie to their students about American history and its legacies in the American present.” 

Duke law professor Brandon Garrett spoke with the INDY about the potential impact of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act proposed in Congress, which aims to curb police misconduct.

He says passage of the George Floyd Act “would remove a substantial barrier to civil rights accountability of police officers” but added that “far more is needed to actually regulate police use of force and to improve policing in this country.” 

“Many of the state laws enacted this past year go further in that direction,” Garrett says, pointing to an “outpouring of legislative work across the country” since Floyd was killed.  

“[T]hat said, only about 10 percent of the laws that have been introduced have been enacted and many of them are not serious reforms,” he says.

Fellow Duke law professor Jim Coleman spoke about the trial of Chauvin, who is now awaiting sentencing after being convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter.

Coleman told the INDY that the quality of the team that prosecuted Chauvin was a significant factor in the outcome but not necessarily the most important. 

“Having a good judge who seemed fair and even-handled was also important,” Coleman wrote in an email. “The most important factor, however, may have been the makeup of the jury. The jury was racially diverse, which meant the experiences of black people were part of the deliberation.”

Coleman notes that prosecutors will often try to exclude “strong black voices from jury deliberations because black people in the communities where the cases are tried often are suspicious of the cops and thus do not simply accept their testimony as gospel.” 

He adds that when Black jurors are excluded, “the effect is to lower the burden to acquit in cases against cops and also to lower the burden to convict when the defendant is black, especially in a case in which the victim is white.”

 Coleman says with a diverse jury, the dog-whistle defense did not work. 

“An all-white jury might have bought the notion that the bystanders were an angry mob and the cops feared for their lives,” he says. “But this jury recognized that the bystanders were not threatening the cops but trying to get them to treat Floyd’s life with respect, as if it mattered.”

Coleman adds that the bystanders who witnessed Floyd’s death were also important for the verdict, particularly the power of their testimony. 

“They were smart and well prepared,” he says. “In a way, for black people, myself included, they were metaphors for our circumstance in this country. We witness or experience the racism that erodes the quality of our lives, but we are mostly powerless to do anything about it. Americans often are as indifferent as Chauvin to our pleas for fairness and justice. The fact that 70 million people voted for an overtly racist Trump demonstrates that fact.”

Pointedly, Coleman says that far from signaling a broad substantive change in the prosecution of law officers accused of using deadly force, the Chauvin case is an aberration.

“Look at the Brown case in Elizabeth City,” Coleman wrote in the email. “The prosecutor was never going to charge the deputies who executed Brown. His presentation of the facts was tone deaf. Any reasonable person saw that Brown was trying to avoid arrest, not to hit the deputies. At the time he was killed, he was moving away from the deputies.”

Coleman says Pasquotank District Attorney Andrew Womble offered up “a disingenuous argument” when he stated that the deputies feared for their lives. 

“Until the public acknowledges the facts of racism in the criminal justice system, nothing will change,” Coleman says. “Any interaction with an armed cop is a potential death sentence.”

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