400 Years a Slave: The Enduring Pain of Police Brutality and Unequal Justice

On Dec. 3, 2014, I awoke from the glorious one-hundred-and-fifty-one-year dream that slavery had ended and black people were free.

A Staten Island grand jury had just decided not to indict the police officer who used a banned chokehold while surrounded by at least six other cops to kill the unarmed black man, Eric Garner. A week earlier, another grand jury had decided not to indict the police officer who shot six bullets into unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, who, witnesses say, was surrendering to the cop.

Hearing that these white officers would not be held accountable for the black lives they took woke me up to the reality that, for blacks, our lives are not our own. Somewhere along the way—Emancipation, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps—we fell into the delusion that they were. But now, it’s become quite clear that this country grants us no more right to live freely than when we were slaves.

Initially, in our reverie, we rejoiced at the notion of working for wages, buying our own homes, educating ourselves and traveling where and when we pleased. We didn’t even mind so much that our wages were often not equal to those of whites, that our homes were frequently in depressed communities, that our schools were segregated or that our jaunts were limited by access to capital and modes of transportation. But now, these grand jury decisions have demonstrated that we only have the freedom to live and toil, study and travel at the white man’s discretion, to be taken away—in a moment’s notice—at any time, for any unfortunate misdeed such as selling loose cigarettes, or fleeting triviality as walking in the roadway, or for no reason at all, like taking the stairs.

A life lived in constant fear and at the mercy of the white man, wasn’t that the lot of the enslaved? An unequal existence for blacks not only in the South but nationwide with no place North, West, Midwest—not in New York City, Oakland, Cleveland, Ferguson—or anyplace within these borders to run for reprieve, wasn’t that the fate of our ancestors? Thanks to ongoing disparities in police conduct, isn’t that the same space blacks occupy now? It’s true that we are no longer forced to pick cotton or bought and sold on an auction block. But from the time the first slaves arrived here from Africa, whites in positions of authority have not changed in their judgment that black lives have no value.

Whether designated as property or three-fifths of a person, or discriminated against legally and lynched without prosecution, our debasement has remained the same. The monetary value placed on black bodies might have grown over the years, with muscular athletes and curvy musicians fetching hefty contracts, but the worth as demonstrated by the rights and liberties with which these bodies should have increasingly been endowed has made no progress.

The stagnation becomes evident when you notice that a man can’t verbally stand up to a cop’s harassment, can’t say, “I didn’t do nothing. I’m minding my business, officer,” without being choked to death. Seeing that, I’m reminded of Solomon Northup in the film 12 Years a Slave, strung up in a tree all day, avoiding strangulation only by his ability to stand on his tiptoes after frankly telling a master displeased with his carpentry, “If there’s something wrong, it’s wrong with the instruction.” The misconception in both cases, on the part of both Northup and Garner, was that they were free. Both men were born “free” and believed they had certain inalienable rights, but the whites they confronted—overseer and officer—knew the truth.

What’s more is the children whom, as mothers, we thought we bore and birthed and brought up to belong to us, to make us proud and bring us joy, are ours neither. Police can essentially rip them from our bosom. Today, my four-year-old is smiley and cheerful about life, greeting every passerby and vagrant on the street with a wave and sing-songy, “Hi.” But when he stops in front of a uniformed police officer, raises his hand and tries to strike up a conversation, as he did while in downtown Washington, D.C. recently, I smirk uncomfortably as I yank his hand down and pull him to safety.

For now, it is my job to keep my son out of the danger zone, which I deem to be anywhere he’s in a cop’s line of sight and focused attention. But one day when he’s old enough to walk to a convenience store alone or play in a park by himself, perhaps absentmindedly tossing fluffy snowballs in the air, I will be wrong not to warn him that some citizen patrol or zealous cop could see him flaunting his independence and have flashbacks to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Under its guidelines, an officer had the right—in fact, the duty—to apprehend an apparent runaway and use as much force as was necessary to put him in his place and return him to bondage.

And, as has been the case throughout history, no one can say a word about it. No matter if he lives or dies as a result of the encounter, no one will have to answer for this infringement of freedom. This, I have learned, is the law. And this, we are expected to accept. When one of our children is killed, we’re supposed to go on with life as if pain is not radiating from our every pore and the only reason our cheeks are dry is because our eyes physically cannot produce yet one more tear.

We are not to file into the streets to ask “why?” We are not to cry foul. And we are certainly not to have an emotional reaction lest we, ourselves, be threatened with arrest and indictment, or maybe tear gas, rubber bullets, military tanks and gunfire from assault rifles now in the hands of those to whom our lives and liberty ultimately belong.

It’s like KRS-One said on his 1993 song, “Sound of da Police:”

“The overseer had the right to get ill

And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill

The officer has the right to arrest

And if you fight back, they put a hole in your chest.”

Now, twenty-one years later, a new generation has taken up the call for justice, chanting like J. Cole on his song, “Be Free:”

“All we want to do is take the chains off

All we want to do is break the chains off

All we want to do is be free

All we want to do is be free.”

So what do I do now that I know the truth about blacks’ modern-day subjugation? Honestly, I wish I could fall back to sleep and pick up my pleasant fantasy of freedom where it had left off. But now that I’m awake, I can’t do that. So what do I do, keep my head down and continue to work? Sever my attachment to my little boy in preparation for the day when he’ll be taken from me? Convince all black boys and men to pull up their pants, pull off their hoods, stop driving, stop walking, stop standing, stop breathing while black?

Or do I fight for the abolition of slavery? Fight for the freedom of all black Americans. Abolitionists in the 1800s, both black and white, risked life and limb to voice their opposition to the unjust and racist institution of slavery. Abolitionists today, both black and white, must speak out, no matter the cost, against the unjust and racist criminal justice system. The laws that make it defensible to kill unarmed African Americans under the cover of police work—to strip black people of their freedom—must be scrubbed from the books. And the grand jury system that makes it legal for law enforcement officers not to be held accountable for their actions must be abolished. Not only are these aspects of our legal system unfair, they return this country to a time of embarrassing ethics that we were rightly glad to leave in the past.

As an abolitionist, I am now ready to challenge those laws. I am now willing to snatch my peers from their cozy existences and alert them to the atrocities of enslavement, too. Because once we all understand where we are, we can plot a course for where we need to be. I am an abolitionist. And I intend to set my sights on freedom.


Sufiya Abdur-Rahman lives in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where she teaches and writes nonfiction. She has had essays published in the Washington Post and on NPR. You can follow her on Twitter @MrsAbolitionist.

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