Josh Gonzalez

The year 2020 has been a very chaotic one. It has been filled with many devastating things, including the amount of police brutality that has transpired against African Americans.  Though people have been more aware of these issues because people are speaking out and protesting against police brutality, police brutality is not a new occurrence. It has gone on for many decades including during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. There are many similarities between the police brutality that occurred throughout the Civil Rights Movement and in today’s society such as the tactics used and lack of accountability. Police officers continue to abuse their authority because there have been no drastic changes to the system. The problem will continue unless something is done to change it.

Police brutality occurred during the Civil Rights Movement which is one of the reasons for the fight for social justice by African Americans. African Americans could no longer take the unfair treatment and they decided to take action against it. One of the main issues that African Americans went against was the police brutality that they had to face. The introduction to “Detroit Under Fire”, an initiative of the University of Michigan’s History of Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab states, “During the 1950s and early 1960s, the civil rights movement challenged police brutality and other forms of racial segregation and discrimination in the urban North, alongside the more familiar story about the nonviolent resistance to the Jim Crow system in the American South.”[1] Police officers knew that the law would favor them and that is why they committed acts of violence in the North and the South. “Detroit Under Fire” mentions, “Police brutality against African Americans in Detroit and other large cities in the Jim Crow North was systemic and rooted in larger policies of white supremacy and racial control, including the use of law enforcement to defend the color line.”¹ While Jim Crow is usually associated with the South, in referring to the “Jim Crow North”, “Detroit Under Fire” emphasizes the discrimination and protests against it that occurred in cities in the North. The police brutality that occurred was due to the system that was created.

The approach that police officers had during the protests and riots was a very aggressive one. The aggressive approach by officers was able to reinforce the color line because African Americans would feel physically threatened by the police officers. In the article “Detroit Under Fire” it expresses, “Racial tensions over housing and jobs led to the 1943 race riot in Detroit, where white mobs and police officers attacked black residents, the U.S. Army occupied the city, and at least 25 African Americans and 9 white people died”¹ Police officers joined in on the riots but not to help stop them but rather to harm the African Americans.

The Civil Rights Movement occurred decades ago. However, there are similarities between the police brutality that happened in the 1950s and 1960s and that which is happening today. The amount of authority given to police officers is one of the reasons for police brutality. In Human Rights Watch’s analysis of the costs of systemic police brutality in the United States, they remarked on the police’s treatment of protestors at a peaceful march through the South Bronx in June 2020, “Less than an hour into the march, and about 10 minutes before an 8 p.m. curfew went into effect, the marchers encountered scores of police officers with riot gear, including helmets, shields, and batons.”[2] The police officers imposed their authority by wearing gear and trying to intimidate protesters, even though the protest was a peaceful one. Authority is a factor, but the most significant factor is how the law will benefit the police officers. Human Rights Watch noted, “They forced people to sit on the street with their hands zip-tied behind their backs, at times so tight that their hands went numb. Clearly identified medics and legal observers were among those targeted, as police beat a number of them, detained them and obstructed their work.''² Police officers abuse their authority by committing acts like the ones mentioned in the quote.

Police commit these acts because they know that they will not face any harsh consequences for it. On it says, “In the United States between 2005 and 2020, of the 42 nonfederal police officers convicted following their arrest for murder due to an on-duty shooting, only five ended up being convicted of murder. The most common offense these officers were convicted of was the lesser charge of manslaughter, with 11 convictions”[3] About a fourth of the shootings result in the lesser charge while only an eighth result in the harsher charge. If the gap stays this wide between the charges faced then nothing will change. There needs to be a higher rate for murder charges because that will make the police officers more reluctant to commit the acts of brutality. The similarities in police brutality between the Civil Rights Movement and today’s society stem from the abuse of power on behalf of police officers knowing that no serious repercussions will affect them.

Another similarity between the past and present would be the response by the people to acts of police brutality. Historian Alan Taylor asserts, “Decades of police brutality, capped off by several incidents in the summer of 1964 led to a series of racially-motivated riots in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Jersey City.”[4] Throughout this year, many protests were conducted in order to take action against acts of police brutality. The protests during the Civil Rights Movement were mostly violent riots. In recent years, some responded to police brutality with peaceful protests and others with riots, but these were not necessarily as violent as the ones that occurred in the 1960s. The protests that occurred throughout the 1960s were more violent because the racial tension was so extreme. Just as there are parallels between the police brutality of the Civil Rights Movement and today’s society, there are also parallels between protesters’ responses to that brutality. This is because police officers continue to not be held accountable when committing acts of brutality and for using tactics similar to those of decades ago.

Statistics show just how impactful police brutality is on society. Katie Nodjimbadem is a journalist who focuses on diversity and culture for her articles. Katie Nodjimbadem articulates, “African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for 24 percent of people fatally shot by police.”[5] This statistic is eye-popping because of the large discrepancy in the numbers. The difference between the numbers is almost double. Katie Nodjimbadem formulates, According to the Washington Post, blacks are ‘2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.’"5 Statistics like these show just how bad the system is. It also shows that lawmakers should take protests against police brutality more seriously. African Americans are being killed by police officers at a larger rate and no major changes in the system leads to no changes in the statistics.

Now in society we see diversity, in age and ethnicity, in the protests which is very important in order to take an even stronger stand. However, the younger generation is one of the main keys in order to make positive changes. We can see this in one of the most well-known events of police brutality, which was the killing of George Floyd. George Floyd was being accused of using fake money and during the arrest, one of the police officers knelt on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. The act committed by the police officer eventually led to the death of George Floyd. The action taken against the officers in this event of police brutality, was that first they were all fired, then, one of the officers were charged with second-degree murder and the others were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter.[6] One of the reasons for the increase in charges was due to the amount of protests that transpired. These protests included many people from the younger generation and that will be what leads to positive changes being made. The more awareness brought to these situations and the continued call for change will eventually lead to a positive impact. Among the positive impacts people hope to see is a decrease in the amount of police brutality and also serious consequences for officers who commit acts of brutality.

Some may argue that there are no parallels between the police brutality that occurred throughout the Civil Rights Movement and today’s society because the world has evolved. However, that is not the case. There have been no major changes in the police system which has led to many similarities between the police brutality events. Others may also argue that the protests that occur are not helping the call for change in the system, “The Yahoo News/YouGov Poll, conducted August 27 – 28, asked Americans whether they believe the protests are aimed at improving the country or wrecking it. Republicans (78%) and white Americans (57%) are particularly likely to believe protesters are destroying America”.[7] They would be wrong because we can see the effects of the protests specifically in the George Floyd case. The officers were originally only fired but due to the call for action against the police officers involved, it eventually led to the officers being charged with crimes6.

It is sad to realize how nothing major has been done to change how the police system works. Police officers are still abusing their power like they were in the 1950s and 1960s, which is when the Civil Rights Movement occurred. The law benefits the police officers which is why they commit the acts of police brutality. All of these factors have had an impact on society and will continue to have an impact. The younger generation being the spark to making a call for change is what will make the biggest positive impact on society. If everyone unites for the common goal the major change that should happen will happen.


[1] Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, University of Michigan Department of History and Documenting Criminalization and Confinement, “Detroit Under Fire”, “I. Civil Rights and Police Brutality, 1957-1963


Chughtai, Alia. “Know Their Names: Black People Killed by the Police in the US.” AJLabs.

Department, Published by Statista Research, “Police Killings: Convictions of Police Officers by Charge U.S. 2020.” Statista, 10 June 2020.

“‘Kettling’ Protesters in the Bronx.” Human Rights Watch.

Nodjimbadem, Katie. “The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality in the U.S.” Smithsonian Magazine, 29 May. 2020.

Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab, University of Michigan Department of History and Documenting Criminalization and Confinement, “Detroit Under Fire”, “I. Civil Rights and Police Brutality, 1957-1963

Sanders, Linley. “Do Protesters Want to Help or Hurt America?” YouGov, YouGov, 1 Sept. 2020.

Taylor, Alan. “1964: Civil Rights Battles.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company.

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