Civil and Human Rights

OP-ED: To fulfill Martin Luther King’s Jr’s dream, we must address police racism and brutality

More than a half-century after Dr. King’s death, discriminatory policing persists. Racial profiling, time and again, ends with the unspeakable police brutality King wished to end. As we celebrate King’s birthday, we should remember the parts of his dream that have yet to be fulfilled.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have turned 91 this year, is one of our nation’s heroes. He pushed the nation to “lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity” and redeem what he called the Constitution’s “full pledge of freedom.”

While the civil rights movement Dr. King led helped to eradicate Jim Crow segregation and bring us closer to redeeming our Constitution’s promise of equal citizenship, an important part of King’s freedom struggle remains unfinished: the fight to end police abuse.

King dreamed of a day when police abuse and racial violence would be things of the past. “We can never be satisfied,” he declared in an often-forgotten part of his 1963 speech during the March on Washington, as long as black Americans continue to be “the victim[s] of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Yet more than half a century later, discriminatory policing practices that King personally faced live on.

On Jan. 26, 1956, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King was driving a group of boycotters when a policeman ordered King out of his car. The officer shouted “get out King, you’re under arrest for speeding thirty miles an hour in a twenty-five-mile zone.” This was obviously not about traffic safety. The police wanted to intimidate King. So they used a pretext to lock him up.

More than half a century later, pretextual traffic stops and arrests –like those Dr. King experienced – remain a blight on our system of criminal justice. They enable systematic racial profiling and create a racial double standard in our system of justice.

Study after study confirms the reality of the offense of “driving while black.” Black motorists are over-stopped, over-questioned, and over-searched. This has nothing to do with their driving behavior. It reflects that when it comes to policing, race still matters. And race matters particularly when police make pretextual stops. The evidence demonstrates that when police officers conduct pretextual stops, black people are two-and-one-half-times more likely to be pulled over.

What follows the traffic stop is often much worse than the stop itself. When Montgomery police officers arrested King and placed him in the back of their police car, King feared that he was about to be lynched. King survived, but for many others, a traffic stop is a prelude to brutal violence.

In 2015, nearly a third of police shootings began with a traffic stop. That year, Walter Scott was shot in the back and killed by the police after being stopped for a broken brake light. In 2016, Philando Castile was killed by the police after being stopped for a cracked tail light. Castile was shot multiple times when reaching for his identification. As these tragic deaths highlight, King’s dream of ending the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality” remains far from being realized.

Pretextual stops continue unabated because the Supreme Court has refused to vindicate the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equality and true freedom in the policing context. The amendment’s guarantees of liberty and equality were added to the Constitution against the post-Civil War backdrop of horrific police violence and mass arrests of black Americans as so-called vagrants. It sought to curb police abuses that kept black Americans in a subordinate status.

Rather than honor the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court has swelled police power and allowed racial profiling to run amok. It has upheld pretextual traffic stops, permitting the police to use traffic laws to target black and brown people, just as they did to Dr. King in Montgomery.

More than a half-century after Dr. King’s death, discriminatory policing persists. Racial profiling, time and again, ends with the unspeakable police brutality King wished to end. As we celebrate King’s birthday, we should remember the parts of his dream that have yet to be fulfilled. We cannot vindicate King’s vision of freedom and equal citizenship so long as black and brown Americans can be stopped by the police because of the color of their skin.

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