|Vol. 11 No. 16
AUGUST 4, 2016
Learn from History
When RunningHorse Livingston, a Native educational consultant, spoke at the Wisconsin Indian Education Association annual conference back
in April, he struck a cord with me when he talked about historical trauma.
“I think for modern indigenous people, historical trauma is one of those things they can’t sense and yet it permeates every part of your life,”
Livingston said. “For some people, it’s the cause for self-medication. It’s the root of addiction. We have a lot of violence.”
In this case, Livingston was talking about many of the health, educational and economic problems that are experienced by Native people on the
reservations and elsewhere. It’s like the trauma keeps reverberating through history to the point where most people can’t even tell you the
origin of the problem.
For instance, I wonder how many Israelis and Palestinians really know the root causes of their hatred, conflict and violence. It’s like the origin
continues to reverberate throughout history, continuing to cause people to act in certain ways, ways that they cannot rationally explain.
This also causes me to reflect on the state of police and Black community relations, both locally and nationally. There is a dynamic that goes on
here, a deadly chain reaction that causes hurt and to some degree, keeps people in their place. And we can talk all we want, but until we look
at the cause of this dynamic, we will never be able to move beyond it and this ugly dynamic between members of the police department and
members of the African American community will go on in perpetuity to the detriment of everyone involved.
Ever since Africans were enslaved and brought to North America and beyond back in the 1600s, the police and/or militias have been charged
with keeping the social order. It has been said that one of the most important duties of the police is to protect private property. And in those
days, the African slaves were legally property of the slave owner and the role of the police/militia was to return escaped slaves back to their
owners. And so, from the beginning, the police were used to keep African Americans “in their place.”
When the Civil War ended and the 13th Amendment was passed to abolish slavery in the United States, it heralded a new day for African
Americans, particularly those living in the South. Once freed from the chains of slavery, African Americans started running for elective office
and winning. Businesses sprang up and some African Americans became quite wealthy and prosperous. They were achieving their American
But the old order of the South wasn’t finished with African Americans yet for King Cotton still needed to be attended to. And the social standing
of poor whites — an illusion at best — was threatened. And so the Ku Klux Klan arose to repress the freedom of African Americans and to “put
them in their place.” Law enforcement people were often the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan or were counted among their ranks. Law enforcement
is still keeping African Americans “in their place.”
Whether it was share cropping or any other financial arrangement, it was law enforcement that was keeping African Americans “in their place.”
When a lynching took place, if law enforcement wasn’t leading the lynch mob, it was turning the other way as African Americans were taken
from the jail and strung up.
Speeding forward to the civil rights movement, one of the most horrific images is Bull Conner and the Birmingham police turning the water
hoses and the dogs on the unarmed civil rights protestors. While the civil rights marchers were trying to have their civil and human rights
recognized legally and socially, it was law enforcement that was “keeping them in their place.”
Even here in Madison, this role has historically been there. On the deeds to many Madison properties, there are restrictive covenants that —
before fair housing and civil rights legislation were passed — legally prevented people from selling to African Americans. And who would
enforce such laws? Why the police or sheriff would.
And especially when I started working at the Urban League back in the early 1980s, I would hear stories of middle class African Americans
being stopped as they jogged in the neighborhoods where they lived on the west side by police who would say, ‘You don’t look like you belong
here.’ Again, this was the police attempting to keep African Americans “in their place.”
So we have 400-500 years of a dynamic, a negative relationship between the police and the African American community and 10-20 years of
people trying to move beyond that dynamic in some cases and in other cases perfectly content with the way things are.
And so there is this historical trauma going on, a historically negative relationship that has caused a huge amount of trauma on African
Americans. It goes beyond the physical altercation between a Genele Laird and the officer who beat her and tasered her. It goes back to the
dynamic of African Americans being considered property, mere chattel, and open to the abuse of anyone who thought they were better than
them, including poor whites. And sometimes that dynamic has been going on so long that police officers — regardless of their racial
background — give in to this ingrained dynamic and do things that they would never do in their personal lives.
We need to reflect on this history as it relates to police-community relations. It goes beyond the individuals involved. We cannot look at this as
personality clashes or the work of a few bad apples. We need to recognize and move beyond the historical trauma so that police and
community recognize the role of the police to protect and serve ALL citizens in word and in deed.