We Can’t Breathe: A History of Violence Against African Americans in the US

Co-created with Keri Gray. Video edited by Njaimeh Njie.- https://www.dustinpgibson.com/offerings/wecantbreathe

Dr. David J. Childs, Ph. D.
Northern Kentucky University

Introduction: An all too Familiar Story in My Life
This is all too familiar.” This is the phrase that comes to my mind when I think about yet another slaying of an unarmed black man by the hands of law enforcement. I was a young man right out of high school when Timothy Thomas was shot in the back by a police officer in downtown Cincinnati. I remember back then in 2001, our city was torn up and rioting ensued for several days. Some folks were afraid to go outside, and even then, just like now, curfews were implemented. I was one of the angry black youths that were in disbelief because of the injustice and racism that was all too familiar in our city. I was frustrated with the treatment of black youth as thugs, criminals and inhuman in my city. As a young man I had been harassed by law enforcement, had my car searched for non-existent drugs and apprehended because “I fit the description.” As a poor African American young adult, racism was just a part of the backdrop of my life that I accepted. When I went on to college I began to find the words to describe what was going on and how to better fight against discrimination.

Here We Go Again
Here we are again, yet another death of one of my black brethren at the hands of the so called authorities. But this time seems different with George Floyd’s death. The racist authority figures seem to be getting emboldened, covering up, lying, unabashedly using excessive force, being protected by both the higher ups and by laws of officer immunity. The situation here in the US seems to be at a tipping point. Floyd’s death is a part of a long history of violence against African Americans. The protests are different and there is a sense of desperation mixed with hurt in the air that is very unsettling. It was difficult for me to write about this topic, I could not find the words. I did not feel I would do the situation justice. But to pay homage to my slain brothers and sisters and in my own form of protest I must write.
A few months before Floyd’s death, Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down by two white men who chased him while he jogged in his own neighborhood in South Georgia. This was among other high profile slayings of black men and women in recent past. With the recent string of African American deaths by the hand of law enforcement we must understand that violence against African Americans has always been an ugly part of US history.

Police Shootings as Modern Lynching
Systematic violence against African Americans is nothing new. In fact, it has been a staple in the US since the early days of African American history. Since slavery became widespread in the late 1600’s violence was used to quell the freedom and movement of African Americans. Indeed slave masters, slave ship captains, slave catchers and slave patrollers used unrestricted and unrestrained violence as a matter of course to control and instill fear in the black community. Slaves had hands cut off and various other body parts mutilated to keep them from escaping. Whippings were the method of punishment often used to maintain order on plantations. Slaves often were killed with no due process or punishment implemented by law against slave masters. Perhaps one of the most terrorizing forms punishment for blacks both slave and free during antebellum times was hanging (commonly called lynching). Between 1877 and 1950 there were 4,084 African Americans hanged. But historians have come to see the term lynching as being a term that encompasses more than just hanging. That is (In a historical sense) lynching is any form of capital punishment against blacks without due process, including shooting, burning, torturing or hanging. In this way, all of the slayings by the hands of law enforcement and other authorities can be properly called lynchings. Thus, the killing of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean, Eric Garner, and Ahmaud Arbery are a part of the long history of lynching in the United States. Below I have included some references and more resources for students, educators and the general public to learn more information about the history of violence against African Americans by law enforcement.      

Teaching Resources
Teaching Ideas and Resources to Help Students Make Sense of the George Floyd Protests
Teaching the Legacy of Lynching in the United States  
Domestic Terror: Understanding Lynching During the Jim Crow Era
Racial Violence in America: Lynchings, 1877 to 1920
Teaching “America’s National Crime”
15 Classroom Resources for Discussing Racism, Policing, and Protest
Teaching about Race, Racism and Police Violence
Youth and Police
Lesson Plan: Police, Race and Unrest in America’s Cities
Lesson Plan: Every Mother’s Son

References and other Resources
History of Lynching
Minneapolis Police Use Force Against Black People at 7 Times the Rate of Whites
Police killed more than 100 unarmed black people in 2015
Young black men killed by US police at highest rate in year of 1,134 deaths
Number of U.S. Blacks Killed by Police Hard to Pin Down with No Official Figures
Slavery and Violence in the Old South: An Interview with Jeff Forret
Treatment of slaves in the United States
Conditions of Antebellum Slavery


  1. I have recently been reflecting back on the death of George Floyd since it has now been 2 years ago already. As I look back on the memories that are vivid in my mind, I have tears in my eyes.
    I live in a town 2 hours away from Minneapolis and work for an EMS agency home based in the Minneapolis St. Paul area. What I remember the most was what happened in the days that followed. I remember rioters mistaking an EMS helicopter for a Law Enforcement helicopter and pointing a laser at it, which is extremely dangerous and can cause the aircraft to crash. Because of this occurrence the Minnesota Air Medical Council elected to suspend all patient transports into 2 hospitals in Minneapolis. This effected multiple HEMS agencies, their personnel and countless patients. As a result of this many patients had to be transported to other facilities or land else ware and be transported the remaining distance in a ground ambulance. This took place for days.
    I can’t pretend to know how it feels to be African American or to know how it feels to see someone targeted because they are the same race as me. I do know that what happened is atrocious and never should have happened and it is appalling to see this happen over and over again. However, is there a way anger and outrage can be expressed in ways other than violence, rioting and looting? One person had already lost their life, why should more people die? Maybe I am ignorant. Maybe I don’t understand. But I do know how it felt when I couldn’t wear my uniform to and from work because I looked like a Law Enforcement Officer and it compromised my safety. I do remember my EMS brothers and sisters taking to the streets and putting their lives in danger to provide aid to a community that was angry and hurting and I do remember what it felt like to hold a dying child’s hand and promise them I would take care of them, be by their side and wipe away their tears when it took 30 minutes longer to get them to a hospital that was further away than the one we couldn’t get to.

  2. I chose to read this article after I read Walking While Black as they go hand in hand as I reflect on the history of violence as well as the personal experiences you have had. It is still crazy to me reflecting on the events this year, just a couple months ago now, and how they compare to the events in early history. Although I have never personally experienced it, I know it is a big problem of today’s society and people like you face it every day. Racism must end, and the law system is definitely flawed, and I hope us as educators can work to make a change to that as well, especially through all the extensive resources provided in this article.

  3. What a strong and moving article that looks at the center of the issues at hand. This past year has been a tragic and despicable tipping point for racial injustice. Horrible situations occurred which left more than one innocent African American dead at he hands of law enforcement. With the help of the media skewing information it has become nearly impossible to understand the true circumstances of the incidents but one thing remains clear to all, this was brutal, this was unjust, this was murder. People of all colors, backgrounds, political parties and religions have joined together and demand change with rioting, protesting, song and stories. It is obvious that American and mankind has not come as far as we have hoped and there is still so much work to be done. I only hope that these awful events will cause change to happen soon.

  4. After reading this article, I have been aware that there is major racism in our country today. I knew this already and it’s not okay that it is happening by any means. Racism has been happening in the U.S for more than several years now and it only seems to be getting worse. Nothing is going to change unless we the people make a change. It almost surprises me that there is so much racism in the work force of Law Enforcement. It is there job to keep us safe, not to hurt people. There is racism in every profession; nursing, education, customer service, etc., but Law Enforcement? We should not be afraid of police officers or anyone with the job to protect us. This is not to say that all police officers are bad, that is not at all what I am saying. But there does need to be change and we need to be that change.

  5. Dr. Childs has given us a vivid description on how unfair the law system is. Our ancestor have been slaves, beaten, raped, and have marched for our equality in this world just for more injustice to continue to happen. We have been the targets in society by the law enforcement it is unfortunate we still have to deal with race issues after hundreds of years of fighting for peace and to be heard. Police officers lunch African Americans everyday and they get a slap on the wrist, which is a slap in the face for African Americans because we have fought so hard for equality and we have to continue to fight in today’s times.

  6. It’s insane that we are still dealing with this type of injustice in our world. What’s worse is that it has happened so frequently and consistently that it has become normalized. In this article, Dr. Childs uses the repetition of “this is all too familiar”. This is a phrase you use when the Reds lose, not one that should apply to the racism and structural violence thrust upon African Americans. Dr. Childs points out that we are at a turning point – police are becoming more and more openly racist and the American people are growing more and more angry and desperate. Although I cannot predict what kind of change is coming, I know that the United States (and the world) will not be the same. The fuse has been lit and the turning point has been reached. Looking forward there are only two options: a path towards minimizing and eliminating racism or a a facist, authoritarian, police state filled with oppression. It is up to the people to decide which way to tip the scales.

  7. Dr. Childs’ article provides a real life glimpse of what it’s like to live as a black young man in America. He shared his unfair encounters with police, that thankfully didn’t end his life as bright educator. unarmed black men being murdered by police is not new, we know it happen. I think what we are witnessing today is the outcries of a community that will not take it no longer. It is time. Systematic racism has be acknowledge for changes that better us all. Not just one subset of people but all people.

  8. In light of recent incidents, Dr. Childs’ article and links sharing his personal experience and history of the institutionalized violence against African Americans is much need. It is important to know the history of this violence to understand why the violence and discrimination is taking place to this day. I like how he likens the recent string of killings to the lynchings that was so widespread throughout American history. Changes need to be made to the socialization and institution of our justice systems to prevent and create realization of the oppression of African Americans.

  9. I find this article very appropriate with what events are currently happening around the world. This article has inspired me to do a littler more research on current events and find out how important is to address this and make change happen. I find African American violence disgusting and uncalled for in many situations but some of these peopled who were killed, even though I don’t agree with it, were criminals and have criminal backgrounds. People such as George Floyd had a criminal background and had been in jail previously. As much as I disagree with how he was killed, he still had a criminal history and people have to accept that. I find that this is an issue that needs to be addressed and change needs to come from it.

  10. I find this article very appropriate with what events are currently happening around the world. This article has inspired me to do a littler more research on current events and find out how important is to address this and make change happen. I find African American violence disgusting and uncalled for in many situations but some of these peopled who were killed, even though I don’t agree with it, were criminals and have criminal backgrounds. People such as George Floyd had a criminal background and had been in jail previously. As much as I disagree with how he was killed, he still had a criminal history and people have to accept that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.