What Do Black Deaths Mean to You?: The Evolution of Police Brutality in America

Overview/ My Thoughts

What You Need to Know

(If you skipped the video, go back and watch it! It is my spoken word piece on police brutality)

From the 1700s until today, police brutality has existed in America. It has evolved from volunteer slave patrols into a nationwide system of racially charged policing. Racism in the hearts of some officers has led to the harassment, beatings, and killings of innocent Black people across the country.

Spurred on by hatred, racial anxiety, and the devaluing of Black life, we have come to a point where police officers will slam young girls onto the ground for the slightest verbal offenses.

This is why a new form of zone policing (getting white cops out of Black neighborhoods) and the installation of trade schools (a preventative measure to decrease police contact) are the only viable solutions. In a world of white supremacy, there are too many forces pushing out a narrative of Black criminality. It would take hundreds of years to change the racist thoughts and biases that exist within people on a large scale. The most efficient way to combat police brutality is by decreasing contact between white racist police officers and innocent Black people. Trying to change the hearts of people is ridiculous, and Black people will continue to die, cold and alone in the streets, if we do not face this reality today.

The Origins

1704 is the first time we see police brutality in North America, when South Carolina adopted slave patrols, a system originally from Barbados. Established as a way of policing enslaved Africans, these patrols “policed all movement and unsupervised activity through passes, detainments, interrogations, [and] unrestrained search[es] and seizures” (Muad’dib). Each patrol was made up of about nine white volunteers who served to enforce the already stringent plantation laws. Slave patrols were established “throughout all of the states [before the Civil War], [and] … scoured the countryside…intimidating, terrorizing, and brutalizing [enslaved Africans]” (Muad’dib). The methods were embraced by white society as a necessary part of life: the most effective way to control the Black population, minimizing the threat of rebellion.

Slave patrols became the first documented instances of police brutality in the country. The new policing system fostered an atmosphere of terror, forging the path for predatory, brutal policing in America.

After the Civil War, slave patrols slowly evolved into different forms of policing. The previous leaders of patrols either became local sheriffs, organizers of “night watches” (similar to contemporary neighborhood watches), or members of vigilante groups. As we entered into the Gilded Age, the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments granted new individual freedoms to Black people. The abolition of slavery, having equal protection under the law, and the right to vote were factors that begun to integrate Black people into mainstream American society. At the same time,  about 11.7 million immigrants came to the United States from Greece, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Serbia, Russia and Croatia. In order to preserve the white supremacist hierarchy in an increasingly diverse country, police departments were established to protect white neighborhoods and white businesses, but corruption in policing was widespread.

Who Fought Against it?

“July 28, 1968 – Oakland, California, USA: ‘Panthers on Parade’ Panthers line up at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park, in West Oakland” (CBS News).

In 1966, the continuous harassment, beatings, and murders by the police against Black people spurred on the first mainstream, collective movement against police brutality: the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The Black Panthers are among the greatest American heroes in history. Founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in Oakland, California, the organization was predicated on Black nationalism, Black power, and self defense by any means necessary. Black Panther Party members read sections aloud from legal books at crime scenes, armed themselves, and marched to the California State Capitol to protest the Mulford Act.

The BPP was met with serious opposition. Federal agents, state and local police officers, and paid provocateurs were frightened by the Panthers. Black people had brought up arms to protect themselves as a unit– this threatened the white ruling class. The weapons themselves weren’t the main problem, the Central Committee for the Panthers mandated gun safety and anti-crime regulations, however, it was the mindset behind the Panthers– Black nationalism and self-defense by any means necessary– that was a major threat to the white supremacist structure.

The Current Status

The danger of police brutality is more prevalent than ever, and “Black men and boys face the highest risk of being killed by police–at a rate of 96 out of 100,000 deaths. By comparison, white men and boys face a lower rate of 39 per 100,000 deaths, despite being a bigger portion of the U.S. population” (Santhanam). 

Statistics from the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project (NPMSRP) compiled between April 2009 and June 2010 found “there were 5,986 reports of misconduct [nationwide], [and] 382 fatalities linked to misconduct.” Police misconduct is ruining the lives of Black people everywhere, and for many communities, harassment, beatings, and killings have become normalized– just a part of daily life.

“Getting killed by police is a leading cause of death for young black men in America”

Amina Khan For the Los Angeles Times
 Excessive force within schools is common as well. Take a look at this young girl being slammed to the ground by a police officer. All because she verbally “disrespected the principal”.       
New Mexico Officer Slams 11-Year-Old Girl to Ground | NBC New York

When Black people are profiled and harassed, these events can have a debilitating effect on the psyche. The American Psychological Association states that, “perceived racism and discrimination—either overt or covert (microaggression) or in the forms of implicit or explicit bias—have been associated with depression, anxiety, increased substance use, feelings of hopelessness, and suicide ideation in black adults and youths” (Gibbons, 2004; Nyborg, 2003; O’Keefe 2014).

African-American males who are racially profiled to be criminals and perceived of wrongdoing by law enforcement are at increased risk of subsequent symptoms of anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder” (APA, 2018; Aymer, 2016). Young Black teens who are profiled and harassed by racist police officers are more likely to fall into depression and become suicidal. 

Who is working on the problem? 

Currently, the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) is one of the largest organizations made to solve the problem of police brutality. In 2013, the Black Lives Matter Movement was created by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. The movement was made to spur dialogue surrounding police brutality, and call attention to the injustices Black people face at the hands of police. The movement has been a platform to celebrate the lives of unarmed Black folk who faced police brutality, including Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Walter Scott, and Sandra Bland. As Missouri ACLU activist Gillian Wilcox puts it, “BLM’s focus has been less about changing specific laws and more about fighting for a fundamental reordering of society wherein Black lives are free from systematic dehumanization” (Wilcox). This movement has been a place for Black scholarship, Black leadership, and Black community. On a critical plane, it can be argued that Black Lives Matter protests renewed the value of Black life in the eyes of our community, because now people are fighting for Black lives, giving new importance to Black bodies. Just the name of the movement itself, Black Lives Matter, has helped break down the normalization of violence and police brutality in Black neighborhoods. On a political level, the movement has forced the passing of significant bills, including the “Right to Know” bill on police transparency that was signed into California law in 2018. 

Macro Solutions

A New Form of “Zone Policing”

The first solution would be the diversification of the police force. Matching the racial demographics of the police officers to the city zones they police could help mitigate conflict. The first step would be to investigate the hiring process. Black applicants have been “unfairly screened out… by restrictions on indebtedness, the college credit requirement and psychological testing, among other factors” (Hinkel and Richards). To combat this, all departments must be required to hire officers in proportion to the city’s population. This alone will not be sufficient. Officers on the ground and in the neighborhoods are the most important factors in police brutality, so after fixing the hiring process and diversifying the police force, the next step would be to distribute officers in a way that would reflect the racial demographics of each city zone. Simply put, it would be getting white cops out of Black neighborhoods. This would be a new form of Zone Policing.  

Will Black Cops be just as Brutal?

While this seems promising, there is an argument that Black police officers would not be less brutal towards other Black people than white officers. It is important to note the “Du Boisian conceptualization of race and professional identity — namely, that African American police officers have to negotiate and reconcile two historically distinct strivings — the strivings to be “blue” and the strivings to be “black” — in one “dark body”” (Rodriguez). W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness is very applicable here, in the sense that Black officers may feel conflicted between being “hard on crime” and being “soft” if they aren’t as brutal as other officers. This could pose a concern for our new solution, because in an attempt to ensure the department that they are just as “blue” as other officers, Black police may find themselves as cruel and violent as white officers involved in misconduct. These actions would not be brought on by racial anxiety towards Black people, but by internalized racism, and the need to be accepted outside of the Black community. This is just speculation, and has not been proven to be true. 

Plan B: Trade Schools

My personal stance is we take the “try or die” approach: diversify the police force, and if Black officers do not mitigate the levels of police brutality, install trade schools in Black neighborhoods. This approach is preventative, and attempts to get Black youth in school, creating their own businesses, and reinvesting into the community. In order to decrease contact with the police, Black people can enroll in trade schools where they will learn how to be carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and other skilled laborers. This will grant them the opportunity to make a living and stay busy, which keeps Black youth from hanging around stores or block corners where they would normally be profiled. Trade schools would also increase high school completion in Black neighborhoods. There is an argument that the “school to prison pipeline” would be true for trade schools, putting more Black kids in contact with the police. This is not the case because these centers will not have police officers in the school, instead they will have teachers that match the demographics of the school. The teacher portion is important because students will be able to relate to their teachers, and in turn feel more comfortable confiding in them in order to solve problems before they escalate to disciplinary action.

For Now Solutions

On a personal level, I can:

  •  Advocate for a new system of zone policing based on racial demographics and push for the installation of trade schools during Oakland Youth Advisory Commission meetings.
  • Continue to advocate for the value of Black life in spaces that I normally occupy, like policy debate, school assemblies, and tutoring centers. 
  • Keep asking others: What do Black deaths mean to you?
  • Never forget those we have lost to police brutality. I can remember the faces and stories of those taken away much too soon, and I can remind myself of their pain– so as not to forget that the bloodshed will never cease until the viable macro solutions are put into place. 

Thank you for reading! Please take a moment to provide some feedback in the comments section below. I appreciate your thoughts on any section of my work, and I challenge you to answer the question: What Do Black Deaths Mean to You?

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  1. April 23, 2020 by Karen

    Wow, Athena, your opening video is superb! The spoken word piece that you wrote and performed was powerful and moving, with the repetition of the phrase “what does it mean to you. . . ” resounding in every verse. The fact that one verse was about you brought the message home, and the fact that you have lived in Oakland fo your whole life underscores how much you want things to get better.
    I also appreciated that after your spoken word piece you then turned your attention directly to the camera and spoke to me, your audience, about why the topic of police brutality is so important to you.
    Your written sections are well-researched, and you write directly and well. I, too, am a Panthers fan, for how they helped the Oakland Black community get out from under a deeply corrupt police system at that time, and I so wish they were better known for their accomplishments with police monitoring, feeding kids, and moving the Civil Rights movement forward. I know you will carry this passion you have forward into important work in the future! –Dr. Bradley

  2. April 23, 2020 by Sophia

    Athena!! Your spoken-word piece and choice in images were particularly thought-provoking, and all of the information presented is very thorough and well-researched. I especially appreciated how you added rebuttals to possible arguments against your macro solutions. Nice job!

    • April 24, 2020 by Athena Muhammad

      Thank you, Sophia!! Your positive feedback is very good to hear. I will make sure to continue using those writing strategies.

      Again, I challenge you to ask yourself: What do Black deaths mean to you?

  3. April 24, 2020 by Morgan

    Hi Athena, your spoken work piece was incredibly powerful. Your page was well written and thought out and I’m super thankful that you are here fighting for justice.

  4. April 24, 2020 by Siena


    It is clear you chose a topic you were passionate about and took the time to write a fantastic project. Amazing job!

    • April 25, 2020 by Athena Muhammad

      Thank you, Siena.

      I can only hope that my passion may have inspired you to think about the value of Black life in a new light. Please, ask yourself: What do Black deaths mean to you?

  5. April 24, 2020 by Preston

    Athena, your website was so inspiring and thought-provoking. The spoken-word piece in the intro video was very moving and clearly, you are passionate about your topic. To me, Black deaths means there is a problem that needs to be addressed, my hope is that through the debate space, I will be able to advocate and raise awareness about Black deaths through debate arguments. I really enjoyed your project and I will do my best to address this problem.

    • April 25, 2020 by Athena Muhammad

      My reply is below.

  6. April 25, 2020 by Athena Muhammad

    Thank you, Preston.

    I appreciate your thoughts on my work, and just from knowing you personally, I have 100% certainty that you have the spirit, passion, and drive to make a difference. Be it through debate, school, or anywhere else life takes you. Thanks again, friend.

  7. April 25, 2020 by Malena

    Hi Athena, your website was absolutely incredible. Your spoken word piece was very well written and touching, and definitely something that your readers will not forget. This is a really hard subject to talk about, and you tackled it amazingly. I can see your passion for the subject and how hard you’ve worked. Black deaths to me are a subject that isn’t spoken enough about, and that needs to be addressed in all sources of media to bring awareness to the problem. Great job overall!

    • April 26, 2020 by Athena Muhammad

      Thank you so much, Malena.

      I agree with you that this is a tough topic to discuss, and I’m glad my passion resonated with you. You are completely correct about increased (non-biased) media coverage being beneficial to the fight for justice.

  8. April 26, 2020 by Delfine

    Hiya Athena! Everything about this is amazing. You’re so clearly very passionate (and for good reason!) about this topic, and I am amazed at the amount of work you put into your presentation.
    I think the biggest issue that the African American population faces in America is the fact that the system was built to oppress them. Illegal Gerry-Mandering means their voices aren’t heard. The structural violence geared towards African Americans means that they’re oppressed from the get-go. The system, as an entity, is the biggest oppressor. Police brutality is one factor of this structural violence, and your insight into how to tackle it is insightful and clear.
    One thing I’m wondering about is whether zone policing might not result in more, rather than less, racism. The idea of taking white cops out of black neighbourhoods is good in theory, but I’m wondering if increasing the separation between black people and white people is the best way. If white people aren’t exposed to the problem, then how will they learn their privilege in society? Of course, it’s clear that you’re a lot more educated than me, so please let me know!
    Finally, what do black deaths mean to me? To put it simply, it means that the system is illegitimate. How can we support a constitution that pretty much openly oppresses a group of people based on the colour of their skin? It’s cruel and inhumane, and America has a long way to go before it can even consider itself “land of the free”

    • April 26, 2020 by Athena Muhammad


      Great inquiry.

      I understand what you are saying, and there are a few reasons as to why a new form of zone policing will not result in the propagation of racism.

      First, to clarify:

      1. This is not national segregation. A new form of zone policing separates Black people from white police officers that are harassing, beating, and killing them on a day to day basis. This does not “increase the separation between [B]lack people and white people” on a large scale. People will continue to go to the same integrated restaurants, the same integrated Safeways, the same integrated movie theaters, and the same integrated hospitals. The only thing that a new form of zone policing would change, would be the contact between Black people and officers that have been proven to treat them with excessive force and brutality. This is a good thing, because removing racist police officers from Black communities would ensure that they could no longer behave violently towards those people.

      2. “If white people aren’t exposed to the problem, then how will they learn about their privilege in society?” –> I have a few problems with this argument.

      First, the livelihood of Black communities is more important than white people “learn[ing] about their privilege in society”. If the PRO of installing a new form of zone policing is a decrease in police brutality, and the CON of the new policing is a decrease in white exposure to the problem, then I must prefer saving Black lives over educating white people about Black deaths (This can be circular, because one could argue that educating white people about police brutality can help create change in Black communities. Sure. We can do both. We can get racist white officers out of Black communities, and educate everyone on the problem at the same time. What we cannot do, is let Black people die in an effort to educate others about their condition).

      Secondly, we can educate people about racism through forms of unbiased media.

      Thirdly, destroying the system of racism and white supremacy does not rely on the majority of white people “learn[ing] about their privilege in society”, so much as it relies on Black solidarity, Black education, and restoring Black institutional wealth.

      I hope this answered your questions. If you have anymore, I would love to hear what you have to say in this reply chain, or through email:

      Thanks again, for taking the time to answer the beautiful question, and for engaging with my work. I would love to check out your project, so please leave the link below!

      The world needs more people like you, not afraid to ask the tough questions, and with a mind wide open to new ideas.

      • April 27, 2020 by Delfine

        Hi Athena! Thank you for taking the time to answer; I definitely agree that, of course, the priority is not letting people die on the basis of racism. I do think that white people have a role to play in destroying white supremacy as well; realising your privilege and how it negatively impacts others is an important step. You’re right to say that it should not be at the expense of the African American population though. Thank you for educating me on the issue further :))
        My presentation is on architecture, so it’s a slightly different realm, but you can check it out here if you like:

  9. April 26, 2020 by Nothando

    Athena, I was so moved by your spoken word-what a strong way to introduce your topic. Your page is well detailed and so is your essay, I learned so much that I didn’t know before about police brutality. I like how you started all way back to the Black Panther Party and moved it to the most recent campaign of Black Lives Matter. To answer your question of “What do Black deaths mean to you”; for me, it means we as a society are letting another injustice happen and are forgetting the value of those lives lost.

    An overall amazing job on your webpage 🙂

    • April 26, 2020 by Athena Muhammad

      Thank you, Nothando.

      I am happy that you learned something from my webpage. I can only hope that this education does not stop with you, and that you share the severity of this problem with those around you. As for your answering of the beautiful question, I agree, society is letting another injustice happen. However, I do not think we are “forgetting the value of those lives lost”, instead I believe that Black lives have never truly been valued by society to begin with.

  10. April 27, 2020 by Jenna

    Your spoken word piece gave me total goosebumps! 🙂 Awesome work on your project! I loved every second of reading it. I learned so much. I live in Canada, and we learn nothing at school (truly, I could not tell you one piece) about Black history in my country. Fantastic work!!!

    • April 28, 2020 by Athena Muhammad


      Thank you! I both smiled and frowned when reading your comment.

      If you would like to learn more about Black history in Canada, I would suggest the following books:

      ​North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes by Harvey Amani Whitfield
      Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal by David Austin
      The Promised Land: History and Historiography of the Black Experience in Chatham-Kent’s Settlements and Beyond edited by Boulou Ebanda Dd B’béri, Nina Reid-Maroney and Handel Kashope Wright

      I hope those are helpful.

      Thanks again, I appreciate your positive feedback.

  11. April 27, 2020 by Channin McNaughton

    Athena, thank you for your dedication to this project and I loved that you showed your passion with such a strong and meaningful introduction. It is truly heartbreaking to know that, in the United States, there is still such limitation and devaluing of African American lives. I especially appreciate your advocacy to inspire not just the help of the African American population, but the understanding and support from white populations as well. I thought that I had learned a lot about the ideology of white supremacy and how our society tends to silence minorities, especially African Americans with mass incarceration, but your website (and your essay that I can’t wait to read and bringing up in my Media Literacy class as we’re finishing up our unit on race in America) showed me that that is just the tip of the iceberg. There is still so many more conversations to be had to raise awareness of these issues and even more things for us to do to chip away at the social barriers that continue to oppress minorities. Really glad I read this – keep doing you, Athena!!

    • April 28, 2020 by Athena Muhammad

      My sincerest thanks, Channin.

      I agree with you that this issue is heartbreaking, but to keep this short, thank you for engaging with my web page, and thank you again for showing interest in my completed essay. It feels good to know that you will come out of this experience with a more accurate depiction of racism in America.

      If I may ask, what country are you from? I’m curious as to what your education system looks like.

      As you said, there are many more conversations to be had, and I can only hope that my web page has inspired you to pursue the fight for justice. Again, I challenge you to answer the question: What do Black deaths mean to you? And when you are ready: What will you do about it?

  12. April 27, 2020 by Daniel

    I don’t really know what to add to this comment section that wasn’t mentioned yet. The spoken word was for me unexpected and a very moving surprise. The research done in this article is also above-average and the video made me realise that this is not just a small scale issue in black neighbourhoods. (Im form Slovakia so I don’t have that much knowledge to this issue) Also, the spoken word gave strong Kendrick Lamar The Blacker The Berry vibes, really good job.

    • April 28, 2020 by Athena Muhammad

      Thank you for your honesty, Daniel.

      I am glad my words were able to move you, and I am also glad that my research proved to you the extremities of racism in America.

      I appreciate the positive sentiment, and again I challenge you to answer the question: What do Black deaths mean to you?

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