Why current protests are about more than George Floyd’s death

Historian examines legacy of police violence, racist segregation in Chicago

Nearly a decade ago, University of Chicago historian Adam Green testified in the sentencing of Jon Burge, the police detective who oversaw the torture of at least 118 black people in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s.

During the 2011 hearing, Green described torture as a unique form of terror—“a kind of total control, by one human being over another.” Those decades of abuse, he said, deeply demoralized the city’s black community and undercut its humanity. It was a violation that demanded justice, however belatedly it came.

Burge was sentenced to 4½ years in prison. He continued to collect his $4,000 monthly pension until his death in September 2018.

That is the type of history, Green said, that must be considered in any serious examination of recent protests across the country. A leading scholar of African American history, Green makes the case that current demonstrations are not merely a response to George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, but the result of decades of police violence.

Any long-term resolution, he added, will require those in power “to embrace the idea of a world that’s different from the world that is now”—a world in which authority and decision-making are distributed equitably and democratically.

“If you don’t do that, then people will continue to be suspicious,” said Green, an associate professor in the Department of History. “They may leave the streets, but they will continue to mistrust those in power.”

In the following Q&A, he further discusses the history of protests, as well as the institutional racism that has shaped the way Chicago still functions today.

As you look at today’s protests, what historical context do you think is important to remember?

We have to think about how far back the problem of police violence goes. Since the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, we could very quickly come up with a dozen such cases of black men and women who have had violent encounters with police.

But even beyond that, we should think about the legacy of riots and uprisings that took place in the 1960s, from Watts to Newark to Detroit. Virtually all of those incidents were precipitated by cases of police abuse. There is a long tradition of people being subject to police violence—not by everyone within the force, but sometimes in ways that were systemic in their nature and were protected by the police.

A classic example of this is the torture ring that the detective Jon Burge ran in Chicago. It wasn’t only that this ring was able to operate for 20 years, extracting forced confessions from African Americans and sending many of them to death row. It wasn’t just that this took place; it was that the police department and the police union supported and defended Burge for years. The police union and rank-and-file officers, they held benefits for Burge’s defense fund.

What comes out of this is a climate in which much of the public has not recognized the error and moral failing in having a police department devoted to maintaining authority over African Americans—even if maintaining that authority required excessive and abusive exercises of force.

How has this history unfolded in Chicago, and how might that history inform the current anger and frustration among protestors?

Chicago bears the reputation of being the largest, systematically segregated city in the North. Starting from the 1919 race riots and continuing with residential segregation from the mid-1920s onwards—all of these elements increasingly structured Chicago as a comprehensively racially segregated city by the 1960s and 1970s.

In a sense, the city’s history runs directly against the trajectory of the perceived reforms to racial relations brought about by the Civil Rights Movement. In the mid-1960s—precisely at the moment people were beginning to imagine that the country could retire its commitment to Jim Crow—Chicago was becoming more committed to segregation as a way to establish tiers of citizenship within the broader city.

The last 50 years of history have demonstrated how profoundly segregated the city has been. Chicago has grown from an industrial city to an information-, finance- and trade-based city. That’s benefited many people, but the bulk of African Americans feel and are—in ways material as well as tangible—further away from prosperity than they were in the middle of the century, in relative if not absolute terms. The widening wealth gap between blacks and whites, in Chicago and elsewhere, is one important indicator of this circumstance. What that tells us is that there’s a trajectory of enforcing segregation as the logic of social order within the city.

What’s different about current protests against police violence, in comparison to past demonstrations and movements?

What’s striking today is that protests are so widespread. There is a presence in the streets that does not show signs of abating. Although police violence has long roots, people have reached a point where they’re really saying, “Enough”—both in terms of this conduct taking place, and this conduct being either tacitly or openly abetted by higher levels of authority.

Of course, the federal government under the Trump presidency appears to be saying that what’s really at stake is restoring order and upholding the reputation of law enforcement—rather than asking questions about systemic racism within police departments, and systemic racism within society more generally. That enables the racism of police departments to largely continue unabated.

That analysis needs to be acknowledged in terms of thinking of this as a flash point for protests, and why these protests are so widespread, so intense and so sustained. What we’re seeing in scores of cities around the country is a sustained movement to protest, to defy curfews, to confront the police, to affirm the value of black life. That is striking and noteworthy, precisely because it conveys the intensity that people feel.

But I think it also needs to be marked as conveying the resolve of people to protest largely peacefully. That really needs to be underscored. Much of what’s happening right now is people without arms, without using the recourse to try to endanger or injure police. In fact, too often, unfortunately, it’s been the violent actions of police that have escalated conditions on the street.

What do you think needs to happen next?

For leadership in the city and for key institutions in the city, the first step to addressing the problems that that are in place here in Chicago. People have to be prepared to say that the problem is not just a problem of prejudice, or a problem of people being ignorant. The problem is systemic racism. Until one begins to think about it in that way, and address its economic, institutional, cultural and political components, then you continue to have this problem perpetuated. You continue to find yourself having to address these flash points, which too often have to do with the police being the first and only point of contact of African Americans to structures of authority. 

One illustration of this is that the police presently command 40% of the city budget. One thing that activists have emphasized is that police budgets have increased at a time when—over the past 10 years, or longer—mental health services have been cut drastically. Tragically, for an African American person who has some kind of mental impairment or some kind of mental health difficulty, the first place where they encounter any form of city authority is not a doctor. It’s not a person who can prescribe medication. It’s not a person who can provide services. Too often, the first point of contact is the police.

The same thing could be said in terms of schools, and police being the first point of enforcing discipline on black teenagers. If there was a way to redirect the funding that goes to police to other sources that would ensure public safety and public order, I think we would be a far more healthy society. This is something for which many activists have provided detailed plans. It’s time to listen to those proposals in order to think about how we organize and administer a city that really is sustainable and equitable.