Politics

Police Would Treat John Lewis Today the Same Way They Treated Him in 1965

Lewis speaking
John Lewis at a press conference about voting rights on Dec. 6. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

In May, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said a group of protesters who’d been intentionally run over by police officers had “created” the situation in which they were injured by blocking the officers’ car. In June, the NYPD cited the general threat of looting to justify repeated violent attacks against protesters who were charged with loitering-level “crimes” like unlawful assembly and violating curfew. In the District of Columbia, federal park police argued that they were justified in tear-gassing protesters near the White House because the protesters had ignored orders to move so the president could take a photo at a church. In Buffalo, officers enforcing a curfew shoved over a 75-year-old man, causing a severe brain injury. Police in Philadelphia bombarded a group of protesters who were trapped against a hill with tear gas, the city’s mayor explained, because they had threatened public safety by walking on a highway.

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On Friday, Georgia Congressman John Lewis died. Lewis is perhaps most famous for having been smashed in the skull with a baton by a highway patrol officer after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, during a 1965 voting rights march, but he was also beaten and arrested during a number of other critical civil rights actions. Many contemporary Americans have taken the occasion of his death to retell a familiar story about his righteous cause, one that ends with everyone in today’s United States—Republican and Democrat, Black and white—on the right side of history.

But history continues around us on terms that would have been familiar to a young John Lewis. Just as it has been made clear since the Shelby v. Holder ruling that the United States’ journey toward fulfilling its ideals of democratic equality did not end in the 1960s, it is being made clear this year that the country’s belief in itself as a place that honors free speech and dissent has never been fully justified either. The police crackdowns Lewis was subject to were, like those happening now, justified by authorities as the necessary maintenance of public order, with no distinction made between righteous resistance and criminality. When activists were arrested for sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters (Lewis led several in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1960), they were charged with crimes like trespassing. When Lewis was sent to Mississippi’s Parchman Farm prison for 37 days in 1961 during the “Freedom Ride” protests, which involved entering segregated areas of bus stations, it was on a charge of disorderly conduct. The three men killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, during the “Freedom Summer” voter registration drive, which Lewis helped organize, were initially held by police for speeding. The “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma was nominally illegal because Alabama Gov. George Wallace said the presence of protesters on a state highway would be disruptive to “the orderly flow of traffic and commerce.” The march itself had been inspired by the death of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was killed in nearby Marion by an officer who claimed to have believed Jackson was trying to take his gun and kill him.*

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In June, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton wrote in the New York Times that the U.S. military should be deployed to “restore order” in major cities. Cotton, in a gesture of faux reasonableness, wrote that he had no problem with “law-abiding protesters.” Yet people like Lewis protest because laws dictate a system that is intolerable. The individuals who attacked Lewis acted with the support of superior officers, elected officials, and court systems that claimed—like today’s mayors and police chiefs—that they were only enforcing rules. When police beat someone for challenging a morally diseased system, the phrase “beaten for challenging a morally diseased system” rarely gets written in the incident report. John Lewis nearly died 60 years ago to tell his country that laws can protect the guilty and the innocent alike. Did we listen?

Correction, July 19, 2020: Due to a production error, the original image on this article identified Rep. William Jefferson as Rep. John Lewis. John Lewis was in the background. The photo has been changed.

Correction, July 20, 2020: This article originally misspelled Jimmie Lee Jackson’s first name.

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