Protect Ya Neck: What Happened To All Of The Cops That Beat And Killed Civil Rights Freedom Fighters?

“And I’ma get mad deep like a threat
Blow up your project, then take all your assets” — Protect Ya Neck, by the Wu Tang Clan

I wonder about the white police officers who were ordered to brutalize and maim people of all races, but predominately black folk, who marched for justice and freedom in Birmingham and other cities in America. I want to hear their stories. I long to discover the justification of the Chicago officers who, in 1919, would routinely escort uncivilized white mobs safely to their destination: a black family’s home in an all-white community. I wish to read the narratives of these white cops. I want to understand how they felt when members of this mob would light an incendiary device and throw it at this black family’s home. Not because this black family was wicked or evil and had outmaneuvered the criminal justice system. No, these officers allowed these criminals to commit arson without any recourse because this black family was living in a white neighborhood. Did the officers feel they were administering justice when the firebomb broke the pane of glass, the only protection afforded to the home? Did these white policemen enthusiastically escort these deplorables to their neighbors’ homes, or was their reluctance evident in their stride? Was the paycheck or the pension worth it? Or was the financial compensation secondary to the intrinsic value of being able to willfully club someone to the brink of death with no consequences the true reward?

I want to know if they told their children about the time they repeatedly struck black children, teenagers, women, and elderly men with their batons. Was there heaviness in their voice when they replayed the day’s events at the dinner table during the evening? Perhaps these white policemen regaled their families and loved ones with these stories of their brutality giddily, unashamed, and fully encouraged by all of those within earshot. Frankly, I want to know how many times the word “nigger” was hissed from their mouth during their lifetime? 10, 60, 200, 1,000, or innumerable? I imagine some did not discuss their work at the family dinner table. Even worse, I believe some became indifferent to the indiscriminate violence they were tasked with meting out.

Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

I am actually curious if they enjoyed their work. I presume many did, but what about those who stayed on the job despite their trepidation or disapproval about their conduct and the actions of their fellow officers? These white men were paid and incentivized to quell integration by the use of force and intimidation and were free to murder without consequence if they chose. I am also curious about those officers who stood idly by and watched white people murder black people without ever being held to account for their crimes. I am intrigued by these white cops who knew who the murderer was but failed to bring them to justice. I want to know what a career of obstructing and interfering with justice does to one’s relationships, body, mind, and soul. I have so many questions.

I want to hear the stories of the white firefighters who prepared their hoses with enough force that they could strip the bark off of trees, but instead of aiming them at fires, they trained them on their fellow Americans. Were they ordered to repurpose the hoses they use to save property from raging fires, or did they volunteer to “save” property from being “destroyed” by integration?

Did these white firemen tell their children about the “heroic” acts they engaged in? For example, when they unleashed a torrent of water on crowds of mostly black people to uphold an unjust system that actively strips people of their humanity and dignity. When they retold the stories of their service, did they describe the sound the water made when it made contact with a human body? Was the sound a “thud” or was it even perceptible over the whistle of the stream of water? Were they proud of their actions at the time? Are they still proud of their service in the name of whiteness and white supremacy? Did these white firefighters rush with the urgency that we have been accustomed to when white mobs firebombed black homes in all-white neighborhoods? Did they linger, knowing the goal was for the home to become inhabitable and unsalvageable? Were they cognizant that the insurance companies would deny any claim made by a black person when they were the victims of white violence? We know there is an uneasy tension between firefighters and cops, but was the destruction of black property and bodies enough to forge a truce?

“And I’ll be damned if I let any man
Come to my center, you enter, the winter” — Protect Ya Neck, by the Wu Tang Clan

We are provided with many first-hand accounts from the words of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and other titans of the Civil Rights era about how they experienced the hostility and scorn. Some families are blessed with deeds of heroism that were extolled by mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers, who were foot soldiers in the army of non-violent change in the ’60s. However, the stories of the rank-and-file white policemen and firemen escape us; why? I compare this to the Nazi soldiers who were just following orders to uphold a regime that was based on the inferiority of others, and I wonder what were the individual soldiers thinking. How did they justify their service to a system that used murder and mass homicide to eliminate those who were deemed “other.”

My frustration is that we never delve into the mindset and the reasoning of the rank-and-file for why they participated in systems that they knew or should have known were wrong. If the police of Birmingham laid down their billy clubs and kept their revolvers holstered, then the system of segregation that we all knew was wrong would have instantly collapsed. Instead, these white men took their batons and raised them as high as they could, only to bring them down with all of the force they could muster on the skull of a black man, woman, or child. Then they would raise their arm, feeling the strain of the club held in their hand, and do it again. Their arm was now a pendulum of oppression, swinging back and forth to protect the status quo: segregation.

I fundamentally want to know if they have any regret in the harm they caused to other people who just wanted justice. How do they reconcile their acts of barbary against the context of black men, women, and children marching through the streets praising the same God they profess to serve? How did they rationalize the violence they uncorked upon peaceful freedom seekers? How do they differentiate the savagery they employed against the grace of their victims, who stood steadfast and accepted the unwarranted use of violence without bitterness or hate in their eyes and their hearts? How do these white firemen and policemen explain the fear they allowed to invade them, despite being free from any mortal danger, compared to the fearlessness of the people whose bodies were on the line for freedom?

Photo by Michael Jeffrey on Unsplash

These officers and firemen who battered the bodies of freedom fighters because of orders or sincere belief in white supremacy are, at the very least, cowards. Right now, we are dealing with the ranks of our civil servants swelling with those who are adherents of Trump or Trumpism. The reason I am so interested in these cowards’ stories is I want to pinpoint the moral deficiency that these white men had, which allowed them to engage in cruelty to preserve an immoral institution and ideology. I fear that our failure to scrutinize the disastrous effects on those who propagate and safeguard our most ruinous institutions invites an eternal return instead of being vanquished once and for all.

Trump is not interesting to me; the person who blindly follows Trump fascinates me. How can anyone who commands any modicum of cognitive horsepower not see how much of a fraud and failure he is? Not only as a President but as a person. Yet, so many white people follow him. Their stories interest me, not his or his inner circles. People have to believe in and hope for a world of decency, yet they have abandoned all their values to follow an ideology where cruelty is the purpose.

We have never examined the scars of slavery that were inflicted on the slaveowners. The wives of slavers, who knew their husband would go rape his slaves. During that time, many of these wives believed that the slaves were tempting their husbands to be unfaithful. Yet, how did these white women wrestle with this knowledge? We have read some slave narratives where they would explain that the slavers wife became extra cruel and capricious with her discipline and accusations. How did they suffer when they saw a slave that had their husband’s eyes? Was it crippling to slavers. when they sold their progeny into a life of want, anguish, and torment? We never asked these questions of those who participated and upheld slavery. We never asked these questions of the police officers and firefighters who attacked non-violent protestors with unproportionate and unrestrained hostility and force. We never ask these questions to line prosecutors who prosecute black and brown bodies with greater intensity than they do white bodies convicted of the same crimes. We fail to interrogate judges who sentence black and brown folk to long prison sentences and find ways to send white criminals to diversion.

Our collective failure to grapple with the role and the motivations of those who are the “bureaucrats” of white supremacy has been one of our nations’ greatest failings.

“That’s what ya get when ya misuse what I invent
Your empire falls and you lose every cent.” — Protect Ya Neck, by the Wu Tang Clan