Tag: African American history

Sylville Smith, or a Brief History of Death by a Thousand Law Enforcement Cuts

Picture of Sylville Smith

The things that I know about Sylville Smith are limited to a few, scattered reports upon his death at the hands of police on August 13th, 2016. I was following closely because of my own experiences in the city where he was killed, Milwaukee (where I had lived for nearly a decade), and the information I was receiving from my connections there as protests erupted almost immediately upon his death that afternoon. From that limited information, I got the sense that this circumstance was unique, for a number of reasons: 1) the protests that emerged were immediate and almost on-site, 2) people who knew him noted that he was “respected” in the community, and 3) almost immediately, the Milwaukee Police Department called attention to his “lengthy police record”.

The first and second points are not to be taken lightly in this context; Milwaukee has experienced a number of police shootings and assaults, but the quickness that these details emerged spoke volumes about Smith and his killing in particular. As the police and mayor’s office began to shape the narrative, in cooperation with the media, the expected third point above made it clear to everyone that it would not matter whether charges were brought, Sylville Smith would have somehow deserved his death. Massed rebellions in the city swelled in the ensuing days, and some opportunists and provocateurs burned some businesses that had been involved in previous conflicts with the African American communities. I took an interest in Smith’s “lengthy” record, and in researching his history in the years leading up to his death I found a template for the ways in which a young man with problems and pressures can be dogged to death by law enforcement.


Evidence of Atrocity: How Hundreds of Thousands of African Americans “Disappeared”

The initial inspiration for this post came from a really fascinating, if internet-antiquated, online resource. The Freedmen’s Bureau Online is a scattered digital archive of a considerable amount of Freedmen’s Bureau records; the bureau was the frustratingly short-lived federal support organization for formerly enslaved African Americans to aid in their transition from slavery to freedom after the Civil War. Included in the archive were the bureau’s list of “Murders and Outrages,” an at-times voluminous — and other times sparse — documentation of violence against African Americans primarily by whites after the end of the Civil War. The lists, and descriptions of the incidents, include harrowing accounts of disappearances and near-murders, illuminating the depth of the terror Southern whites were carrying out against African Americans.

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