THE “BLOODY S-U-NDAY” OF ’65 IS MO-R-E T-O-PICAL THAN EVERARTICLE HEADLINE
March 22, 2021
*URO: Units for the Reinstatement of Order (Greek: Μονάδες Αποκατάστασης Τάξης, Monades Apokatastasis Taksis, ΜΑΤ)
Translated by: Maria Galanopoulou
Police brutality is neither unprecedented nor does it belong to another time or culture, but it is rather a universal phenomenon that stems from the Authorities’ abuse of power and their desire for imposition. On March 7, 2021 we witnessed URO squads unjustifiably and impudently punching a civilian in Nea Smirni Square, threatening and terrorizing youth and families in the light of mobile phone cameras that recorded the incident in its entirety.
The witnesses and the civilians involved claimed that, in spite of complying with the measures, the police officers, with an intensely belligerent attitude for that matter, attempted to fine two families. A group of young people who were present during the incident, protested, which led to the police officers proceeding to check them and, afterwards, exercise violence on them. More specifically, they used their truncheons to batter, in plain view, one of the youth, and, despite his cries of pain, they did not stop hitting him, even when they had restrained him on the ground. The evidential videos were released not only on social media, but also on TV media. The latter, however, relying on the false announcement of the police, contributed to the misinformation of the public, by making reference to an attack of 30 people against police officers and to a wounded officer. Despite all that, the videos and the dozens of witness statements constitute irrefutable evidence of the excessive and unjustifiable police brutality that was exercised. Therefore, prompted by the police’s abuse of power at the expense of civilians and protesters that we are lately witnessing in plain view, two cases of extreme police brutality against peaceful protesters of the Civil Rights Movement for African-Americans, in the 1960s, are worth-mentioning.
The struggle of African Americans for civil rights and equality began in 1955, when Rosa Parks’ act of disobedience to refuse to give her bus seat to a white man was what triggered the revolution. At this point the pastor Martin Luther King appeared, gathering the African American community, and leading the Civil Rights Movement. Prompted by Rosa Parks’ incarceration, he organized peaceful protests against the discrimination and racism directed towards African Americans, on account of their descent and skin color. In particular, until 1964, racial discrimination in bus seats, parks, restaurants, etc. was legal in the American South. So, in Montgomery, Alabama, African American citizens organized a boycott of buses, namely abstention from their use. As they were the greatest source of income for city buses, the boycott resulted in great financial loss to the State, which led to the victory of the protesters after 381 days of boycott, with the abolition of the law regarding racial discrimination on buses. Rosa Parks’ gesture is considered until today a landmark decision for the Civil Rights Movement and a catalyst for the events that followed.
The peaceful protests continued in other States, as well, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, whose actions were always dictated by the philosophy of non-violence and peace, fighting not only for the civil rights of African Americans, but also for blue-collar and social issues. Some of the forms of protest that he implemented included boycott, sit-in and kneeling protests, but also peaceful marches.
During his active years, Martin Luther King visited Birmingham, Alabama, a city in which, in 1963, racial discrimination was more intense than anywhere else. More specifically, African Americans were not allowed to vote or work, among other things, while violence and terrorism against them were a frequent phenomenon, just like the bombings of their houses. All this took place in plain view and without any intervention of the Authorities, since in 1963 Bull Conor, a fervent proponent of white supremacy and a racist, was the appointed Commissioner of Public Safety. Conor was extremely dogmatic, promoted “legally” violent practices against African Americans, such as the exercise of police brutality and unfounded arrests, while he also held a steadily negative stance against every request for the abolition of racial discrimination. His profoundly extremist and aggressive attitude was a determining factor in the evolution of the movement.
In the context of Martin Luther King’s campaign in Birmingham, named Project C (Confrontation), a large peaceful march was organized, in which more than 1,000 children, among others, participated, demanding the abolition of racial discrimination in public places and stores. The protest was dispersed in the most brutal and violent way by Derry police, under Bull Conor’s order. More specifically, the police officers attacked the protesters, even the children, with police dogs and water hoses, the pressure of which was so high that it “threw” them onto the walls. Chaos ensued, with the protesters receiving beatings, bites, and huge amounts of water, all in the light of the cameras that were recording the horrible scenes. The broadcast of these events in the National Media caused horror and rage to the entire America, thus forcing the political authority to take important decisions. Of course, racial segregation and racism were something familiar to American society, but the terrorism that took place in the spring of ’63 and, of course, the fact that the viewers witnessed everything that occurred, finally brought about change. Nobody could claim not to have known or seen anything anymore. The decisions taken were drastic. The City Council relieved Conor of his duties as Commissioner of Public Safety and the requests of Martin Luther King’s campaign were granted. Racial discrimination in Birmingham was now illegal, while more and more African Americans were hired to new employment positions. However, the salience of police brutality and, most importantly, the deeply rooted racism on which it fed, led to even more significant changes in the American South later on.
After the events in Birmingham and prompted by the death of the activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by police fire in a peaceful protest for the right to vote in Marion, Alabama, the spark was lit for the next step. Martin Luther King organized a huge peaceful march from the city of Selma to Montgomery, requesting that all African American citizens be granted civil rights. The distance, of approximately 87 kilometers, would be walked by 600 participants in 5 days. When they reached Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (it was named after the former head of Ku Klux Klan), rows of police officers on horseback or on foot, with helmets and truncheons that they were pompously tapping on their hands, were waiting for them. When the protesters stopped 15 meters away from the police officers, the Major of the troops shouted to the protesters to disperse the march. Then John Lewis, the head of the march, told the Major “Mr. Major, I would like to have a word, can we have a word?”. The answer was “I’ve got nothing further to say to you” and then he ordered the attack. The squads violently attacked the protesters, battering them, throwing them on the ground, using teargas, chasing them, on foot or on horseback, and pushing them back onto the Bridge.
The tragic and brutal images of Selma were made public on a newsflash in Public Television. As a result, the events were made known across America and caused an uproar. Once again police brutality and racism had shocked the public opinion that was now faced with their ugliest face, willingly or not. March 7th 1965 was soon named “Bloody Sunday” and a great number of supporters of the victims gathered to organize sit-in protests, debarment of traffic and general protests asking, along with African Americans, for their political rights and the restriction of police brutality. Some even travelled to Selma to participate in the march.
Finally, under federal court order, the march was allowed and the now 25,000 protesters reached Montgomery after four days. In fact, they were accompanied by federal troops of the National Guard. The most important development that ensued was the Voting Rights Act, passed by the Congress, for the voting rights of African Americans, on August 6th, 1965.
So, what do we learn from history?
A rudimentary element is that police brutality exists and is exercised regardless of the way of protest or the actions of a citizen. Police is given the authority to exercise violence, if deemed necessary, something that certain police officers abuse and implement without rhyme or reason. We saw that in America of 1965 the change was brought about thanks to the extremely brutal images and snapshots of police brutality that frustrated and infuriated the public. The State and the society as a whole, could no longer plead ignorance of the violence and racism with which African American citizens were treated.
In Greece, we witness the same phenomenon with the victims of police brutality being citizens and protesters. Whoever dares to oppose the police authorities or government decisions, is faced with censorship, violence, and arrest. Just like in America of 1965, today images of violence are available to the public, and even more so, through social media. Consequently, within a few minutes, they have circulated all over Greece. People protest, but the government remains silent while the Greek Police feeds the Media with propaganda.
A democratic government must protect its citizens, rather than treat them like criminals and spread fear. It must impute responsibilities and punish the police’s abuse of power instead of ignoring it, especially when it has been recorded and seen by dozens of witnesses. Finally, the Media are under the moral obligation to offer objective and correct information, based on testimonies and evidence, rather than thoughtlessly promote the announcements of the Authorities, thus contributing to the misinformation of all of us.
“What is accomplished through violence, can only be retained through violence.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.